Václav Havel

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Vaclav Havel was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on October 5, 1936, the son of Vaclav M. and Bozena (nee Vavreckova) Havel. His family was wealthy and well-connected in the arts and business. Havel’s father was a restaurateur and real estate developer. In 1948, the Communists took over Czechoslovakia and the Havels’s property was taken away. Havel was denied a high school education. He got around this by working as a lab technician at a school for five years. This allowed him to attend night school, from which he graduated in 1954. Involved in Prague’s literary scene, Havel was already writing, primarily poetry and essays.

After a two-year stint in the Czechoslovakian army, where he founded a theater company, Havel got a job as a stagehand at a theater in Prague, the Divadlo ABC (ABC Theater). The following year Havel took the same job at the Balustrade. His dedication led to bigger roles within the theater. He aspired to be a playwright, and helped others write plays. Havel got his first solo play produuced at Balustrade in 1963, The Garden. This was followed by The Memorandum in 1965. By 1968, he was the theater’s resident playwright.

That year, a new repressive regime, headed by Gustav Husak, came into power in Czechoslovakia. Havel became a human rights activist. His activities lead to the banning of his works in 1969, a ban that lasted for the next twenty years. While continuing his political activities, Havel continued to write and work in theater, though plays dwindled in quantity and, and some would say, quality, by the mid- 1970s. His financial situation was so dire that he had to work in a brewery to support himself and his wife Olga.

In the late 1970s, Havel was arrested and convicted several times for his human rights protests. In 1979, he was sentenced to hard labor. He served time until 1983, when pneumonia forced his release. Letters he wrote to his wife from jail were later compiled in a book Letters to Olga (1988).

After his release, Havel continued to protest. He was again arrested and jailed for nine months in 1989. That year, however, as a consequence of the so-called Velvet Revolution, the Czech communist regime collapsed. By the end of the year, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. Though the adjustment to the presidency was difficult, Havel was internationally acclaimed and reelected president again the following year.

Considering his lack of political experience and the many difficulties he faced, Havel succeeded well as president. One significant problem for Havel was the rise of Slovak nationalism. (Czechs and Slovaks had been forced to share a country for many years.) The Slovak Republic was formally created in 1992, the same year Havel resigned his presidency. The following year, he was elected President of the Czech Republic. Despite a bout with lung cancer in 1995, in which half of one of his lungs was removed, and some hints of political scandal, Havel remained in power at the beginning of the twenty- first century.


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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.

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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.