Monday, December 19, 2011

Meditation on the Death of Vaclav Havel

I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President.
As a theatre historian who believes strongly in the potential for culture to move politics towards conscience, I am moved to eulogize Havel in this little online diary of mine, for whatever small benefit the four people who read this might gain from it.

Havel was not just a brilliant playwright and a progressive politician, he was a philosopher and ethicist of the highest caliber. My colleague and good friend, J. A. Ball, who has made an extensive study of the man, jokes that Havel was like a better version of the Platonic "philosopher king." Here is an excerpt from one of Havel's most famous essays in which he discusses the concept of anti-political politics, in which: "a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disenfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters." He goes on:
Yes, 'anti-political politics' is possible. Politics 'from below'. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the 'rule of everydayness' we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.

When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term 'solidarity of the shaken'. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power—the phenomenon of human conscience?                                                                        - from "Politics and Conscience" (1984)
I confess to be not sure what he means here by “the rule of everydayness.” He was a semioticist and an inheritor of the famous Prague School, so I suspect it is a commentary on how we interpret signs within a context that seems normal to us, until we can’t for some reason. But is he speaking as Camus did, of an “insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity” (which I think comes from “The Myth of Sisyphus” or somewhere) or is he bringing in one of those elegant Zen paradoxes that lend themselves to the more ironic flavors of Marxist criticism? Havel had an immense capacity for self-criticism, with a terrific sense of humor to support it, and he credited his success to this capacity. In fact, he once wrote that "anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not."

The media is making Havel sound like a champion of Western values, which is not the whole story. His parents were anti-Soviet intellectuals who were considered enemies of the state, which is why Havel himself was not allowed to go to college and wound up working as a stage manager, and then becoming one of the greatest playwrights and political visionaries of his era. Ironic! Something similar happened to Lessing. But anyway, Havel, suspicious of artificial binaries like Communist/Capitalist and looking for a third term to the argument, was deeply committed to a political dialectic of morality and reason – which is why he was such a great playwright, or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, he should be more properly grouped, I think, with John Paul II, who like him decried both the brutal tyranny of Communism (America: Yay!) and the heartless greed of Capitalism (America: What? He never said THAT).

But Havel must also be counted along with Lessing, and Athol Fugard (but not, I hope, with John Wilkes Booth or the assassin of Philip of Alexandria) as someone who could not only visualize but actualize the potential of the THEATRE to affect significant political change (I admit it took Lessing hundreds of years, but he got there the day Nathan the Wise became the first play performed in post-Nazi Germany). Havel emerged as a dissident playwright in the 1960's whose work was beginning to become known in the West (His play The Memorandum appeared at the New York Public in 1968). In the crackdowns that followed the Prague Spring that same year, Havel was banned from the theatre and forced to take a job in a brewery. He spent a lot of time in and out of prison. His plays, however, became a rallying point for the Czech Underground, and were included in illegally-distributed copies of Czech samizdat. Havel became more and more active in the resistance. The Velvet Revolution began on November 17 of 1989 with a student protest -  by the 18th, theaters all over Prague went on strike in sympathy. A general student strike was led by the students of the Academy for Performing Arts. It was in a Prague Theatre that Havel organized the Civic Forum, which would become the unofficial representative to the Czech government. With an astonishingly low number of casualties, by December 10th the Czech constitution had been altered, and a non-Communist government was sworn in. Havel was elected President in the first free election on December 29, and his service as President was marked by an unswerving dedication to principles of justice, moral humanism, and a bottom-up style of democracy.

Havel is a great hero of mine. I became aware of him in the late 1980's, when Czech-born Tom Stoppard was working hard to make the playwrights of the Czech Underground popular in the West - a political operation as much as an aesthetic one, as this turned the fickle attention of the West to the problems in that country, just as Fugard did with South Africa. In fact, my first job in my field was when I was approached by my very best friend Martin Christofel to act as dramaturg on a production of Havel's play Largo Desolato directed by Oliver Gerlund at the University of Utah in 1989 or 1990. My first question, of course, was "what's a dramaturg?" My second was "who's Vaclav Havel?" I've been trying to answer both questions ever since. 

Havel has proven prophetic; his death falls portentously on December 18, first anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked what we now think of as the Arab Spring, and the day we learn of the death of Kim Jong-Il.  Havel's legacy is that of the power of the ordinary human being to make a real difference operating from the principles of morality and humanitarian conscience. May his example inspire all of us.

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