Essays By V Havel



An Open Letter to Dr. Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party
Dear Dr. Husák (April 1975), addressed to Dr. Gustav Husák, who was then the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, is Havel's first major public statement after being blacklisted in 1969. He describes the circumstances surrounding the wri
The power of the powerless
Translated by Paul Wilson, "The Power of the Powerless" has appeared several times in English, foremost in The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, edited by John Keane, with an Introduction by Steven Lukes (London
Politics and Conscience
In an author's note, Havel writes, "This speech was written for the University of Toulouse, where I would have delivered it on receiving an honorary doctorate, had I attended...:' Havel, of course, had no passport and could not travel abroad. At the cerem
The Erasmus Prize
On the Meaning of Charter 77
Anatomy of a Reticence
Anatomy of a Reticence (April 1985) was written, according to a note by the author, "to be delivered at a peace conference in Amsterdam, in my absence; and for an international collection of essays on European identity being prepared by the Suhrkamp publi
Stories and Totalitarianism
Stories and Totalitarianism (April 1987) was written for the underground cultural journal Jednou nohu (Revolver Review), and dedicated to Ladislav Hejdánek on his seventieth birthday. In English, it appeared in Index on Censorship, no. 3 (March 1988) and,
A Word About Words
In 1989, Havel was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. It was presented to him, in absentia, at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 15, 1989. This is his acceptance speech, which was read in Havel's absence by Maximilian Schell.

Light on a Landscape (1985)

SOURCE: "Light on a Landscape," translated by Milan Pomichalek and Anna Mozga, in The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, edited by Marketa Goetz-Stan-kiewicz, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1987, pp. 237-39.

[In the following essay, which was written in 1985, Havel discusses the experience of having other authors utilize his character Vaněk and coins the term "Vaněk principle" to describe the phenomenon.]

In the 1970's it was customary (and a good custom it was) for several of my writer-friends to spend one summer weekend with me in my country cottage every year. After 1969 they all had found themselves in a situation similar to mine; that is to say, they were banned in their native country and publicly disgraced for their beliefs concerning society. At these gatherings we used to, among other things, read our new works to each other. In the course of about two days before our meeting in 1975, and mainly to have something to read on that occasion, I wrote the oneact play "Audience." The inspiration came from personal experience—my employment in a brewery the year before—and the play was intended, as may be evident, primarily for the entertainment of my friends. Indeed, it is little more than a dialogue between the so-called "dissident" writer Vaněk (who works in a brewery) and his superior, the brewmaster. Though the latter is invented, obviously many of my own experiences—and not only those from the brewery—went into his making.

It never occurred to me that the play might be saying something (more or less significant) to other people, people who do not know me or my situation and who are ignorant of my having worked in a brewery. As it turned out, I was—as I had, after all, been a number of times before in regard to my literary work—mistaken: the play was successful not only with my friends but, also, having by various ways soon penetrated the relatively broad consciousness of the Czech public, also won its esteem. At times, it has even happened that total strangers, people in restaurants or casual hitchhikers I picked up, not only knew it but also had extracted from it pieces of dialogue, which they then used—in addition to short quotations or paraphrases—in various situations (in some cases as a sort of password among people spiritually akin). This wide domestic acclaim naturally pleased me, the more so as it occurred under conditions which made it impossible for the play to be published or performed publicly in my country. But what pleased me most is that something apparently happened which, I think, does or should occur with all art, namely that the work of art somehow exceeds its author, or is, so to speak, "cleverer than he is," and that through the mediation of the writer—no matter what purpose he was consciously pursuing—some deeper truth about his time reveals itself and works its way to the surface.

Stimulated by this experience, I later wrote two more plays, "Unveiling" and "Protest." All three have since been staged by many theatres in divers countries, and, in spite of the rather special and unusual circumstances from which they originated, they have turned out to be generally intelligible. The third one, "Protest," however, was actually written after a discussion with my friend Pavel Kohout as a counterpoint to his "Permit" (likewise a Vaněk play). These two were originally written with the intention of having them staged together, something that eventually did happen. Later, when I was already in prison, Kohout wrote another Vaněk piece, "Morass," and at approximately the same time my friend Pavel Landovsky composed "Arrest." Later still, after his release from the prison in which we had served time together, Jiři Dienstbier, another of my friends, wrote a Vaněk play as well.

If I am to make some marginal comments on the whole Vaněk series, it might, above all, be appropriate to emphasize that Vaněk is not Havel. Of course, I have transferred into this character certain of my own experiences, and I have done so more distinctly than is usual among writers. Undoubtedly, I have also implanted in him a number of my personal traits or, more precisely, presented a number of perspectives from which I see myself in various situations. But all of this does not mean that Vaněk is intended as a self-portrait. A real person and a dramatic character are entirely different things. The dramatic character is more or less always a fiction, an invention, a trick, an abbreviation consisting only of a limited number of utterances, and subordinated to the concrete "world of the play" and its meaning. In comparison with any living person, even the most enigmatic and psychologically most rounded character is hopelessly inadequate and simplistic. On the other hand, however, he should also exude something a real person cannot possibly possess: the ability always to say something perspicuous and essential about "the world as it is"—all within the context of the few lines of dialogue and the few situations that make up his entire being.

