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Václav Havel (1936-2011 )


Czech playwright and poet, one of the leading intellectual figures and moral forces in Eastern Europe, who was elected President of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic in 1989 and in 1993 President of the newly formed Czech Republic. Václav Havel's role as a public figure somewhat overshadowed his record as a dramatist and political essayist. His work often dealt with the power of language to interfere with clear thought.

"There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit." (Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the Central European University in 1999, tr. Paul Wilson)

Václav Havel was born into a well-to-do family in Prague. His father owned Prague's cliff-top Barrandov suburb and his mother, Bozena Havlova, the daughter of an ambassador and journalist, encouraged her son's intellectual and artistic ambitions. In his youth he formed a literary circle called Thirty-Sixers, after the year of its members' birth. Because of his 'bourgeois' background he was denied the right to attend university. At the age of fifteen, Havel became interested in poetry. With the future film director Milos Forman he visited the poet Jaroslav Seifert, who read his first texts. Although Kafka's literary heritage was nearly buried by the authorities, his works deeply influenced Havel.

In 1951-55 Havel worked as a laboratory technician. He studied at a technical college (1955-57) and served in the Czechoslovak Army (1957-59). Havel had joined Group 42, and after challenging the older generation of writers in their magazine Kveten (May), he was for the first time noticed as a writer. In 1964 Havel married Olga Šplíchalová (1933-1996). They bought a small farm near the Polish border, where the happy couple was visited by a number of their friends. After his wife's death Havel married in 1997 an actress, the former Dagmar Veskrnova, who has had a good number of roles both in feature films and on TV.

In the 1960s Havel made his way in the theater, first as a stagehand, and then becoming resident writer for the Prague "Theatre on the Balustrade" from 1960 to 1969. During this time he continued his education at the Prague Academy of Art. His first play as the dramatic consultant of the theater Na Zábradlí, The Garden Party (1963), was a satire of modern bureaucratic routines. This work, which challenged communist hegemony, was a success both at home and abroad. In the footsteps of George Orwell Havel became interested in language – in the play the protagonist acquires an "official" language and rises to bureaucratic fame. Havel was subsequently enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts and he graduated in 1967. A few years earlier he had joined the editorial board of the literary magazine Tvár, which was soon in conflict with the conservative Writers' Association. Václav Klaus, who later became Havel's successor as president of the Czech Republic, contibuted articles on economics for the magazine. Tvár ceased to appear in 1969. In the same year Havel's passport was confiscated. His satires of communist bureaucracy were considered subversive.

As a playwright Havel used dramatic techniques to make situations or characters seem ridiculous. In The Memorandum (1965) he introduced an artificial language that is supposed to allow for greater precision in communication. The absurd attempt results in a complete breakdown of human relationships. Three years later the theme was taken even further in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), in which Havel attacked fashionable sociological terminology. 1968. In the 1970s Havel wrote a series of one-act plays, Audience (1978), Private View (1978), and Protest (1978), in which the protagonist is a dissident playwright in trouble with the authorities. Most plays from this period are built around the writer Vanék, who faces the absurd realities of Czech life.

Havel supported the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968, though he did not play a major role. After it was crushed by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces in August, Havel took on a more visible role in activism. When Milan Kundera praised his compatriots' passive response to the invasion, Havel urged his readers to act. His letter to the Czech President Gustav Husák - the popular party secretary Alexander Dubcek had been expelled – was not officially censored, and copies of its text spread widely. Havel was a cofounder of the human rights organization Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS). His works were banned by the hard-line government, but the manuscripts circulated privately and were printed in Western Europe.

It has been said, that if the Russians invented samizdat, the Czechs made it an art. The term samizdat ("self-publication" in Russian) coined by Nikolai Glazkov in reference to a typewritten, bound copy of his poems, but the word gradually acquired a wider meaning as the "unofficial reproduction of unpublished manuscripts." From the early 1970s, Havel and other authors, such as Ivan Klíma, Pavel Kohout, and Ludvík Vaculík, began to exchange their manuscript, thus establishing the Edice Petlice (The Padlock Edition). By 1980, it consisted of some 200 volumes. Havel's samizdat press Edice Expedice (The Expedition Series) was continued by his wife and his brother while he was in prison (see Good-bye, Samizdat: Twenty Years of Czechoslovak Underground Writing by Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz, 1992 pp. xvi-xviii). Samizat publishers cooperatad with Czech émigre publishers in the West.

