New Yorkers are inured to the blaring sirens that accompany dignitaries’ motorcades, and dramatists are nearly as ubiquitous in the city’s streets as taxi drivers. However, when this dignitary happens to be three-time Obie- award-winning playwright and Velvet Revolutionary Václav Havel and there’s a six-week retrospective of his complete plays in the works, it’s a perfect synthesis of art, politics, and New York history.
The Havel Festival, running from October 25 through December 2 with performances primarily at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg and the Ohio Theater in Soho, will present Havel’s 10 full-length plays and eight one-acts. In the process, five of his plays will have their English-language premieres and one its world debut—all timed to coincide with Havel’s 70th birthday. Edward Einhorn, artistic director of the festival, says he sensed that Havel was an artist whom “people know a lot about, but you don’t see much of his work in New York.” While the festival spotlights Havel’s oeuvre in performance, his work, both political and artistic, will be put in scholarly and historical context
by a series of lectures and panels held in conjunction with his fall residency at Columbia University.
Havel has been something of an honorary New Yorker since his first visit in 1968, when Joseph Papp and the Public Theater produced The Memorandum, an intricate Kafkaesque play about a bureaucracy charged with creating a new language for all “official” communications. Havel biographer Carol Rocamora points out that he arrived for this first visit just weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “It was both an exciting and turbulent time, and he relished every moment of that exhilarating visit,” she says. “He returned to Czechoslovakia—to Prague Spring and all the promises of freedom—only to have the invading Russian tanks roll into the Old Town Square in Prague on August 21, 1968.” Seeing the promise of Prague Spring quashed immediately after this trip to New York only magnified its significance to Havel. Gail Papp recalls that when she and her husband, Joe, visited Havel in Prague in 1984, “the psychedelic posters that he’d gotten on his trip here were hanging in the guest room.”
While New York seems a singularly appropriate place to host this retrospective, the timing of the festival is equally apt. Havel’s work resonates strongly in the current era of overzealous White House intelligence gathering. Henry Akona, assistant artistic director of the festival, says, “Havel was himself a victim of intense surveillance and invasions of privacy to a ludicrous degree,” and theatergoers will find that Havel’s fascination with government harassment surfaces repeatedly in his work. His 1971 play The Conspirators (receiving its English-language premiere here on November 13) could be ripped from the headlines. It features a fictional country in which a dictator has been overthrown in order to install a democratic government. However, when the new regime is itself threatened, it resorts to censorship and torture to preserve its democratic ideals. “Many of Havel’s works seem to be about the attempt to remain true to oneself and one’s ideals in the midst of an increasingly corrupt world,” says Ian W. Hill, who’s directing the new production of the Faust-themed drama Temptation.
Michael Gardner, co-founder of the Brick Theater, stresses that while the plays are political, he finds himself attracted to the “vivid rush of tightly constructed absurdist theater” in Havel’s work, particularly the early pieces. This is true of Audience, the first of Havel’s plays to feature the seemingly autobiographical character Vanek. In Audience, Vanek, a dissident writer, is forced to work in a brewery. The play centers around an uncomfortable meeting with the brewmaster; it’s never clear if he’s been called in for a friendly chat or an interrogation.
Havel won his third Obie for the Public’s production of the triptych of Vanek plays, which also includes Unveiling (translated as Private View) and Protest. Like Audience, these plays place Vanek in sad situations where morality is compromised by the state’s demands and by a desire for personal gain. Beyond political commentary, Havel’s plays display an immense humanity and, in many instances, hope: qualities that allowed Havel to emerge from the dark days of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia as a leader who symbolizes the power of art in the political arena.
The Havel Festival runs until December 2. Information is available at untitledtheater.com/havel/havel-festival.html.