A playwright, a philosopher, a statesman, a hero—and an imp: That’s how I think of Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday, December 18, aged 75. I didn’t know about his impishness until five years ago, when I had the honor of presenting the only Obie Award–winning head of state with a hastily run-up stand-in for the three Obie certificates that he’d been unable to collect in person, decades earlier, because the Soviets were keeping him under various forms of arrest in Prague.
Havel had won his three Obies for writing The Memorandum (1968), The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1970), and the triple bill of one-acts, A Private View (1984). Only the first of the actual certificates had ever reached him—smuggled into Prague by Joe Papp, who had produced and directed The Memorandum in the Public Theater’s inaugural season. Now, in December 2006, Havel was no longer a political prisoner, and no longer President of Czechoslovakia, which he had become after the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe had collapsed. There was no longer a Czechoslovakia, just as there was no longer a Soviet Empire: Under Havel’s aegis, the country had survived, without violence, its split into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Visiting New York for a residency at Columbia University just as he turned 70, Havel was being saluted with a festival of his works, at Off-Off theaters all over town, and with a special forum on “Theater and Citizenship” at the Public Theater, at the finish of which I was to present his makeshift omnibus Obie. I had brought along celebrity assistance to match him in stature: Olympia Dukakis, whose brilliantly tough and funny performance in The Memorandum had so delighted me those many years ago, shared the podium with us.
At the podium, Dukakis wasn’t raucous or funny, but heartfelt. She spoke of the joy she had taken in working on the play and, almost with reverence, of the honor of meeting Havel at rehearsals and knowing that he approved. He had come back from the show’s triumphant New York opening to find himself an unperson at home; forbidden to travel outside the country, under heavy secret police surveillance, forbidden to have his work published or produced.
One of the inspirers of 1968’s “Prague Spring,” he hadn’t yielded or changed course after it was crushed by Soviet tanks. His constant campaign for the rule of law, democracy, and the protection of individual rights had led him, nine years later, to be among the founders of the Charter 77 movement. That, in turn, led to something worse than the travel restrictions, the house arrest, the police surveillance: four years in prison. A heavy smoker, he was already suffering from the respiratory ailments that ultimately killed him; prison air doesn’t improve such conditions.
But through it all, Havel had managed to write—plays, essays, open letters—and his writing had managed to reach the world. Plays from countries under Soviet domination, in those days, often struck me as the aesthetic equivalent of letters from prison, encoded in double-meaning phrases to slip past the censor’s watchful eye. But Havel’s were unlike any other such epistles. With a wry sense of humor, borrowing a leaf from Kafka’s book, he crafted openwork metaphors, rich with comedy and compassion, that you could read as critiques of any oppressive system, never as propaganda for this position or that.
Probably the most bitterly droll of his plays is the little two-hander called Interview (its title is sometimes translated, more literally but inexactly, as Audience), the centerpiece of the Private View triple bill. Based on Havel’s experience when, his writing banned, he was compelled to take a job doing menial work in a brewery, it shows a similarly banned and similarly employed intellectual named Vanek, who’s summoned to a meeting in the office of the brewery’s gruff, proletarian manager. The manager has a problem: A certain government agency demands that he file regular reports on Vanek’s behavior and activities. But he’s not up to it: Thanks to his working-class origins and his knowledge of brewing, he’s been able to conceal from the authorities his near-total illiteracy. He wants Vanek to write the reports for him. Interview has been staged innumerable times. It’s hard, watching it, to know whether you’re laughing or crying. Kafka would understand.
The impish spirit that enabled Havel to draw this kind of disturbing comedy from his own sufferings should have told me what to expect from his presence. In person, he proved to be a small, slight, elegantly precise man, whose elegance didn’t stop him from seeming totally frank and straightforward. No phony airs, no pomp, no grandeur, not even any of that Eastern European I-have-suffered weariness: You’d never have known, from his demeanor, either that he’d been in prison or that he’d been, for 13 years, the President of his nation.
When it was his turn at the podium, clutching the framed Obie certificate to his heart, he spoke evenly and modestly, with no forced brightness and no solemn gravity. “I write plays only to ask questions,” he said, “never to preach, only to ask a question.” His half-smile was earnest, but you could see the imp dancing in his eyes. This, too, was funny: laboring as an artist, battling as a dissident, suffering as a political martyr, ruling as a national hero, and then being honored as an artist-citizen. It’s all relative, his eyes said, it’s all comedy.
After he’d gotten the gigantic standing ovation he deserved, we all headed out into the Public’s lobby, where wine was being poured for a toast to the playwright-hero-statesman. Mobbed by the swirling crowd, while photographers tried to put the three of us in position for a photo op—they had to explain to Havel that he should turn the Obie frontwise for the photograph—we tried to converse over the noisy, joyous, jostling crowd. “I wish we could just go somewhere quiet and talk,” I told him. Havel smiled his rueful half-smile. “This is democracy,” he said. And the imp danced again in his eyes.