Michelle Woods Chows Down on Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig!

Andrew Goldsworth, Mateo Moreno, Katherine Boynton, Robert Honeywell (Arthur Cornelius)
How it’s New York: Hunt for a Pig is one of the plays in the Soho Think Tank’s Ice Festival 2011 at downtown’s 3LD theater.
How it’s Irish: It’s part of our new tab, Celto-Slavs, and I’m writing a book about Havel (and am half-Irish, half-Czech – something the movie Once didn’t invent!)
The TV screens placed around the 3LD theatre intermittently showed socialist realist art, live feed from Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s marvelous production of Václav Havel’s  (pronounced Vaaatszlav Hah-vel) Hunt for a Pig.  Once they came perilously close to a view up the ladies of NYIA’s skirts (which led to much hasty under-table fumbling).  The screen crawl read “Avant-garde Czech playwright still basically unknown in US” , a wry smile at an odd truth. 
Havel, the Czech playwright who led the bloodless, peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and became President for 13 years, is still unknown as a playwright on his own terms (ie not defined by politics) in the United States. 
David Remnick in a New Yorker profile of Havel at the end of his presidency, dismissed Havel’s plays as Cold War artifacts, as if his plays were only political salvos relevant to a lost era. Hunt for a Pig  prods the politicization of Havel and his work by the West, suggesting that reading his plays as just “dissident” texts has more to do with what the West wants to comprehend than the plays themselves.  This drama works as theatre, not as an idea.  You don’t have to be Czech to understand bait and switch, after all.  You don’t have to know a thing about dissidents to enjoy theatre that enourages you to eat, have a beer, watch TV and have a laugh.

Hunt for a Pig is actually a play based on an essay by Havel about a real incident in the 1980s when he sought to buy a pig to cook for a party in the village where he lived (in a cottage he called as a joke, Hradeček, or “Little Castle”). The killing of a whole pig, or zabijačka, is a Czech village tradition, an excuse for a party where every bit of the animal is used.  Havel, famous in real life as a gourmand and cook amongst his friends, gets led around the garden path by the villagers who say they have a pig, then don’t, then the price goes up. 
The essay was first turned into a play by Prague’s Archa Theatre, and this English version was its New York premiere.  In it, Havel tries to find “backbone” to stand up to their conniving but keeps backing down. Meanwhile, an American TV crew  follow him around trying to work out how all of this can be interpreted as political, with a clueless reporter – played with wonderful eye-batting naivete by Katherine Boynton – unable even to pronounce his name. “Hay-val,” she says, “Vak-lav.”
In the spirit of the play, we were handed sandwiches and Czech candy at the door; Pilsner and pretzels were for sale (both very tasty). As we munched, suddenly the people in front of us stood up and sang – in gorgeous full-throated beauty.  The music was an intricate part of the play, a mixture of music from Bedrich Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride and original music by the director, Henry Akona.  Repeated refrains included one from The Bartered Bride’s chorus Proč bychom se netěšili (“Why Not Have a Celebration”) and a hunted repetition of “Irate, Irritated”. The singers were incredible; at one point, Moira Stone playing the Bride moved towards our table, her eyes blazing with such passion that I scraped my chair back and leant back too as if I was in an emotional wind-tunnel. 
(Arthur Cornelius)
 Edward Einhorn, who (working from a literal translation by Katerina Lu) translated and produced the play, is something of a Havel expert at this stage and it shows in the production. He produced the impressive Havel Festival in 2007 and his own excellent original work, in dialogue with Havel’s, The Velvet Oratorio (with music by Henry Akona) in 2009.*
Einhorn fundamentally gets Havel’s theatre, beyond the typically reductive readings of his plays as just “dissident” theatre (a label Havel rejected), to an understanding that these plays are about language – how we use language and how language uses us. The prolixity, ellipses, and repetitions have a rhythm and aesthetic point, that here in Hunt for a Pig is beautifully offset by the musical refrains.
The circularity of the story, trying to get a pig, maybe getting it, being fobbed off, trying to get a pig, maybe getting it etc., is bound up in the language and music.  And you can see how village life has been affected by the corrupt, proto-capitalist world of late Communism, what Havel called “post-totalitarianism.”** And it’s also indicative of the village bartering in Smetana’s opera, which suggests that this kind of thing really is not so new.
The American reporter tries to interpret the opera too.  When she listens to the two lovers, Jenik and Marienka, sing, she says: “Here, the bride and lover express their deepest fears. Those fears are of course unfounded.” She listens to her earpiece, “I’m sorry, I’m told everything goes terribly wrong.” Her blatant misunderstanding is a reference to how Havel himself has been misunderstood. Havel is newsworthy to the reporter because he’s a dissident, not because he’s buying a pig, but as the show goes on, this man who stands (and stood) up to the regime isn’t brave enough to stand up to the villagers and is fleeced by them.
Havel’s wife, Olga, sends him a letter in response: “I am distraught, disappointed, disillusioned, disgruntled, dissatisfied, discombobulated, disturbed, and disgusted…I simply have no words.” Yet Havel finds a few more, “You Pork Rind! Bacon Bit! Ham Hock!”.  Havel’s intensely moving letters to his wife from prison, collected as Letters to Olga, consolidated the view of him in the West as a hero, but we never get to read his late wife’s replies, the woman who sees him as just another man, albeit one she loves.
*Editor’s note: I covered this Festival for American Theatre, and will reprint it here shortly
**Editor’s note:  That would be the period I covered in my dissertation, Performing Cultures:  English-Language Theatre in Post-Communist Prague.  Definitely an age tarnishing before your eyes.  It’s listed by Literaria Pragensia so look for it in book form next year!
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