President Havel: the end of an era


This weekend marks the end of an era in modern Czech history. The presidential fanfare sounds this weekend for the last time for Vaclav Havel. President Havel's third term as head of state, first of Czechoslovakia, and since 1993 of the Czech Republic, ends on 2nd February, thirteen years after he was swept to Prague Castle in the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution of November 1989.

Vaclav Havel in 1990, photo; CTKVaclav Havel in 1990, photo; CTK Vaclav Havel has led the Czech nation through an extraordinary transition, at times symbolizing the unity of the nation, at others embracing controversy in the fray of political debate. But of course Havel is not just a politician.

Havel's plays have been compared with two of the legends of twentieth century theatre, Ionesco and Beckett, and whether or not he will write again for the theatre is one of the big questions at the end of his presidency.

On the political scene Havel's departure leaves a huge vacuum, felt far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic itself. Former US Secretary of State, the Czech-born Madeleine Albright, summed up the feelings of many on a visit to Prague two months ago.

"President Havel has made Czech people very proud, certainly made me very proud of having been born Czech, and I think he will be very, very missed on the international scene. There will be an adjustment in many ways, because, frankly, to a lot of people, the words Havel and Czech are synonymous. Havel really put Prague and the Czech Republic on the map in the post Cold War period."

For the rest of the programme, I turn to my colleague David Vaughan, who'll be chairing a special Radio Prague studio discussion to look at some of the many aspects of President Havel's extraordinary career, to discuss his legacy and to speculate about his future.

David Vaughan: "I'm joined by Jitka Sloupova, who's a theatre critic and translator, and has long worked with President Havel, Barbara Day, who's originally from Britain and has been involved in Czech theatre and culture since the 1960s and knows President Havel, and I'm also joined by Paul Wilson, who's a freelance writer, one of the foremost translators of President Havel's work. He also knows President Havel and is best known for his translation of the "Letters to Olga". Today, the 2nd February sees the end of President Havel's second term as Czech president. How do you think he will be remembered? Will he be remembered as a great Czech political figure?"

Barbara Day: "I think people already talk about him as one of the icons of the late 20th century. His presidency hasn't been perfect. I think everyone can point out some area where he's not done what they would have liked him to have done, but he's still just a great man of our times."

Paul Wilson: "I'm here actually to write a piece about the end of his presidency, and possibly attempt some kind of evaluation. What I'm finding is that even his critics always preface their criticisms by saying: First I have to say that he's a great man and we're very glad that he's been here and that he made a huge difference to the way democracy developed. Then they get into their nit-picking. But I think it's too early to say what his legacy will be in detail. I sense people are already beginning to miss him, and he hasn't quite left the office yet. They're already worried about what may come."

DV: "Jitka Sloupova, you're the only Czech around this table. What do you think?"

Jitka Sloupova: "Yes, I'm the only Czech citizen. I think I must agree with both my colleagues here, and I think that for us, probably, the Czech citizens, it is very important that he is going to stay involved in public matters. And as we all know, he has always been a provocative person, and I think that's something which we need for the future."

DV:"And so, you'd prefer it if he didn't just retire to his villa in Portugal."

JS: "Well, I think it would be better for all of us."

DV: "And - all of you - do you think that Havel will, in fifty years' time, be remembered primarily as a politician or as a playwright?"

Vaclav Havel, USA 1990, photo: CTKVaclav Havel, USA 1990, photo: CTK BD: "I think he's a very complex figure, because there's the philosophy of his writings; they're interwoven into the kind of principles he brought into the presidency, and if you look at the plays, there's a lot that foretells what came later. He was, in a very interesting way, trying out ideas, which he tried to put into practice as president, maybe not always successfully, but there were some interesting thoughts that people are going to go back to."

PW: "I think that his legacy as a writer will be contained in his plays and, to a lesser extent, in his essays. It's hard to say whether his plays will still be performed fifty years from now. He's certainly one of the classic playwrights of the 20th century, belonging in the same league as Ionesco and probably Beckett. And the thing that I ask myself all the time is - do these plays, which were written in a very specific situation here, most of them under the communist regime, will they still be able to communicate their special atmosphere and the special concerns that the plays raised with Czech audiences and with contemporary audiences in the West? I don't know."

DV: "Jitka, you're a theatre critic. What do you think?

JS: "It's a difficult question and I think it's also intriguing, that we don't know really, whether his plays will survive. I think they have qualities which could be considered generally human, and we find some desperation at what's going on with human relationships all over the world, not only in the totalitarian regimes."

