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Playwright, Prisoner, President: Celebrating the Life of Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel. Photo: ©Martin Kozák, 2008, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Playwright, Prisoner, President: Celebrating the Life of Vaclav Havel

Lifelong friends, theatre professionals and fellow countrymen shared warm reminiscences of the late Czech leader and playwright at an opening reception for a UCLA Library exhibit in the Powell Library Rotunda.

“You must tell me the truth: I know what your countrymen think of me as a dissident, but I want to know what they think of me as a playwright,” said Havel to Gordon Davidson, then artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum.


UCLA International Institute, October 23, 2013 — A reception at the UCLA Powell Library on October 8th marked the opening of an exhibit on the life and legacy of Vaclav Havel. The event was cosponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies, the UCLA Library and the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles
 
The exhibit, curated by Margarita Nafpaktitis, UCLA Associate Librarian (Collections, Research and Instructional Services), is displayed in four glass cases in the Powell Library Rotunda. It features publications by and about Havel, as well as video images of the Czech president’s visit to UCLA in October 1991, when he received the UCLA Medal at an academic convocation. (He was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in July 2003.) 
 
A man who contributed to many fields
 
A number of speakers offered brief remarks on the amazing life and political and cultural contributions of the Czech playwright, dissident, political thinker and, finally, president (of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, 1989–2003). From their remarks emerged a portrait of a quietly confident, courageous and warm human being who faced challenges with equanimity and patience and who rarely complained. 
 
A trenchant, reasoned critic of the communist regime of Czechoslovakia who disliked the term “dissident” and did not expect most people to pay the terrible price of “living in truth” in a communist regime, Havel was both a talented absurdist playwright and a gifted political thinker. His essays on how communist regimes worked were a significant contribution to the study of communism and a serious challenge to the legitimacy of Warsaw Pact regimes. 
 
Born in 1936 and raised in a well-off, educated family, Havel faced class-based discrimination that limited his access to education (including secondary education) and professional employment in communist post–World War II Czechoslovakia. 


Czech Consul General Michal Sedláček. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)
 
Sedláček, a diplomat and filmmaker, first met Havel four months before he became president. It was a tense time when Havel remained under strict political surveillance. “[He] cheered us up,” Sedláček remarked, “‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘the political police were already here today and they usually don’t come twice.’” 
 
Ivan Passer, a noted Czech screenwriter and New Wave director, attended King George School (a secondary school created for children who had lost their parents in the second world war) with Havel and Miloš Forman. The three remained friends for the rest of their lives, even though Passer conceded that when he was in school with Havel, he was unkind to him in the manner of boys with their younger peers (Passer was 13 to Havel’s 10). 
 
Havel bore all the challenges assigned to him by the older boys, including boxing matches with far bigger students, with a quiet calm, related Passer. “[Afterwards] very often he was bloodied, and he always had this curious smile on his face — as if he were watching the whole thing from the outside,” said the director. “For some reason, I remember all these boxing evenings because of this curious attitude.”
 
“That was what was so fascinating about him. He was a bit chubby, somewhat flatfooted — he was not very athletic,” recalled Passer. For example, said the director, the boys had to participate in all sorts of sports and sports competitions. And although Havel never won any competitions, he never tried to get out of them and was always eager to participate.

Czech screenwriter and director Ivan Passer. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)
 
“Looking back on what happened to him in his life,” remarked Passer, “I remember the signs of his character already being there. . . .  Later, I couldn’t help but think that destiny was preparing him for [the life of a dissident with whom people were afraid to associate], that he actually was training for being in prison.” 
 
Havel’s contributions to the human rights movement and Czech culture — particularly his “Dear Dr. Husák” letter (an open letter to the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia), “The Power of the Powerless” essay and his role in the Charter 77 movement — were also heralded by Margarita NafpaktitisGail Kligman, director of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies and UCLA professor of sociology; and Susan Kresin, Lecturer of Czech and Russian, UCLA Slavic Languages and Literatures.
 
Gordon Davidson, former artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, offered attendees an insight into the Havel’s impact on the theatre. Davidson staged some of Havel’s plays in Los Angeles in the 1980s (including “Temptation” and “Largo Desolato”), intentionally raising the playwright’s visibility on the world scene at a time when he was being persecuted for his political stands. 
 
Davidson met Havel secretly in Prague in the late 1980s. “What an honor and a treasure it was to have met Vaclav,” noted Davidson. “We immediately struck up a wonderful relationship.” At one point, Havel drew him aside privately and said, “You must tell me the truth: I know what your countrymen think of me as a dissident, but I want to know what they think of me as a playwright.”
 
It was a surprise for Davidson to learn that Havel at that time had not seen any of his plays performed on stage. To what must have been Havel’s delight, Davidson came with two awards for the playwright (one from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and one from the Royal Shakespeare Theater in London), as well as a videotape of a performance of one of his plays.

Gordon Davidson, former artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)
 
“It was a marvelous formative time in my career and in theater in the 1970s and 1980s — especially when the world was changing in such an extraordinary manner — and his voice was heard,” concluded Davidson. 
 
A sign of the continued appeal of Havel’s life and work could be seen in the presence of a young American high school student at the reception. Sonia Gonzalez, who attends the Marlborough School in Los Angeles, is doing research on the Velvet Revolution as part of the school’s Honors Research in Humanities and Social Sciences Program. 
 
Specifically, Gonzalez is looking at the cultural products of Czechoslovakia from the 1960s through the 1989 revolution — including Czech literature, New Wave films, political journalism and music. Her focus is on the themes of these works and how they were taken up again by dissidents in 1989 to overthrow the government. 
 
Asked how she liked the works she had been studying, Gonzalez replied enthusiastically, “I loved them! Basically you see the themes that Havel talked about: living in truth and not conforming to what other people want you to be, but choosing for yourself.” 
 
“At first I didn’t think I would pursue [the topic] in college, but now I’ve fallen in love with it,” she continued. “I wouldn’t even mind picking up the language — who knows?”