The late Václav Havel is now being remembered as a great statesman and human rights advocate. But he was also a prominent literary figure. In fact, before he became an opposition leader in communist Czechoslovakia, he was already established playwright whose plays appeared on stages worldwide. Václav Havel’s literary agent Jitka Sloupová, from the Aura Pont agency, talks about what inspired his dramas that quickly gained acclaim both at home and abroad.
“As a playwright, Václav Havel appeared at a time when the wave of absurdist theatre was culminating in the 1950s but was very much in fashion in the 1960s. His plays were absurdist but they were naturally absurdist because they reflected the reality of the ruling regime in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries. By that time, the regime was already in a crisis which made the elements of the absurd more visible; they were ridiculous at one moment and tragic at another.”
In his plays, Václav Havel used various elements of the regime that was around him, particularly its bureaucratic language. In one of his pieces, he even coined a term for that – ptydepe. Do you think that people in the West who had no direct experience with the communist regime, understand his plays?
“I think so because the plays were very successful. People in the Western world must have understood the mechanisms and the origins of these phenomena such as bureaucratic language manipulation, issues of personal character and coming to terms with extreme situations in which people are put. So I think his work resonated in western countries too even though we were very isolated at that time and only in the late 1960s, we could see what real life in the West was like.
“What’s very important is that his plays are still very topical and they return to stages of the world, particularly The Memorandum which I think is one of the masterpieces of absurdist drama.”
Before Václav Havel’s plays were banned in Czechoslovakia, they premiered at Prague’s Na Zábradlí theatre whereas many of their foreign premiers took place in Germany and other German-speaking countries. Did German theatre audiences have a special understanding of his work, compared to other countries?
“I’m not sure about that. As far as I know, they were accepted in the whole Western world. There were productions of his plays in France, the UK, the US, and many other countries. He was really the most successful Czech author of the 1960s,”
Do you think Czechs knew back then that he was an upcoming world literary star?
“Well, he was very young then, and his popularity and reputation was only emerging. I think he was also considered a slightly intellectual writer which was something that was not so visible or striking abroad.”
By the end of the 1960s, Havel’s plays were banned from public staging. How did he react as a writer? Did he change anything about his writing?
“In the first period, he continued with his model so to speak. I think he was hoping in secret that it would at one point be possible to stage them again. But later, he wrote very symbolic and darker plays than the previous ones. They were not openly political; they were about existential situations people found themselves in after some catastrophe. Plays such as Mountain Hotel and The Beggar’s Opera were different in this respect.
“But what had a very positive effect was the community around Václav Havel. For example, both of his most popular plays were written in the mid 1970s: Audience and Vernisage (or Private View). Both of them are one-act plays he wrote ‘privately’ for his friends to entertain them. I think it was very fruitful because he was not writing them for a certain theatre.
“After his imprisonment came another very productive period, the 1980s. At this time, Havel wrote Largo Desolato, Temptation and Redevelopment. These were again very topical but at the same time very deep in relation to the existential situation of the characters.”
By that time, he was already internationally renowned as a leader of Czechoslovakia’s opposition movement. Did it change the way he was perceived abroad?
“As far as the frequency of the staging of his plays went, there was not much difference because the plays he wrote in the 1980s were just as popular as those from the 60s, and they were staged a lot. But then came his involvement in politics, in the role of the Czechoslovak and later Czech president, and he couldn’t write a new play. So it gradually slowed down although there were cases when his plays were staged on the occasion of his visit. I remember he saw the Icelandic premier of Redevelopment and he really enjoyed these situations.”
Václav Havel wrote his last play, Leaving, five years after he left the office of the president. Was that a success?
“Yes. The premiere, which took place in the Archa Theatre in Prague in 2008 received high critical acclaim; the production by one of the best Czech directors, David Radok, came in second as best production of the year. The play itself was named best play of the year. I don’t remember the exact number of performances but there were more than 100 of them. So it was a huge success, and the play was also staged in regional theatres. Some of these productions were very good and took part in various festivals. The production in Hradec Králové was very good; it was done by Havel’s court director, Andrej Krob, and there was a very well received production in České Budějovice. So theatrically, it was very successful. Unfortunately, the critical reception was slightly marked by political aspects, I think.”
You mentioned Andrej Krob who directed most of Václav Havel’s plays after he was banned as a writer. Mr Krob staged them in all kinds of impromptu environments including Havel’s country house Hrádeček. Were there Havel specialists abroad as well who would stage his plays regularly?
“Sure – for example the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in London staged almost all of his plays in those 25 years or so that they were interested in his work. It’s a very special theatre; I’ve been there several times and saw some of their premieres – of course only after the Velvet Revolution because we couldn’t see any Havel plays for more than 20 years. They brought a perfect sense of dialogue into Havel’s plays which is essential to his work and also for the best traditions of British theatre.”
What kind of author was Václav Havel when it came to productions? Was he very particular about what directors were doing with his work?
“We can’t say really because in the last decades, he had very little time to work with directors on his plays, first because of his presidential role and than because of his poor health. His image as a playwright was that he was very strict. On the other hand, he was very happy about the productions done by Vladimír Morávek, an ‘angry young man’ from Brno who has his own very original style, and Havel was very generous about his adaptations. But in general, he always insisted that theatres do not change his plays. As his agents, we had to make sure that the theatres comply with this which was sometimes difficult.
“He was also very interested in acting and he understood a lot about how his plays were staged. He did not instruct directors or actors about what they should do but sometimes he was more satisfied and sometimes quite unsatisfied with what they did.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Václav Havel was one of several Czech writers who were banned. They could not officially publish at home but had income from their works published or staged abroad. How did it work for Václav Havel?
“He was very lucky in this respect because he met his agent as early as the 1960s. He was one of the people who really opened the doors to the world for Havel’s plays. His name was Klaus Juncker and he died recently as a very old man. He became a personal a personal friend of Václav Havel’s family. So he was represented by the German Rowohlt agency for more than 20 years and they still have his German rights.”
Czech papers report today that sales of Václav Havel’s books have skyrocketed since he died. Do you also expect an increased interest in his plays?
“It’s too early to say because we are still getting condolences from our colleagues abroad. But some of the translators let us know that their translations will be published in the coming months – I mean the translations of Leaving which has been translated into some 20 languages but many of them have not been published. So they might start coming out now. There are also people who want to read out his plays in homage. So it’s early to say but we do expect an increase in interest in his plays. On the other hand, it will be complicated because of the legislation; we not have to wait for how his estate will be sorted out.”