World Literature

Vaclav Havel

 

BORN: 1936, Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic)

NATIONALITY: Czech

GENRE: Drama, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Memorandum (1965)

Audience (1975)

‘‘The Power of the Powerless’’ (1978)

Temptation (1985)

Living in Truth (1987)

 

 

Vaclav Havel. Havel, Vaclav, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

A world-renowned playwright and human rights activist, Vaclav Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia in December of 1989, the country’s first leader following the fall of the authoritarian regime he had helped to overcome. His literary brilliance, moral authority, and political victories served to make him one of the most respected figures of the late twentieth century and led to his country being one of the first Eastern European nations to be invited into NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Privileged Childhood in Prague. Vaclav Havel was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to a wealthy and cultivated family. His father was a restaurant owner, real estate developer, and friend of many writers and artists, and his uncle owned Czechoslovakia’s major motion picture studio. The coming of World War II, however, with Nazi troops marching into Prague in March of 1939, shifted—though it did not destroy entirely—the family’s lifetsyle. While much of Europe was in flames, Havel grew up amid the trappings of luxury, with servants, fancy cars, and elegant homes—but he also grew up in a country occupied by Nazi troops, where mass killings occurred.

After the conclusion of World War II, world-level tension increasingly took the form of animosity between Russia- and China-centered Communist regimes and the United States and Western Europe. A coup d’etat in 1948 ensured that Czechoslovakia would belong to the list of states sympathetic to—and often wholly dependent upon—the Soviet Union. The 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia radically changed the Havels’ lives. Their money and properties were confiscated, and Havel’s parents had to take menial jobs. Havel and his brother were not allowed to attend high school, but after discovering a loophole in the system, Havel attended school at night for five years while working full-time during the day. His friends, like himself, wrote poetry and essays and endlessly discussed philosophical matters.

From 1957 to 1959 Havel served in the Czech army, where he helped found a regimental theater company. His experience in the army stimulated his interest in theater, and following his discharge he took a stagehand position at the avant-garde Theater on the Balustrade. The eager would-be playwright attracted the admiration of the theater’s director, and he progressed swiftly from manuscript reader to literary manager to, by 1968, resident playwright. It was while at the Theater on the Balustrade that Havel met, and in 1964, married Olga Splichalova. Of working-class origin, his wife was, as Havel later said, ‘‘exactly what I needed.... All my life I’ve consulted her in everything I do.... She’s usually first to read whatever I write.’’ This marriage of working-class and bourgeois values symbolized perfectly the period of 1968 reforms known as the Prague Spring, when reformers in the Czechoslovak government (chief among them Alexander Dubcek) loosened restrictions on the media, on personal speech, and on travel—in effect, allowing the arts to flourish and democracy to begin to function in Czechoslovakia.

The Prague Spring Gives Way to Soviet Winter. A Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968 brought an abrupt end to the cultural flowering of the ‘‘Prague Spring’’ and marked a watershed in Havel’s life. He felt he could not remain silent about conditions under the Communist regime, especially as reconstituted in occupied Czechoslovakia, so he began his long career as a human rights activist. He ran an underground radio broadcast asking Western intellectuals to condemn the invasion and to protest the human rights abuses of the new and repressive administration of Gustav Husak. The government responded by banning the publication and performance of Havel’s works and by revoking his passport. Although he was forced to take a job in a brewery, he continued to write, and his works were distributed clandestinely. He courageously refused to leave Czechoslovakia during this time. In 1975, Havel wrote an ‘‘Open Letter to Doctor Gustav Husak,’’ decrying the state of the country as a place where people lived in fear and apathy. The ‘‘Letter’’ attracted much notice and put Havel at risk.

In January of 1977, hundreds of Czech intellectuals and artists, Marxists and anti-Communists alike, signed Charter 77, which protested Czechoslovakia’s failure to comply with the Helsinki Agreement on human rights. Havel took an active part in the Charter 77 movement and was elected one of its chief spokespeople. He was subsequently arrested and jailed and tried on charges of subversion. Given a fourteen-month suspended sentence, Havel was unrepentant, stating: ‘‘The truth has to be spoken loudly and collectively, regardless of the results.’’ Arrested again in 1978 for similar activities, Havel was finally sentenced to four and a half years at hard labor. He served the sentence at a variety of prisons under arduous conditions, some of which are chronicled in his book Letters to Olga (1988). A severe illness resulted in his early release in March of 1983.

