Turning the Words Loose in Prague

After 20 years of enforced obscurity Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright extaordinary, has exploded onto the television screens of his country and ours. No one looks more uncomfortable in the political arena than Havel; he would clearly be happier back in the theater, rehearsing one of the dozen or so plays he has written since the 1968 Soviet invasion. There are those who feel that the production of Havel's plays--none, new or old, has been allowed on the Czech stage for 20 years--would mean more than all the recent shuffling in the political stratosphere.

A few weeks before the shuffling began, Havel received another in his growing collection of literary awards. The award, given yearly by the Assn. of German Writers to the author who has contibuted most to world peace, is traditionally presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual clearing house for world publishing (it exhibited 378,699 titles this October). For the first time in the history of the award, the recipient could not attend the ceremony: Havel has declined all invitations to leave Czechoslovakia because while the regime has been known to let dissidents out, it has never been known to let them back in.

Havel's acceptance speech was read by actor Maximilian Schell, who has long been associated with the playwright. (West Europeans have regularly seen his plays staged, and Angelenos are not far behind, largely thanks to the Mark Taper Forum and its director, Gordon Davidson, a personal friend of Havel's.) The speech emphasized the power of the word, harking back to "Two Thousand Words," the Prague Spring reformers' call to action, which was singled out by the Soviets as particularly subversive. In a country where the Soviet invasion has been referred to only as "the events" and the return to Stalinism has gone by the name of "normalization," words can be a matter of life and death.

The 53-year-old Havel has spent a number of the post-invasion years in prison for his efforts to set words right, and the German writers were honoring him for his "exemplary and persuasive attempt to live in truth." On this occasion he chose to discuss a word that has come to be used lightly in our century, especially in Eastern Europe. "Words have their history," he said. "There was a time, for instance, when entire generations of the humiliated and oppressed considered the word socialism a magnetic synonym for a more righteous world, and when the ideals expressed by the word led people to sacrifice many years of their lives and even life itself for it. I don't know how things stand in your country, but in mine the very word socialism has long since turned into a rubber truncheon that nouveau riche bureaucrats who believe in nothing use to beat their free-thinking fellow-citizens while calling them 'enemies of socialism' and 'anti-socialist forces'."

Another of Havel's words with a history is the word history itself. The communist regimes claim to represent a science of history governed by the laws of dialectical materialism. For them history is moving inexorably forward to the utopia that is communism. In his 1975 "Open Letter to President Husak" (Husak took over after the Soviet invasion and still holds certain honorary positions), Havel accused the regime of calling history to a halt. "True, the country is calm," he wrote, "calm as a morgue." The regime fostered entropy, order without life, and dressed it up as history. Since the regime had absolute power, it could do what it pleased to language as easily and surely as it could do what it pleased to people.

Not surprisingly, Havel is obsessed with history much as he is obsessed with words, and he combines his two magnificent obsessions in several plays by returning to works with a past. Like Brecht, he has reworked John Gay's "Beggar's Opera," and his "Temptation," recently at the Taper, represents a stunningly topical yet non-reductionist extension of the Faust legend: The devil can't hold a candle to the bureaucrats. In works like these the present resonates with history, and history is something Havel takes seriously. If he rejects the Communist march of history toward a radiant future, he is nonetheless wary of the tendency to dismiss history as absurd and therefore worthless. He would certainly agree with Santayana's oft-quoted adage: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

On the other hand, Havel has been through too much to assume that merely remembering history will repeal the sentence. So back we come to words and, more specifically, to the debasement of language that Havel bemoans as much as he does the distortion of history. Take "The Memorandum," one of the few Havel plays currently available in paperback here. The action begins with a series of nonsense syllables. They turn out to be a new language. One bureaucratic agency has required another bureaucratic agency to introduce a language with no ambiguity; that is, a language with a single word for a single concept. "And now I shall name some of the most common interjections," says the teacher engaged to teach the language. "Our ah becomes zukybaj ; our ouch , bykur ; our oh becomes hajf dy doretop, pish is bolypak juz, and the interjection of surprise well!--zyk! However, well, well! is not zykzyk! , as some have concluded, but zykzym ." By choosing interjections, Havel reduces an already ridiculous idea to total absurdity (what document will need the word pish ?) and makes a point about language that holds by analogy for history: It cannot be transformed into a set of positivist, absolute, right-or-wrong principles.

Because "The Memorandum" opened in 1965, it could open in Prague, and clearly Havel would have preferred to go on communicating with his audience from the stage. (The above excerpt gives only a faint idea of how hilariously stageworthy that play truly is.) When the "events" and "normalization" closed his country's theaters to him, he continued writing plays--he was constitutionally unable to do otherwise. But the plays could only be staged abroad; they could not reach their primary public. To reach that public, Havel resorted to another genre.

Plays are best read in conjunction with performance, but essays are self-contained and thought-provoking and can circulate with relative ease in clandestine carbons. Havel became an essayist in spite of himself as he became an activist in spite of himself. Both aspects of this new life came to a head with the formation of Charter 77, the Czechoslovak opposition's response to the Helsinki Agreements and by now the longest-lived human rights organization in the East bloc.

As Charter 77's first spokesman, Havel often found himself exhorting his fellow-countrymen to do more or less what he was recently praised for in Frankfurt, that is, to "live in truth," stand behind what they think and do, vouch for themselves, take responsibility for their own acts. His fellow-countrymen soon watched him go to jail for his principles. He did not convert large numbers of them. As he points out to his wife in the edifying and moving prison diary "Letters to Olga," he realized that his stand made him seem a martyr to some and a goody-goody to others; it may even have diminished his influence. Again he was constitutionally unable to do otherwise.

Perhaps that is why he has emerged from it all with his faith in humanity intact. "I am not interested in why man commits evil," he writes in the Letters ; "I want to know why he does good (here and there) or at least feels he ought to." Once the political situation in Czechoslovakia is on an even keel, Havel will doubtless abandon the political platform for the stage; he will go back to writing plays that explore why man does good. Let us do what we can to keep them on our stages, and let us hope audiences in his own country will soon be able to see his repertory in its entirety. The amazing events of the past few weeks can have left only the most cynical unconvinced of the possibility of change. To them I say, with Havel: "Half dy doretop, bolypak juz!"

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