PW: "I have a vivid memory of seeing the play which is sometimes translated as "Audience" ("Audience" in Czech). It's a two-hander with Vanek, the Havel-like character and the brewmaster. And I saw it performed by two actors from the National Theatre in London, and they were rehearsing it in working-class schools around London. And the audience, of course, were 14 or 15 year-old kids, and they all sided with the brewmaster. The brewmaster was the hero. Havel - or Vanek - is a dissident, he can't get other work and is working in a brewery, and the brewmaster, essentially, tries to persuade him to inform on himself. And Vanek says: I couldn't possibly do that. And the brewmaster explodes and says - you're on this moral high horse. What right do you have? Look at me, I'm completely beaten down, and you lord it over me with all your high moral standards. And Havel captured exactly the feeling that a lot of people had during the communist period, that the dissidents were just a bunch of dilettantes, who were playing at moral superiority. But the interesting thing for me is that it translated, it communicated to an audience that had no knowledge of communism, no experience of it, but they understood the human dynamics of that situation."

Vaclav Havel, 1990, photo; CTKVaclav Havel, 1990, photo; CTK BD: Well, the other play that's always been very popular in the West is "The Memorandum", because at one level it's about totalitarian society, but when you put it in front of a western audience everyone in the audience goes - that's exactly like our office. And it's the power politics at play that really appeal, over and above the essential situation that he was writing about. One of the things I enjoy about the play is that no-one knows what this office actually does, because no-one ever does anything except comb their hair and get ready for lunch and suck up to the boss."

DV:"Not all of our listeners will have seen the play, so what basically happens in "The Memorandum"?

JS: "It's about language. It's the introduction of a special office language, and the main theme is that the new language is introduced, but nobody understands the language, and there are departments which deal just with deciphering the language, and finally when someone really translates the memorandum you find out that this language has been cancelled and that a new language is going to be introduced."

BD: "It's about manipulation and how you can get the upper hand, just through the use of language."

DV: From talking just about these two plays, "Audience" and "The Memorandum", Havel's talking in them about things which are really quite relevant to his presidency as well. Do you think he has managed to keep that kind of acute awareness of - maybe - the absurdity of his own situation during his presidency?"

JS: "I suppose he hasn't lost it, but he can't communicate it as much, as he used to. So I'm really curious about whether he is going to write something about his presidency. I suppose he's going to write a memoir, but it would be extremely difficult to write a play about something that he's seen in his office."

PW: "You know, I wonder if he is going to write a memoir. Memoirs don't come naturally to him. You would have thought, for example, that his experience in prison would have been a perfect subject for a memoir, but in fact he chose to have that represented in his writing in the series of letters that he wrote to his wife from prison. And in those letters, he says: I'm not a memoirist, I not comfortable writing about myself. But the prison authorities, in their infinite wisdom, forced him to do something that he would not normally have done, and you can see in his work afterwards, he became much more comfortable talking about himself than he ever had before. So he might write a memoir, he might not."

The Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel, 1989The Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel, 1989 JS: "He promised that, I think."

BD: "But he processes his experience and, as you say, it comes out as something different, not as a direct memoir, but it's reflected. I just feel that he must have been very isolated in these years, as president, because, apart from his holidays in Portugal, he hasn't really traveled, because I don't think one can really call state visits traveling. It must have been a very limiting experience in many ways - a different kind of prison."

PW: "I have another memory here, about Havel. Lidove Noviny [newspaper] has a publishing arm that published a book of his speeches in English, and I came for the launching of that. And they had me interview Havel on stage as part of the procedure, and I said to him: This book is most like your "Letters to Olga", because you had a very limited time to write the letters in prison and you have a very limited time to write these speeches, you're kind of a captive of the position that you're in. And he really rose to the bait and said: Yes, that's exactly what it's like. You know, in many ways, being president is like being in prison. I'm curious to know what he will do now with that experience, now that he's not in that position any more. It's very hard to say. I'm hoping that he'll write a memoir, and I'm hoping that he'll also have found material for drama. I'm sure that although he was cut off from the real world to a large extent, the world of high politics is just as real as the world of everyday life. They're real people there, doing real things, probably hiding their motives much more effectively than people do in real life, but he's very good at describing people who are self-delusional."

DV: "It strikes me as a rather inaccurate myth of President Havel, particularly in the West, of this romantic poet, who was brought down from his literary ivory tower into the world of politics, and suddenly was swept into the Castle. I mean he's always been a political animal really, hasn't he."

Vaclav Havel, Prague 1977Vaclav Havel, Prague 1977 PW: "Yes, this is it. When he first appears on the public scene it's in a sort of literary-political situation in the 1950s."

BD: "He always was a charismatic figure. I first met him in the 60s and people who nowadays say - well, he wasn't so important - but actually I remember he was very important. I came here as a student and I really was overwhelmed that I was meeting this playwright that everyone was talking about, and that he would actually talk to me and he used to lend me the English translations of his plays. And it was just something amazing and a very exciting atmosphere, everything around him."

