Havel’s Satirizes Life Under Communism

Czech playwright Václav Havel aimed the weapons of satire against communism in The Garden Party and other plays of the 1960’s, helping keep alive the spirit of resistance to communist regimes.

Summary of Event

When the four-act play Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party, 1969), written by a twenty-seven-year-old Czech playwright named Václav Havel, was performed for the first time at the Theater on the Balustrade in Prague on December 3, 1963, few could recognize that this was the first step toward the peaceful overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia. Havel, denied access to higher education by the communist state because of his upper-middle-class family background, had begun his career as a stagehand. By 1963, he had become literary manager of the Theater on the Balustrade, a small, independent, experimental theater with an innovative director, Jan Grossman, who would introduce Western European absurdist plays to the Czech stage. The Garden Party was the first play Havel wrote alone; he had coauthored a play in 1961. Garden Party, The (Havel)
Theater;political satire
Czechoslovakia;communist takeover
[kw]Havel’s The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under Communism (Dec. 3, 1963)[Havels The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under Communism]
[kw]Garden Party Satirizes Life Under Communism, Havel’s The (Dec. 3, 1963)
[kw]Communism, Havel’s The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under (Dec. 3, 1963)[Communism, Havels The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under]
Garden Party, The (Havel)
Theater;political satire
Czechoslovakia;communist takeover
[g]Europe;Dec. 3, 1963: Havel’s The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under Communism[07740]
[g]Czechoslovakia;Dec. 3, 1963: Havel’s The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under Communism[07740]
[c]Theater;Dec. 3, 1963: Havel’s The Garden Party Satirizes Life Under Communism[07740]
Havel, Václav
Grossman, Jan
Husák, Gustáv
Dub{ccaron}ek, Alexander
Novotn{yacute}, Antonín

In The Garden Party, Hugo Pludek, an initially inarticulate youth, gains fluency by listening to his father’s proverbial middle-class wisdom and by repeating the clichés of officialdom. Using his new glibness to climb the bureaucratic career ladder, Hugo meets a knotty problem when he is placed in charge of both the Office of Liquidation and the Office of Inauguration. The latter is supposed to dissolve the former, but officials of the Office of Liquidation argue that only the Office of Liquidation can liquidate itself, which is a logical impossibility. A new bureaucratic behemoth is formed, the Office of Liquidation and Inauguration. Pludek’s rise in the world causes him to lose touch with his initial identity; at the end of the play, he undertakes a visit to his former self.

In thus treating the problem of humanity’s alienation, Havel implies that this malaise is, contrary to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, found in both communist societies and capitalist ones. He suggests that the new communist elite embodies much of the philistinism and status-hungry opportunism often ascribed to the capitalist bourgeoisie. Havel, a master of wordplay, also shows that language can be used to veil reality as well as to reveal it; proverbs and slogans, mindlessly repeated, are seen as especially likely to lead one astray. Often his characters make statements that, while grammatically correct, are utter nonsense.

The emphasis on the absurd in The Garden Party, an emphasis found in all of Havel’s plays, has led some critics to compare him to the Western European dramatists of the absurd Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. There is often, however, an element of moral protest against specific evils present in Havel’s drama that is absent from the Western European Theater of the Absurd, a moral protest no less real for being expressed through gallows humor rather than indignant jeremiads. Havel’s comic streak has been compared to that of turn-of-the-century Czech antimilitarist satirist Jaroslav Hašek; his somber streak, to that of the Prague German-Jewish novelist Franz Kafka.

It is remarkable that such a play as The Garden Party could be performed at all in a communist country such as Czechoslovakia. The communist takeover of 1948 had been followed by purges and by the regimentation of intellectuals. After Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and Soviet Communist Party chief Nikita S. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, Czechoslovakian Communist Party Communist Party, Czechoslovakian leader Antonín Novotný, uncertain about just how much repression Moscow wanted, loosened the reins on the arts somewhat. The pairing of an Office of Liquidation and an Office of Inauguration in The Garden Party can be seen as Havel’s metaphor for the contradictory tendencies to repression and tolerance within the Novotný regime. The period from the early 1960’s through the Prague Spring of 1968 witnessed an extraordinary flowering of Czech cinema and literature as well as drama.

