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A Playwrightfor a President the story of moral renewal FrantisekDeak ON DECEMBER 29, 1989, the Communist-run Parliament unanimously elected the dissident playwright and human rights activist, Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia. No one familiar with the situation in Czechoslovakia, even Vaclav Havel himself, could have imagined such a dramatic reversal. Only two months before he was elected President, it looked as if Havel would be spending more time in prison. But, however unlikely was the scenario of a playwright, whose mentor was Samuel Beckett, being elected President, it has become a reality. Havel, instead of writing plays, will be leading his country to democracy and will probably limit his writings to speeches to the nation. But one never knows, and perhaps, in the not so distant future, we may be watching a play in which a bookish unassuming hero, clad in blue jeans and sweater, changes into a dark blue suit to play the role of President. But his play would not be an updating of La Vida es suetfo or a new Jeppe ofthe Hill.Havel has already shown great political savvy, moral vision, and an ability to rise to the occasion. I am sometimes asked if Havel is a great playwright. I actually do not know. I have not been thinking of him or of any other playwright, perhaps with the exception of Beckett who has recently died, in terms of greatness. But Havel certainly is an important writer for Czechoslovak theatre. His first plays, The GardenPartyand The Memorandum in the early 1960s introduced us to what was then called absurd theatre. Many of us saw produc36 tions of his plays before we could read Beckett and found nothing absurd in them. On the contrary, they had an unmistakable reality which we readily recognized since it was derived from our experience of daily life. But in terms of literary precedent, it was through the native literature of Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek (The Good SoldierSchweik) rather than world drama, that I watched Havel's plays. Beckett, in comparison to Havel, appeared initially as a mysterious and exotic writer. None of this means, however, that Beckett did not influence Havel, he certainly did, and probably not only as a playwright but also in a more personal and profound way as an example of how an artist conducts himself in life. Havel is not the only theatre person involved in the present transformation of Czechoslovakia into a democracy. He is the best-known and most prominent among many. From the very outset of the revolution, actors, directors, entire theatres, and theatre students were among the participants and leaders. The Civic Forum in Prague was run from the well-known Magic Lantern theatre. In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, people from theatre were also among the leaders, and important public meetings took place in the National Theatre. The participation of theatres and individual writers or actors in the revolution did not escape the attention of journalists and those involved in theatre in this country, and I was repeatedly told of their admiration for such direct and meaningful involvement of artists in the life of the country. The strong tradition of the Enlightenment in the arts in Czechoslovakia has kept writers, artists, and intellectuals, at times even against their own wishes and at great peril, involved in political life. It is not simply a question of political engagement, but rather a complex web of relationships to history, culture, and society. When I hear complaints about the lack of involvement of American actors, artists, writers, or students in political life in comparison to their Czechoslovak colleagues I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion. The comparison is an inequitable one, not only because American artistic and intellectual traditions are dissimilar, but also because the politics of dictatorship and those of democracy create entirely distinct circumstances for political life as well as for art. If, for example, I think of American students I do not find them less idealistic than those in Czechoslovakia who, for a long time, were passive, opportunistic, and scared before they freed themselves and took things into their own hands. There are also Czechoslovak artists, writers, actors, who for...


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