Authors: Václav Havel

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Czech playwright and politician

Author Works

Drama:

Autostop, pr., pb. 1961 (with Ivan Vyskočil)

Zahradni slavnost, pr., pb. 1963 (The Garden Party, 1969)

Vyrozumění, pr. 1965 (The Memorandum, 1967)

Ztížená možnost soustrědění, pr., pb. 1968 (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1969)

Spiklenci, pr. 1974

Žebrácká opera, pr. 1975 (adaptation of John Gay’s comic opera; The Beggar’s Opera; English translation, 2001)

Audience, pr. 1976 (English translation, 1976)

Horský hotel, pb. 1976

Vernisáž, pr. 1976 (Private View, 1978; also known as Unveiling)

Protest, pr. 1978 (English translation, 1980)

Largo desolato, pr. 1985 (in German), pb. 1985, pr. 1990 (English translation, 1987)

Pokouśení, pr. 1986 (in German), pb. 1986 (Temptation, 1988)

Asanace, pb. 1987 (Redevelopment: Or, Slum Clearance, 1990)

Selected Plays, 1963-1983, pb. 1992

The Garden Party, and Other Plays, pb. 1993

Selected Plays, 1984-1987, pb. 1994

Teleplay:

Motýl na anténě, 1975

Radio Play:

Anděl Strážný, 1968

Poetry:

Antikódy, 1966

Nonfiction:

Dopisy Olze, 1979-1982, 1985 (Letters to Olga, 1988)

Dalkovy vyslech, 1986 (Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíž ďala and Václav Havel, 1990)

Letni premitani, 1991 (Summer Meditations, 1992)

Open Letters: Selected Prose, 1965-1990, 1991 (Paul Wilson, editor)

Toward a Civil Society: Selected Speeches and Writings, 1990-1994, 1994 (Wilson, editor)

The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, 1997

Miscellaneous:

Protokoly, 1966

O lidskou identitu, 1984

Biography

Václav Havel (HAH-vehl) emerged from socialist Czechoslovakia as the most important representative of the Theater of the Absurd in Eastern Europe. Jailed for his dissident activities, Havel’s career took a remarkable turn once democracy returned to Czechoslovakia in 1989. He was acclaimed the leader of the Czech democratic movement and within a year he had been elected president of his country; he continued as president of the Czech Republic after Czechoslovakia split in two, retiring only in early 2003. Fundamental to his early development was the circumstance that he was born to the wealthy engineer Václav M. Havel and his wife, Bozena Vavreckova. Recalling childhood years later, Havel wrote that being the son in a wealthy family constantly made him feel inferior to other children. As a boy, he felt that he was mistrusted by others. Prevented from attending high school, he nevertheless earned a diploma by attending night classes and working as a laboratory assistant during the day. By the age of twenty Havel was publishing his first articles in literary and theatrical magazines. Unable to involve himself with several university humanities and performing arts programs, he turned to working as a stagehand at Prague’s ABC Theatre, and it was probably there that his love of drama became a life study.{$I[AN]9810001042}{$I[A]Havel, Václav}{$I[geo]CZECH REPUBLIC;Havel, Václav}{$I[tim]1936;Havel, Václav}

Václav Havel

(Miloš Fikejz)

Yet it was not until Havel gained another stagehand position, this time at the Ballustrade Theatre in Prague, that his gradual rise to widespread acclaim began in earnest. In a few years’ time he was the resident playwright, working closely with the founder of the young company, playwright and director Ivan Vyskočil. In 1961 they cowrote Autostop (hitchhiking), a satire of society’s preoccupation with automobiles. The association with Vyskočil had a profound effect on the young playwright: For the next decade, the plays Havel wrote all had the dark comic wit that became distinctly his. Havel continued to grow with Jan Grossman, who in 1963 replaced Vyskočil as the director of the Ballustrade. Grossman’s love for foreign drama (which Vyskočil had avoided) brought Havel close to the absurdist works of playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and of writers whose works were being made over for the stage, such as Franz Kafka.