In January, 1968, the Prague Spring Prague Spring (1968) began when liberal Alexander Dubček succeeded Novotný as the Czech Communist Party’s first secretary. In April, Havel’s play Ztízená moznost soustredení
Increased Difficulty of Concentration, The (Havel) (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1969) was performed at Balustrade. This play is about a scholar, Edouard Huml, torn between the demands of his wife and his mistress and hounded by a research team’s inquisitive computer; it deals with the problems of any modern society, communist or noncommunist. It was the last of Havel’s dramas to be legally performed in Czechoslovakia. In August, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia; in April, 1969, Gustáv Husák became Communist Party first secretary, and the repression of dissident intellectuals was resumed.


Any discussion of the impact of Havel’s plays inevitably turns to the question of how a playwright could become the symbol of hope for freedom-loving Czechoslovakians and the leader of a successful anticommunist revolution. Of course, The Garden Party and The Memorandum both made a far deeper impression on Czech theatergoers than any play would make on American theatergoers.

In Novotný-era Czechoslovakia, with its tightly controlled press, audiences were starved for information and debate; hence, they responded enthusiastically to plays containing criticism of the existing order that was just sufficiently disguised to get past the censors. As late as the Prague Spring of 1968, however, Havel remained merely one of a number of daring Czech artists and intellectuals. These included the novelist and playwright Milan Kundera Kundera, Milan , whose novel Zert
Joke, The (Kundera) (1967; The Joke, 1969) was widely viewed as a subtle criticism of Czechoslovakian communism, and the filmmaker Miloš Forman Forman, Miloš , whose film The Firemen’s Ball
Firemen’s Ball, The (Forman)[Firemens Ball] (1967) acquired a similar reputation.

One thing that elevated Havel’s stature among his own people was his decision, after the Soviet invasion of August, 1968, to stay in Czechoslovakia and carry on the struggle for intellectual freedom there, rather than either conform or go into exile. In 1975, Havel wrote an open letter of protest to Husák. In early 1977, Havel joined with other brave Czech intellectuals in signing the Charter 77 Charter 77[Charter Seventy seven] manifesto, protesting the regime’s failure to respect human rights; he was one of the charter’s three chief elected spokespersons. A wave of arrests followed, and from 1979 to 1983, Havel was imprisoned for his political activities.

Havel himself lost the right to practice his profession or to have any of his plays performed in Czechoslovakia. For a while, he toiled as a stacker in a brewery, yet he continued to write plays, though in Czechoslovakia they could be performed only clandestinely.

Another factor that aided Havel’s rise to leadership, and even his very physical survival, was his favorable reputation in the noncommunist world.

The ties of respect thus forged withstood the test of post-1968 repression; Havel’s resistance to that repression enhanced his reputation abroad. Some of the plays produced after 1968, once their texts had been smuggled out of Czechoslovakia, were performed in Vienna, New York City, or London. In 1983, the strong sympathy for Havel among intellectuals in the noncommunist world, expressed in the form of a letter to the Czech government, helped win Havel’s release from prison, where he had become ill from his treatment.

Havel’s rise to leadership also was favored by sheer good luck. In 1985, the more liberal Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. In November, 1989, when it became clear that Gorbachev would not intervene militarily to support hard-line Czechoslovakian communists, Havel, who had struggled for Czechoslovakian freedom for so long and under such hard conditions, found leadership of the anticommunist revolution almost thrust upon him. He became the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, elected in 1990 for a period of two years, losing the post at the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which he had opposed. In 1993, however, he was reelected as president of the Czech Republic and served in that capacity until February 2003, when he was defeated for a third term by the slimmest of margins.

