In 2016, I visited the city of Prague with a group of students from my cultural student association Prometheus. Trying to make the trip as informative as possible, the organising committee asked several of the travellers to give a little lecture about a subject they know more about. I was asked to tell the group something about Czech literature.
Problem was, I didn’t know that much about Czech literature. Of course I could talk about Kafka but that seemed a little easy, and because the group I would be talking to is generally very well read I preferred to teach them something new. At the end, I decided to tell them about the writer-politician Václav Havel.
Havel was born in 1936 in Prague and he wrote mostly political plays. Under the communist regime he wasn’t allowed to publish so he became even more political active. He became one of the main figures of the Charta 77, a movement defending human rights in Czechoslovakia, and after the revolution he even got elected to be the new president. Imagine this, a writer as president!
Havel’s plays are pretty experimental, a result of having to write under censorship. He always had to find ways to work around the rules. This resulted in a kind of political absurdism, full of critique on empty phrases and bureaucracy. He also likes to reflect on theatre itself, by making characters complain they don’t have enough lines, or by having a voice-over comment on the acting.
I read two plays by Havel, The Garden Party, which is one of his earlier plays, and Leaving, which is the first play he published after his presidency. The Garden Party is very political and is a nice read if you want to learn more about the communist regime is Czechoslovakia – although it is still a comic piece, so don’t take things literally. Leaving is a more personal play, about another president at the end of his reign. He struggles with keeping control over how the world views him. This one was my favourite, because I loved the role of the voice-over. I would definitely recommend to read this one, and because it’s a play, you’ll finish it in no-time!
I would like to end with the last words of Leaving: “I’d like to thank the actors for not overacting. The theatre would like to thank the audiences for turning off their mobile phones. Truth and love must triumph over love and hatred. You may turn your phones back on. Goodnight and pleasant dreams!”