Havel’s first full-length play, The Garden Party, is widely regarded as the play that began the drama of the absurd in Czechoslovakia. The themes on which Havel began to touch in the play have been explored in force in the years that followed–characters as puppets of language, the relationship between the individual and the system, and above all, as Havel terms it, “the existential dimension of the world.” His themes are inexorably linked to his own life experience as an outspoken voice against the social system. As his plays began to attract the attention of the government, his essays articulated his thoughts as a citizen. Havel has always written as if censorship did not exist.

Refusing to accept the authority of the Communist Party and the national Writers’ Association, Havel shut down the publication of Tvar, the literary magazine he had edited briefly in 1965. His second full-length play, The Memorandum, opened later that year. The play is considered to be a sequel to The Garden Party, as it continued Havel’s study of language as the culprit for humanity’s absurd position in society. The play earned an Obie Award for Havel at the 1968 New York Shakespeare Festival, and he was allowed to attend for a few weeks. By the time he was in his early thirties he was known worldwide.

Months after Havel’s third play, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, appeared, the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia had begun, and Havel’s identity as a dissident became more precarious. Resigning as literary adviser for the Ballustrade Theatre, where he had been since The Garden Party, he concentrated on a life of protest, making radio broadcasts and publishing political essays. In 1969 Havel discovered that he was being watched twenty-four hours a day. Following the condemning declaration of “Ten Points,” a treatise objecting to the post-Alexander Dubček policy of “normalization,” he was interrogated and a trial was set, only to be postponed indefinitely. By 1970 Havel could not find a publisher in his country, and he resorted to circulating his works privately as a typewritten journal, Edice Expedice (expedient editions). Meanwhile, his reputation in Europe and America had grown immensely. The Increased Difficulty of Concentration won for Havel a second Obie Award. His play Spiklenci and all the plays that have followed have opened outside Czechoslovakia.

Havel took a brief hiatus from playwriting in the early 1970’s to continue to protest. As a result his books were taken from schools and libraries. He and his wife, Olga, moved to a farmhouse in Hradecek, away from the spotlight of Prague. In 1975 he wrote the “Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party,” a treatise that tried to reason directly with the system. Returning to drama the same year, he wrote The Beggar’s Opera, a version of John Gay’s play of the same name, as well as the formal Horský hotel. His best-known works of the 1970’s, however, are his three one-act plays, often called the Vanek trilogy, after the main character. Audience, Private View, and Protest focus on how the system intrudes even into the lives of those who are not “dissidents” but everyday people.

On January 1, 1977, Havel and others presented a declaration protesting widespread repressive action, called “Charter 77.” Only weeks following its presentation, Havel was taken for interrogation and held in detention for five months. Upon his release, he continued to publish and sign protest letters. In 1978 he was again detained for three months, and again, on his release, wrote with a fearlessly open voice, this time two important essays: “Report on My Case” and “The Power of the Powerless.” Once more, he took the role of chief spokesman for the Charter 77 group, holding it until February of 1979, when, tired of constant surveillance and house arrest, he managed to write Protest. By this time Havel had moved away from his darkly comic, absurd world and was writing plays of contemporary responsibility.

By 1979 Havel was living in prison year-round, and it was not until he became suddenly and violently ill in 1983 that the government released him. During his prison term he turned to a new form of composition: letters. His Letters to Olga covered aspects of his thinking and personal life. After a month in the hospital Havel suffered from the sudden return to active life. As he put it, “I did not yet know the postprison depression suffered by a returnee who is suddenly cast loose in the absurd terrain of freedom.” On January 16, 1989, Havel was arrested again and brought back to prison.

