October 23, 2006


The Playwright President (ERIC GRODE, October 23, 2006, NY Sun)

When Václav Havel begins his eight-week residency at Columbia University on Wednesday, October 25, a central focus will be his 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. This is appropriate: Mr. Havel's rise from dissident playwright to world leader marks a unique chapter in Cold War history.

But it is crucial that the daring, spry, richly amusing plays not be slighted in the process. [...]

Those who picture rigorous discourse when they think of "political theater" will find Mr. Havel's work a bit discombobulating. In "Disturbing the Peace," an insightful book-length series of interviews, he stresses that his style of theater "is not here to explain how things are. It does not have that kind of arrogance; it leaves the instructing to Brecht."

Mr. Havel — who began his career as a playwright during his compulsory Army stint, of all places — was drawn less to the dialectical proscriptions of Bertolt Brecht or the portentous cadences of J.B. Priestley and more to the scorched-earth absurdities of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. "I have the feeling that, if absurd theatre had not existed before me, I would have had to invent it," says Mr. Havel, who has called the movement "the most significant theatrical phenomenon of the twentieth century, because it demonstrates modern humanity in a ‘state of crisis.'"

This debased state, against which Mr. Havel crusaded as a playwright, as a dissident, and as a politician, spurred him to create a mechanized, schematic fictional world in which individuation is nearly impossible. Back in 1965, the protagonist of his early comedy "The Memorandum" bemoaned the pernicious effects of a nonsensical form of bureaucrat-speak called Ptydepe:

"Manipulated, automatized, made into a fetish, Man loses the experience of his own totality; horrified, he stares as a stranger at himself, unable not to be what he is not, nor to be what he is."

When even language morphs into an existential threat, one solution is to become silent. After Soviet tanks crushed the promise of 1968's Prague Spring, Mr. Havel's works were banned from the stage for several years, and he spent most of 1974 working at a rural brewery. This experience yielded a one-act play the following year called "Audience," in which a boorish foreman conducts a beer-soaked meeting with a meek employee named Ferdinand Vanek. [...]

From the perspective of a Western playgoer who regards freedom of speech and expression as inalienable rights, Vanek's mumbling, stammering diffidence can at times seem contrarian, almost priggish. Declining to supply weekly self-incriminating statements is one thing, but refusing to indulge a proud parent's anecdote about his infant son, as in "Unveiling"?

Mr. Havel, whose involvement with the human-rights document Charter 77 resulted in his being jailed for more than four years for "subverting the republic," addressed this quality of Vanek's in his own roundabout way upon being freed in 1983.

While recovering from the illnesses that spurred his release, he spent a month in the hospital — "released from the burden of prison, but not yet encumbered by the burden of freedom," as he describes it in "Disturbing the Peace." That second burden bears poignant fruit in 1985's "Largo Desolato," perhaps his best-known work, thanks to a crisp translation by fellow Czech Tom Stoppard.

Mr. Havel's revised surrogate, Professor Leopold Nettles, here reflects what biting one's tongue for 10 years will do to a person: Vanek, who showed tremendous courage in his understated way, has devolved into a paranoid, pill-popping, impotent husk of a man, incapable of leaving his apartment, let alone of putting pen to paper.

After focusing for so long on state repression, Mr. Havel turns his gaze within and focuses on the deleterious effects of his own self-denial. "I'm lacking a fixed point out of which I can grow and develop," Nettles complains to a young woman. "I'm ... no longer the self-aware subject of my own life but becoming merely its passive object." The chilling irony is that not even these words are Nettles's own: He is merely parroting a speech made lines earlier by a concerned friend. He's not even present enough to realize his own absence.

We make allowances for the Eastern Europeans that we'd never extend to the Arabs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 23, 2006 9:57 AM

There aren't many Eastern Europeans who are trying to blow us up.

Posted by: Brandon at October 23, 2006 11:36 AM

Any more. Of course, they might be had we helped oppress them.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2006 11:43 AM

According to you we did help oppress them.


Posted by: jefferson park at October 23, 2006 12:51 PM