The Revolution of the Magic Lantern

Václav Havel
Václav Havel; drawing by David Levine

My modest contribution to the revolution was a quip. Arriving in Prague on Day Seven (November 23), when the pace of change was already breathtaking, I met Václav Havel in the back room of his favored basement pub. I said: “In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!” Grasping my hands, and fixing me with his winning smile, he immediately summoned over a video-camera team from the samizdat Video-journál, who just happened to be waiting in the corner. I was politely compelled to repeat my quip to camera, over a glass of beer, and then Havel gave his reaction: “It would be fabulous if it could be so….” Revolution, he said, is too exhausting.

The camera team dashed off to copy the tape, so that it could be shown on television sets in public places. Havel subsequently used the conceit in several interviews. And because he used it, it had a fantastic career. It was repeated in the Czechoslovak papers. An opposition spokesman recalled it in a television broadcast just before the general strike—on Day Eleven. It was on the front page of the Polish opposition daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. It popped up in the Western press. And when I finally had to leave Prague on Day Nineteen, with the revolution by no means over, people were still saying, “You see, with us—ten days!” Such is the magic of round numbers.

I tell this story not just from author’s vanity, but also because it illustrates several qualities of the most delightful of all this year’s Central European revolutions: the speed, the improvisation, the merriness, and the absolutely central role of Václav Havel, who was at once director, playwright, stage manager, and leading actor in this, his greatest play. I was only one of many—indeed of millions—to feed him some lines.

Next morning I got a complimentary theater ticket. A ticket to the Magic Lantern theater, whose subterannean stage, auditorium, foyers, and dressing rooms had become the headquarters of the main opposition coalition in the Czech lands, the Civic Forum, and thus, in effect, the headquarters of the revolution. The ticket changed. At first it was just a small note with the words “Please let in and out” written in purple ink, signed by Václav Havel’s brother, Ivan, and authenticated by the play-wright’s rubber stamp. This shows a beaming pussycat with the word “Smile!” across his chest. Then it was a green card worn around the neck, with my name typed as “Timothy Gordon Ash,” and the smiling cat again. Then it was a xeroxed and initialed paper slip saying “Civic Forum Building,” this time with two smiling cats (one red, one black) and a beaming green frog. I have it before me as I write. Beneath the frog it says “très bien.”

In any case, the…

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