Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
Václav Havel was born October 5, 1936, the son of a wealthy restaurateur and entrepreneur, Václav M. Havel, himself the author of a voluminous autobiography. Some of Prague’s architectural landmarks were built by Havel’s father, and an uncle was the owner of Barrandov Studios, the center of Czech filmmaking. Such illustrious connections, decidedly nonproletarian, were held against the young Havel in communist Czechoslovakia, making him ineligible for any higher formal education well into the 1960’s. On the other hand, as he was to note later, this very handicap forced him to view the world “from below,” as an outsider—a boon to any artist.
After finishing laboratory assistant training, Havel began working in a chemical laboratory, attending high school at night; he was graduated in 1954. Between 1955 and 1957, Havel attended courses at the Faculty of Economy of the Prague Technical College. This was followed by military service and, finally, his work in the theater in Prague: first at the Theater Na Zábradlí and, from 1960, at the Balustrade.
His knowledge of the theater is truly intimate: He entered it as a stagehand, gradually moving to lighting, then to an assistant directorship, and finally becoming the dramaturg—that is, the literary manager—of the theater at the Balustrade. When, in the changed atmosphere of political liberalization, he was allowed to study dramaturgy, he took advantage of the opportunity, although he was already a full-fledged playwright and a literary manager, graduating in 1967.
Between 1967 and 1969, Havel became active as the chairman of the Circle of Independent Writers. This, as well as his work at the Balustrade, was prohibited by the authorities in 1969, when his plays were banned and his publications withdrawn from libraries. Officially, he ceased to exist as a Czech playwright.
During the first half of the 1970’s Havel worked as a laborer in a brewery. In January, 1977, he reappeared in the public eye as one of the signatories and chief spokespeople of Charter 77, the courageous manifesto of the human rights movement in Czechoslovakia. As a result, he was imprisoned between January and May, 1977. In the same year, he wrote an open letter to Gustav Husák, the president of Czechoslovakia, and was arrested in January, 1978. Finally, after yet another arrest, in May, 1979, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He was released in 1983, in poor health.
After his release, Havel was subject to intense police surveillance, but he managed to continue meeting with other dissidents and discussing politics. In 1989, he was arrested once again for political activity and was briefly imprisoned. However, on November 17 of that year, events transpired to thrust Havel into the forefront of politics. This was the sudden collapse of communist power in Czechoslovakia, known as the Velvet Revolution (a name derived from the 1960’s alternative band The Velvet Underground, but also suggesting softness and civility, as opposed to the coarse brutality of most revolutions). In ten days marked by an astonishing absence of violence, the communist government gave way to a new democratically elected government, and Havel was elected its first president.
Over the next several years, Havel presided over the successful privatization of the Czechoslovakian economy, as well as the “Velvet Divorce” in which the Czech Republic and Slovakia peaceably parted ways to become independent countries, resolving their differences through legal negotiation instead of bloodshed. Unlike other notable dissidents to become their nations’ first post-communist leaders, such as Lech Waesa of Poland or Zviad Gamsakhurdia of the Republic of Georgia, Havel proved to have long-term staying power. Even so, by the turn of the millennium, growing dissatisfaction with his administration had led to serious questions as to whether he would continue to be reelected.
Havel’s personal life was turbulent throughout the 1990’s. He had recurring medical problems, at least partly the result of damage to his health during his years in prison, although his bout with lung cancer was attributed to his heavy smoking. After the loss of his wife, Olga, to cancer, he married a movie actress, Dagmar Vekrnová, a move that opened him to heavy criticism from his opponents.