This holds true for Vaněk as well, perhaps more so than for many another dramatic character. Vaněk is really not so much a concrete person as something of a "dramatic principle": he does not usually do or say much, but his mere existence, his presence on stage, and his being what he is make his environment expose itself one way or an-other. He does not admonish anyone in particular; indeed, he demands hardly anything of anyone. And in spite of this, his environment perceives him as an invocation somehow to declare and justify itself. He is, then, a kind of "key," opening certain—always different—vistas onto the world in which he lives; a kind of catalyst, a gleam, if you will, in whose light we view a landscape. And although without it we should scarcely be able to see anything at all, it is not the gleam that matters but the landscape. The Vaněk plays, therefore, are essentially not plays about Vaněk but plays about the world as it reveals itself when confronted with Vaněk. (This, I must add, is an ex post facto explanation. While writing "Audience," I was not aware of this, and I did not plan things that way before-hand. It is only now that, removed in time and faced with Vaněk's literary and theatrical existence of several years, I have come to realize it.)

From what I have just said about Vaněk, it of course follows that the Vaněk of different plays and, even more so, the Vaněk of different authors is not always quite the same character. While it is true that as a "principle" or "dramatic trick" he moves from play to play, the principle is used differently every time, and as a character he is therefore always someone slightly different. The writers impress on him their own varied experiences, they perceive him in the framework of their individual poetics, perhaps they even project into him their varying interpretations of the man who was the original model. In short, every writer is different and writes differently; consequently, he has his own Vaněk, different from the Vaněk of the others.

For me, personally, all that remains is to be pleased that, having discovered—more unconsciously than on purpose—the "Vaněk principle," I have inspired other Czech writers who, as it happens, are also my friends, and have provided something of a key for them to use in their own way and at their own responsibility. And if the present collection of Vaněk-plays [The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, 1987] says—as a whole—something about the world in which it was given us to live our lives, then the credit should be given collectively and in equal measure, to all the authors involved.

Writing for the Stage (1986)

SOURCE: "Writing for the Stage," in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvížďala, translated by Paul Wilson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 35-72.

[The following interview was first published in 1986. Havel surveys his career and discusses the origins of several of his plays.]

How many plays have you written by now? Could you give us a bibliographical overview?

… [My] first play, still juvenilia really, was a one-acter called "An Evening with the Family" from 1959. After I went over to the Theatre on the Balustrade, I worked with Ivan Vyskočil on a play called Hitchhiking, which was performed in 1961. With Miloš Macourek, I wrote a cabaret play called Mrs. Hermannova's Best Years, which was performed, if I'm not mistaken, in 1962. I wrote several scenes for a poetic revue called The Deranged Turtledove, which was also performed sometime around that period.

My first independent full-length play was The Garden Party, which was given its premiere in the Theatre on the Balustrade in 1963. The Memorandum was mounted in 1965, but I had started writing it in 1960, and then rewritten it several times. In 1968 the Balustrade performed another play of mine, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. I also wrote a short radio play called Guardian Angel in the sixties, and in 1968 the Czechoslovak Radio broadcast it, with Josef Kemr and Rudolf Hrušínsky̌ (I never actually heard it). Also I wrote a television play called A Butterfly on the Antennae, for which Czechoslovak Television gave me a kind of prize. They even prepared to tape it, but, thanks to the Soviet invasion, this never happened. Later it was done by West German Television. The Garden Party and The Memorandum were published sometime in the 1960s by Mladá Fronta, along with two of my essays and a collection of typographical poetry, all under the title Protocols. A separate edition of The Garden Party had already been published by Orbis, which also later brought out The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. All three plays came out as well as a supplement to Divadlo magazine, and recently they were published together in book form under the title The Increased Difficulty, by the Rozmluva press in London. To make this survey complete, I should also mention a film version of The Garden Party, which fortunately was never realized (I say "fortunately" because Barrandov Studios had hired a director whose poetics were not very close to mine); another unrealized film scenario, Heart Beat (with Jan Němec); a sound collage called Bohemia the Beautiful, Bohemia Mine created in Czechoslovak Radio but never broadcast (fortunately for the producers who had commissioned it), and A Door to the Attic, a revue based on texts by Ivan Sviták, and apparently performed later (I'm not sure about this) in Viola. In the 1970s—that is, when I was already banned—the first play I wrote was The Conspirators (1971), but I don't think it was very successful. Next came The Beggar's Opera (1972), and in 1975 two one-act plays, "Audience" and "Private View," to which I added a third, "Protest," in 1978. All three feature the same character, Vaněk. In 1976 I wrote another full-length play, called Mountain Hotel. Except for "Protest," all these plays from my "banned" period were published by 68 Publishers in Toronto under the title Plays. (Unfortunately, a working version of The Conspirators was published by mistake; it was even worse than the final version.) After my release from prison, I wrote a miniplay in 1983 called "The Mistake" (it was printed by Svědectví); then, in 1984, came a full-length play, Largo Desolato, and, in 1985, Temptation. Both were published in Munich by Poezie Mimo Domov.Largo Desolato was also published earlier in Svédectví. Considering that I've been writing plays now for twenty-six years, I haven't written a great deal. I should perhaps add that all my plays were and still are performed by various theatres in various countries of the world, and they've also been published in foreign languages.

Do you remember how you got the idea for The Memorandum and where the word "ptydepe" come from?

I don't really like to admit this, but the idea for an artificial language called "ptydepe" was not mine: it came from my brother Ivan, who is a mathematician. Of course the play was my own idea, and I wrote it in my own way; I merely consulted with my brother in the passages on redundancy.

And how did you come up with the subject for The Garden Party?

In this case, the original impulse came from Ivan Vyskočil, for a change. After the shows, we'd always sit around in some wine...

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