A Symbol of Freedom, and Its Champion. From this point forward, Havel was viewed both at home and abroad as a symbol of the Czech government’s repression and the Czech people’s irrepressible desire for freedom. He continued his dissident activities by writing a number of significant and powerful essays, many of which are collected in Vaclav Havel: Living in Truth (1987). Highly critical of the totalitarian mind and regime while exalting the human conscience and humanistic values, the essays contain some splendid and moving passages. The government responded by tapping his telephone, refusing to let him accept literary prizes abroad, watching his movements, and shooting his dog.

In January of 1989 Havel was arrested again, following a week of protests, and was sentenced this time to serve nine months in jail. On November 19, 1989, amid growing dissatisfaction with the regime in Czechoslovakia and similar discontent throughout Eastern Europe, Havel announced the creation of the Civic Forum. Like Charter 77, a coalition of groups with various political affiliations and a common goal of nonviolent and nonpartisan solution, the forum was quickly molded by Havel and his colleagues into a responsive and effective organization. The week following the creation of the forum marked the beginning of the so-called ‘‘Velvet Revolution,’’ in which Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime collapsed like a house of cards. With almost dizzying speed, a new, democratic republic was smoothly and bloodlessly established. On December 19, Parliament unanimously elected Havel to replace the former Communist leader. To the cheering throngs that greeted him after his election, Havel said, ‘‘I promise you I will not betray your confidence. I will lead this country to free elections.’’ On July 5, 1990, Parliament reelected an unopposed Havel as president for a two-year term, and in 1993 Parliament elected him first president of the Czech Republic, following the political division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Joining Hands with the West. The positive changes in the former Soviet bloc country under Havel’s leadership led to a landmark event. On July 8, 1997, NATO invited the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, to be the first Eastern European nations to become a part of the Western alliance. French president Jacques Chirac honored Havel, comparing the playwright-turned- president to Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Havel's famous contemporaries include:

Tom Stoppard (1937—): British playwright, born in Czechoslovakia. Among Stoppard's many recent plays is Rock 'n' Roll (2006), about the years leading up to and including Czechoslovakia's 1989 ''Velvet Revolution," and dedicated to his friend Vaclav Havel.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989): Irish playwright, a founding figure in both literary modernism and postmodernism, whose bleak dramas reveal the absurdity of life and the unavoidability of simple human determination.

Nelson Mandela (1918-): South African revolutionary and president (1994-1999). Mandela spent twenty- seven years in prison for his resistance to the racist apartheid government in South Africa, becoming an effective leader and an even more effective moral symbol when he became the country's first black president.

Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007): President of Russia from 1991 to 1999. Yeltsin, always a colorful and contrary political figure, was instrumental in Russia's transition away from state Communism during the 1990s.

Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn (1918-2008): Russian writer and political activist. After spending time in prison for criticizing Stalin, Solzhenitzyn wrote an account of his experiences in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963), which resulted in his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

 

Works in Literary Context

Dehumanization and Communist Modernity. Havel’s plays are powerful condemnations of the bureaucratization and mechanization of modern Czech society and their effects on the individual. His satires depict the prevalence of cliche and official doublespeak under a totalitarian government and the resulting disintegration of meaning. His works are political theater, but they are also recognized as being much more than that. Many of Havel's works are considered absurdist black comedies because they incorporate grotesque and ludicrous elements, giving expression to humanity’s fundamental discomfort in a godless universe. Many of his plays also clearly take place in Communist Czechoslovakia, and his characters' behavior is motivated by circumstances of that time and that place.

