Václav Havel Havel, Václav (Vol. 123) - Essay


(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 sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment in 1979. Upon his early release in 1983, he produced Dopisy Olze (1983; Letters to Olga), a collection of letters written to his wife while imprisoned; Dálkovy vyslech (1986; Disturbing the Peace), an interview with Czech journalist Karel Hvizdala in which Havel discusses his childhood, literary career, and political experiences; Václav Havel, or Living in Truth (1987), which contains six essays by Havel—notably "The Power of the Powerless" and "Politics and Conscience"—along with texts in honor of Havel by Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll, Tom Stoppard, Milan Kundera, and Arthur Miller; and the plays Pokouseni (1985; Temptation) and Largo Desolato (1986), both of which won Obie awards. After two years of intensified protest and labor strikes, in 1989 Czechoslovakia renounced its communist government for new democratic elections. Havel was unanimously appointed interim president by the Czechoslovakia Parliament in December 1989 and officially elected president in 1990. Havel resigned the presidency in 1992 to protest the imminent division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He was elected president of the new Czech Republic the same year. His political views and experiences are recorded in Open Letters (1991), which contains essays dating from 1965 to January 1990, Summer Meditations (1992), and The Art of the Impossible (1997).

Major Works

Havel's dramatic works are dominated by themes of alienation, malcommunication, betrayal, and the search for identity and truth. According to Havel in Disturbing the Peace, his plays are intended to portray "modern humanity in a 'state of crisis.'" Influenced by the writings of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, Havel's early absurdist comedies expose the ineptitude and depersonalization of bureaucratic institutions. In The Garden Party protagonist Hugo Pludek pursues a position at the Office of Liquidation through Orwellian doublespeak and linguistic contrivance. A shrewd careerist who easily assimilates party platitudes and clichés, Pludek eventually becomes the director of two agencies—the Office of Liquidation and the Office of Inauguration. However, an attempt to eliminate the Office of Liquidation raises an intractable dilemma, since only the Office of Liquidation can dissolve itself and once terminated would no longer exist to complete the process. Alluding to the structure of a chess game, Pludek's paradoxical checkmate signifies his compromised self-identity as a pawn of the nonsensical system. The Memorandum further examines the alienating effect of bureaucratic discourse. The plot involves Josef Gross, an office manager who attempts to decode an official document written in "Ptydepe," a new scientific language designed to banish ambiguity and emotion from human communication. Gross's efforts to decipher the incomprehensible memorandum are harried by irrational bureaucratic policies and a manipulative underling who has him demoted. Gross eventually convinces Maria, a secretary, to translate the memo which, ironically, is revealed to be itself a directive for the elimination of "Ptydepe" as an ineffective language. The Increased Difficulty of Concentration involves Dr. Eduard Huml, a social scientist who attempts to balance conflicting obligations to his wife and mistresses. While participating in a farcical computer experiment and composing a lecture on the complexity of modern life, Huml's personal life is increasingly complicated by multiple sexual infidelities that reveal his flawed personality. Havel's "Vanek" trilogy consists of the one-act plays Audience, Private View, and Protest. Each of the three plays is connected by the semiautobiographic protagonist Ferdinand Vanek, a dissident writer who witnesses the degrading forces of corruption, false ideology, and socioeconomic coercion. In Audience Vanek works in a brewery where the drunken head malter pressures him to write weekly reports on himself for the secret police in exchange for lighter work. Vanek refuses to assist the government that he openly opposes by betraying himself, demonstrating the inviolable principles of the artist in contrast to the malter's demoralization. In Private View, Vanek visits Michael and Vera, a superficial couple who have sacrificed moral consciousness for material advantage and social respectability. While proudly displaying their newly redecorated apartment, they espouse the conditioned values of Western consumerism and chastise Vanek for his stubborn idealism and alleged cowardice. In Protest, Vanek is approached by Stanek, a noncommittal fellow writer, to draft a protest letter on behalf of an imprisoned rock star who is involved with his daughter. When Vanek presents the document for Stanek's approval, Stanek loses his nerve and launches into a convoluted debate through which he affirms the status quo and dismisses his obligation to act. In the end, Stanek learns that the rock star is released and protest is unnecessary. In all of the "Vanek" plays, Vanek's self-effacement and humble integrity offer a foil for the sophistry and duplicity of those he encounters. Temptation is Havel's interpretation of the Faust myth in which Dr. Foustka's occult meddlings reveal the evil of instrumental truth and postmodern relativism. Largo Desolato centers upon the existential crisis of Professor Leopold Nettles, a persecuted intellectual who must renounce a controversial passage that he has written by denying its authorship. Confined to his apartment—a symbolic prison cell—to contemplate authority and subjectivity. Nettles's becomes consumed with self-doubt regarding his identity and the possibility of truth.

