Performance, Protest and the Human Heart

“The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.” ~Václav Havel

Václav_Havel-Szilágyi

Václav Havel (1936-2011), playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, and politician, was one of the writers of Charter 77, a document that criticized the communist government for failing to implement human rights provisions. After the Velvet Revolution, Havel became the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. Shortly after being elected, he gave a speech to the joint session of US Congress. In his speech, he stated, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.” Havel has received numerous state decorations, honorary doctorates, and international awards, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. After leaving office, he continued to work in human rights, creating the Forum 2000 Foundation. Havel passed away on December 18, 2011.

 


Havel as a Playwright     

Havel loved the social aspects of theater and began working at the ABC Theater in Prague as a stagehand. At that time, Czech theater was being influenced by the “Theatre of the Absurd,” including playwrights Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. This sense of the absurd appealed to Havel and was central to his writing. In the 1960s, he became a leading playwright working at the Theatre on the Balustrade. By 1963, he wrote his first, full-length, publicly performed play, The Garden Party, about a person who has lost his sense of identity. Many of his plays show the absurdity of totalitarian rule through dark comedy and thus were banned by the communist regime. His play Audience features a main character named Vaněk, which represented Havel himself, who also appeared in two subsequent plays Unveiling and Protest. When Audience premiered in New York City, Havel was not allowed to travel out of the country to see it. His plays served as a stage for his ongoing struggle with the regime, his life experiences, as well as his means of support during hard times.

 

About the Play      
Vaněk pays a visit to the lavish home of former colleague Staněk, who has invited the renowned activist to help him secure the release of a jailed radical musician, fiancé to his daughter. Vaněk also seeks a favor: the influential man’s signature in a far-reaching protest. The play exposes life under a totalitarian regime and the thin line between acquiescence and culpability.

The performance is designed to recreate  the original staging atmosphere of the “apartment performances.” Havel and other publicly banned artists found this radical   solution as a way to share their works with their audiences as private living room performances.  The performances were known for their intimacy, their sly in-jokes about notable Czech artists (including Havel himself taking on the role of Vaněk,) and their tongue-in-cheek pokes at the communist-controlled country. Havel’s “Vaněk” became a kind of alter-ego or at least a much-beloved symbol of a counter-culture that later would bring about a bloodless “Velvet” Revolution. Many other playwrights, including Pavel Kohout and Tom Stoppard, modeled plays on the Vaněk character.
Tickets available on the Dupont Underground Website