But Havel also wrote plays such as The Memorandum and Temptation, which are more like parables than explorations of real life. Sometimes they border on anti-utopian fantasy. Instead of a realistic setting, such dramas revolve around fictitious institutions like the Orwellian office in The Memorandum, complete with watchmen hidden in the hollow walls to keep an eye on employees through special cracks, or the scientific institute at war with society’s ‘‘irrational tendencies’’ in Temptation. What goes beyond realism in these plays, actually, is not so much the setting as the plot’s starting device: the introduction of Ptydepe, the artificial language for interoffice communication in The Memorandum, and the bureaucratic forms of idolatry of ‘‘rational science’’ that produce the rebellion of the protagonist in Temptation. Such works owe much to the literary legacy of greats like George Orwell and Samuel Beckett. In particular, though, his emphasis on nightmarish visions of bureaucratic incompetence and dominance draws from the well of fellow Prague writer and absurdist extraordinaire, Franz Kafka.

Vanek the Recurring Protagonist. One deep link between Havel’s realistic and parable-like plays is their shared protagonist. In almost all of Havel's plays, a single protagonist by the name of Ferdinand Vanek pops up at the center of the plot. The now legendary figure of Vanek appears first in Audience and then reappears in Havel’s next two one-act plays, Unveiling and Protest. At the same time, the underground success of Audience gave rise to a one-of-a-kind literary phenomenon: a constellation of plays employing the same protagonist but written by different authors. ‘‘The Vanek plays’’ therefore include works written by Pavel Kohout, Pavel Landovsky, and Jiri Dienstbier, as well as of course Havel, all reprinted in The Vanek Plays: Four Authors, One Character.

The Plight of the Dissident. What the Vanek characters share is a position in society. All of them can be roughly defined as dissidents in a totalitarian state or cogs in the wheels of a powerful institution. This position entails a number of consequences, the most crucial of which is the character’s being part of a political and moral minority. Such characters stand opposed to a way of life that privileges blind obedience to authority, thoughtless concentration on the necessities of everyday life, and a deep-seated distrust of any protester or reformer. Vanek, therefore, is by no means a valiant knight in shining armor or a modern Robin Hood who serves the poor. Despite all the words of cautious support and solidarity that some of his acquaintances occasionally dare whisper into his ear, Vanek is hated and despised. He is hated because he ‘‘disturbs the peace’’ of pacified minds, and he is despised because he cannot help being a loser. The forces that he opposes are too powerful. Particularly in the wake of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968, authoritarian regimes behind the Iron Curtain seemed quite nearly all-powerful: One had a moral obligation to resist, but that resistance was futile.

The Uses and Abuses of Words for Life. Heavily influenced by theater of the absurd playwrights, Havel’s early plays were clever, sometimes grim exposes of the relationship between language and thought. It is obvious that much of this sharp critique of language is directed against a totalitarian system. Havel reveals the vastly different ways in which language may be used. On the one hand, language can express the highest flights of man’s intellect—his ability to reason and analyze the complexities of his physical and spiritual existence, defining a perception of truth. On the other hand, language can propagandize, conceal, and blur the reasoning process—jumbling analysis, burying the truth, and masking lies with the makeup of smooth rhetoric. The weight of an ideologically controlled bureaucracy smothers honest communication.

Language and Power. Havel’s work, which has influenced a generation of Czech authors after him, revolves around some common themes: the unwillingness to give up one thing for another, the refusal to adhere to a hierarchy of values, and criticism of the ways authority figures construct arguments to rationalize their lies. Many of these themes are interconnected and interrelated with one of the author’s other major themes, the temptation to achieve goals through the manipulation of language. Havel shows how this process occurs through omission, deliberate confusion, and exaggeration. The theme of language temptation extends to other types of temptation in Havel’s works, including the temptation to power. Havel relies on implied shades of meaning to simultaneously mock and ‘‘tempt’’ his readers, taking them through a spectrum of philosophical questions about truth and falsehood, reason and rationalization, and good and evil. Beyond his fictional work, Havel has also written a number of very influential political and philosophical essays, the most important among these being perhaps his seminal ‘‘The Power of the Powerless’’ (1978).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Creative writers are often intensely aware of the power of language, and not only for its capacity to describe and open up new thoughts. Language can also hide the truth and limit the freedom of thought. Here are some works that focus not only on the power, but also on the dangers of language:

1984 (1949), a novel by George Orwell. In Orwell's not- so-imaginary world of a totalitarian dictatorship, the government invents a language called "Newspeak" designed to shut down common sense and independent thinking.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a novel by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury uses science fiction to satirize the ways repressive governments limit human thought by banning works of literature. The hero of the novel is a ''fireman,'' or book burner, who starts hiding books to share with a group of underground readers.

