Vaclav Havel, Rebel Czech Playwright Who Led a Country, Dies at 75

Obituaries   Vaclav Havel, Rebel Czech Playwright Who Led a Country, Dies at 75 Vaclav Havel, who went from being an imprisoned dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia to the elected president of the newly free Czech Republic, died Dec. 18. He was 75.

Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel

Mr. Havel was the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia, serving from 1989 to 1992, and, following its split into the separate nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the first president of the latter, serving for ten years, stepping down in 2003. As such, he stood as a beacon of hope and inspiration to the people and countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the nations of which broke, one by one, from the iron grip of the Soviet Union in the late '80s (the times of the so-called Velvet Revolution) and early '90s. His story was particularly miraculous, not just because his fellow Czechs has chosen him — an artist — to lead the country into a new era, but also because he has been a visible and vocal victim of the Soviet regime, imprisoned for speaking out for human rights and writing plays attacking the communist system.

His plays were economical and pointed in their criticism of a ridiculous, unjust, devalued totalitarian world, where both words and humans were degraded at the hands of an unthinking government. In tone, they were frequently absurdist and drew obvious inspiration from the work of Samuel Beckett. Beckett later expressed mutual admiration, dedicating his own play, Catastrophe, to the dramatist.

Often standing at the center of Havel plays were somewhat autobiographical protagonists who, being overly individualistic and questioning, have trouble adjusting to the mindless conformity surrounding them. In The Garden Party, Hugo Pludek gets a job at the Liquidation Office, where everyone speaks in meaningless words. Eventually, he comes to speak the nonsense lexicon himself and becomes unrecognizable to his family. The Memorandum concerns a company director's frustrated efforts to translate an official memo that has been written in a new, bureaucratically reductive language. Largo Desolato tells of a political writer driven mad by the fear of being sent back into prison.

During his dissident years, Vaclav Havel was a critical favorite Off-Broadway. Joseph Papp's Public Theater was a particular champion of the Czech writer's work, producing The Memorandum in 1968, as well as Audience in 1983, Largo Desolato in 1986 and Temptation in 1989. Papp himself sometimes directed Mr. Havel's work. Mr. Havel won three Obie Awards, which honor Off-Broadway work, during this period: for The Memorandum in 1968; for The Increased Difficulty of Concentration in 1970; and for A Private View in 1984. The writer was not able to accept the first award because he was in jail at the time. In 1984, Papp traveled to Prague to visit Mr. Havel, smuggling in the award. (The other two Obies were given to Mr. Havel at a panel discussion at the Public Theater in 2006.)

The playwright's plays received renewed attention once he assumed the presidency. By and For Havel — an evening of The Audience, a 1975 Havel two-hander, and Beckett's Catastrophe — had an extended run at the John Houseman Studio Theatre in 1990. Rude Mechanicals produced Largo in 1999. In fall 2010, TACT/The Actors Company Theatre produced The Memorandum at the Beckett Theatre Off-Broadway.  Vaclav Havel was born in Prague on Oct. 5, 1936, the scion of a well-known and rich family that had been influential in Czechoslovakia culture in the decades before the Soviets assumed control of eastern Europe. His bourgeoise background was held against him by the Communist authorities, and he was not allowed to pursue the sort of education he wished, instead apprenticing as a chemical laboratory assistant.

But Mr. Havel's cultural roots eventually came out. Following military service, he worked as a stagehand at Prague's Theatre on the Balustrade, and studied drama by correspondence. His first play, The Garden Party, produced in 1963 at the Balustrade, was a success. The Memorandum followed, and was quickly produced in New York at the Public Theater. Mr. Havel's plays were banned in his homeland following the events of the Prague Spring in 1968. Furthermore, he was not allowed to travel to see productions of his work in other nations.

The Prague Spring, in which a democratic uprising was brutally crushed by Soviet forces, further politicized Mr. Havel, who advocated non-violent resistance. He continued to write plays, which were reproduced by hand and passed from person to person. He helped found the Charter 77, which was formed in opposition to the jailing of a rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe, and co-wrote its Manifesto. (Tom Stoppard addressed some of these events in the play Rock 'n' Roll.) Distributing the Manifesto was declared a crime by the government. He further formed the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted in 1979. The government responded by repeating imprisoning him, including one span from June 1979 to January 1984.

After leaving office, Mr. Havel published in 2007 his first new play in 18 years, Leaving, about a chancellor who is removed from power. It premiered in May 2008 at the Archa Theatre. The writer afterwards directed a film of the play. It premiered last March.

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