Sunday, September 14, 2008

Will Playwright Havel Outlast President Havel?

David Caute, writing for the 'New Statesman', asks if Czech playwright/president, Vaclav Havel’s artistic vision has survived the compromises of executive power? Below are some excerpts. Read the full article here.

“It seemed out of the question for Václav Havel to become president of Czechoslovakia after 40 years of Communist rule. The long-haired playwright had been just a persistent dissident voice, if one making some of the most eloquent minority demands for civil liberties, notably Charter 77. Everything changed when the new Civic Forum of November 1989 brought crowds to Wenceslas Square unanswerably demanding freedom from a collapsing Soviet empire. In the course of this "Velvet Revolution", the mild-mannered Havel found himself the astonished occupant of Hradcany Castle in Prague, high above the Vltava River. No flash in the pan and no mere figurehead, he liked the job enough to retain it for 13 years. Globally feted, though not always popular at home, he was loaded with do-good prizes and hailed by a joint session of the US Congress.

Now Havel is back as a playwright. Can the artist survive the blatant compromises of executive power? The focal character of his new play, 'Leaving', is a deposed leader coming to terms with a melancholic void after losing the status inseparable from his sense of himself...In the new play, there are no Vaneks. Power and wealth have taken their toll. All the main characters are loquacious, burdened by swollen egos, by pride, by vanity. But Havel makes light of it - this is a comedy leaning towards tragedy via farce. Take, for instance, the torrent of deliberate anachronisms. The script offers no time setting but we may assume that the pivotal figure, Vilém Rieger, has only recently stepped down as 'chancellor'. This is reinforced by his recall of something Tony Blair said to him, and President Havel himself once told him that 'popularity isn't everything' - yet Rieger pitches into wild anachronism when recalling how Chiang Kai-shek was impressed by his policy speeches and how Mao Zedong admired Rieger's bust of Gandhi 'when he came to visit'. Amusing enough if you know your dates, but isn't the teasing Havel waiting to see if we do? The teasing also extends to frequent voice-over authorial interventions (recorded recently by Havel in Prague), during which the actors are required to freeze. At one juncture, the Voice mentions 'my somewhat self-centred delight in being able to come up with any hare-brained idea at all, which the actors have to play with a straight face'.”

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