‘Uncertain Strength’: An Interview With Václav Havel

Václav Havel, Dana Emingerova, and Lubos Beniak, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

The following interview was recently conducted in Prague by Dana Emingerová and Luboš Beniak, and first published in the magazine Mladý Svet.

What have you found surprising in the world of the powerful?

I realize again and again how terribly important the personal characteristics of politicians are, their relationships and mutual animosities, what an immense political influence their good and bad qualities can have on the lives of millions of people. This, to me, is a surprising and to some extent shocking experience, and it’s true not only of our domestic political scene, but of the international scene as well. Not long ago I saw King Lear in a production by the National Theatre in London. After my experiences as president, the play spoke to me in an utterly new language. After all, one of the things King Lear is about is how a family disagreement results in the division of a kingdom.

Are you working on a play set in the presidential milieu?

By sheer coincidence I had such a play underway in 1989. After the revolution I threw the manuscript away, but perhaps one day I’ll come back to that theme. The play was about the world of the powerful, and even though at the time I knew very little about that world, because I didn’t move in those circles, it excited me in a strange way. What attracted me was the theme of leaving power, the extent to which the world of powerful people collapses when they are driven out of power. More than once, in writing plays, I have found myself pointing to something that had yet to come…which is no particular merit of mine, it comes from the very mystery of drama itself.

To what extent would your own world collapse if you were driven from power?

Not in the least.

Michael Kocáb1 told us, half-ironically, half-seriously, that the new regime had destroyed him as an artist because it had robbed him of his themes. Are you, as a playwright, in a similar situation?

As a matter of fact just a few days ago I had a meeting with my fellow playwrights and other theater people; it was the follow-up to another meeting we had before November 1989. For the whole evening, we talked on precisely that subject—about whether or not we still had anything to write about. I think the new era has opened up an immense number of new themes. I feel them importuning me, forcing themselves on me, tempting me. If only I had the time, the opportunity, and the concentration…. Colleagues who have more free time to write, however, disagreed with me and said that it’s a matter of years, that a theme must lie dormant in the spirit for some time before it can be transformed into good drama. But I have the feeling that I would know right away what to write about.

What would that be?

Today we are seeing remarkable things around us. I would particularly…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.