University of Glasgow
Václav Havel has consistently played a major role in the cultural and political life of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic throughout the second half of the twentieth century. As a young man, during the time of Stalinist oppression in the 1950s, Havel and his friends displayed the spirit of independent intellectual enquiry and made systematic contact with major figures in Czech literature and the arts, who were often ostracised and regarded as marginal by the communist regime. In the 1960s, Havel became an important non-communist protagonist of the movement of artists and writers, gradually pushing for freedom, whose efforts culminated in the liberal revolution of the 1968 Prague Spring. At that time, Havel wrote significant plays belonging to the genre of absurd drama, which shed light on the nature of the communist system. During the Soviet-led invasion into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Havel actively resisted the military aggression in his radio broadcasts.
As a result of the cultural and political clampdown after the invasion, Havel and several hundred other Czech writers were turned into non-persons: their work was banned, they could not appear in public and they were harassed by the secret police. An alternative, "dissident" culture emerged in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s and Havel became one of its main representatives, primarily as a result of his fearless stance vis-a-vis the communist authorities. At this time, Havel wrote a number of insightful essays as well as plays, dealing with the nature of the communist system, but also, in more general terms, testifying to the human condition. In the post-1968 era, Václav Havel also actively participated in political work as a dissident.
In 1977, Havel was one of the main founders of Charta 77 (Charter 77), a human rights movement. He was also one of the main activists in the Výbor na obranu nespravedlive stíhaných (VONS, Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted). He was imprisoned by the communist authorities for several years for the work on this Committee. Especially towards the end of the 1980s, Havel became a potent international symbol of the efforts of independent Czechoslovak citizens to regain freedom and to defeat the totalitarian communist system. In November-December 1989, during the collapse of the communist regime, Havel was a major political figure in the Obcanské fórum (Civic Forum) movement and helped to negotiate the transfer of power away from the departing communist authorities. In December 1989, Havel was elected President of the Czechoslovak Republic: a meteoric rise indeed for someone who earlier that same year was still languishing in prison.
Havel's presidency is generally regarded as slightly more controversial than his previous career as an independent intellectual and dissident. In the first years of his presidency Havel received almost absolute adulation and in opinion polls consistently recorded high levels of popularity, in the second half of the 1990s, Havel's presidency was affected by various controversies on the internal Czech political scene, although his image as the ideal "President-Philosopher" generally survived much longer in the West than in the Czech Republic itself. Havel has been trying firmly to integrate the Czech Republic in the West. But by the year 2000, Havel's continuing role as President of the Czech Republic deprived him in his own country of some of his original charisma and of the reputation of an independent intellectual, which is perhaps the predicament of anyone who holds a high political office for a long time.
Václav Havel was born on 5th October 1936 into an affluent Prague family. His mother, Božena, née Vavrecková, was the daughter of Hugo Vavrecka, a co-editor of Lidové noviny (People's Newspaper), a leading Czech daily, a Czech ambassador to Hungary and Austria during the Czechoslovak First Republic and in 1938 Czechoslovak Minister of Propaganda. Vácslav, Havel's grandfather from his father's side of the family, had also been an energetic self-made man, an architect and enterpreneur who put up a number of important buildings in Prague at the turn of the century, including, from 1905 onwards, Lucerna (The Lantern), a large and modern entertainment complex, the first ferro-concrete building, erected in Prague. Havel's father, Václav M. Havel, followed in his father's footsteps and was also an architect-enterpreneur. He built a fashionable villa quarter on the hill of Barrandov overlooking the river Vltava to the west of Prague's city centre. In the inter-war Czechoslovak Republic, the Havel family led an establishment, upper-middle class existence and, among other things, ran soirées attended by the great and the good in the Prague intellectual and political circles. Politically, the Havels were democrats and republicans and fully supported the tolerant political philosophy of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk's interwar Czechoslovakia (1918-1938). Before and during the war, Václav's uncle Miloš Havel ran a large film production company in Czechoslovakia, the Barrandov Film Studios. After the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Miloš Havel protected a number of Czech writers, film directors and actors from having to work for the Nazis, but himself fell under serious pressure by the German occupiers who stole the Barrandov Film Studios from him. A similar story was repeated after the communist takeover in 1948, when the communists nationalised the Film Studios. Only after spending a couple of years in prison and labour camp,did Miloš Havel manage to escape to the West. None of these trials and tribulations naturally affected the small Václav - his possibly only direct encounter with the horrors of the Second World War came paradoxically on 9th May, 1945, a day after the war had officially ended: the Moravian village of Ždárec near the Havels' summer country estate was bombed and the eight year old Václav Havel witnessed some Russian soldiers shooting at a retreating German column of troops.
Havel's well-meaning parents lavished care, affluence and attention on their son: as a result, from his early years, he regarded his privileged background as a disadvantage: in childhood, it created barriers between himself and other children, barriers he found difficult to overcome. After the communist takeover of power in February 1948, Havel's bourgeois origins became a stigma. He was branded a class enemy and and had to try hard to gain access to higher education.
Havel began attending school in the village near his parents' summer country estate, where the Havel family spent most of the time during the war and in the first years after the war. In the early years of his education, he was often taught at home by au pairs - the teaching was supervised by his energetic and intellectually demanding mother. Shortly before the communist takeover of power in February 1948, his parents sent him to a private boarding school, the "King George School" of Podebrady. The aim of this demanding school was to produce elite graduates, groomed to become future leaders, helping to heal war-torn Europe. But in the spring of 1950, Havel was expelled from the school for his incorrect class origin. He was branded a member of the bourgeoisie, which was seen as hostile to the new communist regime. He then attended various state schools in Prague, where he was often politically ostracised, and at that point he did not complete his secondary education. After briefly working as an apprentice carpenter in 1951, his parents helped him find a job as an apprentice laboratory assistant at the Institute for Chemical Technology in Prague. At the same time, he attended night classes and managed to get his secondary school leaving certificate in 1954. Then, he tried to enroll at Charles University at the Arts Faculty, at the Film and Drama Faculty and at other universities, but was rejected. Finally he began studying urban transport at the Economics Faculty of Prague's Technical University.
In his late teens, Havel received private tuition in philosophy from Czech philosopher J. L. Fischer, who had a considerable influence on him. In 1952, at the time of the worst Stalinist showtrials in Czechoslovakia, which led to the execution of several top communist party leaders and to the long imprisonment of many tens of thousands of "class enemies", Václav Havel, with the help of his mother, organised a debating and literary circle of a group of his sixteen-year old friends, the "Thirty-Sixers". Perhaps only the young age of the members of this circle prevented them from becoming victims of political persecution. Havel wrote a draft of a short book on philosophy. The circle discussed banned writers such as Franz Kafka, Herrmann Hesse and Anna Akhmatova, debated poetry and even published two samizdat literary magazines, Stríbrný vítr. Básnická revue 36 (The Silver Wind: A Poetic Review 36) and Rozhovory 36 (Discussions 36). Havel proved to be an efficient organiser. Among other things, the "Thirty-Sixers" carried out "raids" (meetings) on writers and artists, connected with the culture of the pre-war Czech Republic, including the poets Jaroslav Seifert, Vítezslav Nezval and Vladimír Holan.
In 1953, Havel met his girlfriend and future wife, Olga Šplíchalová. She came from the Prague working class district of Žižkov and was an independent-minded, no-nonsense young lady and an uncompromising anticommunist. In Havel, highly cultured Šplíchalová primarily valued his education and intelligence. Havel and Šplíchalová were married after a nine-year acquaintance in July 1964.
