Václav Havel, who won Village Voice OBIE Awards for Distinguished Playwriting in 1968, 1970, and 1984, finally got a chance to accept Off-Broadway’s highest honor on Monday, December 4, when the Public Theater hosted an evening in his honor entitled “Theater and Citizenship.”
The evening began with a panel, chaired by longtime Voice contributor Alisa Solomon, in which the title topic was discussed by four notable playwrights (all Obie winners themselves): Edward Albee, Israel Horovitz, Wallace Shawn, and Anna Deavere Smith.
Following the discussion, the Voice‘s chief theater critic and current Obie committee chairman, Michael Feingold, presented Havel with a specially made certificate attesting to the three awards, with a surprise assist from actress Olympia Dukakis, who had appeared at the Public Theater in the production of Havel’s 1968 prizewinner, The Memorandum, and movingly recalled the experience of meeting him when it was in rehearsal.
Havel was previously unable to collect his Obie Awards in person because, following the New York opening of The Memorandum, he returned to his home in Prague, where he was almost immediately placed under house arrest by the then Soviet-controlled government of Czechoslovakia. (At least one of the original Obie Award certificates was smuggled in to Prague for him by the late Joseph Papp.) Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Havel became one of Central Europe’s most prominent statesmen, becoming president of Czechoslovakia and, after presiding over the peaceful breakup of that nation, the first president of the Czech Republic. Currently in New York at the invitation of Columbia University’s Arts Initiative, he has been making public appearances and attending performances at the multi-theater collaborative festival of his complete works. He is the only head of state ever to have received an Obie Award.
Addressing the crowd in the Public’s packed Newman Theatre, with thoughts from the discussion still echoing in their heads, Havel said, in halting but lucid English, “I write plays only to ask questions—never to preach. Only to ask a question.” He received a joyous standing ovation before the audience moved into the Public’s lobby to toast him with wine.