Other Literary Forms
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).
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.
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,...
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