The UnHoly Trinity
Philosophy Cigarettes Whisky
‘I See No Radiant Tomorrows’
Vaclav Havel former President of Czechoslovakia 1989-92
& Czech Republic 1993-2003
MEETING Vaclav Havel in his fourth floor Prague apartment can be unnerving. In the era of glasnost, the bugged telephone, rings constantly. Cigarette smoke blues the air. Whisky glasses rarely stand empty. Policemen sometimes stand guard outside the apartment across the street, as in a Kafka novel. Mr Havel’s dog was shot dead by the secret police on the doorstep.
This atmosphere of state repression gets on my nerves, but Mr Havel is a calm and remarkable host. Short, slight and sandy-haired he is I described in police files as a “subversive” and an “anti-Socialist element”.
In reality, he is a courteous, shy, soft-spoken rebel with a democratic cause. He is also among the most brilliant European writers and public figures of our time.
Time is precious. We don’t waste it an small talk. Mr Havel begins to speak with measured passion. The problem of totalitarian power weighs most heavily upon him. He explains that regimes such as Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Germany are unique.
Using more sophisticated methods of control than the dictatorships of the Third World, they are all-embracing and soul-destroying,“Totalitarian regimes get under society’s skin,” he says.
His words against totalitarianism are matched by a deep suspicion of the West. He is not a professional anti-Communist. He tells me that both systems contain huge, faceless organisations which treat people as mere objects.
“The world is losing its human dimension,” he says. “Self-propelling mega-machines, large-scale enterprises, faceless governments and other juggernauts of impersonal power represent the greatest threat to our present day world: Totalitarianism is no more than an extreme expression of this threat".
Havel reaches for more, whisky and cigarettes, Our conversation turns philosophical.
He is is against Utopian visions – “radiant tomorrows” as he calls them. Life is ever-changing and ultimately intangible. Attempts to master it fully, to clamp it down to a blueprint, therefore always end up strait-jacketing and destroying life.
Mr Havel sees a direct link between beautiful Utopias and the gruesomeness of concentration camps. “What is a concentration camp, after all, but an attempt by Utopians to dispose of those elements which don’t fit into their Utopia?” he asks. Pol Pot and Khomeini are on his mind.
His question reminds me why the Western enthusiasm for Mr Gorbachev is considered unrealistic, even disheartening for many people in the East. The disgust produced by failed Utopias is something that people, living in the other half of Europe feel acutely.
I remind him that in his play Temptation a character says: “l don’t give any specific advice, and I don’t fix anything or anyone. The most I do is to stimulate now and again.”
He agrees that that could be his credo as a playwright. Theatre, he says, should not try to thrill or charm playgoers or make things easier for them by providing positive heroes.
“l try to fling my audiences into the heart of problems that they can’t avoid,” says Mr Havel, pausing to light another cigarette. “I try to push people’s noses into our common wretchedness. Theatre should remind people that the time is getting on, that our situation is bad and that there’s no time to lose.”
He describes how he began working in the theatre as a stagehand and soon became literary adviser at the famous Prague Theatre on the Balustrades.
His first play, The Garden, Party, brought him overnight fame in the Sixties. Since then he has become known as a master playwright of the Theatre of the Absurd.
He has written more than a dozen important plays, not all staged in Britain. Among the best-known are The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera and Temptation, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican last year.
He modestly forgets to add that he has received many awards, including the American Obie Prize for the best off Broadway play, the Austrian Award for European Literature, and the 1986 Erasmus, prize.
These brilliant accomplishments have their painful side. For more than two decades he has been banned by the, Czechoslovak authorities from directing his own plays.
Worse still, during the same none of his plays has been performed in his Country. The sole exception – an amateur production in 1975 of The Beggar’s Opera in a village near Prague – led to a police raid and to the interrogation of all those who took part in it. This clampdown visibly anguishes him.
Mr Havel, the playwright with an aversion to power – grabbing politicians; has been dragged into politics against his will. He has served three prison sentences in the past 10 years.
He tells me that politics “from below” is one of the few ways individuals can seek. meaningful existence in world threatened by impersonal organisations.
“Only by looking outward,” he says. “and throwing ourselves repeatedly into the tumult of the world, with the intention of making our voices count – only in this way do we really become human beings.”
Surrounded by police and constant threats of arrest and imprisonment, his personal courage is awesome. I now understand why the Czech authorities fear him.
Mr Havel appealed to Mr Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, and Mr Imre Poszgay, the Hungarian Communist reformer, to support two human rights activists imprisoned in Czechoslovakia.
By Professor Keane Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in London.