Other Literary Forms

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Known primarily as a playwright, Václav Havel has also written criticism and poetry, plays for radio and television, and essays. Some of his poems (Antikódy, 1966) and essays, as well as his first two plays, were published as Protokoly (1966). His radio play Andl Strány was broadcast in 1968, and his television play Motýl na antén appeared in West Germany in 1975. Perhaps Havel’s most important essay is “Moc bezmocnych” (1978; “The Power of the Powerless,” 1983).

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By far Havel’s most significant nondramatic work, however, is Dopisy Olze, 1979-1982 (1985; Letters to Olga, 1988), which was first published in a somewhat different version in German translation, in 1984, as Briefe an Olga: Identität und Existenz—Betrachtungen aus dem Gefängnis. (The Czech version was issued in Canada by an émigré publisher.) The title of this remarkable book is misleading: Written in prison, these are not personal letters but rather wide-ranging reflections, tracing the author’s intellectual and spiritual experience but anchored in harsh realities.

Another noteworthy nondramatic work is Dalkovy vyslech (1986; Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíala and Václav Havel, 1990). Hvíala, a noted Czech journalist in exile, wanted to interview Havel on his thoughts at turning fifty, but the politics of the time made it impossible to meet face to face. To work around this, Hvíala sent written questions for reply. Havel’s first attempt, answering in writing, came out too stiff and essaylike. Hvíala was looking for a more conversational approach, so Havel turned to a tape recorder to capture oral responses, which Hvíala subsequently transcribed.

Achievements

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Václav Havel is the most important Czech playwright of the second half of the twentieth century, acclaimed both in his native land and abroad. His early plays, which established his international reputation, are, as he has modestly said, “plays about bureaucrats.” They are, however, much more than that: They are about the mechanism of power, about the dehumanization built into the very institutions that are supposed to serve humanity, about the prison built by the desiccated language of bureaucracy. The fact that he is enthusiastically received in the West suggests that bureaucracy has a momentum of its own and may well be yet another Frankenstein-like offshoot of modernity, whatever its ideological underpinnings may be.

That his plays were allowed to be staged at all is attributable to the relative liberalization or demoralization of the communist control of the arts in Czechoslovakia during the 1960’s. Neither the import nor the relevance of Havel’s work diminished in the harsher climate of the 1970’s and 1980’s. As Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz, the leading Western critic of the Czech theater, has suggested, not all Havel’s work has received its due in a world that would benefit from his insight into the roots of the continuing crisis of modernity. His plays offer the sad wisdom of an art born of suffering, tempered by the ironic self-awareness and black humor that he has identified as essential to the “Central European climate.”

Havel was honored in 1969 with the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Twice, in 1968 and 1970, he received the Obie Award. However, Havel’s crowning achievement in the post-Soviet era has been in the field of politics. Shortly after the nearly bloodless collapse of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, he became the nation’s first democratically elected president. After the peaceable dissolution of the nation into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Czechs elected for him their president. His political work has earned for him numerous political awards, including the Averell Harriman Democracy Award, the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award, and the Statesman of the Year Award. He has received honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities, including an honorary degree of doctor of philosophy from York University, Toronto, Canada, in 1982.

Discussion Topics

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A common theme in the works of Václav Havel is the sense of the arbitrary isolation of the individual in a senseless society. Discuss instances of this theme and the bearing it has on Havel’s own experience as a revolutionary in Communist Czechoslovakia.

Havel makes much of the use, misuse, and abuse of language in his plays. Why does he take such interest in this matter?

Why would Havel have preferred drama to other forms of literature?

What position does Havel take on the matter of social responsibility? Does the individual owe anything to his or her society?

Havel’s memoir To the Castle and Back is composed of pieces from a long interview, selections from his governmental memoranda, and journal entries from his visit to the United States after he had left office. What effect does this structure seem to have? Why did he not write it as a straight chronological memoir?

In what sense could one argue that Havel’s plays are disguised autobiographies?

What might have led Havel to return to playwriting so many years after he gave it up for the sake of his government work?

Bibliography

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Ash, Timothy Garton. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89. New York: Random House, 1990. Provides crucial background on Havel’s rise to power and is written by a close friend of Havel.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. Examination of the situation of numerous dissident playwrights under the Communist regime, including Havel.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa, and Phyllis Carey, eds. Critical Essays on Václav Havel. New York: Twayne, 1999. A collection that assesses Havel as both a playwright and a political figure, and the interaction between these two roles. Sections focus on Havel the man, Havel the writer, Havel the politician, and Havel’s image in the minds of his compatriots.

Hurkova, Klara. Mirror Images: A Comparison of the Early Plays of Václav Havel and Tom Stoppard, with Special Attention to Their Political Aspects. New York: P. Lang, 2000. A comparative study of Havel’s plays, highlighting the differences between a playwright working in an oppressive Communist regime with one working in a freer, capitalist climate.

Keane, John. Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Although this biography focuses primarily on Havel’s political activities, it includes extensive information on Havel’s plays and how they reflect the development of his political concepts. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Keane, John, ed. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1985. Useful for political studies. Collects essays by other important contemporary voices.

Kriseová, Eva. Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography, translated by Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Officially authorized biography, using sources provided by Havel that may not be available to other biographers but may be slanted to soft pedal awkward or uncomfortable aspects of his career.

Matustik, Martin Joseph. Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel. New York: Guilford Press, 1993. Considers Havel as a philosopher.

Rocamora, Carol. Acts of Courage: Václav Havel’s Life in the Theater. Hanover, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 2005. Both biography and literary analysis of Havel’s life and works. As the first full-length, English language, this work is invaluable. Includes several excellent appendices.

Simmons, Michael. The Reluctant President. London: Methuen, 1991. One of the best biographies published after Havel’s release and election to the Czech presidency.

Sire, James W. Václav Havel: The Intellectual Conscience of International Politics. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001. A study of Havel as a philosopher.

Symynkywicz, Jeffrey. Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Parsippany, N.J.: Dillon Press, 1995. Although dealing primarily with Havel’s role in the Velvet Revolution, also looks at the role of his plays in forming his reputation.

Trensky, Paul. Czech Drama Since World War II. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1978. A drama approach. Makes very clear that Havel is the representative of absurd drama.

Vladislav, Jan, ed. Václav Havel: Or, Living in Truth. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. Useful primarily as a political approach to Havel’s work, as it includes his most important essays as well as sixteen other essays written on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize to Havel in 1986. A short biobibliography is included, as is a rare extensive biography of Havel in English.

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