“May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred.”
Celebrated playwright Vaclav Havel, whose 1985 play Temptation was produced to great acclaim three years ago by Constellation Theatre Company, died in his sleep this morning, his website announced. He was seventy-five.
DCTS’ Steve McKnight called Temptation a “classic Faust story…with healthy doses of political satire and absurdist humor” and noted that the company’s fine production was “an intelligent and intriguing offering.”
Temptation was one of eighteen plays which were either authored by Havel or adapted from Havel’s writing. Another was The Memorandum, which Forum Theatre produced in 2006. DCTS’ Ronnie Ruff called that play “[a]n extremely funny and flowing satire” and noted that the play is “most accomplished work and a play that is a perfect example that theatre is always about politics.”
In addition to his plays, Havel also wrote six collections of poetry, a book of fiction and nine non-fiction books. His fiction was known for its strong characters, one of whom, Ferdinand Vanek, was adapted as a character (“Ferdinand”) in homage to Havel in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Like many theater artists, Havel had a second job to help support himself and his family. His was as President of Czechoslovakia, and later as founding President of the Czech Republic. Havel’s election followed a lifetime of dissent and struggle against the Communist regime. Banned from higher education in the humanities by the Communist authorities because of his family’s background as bourgeois intellectuals, Havel worked as an assistant in a chemistry lab while his first, slyly provocative plays were produced. They were tolerated in the days of the relatively liberal Alexander Dubcek’s “Prague Spring,” but after the brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the ensuing regime banned Havel’s work altogether.
Havel took a job in a brewery, and continued to write. He distributed his writings in samizdat form hand-to-hand to other intellectuals and opponents of the regime. During this period, he became well known for his work on the Charter 77 Manifesto, which opposed, among other things, the political imprisonment of the rock band, Plastic People of the Universe. He also co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. Havel championed the cause of non-violent resistance, and the movement he led was popularly known as “the Velvet Revolution.” (Havel himself was a great admirer of Lou Reed’s group, The Velvet Underground.)
When the Czechoslovakia overthrew the Communists, Havel became its President by unanimous choice of the Federal Assembly. Assuming office in 1989, he soon granted widespread amnesty to the old regime’s prisoners. However, disputes between the Czechs and the Slovaks made the maintenance of the Czechoslovakian state impossible, and in 1992 the Slovaks declared their independence from Czechoslovakia. Havel resigned as President, but in 1993 he became the first President of the newly-created Czech Republic. He served in that capacity until 2003, and claimed that his contributions toward the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact were the greatest accomplishments of his administration.
Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s bitter political rival, succeeded Havel to the Presidency, and Havel’s last full-length play, Leaving, was about a political leader about to surrender power to a rival. Havel described it as being influenced by King Lear and The Cherry Orchard.
Havel, a chain-smoker, had a cancerous part of one lung removed in 1996, and he was told at that point that he had only fifteen months to live. His wife, the former Olga Splichalova, died of cancer around that time as well. Havel later married the actress Dagmar Veskrnova.
Havel received the Philadelphia Liberty Medal (1994), the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca (1997), the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award (2002), the international Gandhi Peace Prize (2003), Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award (2003), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2003). In 2009, Havel received the Quadriga Award, but returned it when he learned that Vladimir Putin was also receiving the Award.
He was also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
President Obama today said that Havel “helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe.” Lech Walesa, the dockworker who led an anti-communist revolution in Poland, called Havel “a great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy” whose “voice of wisdom will be missed.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Havel was a “Cold War hero” who “opened the door to democracy in Eastern Europe and will always be remembered” and his old rival Klaus called him a “symbol of our renewed nation.”
Havel’s personal motto was “May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred.” He is survived by his wife, Dagmar, who was with him as he died.