Václav Havel is best known as a playwright and politician, but his essays have always been an important part of his oeuvre. His essayistic work can be divided into three periods. During the 1950s and 1960s, he dwelt primarily on problems of theater and literature. During the 1970s and 1980s, he turned increasingly to problems of cultural policy, politics, and human existence. The latest period, during his presidency of his country since 1989, reflects an obvious turn toward public affairs.
From the end of the 1950s Havel concentrated on theater, including commentaries on his own plays. These essays and reflections were published in journals such as Divadlo (Theater), Host do Domu (Guest at home), and Literární Noviny (Literary news), and collected in Josef Čapek (1963). Other essays from this period were devoted to critical analysis of culture and thought. He dealt with politics only sporadically, e.g. in “Na téma
opozice” (1968; “On the Theme of an Opposition”), directed against the monopoly on government enjoyed by the Communist Party. Unlike Milan Kundera and other Czech writers, Havel had no illusions concerning the humane nature of communism or the possibility of democratization.
In these early articles the typical features of Havel’s style and perspective on the world are already evident. He carried on the tradition of democratic and liberal thought, as established and represented in Czech culture by Karel Havlíček, Tomáš G.Masaryk, the Čapek brothers, and Ferdinand Peroutka. As in his plays, Havel’s style is factual, accurate, and ironic.
A new period began in the 1970s, not only in Havel’s work, but in Czechoslovakian culture as a whole. After the defeat of the “revival” in 1968, many outstanding writers were forbidden to publish their works or to take part in public life. At this time Havel became a leading figure in the organization of underground culture, establishing movements such as samizdat publishing, in which works were privately produced and secretly circulated. (Because of such activity Havel was hounded by the police and imprisoned several times.) He began to take more interest in political, cultural, and existential questions. In the open “Dopis Dr. Gustávu Husákovi” (1975; “Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák”), the Czech president at the time, Havel disclosed the deep moral and spiritual crisis present in Czechoslovakian society, the “order without life” he considered an inseparable part of the more general crisis of human identity. In the famous, much quoted Moc bezmocných (1978; “The Power of the Powerless”), written after the foundation of the Charter 77 human rights group, he analyzed the phenomenon of dissent.
Opposed to “living a lie” by colluding with totalitarian ideology, dissidents stress “living in truth.” At the same time, Havel denounced the egotism of the current technical and consumer civilization of Western society. He developed these ideas in other essays such as Politika a svĕdomí (1984; “Politics and Conscience”), “Anatomie jedné zdrženlivosti” (1985; “Anatomy of a Reticence”), and “Přibĕh a totálita” (1987; “Stories and Totalitarianism”), revealing himself to be a modern intellectual whose skepticism is counterbalanced by his belief in transcendental spiritual values. Belief for Havel means “hope as the state of the spirit, not as the state of the world.” He considered the moral revival of the individual more important than change in the social order.
Havel formulated many ideas in the letters he wrote from prison to his wife Olga between 1979 to 1982, and published in Dopisy Olze (1983; Letters to Olga). Often taking the form of essays on philosophy, theater, and other subjects, they differ from Havel’s other work from the 1970s and 1980s in not being able to deal directly with politics (the letters had to pass through censorship) and hence being more general and oblique considerations of issues.
As the leader of his country since November 1989, Havel has not surprisingly shifted the focus of his writing to problems of public life and politics. His recent essays are less comprehensive than those of the 1970s and 1980s; more and more take the form of speeches. Even in those, however, he preserves his ability to analyze things precisely, his irony and self-irony, and the ideas he has developed in earlier works. In a speech delivered to the United States Congress in February 1990, Havel said: “…we are greatly influenced by a malignant and entirely selfish impression that man is the top of all creatures and hence can do anything he wants.” The salvation of the contemporary world he sees in the turn toward “human heart, human consideration, human humility, and human responsibility.” His essays—whether in samizdat publications, as letters from prison, or as presidential speeches—have consistently reflected this humanitarian perspective.
Born 5 October 1936 in Prague. Laboratory technician, 1951–55. Studied at a technical college, 1955–57, and the Academy of Arts, Prague, 1961–66. Military service in the Czechoslovak Army, 1957–59. Worked at the ABC Theater, Prague, 1959–60, and the Divadlo na Zábradlí (Theater on the bannister), Prague, 1960–68. Married Olga Šplíchalová (died, 1996), 1964. Passport confiscated because writings considered subversive, 1969; imprisoned for various charges of subversion or behavior opposed to the government, 1977, 1978–79, 1979–83, 1989. Cofounder, Charter 77 human rights group, 1977, and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS), 1978; member of the editorial board, and regular contributor, Lidové Noviny (The people’s news) samizdat newspaper, 1987–89. Cofounder and leader, Občanské Fórum (Civic forum) political party, 1989. President of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, 1989–91, and of the Czech Republic, since 1993. Married Dagmar Veskrnova, 1997.