Critical Reception

Havel is widely praised as an uncompromising artist, human rights activist, and leader of democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia. Though best known for his political activities and message of hope, Havel's dramatic works are highly regarded as provocative commentaries on life in a totalitarian state. The majority of critical attention is directed at The Garden Party, The Memorandum, the "Vanek" trilogy, and Largo Desolato, generally considered his most effective plays. The Garden Party remains Havel's most popular and acclaimed literary work. Critics frequently comment on the significance of distorted language, moral abdication, and lost self-identity in Havel's parodies of oppressive sociopolitical structures. In addition to the absurdist influence of Camus, Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco, many critics compare Havel's bureaucratic nightmares to those depicted in the writings of fellow Czech-born author Franz Kafka. Critics also note Havel's philosophical debt to Martin Heidegger and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Though recognized as one of Eastern Europe's most important playwrights, some critics question Havel's literary accomplishment when measured against his contemporary Western counterparts. The reluctance of some Western critics to judge Havel's writing is attributed to fear that unfavorable evaluation of his literature may jeopardize his political stature. Havel's affinity for existentialism and outmoded theatrical devices of the 1960s, cited by some as a weakness in his work, is indicative of the cultural stagnation under the East Bloc regime Havel strove to overcome. Despite such qualifications, most critics view Havel's plays and essays as forceful philosophical statements on the degrading conditions of authoritarianism and the moral responsibilities of dissenters.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Autostop [with Ivan Vyskocil; Hitchhike] (drama) 1961
Zahradní slavnost [The Garden Party] (drama) 1963
Vyrozumení [The Memorandum] (drama) 1965
Protokoly [Protocols] (drama, essays, and poetry) 1966
Ztizená moznost soustredení [The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] (drama) 1968
Spiklenci [The Conspirators] (drama) 1970
Audience (drama) 1975
Vernisáz [Private View; also translated as Unveiling] (drama) 1975
Zebrácká opera [adaptor; from the drama The Beggar's Opera by John Gay] (drama) 1975
Horsky hotel [The Mountain Hotel; also translated as A Hotel in the Hills]...

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Irving Howe (review date 26 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Can Stand Up to Lies," in New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1991, p. 5.

[In the following review, Howe offers positive assessment of Open Letters. "We turn to Havel," Howe writes, "not for theoretical innovation but for the consolidation of truth."]

There is a pleasing anecdote about Vaclav Havel, perhaps true, perhaps not. During the years he was being hounded by the Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, he would spend part of his time in the country, watched day and night by the secret police. Once, a policeman is supposed to have said to him: "Why go back to Prague? Why don't you remain in the country, where we have such a nice, quiet life...

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Veronika Ambros (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fictional World and Dramatic Text: Václav Havel's Descent and Ascent," in Style, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 310-9.

[In the following essay, Ambros examines the interplay of fictional constructs, representations of reality, and dialogue in The Garden Party.]

Because the theory of fictional worlds concentrates primarily on narratology, work on drama is rare. The reason for this lack of interest lies in the very nature of the theater, which involves the audience's entering an "as if" world. This characteristic of a theater performance is attributed almost automatically to the text of drama. So, for instance, the construction of the dramatic world in the...

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Phyllis Carey (essay date September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Contemporary World Drama 101: Václav Havel," in Thought, Vol. 66, No. 262, September, 1991, pp. 317-28.

[In the following essay, Carey provides an overview of Havel's literary career, major works, and critical reception.]

The performance of Vaclav Havel as Czech President since December 1989 has thus far met with mixed reviews from Western observers. But Western fascination with the popular and colorful Havel himself remains high as he continues to play a key role on the center stage of Czechoslovakia. English translations of Havel's political writing, his letters from prison, and his drama have rapidly appeared in book stores. So far a representative...

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Michael L. Quinn (essay date May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Delirious Subjectivity: Four Scenes from Havel," in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 10, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 117-32.

[In the following essay, Quinn explores delirium, namely in the form of misunderstanding and confusion, in Havel's dramatic works. According to Quinn, Havel typically incorporates elements of delirium to evoke irony and satire.]

Setting the Stage: The Negative Concept of Delirium

One of the most interesting products of the contemporary critical focus on semiotics in the formation of subjectivity is the "negative theory" of delirium. Unlike an ordinary analytic theory, which tries to construct coherent references,...

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Phyllis Carey (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Living Lies: Václav Havel's Drama," in Cross Currents, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 200-11.

[In the following essay, Carey provides an overview of Havel's creative periods and major dramatic works.]

Americans were captivated by the 1989 election of Vaclav Havel, a human rights activist who spent almost four years in prison, as the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Many who had heard that his ideas had played a vital role in the country's "Velvet Revolution" were introduced to his thinking through interviews, particularly the extended dialogue in Disturbing the Peace, as well as occasional pieces in the New York Review of...