In November, 1956, at the time when the Russian army was crushing the anti-communist revolution in neighbouring Hungary, the twenty-year-old Havel gave a bold speech during a conference at the Czechoslovak Writers' Union's castle at Dobríš, organised by the editors of a new journal for young writers, Kveten (May), which planned to concentrate on the casual "poetry of the everyday". This was a time of great uncertainty for the communist regime: it was soon after Khrushchev's secret speech to the Soviet Communist Party, in which he condemned Stalin's crimes, and also after the Second Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union, where poets Jaroslav Seifert and František Hrubín gave courageous anti-Stalinist speeches, so Havel felt he could be speak relatively freely. Prior to the conference, he had sent a letter to the editors of Kveten, taking them to task for ignoring the work of Skupina 42 (Group 42), whose poetry dealt with modern urban life and its problems. The letter was printed and Havel was invited to the Dobríš conference. In his speech at Dobríš, Havel made a plea for openness and pluralism and criticised the organisers of the conference and the editors of Kveten for ignoring earlier, non-communist Czech writers such as Karel Capek and the modernist poets Jirí Kolár, Josef Kainar and Jirina Hauková. In the version of his speech, printed in Literární noviny (The Literary Gazette), he placed certain limits on the freedom of discussion: every debater had to have a "positive attitude towards the basis of our socialist system". As Havel later remembered, in the subsequent informal discussions continuing well into the night, the writers present would "alternately heap ashes on their heads and accuse me of betraying socialism".
In 1957 Havel gave up his work as a laboratory assistant, abandoning also his studies at the Technical University in Prague, after he failed again to be admitted for study at the Film and Drama Faculty, and was drafted into the army for a two years' national service. As a class enemy, he was sent to a regiment of sappers at the 15th Motorised Artillery Division in Ceské Budejovice. In the army, Havel got his first practical experience with theatre work. He and a friend named Karel Brynda staged Pavel Kohout's mildly reformist play Zárijové noci (September Nights, 1955), which however led to Havel's military demotion. He played the role of an ambitious soldier too convincingly and his commanding officer therefore thought he was after his post. Later on, with the assistance of Brynda, Havel wrote his own first play in the army, Život pred sebou (You Have Your Whole Life Ahead of You, 1959) and, tongue-in-cheek, they entered it for an army theatre competition.
Život pred sebou deals with the incident of a soldier, Pavel Maršík, who falls asleep on guard duty. He is awakened by gunfire and sees a wounded civilian intruder on the ground. It turns out that the shot was fired from his own weapon by mistake by Jan Kubeš, the officer on duty. They agree to cover up the falling asleep incident and Maršík pretends that he did the shooting. He is rewarded for his lies, promoted and eventually offered membership of the Communist Party. However, Maršík eventually cannot go through with the duplicity and ends up refusing to live within a lie. The play was very successful on the lower levels of the army theatre competition, but when there was a likelihood that it would win the final round, the army officers read the author's CVs, noted that they were "class enemies", concluded (rightly, says Havel) that the play was mocking the whole idea of the competition and "unmasked" both the authors and the play, which was condemned as an "anti-army" work. Nevertheless, Havel and his friends had enjoyed a week's leave from the army which they could spend at the army theatre festival in the West Bohemian Spa Mariánské Lázne. Even this early play by Havel highlighted the predicament of an individual facing an inhuman, bureaucratic system.
Towards the end of his national service Havel attempted once more to apply for study at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, but was again rejected. Due to family connections, he was then offered a job as a stage-hand at the ABC Theatre in Prague, where he experienced the last season of the work of Jan Werich, a well-known Czech "comedian-philosopher", who with his partner Jirí Voskovec had created the famous avantgarde comedy theatre Osvobozené divadlo (The Liberated Theatre) in the period between the wars. Havel was employed in the ABC Theatre in 1959-1960. Under Werich's influence he realised that a theatre can truly become a major centre of national culture, "a seismograph of the times, an area of freedom, an instrument of human liberation". In his book interview Dálkový výslech (Disturbing the Peace) Havel says that it was the experience at Werich's ABC Theatre which persuaded him to choose the work in the theatre as his life's profession.
While working at this theatre, Havel wrote a few theoretical articles for the Divadlo (Theatre) periodical and was very pleased when he received praise from Werich for one of them. While at ABC Theatre, Havel also wrote Rodinný vecer (An Evening with the Family, 1959) , a play in the spirit of Eugene Ionesco, and a first version of Vyrozumení (The Memorandum). Rodinný vecer was never performed, but on the basis of it, Havel was, in the summer of 1960, offered a job at a fringe theatre in Prague, Divadlo Na zábradlí (Theatre on the Balustrade), which had been founded two years before, when Havel was still in the army, by the director Helena Philipová.
In the first year or so Havel worked with the head of its drama section, playwright, actor and director Ivan Vyskocil, from 1963 he became a very close collaborator of the new head of the drama section Jan Grossman. Vyskocil was under the influence of the casual, semi-improvised comic theatre of Voskovec and Werich; he also liked to engage the audience by highlighting urgent problems by means of so called "appeals" (apely). Havel learned from Vyskocil that plays should be like open-ended dialogues. On the other hand, the critic Jan Grossman turned Divadlo Na zábradlí into a major centre for the West and East European absurd drama, staging plays by Ionesco, Beckett, Jarry and Havel. The atmosphere at Divadlo Na zábradlí was democratic and anti-ideological. Everyone collaborated in a happy community. Soon, the Theatre acquired a major political role, becoming one of the most daring centres for the arts, which pushed for freedom in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s.
In 1960-1961 Havel still worked Na zábradlí as a stage hand, in 1961-1963 as as repertory adviser and in 1963-1968 as an assistant director. In 1962 - 1966, Havel was an extra-mural student of dramaturgy at the Theatre Faculty of the Drama Academy in Prague. He completed his studies there by producing a commentary on his play Eduard, which later became the basis of Ztížená možnost soustredení (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.)
All Havel's well-known plays from the 1960s were performed Na zábradlí, starting with Autostop (Hitchhiking, staged in 1961, printed in 1963) which was co-written with Vyskocil, and Nejlepší rocky paní Hermanové (staged in 1962), co-written with Miloš Macourek. In 1968, Havel left the theatre for non-political reasons, but soon after his departure it became obvious that the liberal Na zábradlí era had ended.
Autostop was an early absurdist comedy, partially influenced by Ionesco. It was a satire on the car as a symbol of conspicuous consumption. The play tells the story of a young man who wins a car in a lottery and immediately becomes a society's desirable symbol. The play is a farce in which people are so obsessed with the automobile culture that they start resembling automobiles. They begin to sound like car engines and their legs turn into car wheels, some car lovers are transformed into cars themselves. As in many other plays by Havel, Autostop also ridicules overelaborate, pedantic language, which occurs in a lecture on the transformation of people into cars, given by a university professor in the last part of the play.
In December 1963, Havel's play Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party) was premiered at Divadlo Na zábradlí. By writing this play, Václav Havel became a leading representative of the East European Theatre of the Absurd.
"The Theatre of the Absurd" is a term coined by the critic Martin Esslin for the work of a number of playwrights, mostly written in the 1950s and 1960s. The term is derived from an essay by the French philosopher Albert Camus. In his "Myth of Sisyphus", written in 1942, he first defined the human situation as basically meaningless. The "absurd" plays by Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter and others all share the view that man is inhabiting a universe with which he is out of key.
The Western Theatre of the Absurd basically highlighted man's fundamental bewilderment and confusion, stemming from the fact that man has no answers to the basic existential questions: why we are alive, why we have to die, why there is injustice and suffering. Paradoxically, East European communism proclaimed that it had answers to these questions and that it was capable of eliminating suffering and setting all injustices right. To doubt this was subversive. The simplified ideology was made to dominate all spheres of life. People were supposed enthusiastically to support it. Thus the Soviet-type system managed to spread an acute feeling of absurdity to everyone: to bring the experience of what was initially a matter of concern for only a small number of sensitive individuals in the West to whole nations in the East.