DV: "And do you remember the exciting productions of his plays that were put on at the "Theatre on the Balustrade" as well at that time?"

BD: "They were absolutely packed. And people now say - well, they weren't put on in the rest of the country - but they weren't put on because no-one dared put them on in the rest of the country. The Balustrade was a very special case. They could get away with a lot more than the big "stone" theatres could get away with. But the atmosphere was really electric, and people saw there that they were really talking. It wasn't a satire on the regime. It was actually analyzing the way ordinary people behaved in this totalitarian situation."

PW: "That's exactly why he stands a head and shoulders above a lot of analysts and critics of the communist system. He actually got inside it. He understood that everyone who lives in a communist system is, whether they want to or not, complicit somehow in it, and that therefore, in the post-communist phase you can't really go on a huge witch-hunt, because - where do you stop? So his insights as an artist and a dramatist were actually reflected in his insights as an essayist and a politician, I think."

BD: "I think you're right. It's debatable as to whether it's been a good feature of his presidency. I know there are a lot of people who feel that there are acts that should have been punished, that he could have really done more, about bringing to light, bringing to justice, but it's because he's the kind of person he is. He's thinking - well on the one hand this and the other hand that."

DV: "Given that he has such strong self-awareness - self-analysis as it were - isn't it quite surprising that his term as president has been almost monarchical. Some people have criticized him for being elitist, aloof, of not being interested in the real machinery of democracy, in party politics, grass roots politics. Do you think that this criticism of him is fair?"

JS: "I think to some extent it is. I think that one of the reasons is what Paul and Barbara already stressed, that he always takes both parts in a story and in a struggle. To choose one side is very difficult for him, but when he does it is the more valuable. On the other hand I think it is also simply in the role of the president in Czech society as it was modeled by Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, who really modeled the role for the next generations. He was a professor, he clothed himself as a soldier, for instance. So this role of someone who serves the nation, but does not openly take one part in the struggle, I think has also an impact on Havel's role as president."

PW: "I mean, it would be surprising if his presidency didn't have monarchical aspects to it. He's living in a castle - for crying out loud - [all laugh]. The seat of the president is the seat of Charles IV and the other Czech monarchs. I actually had a conversation with him when he was in that sort of - call it an interregnum if you like - between the time he resigned as Czechoslovak president and then was re-elected six months later as Czech president. I talked to him, I think it must have been in late September, early October [1992] and I said to him: Why don't you just go back to writing? You've served your time, the project of keeping the country together didn't work out, and you have an awful lot to say and you haven't got time to say it. And he said: What the Czech part of the country needs right now is continuity. In monarchies it's provided by the king. We don't have kings, but someone has to provide that leadership that will provide the connection from what was to what will be. And he saw himself as the personification of that link between Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. Also, monarchies function largely symbolically through the manipulation of symbols, and he's a master at that. That's also part of his dramatic skills."

BD: "Yes, the Velvet Revolution was very much a theatrical revolution, because it was stage-managed and managed very carefully to bring out the required results by Havel and by his theatre friends. The big gatherings, which could have been very dangerous on Wenceslas Square and on Letna, were simply help towards a reasonable and rational outcome, so that everyone felt that they'd participated, as the audience do in his plays, because his plays have themes that one has to think about. He made people think, and at the same time they were entertained. And he does bring the theatre into his whole political career."

DV: "All the world's a stage One last question. President Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, is remembered as a symbol of the nation, as something beyond his function, part of the identity of the Czech nation. Do you think, in the future President Havel will have similar status?"

PW: "I'm not so sure. It could well be. There's something about Havel, and we've already talked about this, the fact that he really seems to understand how ordinary Czechs feel. But at the same time, he doesn't see himself as an ordinary Czech. He would say that he's very atypical. I mean, his upbringing was upper middle class and he was groomed by his parents to lead even though it didn't appear for a while that he would ever be in that position. I also do not know and am a little skeptical about the extent to which ordinary Czechs identify with him in that sense. I think they're proud of him. I think they're glad to have him there, but I don't think he's one of them. He's a complicated figure. There's no simple answer to that."

BD: "I think at the moment, although there are some people who love to hate him, that, as time goes on and Czechs realize that for the international community Havel is identified with the Czech Republic and for them it's a plus, even those who don't support him now will still refer to his name as their president. I think it will get stronger and stronger as time goes on."

JS: "I think it's also quite optimistic. Masaryk was the embodiment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, which had quite a tragic fate in the end, so his rule is still considered as something like a golden age in the history of the Czech nation. And we hope that Vaclav Havel's age won't be considered a golden age, and the situation in the world is quite different, and we can hope that we'll develop as an ordinary democracy, which will have other presidents - not so brave, not so brilliant - but that we'll be a prospering and human society."

DV: "Jitka Sloupova, Barbara Day, Paul Wilson, thank you very much indeed for joining us."


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