Thursday, October 25, 2012

Václav Havel's Vaněk Plays: Audience, Protest, Unveiling, and Dozens of Cousins

Theater 61 Press is releasing five new books of translations of Havel's plays (The Havel Collection)    Here is one of my essays from the collection, about The Vaněk Plays. The website for Theater 61 Press (put up just last month) includes a number of other essays from the collection.
Who is Vaněk? He is an alter ego for Václav Havel, though, like most of Havel’s alter egos, he is an exaggerated reflection of one aspect of the writer. He is a theatrical construct, a foil whose own presumed moral purity inspires his fellow characters to justify their moral breaches. He is a symbol of the struggle against Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, first employed by Havel, then by Havel’s friends, and even appearing in Tom Stoppard’s Rock n’ Roll (and my own Velvet Oratorio, written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution).

I first encountered Vaněk during my freshman year in college. I found Audience in a stack of plays at the local library, and I was immediately drawn to the work. I was passingly familiar with the political situation in Czechoslovakia, but the play brought home its human dimensions to me. What struck me at the time was the empathy Havel had for the Brewmaster. The final monologue truly brought home the fact that it is not only the dissidents who struggle within a totalitarian—or rather, as Havel put it, post-totalitarian society. It is also the seeming collaborators, forced by the structure of their society into their roles.

The Vaněk plays (along with all of Havel’s work) were banned in Czechoslovakia when they were first written, but that didn’t prevent people from performing them in their living rooms, copying them surreptitiously as samizdat (illegal, faded copies of banned work), or even recording them on vinyl. These surreptitiously distributed plays helped create Havel ’s reputation, which in turn made him the natural leader for the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

The plays were clearly based on events in Havel’s life, including his own experience in the brewery in which he worked, once working in a theater was no longer an allowable option for him. On the underground recording of Audience made during the Communist years, Havel himself played Vaněk, while his friend Landovsky played the Brewmaster. One year later, Landovsky would go on to write a Vaněk play of his own.

I have directed Audience twice, first in 1993, then in 2006 during Untitled Theater Company #61’s Havel Festival, in which we produced all of Havel’s work. Though removed from the time and place that first inspired their creation, neither Audience nor the other Vaněk plays have lost their power. They all succeed in telling a very universal story about the ways in which we are all susceptible to moral compromise, about the way our own actions can contribute to the very same problems we protest.

The most recent of Havel’s Vaněk plays, Dozens of Cousins, is more of a short, modern epilogue to Unveiling. It is published here for the first time. Despite being set in the post- Communist era, we see the same tropes, the same lying and pretense that are echoes of his earlier work.

One of Havel’s core ideas in his philosophical essays is the concept of “living in truth,” that each small compromise we make with the truth leads to larger compromises, until it snowballs into a society-wide epidemic in which lying becomes the instinctual path. It is a danger in any society, no matter what the government. We all need a Ferdinand Vaněk to keep us honest.

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