This is not to say that the absurdity of life as experienced in the East differed in any way from the absurdity of life as it was experienced in the West. In both parts of the world it stemmed from the ambiguity of man's position in the universe, from fear of death and from man's instinctive yearning for the Absolute. But official East-European practices created a reality which made absurdity a primary and deeply-felt, intrinsic experience for anyone who came in contact with that reality.
Although the East European absurd theatre was inspired by Western absurd drama, it differed from it in form, meaning and impact. The reasons for this were several. First, West-European absurd drama was regarded by East-European officialdom as a typical expression of West-European "capitalist decadence" and East European theatrical producers would be wary of trying to stage a condemned play. The western absurdist plays were regarded as nihilistic and anti-realistic. Also, there were fears among theatrical producers that the West European absurd plays might be regarded as far too avantgarde and esoteric by the general public, which had been fed on traditionally realistic plays for many years. Thirdly, there was an atmosphere of relative optimism in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s and the 1960s. It was felt that after Stalin's death full liberalisation was only a matter of time. The injustices and deficiencies of the East European political systems were seen as due to human frailty rather than being an unchangeable metaphysical condition: it was felt that concerted human effort was going to be able to put all wrongs right. It was argued (perhaps partially for official consumption) that the East European absurdist plays, unlike their Western counterparts, constituted constructive criticism. It was only later that some critics were able to point out that West European absurd dram was not in fact nihilistic and that it played the same constructive roles as East European drama attempted to play. It was realised that the liberal Marxist analysis of East European absurd drama was incorrect: just as with its Western counterpart, the East European absurdist theatre could be seen as a comment on the human condition in general.
On the whole, East European absurd drama was far less abstract and esoteric than its West European counterpart. Moreover, while the West European drama is usually considered as having spent itself by the end of the 1960s, several East European authors were writing original plays in the absurdist mould, well into the 1970s. While the West European plays deal with a predicament of an individual or a group of individuals in a situation stripped to the bare, and often fairly abstract and metaphysical essentials, the East European plays mostly show and individual trapped within the cogwheels of a social system. The social context of the West European absurd plays is usually subdued and theoretical: in the East European plays it is concrete, menacing and fairly realistic.
Like the Western absurd plays, Václav Havel's absurd dramas are also highly stylised. Most of them have strong rational and intellectual inspiration. In the book interview Dálkový výslech Havel explained that before writing a play, he always first drew a diagram of its structure. Havel's plays often feel like symmetrical, mathematical or geometrical constructions. By highly stylising life under communism, they present it in terms of caricature.
Havel's absurd plays from the 1960s primarily analyse the role of language. Language is for Havel an instrument of power, enslavement, advancement and dehumanisation. Havel's plays caricature language as a basic instrument of human communication. Havel's protagonists have a choice: either to behave naturally and use a normal, human speech and be destroyed, or to adopt bureaucratic newspeak, adapt themselves to the dehumanised society and make a successful career - at the cost of losing their own personal identity. Havel's plays show brilliantly how ideological language under communism penetrated all spheres of life, banished all meaningful, authentic human discourse and made society mute, incapable of discussing its problems.
The hero of Zahradní slavnost, a young man named Hugo Pludek attends a garden party, thrown by a powerful bureaucratic institution called The Liquidation Office. At the party, Hugo is looking for a highly placed friend of his father's who is to secure his future career. The garden party is attended by automaton-like creatures, bureaucrats from the Liquidation Office and the competing Inauguration Office who control the world about them by means of special bureaucratic language. This type of language is deprived of its primary communicative content. It consists of political clichés which are caricatures of the wooden way in which the ruling communist party officials expressed themselves in Czechoslovakia. To a Western reader the bureaucratic jargon of the Garden Party is almost incomprehensible, but in Czechoslovakia people were exposed daily to this type of language and when it was featured on stage at Divadlo na Zábradlí, it produced peals of laughter from the audience.
The newspeak contains a number of secondary connotations and inconspicuous stylistic subtexts. The speech of the bureaucrats is a mixture of aggressive geniality and vigilance. The purpose of this kind of speech is control and rape. While the language is devoid of content, it formally respects the laws of Marxist dialectics. The officials are constantly trying to organise spontaneous behaviour. But if somebody really began to behave spontaneously and relaxedly, that would be his undoing. Everyone is constantly watching everyone else to make sure they do not step out of line. At the same time, since language cannot be used for normal communication, nobody really knows what exactly are the current rules and regulations and who is the boss. Thus, everyone is in a constant state of uncertainty.
Hugo Pludek learns quickly how to use this bureaucratic language. He becomes so proficient in it that he wins a language duel with the director of the Inauguration Office. In the prevailing atmosphere of secretiveness, the director cannot know who Hugo is - it cannot be ruled down that he might be someone important. In the end, the director bows down to Hugo's greater proficiency in using the ruling language. The end of their "debate" shows convincingly that the bureaucratic newspeak is an instrument for controlling other people for the personal benefit of the rulers:
"(...)THE DIRECTOR AND HUGO TOGETHER: Caused by the fact that as a result of an unhealthy isolation of the whole office certain positive elements in the work of the Inauguration Office were uncritically overrated, and at the same time certain negative elements in the work of the Liquidation Office were one-sidedly magnified, which finally resulted in the fact that the era - (The DIRECTOR cannot keep pace with HUGO any more)
HUGO: - when the new activization of all the positive forces inside the Liqidation Office placed the Liquidation Office once more in the forefront of our work as a firm and mighty stronghold of our unity, it was unfortunately precisely the Inauguration Service which succumbed -
DIRECTOR: - to the hysterical atmosphere of certain imprudent excesses -
HUGO: - insinuating themselves by means of effective arguments taken from the arsenal of abstract humanistic cant - which however in reality did not span the confines of the generally conventionalized types of work - and these clichés are reflected in their typical form, for example, in -
DIRECTOR: - the hackneyed machinery -
HUGO: - of the pseudofamiliar inaugurational phraseology hiding behind the routine of professional humanism a profound dilution of opinions which finally and necessarily led to Inauguration Service into the position of one who undermines the positive endeavour of the Liquidation Office towards consolidation, and the absolute historical necessity of all this is expressed in the wise act of its liquidation.
DIRECTOR: I couldn't agree more.
HUGO: You keep agreeing, but you do nothing about it! This way we'll never finish the liquidation. Time is money. Bring me a cup of coffee!!"
Hugo becomes highly successful as a top bureaucrat, but he loses his personal identity. When at the end of the play he visits his parents, they no longer recognise him. Language is an instrument of a power struggle also in Havel's play Vyrozumení (The Memorandum, 1965). At the beginning of the play, a relatively reasonable and tolerant director Gross learns that "ptydepe", a new "scientific" synthetic language is being introduced into his office without his knowledge in order to make it easier for bureaucrats to express themselves precisely. The lifelesss, extremely complex and absurd language (nobody can learn it properly) is a metaphor of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Just like Marxism-Leninism, even this language is used by unscrupulous individuals in Vyrozumení (especially Gross's deputy Baláš) in order to enslave others by introducing this language into daily use. Vyrozumení strongly emphasises the fact that individuals, seeking power within the totalitarian power structures do so only for their personal gratification. The employees of the "ptydepe translation centre", with openly secret police mannerisms, are interested only in feasting and drinking, in doing up their hair and in ironing their underwear.
The plot of Vyrozumení is based on a Catch-22. The director Gross receives an official memorandum written in ptydepe, but he cannot persuade anyone to translate the text for him because he does not have the appropriate certificates and he cannot receive these until after he has had the ptydepe text translated. Eventually, the letter is "privately", "on the side", translated for him by his secretary Marie. Paradoxically, it turns out that the ptydepe memorandum is a sharp criticism of ptydepe. The text calls for the language to be withdrawn and for its disseminators to be punished. Gross had lost his post of director during Baláš's campaign to introduce ptydepe into his organisation, so he now has a chance of being reinstated. Although this happens, Baláš makes a public self-criticism, thereby saving himself. He decides that never again will he make the mistake of assuming a top position and henceforth wants to wield his influence from a secondary position, which is much more influential and much less dangerous than being the man at the top. Towards the end of the play, he begins to introduce another synthetic language, chorukor, again without the director's knowledge.
