Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remembrances of Václav Havel

Sometimes, you are lucky.
William Niederkorn and Václav Havel

Sometimes, the man you meet is equal to the man you imagined.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Havel’s name.  Perhaps during a news broadcast.  Perhaps when I read Martin Esslin’s Theater of the Absurd.  I do know that I had read and fallen in love with his work by college, and I was overwhelmed by the idea that an absurdist playwright led a revolution and became the president of a nation.

His play, Audience was the first I directed in New York, the first New York production of my theater company.  For twelve years after that, I admired him from afar.

Then I came up with idea, called the Havel Festival.  My idea was, we would do every play he had ever written.  People now knew Havel the politician so well, I wanted to remind them about Havel the playwright.

I approached his agents.  We scheduled it for his 70th birthday.  By lucky chance, Gregory Mosher was planning a residency for Havel at Columbia at the same point, which meant he would be in town for the full length of the festival.

Havel with the cast and crew of The Memo

He came.

I met him for the first time at a reception being held by Columbia for his arrival.  I remember chatting with Oliver Sacks, another hero of mine, as I stood about four feet away from him, waiting to shake his hand.  Havel turned and graciously shook my hand.  I tried in the noise to introduce myself, and he nodded pleasantly, but seemed too tired to pick up exactly who I was.

Halka Kaiserova, the Czech consul general, explained it to him.  Suddenly, he beamed.  You don’t know what it means to an author, when you do all of his work, he told me.  Thank you.

I saw him at various functions over the next few weeks, and he would always greet me with a beaming smile.  He assured me he would be coming to see the production of the Memo I directed.  Some others, too, he said at the time, though I wasn’t sure what he meant.

Robert Lyons, me, and Havel at The Ohio
When he arrived at the Ohio Theater, he was surrounded by flashing cameras and attending by an entourage of secret service and dignitaries.  The flashing cameras didn’t affect him.  He was used to it.  He assured me his secret service members knew how to behave in a theater and would not disturb the production.

I remember when I watched him laugh.  It was early on, a small visual joke I had put into the script.  I sat anxiously in the back row and watched him with great relief.  And he kept on laughing, all show long.

He came back again, soon after, to see his plays Audience (which I had remounted) and Protest (directed by Robert Lyons, who runs the Ohio).  He was loved them both and was particularly taken with the actor Richard Toth, who appeared in Protest.

Havel and his wife Dasha with cast/crew of Temptation
He came back again.  And again.  And again.  Till he felt like a fixture in The Ohio and The Brick, where many of his other plays were being produced.

Throughout, he exuded a genuine warmth and a genuine enthusiasm about the work.  We had some celebrities who participated in the festival, but he was not impressed by celebrity.  He was as gracious and giving to every actor as he was to Kathleen Turner or Dustin Hoffman.  He did not care whether he was in a small theater or a large one.  He cared that we cared about the writing.  And we did, deeply.
Henry Akona, me, and Havel

On the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution he came again, and listened as Trey Kay’s band, Uncle Moon, did a tribute to the Velvet Underground.  He brought Madeleine Albright with him and they sat in the tiny Brick Theater and drank and celebrated with us.  At one point he same to the microphone and made a speech in Czech.  Halka Kaiserova translated:
Havel with Trey Kay of Uncle Moon
“There is no place I would rather spend the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.” It was in a small theater like The Brick where the revolution started, after all.

Havel and me at Joe's Pub
We were able to spend the last evening of the Festival at Joe’s Pub together, as Uncle  Moon played again, and Havel regaled me with tales about Lou Reed and his early experiences in theater.  As we sat together it suddenly occurred to me anew that this was a man who I had idolized from afar, whose ideas and writing had changed a whole country.  But now, he felt like an old friend.

We saw each other occasionally after that.  In London, in Philadelphia, in Prague, and most recently in Brno, when he flew me out the see a production of his newest work (or his reconfigured old work) The Pig.  Somehow, every time I saw him, I suddenly had this fear that this time, I would be disappointed.  This time he wouldn’t live up to the ridiculously high expectations that I had for him.

Havel in Brno (in sunglasses) watching a production of Audience
But when he saw me and welcomed me with a beaming smile, those fears melted away.  For Václav Havel was more than a great leader and a great writer and a great thinker.  He was a true and kind person, who lived the philosophies he preached.  He was the man who would beam at me every time he saw me.  He was a friend.

I will miss him very much.