Leaving

by Václav Havel
translated by Paul Wilson
directed by Jiri Zizka
starring Oscar® nominee David Strathairn
May 19, 2010June 20, 2010

Cumulative Effect: Václav Havel's Leaving sums up the life of a statesman — and a playwright, too.

"It was extraordinary to read a piece so fantastical and imagined as that coming from a head of state. That's not to say heads of state aren't capable of being imaginative or dramatic thinkers — it was just exciting to have such a rich piece of literature from the pen of a great political thinker and see how those elements rubbed up against each other."

David Strathairn's not talking about Leaving, Václav Havel's new play about to land at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater. No, this particular bit of nostalgia recalls the first time Strathairn performed under Wilma director Jiri Zizka, back in 1989. The pair were working off-Broadway on a play by Havel — who, just a few years later, would become the first president of the democratic Czech Republic.

At the time, Havel, a heralded political writer throughout the latter '60s, was in prison for his dissident role in leading the "Velvet Revolution" to end communism in Czechoslovakia. An ocean away, as Strathairn and Zizka worked on the intensely Faustian Temptation, Havel was in jail writing something new — a play about a politician in the December of his career.

That's Leaving, the story of a chancellor facing retirement, Havel's first new play in 20 years. Once again, Havel's work has found its way into the hands of both Zizka and Strathairn; rich in subtle references to Shakespeare's King Lear, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, Beckett's Endgame and Parini's The Last Station, Leaving is as engaging, caustic and clever as any of Havel's classics. It's gentler, too.

"Havel began work on Leaving before he could even hope that he'd be president of the Czech Republic," says Zizka, a native of Prague who followed Havel's theatrical career starting with a 1968 production of The Memorandum (Vyrozumní). That play, says Zizka, "was a mesmerizing introduction to his work."

Havel's was always a distinct literary voice with an absurdist style, allowing him to say things that make no sense whatsoever. "It was refreshing to have someone treat the Czech language as such," says Zizka of Havel's eccentricities. "He likes to make complicated arguments that are verbal. And he likes to make himself laugh."

While living in Czechoslovakia, author/editor Paul Wilson came to know and appreciate Havel, including the politician's ability to hone in, with laser intensity, on his plot's central conflict without ever eschewing his avant-garde sensibilities. "One remarkable thing about Havel in 1968 was that as he published essays, it wasn't as a reformed Communist," says Wilson. Havel's writing was crucial to those who wanted to resist the system: He had an artist's appreciation of the obstacles that communism created. "In his political writing, he analyzes the system, and in his dramatic writing, [he] shows [its] human dimension."

Brought together by history and politics, Havel and Wilson — of the Czech underground rock band Plastic People of the Universe — moved in the same intellectual circles and became friends in the '60s, at which point Wilson began translating Havel's writing into English. "I was expelled from the country because of my connections to Havel and such," says Wilson, who's been Havel's official translator for decades.

Zizka, too, has stayed under Havel's literary spell throughout his career. In 1979 he joined the Wilma as an artist-in-residence, and nearly a decade later made his cinematic directorial debut for PBS with 1990's Largo Desolato, a screen version of Havel's tale of a political writer afraid of being sent back to prison.

And now, after almost 20 other works of theater, Havel gives us Leaving, an allegory for all circumstances where one must depart ("it could be country, your spouse," laughs Zizka — "it's metaphysical that way"). According to Zizka, Havel started writing the manuscript for Leaving in 1989, but put it aside in favor of crafting political speeches. One day, says Zizka, an assistant of Havel's found the script, reminded him of its importance and, in 2007, four years after Havel left office, out came Leaving.

On the one hand, the story sounds awfully familiar — it's about a politician who's at the end of his career. But this is no memoir. "There were newer experiences — like when the chancellor's straightening out his personal property from the state-owned property — that [were] very much [akin to] Mr. Havel's experience when he left the office," says Zizka. "But the rest of it was things he couldn't have known when he started writing the play." Leaving allows Havel an opportunity for self-reflection through the lead character, Vilém Rieger, plus a chance to display the rhetoric of politicians the world over. But it was never intended to be a comedy.

"He didn't mean it to be funny," says Wilson, who translated the British and American versions of the play. "Yet when we first ran it with a live reading of Brit actors, they kept cracking up. On stage, too, there were nights where the audience wouldn't stop laughing. Havel doesn't set out to be funny. The situations he describes are naturally absurd."

As he did with Leaving's first English production in London, Wilson worked with the Wilma's actors during rehearsal to fashion a fresh translation based on Americans' turns-of-phrase, rhythms, dialect and linguistic idiosyncrasies. Since Leaving is meant to be universal, Wilson also tied in specific references to each country's politics.

The way Leaving unfolds, and the skill of the actors involved, has much to do with the giddy magic the play creates. When Zizka cast Strathairn in the role of Rieger, the director claims he was going against type. "He's often called upon to play grave and evil," says Zizka, "but he's outrageously funny."

Yuks aside, Leaving's tone — warm and humorous, elegiac and dignified — seems like a summation of Havel's work as a statesman, for sure, but also as a playwright. Could this be a finale for the 73-year-old writer?

Don't bet on it.

"When I spoke with him yesterday," says Zizka, "he told me he's working on a film version of Leaving." After all, Havel's through being president of the Czech Republic. So what's to stop him? "A great burden has been lifted from his shoulders and he is again free to be an artist," says Zizka. "He loves actors and theater people. He even revealed to me that secretly he always wanted to be a film director his whole life."

So, despite his multitude of achievements, Václav Havel is, in one way, just like every aspiring Hollywood star: All he wants to do is direct.