The secretary Marie is a typical idealistic character, one of those who occur in many other plays by Václav Havel. These idealistic characters are usually destroyed by the whirlwind of manipulation in Havel's plays. Marie is sacked for doing an "unauthorised translation" of the original memorandum for Gross. Gross's position in the organisation is weakened and he does not dare to intercede on her behalf. Like other characters of Havel's plays in similar positions, he is only able to offer her a banal rhetorical exercise, rationalising why he is incapable of saving her job for her.
The structure of Havel's play Ztížená možnost soustredení (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1968) highlights the fragmentariness of modern life. The three parallel actions of this play are broken down to short episodes and they are shuffled together so that the category of time is abolished. However, even this play has a very precise, symmetrical structure with numerous parallelisms in its dialogues. The main character is a "scientist" Dr. Eduard Huml who lives both with his wife Vlasta and his girlfriend Renata and makes detailed reports to these ladies about the state of his momentary relationship to the other woman, assuring them in turn that he is shortly about to leave their rival. Huml is visited by a "scholarly" team from the Sociological Institute, wishing to analyse his mind using the "Puzuk" computer. Nonsense is the aim of this research: "to analyse Man in his/her complexity and in his/her unrepeatable human individuality". The team of sociologists wishes to "construct of model of human individuality". Paradoxicaly, the "Puzuk" computer is the only "human" individuality amongst the dehumanised and mechanised "scholars". Puzuk is moody and spoilt: first, it must be cooled in a fridge, then it must be warmed up in the oven. When it eventually deigns to speak, the questions that it hurls out are a mixture of absurdities. Some of them are typical Havel's parodies of well-known sayings:
"Which is your favourite tunnel? Do you like musical instruments? How many times per year do you air the square? Where have you buried the dog? When did you lose your claim? What is the crux of the matter? What is it like in our homeland today? Do you urinate in public or sometimes?"
Zahradní slavnost, Vyrozumení and Ztížená možnost soustredení were written at a time when Havel was in direct contact with his audiences at the Na zábradlí theatre. The plays were often adjusted as a result of rehearsals and according to the reactions of the audiences. They contain a number of gags which undoubtedly originated directly on stage.
In 1965, Václav Havel was invited to become a member of the editorial board of an unorthodox, high brow and basically anti-communist cultural political monthly, Tvár (The Face) edited by young intellectuals. Tvár came into being in 1964 as the result of a decision made by the 3rd Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers in 1963, which decided to create a periodical for young writers. Especially in 1965 Tvár published a considerable amount of important non-communist texts by Czech and foreign authors. The publisher of the monthly, The Union of Czechoslovak Writers did not like the overtly independent, non-marxist line of Tvár - even in an atmosphere of relatively advanced liberalisation in the mid 1960s the Union did not wish to enter into conflict with the ruling communist party. Impossible conditions were imposed on Tvár by the Writers' Union and so it had to cease publication at the end of 1965. (It was revived in the autumn of 1968 and it existed until June 1969.)
Before Tvár was closed down, a petition was organised in support of the magazine. Václav Havel and Tvár's editor Jan Nedved took the petition to Slovakia; two Czech writers tried physically to prevent them from boarding a train at a Prague railway station. The petition collected some 600 signatures, and in an attempt to make the network of supporters more permanent, a Young Writers's Action Group was founded and Havel was chosen as its chairman. In June 1965, Havel gave a passionate speech at a Union of Czechoslovak Writers Conference "o úhybném myšlení" (on evasive thinking) where he attacked the (allegedly reformist, pro-liberal) leadership of the Union for ostracising Tvár and for avoiding its responsibility to support and give publication space to top rank non-communist Czech writers. Several times during 1965 Havel negotiated between the editorial board of Tvár and the Writers' Union, but the negotiations were eventually unsuccessful.
In June 1967, Havel spoke at the historical 4th Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union, during which the Union entered into open confrontation with the ruling communist party. The confrontation led to a clampdown which paradoxically later resulted in the total freedom of the Prague Spring of 1968. At the Congress, Havel again criticised the evasive and passive tacticts of the Writers' Union, which he saw as a retrograde, bureaucratic organisation, and called on the Union to offer membership to a number of non-communist first rank Czech authors. On the orders of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Havel, along with the writers Ludvík Vaculík, Ivan Klíma and Pavel Kohout, were removed from the ballot paper for the Central Committee of the Writers' Union.
During the exhilarating period of freedom in the spring of 1968, Havel became Chairman of the Circle of Independent Writers in April 1968. In May and June 1968 he spent six weeks visiting the United States and Western Europe, witnessing at first hand the spirit of the West European student rebellion that enveloped the West at that time. On his way from Prague to New York in early May 1968, during a general strike in France, Havel met Pavel Tigrid, the publisher of the most important Czech cultural and political emigré quarterly Svedectví (Testimony) and a major organiser of independent Czech cultural life in the West, in New York he met another important Czech emigré, Ferdinand Peroutka, a journalist and writer of the Karel Capek generation and the first head of the Czechoslovak Service of Radio Free Europe. In an interview with the New York Times Havel called on Czechoslovakia "to remove censorship and guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of assembly" and in a BBC interview he expressed the view that more freedom was probably coming to Czechoslovakia.
The rest of the "glorious summer" before the Warsaw pact invasion in August 1968 was spent by Havel at his second home in northern Bohemia, in the village of Hrádecek near Trutnov, where he threw regular parties to a large circle of friends. This relatively extensive country estate with several buildings was purchased by Havel at a modest price in 1967. Hrádecek played a major role in Havel's life in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was a banned, dissident writer. He stayed there, out of Prague, for extended periods in the 1970s.
Throughout the Prague Spring, Havel did not play a major role. Reform communists were in the forefront during the Prague Spring and Havel was not a communist. In April 1968, he published an article "Na téma opozice" (On the Theme of an Opposition) in Literární listy (Literary Gazette) in which he advocated the foundation of an opposition party. In July 1968, along with other writers like Josef Škvorecký and Ludvík Vaculík, Havel was invited to a drinks party with top communist party officials. Fortified by cognac, he talked to the communist party leader Alexander Dubcek, trying to persuade him to be more daring in his political decision-making, at the same time assuring him that he fully believed in "socialism", which was an ideology "here to stay".
After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21st August, 1968, the whole of Czechoslovakia embarked on a week of passive resistance and protest guided by the free media, which had acquired unprecedented authority among the Czechoslovak citizens in the previous months. Havel happened to be in the North Bohemian town of Liberec at the time of the invasion. He barricaded himself in the studios of the Liberec radio station and with a well-known actor Jan Tríska worked for a week round the clock as a radio commentator and journalist.
In the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion, while certain vestiges of freedom lingered in Czechoslovakia approximately for another six or seven months, Havel contributed to the public debate by publishing a couple of important essays. In February 1969 he printed in Tvár No, 4, 1969, an article entitled "Ceský údel?" ("The Czech Destiny?") a response to Milan Kundera's piece, published in Listy in December of the previous year. Havel rejected Kundera's somewhat mesianic notion about the "mission of the small nations which in today's world have been delivered to the tender mercies of the Great Powers", rejected his congratulatory stance with regard to the courageous Czechoslovak passive resistance in August 1968 and demanded a rational, unsentimental analysis of the current situation of the Czechs. Havel said he did not believe that the Czechs suffered from a "Czech predicament", in which it was once and for all predetermined that they would always be oppressed by a large power. He emphasised that the Czechs were fully responsible for their predicament and that it was in their power to change it. He also rejected the notion that the 1968 Prague Spring was in some ways unique: "If we keep telling ourselves that a country which wished to introduce freedom of speech - a normal thing in most countries of the civilised world - and which wanted to curb arbitrary rule by the secret police has become the centre of world history, we will turn ourselves into smug hypocrites, ridiculous as a result of their provincial messianism!"
