• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

History of a Public Enemy

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

At the beginning of the 1970s, I became close with some colleagues whom fate had dealt a similar blow. These were former Communists, people I’ve referred to as “antidogmatics,” who in earlier days had often been my opponents. Each summer, Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, Ivan Klíma, Jan Trefulka,3 and others would come to our cottage, where we held our own miniature writers’ congresses. Of course, another group would come along every summer as well, friends from earlier times, non-Communist writers I’d known back in the 1950s, when I was their “apprentice,” some of whom were with me in Tvár4 and later belonged to our Circle of Independent Writers.

These two groups gradually “fused”; they would come together or mingle in various ways, which was a rather symptomatic phenomenon: these people all had very different pasts, but the differences of opinion that had once separated them had long since ceased to be important. We were all in the same boat and we were in agreement about general matters. The tradition that was established then developed in various ways, and in fact has continued to this day in another form. During these encounters, we read one another our next texts.

Apart from that, however, we were quite isolated, and the popular term “ghetto” seems to me the most adequate to describe that period. The public of course knew us well, and they were aware of and sympathized with us, but at the same time they were careful not to have anything to do with us: it seemed too dangerous. And in this period of general atomization or disintegration, we didn’t have very good contacts with other groups or circles either. Each of us, in his own way, was stewing in his own juices. Having been marked in a particular fashion, with no hope for any kind of wider support, we had no way of actively expressing ourselves, so for the most part we passively accepted our situation and simply wrote. At that time, there were regular readings of new texts at Ivan Klíma’s place. Quite a few people attended, and I myself read two plays there, The Conspirators and, a year later, The Beggar’s Opera. We also followed each other’s work in written form. The texts were copied out and circulated, which is how the now-famous Edice Petlice5 came into being (its younger sister, Edice Expedice, was created in 1975).

In 1974 I was employed for about ten months as a worker in the Trutnov Brewery, about ten kilometers from Hrádecek. In a conversation with Jirí Lederer6 in 1975, I said I had gone to work there for financial reasons, but, looking back now, I think the real reason was that I needed a change. The suffocating inactivity all around me was beginning to get on my nerves. I wanted to get out of my shelter for a while and take a look around, be among different people.

One of the things that contributed—somewhat paradoxically—to the gloom of the time was the fact that this was also a period of détente. In our case, this meant that many of our Western friends and collaborators avoided us almost as circumspectly as official writers here did, so they wouldn’t annoy the authorities and frustrate attempts at rapprochement with those authorities. Fortunately, this naive, thickheaded, and suicidal way of “easing tensions” is not practiced by many people from the West anymore, with the exception, perhaps, of a few West German Social Democrats.

For me personally, the first noticeable break in the long and boring sentence of the 1970s was 1975. There were three reasons for this. First, the idea that it was time to stop being merely a passive object of those “victories written by history,” as Václav Belohradský7 calls them, and to try to become their subject for a moment. In other words, it was time to stop waiting to see what “they” would do and do something myself, compel them for a change to deal with something they hadn’t counted on. So I wrote a long open letter to Husák. In it, I tried to analyze the sad situation in our country: to point to the profound spiritual, moral, and social crisis hidden behind the apparent tranquility of social life. I urged Husák to realize just how much he himself was responsible for this general misery.

The letter, on the primary level, was a kind of autotherapy: I had no idea what would happen next, but it was worth the risk. I regained my balance and my self-confidence. I felt I could stand up straight again, and that no one could accuse me any longer of not doing anything, of just looking on in silence at the miserable state of affairs. I could breathe more easily because I had not tried to stifle the truth inside me. I had stopped waiting for the world to improve and exercised my right to intervene in that world, or at least to express my opinion about it. At the same time, it had a wider significance: it was one of the first coherent—and generally comprehensible—critical voices to be heard here, and a general response was not long in coming. Obviously I had hit a moment when all this endless waiting around had begun to get on a lot of people’s nerves, people who were tired of their own exhaustion, their own tiredness, and had begun to recover from that roundhouse right. So all kinds of people copied my letter out and passed it on, and it was read by practically everyone who still cared. Naturally I was enormously pleased and encouraged by this response.

The second important event of that year for me was writing my one-act play Audience. It was inspired by my time in the brewery, and it was the first appearance of Vanek, the writer. I wrote it quickly, in a couple of days, originally just to amuse friends to whom I wanted to read it during our summer sessions at Hrádecek. To my surprise, there was a wonderful response to that play too, and in time it actually became popular, in the literal sense of the word. Not only did it play—along with the subsequent Vanek one-acters—in theaters of all sorts in the rest of the world; what was, understandably, more important for me was that the play entered people’s awareness at home—first of all as a written text, and later as performed by my friend Pavel Landovský and me on a tape that was later released as a record by Safran in Sweden.

