CNN reports that Vaclav Havel, former playwright and current president of the Czech Republic, has developed bronchial pneumonia following intestinal surgery a week and a half ago. He's also been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Presidential spokesperson Martin Krafl told the press that Havel was "being worked on intensively."
Havel, 61, remains on a respirator. His right lung had collapsed after a tracheotomy, but the lung returned to normal, as did his fever. Back in December 1996, former chain-smoker Havel had a third of his lung and a tumor removed. This past April, he ruptured his large intestine but was saved by last-minute surgery.
Havel is mostly a ceremonial leader now (recently reelected to another five year term), but he was a key figure when Communism collapsed in Prague in 1989. He also helped bring cultural awareness of Western music, film and theatre to Eastern Europe, having met with such figures as Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and Milos Forman.
At an Oct. 4, 1996 celebration of Havel's 60th birthday at NY's Public Theatre, Artistic Director George C. Wolfe remarked how wonderful it is that "an artist is a leader in the world. More artists should be world leaders!"
Wolfe went on to remind the audience of The Public's longtime association with Havel, a connection elaborated upon by Joseph Papp's widow, Gail. She noted that the Public produced four plays by Havel in 1968 -- the theatre's first year -- following stagings of Hair and Hamlet. Havel was only 30 then, and when his plays won an Obie, then-artistic director Joseph Papp couldn't give him his award because Havel was in jail (1979-83). It wasn't until 1984, when the Papp came to Prague and visited Havel (then under house arrest), that the president-to-be got his Off-Broadway award. Gail Merrifield Papp closed her remarks by remembering how tremendously moved she and her dying husband were when Havel called them in 1991.
Havel's most famous play may be Audience, which tells of a brewery worker forced to listen to his boss' drunken, paranoid rantings. Other works include The Garden Party (1963), Largo Desolato (1984) and Redevelopment (1990).
According to the Back Stage Theatre Guide, Havel's family wouldn't allow him to study drama in college, so he became a stagehand, lighting technician, and then dramaturg at the avant-garde Prague Theatre. Imprisoned for four years because of his involvement in the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS), Havel received cheering up from none other than Samuel Beckett, who dedicated the play Catastrophe to him in 1982.
-- By David Lefkowitz