Vaclav Havel, a playwright with political passion
Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who died Saturday at 75, was the perfect example of an increasingly rare specimen -- the politically engaged playwright. In today's theatrical climate dominated by movie retreads and safe little dramas, Havel's plays serve as a reminder that theater can have the power to change hearts and minds, and sometimes regimes.
Havel's career hewed closely to the dramatic arc of Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Born into a well-to-do family in Prague, he grew up behind the Iron Curtain in a society that put many restrictions on personal expression. His first major play was "The Garden Party" (1963), an absurdist comedy that sends up the labyrinthine bureaucracy of a totalitarian regime.
"The Memorandum" (1965) was a similarly comic attack on life in an Orwellian state, telling the story of a hapless government functionary who must deal with the absurdities of a new official language. The play received its U.S. premiere in 1968 at the Public Theater in New York and remains perhaps Havel's most widely performed work.
Not surprisingly, Havel's plays were banned in his home country. A ideological descendant of Bertolt Brecht and Clifford Odets, Havel was viewed as dangerous and as a threat to the establishment, but he continued to write. His subsequent dramas include "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration," "Audience," "Unveiling," "Protest" and "Mistake."
Havel eventually left the theater for the political arena, serving as an activist during the Prague Spring in the late '60s. He fought for many years in support of those unjustly imprisoned and landed in jail himself a number of times. In the late '80s, Havel became a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful movement that saw the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia.
In 1989, Havel became president of Czechoslovakia. Four years later, he was elected president of the newly formed Czech Republic and eventually stepped down in 2003.
Havel would return to the theater in 2007 with his new play "Leaving," a comedy-drama about an ousted politician that was inspired by his own experiences as well as by "King Lear" and "The Cherry Orchard."
Critical opinion of Havel's dramatic body of work is divided. An essay published this week on Slate called his plays "as turgid, alas, as the Communist bureaucrats they are meant to satirize." Britain's the Independent described his plays as "funny, pertinent, wise and enormously theatrical." (Seeing Havel's plays is difficult today, but they are widely available in English translation.)
The kind of political theater Havel practiced has become marginal, but it lives on thanks to playwrights including Athol Fugard, Ariel Dorfman and, in some ways, Tony Kushner. And companies like the Belarus Free Theatre -- which Havel supported -- continue to put themselves in harm's way by making political activism a priority.
Havel's death signals a further diminution of this genre of theater, but his passing also has renewed interest in his plays. As Havel himself once put it: "Drama assumes an order, if only so that it might have -- by disrupting that order -- a way of surprising."
-- David Ng
Photo: A 1994 photo of Vaclav Havel. Credit: Pavel Horesji / For The Times