Havel was a model not only of the creative artist but also of the nonviolent revolutionary. He fought against communism not with bombs or bullets but by aiming at that ideology, and its bureaucratic servants, the sharp arrows of ridicule. The Garden Party was the first such arrow in his quiver. Unlike Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose anticommunist writings bristle with righteous anger, Havel kept his sense of humor. He avoided the extremes of amoral opportunism on one hand and fanaticism on the other. No Havel school of playwrights arose; yet it was Havel’s combination of high principles and genuine humility, not merely the quality of his plays, that endeared him to both Western intellectuals and the Czech people. Garden Party, The (Havel)
Theater;political satire
Czechoslovakia;communist takeover

Further Reading

  • Echikson, William. Lighting the Night: Revolution in Eastern Europe. New York: William Morrow, 1990. Treats Havel’s plays only briefly, but covers fully the 1989 revolution. Helps readers compare Havel the dissident intellectual with similar figures in other Eastern European countries. Critical bibliography, photographs, index. For general readers.
  • Esslin, Martin. “A Czech Absurdist: Václav Havel.” In Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Esslin, an expert on Western European absurdist drama, saw Havel’s plays performed in Prague, and he discusses The Garden Party and The Memorandum. Esslin compares Havel to Kafka, whose fiction probes existential anguish, and to Jaroslav Hašek, who mocked military idiocy. One of the earliest Western commentaries on Havel.
  • French, Alfred. Czech Writers and Politics, 1945-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Helps readers place Havel’s career within the context of the post-World War II Czechoslovak journey from repression of intellectuals to liberalization and then back to repression. Cites particularly amusing bits of dialogue from The Garden Party. Endnotes, select bibliography, index. For scholars.
  • Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta. “Václav Havel.” In The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1979. An illuminating discussion of Havel’s plays, including The Garden Party. Compares Havel with other Czech playwrights and with Western absurdist dramatists; stresses differences between Havel and the latter. Sees Havel as a critic of modern society, not merely communist society. For undergraduates. Photographs, endnotes, list of playwrights and plays, index.
  • Havel, Václav. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala. Translated and with an introduction by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Havel discusses his childhood and adolescence, his theatrical career, his life as a dissident, and the meaning of The Garden Party and other plays. Question-and-answer format makes for somewhat difficult reading. For general readers. Notes on interviewer and translator, glossary, index.
  • Rocamora, Carol. Acts of Courage: Vaclav Havel’s Life in the Theater. Hanover, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 2004. Traces Havel’s life as a playwright and as a politician in the context of the theater of politics. Bibliography, index.
  • Schamschula, Walter. “Havel.” In Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eekman. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1980. Analyzing nine plays (including The Garden Party), Schamschula lists various techniques Havel uses to create a sense of the absurd and gives examples of each. Points out subtle changes in plays after 1968. Considers Havel’s plays as speaking to audiences in free as well as communist countries. For scholarly readers. Notes.
  • Schiff, Stephen. “Havel’s Choice.” Vanity Fair, August, 1991, 124-128. Based on a journalist’s interviews with Havel and Havel’s acquaintances. Provides a useful biographical sketch of Havel’s life from his birth to his rise to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. Argues that what appeals to people about Havel’s plays is not the plays themselves but the admirable qualities of the playwright. For general readers. Photographs.
  • Trensky, Paul I. “The Drama of the Absurd.” In Czech Drama Since World War II. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1978. Compares Czech absurdist drama with Western European absurdist drama and compares three Havel plays with one another. Three lesser-known Czech absurdist playwrights are also discussed. Selected bibliography (mostly Czech-language sources), list of playwrights and plays. For scholarly readers. Endnotes, index.
  • Václav Havel’s Web site. http://www.vaclavhavel.cz/. Havel’s personal site, also in English. Includes speeches, articles, and themed background on his work.

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