Good King Wenceslas first looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel…
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
Photo: Playwright Vaclav Havel viewing the victorious Velvet Revolution in Wenceslaus Square
The irony gods have been morbidly ironic this year. On May Day, Osama bin Laden was eliminated even as Pope Paul II was being beatified. A month later Jack, ‘Dr. Death’, Kevorkian died of natural causes. This past week a seminal foe of totalitarianism, Vaclav Havel, was dispatched on the very same day as that nuke-toting, tinhorn totalitarian, Kim Jong-il.
Playwright/essayist Havel was part Arthur Miller, Thomas Paine and Nelson Mandela. Suppressed and imprisoned by the Communists, he went on to become the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless that rapidly became the anti-totalitarian treatise embraced by the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland. “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality…it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.”
Still very much under the yoke of Communism, “Golden” Prague looked more like deeply tarnished silver when I visited in 1985. The Czech capital was reputedly anointed Zlata Praha when King Karel (Charles) IV was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in the 14th century and had the towers of his castle painted gold. Six centuries later and four decades deep into Communist rule, Prague was dark and dreary, compliments of its coal-fired power. Much of its venerable, once glorious architecture was shrouded in rusting scaffolding.
I saw no one manning the scaffolding and actually refurbishing these buildings during my time in Prague. Its unappetizing restaurants were no-service cafeterias where not even an epileptic fit would have aroused the wait staff. Then there were the omnipresent Communist slogans writ in large block letters on white billboards attached to the scaffolding. “You pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work,” was, doubtless, not among the exhortations.
I was witness to flash-fires of totalitarian state intimidation. A former student of my father’s at Cornell, now a professor, put his Duke Ellington records on loud to mask dinner conversation, pointing to possible mikes in the ceiling. There was the uniformed interior ministry officer aboard the train to Budapest making a protracted show trial of peering back and forth between me and my passport photo. But mostly it was the grim, expressionless populace drudging slump-shouldered through the drabness of daily existence.
I was treated to one unintended parody of the system. Performing Puccini’s opera, La Bohème in the capitol of Bohemia must have been deemed appropriate by the authorities, spotlighting, as it does, the anti-materialist credo of Bohemians, forerunners of beatniks and hippies. This was a socialist production of ‘boy falls for terminally ill girl’ love story where even the most minor character got to saunter front and center and ham it up. With his eye for the absurd, playwright Havel might well have been in the audience putting the finishing touches on Temptation.
In Havel’s retelling of the Faust legend, a pact is made with dogma rather than the devil. When Temptation premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in April of ’89, I was in the audience and Havel was locked up in a Czech prison for leading a demonstration. (As Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray sold his soul to the Devil for eternal youth, I’m always on the lookout for Faustian pacts.) Attempting to contact the devil in the detailed government restrictions that bind him, Temptation’s Dr. Foustka conjures an odious Rumplestiltskin named Fistula who smells like Limburger cheese.
As the playwright’s allegory is a triumph of farce over fear, so too was Havel’s call to “step out of living within the lie” that was the “post-totalitarian system.” By the end of year, Czecheslovakia’s Velvet Revolution had toppled, without firing a shot, a dictatorship that violently suppressed the ‘Prague Spring’ twenty years before. Havel was elected his country’s first post-Communist leader.
The following year, 1990, I spent months observing another philosopher attempting to be elected king. Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is Havel’s superior as a writer and storyteller. But Vargas Llosa was haughty where Havel was humble, rigid not resilient like Havel, and he was rejected by the Peruvian electorate.
Philosopher kings are few and far between, successful ones even more so. While Havel declined to preside over the splitting of his country, he stood for election as president of the Czech Republic and served for two terms as Prague was once again restored to its past glory. Another Vaclav named Klaus was his conservative rival and presidential successor whom Havel came to dread dealing with owing to his “distaste for confrontation.” In typical form, Klaus complained that Havel’s invitation to writer Salman Rushdie, who had a ‘fatwa’ hanging over his head, would undermine Czech trade with Arab countries. More than anyone, Havel would appreciate the irony that many conservative pundits in America misattribute quotes to him that were actually declared by Klaus.
Havel was able to exact some level of retribution by thinly casting his rival as the villain ‘Vlastik’ Klein in his final play, Leaving, the only one he wrote in the twenty-two years following his country’s liberation. Creativity is born of restraint, it is said, and dies in freedom.