Swans Commentary » swans.com January 17, 2005  



Working With Havel


by Charles Marowitz





[ed. In the spring of 2004, the author was invited to Prague to direct Vaclav Havel's play TEMPTATION at The National Theatre in the Czech Republic.]


(Swans - January 17, 2005)   On the day Vaclav Havel was scheduled to attend the first-act run-through of his play TEMPTATION at The National Theatre in Prague, there was a palpable sense of hysteria in the air. The actors, all highly experienced members of a robust and respected permanent company which performed regularly before the upper echelons of Prague society, had never played in a scrappy rehearsal room before an internationally-lauded political icon and ex-President of the Czech Republic surrounded by secret servicemen. Lines were muffed, moves went awry, entrances forgotten and a sense of "royal command performance" choked the air. But after an hour or so, the torture was over and the actors sat circled around an appreciative, avuncular and soft-spoken playwright being gently massaged with compliments and diverted by anecdotes about his numerous incarcerations, the play's inception, and the thrill of being back in the midst of working actors after an absence of some twenty-five years.

TEMPTATION deals with a diabolical pact between a subversive scientist and an odoriferous necromancer who turns out to be a government informer. It was gestated during various imprisonments and went through a torturous incubation period. While in prison, instead of being given the usual batch of propagandist Communist literature, Havel had been handed Goethe's Faust, and then Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus and after that, a battered copy of Marlowe's Faustus. It was as if inexplicable dark forces were luring him towards the Faustian theme. After several false starts, he wrote the play in ten days -- one scene each day -- which was highly uncharacteristic, as the playwright usually marinates a play for two, sometimes three years "Strange things happened to me," Havel recalled. "When I finished, I was so exhausted, I almost collapsed. I fell down the stairs and injured my head. I caught a flu and my temperature shot up dangerously high; I couldn't get out of bed; I had no medicine; I couldn't call a doctor... There were moments when I felt myself almost physiologically tempted by the devil." Of all his works, TEMPTATION is the only one that unquestionably exudes a strong whiff of fire and brimstone.

The play was banned in the mid-1980s when it was first written and has had a chequered life since then. Although the Czech Republic's most recognizable playwright, Havel has had only one play staged at the National Theatre in Prague - viz. THE GARDEN PARTY in 1990. TEMPTATION, which opened on May 13th of 2004, is only the second.

When asked what the play is "really about," I refer people to the following quotation. "All my adult life," Havel has said, "I was branded by officials as 'an exponent of the right' who wanted to bring capitalism back to our country. Today -- at a ripe old age -- I am suspected by some of being left-wing, if not of harbouring out-and-out socialist tendencies. What, then, is my real position? First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine -- left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me."

For Havel the enemy is always dogma, whatever its ideological flavor and, along with that, a distrust of rationality which too often is used only to prop up one set of absolutes against another.

On the night of the premiere, there was an agitated buzz throughout the auditorium of The National Theatre as we had all been informed that Havel would be in attendance. His friends and well-wishers, who knew how important it was for his status as a playwright to be reconfirmed, had crowded out the stalls of the theatre. An hour or so before the start of the show, we were told that because of a sudden complication in his health, his doctor had forbidden him to attend. There had been three previous occasions when it was announced he would be visiting one particular rehearsal or another and in all of those instances, poor health caused him to cancel out. Despite the absence of the playwright -- or perhaps because of it, the final curtain was greeted with a tumultuous ovation and some twelve curtain-calls. We were all somewhat taken aback buy the fervor but gradually realized this was not so much an affirmation of the play and the acting-company as it was an obstreperous recognition of the fact that, apart from having been President for some fifteen years, Vaclav Havel was also the national playwright and the one whose works during the Occupation had kept the image of an oppressed Czech populace before the eyes of the world.

