Where do people go? Reflections on Václav Havel’s Leaving

Vaclav Havel’s legacy (1st commentary)

5 minute read
An absurd actor who wrote himself earnestly into political life.
An absurd actor who wrote himself earnestly into political life.
When in Prague I like to drink a draft pint of Pilsen beer and attune myself to the organ incense seeping through to my pub from the gothic arches of St. Mary at the Snow next door. Václav Havel's Leaving expresses in a humorously earnest tonality this intrinsic relationship between art, life, politics and philosophy in Czech culture. The church, the pub, theater are interchangeably essential to the Czech meeting grounds.

Havel's play tells the story of a politician who failed in the reform movements of Central-East Europe. Then Havel becomes powerful in a Kafkaesque self-irony. The playwright-dissident becomes an absurd actor writing himself earnestly into political life; he becomes a politician acting in real-politics and directing his own life drama. Nobody can be in control in this fashion, and so Havel fails to achieve his political aims.

The play's "villain" chancellor, Klein— successor to the Havel-figure Rieger— dreams of a shopping mall and a brothel in place of the cherry orchard. After 1989, across the walkway from my favorite pub and St. Mary's, new shops and a two-story erotic salon joined the sacred agora.

Havel's message is both singular and universal: We have our leaving, coming, being and dying; we are in part witnesses, actors, dramaturges, ex-activists, singular persons.

Synagogue, church, pub

Czech theater has often played an analogical role to a threatened synagogue or the black church community in the American South during the civil rights movement: The synagogue empowers the persecuted, the black church worship harnesses a protest movement, and the Czech theater and pub foster human solidarity and community renewal.

Havel wrote for, acted in, but most of all lived in such spaces and times. His stage embodied a lab but also the reality of a historical and future present.

The absurd stage of Leaving, as we already learned in Plato's Republic, is a psyche writ in large letters. Havel's trajectory runs from a nonpolitical dissident-power of the powerless to the disappointed (velvet) revolutionary power, to the Kafkaesque (not very Platonic) power of a philosopher-poet-president, to the homeless power of an evicted global utopian thinker.

Havel once worked as a stagehand and prompter, but he became known as an existential thinker, author, choreographer, and prompter of political roles. Some of the 16 characters in Leaving mirror his various selves; others caricature his public roles; still others mime his inward desires, and many reveal anxiety and fear of wearing forbidden masks.

The unseen Voice

A 17th character, the Voice, interrupts constantly from beyond the stage as critical witness and conscience. The Voice's objections wrest the very genre of the play from the authorial and censorial controls usually exercised by the dramaturge, prompter, choreographer, set designer, even the critics. The Voice demolishes the author and the play long before the play ends. We leave the theater with Havel or follow him on Twitter. Havel exerts no more control over his limits than do the actors who obey the director.

Kierkegaard called for a Socratic spice of irony to be added into words to make them earnest. (Kierkegaard characterized his own writing as an invisible ink or spice added subversively into Danish culture in order to cause spiritual indigestion.) Dostoyevsky's living dead, Chekhov's life that is over before it is lived, Havel's portrait of an authoritarian politician who preaches about care for a whole person and civic responsibility— their lines are spoken in hubbub or in ptydepe, a dead language Havel invented in an earlier play.

Where is everyone going? The many doors in Klara Zieglerova's set designs produced for the Wlma Theater's 2010 production of Leaving evoke so much more than the distinction between the public and private worlds, or the worlds of power and powerlessness. "Leaving" is an active verb; it has no direct object. In a similar manner, these doors are singular and yet have metaphysically no object behind and in front of their openings.

Dostoyevsky's inner struggle

"Leaving" is not a noun, such as leave, entrance, or exit. And leaving could always signify arriving. We can only opt for a door, a passage"“ we can dwell at the doorstep of possibilities.

Havel's dramas never border on Dostoyevsky's inner spiritual struggle of faith and unbelief. And yet the spiritual, moral and finite human questions parade on Havel's stage in the character of the Voice. Who is this mask? The Voice comes from within as much as from without; it interrupts and leads; it consoles and disturbs, it speaks philosophically and falls prey to confusion.

Leaving is about everyone's leaving— not just this or that politician. The Voice articulates the doubts and misgivings not only in Havel's conscience but in our own. These spontaneous interruptions of our lived play, even in the darkest moments of our real tragedies, suggest a margin of hope that our universe need not be so empty and entropic as the one our folly must leave behind.

Havel was apparently preparing for his death in the last weeks before his death this month. I learned from Czech TV that Havel invited the Dalai Lama for one last visit in Prague, just days before he died on December 18.

Yet the empty and silent stage sets and Havel's play itself, with their Lazarus-like imagery, suggest that the truly terrifying thing is not death but living through empty time. Havel's theater provokes us to witness our own leaving and dying and our own birthing and coming. We shouldn't think of Havel's Leaving as his last play or word. Leaving is at the beginning.♦

To read another commentary on Havel by Carol Rocamora, click here.
To read reviews of the Wilma Theater's June 2010 production of Leaving, click here.
To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Leaving. By Vaclav Havel; directed by Jiri Zizka. Performed in June 2010 at Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. (at Spruce). 215-546-7824 or

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