Awards: many, including Obie Award, 1968, 1970; Austrian State Prize, 1969; Prix Plaisir du Théâtre, 1981; Palach Prize, 1981; Erasmus Prize, 1986; Olof Palme Prize, 1989; UNESCO Bolívar Prize, 1990; Friedrich-Ebert Foundation Political Book of the Year Award, 1990; Malaparte Prize, 1990; Legion of Honor Grand Cross, 1990; Charlemagne Prize, 1991; Sonning Prize, 1991; Averell Harriman Democracy Award, 1991; B’nai B’rith Prize, 1991; Freedom Award, 1991; Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights
Award, 1991; Leonhard-FrankRing, 1992; Indira Gandhi Prize, 1993; European Cultural Society Award, 1993; Order of the White Eagle (Poland), 1993; Golden Honorary Order of Freedom (Slovenia), 1993; honorary degrees from over a dozen universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Josef Čapek: Dramatik a jevištní výtvarník, with Vĕra Ptáčková, 1963
Moc bezmocných, 1978; as “The Power of the Powerless,” in The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in CentralEastern Europe, edited by John Keane, 1985
Dopisy Olze (letters to his wife from prison), 1983; as Letters to Olga, June 1979 to September 1982, translated by Paul Wilson, 1988
Výzva k transcendenci, 1984
O lidskou identitu: Úvahy, fejetony, protesty, polemiky, prohlášení a rozhovory z let, 1969–1979, edited by Vilem Prečan and Alexander Tomsky, 1984
Politika a svĕdomí, 1984; as “Politics and Conscience,” translated by Erazim Kohák and Roger Scruton, in Living in Truth, edited by Jan Vladislav, 1986
Living in Truth (also includes essays by other writers addressed to Havel), edited by Jan Vladislav, 1986
Do různých stran: Eseje a články z let 1983–1989, edited by Vilem Prečan, 1989
Profevy: Leden-červen 1990 (speeches), edited by Vilem Prečan, 1990
Open Letters: Selected Prose 1965–1990, edited by Paul Wilson, 1991
Letní přemítání, 1991; as Summer Meditations: On Politics, Morality and Civility in a Time of Transition, translated by Paul Wilson, 1992
Vážení občane (speeches), 1992
Čtyři eseje, 1993
Other writings: many plays (including Zahradní slavnost [The Garden Party], 1963;
Vyrozumĕní [The Memorandum], 1965; Ztížená možnost soustředĕní [The Increased Difficulty of Concentration], 1968; Audience, 1975; Vernisáž [A Private View], 1975;
Žebrácká opera [The Beggar’s Opera], 1976; Protest, 1978; Chyba [The Mistake], 1983;
Largo desolato, 1985; Pokoušení [Temptation], 1986; Asanace [Redevelopment], 1987), and correspondence.
Hoznauer, Miloslav, Václav Havel: Bibliografická příručka, Prague: Comenium, 1991
Candole, James de, “Václav Havel as a Conservative Thinker,” Salisbury Review (December 1988)
Cobb, Kelton, “Ernst Troeltsch and Václav Havel on the Ethical Promise of Historical Failure,” Journal of Religiotis Ethics 22 (Spring 1994):53–74
Farrell, Thomas B., “Practicing the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 24, no. 3 (1991):183–212
Gibian, George, “Havel’s Letters from Prison,” Cross Currents 3 (1984):87–119
Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa, “Variations of Temptation: Václav Havel’s Politics of Language,” Modern Drama 33 (March 1990): 92–105
Hejdánek, Ladislav, “Variace a reflexe na téma vĕzeňských dopisů Václava Havla,” Listy 20, no. 6 (1990):6–19
Königsmark, Václav, “Havlovy dramatické eseje,” Přítomnost 1, no. 6 (1990):26–27
Kriseová, Eda, Václav Havel, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993 (original Czech edition, 1991)
Matustik, Martin J., Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel, New York: Guilford Press, 1993
Pithart, Peter, “Intellectuals in Politics: Double Dissent in the Past, Double
Disappointment Today,” Social Research 60 (Winter 1993):751–61
Prochazka, Martin, “Prisoner’s Predicament: Public Privacy in Havel’s Letters to Olga,” Representations 43 (Summer 1993): 126–54
Rezek, Petr, Filosofie a politika kyče, Prague: Institut pro Středoevropskou Kulturu a Politiku, 1991
Satterwhite, James, “Marxist Critique and Czechoslovak Reform,” in The Road to Disillusion: From Critical Marxism to PostCommunism in Eastern Europe, edited by Raymond Taras, Armonk, New York: Sharpe, 1992:115–34
Tucker, Aviezer, “Václav Havel’s Heideggerianism,” Telos (Fall 1990):63–78
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