Vaclav Havel

Jan Culik, The Scotsman, December 1989

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936 into an affluent Prague family. His grandfather had been a self-made man, an architect and enterpreneur who put up a number of important buildings in Prague at the turn of the century. Havel's father, also an architect, followed in his father's footsteps. Before and during the war, Havel's uncle ran a large film production company in Czechoslovakia.

Vaclav Havel has always regarded his privileged background as a bit of a disadvantage: in his childhood, it created barriers between himself and other children, barriers he found difficult to overcome. As a result, he became an egalitarian, deeply suspicious of unearned privilege.

After the 1948 communist takeover, Havel's affluent background became a truly serious handicap. Thus, for most of his life, he has been forced to live as an outsider. In the 1950s, he was denied access to higher education and sent to the army. While doing his national service in an engineering unit, he and some other "political unreliables" wrote and staged a mock heroic socialist-realist play. They won a number of army competitions with this play until a political officer consulted their personal files, discovered their "unhealthy origins" and "unmasked" them.

In 1960, Havel joined the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague, first as a stage hand, but soon becoming the theatre's resident writer. Three plays by Havel were premiered On the Balustrade in the liberal 1960s, achieving international acclaim. In this period, Havel emerged as the most important exponent of East European absurd drama.

Unlike Western absurd drama, often theoretical and abstruse, Havel's plays deal with the here and now, satirising the all-pervasive bureaucratisation of life under communism and showing how the way the system dehumanises those who choose to become part of it. The hero of Havel's first full-length play, The Garden Party (1963), for instance embarks on constructing a career within the ruling structures, and quickly rises to the top, thanks to his ability to adapt to the meaningless jargon reigning in the corridors of power.

In the late 1960s, Havel was one of many prominent Czechoslovak intellectuals pressing for political reform. Soon after the Warsaw Pact invasion, his work was banned in Czechoslovakia - the predicament of many Czech writers after 1968. Havel's human rights work began in the early 1970s, this activity reaching a climax in 1977, when he, in conjunction with several colleagues, founded Charter 77, a loose grouping of concerned citizens wishing to enter into dialogue with the authorities over the government's non-observance of the international human rights covenants.

Havel's plays from the 1970s and 1980s mostly examine the Establishment from the point of view of the dissident outsider. Last year, one of Havel's most widely acclaimed works, the one-act Audience (1975), a dialogue between a banned writer who works as a labourer in a brewery and his drunken boss, the brewmaster, was successfully performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Glasgow's Mayfest. In Czechoslovakia, this play has entered popular folkore. Havel would overhear snippets of this work in pubs in people's conversations, although until this month, it had never been staged nor published there.

In 1979, Havel was sentenced to four and a half years' imprisonment for his association with VONS, the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted - an off-shoot of Charter 77 which has been documenting the illegal harassment of citizens. Before his trial, he was given leave to emigrate. He declined. Three and a half years later, in danger of his life, he was released from prison as a direct result of international pressure. He had fallen seriously ill with pneumonia, which remained untreated. While in prison, Havel wrote his famous Letters to Olga, 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 deliberately adopted a convoluted and impenetrable style. In spite of this, the letters were read avidly by Havel's friends. They were later published in the West both in Czech as well as other languages.

In January 1989, during the demonstrations in Prague to mark the twentieth anniversary of the immolation of Jan Palach, Havel was once again arrested and in an overt act of revenge by the authorities sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. His "crime" was to have attempted to lay flowers at Wenceslas Square in memory of Jan Palach. He was conditionally released four months later as a result of widespread protest, both within Czechoslovakia and abroad. In the summer of 1989, Havel took part in organising the petition "Just a few sentences", which called on the government to introduce liberal reforms. Prior to the November revolution, the petition had been signed by more than 40,000 Czechoslovak citizens.

Over the years, Havel was continually harassed by the police. The situation became so absurd that in December 1988, he was forced to carry his toothbrush even to his Prague meeting with President Mitterand: he could not be sure whether he would not be arrested en route to meet the President or on his way home. A simple thing, but his time spent in prison had taught him little tricks for survival - the psychological importance of having a toothbrush in prison.

Throughout the seventies and eighties, Havel wrote a number of essays, political articles and open letters, showing himself to be a man of profound insight and sensitivity. A selection of these essays form the basis of the commemorative volume Vaclav Havel or Living in Truth (Faber and Faber), which is coming out now in paperback.

Arguably the most important essay in this volume is "The Power of the Powerless", written in 1978. Here Havel presents a thought-provoking analysis of a typical East European regime prior to Gorbachev's revolution. He argues that the pre-Gorbachevian East European states were in no way similar to traditional dictatorships. They usurped all means of production and employment, thus wielding absolute control over their citizens. There was no sharp dividing line between rulers and subjugated. In order to be left in peace, every citizen was required to perform certain political rituals. Thus everyone was rendered both victim and supporter of the system. The greengrocer who displayed a notice among his stock "Workers of the world, unite!" was actually saying "Please, leave me in peace: I am willing to do whatever you want".

Havel is a supporter of "antipolitical politics", believing the only remedy for the world's ills to be a re-introduction of the ethical and moral norms as the guiding principles in people's lives. He does not regard the Western party political system as an ideal model. Personally, he would prefer an arrangement whereby politicians would be elected into positions of power on individual merit, rather than members of political parties, thus being fully accountable for all their actions. Havel's current enormous popularity in Czechoslovakia stems from the fact that for decades, disregarding the overwhelming odds against him, he has consistently and publicly spoken the truth. In a system which is based on an official lie, the word of truth has an electrifying force.

Havel has no desire to become a professional politician. He regards himself merely as a "committed citizen", an "involved on-looker". He refuses to be bound by party loyalty or by the rules of political expediency. He sees himself primarily as a playwright, as somebody whose role it is to bear witness to the world, exposing its ills and formulating disturbing questions, rather than providing ready-made answers. He feels ill at ease that he has now become the living symbol of the current Czechoslovak "velvet revolution". He emphasises that it is up to ordinary people to decide the shape the future Czechoslovakia should take. It would be dangerous for them to rely on a single leader. Reluctantly, he has now agreed to accept the post of caretaker president - if offered - until the general elections which are due to take place next year. Then he plans to return to his own arena - the world of the theatre.