Havel's plays did much to bring world attention to the Czechoslovakian struggle. Throughout this period he was subjected to police harassment and arrests. In 1979 he was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment for subversion of the republic – he had collected and published with his colleagues information about police harassment. Vaculik, who escaped imprisonment, got in a quarrel with Havel and others and became marginalized in the dissident movement. Because of illness, Havel was released in 1983. Between the years 1987 and 1989 Havel was a member of the editorial board of the samizdat newspaper Lidové Noviny, and a regular contributor.

A new period in the development of Havel's dramatic art started in the 1980s. His plays reflected identity problems and philosophical moral problems as in Temptation (1986), a modern reworking of Faust. In Largo desolatio (1985) the hero, another writer character, finds it difficult to deal with the burdens imposed on him both by his enemies and by his friends. The hero no longer appears clearly as a "dissident".

As an essayist Havel carried on the tradition of democratic and liberal thought. Unlike other dissident writers, Havel had no illusions as to the humane nature of communism or the possibility of democratization. At the same time, he denounced the egotism of the consumer civilization of Western society - a theme familiar from the writings of Mary McCarthy. Like the famous Russian Nobel writer and dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Havel has underlined the moral revival of the individual in the change of the social order.

"It has been our absolutely basic historical experience that, in the long run, the only thing that can be truly successful and meaningful politically must first and foremost-that is, before it has taken any political form at all-be a proper and adequate response to the fundamental moral dilemmas of the time, or an expression of respect for the imperatives of the moral order bequeathed to us by our culture. It is a very clear understanding that the only kind of politics that truly makes sense is one that is guided by conscience. " (Havel in 1999)

During the 1970s and 1980s Havel was repeatedly arrested, and Charter 77 and similar groups were isolated from Czechoslovak society. Havel served several years in prison for his dissident activities (1977, 1978-79, 1979-83, 1989). After the communist regime sentenced Havel in 1979 to 4 1/2 years in prison for subversion, he was given the opportunity to emigrate, but he chose imprisonment. In the 1980s Havel became the undisputed unofficial leader of the Czechoslovak human rights movement. Letters to Olga (1983) was written in a kind of code. "There are parts of it I don't understand myself," Havel later said.

Shortly after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Havel formed a new opposition group, Civic Forum, at a meeting in Prague's Magic Lantern theater, but it was students, who began the "Velvet Revolution." Alexander Dubcek (1921-92), who had launched a series of reforms in 1968 and was subsequently expelled from the Presidium, was nominated chairman of the parliament. Havel was elected in 1989 by direct popular vote President of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, following Gustav Husák, who died in 1991. Husák's Precidency lasted 14 years – noteworthy, Havel spent in office 14 years, too.

When Havel traveled to London, he wanted to meet the author Salman Rushdie, who had been forced into hiding after Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered his assassination. Their meeting at the Czech embassy was cancelled.  "I do not trust the place," Havel explained on the phone. "There are still many people of old regime, many strange people wandering about, many colonels."

Havel's first great defeat was the 1992 break-up of Czechoslovakia. He resigned but was elected president of the new Czech Republic in February 1993. Havel's mission in his office was to restore a healthy democracy in his country, but his "non-political" politics was also met with criticism. "The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment," Havel had already said in his 1990 New Year's speech, which shocked most listeners. "We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought." Havel promoted reconciliation with Germany, and lobbied for the Czech's Republic's entry into Nato and the European Union.

In his address at the Nato summit on April 23, 1999, Havel stated: "The fact that a former powerful strategic adversary has disappeared from the scene does not, however, mean that in the world of today human lives, human rights, human dignity and the freedom of nations are no longer in danger. They are, unfortunately, still being threatened, and collective defence of the democratic states of the Euro-Atlantic sphere of civilization, therefore, still remains a valid concept." To his critics, who claimed that he had learned to like power a little too much, Havel said that as soon as his homeland does not need him, "I will with great appetite devote myself to my original profession."

Václav Klaus, who served as prime minister from 1992 to 1997, carried the responsibility of economic reforms of the country. Eventually Wednesday meetings with Klaus, a strong-willed advocate of the free market economy, turned into a nightmarish experience for Havel. When Havel invited Salman Rushdie to the Prague Castle, Klaus accused Havel of risking the country's security concerns. Before stepping down as President, Havel became the target of smear campaigns by the tabloid media and he was criticized by communists. However, he remained for most citizens in his country among the most popular politicians.