In the hurly-burly which followed the Velvet Revolution in 1989, one sometimes forgets that Havel, the charismatic dissident, was essentially a playwright who came out of the Absurdist tradition of the 1960s. Ironically, his political achievements engulfed his reputation as a playwright and, because so many of his plays were thinly-veiled attacks on the Communist regime, many of them seem now to belong to a far distant past. Being too much in the thick of current events sometimes ages writers before their time. This is a fate which has also befallen Athol Fugard, whose plays about Apartheid now seem strangely irrelevant to the problems of contemporary South Africa. With the passage of time, some political plays occasionally reincarnate and acquire a vogue as "period pieces," but most of them fall into archival obscurity. TEMPTATION, although inspired by the Soviet occupation, has the advantage of being largely symbolic and politically non-specific; a play in which black magic and necromancy (which originally stood for political dissent) can just as easily substitute for almost any kind of heterodoxy. But trimming down the ex-President's script to accommodate the new dispensation was a little like taking a red pencil to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Havel, reversing Teddy Roosevelt's dictum about "speaking softly" and "carrying a big stick," tends to speak softly and carry no stick at all, but his dialectic is so civil and cogent, it often persuades antagonists to alter their positions. Apart from a tactful letter in which I am gently rebuked for inserting more comic absurdity than the playwright intended, Havel respected the director's right to interpret the material as he sees fit which, given his formidable reputation, was a genuine concern in those early days when I was looking for levity to leaven the gravitas. But then, in the soul of a true dissident, there must be a tolerance for varieties of dissent different from his own.

In the West, Havel, like Nelson Mandela with whom he is often compared, was considered an anomaly among politicians; a political leader who was also a writer, an artist and an intellectual; a combination that rarely occurs in politics. On his home ground, he is far less of a sacred cow. His humanitarian rhetoric on the relationship between governance and civil liberty plays strongly in the West, but at home he is often seen as a hectoring moralizer who has lost touch with the more mundane problems of the Czech people. It may be that after fifteen years of national ubiquity, he had simply outstayed his welcome. By 1998s his approval rating had slipped to 52% after a high of 82% only two years before.

Shortly after the death of his first wife in 1996, he became deathly ill with lung cancer and, after the removal of two small tumors from his right lung, was not expected to survive. Dagmar Veskrenova, a close friend and popular film and stage actress who devoted herself selflessly to his rehabilitation, nursed him back to health. Barely a year later, after his release from hospital, Dagmar became the second Mrs. Havel -- a remarriage which ruffled the sensibilities of many who felt there was too great an intellectual disparity between the President and his new bride. This indicates the intimate nature of the relationship between Hovel and his fellow-Czechs. They feel no compunction about advising him on his love life or telling him to bugger off when he becomes overly philosophical. But beneath these cavils, there is deeply entrenched bedrock of love and affection for the man who made horrific sacrifices for his country.

There is no love lost between Havel and his successor, Vaclav Klaus. In the early days of his presidency, Havel fostered Klaus's rise in parliament, but the two men developed very divergent views on entry into the EEC and, since gaining the Presidency, the animosity between them has only sharpened. Klaus, unlike Hovel, is no staunch advocate of consensual democracy. In 2001, he was thrust into the headlines when reporters at the state-run Czech Television went on strike to protest the appointment of close Klaus associates into key positions at the station. Renegade reporters took over the newsroom and lambasted the flagrant cronyism and over 250,000 people protested in Wenesclas Square. To many, Klaus is a worrisome figure in contemporary Czech life; a numbers-man, a wheeler-dealer and an unreformable egotist. One of his first acts as the newly elected President was to publish a self-serving autobiography before any recognizable presidential style could be ascertained.

Havel's place in all the cultural and political changes now reshaping the Czech Republic is somewhat problematic. At 68, he is too young simply to fade into the woodwork but too ill and powerless to be an active political force. He is gradually making that subtle transition from politician to statesman. (A presidential library, in the tradition of American presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan, is actively being organized for him.) Among artists and intellectuals, after acknowledging his enormous contribution to the country's liberation from the Soviets, his standing as a playwright tends to be disparaged. But one conveniently forgets that it is the length and breadth of his personal sacrifice which made it possible for new generations of writers to emerge. Although young and innovative artists are always crowding through the open door, somebody had to be there to open that door in the first place.

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About the Author

Charles Marowitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The NY Village Voice, The New York Times, L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly, Sunday Telegraph (UK), London Times (UK), The Observer (UK), Sunday Times (UK), and many other newspapers and magazines. He has written over two dozen books, the most recent being The Other Chekhov, the first English-language biography of the actor-director and theorist, Michael Chekhov, published by Applause Books, NYC.



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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/cmarow05.html
Published January 17, 2005