Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

There are many dates within those two that you could use to conflate the influence and importance of any individual who witnessed them. With many, they might well be a coincidence. Not so with Vaclav Havel.

When Mrs. G and were living in France the first time, neighbors in the next farmhouse up the chemin became great friends with us over the months – in part because of common interests but also because the painter-wife was also a transplant and non-native speaker, and therefore showed great sympathy and care for us, second-language-wise. She is a bit older and a native of what is now the Czech Republic. Though I had read some Kundera and seen Unbearable Lightness, it was not until our time with her that I began to gain some basic understanding of the Prague Spring. Near the center of events during that tumultuous year in a far away capital, was Havel.

Mr. Havel describes his playwriting in much the same terms – defending what is human against repressive social mechanisms. He openly identifies his work as theater of the absurd, unlike other writers (Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet) who disliked such generic descriptions. But the absurd for Mr. Havel is as much a political and philosophical concept as an esthetic one. He believes, along with the best 20th-century playwrights, that illusionistic theater is a sham, that realism is inadequate to the obscurity and unpredictability of modern life, that the role of the theater is not to be positive or instructive, soothing or explanatory, but rather to remind people that ”the time is getting late, that the situation is grave.”

This sounds like a civil-defense alarm, and Mr. Havel’s view of the absurd has a lot to do with a sense of social crisis, collapsing worlds, language abuse, robotic structures, entropic rule, metaphysical uncertainty – which is to say, with his experience of life in Czechoslovakia (no wonder he adds that if the theater of the absurd had not existed, he would have been forced to invent it). Still, Mr. Havel’s relationship to political theater is as ambiguous as that of Chekhov, who wrote, ”Writers must occupy themselves with politics only in order to put up a defense against politics.” The absurd for Mr. Havel is another form of artistic resistance.

Our mileage varies on some of those precepts, yet did he put his work where his heart and conscience thought best and fought hardest. Rest in Peace.