In 2006 Havel accepted a residency at Columbia University, where he wrote much of his autobiography, To the Castle and Back (2006). Havel's first play in nearly 20 years, Leaving (2007), told the story of Dr. Vilem Rieger, the former chancellor of an unnamed country, whose world collapses around him after he leaves politics. When mass demonstrations broke out in Egypt in late January 2011, Havel said in an interview, that "President [Hosni] Mubarak, who's done a lot for Egypt, should acknowledge that his time has come and step down right away."

Havel died of respiratory disease on 18 December, 2011, at the age of 75, at his country home in Hradecek. A week before his death, he had met his friend His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Prague, and signed with him a declaration in support of dissidents. In a letter addressed to the conference on Democracy and Human Rights in Asia, one of his last public statements, Havel said that "one of the great mistakes of politics today . . . is the superimposing of economic interests over everything else; and the fact that attitudes towards different conflicts and problems in today’s world are being distorted by the misappropriation of those spiritual values, which form the foundation of our society."

For further reading: Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Philosophy and Politics in Václav Havel's Largo Desolato' by A. Thomas, in The Labyrinth of the World (1995); Václav Havel by Eda Kriseová (1993); Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracey Chevalier (1993); Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel by Martin J. Matusik (1993); The Reluctant President by Michael Simmons (1991); The Power of the Powerless: Citizen against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, ed. J. Keane (1985); The Silenced Theatre by M. Goetz-Stankiewicz (1979) - Note: Havel's collection of letters, Letter to Olga, contains his correspondence to his wife Olga Splíchalová while he was imprisoned from 1979 to 1982, and Disturbing the Peace, which presents his thoughts on life, literature, and polititics. Havel's numerous awards include Obie Award (1968, 1970), Austrian State Prize (1969), Prix Plaisir du Théâtre (1981), Palach Prize (1981), Erasmus Prize (1986), Olof Palme Prize (1989), UNESCO Bolivar Prize (1990), Friedrich-Ebert Foundation Political Book of the Year Award (1990), Malaparte Prize (1990), Legion of Honour Grand Cross (1990), Charlemange Prize (1991), Sonning Prize (1991), Averell Harriman Democracy Award (1991), B'nai B'rith Prize (1991), Freedom Award (1991), Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award (1991), Leonhard-Frank-Ring (1992), Indira Gandhi Prize (1993), European Cultural Society Award (1993), Order of the White Eagle (Poland, 1993), Golden Honorary Order of Freedom (Slovenia, 1993). Havel has honorary degrees from over a dozen universities. Suomeksi Havelilta on julkaistu myös teos Asioista kuultuna (1990). See also: other statesman/writers Lennart Meri, Léopold Senghor. Note: The music of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed inspired Havel and other dissidents during their struggle against Soviet rule. During Havel's visit in the United States in 1998 Lou Reed played at the state dinner in the White House at the Czech president's request.

Selected works:

