The tragic death of Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011) earlier this month has sadly robbed the theatrical world of one of the more impressive résumé’s of modern playwrights. Harold Pinter may have been awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to literature – an award which contained an inherent recognition of the political aspect of his later writing – but Havel can claim to go one step further; he was a major presence in world politics and also a key figure in the transition from authoritarian communist rule to democracy in the ex-Soviet states. Indeed the gulf between the two can be seen in the fact that it was Pinter who played ‘Vanek’, Havel’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego, in a BBC radio play in 1977.
Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 Havel was elected, by the Federal Assembly, as the ninth, and as it turned out final, President of Czechoslovakia. He was also responsible for introducing democracy to the country following 40 years of Communist rule, and, despite opposing it, oversaw the movement that led to the eventual split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In a world where most politicians appear to be motivated primarily by money and power, Havel can be held up as a shining example of a true public intellectual. Whereas many playwrights can write about politics, Havel lived through his beliefs and will remain in the history books as a powerful reminder that the literary world can engage with the political on an equal footing.
The fact that there is a Havel legacy in the U.K, given the generally dire prominence of any modern playwrights who are not Anglo-American is almost entirely down to the marvellous Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It has become a bastion of Havel’s work, and has been responsible for staging 12 major productions, including the first English translations of many of his plays. In 1977, on the eve of premiering Havel’s work in England, Charter ’77 exploded and the Orange Tree, a tiny theatre above a pub in the heart of liberal London suburbia found itself at the centre of Czech politics. From this moment forward the Orange Tree, an increasingly influential fringe venue, forged a sustained and meaningful relationship with Havel that continued through to his death.
For more on the relationship between the Orange Tree and Vaclav Havel click here.