In June 1969, in a speech to the newly formed Union of Czech Writers (it had split to separate its Czech and Slovak parts, after an attempt was made to turn Czechoslovakia into a federation of two states) Havel demanded that the Union should safeguard writers' freedoms and protest against the closing down of the most popular and influential cultural and political weekly Listy (originally Literární noviny, then Literární listy, then Listy) by the authorities. In a letter, sent to Alexander Dubcek on 9th August 1969, Havel warned him not to condemn publicly the 1968 Prague Spring, although he might be pressurised to do so by the now ruling pro-Soviet politicians. "If you resist and stick to your own truth, (...) you will do a great service from the point of view of the future: you will show clearly that communism is not inextricably associated with lying and with lack of integrity," said Havel. He also warned Dubcek not to disappear quietly from the public scene: "such an embarrassing attempt to hide in a crowd would make people despise you." In fact, this is what Dubcek did: he gave up without a fight after the suppression of the short-lived liberal era.
In the 1970s and 1980s, in the period of the so-called "normalisation", a political clampdown following the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968, Czechoslovakia was turned into a colony, finding itself in a motionless, timeless zone. All the cultural and political protagonists of the Prague Spring were turned into non-persons. Their work was banned and they could not appear in public. Gradually, a lively dissident community emerged, but the secret police managed to isolate the dissidents from the life of the rest of society by a wall of fear, erected around them. In this period, most people would pretend to forget about politics and would refrain of contacting or even speaking about the dissidents because of their fear of the omnipresent secret police. In the dissident ghetto, Václav Havel gradually became its most significant writer, thinker and organiser. Apart from writing plays, he became an astute political commentator and analyst of the post-invasion regime. From early on in the new totalitarian regime, Havel signed petitions in defence of political prisoners (in December 1972 he was one of 35 Czech writers who signed a petition, addressed to the Czechoslovak president, demanding an amnesty for political prisoners). In an afterword to the Toronto edition of his plays from 1970-1976, Havel wrote about the new era:
"August 1968 was not just one of the usual replacements of a more liberal regime for a more conservative one (...) it was something more: it was the end of an era, a disintegration of a spiritual and social climate, a deep mental watershed. (...) The whole existing world, which we knew so well and in which we could easily operate, the peaceful, slightly comic, ricketty and biedermeier world of the 1960s had collapsed. (...) On its debris, a totally different world, ruthless, gloomy and serious, harsh and Asiatic, began ominously to emerge..."
In 1970 - 1971, Havel wrote the play Spiklenci (The Conspirators). It was the first play which came into being without Havel's direct contact with the Na zábradlí theatre audiences and even the author himself finds it a little dry and theoretical. For a Western audience, he tried to write a drama on the general theme of a power struggle and its corrupting effect. Four politicians and a widow are preparing a coup d'etat, but they cannot agree who is supposed to be the new ruler after the revolution. The conspirators enter into numerous ad hoc arrangements amongst themselves on the basis of plotting behind other people's backs. Several times during the play, coalitions of three or four conspirators are created, but they are immediately betrayed to the missing members of the team. Once everyone learns that the latest conspiracy has been betrayed, everyone changes their tune. Constant, changeable hypocrisy is the main theme of the play. Nobody can ever be sure who supports whom because nobody is willing to adhere to a consistent view for any length of time. All attitudes are therefore absolutely changeable and relative.
In April 1975, Havel wrote a courageous "Dopis Gustávu Husákovi" (A Letter to Gustáv Husák), which was in effect a long political essay, brilliantly analysing the post-invasion regime in Czechoslovakia, over which Dr. Gustáv Husák, the General Secretary of the now fully pro-Soviet Czechoslovak Communist party, presided over. Havel argued in the letter that all life in Husák's Czechoslovakia was based on empty rituals and hypocrisy and that the primary motivation of all people's actions was fear. People are afraid of losing their jobs for political reasons, argued Havel, and society is basically run by the omnipresent and all-powerful secret police. Selfishness, indifference and superficial adaptation to the status quo are becoming the salient features of Czech society. Havel warned that the "current castration of Czech culture" would lead to "a profound spiritual and moral impotence of the Czech nation in future". Those who have sacrificed the spiritual future of the nation to their yearning for power will bear a burden of considerable historical guilt.
Havel's play Žebrácká opera (The Beggars' Opera, 1975) is a sophisticated and amusing version of an English opera burlesque by John Gay (1685-1732). It again deals with Havel's favourite theme: the loss of human identity and integrity as a result of multiple lying, blackmailing and manipulation. Language is again the instrument of hypocrisy. In Havel's Žebrácká opera Peachum and Macheath are the bosses of competing thieves' organisations in London. Peachum is trying to persuade his daughter Polly to seduce and perhaps even to marry Macheath so that she could be Peachum's spy in Macheath's camp. But Polly falls in love with Macheath, so in cooperation with the chief of police Lockit Peachum arranges that Macheath should be arrested. It turns out that Peachum is Lockit's long-term collaborator. Peachum has built up his organisation of thieves so that the London police would have it under direct control. At least that is what Peachum tells Lockit; on the other hand, he tells the members of his thieving organisation that he only pretends that he is collaborating with Lockit. It is impossible to say what is the truth.
Instead of having Macheath executed, Lockit is interested in something else. He wants to master Macheath's soul. He demands that Macheath should merge his organisation of thieves with Peachum's organisation, so that Macheath could report on Peachum to Lockit just as Peachum reports to Lockit on Macheath. Thus both bosses of the two thieves' organisations find themselves in a police trap from which they cannot escape.
Just as in other plays by Havel, even here there is a character of an uncompromising idealist, the "independent pickpocket" Filch, who first wants to join Peachum's organisation because he highly esteems him. Soon, however, he discovers that Peachum's life is full of compromises and so, disgusted, he leaves his organisation. He is arrested but does not want to relinquish his ideals even in prison, and so he is executed. In an atmosphere of widespread hypocrisy Filch's obstinate faith in principles seems absurd.
Žebrácká opera is again a critique of language. Its protagonists use a modern, pseudo-scientific, seemingly rational jargon which hides a reality which people would not be willing to accept if it was described in plain speech as what it really is.
A group of Havel's threatre friends performed Žebrácká opera in a public hall in Horní Pocernice, on the outskirts of Prague on 1st November 1975 for a closed gathering of some 300 guests. When the secret police learnt about it later, the communist authorities staged a hysterical witchhunt against the organisers, performers and the audience. The authorities went to such extremes that they for instance sacked an actress from an officially permitted theatrical production because her father had attended the Horní Pocernice performance and they banned a play for children because they had found out that a few members of the audience, previously present at Horní Pocernice, had gone to see it. The fury of the communist regime was perhaps understandable: neostalinism aspired fully to control the whole public sphere of life. Once it had turned several hundred writers and other thousands of intellectuals into non-persons, it expected that they would remain outside society. It was not permissible for them to organise alternative public gatherings and appearances. The regime saw this as a direct threat to its power monopoly.
Although Havel's play Horský hotel (The Mountain Hotel) was not completed until 1976, thematically it seems to belong to an earlier stage of Havel's dramatic writing than the popular one-act plays Vernisáž (Private View) and Audience, which were written in 1975. In Horský hotel, Havel attempted to "complete and close one particular stage of my earlier theatrical experimentation". Horský hotel is an "experimental composition of movement and speech". Thirteen characters sit around a garden of a mountain hotel. Their cliché-like statements repeat themselves, slowly freeing themselves of the individual characters of the play. A whirlwind of absurd pronouncements gradually takes off: all the characters mechanically repeat at random all that has already been spoken. Havel tried to test in this play to what extent statements which emancipate themselves from the characters that make them can forge independent meaning. The play again deals with the loss of human identity due to mechanised and stereotyped living.
