Throughout Eastern Europe and the world history and politics have infiltrated the lives of many individuals, especially writers. The influence which history and politics has on writers is usually reflected in their literary works. One example of a writer whose works reflect the influence which history and politics had upon him is Vaclav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the Czech Republic (1993-2003). In the following essay I will illustrate how Havel’s life and literary works have been influence by the history and politics of his country, Czechoslovakia.
Vaclav Havel was born on October 5, 1936 in Prague, Czechoslovakia to a family to which owned a successful restaurant business. Unfortunately, in 1948 Havel’s family’s successful business was harshly affected by the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. Because of their successful business and acquired wealth, Havel’s family was viewed by the state as being class enemies. As a result, the state confiscated the family’s wealth and assigned them to low paying employment positions. In addition, the children of the family were denied access to the state educational system beyond the elementary level. Despite this, Havel was able to take night classes in order to finish high school and later spent two years at a technical university studying economics.
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In 1959, Havel found employment as a stagehand at Prague’s ABC Theater after being denied admission to the university drama school in Prague. During his employment at the ABC Theater, Havel actively pursued playwriting and later became involved in the reforms of 1968 (Prague Spring). During this period of attempted reforms, Czech intellectuals began to push for a liberal restructuring of the Czech Communist system and a break away from the Soviet form of Communism. A Soviet invasion suppressed the Prague Spring and because of his protest to this invasion, authorities banned Havel works. However, Havel continued to write numerous articles and essays for secret, unofficial publications. Authorities offered him several opportunities to leave the country but he declined as he had decided to remain in Czechoslovakia and work for change for the citizens. Along with hundreds of Czech intellectuals, in 1977 Havel helped to orchestrate and produce Charter 77, a document dedicated to ensuring that Czech citizens were afforded basic human rights.
Unfortunately, Havel was arrested before Charter 77 was dispersed and in 1978 he was tried, convicted and sentenced to four and a half years in prison for involvement with a group called the Committee for Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted.
Havel was released in 1983 and, though under constant surveillance, continued to criticize the government through the underground press. He spent another nine months in prison in 1989 for involvement with protests associated with the reforms of that year. However, in 1989 Civil Forum, an opposition movement dedicated to democratic reforms which Havel helped to form, gained momentum and culminated in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In December 1989, the Communist Party capitulated and formed a coalition government with the Civic Forum. Havel, along with other opposition supporters, soon demanded the resignation of President Gustav Husak, who quickly succumbed. On December 29, 1989 Havel was elected as interim president of Czechoslovakia, and he was reelected president in July 1990. He resigned from office briefly in 1992 when the Slovak parliament passed its own constitution. Soon after, the nation split into two separate nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1993, Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic. However, his political role was limited as Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus commanded much of the power. In 1998, Havel was reelected by a narrow margin. Barred constitutionally from seeking a third term, Havel stepped down as president in 2003.
Major Literary Works and Literary Appraisal
Although internationally Havel is best known for being the president of the Czech Republic, his finest work is his writing, as proved by his prize-winning plays. Many have regarded Havel as the most original Czech dramatist to emerge in the 1960s. He is arguable one of the greatest writers to emerge out of Eastern Europe during the Cold War Era. Havel’s high international popularity and praise is the result of his writing in the following works:
Havel staged his first independent full-length play, The Garden Party, in 1963 when he was 27. During the 1960s Havel also wrote two other major plays: The Memorandum (1965) and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968). Both of these works received American Obie awards. In the 1970s he wrote The Conspirators (1970), his own version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1972), and A Hotel in the Hills (1976). His major plays of the 1980s include Largo Desolato (1984), named a best Play of 1986 for Broadway and off-Broadway, and Temptation 1985). Havel has also written many works which illustrate his political philosophies, such as Living in Truth (1986), which awarded Havel with the Erasmus Prize in 1986, and “Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party” (1975).
Other political essays by Havel include “Open Letters” (1977), “The Power of the Powerless” (1978), “Politics and Conscience” (1984), “Thriller” (1984) and “An Anatomy of Reticence” (1985). Many of these essays dealt with the political, spiritual, and moral degradation of the Czech people and encouraged the Czechs to overthrow the inhumane dictatorship under the Iron Curtain. Another famous piece of Havel’s is Letters to Olga (1989) which is a collections of 123 letters which Havel wrote while he was imprisoned in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of Havel’s most recent works is Summer Meditations (1992), a set of essays which he wrote while he was president of Czechoslovakia in which he expresses the difficulties he faced during this period of transition.