  • Autostop, 1961 (with Ivan Vyskocil)
  • Nejlepší rocky paní Hermanové, 1962 (with Miloš Macourek)
  • Záhradní slavnost, 1963 (play)
    - The Garden Party (tr. Vera Blackwell, 1969)
    - Puutarhajuhla (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1966)
    - TV movie 2010, prod. Ceská Televize, dir. Rudolf Tesácek, starring Daniel Volný and Kostas Zerdolaglu; Das Gartenfest, TV drama 1966, prod. Sender Freies Berlin (SFB), Werkstatt Schiller-Theater, dir. Hansjörg Utzerath, starring Stefan Wigger, Hans Madin and Lu Säuberlich
  • Josef Capec, 1963 (with Vera Ptácková)
  • Vyrozumení, 1965 (play)
    - The Memorandum (tr. Vera Blackwell, 1967)
    - Tiedotus (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1966)
    - The Memorandum, TV drama 1967, in Theatre 625, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation, adaptation Vera Blackwell, dir. James Ferman, starring Alfred Marks, Warren Mitchell and Hattie Jacques
  • Protokoly, 1966
  • Zitizená moznost soustredeni, 1968
    - The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (tr. Vera Blackwell, 1972; Stepan Simek, 2006)
    - Professori sokkeloissa (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1968)
    - TV movie 1998, prod. Ceská Televize, dir. Rudolf Tesácek, starring Jirí Ornest, Jorga Kotrbová and Magdalena Sidonová; Erschwerte Möglichkeit der Konzentration, TV movie 1970, prod. Bayerischer Rundfunk, dir. Michael Bünte, starring Martin Benrath, Elisabeth Wiedemann and Louise Martini
  • Andel strázý, 1968 (radio play)
  • Podoby 2, 1969 (ed.)
  • Spiklenci, 1974 [The Conspirators]
  • Audience, 1975 (samizdat)
    - Audience (in Sorry...: Two Plays (tr. Vera Blackwell, 1978)
    - Vastaanotto (suom. Kai Savola & Taisto Tolvanen, 1977)
    - TV film 1990, prod. Ceskoslovenská Televize, dir. Jirí Menzel, starring Pavel Landovský and Josef Abrhám; Audiens, TV film 1981, dir. Tore Breda Thoresen; TV film 1980, prod. TF1, dir. Edouard Logereau, starring Pierre Arditi and Victor Garrivier
  • Vernizáz, 1975 (samizdat)
    - Private View (in Sorry...: Two Plays tr. Vera Blackwell, 1978; Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky, 2009)
    - Avajaiset (suom. Kai Savola & Taisto Tolvanen, 1977)
    - TV film 1990, prod. Ceskoslovenská Televize, dir. Ivan Rajmont, starring Daniela Kolárová, Jirí Ornest and Tomás Töpfer; TV drama 1980, prod. TF1, dir. Edouard Logereau, starring Pierre Arditi, Bernard Murat and Catherine Rich
  • Zebrácká opwera, 1976 (samizdat)
    - The Beggar's Opera (translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson; introduction by Peter Steiner, 2001)
    - Film 1991, libretto by John Gay, play by Václav Havel, adaptation Jirí Menzel, dir. Jirí Menzel, starring Josef Abrhám (as Macheath), Mahulena Bocanová, Jana Brezková, Nina Divísková, Jeremy Irons, Barbora Leichnerová
  • Pohledy I, 1974 (ed.; samizdat)
  • Motýl na anténe, 1975 (television play)
    -TV movie 1991, prod. Ceskoslovenská Televize, dir. Ladislav Smoljak, starring Nella Boudová, David Prachar, Kveta Fialová, JanKaspar, Jirí Suchý
  • Hry 1970-1976, 1977
  • Horský hotel, 1977 (samizdat)
    - The Mountain Hotel (tr. Jitka Martinova)
    - Vuoristohotelli (suom. Matti Miikkulainen, 1982)
    - TV movie 1999, prod. Ceská Televize, dir. Andrej Krob, starring Bohumila Kuklová and Petr Reidinger
  • Sorry, 1978
    - TV drama, in Play for Today, based on Audience and Private View, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation. dir. Claude Whatham, starring Geoffrey Chater, Michael Crawford and Freddie Jones
  • Protest, 1978 (samizdat)
    - Protest (tr. Vera Blackwell, 1975)
    - Vastalause (suom. Ville Mäkelä, 1991)
    -TV movie 1986, prod. Vrijzinnig Protestantse Radio Omroep (Netherlands), dir. Piotr Andrejew, starring Hans Dagelet, Wilbert Gieske and Rik van Uffelen; Protesten, TV movie 1982, prod. Danmarks Radio, dir. Kaspar Rostrup, starring Baard Owe and Henning Moritzen; TV movie 1981, dir. Tore Breda Thoresen; TV drama 1981, in Play for Today, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation, dir. Alistair Clarke, starring Nigel Hawthorne (as Václav Havel)