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Alfred Thomas (review date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Vanek Plays and Living in Truth, in Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 348-51.

[In the following review, Thomas offers positive assessment of Living in Truth and The Vanek Plays. According to Thomas, Havel's dramatic works "are more complex, darker studies of the human spirit than the Czech tradition of 'humanist' criticism would suppose."]

Predating the tumultuous political events of 1989, both volumes here under review—one a collection of political essays by the playwright Václav Havel, the other an anthology of plays by Czech dissident writers including Havel—can and should be assessed in the...

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George F. Kennan (review date 24 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keeping the Faith," in New York Review of Books, September 24, 1992, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review, Kennan offers favorable assessment of Summer Meditations, praising Havel's courage to "offer to the public so unsparingly an exposure of what one can only call his political and personal philosophy."]

Václav Havel, the courageous leading dissident in the years of Communist control of Czechoslovakia, and more recently president of that country, needs no introduction to the readers of The New York Review. His name has appeared on the pages of the Review in a number of capacities. Known originally primarily as a playwright, Havel has...

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Robert Skloot (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Václav Havel: The Once and Future Playwright," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 223-31.

[In the following essay, Skloot considers the literary accomplishment of Havel's drama in relation to the works of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett.]

In the short space of a few years, we have been witness to a Havel industry. Images of the Czech playwright-politician appear frequently in the West, and his words are quoted often whenever democrats of all kinds convene. His life is held up as an example of resistance to the tyrant's authority and the terrors of the state, and he is celebrated by those who have suffered brutal indignities...

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Erwin Knoll (review date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet as President," in Progressive, Vol. 57, No. 4, April, 1993, pp. 40-3.

[In the following review, Knoll offers favorable assessment of Open Letters, Summer Meditations, and Living in Truth. Knoll praises Havel's "literate, profound, and humane essays."]

When I talked with Czechs about Václav Havel during a brief visit to Prague last fall, I was surprised to find that many did not share the esteem and enthusiasm with which their illustrious compatriot is so widely regarded in the West. Havel had just resigned as president of Czechoslovakia so that he would not have to preside over the dissolution of his country. He would return in a few...

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Peter Majer (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time, Identity and Being: The World of Václav Havel," in Twentieth-Century European Drama, edited by Brian Docherty, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 172-82.

[In the following essay, Majer examines the influence of totalitarian oppression and imprisonment on Havel's existentialist concept of time, individual identity, and the possibility of meaning in his dramatic works.]

In his first speech to the Federal Assembly in Prague (25 January 1990), playwright Václav Havel, in his new role as President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, focused on the phenomenon of time:

In my offices in the Prague Castle, I did not find one...

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Jude R. Meche (essay date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Female Victims and the Male Protagonist in Václav Havel's Drama," in Modern Drama, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 468-76.

[In the following essay, Meche discusses the role of subordinate or victimized women in Havel's drama as a symbolic foil for deficient male protagonists.]

Václav Havel's recent rise to political power in the now-dissolved Czechoslovak Republic has only confirmed some critics' contentions that Havel's dramatic works are all basically political in origin and theme. These critics' beliefs are supported by some striking similarities in many of Havel's plays; the bureaucracies that are often seen as thinly veiled representations of...

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Walter H. Capps (essay date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interpreting Václav Havel," in Cross Currents, Vol. 47, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 301-16.

[In the following essay, Capps examines Havel's artistic and philosophical development in the context of Czechoslovakian intellectual tradition and contemporary politics.]

Though the intellectual and academic worlds haven't caught full sight of it yet, we are standing on the threshold of a new era in thought, idea, and cultural construction. This new era has been made possible by the ending of a prolonged Cold War, and the sudden, unexpected opportunity to learn how the people of Eastern bloc nations sustained themselves culturally and spiritually during the time of their...

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Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 24 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Philosopher President," in Commonweal, October 24, 1997, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review, Elshtain offers a positive evaluation of The Art of the Impossible.]

President Václav Havel of the Czech Republic is one of the great spokesmen for the "return to Europe" of countries formerly compelled to inhabit that political nowhereland called "Eastern Europe." He is an urbane intellectual, a playwright, and a moralist. That he is also the president of a nation-state is for him one of life's great ironies, even miracles, and he claims that he can scarcely believe it most of the time: one day an infamous dissident slated for harassment and incarceration; the next a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bradbrook, M. C. "Václav Havel's Second Wind." Modern Drama 27, No. 1 (March 1984): 124-32.

Provides an overview of Havel's dramatic works and literary influences.

Procházka, Martin. "Prisoner's Predicament: Public Privacy in Havel's Letters to Olga." Representations 43 (Summer 1993): 126-54.

Examines Havel's philosophical meditations and elements of public discourse in Letters to Olga.

Trensky, Paul I. "Havel's The Garden Party Revisited." In Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, edited by William...

(The entire section is 154 words.)