''On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations" (1932), a decree by Joseph Stalin. This was the decree that made ''Soviet Realism'' the official artistic policy of the Soviet Union. Writers and artists of all kinds were to reject all forms of ''decadent bourgeois art,'' especially anything that was abstract or impressionistic, in favor of plain-spoken texts that glorified the working class and Soviet society.

 

Works in Critical Context

From the start, Havel’s politico-philosophical essays and plays were translated into many languages. The plays, in particular, were performed and appreciated by the public in a number of countries. His earliest plays, including The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum (1965), and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), were instant successes in Czechoslovakia and abroad, where they received much popular as well as critical acclaim.

Relegation to Dissident Status. When approaching a play by Havel, critics often had certain preconceptions. They knew, for example, that Havel was one of the most famous dissidents under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, that none of his plays were performed in official theaters there, and that he was harassed and imprisoned several times. Consequently, many critics have argued that as a literary figure, Havel’s life and writings were so closely interwoven with the political situation in his country that they, as critics, must have been provided with a ready-made guide to the interpretation of his works. Journalists, reviewers, and academic commentators followed this obvious approach and discussed Havel’s writings largely as the direct outcome of what he was observing in his society. The ‘‘dissident playwright’’ label stuck hard and fast to Havel’s image.

Temptation. Often, however, how critics responded to Havel’s dissident works depended on where they were from, telling perhaps as much about the assumptions and the degree of receptivity of the critics’ culture as about the plays themselves. For example, responding to a flashy but shallow production of Temptation, New York critics regarded the play largely as the manifesto of someone who opposes an oppressive political regime. They appreciated the author’s wry insights on the broader nature of dogma. The Viennese papers, on the other hand, were mostly concerned with Havel’s allegedly unsatisfactory treatment of other literary figures, such as the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe, they complained, was put into the service of antitotalitarian criticism. The reaction of the British papers and other media was remarkably different. Brought up on William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard, the British critics were aware that ‘‘the play’s the thing’’ and regarded the drama as an ‘‘intoxicatingly’’ theatrical piece. Although they recognized that the workings of evil that was depicted sprang from a totalitarian system, they believed Havel succeeded in going beyond this and did not confine the play to that system. In Britain, critics concluded that Temptation was one of the great artistic adventures of its day.

 

Responses to Literature

1. What is ‘‘Theater of the Absurd’’? Is it a fair description of Havel’s plays? What are some of the absurdist themes and situations in Havel’s works, particularly The Memorandum?

2. What are the pros and cons of reading Havel’s plays through the lens of his political life? What has Havel himself said about this in interviews?

3. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once said that poets are the ‘‘unacknowledged legislators of the world.’’ What did Shelley mean by this? What do you think of poets and playwrights becoming political leaders, or political leaders becoming poets and playwrights? What are other examples of politicians who have become creative writers, or vice versa?

4. Read ‘‘The Power of the Powerless’’ and consider the arguments about freedom and responsibility Havel makes there. In your assessment, to what extent are these arguments plausible. Support your thesis with detailed analysis of the logic and rhetoric of Havel’s text.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Esslin, Martin. Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

_________. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Havel, Vaclav. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1990.

_________. Summer Meditations. Trans. Paul Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Keane, John. Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Kriseova, Eda. Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography. Trans. Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Symynkywicz, Jeffrey. Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Minneapolis.: Dillon Press, 1995.

Web Sites

Bishop, Roger. ‘‘Review,’’ in BookPages. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from http://www.bookpage.com/0007bp/nonfiction/vaclac_havel.html.

Havel, Vaclav. The Official Website of Vaclav Havel. Retrieved May 11, 2008, from http://www.vaclavhavel.cz. Last updated on May 11, 2008.

Zizek, Slavoj. ‘‘Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism,’’ in London Review of Books. October 28, 1999, retrieved June 29, 2008, from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n21/zize01_.html.