Václav Havel led Czechoslovakia to democracy and remains perhaps the best known Czech political figure of modern times. But before spearheading the Velvet Revolution, he was of course a world-renowned playwright. History interrupted Havel’s original career for two decades, but now the former president has returned to drama, with the long-awaited premiere of his new play Leaving taking place in Prague later this month. To discuss the work of Václav Havel, I recently went to New York University to meet academic Carol Rocamora, author of the 2005 book Acts of Courage: Václav Havel’s Life in the Theatre.
“Havel was very strongly influenced, and he is the first to say this, by Beckett and Ionesco. Of course, those works were banned in Prague at the time. But fortunately, Havel and his friends, the ‘36ers’, who hung out at the Café Slavia, sat at a table and at the adjacent table were poets of an earlier generation.
“They brought in smuggled, banned copies of Beckett and Ionesco translated from the French to the Czech. In addition they brought in Kafka translated from the German to the Czech, ironically, and gave it to these younger poets and playwrights, so that Havel had a taste of Beckett and Ionesco and loved their work.
“You might say that the aesthetic, the sensibility of The Garden Party was Kafka meets Ionesco.”
What was the reaction to Havel’s first full-length play?
“The audience absolutely loved it. And they said, this is not Theatre of the Absurd, this is realism, this is Czech life as it is.”
Memorandum in 1965 features a kind of artificial language. I’m presuming that was a reflection on the communist system.
“The name of the language is Ptydepe. It was actually a made-up language that Havel and his brother Ivan made up together – Ivan, like Václav, is a philosopher – as a joke.
“Memorandum is a wonderful play about a director of some mysterious institute. Of course, we never know what it is or where it is, Kafka-style.
“A director comes into his office one day and is given a memorandum by his secretary and finds it’s in a language that he doesn’t understand. He asks his secretary, what is this? She says, it’s the new institutional language that’s now required that we all speak, Ptydepe. And, by the way, you have to write all your memoranda henceforth in Ptydepe.
“Says Mr Gross, how can I do that, I don’t know how to speak it? Says the secretary, have no worry, we’ll send you to Ptydepe classes. But first you have to write a memorandum in Ptydepe, requesting that you can take a course to learn Ptydepe. Hence the absurdism.”
That does sound like Kafka.
Havel later wrote a series of one-act plays like Protest and Audience, in which the protagonist Vaněk is a dissident playwright, in trouble with the authorities. Obviously that character is based on Havel himself, but how closely is it based on Václav Havel?
“It depends on who you ask. If you ask President Havel himself, he will say, oh no, he’s just a playwright, just a dissident. His friends, who of course know and admire him, would say it’s very closely based on Havel.
“The first one Audience, written in 1975, is about the experience that Vaněk, a dissident who is working in a brewery…an incident that occurred one day when he is called into the foreman of the brewery’s office.
“The foreman makes him an amazing proposition. Sládek says, you’ve kept out of trouble, I gave you a job, you’ve been working in the basement, rolling kegs of beer with the Gypsies. Now I’m going to promote you to manager of the floor, etc., you can have a good job, you won’t have to work with the Gypsies any more. And you can even have an hour off for lunch, and you can write one of those funny plays that you write. What do you think, Vaněk? Vaněk says, Mr Sládek, thank you so much.
“Now, says Sládek, you know how it is these days, you do something for me, I’ll do something for you. I want you to do me a favour.
“Of course, I’ll do what I can, Mr Sládek, what is the favour? Well, Vaněk, you know the StB, the secret police, they’ve been checking up on you and they come by every week. Now the office who’s been assigned to check up on you happens to be an old buddy of mine. And you know, I want to help him out and give him some information about you. So would it be OK if you just write some information, informing about yourself every week. Give it to me and I’ll pass it on to my buddy in the StB and he’ll get a promotion, just like you’re getting a promotion.
“So Vaněk thinks about it for a minute and he says, I’m sorry Mr Sládek, I cannot inform on anyone, not even myself.
“That was read at a summer festival up in Hrádeček [Havel’s country cottage] by the Divadlo na tahu, Andrej Krob’s amateur theatre company dedicated to the works of Václav Havel. Andrej Krob himself read the role of Sládek, Havel read the role of Vaněk, and it met with a wonderful response from the other writers at the festival that they urged him immediately to write another Vaněk play, which he called Vernisáž – which I think is translated as Private Viewing.
“The third Vaněk play Havel wrote in 1978 under very stressed conditions, he had just been released from prison after the first arrest because of Charter 77. He was involved in, under very pressured circumstances, involved in a myriad of activities.
“The most poignant moment, however, of the Vaněk trilogy occurred after Havel went to prison, when he was sentenced in 1979 to four and a half years. While Havel was in prison not only were his Vaněk plays performed at the Public Theatre in New York, read on the BBC, performed at the Burgteatre in Vienna, but also several authors came forward – Pavel Kohout, Pavel Landovský and later Jiří Dienstbier – and they said, we’re going to borrow Vaněk, with your permission Václav Havel, and we’re going to write our own Vaněk and keep the character alive.
“There’s a wonderful quote from Achim Benning, the artistic director of the Burgtheater in Vienna. While Havel was in prison he put on the Vaněk plays at his theatre and after one of the performances he came out on stage and said to the audience, you can put Václav Havel in prison, but you can’t put Vaněk in prison!”
How big was Havel outside Czechoslovakia? And how long did it take him to become well known?
“Thanks to his agent Klaus Juncker of the Rowohlt Verlag in Hamburg, who signed Havel on in the mid ‘60s, by the end of the ‘60s Havel’s first three plays – The Garden Party, The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Communication – were being done frequently in West Germany.
“Then of course Havel was invited to New York by Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre during Papp’s inaugural season there. Papp directed The Memorandum and that play won an Obi award.
“So when Havel was sent to prison at the end of the ‘70s, Klaus Junker, who thanks to smuggling efforts led by many Czech, including Jiřina Šiklová…they were able to get Havel’s plays in the ‘70s out of Czechoslovakia and his plays were being frequently produced in Europe.
“Attention should be given to the three theatres which officially declared Václav Havel their playwright in residence during the dark years of his imprisonment, from ’79 to ’83: the Orange Tree Theatre in London, under the direction of Sam Walters, the Vienna Burgtheater under the direction of Achim Benning and Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in New York.”
How well do you think Václav Havel’s plays have stood the test of time?
“I think the exciting chapter in Havel’s life in the theatre is about to begin, because I think that Havel’s very significant body of dramatic work – which consists of 10 full-length plays and eight one-acts – is about to be appreciated for the prominent place it should have in the Theatre of the Absurd, in the European tradition.
“While they may not be frequently performed, I think as time goes on they will be recognised for the mirror they hold up to that extraordinary period in history, as well as for their dramaturgical value and the beauty and the integrity of their ideas.”
Very soon, Prague will see the premiere of the latest Havel play Odcházení, Leaving. Have you had a chance to read that yet?
“I have not, but I know my colleague Paul Wilson has done a translation into English, which I’m very eager to read. I’m very excited to hear about it.”
Finally Carol, what has drawn you personally to the work of Havel? And why did you call your book Acts of Courage?
“I as an American, and one who has worked in the American theatre for many years, think Václav Havel sets a precedent and a standard that is so admirable, for the courage it took for him to write those plays, and say what he wanted to say, and make the personal sacrifices he made, for his art and for his country.”