The one-act plays from the 1970s Audience (1975), Vernisáž (1975) and Protest (1978) rank among the most successful of Havel's dramatic pieces; maybe because they were based on the author's direct experience of ordinary life in Czechoslovakia at this time and this direct experience weakened Havel's tendency to create theoretical, almost mathematical models of reality. It is perhaps symptomatic that Havel did not make great preparations for the writing of these plays: he just wrote them "quickly and with gusto, originally only to entertain my friends". By the fall of communism in 1989, Audience and Vernisáž had been staged more than forty times in more than eleven countries, thus becoming the most often produced plays by Václav Havel.
Havel's dissident life in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s was an inspiration for these plays up to a point. Audience for instance includes Havel's experience from working in the brewery in the town of Trutnov in Northern Bohemia. The plays however also have a strong general meaning, as a result of which they resonate with the experience of audiences in many countries of the world.
The hero of Audience is a banned writer named Ferdinand Vanek. He works in a brewery where he rolls casks. His superior, the Head Maltster, invites him for a talk to his office. The Head Maltster talks to Vanek informally and in a friendly fashion; however, the writer feels nervous. He has been torn out of his (middle-class) environment, he finds it difficult to get used to working class habits (drinking large amounts of beer) and he cannot be sure whether his superior will not come up with some nasty trick sooner or later. The trick of course duly appears. It is an extraordinary proposal. The Head Maltster is under pressure from the secret police to write regular reports on the banned writer, but he is incapable of this. He therefore proposes a private little conspiracy: Vanek should write the reports for the police himself. The play deals with the same hypocrisy which Havel examined in some of his previous plays. By denying objective moral values and by making everything seem relative one obtains an advantage over one's rivals. The problem is that at the same time, one negates one's individual identity.
Vanek refuses to take part in the conspiracy, thus eliciting a long accusatory speech from the Head Maltster. The speech shows how ambiguous is the position of dissidents in society. By assuming a heroic, uncompromising moral stance they have isolated themselves from the "morally fragile" majority of society. In addition, Audience (and also Vernisáž) shows the subconscious desire of the "ordinary people" to reabsorb the dissidents into "normal", i.e. politically compromised, majority community so that the dissidents would cease being a living reprimand for them. Apart from the primary political meaning of the play and its authentic rendition of the overall social atmosphere in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Audience has a more general meaning: it deals with the primary and insoluble problem of human inequality. Although they feel realistic, Havel's one-act plays are structurally related to Havel's previous work, written in the genre of the absurd theatre. Both Audience and Vernisáž have a circular structure: scraps of conversation are again regularly repeated.
In Vernisáž, another dissident writer, Bedrich, comes for a visit to a successful middle-class family. The head of the family, Michal, is able freely to travel to the West - this in the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s meant that he was a collaborator with the communist regime. But this issue remains in the background. The middle-class couple, Michal and Vera, are trying hard to impress Bedrich with their consumerist way of life. They take him on a tour of their newly decorated flat, filled with unusual objects d'art, treat him to unusual food, tell him enthusiastically about their way of life and even offer to show him how they make love. They do not like Bedrich's casual attitude to life and want to change his ways. When Bedrich first refuses to succumb to this, the hosts are affronted and Vera throws a hysterical tantrum. The audience realises that the consumerist existence of the middle-class couple is absolutely empty. Michal and Vera's lives are only defined in relation to their dissident friend Bedrich whose life they are trying to master.
All of Havel's one-act plays from the 1970s probe the complex relationship of "ordinary people" to the Czech dissident community. Havel's third one-act play, Protest, was written in 1978. Here, the dissident author Vanek is invited to visit an oficially recognised, establishment writer Stanek. Stanek wishes to use Vanek almost like an official institution, working in defence of human rights. Stanek asks Vanek to write a petition, demanding the release of the imprisoned musician Javurek. Stanek does not do this out of public spiritedness, but, typically, out of personal, particular interest: Stanek's daughter is pregnant by Javurek. It turns out that Vanek has a petition ready - just now, he is collecting signatures for it. He asks Stanek to sign it, but Stanek refuses. He embarks upon a long monologue in order to explain why it would be detrimental to Javurek's cause if he signed the petition. Language is again the main theme of this play - language as an instrument of alibism and pseudorational argumentation.
In the second half of the 1970s Havel became a major defender of human rights in Czechoslovakia. In August 1976 he was one of the signatories of a letter addressed to the German writer Heinrich Böll, asking him to show solidarity with members of Czech underground music bands The Plastic People of the Universe and DG307, who had been put on trial by the communist authorities. The suppression of these musicians mobilised a number of Czech independent intellectuals and this gradually led to the setting up of the human rights movement Charter 77.
As a result of détente between East and West, at the 1975 international summit in Helsinki, the Soviet bloc countries including Czechoslovakia pledged to observe human rights. They signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These rights became part of Czechoslovak law on 23 March 1976, but Czechoslovakia still failed to adhere to them. For instance, although the Covenants guaranteed the right to free movement and the right to free speech, it was still practically impossible for most Czechoslovaks to travel abroad and western radio broadcasts in Czech and Slovak were still fiercely jammed. In January 1977, a human rights movement, called Charta 77 (Charter 77) was launched in Prague. Charter 77 was very careful not to call itself an organisation or a political party because then it would be liable to prosecution under Czechoslovak Law. Charter 77 described itself as a loose grouping of committed citizens who wished to enter a dialogue with the political authorities. In its founding declaration it respectfully pointed to the fact that Czechoslovakia failed to observe the above mentioned international covenants and that the regime in Czechoslovakia was based on a rule of fear. Václav Havel was a co-founder of Charter 77. He was also one of its first three spokespersons.
The communist regime was caught on the hop by this initiative and it reacted ferociously. Neither the Charter 77 founding document, nor any other subsequent Charter 77 documents were ever published in Czechoslovakia under communist rule. When the three spokespersons were on their way to deliver the petition to the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly on 6th January, 1977, they were ambushed in the streets of Prague by the Czech police and taken at gunpoint for questioning. The regime started one of its fierce propagandist political campaigns in the media. It forced practically the whole population to sign documents condemning Charter 77 (without allowing people to read its founding declaration), it seriously harrassed Charter 77 signatories and it succeeded in isolating these dissidents from the majority of the nation. 243 individuals signed the Charter 77 Founding Declaration; in all, only 1886 Czechoslovak citizens joined Charter 77 before the fall of communism in November 1989. A discussion was started by a Charter 77 signatory, writer Ludvík Vaculík, who wondered whether Charter 77 did not demand too much of the Czech population: surely people cannot be asked to behave as heroes: they cannot be asked to jeopardise their lives and their existence. In his contribution to this debate, Václav Havel rejected Vaculík's arguments, pointing out that there are values for which it is always worth while to stand up.
In October 1978, Václav Havel wrote "Moc bezmocných" ("The Power of the Powerless") which ranks among the best analytical essays on the nature of the communist regime. In much of his political and philosophical writing, Václav Havel was influenced by the Czech phenomenologist philosopher, Jan Patocka (1907 - 1977), who was one of the first spokespersons of Charter 77 and who the Czech secret police interrogated to death on 13th March, 1977.
