Václav Havel Havel, Václav (Vol. 123)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Václav Havel 1936–

Czechoslovakian dramatist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Havel's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 25, 58, and 65.

An internationally renowned Czechoslovakian statesman and champion of human rights, Václav Havel is among the most important East European dissident writers of the Cold War period. His relentless political activism and avant-garde plays established him as a leading voice of protest against the repressive communist government of Czechoslovakia during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. A frequent political prisoner whose writings were banned in his native country, Havel resisted totalitarianism in influential essays, speeches, and popular underground plays. As a dramatist, he is best known for Zahradní slavnost (1963; The Garden Party) and the trilogy of "Vanek" plays performed during the 1970s. Associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, his satiric dramas caricature the dehumanizing conditions of political tyranny and technocratic society. Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 after sweeping democratic reforms dissolved the nation's communist regime. A charismatic folk hero and public intellectual, Havel is recognized worldwide as a leading humanitarian and political visionary.

Biographical Information

Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Havel spent his formative years under Nazi Occupation and Stalinist hegemony. The son of a wealthy industrialist and property owner, he was denied access to a higher education in keeping with the communists's program to disenfranchise members of the bourgeoisie. Havel worked as an apprentice in a chemical laboratory while in school and, beginning in 1951, as a laboratory technician. Over the next several years he attended evening classes to earn a secondary degree in 1954. Havel studied economics at the Czech University of Technology from 1955 to 1957, during which time he published his first essays on literary topics. In 1959, after completing two years of compulsory military service, Havel found work as a stagehand for Divadlo ABC (the ABC Theatre of Prague). The next year he moved to Divadlo na zábradli (Theatre on the Balustrade), where he initially worked as a stagehand, then as a secretary, manuscript reader, and literary manager from 1963 to 1968. In 1961, Havel collaborated with Ivan Vyskocil, artistic director of Theatre on the Balustrade, to produce his first play, Autostop (1961; Hitchhike). Havel's first full-length independent play, The Garden Party, premiered in 1963, followed by Vyrozumení (1965; The Memorandum), winner of an Obie (Off-Broadway) Award, and Ztizená moznost soustredení (1968; The Increased Difficulty of Concentration)—all produced at Theatre on the Balustrade. He also published Protokoly (1966; Protocols), a collection of his early drama, essays, and poetry. While working and writing for the theater, Havel studied drama at the Academy of Art in Prague from 1962 to 1967. He married Olga Splichalova in 1964. During the "Prague Spring" of 1968, Havel was a leading activist for artistic freedom and democratic reforms. With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Havel's works were banned and he was subjected to repeated arrests, periods of imprisonment, and more than a decade of virtual house arrest. During the 1970s he remained an outspoken advocate for human and civil rights. He was a contributor to Charter 77, a human rights manifesto made public in 1977, for which he was incarcerated for four months. In 1978, Havel founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS), leading to another six-month imprisonment. Havel also wrote several plays for underground circulation, including Spiklenci (1970; The Conspirators), Zebrácká opera (1975), an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, Audience (1975), Vernisáz (1975; Private View), Horsky hotel (1976; The Mountain Hotel), and Protest (1978). For continued acts of political protest, Havel was...

(The entire section is 47,106 words.)