Václav Havel 1936-
Playwright, essayist, and poet Václav Havel is a major figure in Czech culture, and he is considered his country's foremost dramatist. His plays are powerful condemnations of the bureaucratization and mechanization of modern society and their effects on the individual. His keen satires depict the prevalence of cliché and official doublespeak in a totalitarian society and the chaos brought about by the disintegration of meaning. Many of Havel's works are considered absurdist black comedies because they employ grotesque and ludicrous elements that give expression to humanity's fundamental uneasiness in an inane universe. This focus on the absurd nature of existence in the modern world gives his works a universality that goes beyond his exploration of the uniquely Czech experience.
Havel was born into a wealthy family in Prague. Once his primary education was completed, he was denied access to higher education because of the Communist government's policy of discrimination against the bourgeoisie. Havel worked in a chemical factory and attended night classes in order to finish secondary school. Havel credits this period of his life with giving him the opportunity to "see the world 'from below,' that is, as it really is." It is from this vantage point, Havel believes, that one clearly views the absurd and comic dimensions of the world. In 1959 Havel accepted his first theater job, becoming a stage-hand at Prague's Divadlo ABC (ABC Theater); the following year he moved to the highly respected avant-garde Divadlo na zábradlí (Theater of the Balustrade), eventually becoming its literary adviser. Having begun writing articles and essays in the mid-1950s, Havel wrote his first play, Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party) in 1963, and it was produced by the Balustrade. Vyrozumění (The Memorandum) premiered in 1965, and Ztížená možnost soustředení (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration) debuted in 1968. These plays were highly acclaimed internationally. The Memorandum premiered in America in 1968, and Havel won the prestigious Obie Award. The same year he was honored with the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Throughout the early 1960s Czechoslovakia had been experiencing a gradual relaxation of government controls on culture, but this abruptly ended in 1968 when troops from the Soviet Union invaded the country in order to enforce closer compliance with Soviet policies. Although Havel's works were subsequently banned and Havel himself prohibited from working in the theater, he refused to abandon his country, and he continued to write plays and political works. His resistance to the Communist regime—which included co-founding the human rights organization Charter 77—resulted in his arrest several times in the 1970s. His plays written during this period circulated privately and premiered abroad. In 1979 Havel was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his involvement in an organization that sought to defend individuals unjustly prosecuted by the state. In 1982 the 36th International Theatre Festival at Avignon, France, included a six-hour "Night for Václav Havel," and featured Samuel Beckett's "Catastrophe" and Arthur Miller's "I think about you a great deal," plays dedicated to Havel and written in protest of his imprisonment. Havel continued to write and to have his plays produced outside of Czechoslovakia, and he was awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1986. With the collapse of the Communist state in 1989, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. When that country divided into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993, Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he still holds.
The main theme in Havel's work is the relationship between the individual and the government. Associated with the absurdist playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett, Havel explores the power of language and its ability to alienate and overwhelm the individual. These are the central issues in The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. Three one-act plays, written after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, are semi-autobiographical. Known as the "Vaněk Plays," they all feature a dissident playwright named Ferdinand Vaněk. In "Audience," Vaněk, unable to work as a playwright, is forced to take a job at a brewery. His supervisor there offers him an easier job in exchange for composing the weekly reports to the authorities that the supervisor must file on Vaněk himself. In "Vernisáž" ("Private View") Vaněk visits former friends, an affluent couple who flaunt the material possessions they have gained by renouncing their previous opposition to the government. They attempt to convince Vaněk to recant his dissent as well. "Protest" features Staněk, a successful script-writer whose daughter's boyfriend has been arrested. Staněk encourages Vaněk to write a petition to protest the arrest, but he himself refuses to sign it. Throughout these three plays Vaněk is a nearly silent figure who functions as an external conscience for his interlocutors, prodding them to inadvertently admit their cowardice and hypocrisy. Havel's 1984 work, Largo Desolato, is a semi-autobiographical play about a philosopher driven to abuse alcohol and pills by the pressure both from officials who want him to recant his writings and from friends who themselves are unable to support his efforts but still urge him to continue. Pokousení (Temptation), a 1985 variation on the Faust legend about a scientist who sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power, is an allegory in which the state is depicted as the true devil because it corrupts science in the service of political ends. Both Largo Desolato and Temptation develop the theme of humanity's tendency toward totalitarianism, the central issue as well in "Omyl" ("Mistake"), a play written in 1983 in response to Beckett's "Catastrophe."
Many of havel's works have met with acclaim both at home and abroad. Michael Billington, writing of a play production of The Memorandum in London, admired the play's "brutally logical satire on the use of language to enforce conformity" and observed: "The play may have grown out of experience of Czech communism: its application is universal." Similarly, Sarah Hemming, noting that The Memorandum was thirty years old at the time of its London performance, remarked: "As a political parable, the play seems almost prophetic: everything changes, and yet things remain the same." When the three Vaněk plays were staged together in New York under the title A Private View, critics praised the manner in which they effectively convey the ills of society and challenge the audience to reflect on existence in an absurd world. Overall, Havel is recognized as a powerful playwright who, as Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz has written, not only "gives shape to some of the most important issues of our time but also a thinker who from his small place in a small country in the heart of Europe sends forth an eloquent artistic diagnosis of men living in social groups East or West."