Things began to happen to me. For example, I once picked up a hitchhiker and, without knowing who I was, he began to quote passages from that play. Or I’d be sitting in a pub and I’d hear young people shouting lines from the play to each other across the room. That too was very encouraging not only because it was a flattering reminder of happier days, when my plays were being performed, when it was almost a cultural duty to know them, but above all because it suggested to me that even a playwright who is cut off from his theater can still have an impact on his own domestic milieu. He is still an integral part of it.

The third important experience in 1975 was the performance of my play The Beggar’s Opera in Horní Pocernice. The play is a free adaptation of John Gay’s old play, and has nothing to do with Brecht at all. I originally wrote the play at the request of a Prague theater that wanted to perform it under someone else’s name, but that offer fell through. My old friend Andrej Krob, who had once collaborated with us at the Theater on the Balustrade,8 rehearsed the play with an amateur group of friends, young students, and workers who liked the play, and decided that they would rehearse it regardless of the fact that I was under a very strict ban. So they rehearsed it and then they performed it—only once, naturally—in a restaurant called U Celikovských in Horní Pocernice.

Right up to the very last minute, I didn’t think the performance would actually take place. But it did, thanks mainly to the inattention of the local authorities, who thought the title sounded familiar and so allowed it to go on without making any further inquiries about who’d written it. Knowing that it would be an unrepeatable event, we invited everyone we could think of to come. There were about three hundred friends and acquaintances in the audience. Today, when I look at the photographs of the audience, I can see several future spokesmen for Charter 77, countless future signatories, but also actors and directors from the Prague theaters and other persons in cultural life.

The performance was marvelous; there seemed to be no end to the laughter and delight in the audience, and for a moment I was back again in the atmosphere of the Theater on the Balustrade in the 1960s. Thanks to the circumstances, it was, understandably, even more exciting. The matter-of-factness with which these young people acted my play gave their performance a special theatrical charm. It was a human act that had somehow, miraculously, been transformed into a highly suggestive theatrical act. At the party after the performance (and, by the way, this was right under the lamppost, at the restaurant U Medvídku, just around the corner from police headquarters on Bartolomejská Street), I told the troupe that I had more joy from this premiere than from all my foreign premieres, from New York to Tokyo.

The consequences were not long in coming. There was a huge to-do about it, and the matter was taken up by all kinds of institutions. There were interrogations and sanctions; enraged bureaucrats spread the word through the official Prague theaters that because of me (!) the cultural policy of the government would be that much more stringent, and the whole theater community would suffer. Many a shallow-minded actor fell for it and got very upset at me and my amateur actors for frustrating their artistic self-realization, by which, of course, they meant their well-paid sprints from job to job—in dubbing, theater, television, and film—that is, from one center for befuddling the public to another. But that wasn’t the point. For me the most important thing was that, for the first time in seven years (and the only time in the next eleven to follow), I had seen a play of mine on the stage, and I could see with my own eyes that I was still capable of writing something that could be performed. All these events combined to make me feel that I had something left in me, and gave me energy for further enterprises.

Do you feel like reminiscing about the prehistory and the origin of Charter 77?

  1. 3

    Kohout is a poet and playwright who has been living in Vienna since 1978. He is the author of From the Diary of a Counterrevolutionary and Poor Murderer. Vaculík, a novelist and journalist, is the author of The Axe and The Guinea Pigs. Klíma is a novelist, the author of My Merry Mornings, My First Loves, and Love and Garbage, which was published in England this year.

  2. 4

    A small literary magazine founded in 1963 by a number of young non-Communist writers, including Jirí Gruša. Havel joined the editorial board in 1965, shortly before Tvár was banned. It began republishing in 1968, with Havel as chairman of the editorial board: eight issues appeared before Tvár was finally shut down. According to Havel, “When I joined the editorial board of Tvár my involvement in the struggle for the magazine’s survival began. It was a period of endless debates, meetings, and arguments; it was my private school of politics;…politically, and intellectually as well, Tvár was in no way clearly defined, at least not in the sense that it declared its support for some ideological doctrine…. Tvár simply printed what it considered good, interesting, profound, authentic—from Heidegger to Teilhard to Trakl, Jan Hanc, and Jirí Kubena, and they didn’t really worry about where people placed them.”

  3. 5

    The samizdat imprint started by Ludvík Vaculík. Over the past decade and a half it has published many of the major works of unofficial Czech literature.

  4. 6

    Until 1969 Lederer was a reporter for Lidovné Noviny and Reportér; he spent 1972, 1974, and between 1977 and 1981 in prison, after which he emigrated.

  5. 7

    A philosopher and sociologist; professor at the University of Genoa.

  6. 8

    The small theater in Prague, founded in 1958, where Havel had worked between 1960 and 1968. Of it he writes: “Up until 1968, when I left, I lived for that theater, I helped to create its profile, and I identified with it entirely. I went through a number of jobs when I was there, from stagehand to lighting technician, secretary, reader, right up to dramaturge. But it didn’t really matter which of those jobs I held in any given moment, and often I held them concurrently: in the morning I organized tours, in the evening I ran the lighting for the performance, and at night I rewrote plays.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print