In "Moc bezmocných" Havel argues that the subjugated always have, within themselves, the power to improve their situation and if they do not do so, they are the cause of their own oppression. In a totalitarian communist state, the power is not divided between the rulers and the ruled, but every citizen contributes in a certain measure to the functioning of the totalitarian monolith. However, it is possible to start dismantling the totalitarian system from within by deciding to "live in truth" - to repudiate the institutional lie and to create independent, "anti-political", non-violent, authentic structures like Charter 77 that run parallel to the communist state. Havel argued that the structures of the totalitarian state would gradually dissolve in the emerging non-political structures of the "parallel polis". The essay "Moc bezmocných" became a debating point in many East European societies - for instance some of the future leaders of the Solidarity trade union used its argument as theoretical background for its actions. As a political thinker, Havel was always wary of the role of the political parties in society. Even in the 1990s, as the Czech President, he tried to encourage civic political activity outside the system of political parties.
Among other things, in "Moc bezmocných" Havel brilliantly explained the role of pro-regime political slogans, displayed in public places under communism:
"The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: 'Workers of the World, Unite!' Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicatre to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? (...) I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. Obviously, the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on the exhibit. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or signifigance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: 'I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.' The message is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers.
If the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, 'I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient', he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrased and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, 'What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?' Thus the sign helps the grengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology."
Especially after the launch of Charter 77, Havel was frequently harassed by the police. In January - May 1977 he was in detention, in October 1977 he was given a fourteen-month suspended sentence for "damaging the interests of Czechoslovakia abroad", in January 1978 he was arrested with friends when trying to attend a railwaymans' ball in Prague and was held in detention until March 1978.
In April, 1978, Havel became a co-founder of Výbor na obranu nespravedlive stíhaných, the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted. The Committee gathered together information about human rights abuses committed by the Czechoslovak police and published it. As a result, the members of the Committee became prime targets of secret police wrath. In 1978-1979, Havel was held under house arrest for six months. On 29th May, 1979 he was arrested, held in pre-trial detention until October 1979 and then, he was sentenced for the subversion of the Republic for four and a half years' imprisonment. His co-defendants were human rights activists Petr Uhl, Jirí Dienstbier, Otka Bednárová, Václav Benda and Jana Nemcová. Before his trial, Havel was given leave to emigrate. He declined. Under the harsh conditions of communist penitentiaries, the prison spell was an incredibly difficult ordeal for Havel. Three and a half years later, in March 1983, in danger of his life, he was released from prison as a result of international pressure. He had fallen seriously ill with pneumonia, which remained untreated.
While in prison, Havel wrote Dopisy Olze (Letters to Olga, first published in samizdat in Prague in 1983, in book form published in Toronto, 68 Publishers, 1985) a collection of almost 150, written weekly to his wife. In composing these letters, Havel had to grapple with strict, absurd rules imposed on the prisoners' letter writing by the prison governor. He was forbidden from writing about life in prison. He was forbidden from making jokes. He was even barred from using inverted commas and from underlining words. In the course of time, Havel learned that simple, intelligible letters were almost always intercepted: only convoluted, almost incomprehensible letters had a chance of slipping through the net. In defence, Havel says he deliberately adopted a convoluted and impenetrable style and discussed philosophy and the essence of being.
Havel's play Largo desolato (1984, published in Munich: Poezie mimo domov, 1985) was strongly influenced by his harrowing prison experiences as well as a deep bout of post-prison depression which affected him at that time, partially because his marriage almost broke down at that point: his wife Olga almost left him because of Havel's repeated extra-marital relationships with other women.
Largo desolato was written in July 1984 within a mere four days: the speed may have been influenced by the fear that the manuscript could be confiscated by the police. John Keane argues that Largo desolato is a "comic parable about the condition of powerlessness, about what life is like when the individual finally crumbles under the weight of all-consuming power - a tragicomic picture of what happens when the power of the individual to think, speak and act in the world is utterly routed by personal and political failure". Even in this play, Havel examines the relationship between the dissident and the "ordinary", non-dissident majority society, which has intolerably high expectations of human rights activists, rather than acting on its own behalf.
The hero of Largo desolato, dissident philosopher Leopold Kopriva (Nettles) is a nervous wreck after continual secret police harrassment and probably also a spell in prison. He hardly does anything else but passively sits in his living room, listening whether the secret police are about to pay him a visit, or obsessively preoccupying himself with his state of health. He almost never goes out because "what if they came and I was not at home"? In spite of his difficult psychological condition, many people place burdensome demands on him. Each of his friends and acquaintances make him to conform to their own image and expect him to behave accordingly. For instance, "Two Ládas", workmen from a paper mill, come to visit Kopriva. They see in him a political spokesperson of ordinary people who has an almost superhuman power. They expect him to accomplish deeds of which they themselves are not capable. Pompous dissident intellectual Olbram demands of Kopriva to "fulfill his duty" and to act the way it is expected of him by the dissident ghetto. In the second half of the play, two secret policemen visit Kopriva and make him an offer: if he signs a document in which he will renounce his past and his personal identity (denying that he is the author of his own philosophical writings) he will not have to go to prison. Kopriva does not refuse to sign the document straigt away - he wishes to think about it. Thus he is despised by his partner Zuzana, who is disappointed by his "cowardice". Later on, the secret police tell Kopriva that his signature is no longer needed: the authorities have realised that his personal identity has already fully disintegrated.
Quite unsurprisingly, the periods spent in prison were for Havel very traumatic. When he was in detention after the launch of Charter 77 in 1977, he, as he says, "fell victim to curious, almost psychotic moods". He did not know what was happening in the outside world and only saw the hysterical official media campaign, directed against Charter 77 and its signatories. He fell under the impression that he had acted irresponsibly and that by helping to bring Charter 77 into being, he endangered other people. He mentioned this briefly in one of his appeals against detention - only to find that the police immediately distorted it, spreading the news that he allegedly regretted his role in Charter 77. Later, Havel confessed that he felt he had been "tempted by the devil" during this period.
Maybe in order to exorcise this experience, Havel wrote a Faustian play Pokoušení (Temptation, 1985, printed in Munich, Poezie mimo Domov, 1986). It is a mature and eminently watchable play, filled with tension as a result of the presence of a rationally unexplained motif of a supernatural mystery. The play takes place in an institute whose task it is to fight mystical influences in socialist society. Dr. Foustka, an employee of the institute who privately studies magic, is visited at home by a man called Fistula, a strange individual, smelling of sulphur. Throughout the play it is not certain whether Fistula is or is not the devil. Fistula offers Foustka to help him with his research in the area of black magic. Typically for communism and for Havel's plays, Foustka accepts this offer only partially: in order to avoid problems at work, he pretends that he wants to study black magic in order to be able to fight against it more efficiently. This is how he defends himself when his superious at work learn about his contacts with Fistula. Foustka also succumbs to the hypocrisy, verbal relativism and the attempts to manipulate his fellow human beings by lies - the ways of behaviour which Havel criticised in many of his plays. Even Pokoušení has a typical Havelesque naive idealist: secretary Markéta who falls in love with Foustka and tries, selflessly, to defend him in front of the head of the institute. She is fired and ends up in a lunatic asylum. Towards the end of the play it becomes evident that Fistula was the institute's head's agent provocateur. The head of the institute, affecting everything with his destructive force, is the main "devil" of the piece. In this situation, Foustka realises that it is pernicious to lie and to serve two masters at the same time. In the dehumanised environment of the institute he is destroyed when he decided uncompromisingly to defend objective moral values.
Rightly or wrongly, in the late 1980s the Czech dissidents were viewing Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalising attempts in the Soviet Union with a considerable amount of scepticism. Havel's tragicomedy Asanace (Redevelopment, 1988) seems to be an expression of this scepticism and a reflection of the stagnant political situation in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1980s. Asanace is a parody of the repeated, abortive attempts of communist rulers to bring about liberalisation.
Asanace takes place at a mediaeval castle where a team of architects is preparing plans for the redevelopment of an ancient town at the foot of the castle. The team is headed by director Zdenek Bergman, but a mysterious Secretary is the real power wielder. A couple of visitors from the town at the foot of the castle visit Bergman, bringing him a petition demanding that the plans for redevelopment should be scrapped. Bergman explains that he cannot go against official decision-making but that for technical reasons, the redevelopment of the town is highly unlikely anyway. When the Secretary learns about the supplicants, he submits them to an interrogation and throws them into the castle prison.
