Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts


December 23, 2011

The response to Vaclav Havel’s death outside the Czech and Slovak republics has been a strange mixture of  respect for the man who probably was instrumental in toppling the communist government of the then Czechoslovakia, and of selective memory of his previous life as a dissident playwright. For Havel’s strength was always in his writing , and for using his writing to portray the weakness of the communist politicians who led his country for so long, imprisoning him and  spying on him in the process. As a writer he had the brilliant skill of finding the appropriate metaphor for exposing the moral weakness of the world with which he had to cope.  In his 1966 play “The Memorandum” the chief protagonist,  Josef Gross, arrives at his office one day to find that an entirely new language – Ptydepe – has been introduced without his knowledge:   ” Gross : There’s a new language being  introduced into our organisation?  I dont remember having been informed.  Hana :  They must have forgotten to tell you. Shall I go and get the milk? ”  This little exchange sums up Havel’s view of his government,  and it was this ironic sense of humour that sustained him throughout his period as President of the new Czech Republic. In one of his fine essays entitled  ” The Power of the Powerless” he writes the following : ” …the system in which we live has very little in common with a classical dictatorship. In the first place our system is not limited in a local, geographical sense; rather it holds sway over a huge power bloc controlled by one of the two superpowers” , and goes on to analyse meticulously how the consequent bureaucracy works against its citizens. All this analysis and metaphorical writing for the stage meant that as a President he became  a figure of huge moral authority and experience, yet with also  a great love of rock music ( His father built the Lusitzia cetre where tonight’s rock concert will be held). Now he’s gone and with him the regime he fought , and  now he becomes part of history. This was reflected in the fact that none of the UK TV channels chose to relay the state funeral today in Prague, and even Euronews was reduced to the odd three minute extract from what was going on in St Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague, where a few of the old faces were present – Lech Walesa, Bill Clinton,John Major, and the actor Alain Delon. I suppose that for those of us who lived through that communist period Havel was a beacon – the founder of Charter 77, the writer of some brilliant prison letters to his wife, Olga – a bejeaned President hobnobbing with the ‘greats’ of the West. In 2001 I think I directed the first ever Havel text at the Edinburgh Fringe in a show called ” Jo Stalin’s Empire”, and I still remember the gales of laughter from the audience as they watched an extract from ” The Memorandum”. At the other end of the spectrum Samuel Beckett wrote his text ” Catastrophe” , in 1982, for Havel. The piece involves a stage manager  and director lighting  a static  ” figure in a wide black-brimmed hat.Black dressing gown to ankles. Barefooot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets.Age and physique unimportant” – a clear image of the repressed creative figure as it might have been portrayed by Havel.  At the end of the piece , where they have been subjecting the lone figure to interminable lighting experiments,  the Director says   ” Now… let ‘em have it  (Fade out of general light. Pause. Fade out of light on body. Light on head alone. Long Pause). Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here. (Pause . Distant storm of applause. The figure raises his head, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies. Long Pause) “. As today ,when the crowds outside Prague Castle applauded as the hearse carrying Havel’s coffin passed them . Then, maybe,  a long pause while the Czechs reflect on their capitalist future………or not.

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