  • Moc bezmocných, 1978 (samizdat)
    - The Power of the Powerless (edited by John Keane, M. E. Sharpe, 1985)
  • Šestnáct dopisu, 1982 (samizdat)
  • Chyba, 1983 (samizdat)
    - The Mistake (tr. Carol Rocamora and Thomas Rychetsky, 2006)
  • Dopisy Olze, 1983
    - Letters to Olga (translated from the Czech with an introduction by Paul Wilson, 1989)
  • O lidskou identitu, 1984
  • Politika a svedomi, in Prirozený svet jako politický problém, 1984 (samizdat)
    - Politics and Conscience (tr. Erazim Kohák and Roger Scruton, 1985)
  • Výzva k transcendenci, with Consolatio philosophiae hodierna, 1984
  • ed. Prirozený svet jako politický problém, 1984 (samizdat, with Václav Belohradský and others)
  • Largo desolatio, 1985 (samizdat)
    - Largo Desolato: A Play in Seven Scenes (tr. Tom Stoppard, 1987)
    - Largo Desolato (suom. Raija Asikainen, 1986)
    - TV movie 1991, prod. France 3 (FR 3), France 3 Cinéma, La Sept Cinéma, dir. Agnieszka Holland; TV movie 1991, prod. Ceskoslovenská Televize, dir. Viktor Polesný; TV movie 1990, prod. The Wilma Theater, WNET Channel 13 New York, dir. Jiri Zizka, starring F. Murray Abraham, Phoebe Cates and Sally Kirkland; TV movie 1985, dir. Jürgen Bosse, starring Joachim Bißmeier, Thomas Stroux and Helma Gautier
  • Hostina, 1985 (ed.; samizdat)
  • The Anatomy of a Reticence: Eastern European Dissidents and the Peace Movement in the West, 1985 (tr. Erazim Kohák)
  • Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, 1986 (published underground in Prague)
  • Ztizené moznosti, 1986
  • Pokoušeni, 1986 (samizdat)
    - Temptation (tr. George Theiner, 1998; Marie Winn, 1989)
  • Living in the Truth, 1986 (also includes essays by other writers addressed to Havel, edited by Jan Vladislav)
  • Dekovná rec pri udelení Erasmovy ceny, 1986 (samizdat, Acceptance Speech Written on the Occasion of the Award of the Erasmus Prize 1986)
  • Asanace, 1987 (samizdat)
    - Redevelopement, or Slum Clearance (tr. James A. Saunders, 1990)
  • The Vanek Plays, Four Authors, One Character, 1987
  • Do ruzných stran: Eseje a claánky z let 1983-1989, 1989
  • Slovo o slovu, 1989
    - A Word about Words (tr. A. G. Brain, 1990)
  • Provejy, 1990
  • Disturbing the Peace, 1990 (translated from the Czech and with an introduction by Paul Wilson)
  • Open Letters: Selected Prose 1965-1990, 1991 (ed. Paul Wilson)
  • Letní premítání, 1991
    - Summer Meditations (translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, 1992)
  • Vázení obcane, 1992
  • Fragments of Memory, 1992
  • Selected Plays, 1963-1983, 1992 (tr. Vera Blackwell, George Theiner, Jan Novak)
  • The Garden Party and Other Plays, 1993 (contains Garden party, Memorandum, Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Audience, Unveiling, Protest, Mistake; tr. Vera Blackwell, George Theiner, Jan Novak)
  • Ctyri eseje, 1993
  • Selected Plays, 1984-1987, 1994 (contains Largo Desolato, Temptation, Redevelopment, tr. Tom Stoppard, George Theiner, James Saunders)
  • Literature and Tolerance, 1995
  • The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice: Speeches and Writings, 1990-1996, 1997 (translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson and others)
  • Evropa jako ukol: vyber z projevu 1990-2004, 2005 (ed. Martin Vidlák)
  • Prosim Struckne, 2006
    - To the Castle and Back (tr. Paul Wilson, 2007)
  • Epizoda z 60. let: korespondence Václava Havla a Aleše Fetterse, 2006 (ed Aleš Haman)
  • Odcházeni: hra o peti dejstvích, 2007
    - Leaving (translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, 2008)
    - Films: TV movie 2010, dir. Ales Kisil, starring Jan Triska (as Vilém Rieger), Zuzana Stivínová and Vlasta Chramostová; film 2011, prod. Buc-Film, Ceská Televize, Bontonfilm, dir. Václav Havel, starring Jan Budar, Jirí Machácek and Josef Abrhám (as Vilém Rieger), Jaroslav Dusek (as Vlastík Klein)
  • Korespondence 1978–2001: Václav Havel, František Janouch, 2007 (ed. Jirí Suk)
  • Projevy a jiné texty 1999-2006; Prosím strucne; Odcházení, 2007 (ed. Jan Zelenka)
  • Podnecování a trest: témer další hra Václava Havla, 2009 (with Dagmar Havlová)

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