Asanace takes place in a spacious castle hall. In the rear part of the stage there are several doors to which various staircases lead. At certain key moments, the Secretary begins running up and down these stairs, entering various doors and coming out of others. This comic element indicates a change in the political leadership as well as a change in the overall political line at the castle.
When the first major political change takes place, the Secretary introduces a new Inspector to the architects. The Inspector is a cruel parody of Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Dubcek. He uses jovial but primitive language. The Inspector tells the architects that he knows they have been suffering from oppression. But he is bringing the end of oppression: the redevelopment project, the only purpose of which was to enslave people, will be scrapped.
The architects are enthusiastic, but on the following day, the Secretary introduces the Second Inspector to them. The Second Inspector reads out a speech, explaining that the reforms proposed by the First Inspector were too daring and had caused chaos and anarchy. That is why it will be necessary to return to the old practices, but with "a new dynamicism". The redevelopment project will continue and those who would wish to disagree will be punished.
Then the Second Inspector appears again and reads another speech. Apparently, it is impossible to realise the redevelopment project, due to the "boulder of stagnation". The Second Inspector remarks off the cuff that "obviously, it is not possible to proceed without freedom". He calls on the architects "freely to seek out new, unconventional methods". But in spite of his talk about freedom, the two supplicants from the beginning of the play remain in the castle prison. Understandably, the architects remain sceptical and devote themselves to their own private affairs. At the end of the play, one idealist amongst the architects, Kuzma Plekhanov, commits suicide.
Charter 77 meant among other things that the alternative Czech (samizdat) literary scene developed very rapidly from the second half of the 1970s. Several samizdat, typewritten series were set up. Many of these titles were then reprinted by the Czech emigré publishing houses in the West, such as Josef and Zdena Škvorecký's 68 Publishers in Toronto, Canada. Along with other dissident intelectuals, Havel was a prime mover behind many samizdat publishing ventures. From 1987, he became a member of the editorial board of a slightly different, new samizdat monthly, Lidové noviny (The People's Paper). The Lidové noviny monthly was produced on a modern copying machine from the beginning of 1988 in an attempt to restart the tradition of a serious interwar daily newspaper. It had a wider circulation than earlier samizdat periodicals and was an attempt by the dissident community to address a wider public. After the fall of communism, Lidové noviny became a daily, although the original plan to turn it into a high quality intellectual newspaper did not succeed.
In September 1988, Havel appeared for the first time in nineteen years in public, at a folk music festival in Lipnice nad Sázavou. From the second half of 1988, independent anti-regime activities were increasing, in spite of police pressure. Havel came to be regarded as the leader of the independent movement. He was still occasionally detained for a few days at a time, for instance in October 1988 and in November 1988.
Zítra to spustíme, (Tomorrow is the day, 1988) is the last play that Havel ever wrote. It is a "historical meditation in five acts" about the events around 28th October 1918, when interwar democratic Czechoslovakia was founded on the debris of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A shortened version of the play was staged anonymously on 21st October 1988 as part of the production of the "theatre periodical" Rozrazil (Speedwell) 1/88, (O demokracii, On democracy) which was a joint project of two Brno fringe theatres Divadlo na provázku (The Theatre on a Shoestring) and HA-divadlo (HA-Theatre).
On 10th December, 1988, the Human Rights Day, Havel was allowed to give a first public speech at a gathering which took place at Škroupovo námestí, a small square outside the Prague city centre. In January 1989, demonstrations took place in Prague, commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the immolation of Jan Palach, who killed himself in January 1969 in protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion and the erosion of freedoms. The police acted quite brutally against the demonstrators and the demonstrations developed into a week-long running battle with the authorities. During these demonstrations, Václav Havel was arrested at Prague's Wenceslas Square while attempting to lay flowers there and was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. As a result of widespread international protest, he was conditionally released in May 1989. In June 1989, he became a main initiator of a new petition, Nekolik vet (Just a few sentences), demanding political freedoms, which was signed by several tens of thousand Czechoslovak citizens.
In October 1989, Havel was again temporarily detained for a few days. During the so-called "Velvet Revolution", which started on 17th November 1989 with a student demonstration, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the decision made by the German Nazi occupiers to close down Czech universities and to execute several students, Havel was not in Prague. But he quickly returned and on 19th November 1989, he invited members of a number of oppositionist groups, which on his initiative set up a new citizens' umbrella group, Obcanské fórum, the Civic Forum. Within this group, Havel quickly became a leading personality. He took part - with others - in negotiations with the departing representatives of the communist regime. He became a major figure of the revolution when he addressed demonstrations of several thousand citizens in Wenceslas Square in Prague from Tuesday 21st November 1989 onwards. On 29th December, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovak President.
With the fall of communism, a new era began in Václav Havel's life, which was in many respects perhaps even tougher than his previous existence of writer, playright and dissident. As the president of the newly freed, democratic Czechoslovakia, Havel became the target of immense adulation, both home and abroad. Andrew Stroehlein has pointed out that for a long time, Václav Havel fulfilled the role of a Christ-like Saviour to the Czech nation. The argument seems to have gone as follows: "We may have collaborated with communism under the previous regime, but our President, Václav Havel, who was fiercely persecuted by the communists, is not angry with us. So we are all right, aren't we?"
Reality after the fall of communism was confusing, very few people had experience of life from the "real world" and President Havel at the Prague Castle was not infallible. Some critics point to the fact that Havel may have contributed to the eventual division of Czechoslovakia into two independent states, Czech Republic and Slovakia by the end of 1992, due to a somewhat clumsy handling of the issue of Czecho-Slovak relations. Like an almost royal figure, Havel as president generally remained above party politics after fully fledged political parties were established in Czechoslovakia and usually exercised diplomatic caution in his relations with politicians. It has been difficult, however, for him to suppress the difference of opinion between himself and the Czechoslovak/Czech right-wing premier, economist Václav Klaus, who and whose Civic Democratic Party (ODS) dominated Czech politics between 1992 - 1996. When in the second half of the 1990s Klausian politics ran aground and it turned out that Klaus's economic "reforms" were far from faultless, Havel's reputation seems to have been affected by the general disorientation and discontent of the Czech citizens. Havel's well-loved, no-nonsense wife Olga died of cancer in January 1996. In that year, Havel himself became seriously ill with lung cancer and almost died. The dramatic history of his treatment by Prague doctors had tragicomic aspects. In a confusing situation, Havel's life was saved by his friend, the actress Dagmar Veškrnová, a lady who is much younger than he is, whom Havel married shortly after being released from hospital in January 1997. Dagmar Veškrnová is regarded as a controversial figure by the Czech public and Havel's reputation went down in the eyes of the Czech public as a result of his second marriage. His reputation was also lessened somewhat due to various lawsuits (one of them against the authors of a satirical billboard, mocking Havel and his new wife), controversies about property (the Lucerna Palace) and various political controversies. For instance, in January 1998 Václav Havel was re-elected Czech President by a majority of a single vote, while a parliamentary deputy an extremist nationalist party, who would have never voted for Havel, was temporarily detained in prison. Although President Havel was supposed to be above party politics, he occasionaly tried to make political moves in Czech public life and these tended to be criticised from party political positions. Nevertheless, Havel used his unique international position in order to try to incorporate the Czech Republic firmly within the Western political, economic and miliatry structures. In March 1999, he suceeded almost single-handed in making the Czech Republic a member of the NATO alliance.
Throughout his life, Václav Havel has played an important cultural, literary and political role in his country and gradually came to be regarded as an extremely important cultural and political figure not only within Central Europe, but also internationally. It is perhaps only to be regretted since becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, his literary activities have receded into the background.