Monday, November 05, 2018

Vaclav Havel and The Memo

 Image credit: Vaclav Havel Library

This month the University of Redlands theatre department presents The Memo by the Czech playwright, human rights activist, political philosopher and statesman Vaclav Havel.

Havel was born in Prague in 1936 to an affluent family who lost their wealth and status after Communists came to power in 1948. Denied the ability to attend high school, Havel got a job as a lab assistant, took classes at night school, and struck up friendships with other young writers and intellectuals. At the age of twenty, he attracted notoriety when he made a speech appealing for official recognition of banned poets at a government-sponsored writers' conference. Havel's interest in theater developed during his two years of army service; upon being discharged, he found work at Theater of the Balustrade, a small, avant-garde theater company. Here he had the opportunity to try a little of everything - shifting scenes, electrical work, manuscript reading, dramaturgy, and eventually playwriting. He also fell in love with another company member, Olga Splichova; their marriage would last 32 years until her death in 1995.

The Memo was the second of three significant early plays Havel wrote for Theatre of the Balustrade. Premiered in 1965, it displayed the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd - the company was regularly staging plays by Beckett, Ionesco and Kafka - as well as Havel's fascination with "the power of language as a perpetuator of systems, a tool to influence man's mind and therefore one of the strongest (though secret) weapons of any system that wants to mould him" ("Vaclav Havel").

Absurdist theater was a natural outlet for Havel's need to communicate the crushing effect of political repression. As he later wrote, "life saves itself by going offstage. Forced to be actors, people return to the audience as soon as they can, and take the chance to jeer at their forced selves. Their real culture must be hidden. It must go underground for protection" (qtd. in Chamberlain 76).

But within a few years, Havel's life would change dramatically, sending him on a path towards another type of salvation - active resistance. A brief period of political and cultural liberalization in Czechoslovakia, the "Prague Spring" of 1968, would end violently with Russian troops invading to crush protests and help hard-line Communists retake control of Czechoslovakia. Denied work in the theatre and put under surveillance, Havel would travel the country talking with workers, sign open letters, give underground radio broadcasts and smuggle his writing and speeches to the West. He would be jailed multiple times, once for four years. His writing would make him famous worldwide. He would write more plays, now more autobiographical and deeply introspective, probing the risks of moral compromise and self-deception facing people living in relationship to power. The plays would find audiences, abroad and - despite the risks to performers and audience members alike - in Czechoslovakia. Acknowledged for his skill at organizing coalitions and giving voice to human rights causes, Havel would be the unanimous choice for president when the country's last Communist leader resigned in December 1989 and Parliament needed to choose a successor. He would be "a new type of leader for Czechoslovakia. The long-persecuted but never silenced dissident was a modest, diffident intellectual who, lacking a professional politician's self-conscious self-confidence, readily admitted his fears for the future and amazement at his success. In his first months in office he accomplished much" (Byers 204).

During this transition away from autocratic rule, Havel's early plays, banned for so long, were  officially allowed to be performed again on Czech stages. Barbara Day observes the irony of plays like The Memo seeing their belated revival "as the work not of an aspiring stagehand, but of the country's President" (Day 457).

Works Cited

Byers, Paula K., ed. "Vaclav Havel." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 202-204.

Day, Barbara. "Havel, Vaclav." International Dictionary of Theatre, vol. 2: Playwrights. Detroit: Gale, 1994, pp. 455-457.

Havel, Vaclav, "In the Communist Mirror." 1990. Cited in Chamberlain, Lesley. "Play It Again, Vaclav: The Wisdom in Havel's Plays." The World & I, vol. 16, no. 8, 2001, pp. 76-81.

"Vaclav Havel." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 26 October 2018. 

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