Havel’s Humanity

Source: The Wall Street Journal www.wsj.com / By Salil Tripathi /

In 1988, when he was still a dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel began writing a play about the angst of a political leader about to relinquish power. Outwardly, the leader looked supremely confident; inwardly, he had no idea how he would face his future. For a Czechoslovak writer only used to living under dictators, even imagining a leader honoring the limits the constitution imposed was a heroic act. But then, Mr. Havel had done many more heroic things, such as writing plays like “The Garden Party” and “The Memorandum” and leading Charter 77, the movement of Czech and Slovak intellectuals fighting for fundamental freedoms. He was accused of “disturbing the peace” (which became the title of one of his later books) and jailed for four and a half years.

Mr. Havel called that play about the politician “Leaving.” But he had to leave it incomplete — not because he had to hide it from the state police, but because he had the Velvet Revolution to lead. By 1989, Mr. Havel was attracting crowds when he spoke. Nearly 200,000 heard him speak at Prague’s Wenceslas Square that November; the next month he became Czechoslovakia’s president. More than 13 years later, he left the presidency of the truncated Czech Republic when his term ended. Along the way, he helped to disband the Warsaw Pact, advocated the Czech Republic’s admission to NATO and the European Union, and provided moral authority to public office.

As Mr. Havel said recently during a talk at the British Library in London, he had no time to work on “Leaving” or any other play while in office; indeed, he had almost forgotten its existence. But he rediscovered the manuscript after retirement, and his muse inspired him again. “Leaving” opened in Prague earlier this year and in London in September. It is now running at the Orange Tree Theatre to packed audiences.

There cannot be a more suitable venue for the play than Orange Tree, whose director Sam Walters has done more than anyone else in bringing Mr. Havel’s plays to Western audiences. A longtime supporter of Mr. Havel’s work, the theater has staged most of his plays and championed Charter 77. As an added treat, Orange Tree is performing more Havel plays through Dec. 13, including “Mountain Hotel.”

The Havel-fest doesn’t end there: In October, the London International Film Festival screened “Obcan Havel” (Citizen Havel), a documentary by Pavel Kouteck and Miroslav Janek. And earlier this year, Portobello Books published “To the Castle and Back,” Mr. Havel’s memoir of his years in power. Taken together, the new play, the documentary and the book provide a remarkably consistent view of Mr. Havel’s humanity.

“Leaving” is about Vilém Rieger, a chancellor finding the trappings of power leaving him as his term ends. Nobody likes his new companion, who looks like an aggressive shrew trying her best to show the leader in good light. He has two daughters from a previous marriage: one who is absorbed in her internal universe of cellphone, laptop and iPod, but who offers a lifeline to the family when it matters; the other, married to a quiet man, is keen to ensure that the new companion won’t raid the family silver. Meanwhile, mafia capitalists have emerged, to the chagrin of the departing leader; a besotted student follows him, willing to trade romance for access to power; and his cynical successor has his eyes set firmly on the commercial potential of the presidential palace and wants to get rich quick.

Critics have noted obvious parallels with Mr. Havel’s own life — as if Mr. Havel is looking back at his life, mocking both himself and his successor, Vaclav Klaus. Mr. Havel has denied such an interpretation. But if the play is autobiographical, it is oddly confessional. It does not exculpate Mr. Havel’s alter ego, who ends up as a hapless and helpless clown, demeaning his reputation.

Mr. Havel is fascinated by the odd turns that life takes, and those themes resonate in “Leaving.” It is as if he is exploring how his life might have turned out if it did not have a fairy-tale ending. There are nods to three great influences on Mr. Havel’s writing: William Shakespeare (“King Lear” and its weakened ruler with his daughters); Anton Chekhov (“The Cherry Orchard” makes frequent appearances, literally and metaphorically); and Samuel Beckett (“Endgame” and its absurdity resonate). Ever the practical joker, Mr. Havel makes off-stage intrusions into the play, through voice-overs in his trademark accent, telling the actors what to do and what not to do (such as getting melodramatic).

Mr. Havel has frequently noted life’s absurdity. In his new memoir “To the Castle and Back” there are long, thoughtful passages in which he reflects on what propelled him to the presidency. In the documentary, we observe him closely during his presidency, as he grapples with dilemmas and cuts through obscurity to arrive at morally sharp decisions. When asked how he can tolerate Czechs spreading falsehoods about him in parliament, he says philosophically that democracy imposes restraints on those who believe in it, even if those who don’t believe in democracy can act without any restraint. Rather than take a pragmatic, convenient way out of another crisis, he says his responsibility is to speak the truth. Living in truth (the title of yet another of his books) is what he did facing up to the Communists; as president, he is not about to make any compromises. (In the play, the leader is attached to a statue of the nonviolent Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi; in the documentary, we see the framed picture of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi on his mantelpiece.)

The memoir reveals how the cocoon of presidency frustrates him: The tedium of the quotidian is exasperating. He has to deal with dull bureaucrats who believe they can improve on his speeches. He has to deal with a bat living in his attic, the quality of food served to guests, the choice and placement of cutlery, the ordeal of getting his cigarette lighter fixed. He also struggles against software advancements that complicate tasks like word processing.

His memoir is not a straight-forward narrative with a beginning, middle and end. First, there are edited extracts from his diary, not necessarily in chronological order. Then there is an account of his postpresidential life, based on reflections written during a sabbatical at the U.S. Library of Congress. Finally, we see his thoughtful responses to a journalist who asks him complex questions about his presidency.

The fragmented structure seems discontinuous at first, but it eventually becomes comprehensive — a testament to the fairy-tale outcome of an astonished intellectual at the center of history, staring down lies, tearing down walls. In the end, all of that makes sense, as in a Havel play.

Mr. Tripathi is a writer living in London.