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Vaclav Havel’s legacy (2nd commentary)BY: Carol Rocamora 12.27.2011
As a human rights activist who helped overthrow Communism, Vaclav Havel’s political legacy seems assured. But the question remains: What is this playwright’s dramatic legacy?
David had his slingshot,
Last Friday was a cold winter morning in Prague, and as the funeral procession crossed the Charles Bridge toward the Castle, an icy rain began to fall. The crowd of thousands broke into spontaneous applause, and people reached into their pockets, took out their key chains and, with hands held high, began to jingle them.
That gesture, tinged with exultation, brought back memories of a nation that, 22 years ago this month, turned out 50,000 strong in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, jingling keys in the traditional gesture used by Czech pub-owners to inform their customers that it was time to close up and go home. The symbolic gesture, of course, told the Communists to pack up and leave the Castle, where they had ruled Czechoslovakia with an iron, dehumanizing grip since 1948.
It was Vaclav Havel’s funeral procession last week that inspired the crowd’s applause as the Czech nation mourned a great man of our times, one of the few we can admire without reservation.
Havel was, in fact, many men— philosopher, poet, essayist, dissident, human rights advocate, political activist, humanitarian, globalist. Although he was born into one of Czechoslovakia’s pre-eminent families, his wealth was stripped away by the Communists in 1948, after which he and his country endured four harsh decades under a totalitarian regime.
For championing the “right to write,” Havel was persecuted and imprisoned, and his works were banned. But although the Czech government considered him a “silenced” author, he never stopped writing. His essays on freedom and human rights (most notably “The Power of the Powerless”) were circulated and admired the world over. His unflinching courage and determination as the author of the famous “Charter 77” protest document set a precedent in the world movement for human rights.
And ultimately he prevailed, leading his country out of darkness in 1989 in a bloodless “Velvet Revolution” to become the first president of a newly created democratic Czechoslovakia (and later, the Czech Republic). This small, shy man of stooped stature was the David to Communism’s Goliath. His steadfast intellectual commitment to human dignity triggered the domino effect that toppled Eastern Europe’s totalitarian regimes, and changed the continent’s topography forever.
Yet of course Havel wasn’t a politician by choice. He defined himself above all as a writer— specifically, a playwright. And although Havel’s political legacy seems assured, the question remains: What is this playwright’s dramatic legacy?
Absurdity or reality?
In my view, Havel’s political and dramatic legacies are in fact inseparable. His 11 full-length plays and seven one-acts, written in the darkly ironic yet humorous tradition of the European theater of the absurd, reflected and preserved the dehumanization of life under Communism and its resulting loss of identity, dignity and integrity. As my theater colleagues in Prague put it, the Czechs never thought of Havel’s plays as absurdist. “Byvalo”— “That’s the way it was”— under a totalitarian regime, they explain.
For 20 years those plays were forbidden to be performed before the Czech audiences for whom they were intended; but as an ironic consequence, they attracted a much broader audience, thanks to free world venues (like New York’s Public Theatre, London’s Orange Tree Theatre and Vienna’s Burgtheater) that gave his work a home and the vocal support of fellow playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee.
Havel’s plays have been widely performed in the Czech Republic since he became president in 1989, and they continue to be performed throughout Europe. In the U.S., however, they are less well known. (The Memorandum is the one most frequently produced here; Joseph Papp included it in his inaugural season at the Public in 1968.) A few American theaters, like the Wilma in Philadelphia, have made it a point to produce his work. In 2007 the Untitled Theatre Company in New York produced a festival of Havel’s plays in honor of his residency at Columbia University.
Power of a ‘cipher’
The lasting value of Havel’s dramatic oeuvre, I would argue, transcends the commercial value and dramaturgical quality of the individual plays. It’s an oeuvre that was compiled at a great personal price– the cost of personal freedom. As such, it stands as a towering act of courage.
Yet Havel would have been the last to characterize his work that way. I spoke often with Havel while writing a biography about his life in the theater (Acts of Courage). During one conversation, I made the mistake of referring to one of his autobiographical characters, the dissident writer Vanek, as a “hero.” In his typically self-effacing manner, Havel replied that he had no such intention. Instead, he called Vanek a “cipher”– a powerless dissident whose only choice was to live in reflection of the world around him.
Havel was no cipher. He was one of the few men capable of living in truth during the traumatic 20th Century. His moral example of picking up his pen and writing against oppression, of respecting and loving his fellow man (he signed all his works with a little red heart), tells writers everywhere that they are far from powerless. On the contrary, the power to change the world for the better lies in their hands.
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