Havel na hrad: Flights of Angels


How It’s New York:  The plays of Václav Havel were performed at the Public Theater in the 60s, some before they were in Prague.  After the brief Prague Spring, Havel was a dissident writer who could not be performed there.  He accepted a long overdue Obie from Olympia Dukakis, who had been in The Memorandum at the Public in 1968, in 2006.
How It’s Irish:  Many many Irish people lived in Prague during the 90s, shortly after Havel was elected President following the Velvet Revolution.  It’s where Books Editor Michelle Woods, her husband Michael Reisman, and I met (in a Czech language class, in fact).  And many Irish writers and artists have admired Havel’s stance to “live in truth,” the non-violent but deep revolt in thought that inspired a nation.

Václav Havel died today. Although Havel’s opinions have been used by ideologues, he himself was not one.  He was an idealist and also a realist.  He was the quintessential artist, and his work will always inspire.
 I wrote this piece for WSJ’s Speakeasy blog, assigned because I had covered the opening of Leaving in Philadelphia for them, conducting an interview with director Jiri Zizka, himself a Czech who defected during the Communist era.  I’ve included those articles after the jump.  And here is the link to the coverage of the Havel Festival that I did for American Theatre in 2006, too– a good time to read it if you haven’t yet.

And I’ll put up the review of Leaving I did for Theatermania, too– because it was brilliant, and because it should have come to NY.

Vaclav Havel: A Life in Brief Scenes

By Gwen Orel

Getty Images
A portrait of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, with a text that reads: “Havel To The Castle,” a popular slogan during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, lies among candles left by mourners at the base of a statue of St. Wenceslas to commemorate Havel’s death on December 18, 2011 in Prague, Czech Republic.
Václav Havel, the politician and playwright, died today. I met him several times over the last few years. My encounters were only brief scenes, but they offered insight into the epic drama of his life.
Havel was a figure of great symbolic importance to the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia—its first post-Communist President, the tenth of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic, following the split in 1992. During the Velvet Revolution in 1989, protestors in Wenceslas Square chanted “Havel na hrad”—“Havel to the Castle” ( the seat of power, like the White House). Jailed for being a dissident playwright and writer, his “Letters to Olga” and his exhortations to “live in truth” led, quietly, to a revolution that began with actors and led to a whole country’s quiet refusal to accept a life of lies.
But he also loomed large in the consciousness of Americans and the British. His plays were performed at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in the 60s, while most of them were banned in Czechoslovakia. Tom Stoppard brought attention to Havel’s group protesting government abuses, Charter 77.
The “playwright turned president” also helped inspire the phenomenon of YAPs– Young Americans in Prague. I wrote about them for my dissertation on English-Language Theatre in Post-Communist Prague. Rock stars loved him too, famously Keith Richards, and Suzanne Vega.
I met Havel a few times including during the Havel Festival curated by Edward Einhorn, of Untitled Theatre Company #61 (UTC), in 2006. It was the first time all of Havel’s 18 stage plays (including new translations, English language premieres and one world premiere) were presented together, and a variety of companies from all over the city participated. Havel also did a seven-week residency hosted by the Columbia Arts Initiative.
But most theatre VIPs did not check out the work of the non-Equity, young companies. Havel did, along with his friends Madeleine Albright and Miloš Forman. Havel began his career as a stage manager at Prague’s Divadlo na Zábradlí, then the equivalent of an off-off-Broadway theatre. He hadn’t forgotten.
At “Protest,” directed by Einhorn, at the Ohio Theatre, Havel praised the performance of Richard Toth as Staněk. Toth had been a YAP, founding Misery Loves Company. Maggie Gyllenhaal performed with them.
I met Havel again when his play “Leaving” opened in Philadelphia in 2010 (I had seen it in London the year before). It is about a Chancellor leaving office, with allusions to “King Lear” and “The Cherry Orchard,” and uses authorial commentary on the action—Havel’s own words– as a voiceover. He said, “the meaning shifts in every language, but if you mind the shifting of meaning than you should not write plays.”
Asked if the play was a criticism of free market capitalism, he replied “It is a criticism of human stupidity.”
His meaning was clear in any language.