Summary of Havel’s Major Themes
Vaclav Havel insists that in all of his writings his starting point is his own experience. The events of his life have provided recurring themes for both his plays and his essay. These themes will be illustrated below:
Many of Havel’s pieces, such as The Memorandum and The Silenced Theatre, revolve around the themes of the political power and distortion of language by bureaucracy. In The Silenced Theatre, Havel’s main concern is the power of language as a perpetuator of systems and a tool to influence man’s mind. In Memorandum, Havel creates an artificial language designed to make all office communication precise and unemotional. In this play, the main action is established by the rise and fall of an office manager, as a result of his inability to use the new language. The man makes an artificial language which is intended to render communication perfect and objective, but it actually leads to constantly deepening alienation and disturbances in human relations. As exemplified in these works, Havel feels that the strongest, although secret, weapon of any system that wants to control its people is language. Thus, it is quite clear how living under the Czech Communist government shaped Havel’s mindset. Just as the Soviet Union controlled its people’s expression of language, the characters in Havel’s works were controlled by language.
Havel’s experience of being arrested because he was involved in the Charter 77 movement is expressed in the themes of the following plays: A Private View and Largo Desolato. These plays, like many of Havel’s plays, are linked by the common theme of outsiders in conflict with an oppressive social order. In A Private View, the main character is a mild-mannered, steel-cored dissident artist who seeks to change the existing social order. In Largo Desolato, the protagonist is another dissident writer who is tormented both by government thugs, who watch over and interrogate him, and an assortment of friends, fans, and well-wishers who continually remind him of their expectations of him. Clearly, Havel shaped these characters based on his view of himself. In addition, both of these plays deal with the issues of civil and human rights and the dehumanization of man within the increasing mechanization of society.
In addition to the above mention themes, many of Havel’s other works revolve around the themes of betrayal, manipulation, exile, and isolation as well as truth, responsibility, and the search for identity. Most of Havel’s works also seem to focus on the respect for individual worth and individuals’ need for dignity. These themes are obviously the result of Havel’s life experiences living under the oppressive Communist regime of Czechoslovakia.
Analysis of The Garden Party
Havel’s first play, The Garden Party, exposes the bureaucratization of life and deformation of intellect by a totalitarian social system. At the opening of the play, the Pludek parents, worrying about their two adult sons’ futures, push the dull son, Hugo, to attend a garden party of the Liquidation Office in hopes of his finding some position. Once there, Hugo hears the officially sanctioned ideas, begins mimicking the verbal idiocies, and finds its meaninglessness his perfect element. Quickly, he becomes the leader of the Liquidation Office, then the Inauguration Office, and lastly the leader of a new Central Committee for Inauguration and liquidation charged with liquidating liquidation. Hugo, who is transplanted into current Czech settings, meets its endemic bureaucracy and conquers, but only at a cost. When he returns home, his parents and he discuss his success entirely in the third person. His identity as a distinct individual recognizable to himself and others is thus gone.
With actions sparse and character development unmotivated, The Garden Party is dominated by language. Havel inventively puts on stage all sorts of diverting and diversionary verbal language to satirize the language of bureaucracy as nonsensical. Audiences anywhere would laugh at the innumerable hilarious lines. Quotes from old poems of the English Renaissance would remind them that once words, and human life itself, had meaning. However, Czech audiences would recognize in the socialist-sounding rhetoric their very own linguistic environment and would make the clear connection between this play and the Soviet imposed Communist government of Czechoslovakia.
Therefore, as illustrated above, the history and politics of Czechoslovakia during the Cold War had a significant impact upon Vaclav Havel and his literary works. Many of the characteristics of life living under an oppressive Communist regime, such as the dehumanization of man, the mechanization of society, as well as betrayal, manipulation, exile, and isolation, have infiltrated many of Havel’s works. Based on this, we can make the conclusion that history and politics are very influential on people’s lives.
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