an absurdist drama from a surrealist politician
The theme of moving, of leave-taking, and of cutting down was something I may have brought upon myself: the play I’ve long been preparing to write will work with these themes; it will attempt to allude to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, to Beckett’s Endgame, and above all to Shakespeare’s King Lear. It will be about a statesman who has lost his position and has to move out of the official residence provided by the state; it’s surrounded by an orchard, and he can’t come to accept it. The loss of his position and all that pertains to it means the collapse of his world. He goes slightly mad from it all. (The interesting thing is that I started writing this play before the revolution, that is, sixteen years ago, and then I tossed the manuscript away in the belief that after all the changes taking place, the theme would no longer interest me.… But it’s far more probable that, having thought about it for so long, I’ll never get it written, and then someone else – most probably my longtime friend and colleague Tom Stoppard – will write a play about a writer who prepared his whole life to write the most important play of his life and, of course, he never writes it.)
-Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back
Fortunately, Václav Havel did find the “month with nothing else to do” he wished for, and he, not Tom Stoppard, wrote the play in question – Leaving. He told The Wilma Theater “I didn't stick to the original plan at all but I preserved in a way the basic theme of a ruler who loses power and his world crumbles around him” and “I made use of various experiences of mine from my period as President and from the period of my retirement from office, such as the theme of separating government-issue and private items.”
It’s not often you have the chance to produce a play written by someone who is also ranked on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the “100 Top Global Thinkers” (number 23, between economist Robert Shiller and futurist Chris Anderson). But Václav Havel’s life has been anything but usual. His fellow Czech writer, Milan Kundera, has written of him “there are cases (very rare) where comparing a life to a work of art is justified.”
Václav Havel (his first name is pronounced “VAHTS-lav”) first gained attention, both in his native land and internationally, as a playwright. The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 radically changed his life. Although he kept writing plays, they were banned from performance or publication domestically. In the mid-70s (what the Communist government called the “period of normalization”) he became known internationally as a “star in the theater of opposition” (his phrase), serving several prison terms as well as lesser penalties such as being forced to work in a rural brewery, because of his insistence on the importance of “living in truth” as a non-violent form of resistance to oppression.
Then, when the satellite governments of the Soviet Bloc fell like dominos in that remarkable autumn of 1989, Havel became, almost by acclamation, President of a newly democratic country. “Truth and love must replace hatred and lies,” he said in his first New Year’s address. After seeing the victory of the Velvet Revolution, he had to preside over the “Velvet Divorce,” when Czechoslovakia split into two countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Havel then became the first president of the Czech Republic, serving for ten years. His governing style led Arthur Miller to call him the first surrealist president. He said recently “I am probably one of only a few politicians who have never yearned for office, nor even considered that I would ever occupy one.”
President Havel has won numerous international awards, including the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, presented to him on July 4, 1994. He said “we are not here alone, or for ourselves alone:”
The single planetary civilization to which we all belong confronts us with global challenges. We stand helpless before them, because our civilization has essentially globalized only the surface of our lives. But our inner selves continue to have a life of their own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human Being, the more deeply it would seem that people – behind its back, as it were – cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe. For this reason, individual cultures, increasingly lumped together by contemporary civilization, are realizing with new urgency their own inner autonomy and the inner differences of others. Cultural conflicts are increasing and are understandably more dangerous today than at any other time in history. The end of the era of rationalism has been catastrophic. Armed with the same supermodern weapons, often from the same suppliers, and followed by television cameras, the members of various tribal cults are at war with one another. By day, we work with statistics; in the evening, we consult astrologers and frighten ourselves with thrillers about vampires. The abyss between the rational and the spiritual, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, the technical and the moral, the universal and the unique, grows constantly deeper.
Since his retirement from office in 2003, he has remained active supporting issues important to him, but has also now returned to his first love, playwriting. He has always considered theater to have a special place among human endeavors:
Theater is not just another genre, one among many. It is the only genre in which, today and every day, now and always, living human beings address and speak to other human beings. Because of that, theater is more than just the performance of stories or tales. It is a place for human encounter, a space for authentic human existence, above all for the kind of existence that transcends itself in order to give an account of the world and of itself. It is a place for living, specific, inimitable conversations about society and its tragedies, about man, his love and anger and hatred. Theater is a point at which the intellectual and spiritual life of the human community crystallizes. It is a space in which the community can exercise its freedom and come to understanding.
In the global technical civilization created by so many autonomous cultures and threatened by conflicts between them, theater is -- I firmly believe -- a telescope into the future and a means of giving shape to our hope. Not because its purpose is to describe a world better than the one that exists, or to construct a vision of a better future, but because it embodies the main hope of humanity today, which is the rebirth of a living humanity. For, if theater is free conversation, free dialogue, among free people about the mysteries of the world, then it is precisely what will show humankind the way toward tolerance, mutual respect, and respect for the miracle of Being.
Leaving marked the first time in forty years Havel had been able to attend rehearsals and opening night for the world premiere of one of his plays.
Not surprisingly, Havel has commented on several occasions about the relationship between politics and drama. In his memoir To the Castle and Back we wrote:
Politics, like life itself, simply plods on; at first sight it doesn’t seem to be articulated in any comprehensible way; there are not many clear beginnings, entr’actes, interruptions, moments of catharsis, climaxes, or endings. It seldom happens that politics is fixed on a clearly defined goal.…Drama’s job is to visibly define the beginnings, the interruptions, the pauses, and ultimately the end, or the point of it all – in other words, all the things that are so hard to see outside of drama.
In a speech to the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, he suggested a starker distinction “between theater as art and the theatrical dimension of politics. A mad theatrical performance by a group of fanatical actors is part of cultural pluralism, and as such, helps to expand the realm of freedom without posing any serious threat to anyone. A mad performance by a fanatical politician can plunge millions into endless calamity.”
Dramaturg & Literary Manager