With ‘Leaving,’ Vaclav Havel Returns to the American StageComments (3)

By Gwen Orel

Jim Roese
The cast of the U.S. premiere of Vaclav Havel’s “Leaving,” actor David Strathairn center.
Václav Havel’s first play in 20 years, “Leaving,” has its American premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater May 26. Havel’s plays were banned in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, and have long had a larger following in the West.
Crowds chanted “Havel na hrad”– Havel to the Castle (the seat of power, like the White House)—during the Velvet Revolution, inspired by his dissident essays. He was the tenth and last president of Czechslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic.
“Leaving” is about a Chancellor leaving office, with echoes of “King Lear” and “The Cherry Orchard.” Speakeasy spoke with director (and Wilma co-Artistic Director) Jiri Zizka. Zizka left Czechoslovakia in 1976.
The Wall Street Journal: Did you believe Havel would really go back to playwriting after leaving office?
Jiri Zizka: Yes. He had to perform the role of president, because he was the best man for the role. The Velvet Revolution is called the Velvet Revolution is because of Havel, I think. It could have been much more violent. A lot of people were very angry. He said, we have to end that.
Havel puts his own voice in the play as a commentator.
Every writer has a voiceover in his head saying this is not good, that is not good. It’s a very interesting device to put on stage, that conference on the side. And it’s amusing.

Jiri Zizka, left, and Vaclav Havel.
Is “Leaving” autobiographical?
Havel started to write the play way before he was president. He was interested in officials leaving offices and seats of power. He drew on some experiences, like when the main character is sorting out his possessions, saying this belongs to me, this belongs to the state. Some people think Mr. Klein is Klaus [Václav Klaus, a strong proponent of free-market capitalism, succeeded Havel in 2003], but Klein is a fictional character. It’s not a play about politics, or Czechoslovakia, it really is about how we leave the things we love.
What attracted you to the play?
I saw the premiere in Prague a few years ago, and wanted to do it. It’s a universal story, about leaving your country, your family, your job. It’s a metaphysical play, like Beckett, Shakespeare, Chekhov—it’s about an experience beyond what is physical. It’s also very funny.

    Vaclav Havel, Madeleine Albright on ‘Leaving’

    By Gwen Orel

    Richard W. Kotulski
    From left, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, President Václav Havel, President Havel’s wife and Czech actress Dagmar Veškmová.
    Officials, stars and VIP’s attended opening night of the U.S. premiere of former Czech President Václav Havel’s new play “Leaving” at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia this week. The play stars Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), and follows an ex-Chancellor preparing to leave his government-owned villa. “Leaving” includes a voiceover read by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus”).
    Speakeasy spoke to some of the distinguished guests at the reception—including Havel.
    Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose family left Czechoslovakia in 1948, said that “as somebody who’s actually left a high-level job” she could relate to the play.
    “Nobody teaches you how to feel about your successor,” said Albright. “It’s a no-win situation. If your successor is really good, you think why do people think this person is better than I was? If your successor is really bad, you think why is this person screwing up everything that I did? I wrote in my memoirs that everybody who says they’re glad that these big jobs are over is lying, but I think Havel is very happy to be writing plays again.”
    Havel had nothing but good things to say about the production. “When I don’t like a production I have to say that it’s interesting,” he said. “I liked this very much! I have seen it in Warsaw, Athens, Bratislava, Germany, as well as England and in the Czech Republic. The meaning shifts in every language, but if you mind the shifting of meaning than you should not write plays.”
    So is the play a criticism of free-market capitalism? we asked him.
    “No,” Havel replied. ” It’s a criticism of human stupidity.”

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.