Student dramaturg Lexi Hirvo, a Drama & Theatre Studies and Psychology double major, discusses Vaclav Havel as both a playwright and politician in her Talk on the Steps for The Memorandum at the Roberts Studio Theatre, 8 October 2016. She asked questions like “Was Vaclav Havel a playwright who became involved in politics? Or a politician who also happened to get his start as a playwright?” as she explored the complexity of Havel’s writings and his history as playwright, dissident, politician, and President as it relates to The Memorandum, his Absurdist 1965 comedy that critiqued the governing Czechoslovak Communist Party and its unwieldy bureaucracy. Read her talk below:
Before we go in to see the show, I want to take a quick moment and ask you, “Can theatre change the world?” This could mean making a change politically, socially, economically, artistically, and so on. Let’s see a show of hands. Who thinks theatre can make a big change like this? Okay. Who thinks theatre is really just a means of entertainment? Alright. Throughout time, theatre has been used as a vessel for changes, but the question now becomes, did this play change the world?
Although Memorandum may not have changed the world, its playwright, Vaclav Havel, used it along with his later works to change Czechoslovakia, eventually being elected as the nation’s president. Havel grew up in a fairly privileged home surrounded by political engagement. He recognized from a young age that the system he grew up in was not quite right, but had no way of knowing exactly what to do. His family later lost most of their wealth to the Communist government, forcing Havel to attend trade school since he could not afford a university education. Although he could not study the arts, these restrictions did not keep Havel from speaking out against the Communist government control. He began writing plays in the late 1950s, and by the end of his career he had written a total of 19. His plays were highly influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd movement and dealt with heavy political overtones. It was during this time Havel became involved in political engagement.
Havel quickly expanded his skills from writing only plays to political documents. In August 1969 he wrote the “Ten Points” argument condemning the Warsaw Pact invasion, and one year later, in 1970, all his writings were banned. They were withdrawn from libraries, publicly condemned on TV and radio, and prevented from being published or performed. His plays may not have changed the world, but they disrupted the functionality of the state. Despite this attempted silencing, Havel continued to speak out. He called on the president for a halt to the Communist code of ‘normalization’ where the public was bullied into accepting the established rule simply out of fear. He appealed to the government to respect the basic human rights and freedoms Czechoslovakia had committed itself to. Shortly after this became published, Havel was arrested for trying to subvert the state.
For the next two decades Havel lived under constant police supervision while continuously being arrested for a variety of reasons, legitimate and otherwise. He continued to write while imprisoned and spoke out for his people’s basic rights under Communist rule. While criticizing the current state of the government, he declared that the principle of the politician was simple: to honor their own conscience, and to maintain the voter’s trust. He believed that if politicians tried their best to represent the country while maintaining a moral center, they were doing their job to the best of their ability. The people of Czechoslovakia recognized his heart for politics and ceaseless commitment to the country. Therefore, because he was unafraid to speak up and against authority, he was elected the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989 with overwhelming public support.
The plays he wrote, like Memorandum, were simply the beginning of his long extended life of political involvement, engagement, and criticism. While he created this show, he had not yet become a political symbol, but it is interesting to see how his dissatisfaction with the system began to be displayed. Throughout the show you can see his criticisms of governmental control and how it dehumanizes people under its rule.
So now the question becomes, “Was Vaclav Havel a playwright who became involved in politics? Or a politician who also happened to get his start as a playwright? Or could he be both?” Questions like these allow us to realize the multiplicity in Havel’s writing and goals.
As we mentioned before, Havel was frequently arrested for 20 years between 1978 and 1998. He was willing to make the sacrifice because he was doing what he knew was right: Standing up for those who did not have a voice and creating a way for citizens to display their discontentment for the way they were treated. He strongly believed in what he was doing. Is there any belief in your life that you would be willing to be imprisoned for? Can we still see this today? In what way?
Well not only was Havel willing to go to jail once for his belief, he went to jail repeatedly for 20 years. Personally, that is as long as my entire life thus far that he was either in prison or under constant police supervision. His dedication proves to be more than just something he thought of on a whim.
Another thing that makes his arrests fascinating is that he was never arrested for violence. He was arrested for writing. For using language in a way that seemed threatening to the state of power. Like many other social movements, he was punished for simply speaking what was true. The government did not provide an outlet for criticism, so Havel had to make his own. What are some of the ways we are able to speak out when we disagree with the system?
Vote, resist, protest, petition, etc.
With so many ways to speak up and against the system, people should feel more empowered, right? Well commonly, people feel more trapped into a position lacking power thinking that their voice does not matter. Havel plays with this idea throughout Memorandum. Feeling like just a number in the crowd can drastically alter a person’s satisfaction, productivity, and ability to think freely.
When dealing with larger entities, it is easy to feel like just a cog in the greater machine. Havel very well could have felt this way and just accepted it. He could have disagreed with the rule but decided his career wasn’t worth sacrificing. He could have encouraged others to speak out or discuss the issues in their plays. He could have written hundreds of plays discussing the harmful dehumanizing effects of communism. But instead of doing any of these, Havel spoke up. He refused to become just a number in the nation’s eyes. He did not go along with the machine and serve the one purpose he existed for. Instead, he went against the order, against the common expectation and made a change because he refused to just comply. Are we willing to sacrifice our comfort and security for change, even when it veers our life off-track? Many times, we say no. The risk isn’t worth it. But if we can learn anything from Vaclav Havel, it’s that speaking up for what is right is worth the inconvenience.
So, did Memorandum change the world? No. Did it even change Czechoslovakia? Not necessarily. But Memorandum, in addition to Havel’s other plays, launched him into the public eye as an activist for basic human rights and moral political leadership. Without discovering his voice and main criticisms through his plays, Havel may have never been able to facilitate change in the nation or get the public backing of his political career.
And so I leave you with this question again, was Havel a playwright who spoke out against the government, later becoming more politically active? Or, was he a politician at heart who began his journey as a playwright? Although the answer is unclear, it is easy to see his passion for Czechoslovakia, criticism of the communistic rule, and ability to use theatre as a vehicle for social change throughout tonight’s production of Memorandum. I hope you enjoy the show, and thank you for listening to tonight’s Talk on the Steps.