He was released later in 1989 but re-arrested on October 27. This cycle of arrest and release ended dramatically, though, when a sudden democratic convulsion shook Czechoslovakia, part of a general breakdown in Communist authority in the countries of Eastern Europe. Havel was released from prison amid the tumult. By the end of November, the Communist government in Prague had collapsed and chants of “Havel to the castle!” (i.e., the presidential palace in Prague) began to be heard among the populace. On December 10, the dissident group Civic Forum nominated Havel for the presidency. On December 22, Havel was unanimously elected.

Havel’s whirlwind transformation from jailed dissident playwright to renowned statesman made him a “cultural hero” the world over. Havel’s perseverance through suffering as well as his unassuming demeanor and likable personality made him a widely admired figure who accepted numerous awards and honors in the years after his election. Although his creative writing necessarily decreased in output, he authorized a book of interviews, Disturbing the Peace (1990), covering his last years as a dissident, and his book of political-philosophical essays Summer Meditations (1992) was widely reviewed and made Havel an object of study as a philosopher as well as a playwright.

When Slovakia and the Czech Republic split into two in January, 1993, Havel continued as president of the latter entity. In a widely discussed commencement address at Harvard University in June, 1995, Havel called for a vision of universal human rights that yet respected cultural difference; his experience as a Czech, a nationality always at the heart of Europe but so often overlooked by the European consensus, no doubt contributed to his sentiments. Havel, though, lost the companion who had sustained him through his earlier ordeals when his wife Olga died in late 1995. In 1997 he remarried, to actress Dagmar Havlova.

BibliographyAsh, Timothy Garton. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89. New York: Random House, 1990. Provides crucial background on Havel’s rise to power and is written by a close friend of Havel.Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. Examination of the situation of numerous dissident playwrights under the Communist regime, including Havel.Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa, and Phyllis Carey, eds. Critical Essays on Václav Havel. New York: Twayne, 1999. A collection that assesses Havel as both a playwright and a political figure, and the interaction between these two roles. Sections focus on Havel the man, Havel the writer, Havel the politician, and Havel’s image in the minds of his compatriots.Hurkova, Klara. Mirror Images: A Comparison of the Early Plays of Václav Havel and Tom Stoppard, with Special Attention to Their Political Aspects. New York: P. Lang, 2000. A comparative study of Havel’s plays, highlighting the differences between a playwright working in an oppressive Communist regime with one working in a freer, capitalist climate.Keane, John. Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Although this biography focuses primarily on Havel’s political activities, it includes extensive information on Havel’s plays and how they reflect the development of his political concepts.Keane, John, ed. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1985. Useful for political studies. Collects essays by other important contemporary voices.Kriseová, Eva. Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography, translated by Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Officially authorized biography, using sources provided by Havel that may not be available to other biographers but may be slanted to soft pedal awkward or uncomfortable aspects of his career.Matustik, Martin Joseph. Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel. New York: Guilford Press, 1993. Considers Havel as a philosopher.Rocamora, Carol. Acts of Courage: Václav Havel’s Life in the Theater. Hanover, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 2005. Both biography and literary analysis of Havel’s life and works. As the first full-length, English language, this work is invaluable. Includes several excellent appendices.Simmons, Michael. The Reluctant President. London: Methuen, 1991. One of the best biographies published after Havel’s release and election to the Czech presidency.Sire, James W. Václav Havel: The Intellectual Conscience of International Politics. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001. A study of Havel as a philosopher.Symynkywicz, Jeffrey. Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Parsippany, N.J.: Dillon Press, 1995. Although dealing primarily with Havel’s role in the Velvet Revolution, also looks at the role of his plays in forming his reputation.Trensky, Paul. Czech Drama Since World War II. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1978. A drama approach. Makes very clear that Havel is the representative of absurd drama.Vladislav, Jan, ed. Václav Havel: Or, Living in Truth. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. Useful primarily as a political approach to Havel’s work, as it includes his most important essays as well as sixteen other essays written on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize to Havel in 1986. A short biobibliography is included, as is a rare extensive biography of Havel in English.
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