(Swans - February 13, 2012) In the spring of 2004, I was invited to Prague to direct Vaclav Havel's Temptation at the National Theater in the Czech Republic. I had directed in a number of European cities but there was something of a frisson about going to Prague and working with the ex-president of the Czech Republic, whom I remembered most vividly as the Great Dissenter against the Soviet rule in a city I had often visualized but never actually seen.
On the day Vaclav Havel was scheduled to attend the first act run-through of his play there was a palpable sense of hysteria in the air. The actors, all highly experienced members of a robust and respected permanent company that performed regularly before the upper echelons of Prague society, had never played in a scrappy rehearsal room for an internationally-lauded political icon and ex-president of the Czech Republic surrounded by secret service men. Lines were muffed, moves went awry, cues forgotten, and a sense of "Royal Command Performance" hung in the air. After an hour or so, the torture was over and the actors sat circled around an appreciative, avuncular, and soft-spoken playwright, being gently massaged with compliments and diverted by anecdotes about his numerous incarcerations, the play's inception, and the thrill of being back in the midst of working actors after an absence of some twenty-five years.
Temptation deals with a diabolical pact between a subversive scientist and an odoriferous necromancer who turns out to be a government informer. It was gestated during various imprisonments and went through a torturous incubation period. While in prison, instead of being given the usual batch of propagandist Communist literature, Havel had been handed Goethe's Faust, and then Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus and after that, a battered copy of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. It was as if inexplicable dark forces were luring him towards the Faustian theme. After several false starts, he wrote the play in ten days -- one scene each day -- which was highly uncharacteristic as the playwright usually marinated a play for two, sometimes three years. "Strange things happened to me," Havel recalled. "When I finished, I was so exhausted I almost collapsed. I fell down the stairs and injured my head. I caught a flu and my temperature shot up dangerously high; I couldn't get out of bed, I had no medicine, I couldn't call a doctor... There were moments when I felt myself almost physiologically tempted by the devil." Of all his works, Temptation is the only one that unquestionably exudes a strong whiff of fire and brimstone.
The play was banned in the mid 1980s when it was first written and has had a checkered life since then. Although the Czech Republic's most recognizable playwright, Havel had only one play staged at the National Theater in Prague -- viz The Garden Party in 1990. Temptation, which opened on May 13, 2004, was only the second. When I was asked what the play was "really about" I referred people to the following quotation from Havel:
All my adult life, I was branded by officials as "an exponent of the right" who wanted to bring capitalism back to our country. Today -- at a ripe old age -- I am suspected of being left wing, if not of harboring out and out socialist tendencies. What, then, is my real position? First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine -- left wing, right wing, or any other closed ready-made system of pre-suppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me.
For Havel the enemy was always dogma, whatever its ideological flavor and, along with that, a distrust of rationality that too often is used only to prop up one set of absolutes against another.
On the night of the premiere, there was an agitated buzz throughout the auditorium of the National Theater as we had all been informed that Havel would be in attendance. His friends and well wishers, who knew how important it was for his status as a playwright to be re-confirmed, had crowded out the stalls of the theater. One hour or so before the start of the show we were told that because of sudden complication in his health his doctor had forbidden him to attend. There had been three previous occasions when it was announced he would be visiting one particular rehearsal or another, but in all of those instances, poor health caused him to cancel out. Despite the absence of the playwright -- or perhaps because of it -- the final curtain was greeted with a tumultuous ovation and some twelve curtain calls. We were all somewhat taken aback by the fervor but gradually realized this was not so much an affirmation of the play and the acting company as it was an obstreperous recognition of the fact that, apart from having been president for some 15 years, Vaclav Havel was also the national playwright and the one whose works during the occupation had kept the image of an oppressed Czech populous before the eyes of the world.
In the hurly-burly that followed the Velvet Revolution in 1989, one sometimes forgets that Havel, the charismatic dissident, was essentially a playwright who came out the Absurdist tradition of the 1960s. Ironically, his political achievements engulfed his reputation as a playwright and, because so many of his plays were thinly-veiled attacks on the Communist regime, many of them seem to belong to a far distant past. Being too much in the thick of current events sometimes ages writers before their time. Temptation, although inspired by the Soviet occupation, has the advantage of being a largely symbolic and politically non-specific play in which black magic and necromancy (which originally stood for political dissent) can just as easily substitute for almost any kind of heterodoxy. But trimming down the ex-president's script to accommodate the new dispensation was a little like taking a red pencil to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Havel, reversing Teddy Roosevelt's dictum about "speaking softly" and "carrying a big stick," tends to speak softly and carry no stick whatsoever, but his dialectic is so cogent, it often persuades antagonists to alter their positions.
In the West, Havel, like Nelson Mandela with whom he is often compared, was considered an anomaly among politicians; a political leader who was also a writer, an artist, and an intellectual -- a combination that rarely occurs in politics. On his home ground he was far less of a sacred cow. His humanitarian rhetoric on the relationship between governance and civil liberty plays strongly in the West, but in Prague he was often seen as a hectoring moralizer who had lost touch with the more mundane problems of the Czech people. It may be that after 15 years of national ubiquity he had simply outstayed his welcome. By the 1980s his approval rating had slipped to 52% after a high of 82% only two years before.
Shortly after the death of his first wife in 1996, he became deathly ill with lung cancer and after the removal of two small tumors from his right lung, was not expected to survive. Dagmar Veskrenova, a close friend and popular film and stage actress who devoted herself selflessly to his rehabilitation, nursed him back to health. Barely a year later after his release from hospital, Dagmar became the second Mrs. Havel -- a remarriage that ruffled the sensibilities of many who felt there was too great an intellectual disparity between the president and his new bride. This indicates the intimate nature of the relationship between Havel and his fellow Czechs. They felt no compunction about advising him on his love life or telling him to bugger off when he became over-philosophical. But beneath these cavils there was a deeply entrenched bedrock of love and affection for the man who had made horrific sacrifices for his country.
Havel's place in all the cultural and political changes reshaping the Czech Republic was somewhat problematic. At 70 he was simply too young to fade into the woodwork, but too ill and powerless to be an active political force. He was gradually making that subtle transition from politician to statesman. (A presidential library, in the tradition of American presidents -- Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan -- was actually being organized for him.) Among artists and intellectuals, after acknowledging his enormous contributions to the country's liberation from the Soviets, his standing as a playwright tended to be disparaged. But one conveniently forgets that it is the length and breadth of his personal sacrifice that made it possible for new generations of writers to emerge. Although young and innovative artists are always crowding through the open door, somebody had to be there to open that door in the first place.
The real boon of the experience was Prague itself, a kind of creation of some thousand years of staggering architectural beauty and inspired musical tradition. One walked those streets in wonder everyday.
A few years later I was grimly astonished to read that the city had become the sex-center of Europe, with thousands of randy tourists drifting in and out of its highly populated bordellos. Socialism had been firmly rooted and capitalism was now enshrined. I often wondered what Havel might have thought of the city's lurid metamorphosis.
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