The leading man

After more than a decade as Czech president, Václav Havel has returned to writing plays. Has his art

It seemed out of the question for Václav Havel to become president of Czechoslovakia after 40 years of Communist rule. The long-haired playwright had been just a persistent dissident voice, if one making some of the most eloquent minority demands for civil liberties, notably Charter 77. Everything changed when the new Civic Forum of November 1989 brought crowds to Wenceslas Square unanswerably demanding freedom from a collapsing Soviet empire. In the course of this "Velvet Revolution", the mild-mannered Havel found himself the astonished occupant of Hradcany Castle in Prague, high above the Vltava River. No flash in the pan and no mere figurehead, he liked the job enough to retain it for 13 years. Globally feted, though not always popular at home, he was loaded with do-good prizes and hailed by a joint session of the US Congress.

Now Havel is back as a playwright. Can the artist survive the blatant compromises of executive power? The focal character of his new play, Leaving, is a deposed leader coming to terms with a melancholic void after losing the status inseparable from his sense of himself. His first new stage work in 20 years, premiered in May at Prague's Archa Theatre, Leaving is about to arrive, fittingly enough, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, whose director, Sam Walters, loyally backed Havel and his work through the desperate years of persecution and imprisonment. Better yet, Leaving will launch a substantial season of earlier plays.

The Theatre on the Balustrade opened in 1958 in a derelict hall close to the Charles Bridge in Prague. Under the direction of Jan Grossman, the Balustrade developed a reputation as a showpiece for the theatre of the absurd, staging Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna and - crucial to Czech culture and politics in the post-Stalin era - a dramatisation of Franz Kafka's Trial. Here the young Havel, excited by Beckett and Ionesco, first made his name. But whereas Beckett steered clear of politics and Ionesco recoiled in disgust, Havel didn't. He was identified by the regime as dangerous, not least because his plays rapidly received international acclamation. Typical was his public salute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn after the Soviet writer had fallen into disgrace.

The young Havel confronted theatre audiences with scathingly sardonic images of bureaucracy striving helplessly to de-bureaucratise itself by resort (of course) to abject bureaucratic formulae and automated language. At the end of The Garden Party (1963), the main character, Hugo, hurries off to visit someone he has heard is extremely important - who turns out to be himself. In The Memorandum (1965), a new language, Ptydepe, is imposed by fiat, though understood by scarcely anyone except the instructors. Havel admired the absurdists' refusal to preach, instruct or philosophise in the manner of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht. By no means averse to messages, Havel however insisted that in the theatre they must arrive implicitly, through the fluid space between the lines. Although an ardent admirer of the youthful insurrections in Prague, western Europe and the United States, he insisted on a singular rule for art as distinct from agitation in the forum: "Absurd theatre does not offer us consolation or hope," he wrote in 1967, "it merely reminds us of how we are living without hope . . . despair, empty hope, bad luck, fate, misfortune, groundless joy."

I first encountered the chain-smoking Havel at the Balustrade during the Prague Spring 40 years ago. At a meeting at the Writers' Union building the main item on the agenda was a manifesto by Havel eloquently challenging the union's built-in control of literary life and arguing for full democratic pluralism on the basis of free elections. Exactly right, and still Havel's credo in the early 1980s when we of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain organised a benefit performance to raise funds for the imprisoned playwright.

My problem with Havel's plays of the early period, including The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), is their rather arid architectural form and lack of human warmth. The characters too often come across as ciphers for a satirical design structured with almost mathematical precision. Beckett's redeeming compassion is missing. Havel's own essays and letters uncannily reinforce this impression. Writing to his wife, Olga, while in prison, Havel described his then unperformed 1976 play, The Mountain Hotel (which Walters will direct during the forthcoming Havel season): "without a story, without characters, without a situation, without action, without psychology, without a plot". The subject of the play, he explains, "is its structure, its mathematical construction and all its structural tricks". He went on to comment that the play could only be understood in performance. Well, we'll see.

Almost miraculous was the transformation when, six years after the Russians crushed the Prague Spring, the systematically silenced playwright - he'd found manual work at a brewery - came up with the three "Vanek" plays (also due at the Orange Tree, a feast). Havel emerged as a master cartographer of moral evasion. Vanek, a version of Havel himself, while eloquent with his pen, is shy to the point of speechlessness in the presence of the false friends whose manic talkativeness and compulsive drinking serve as therapy for their bad consciences. For my money, the classic in this respect is the third Vanek play, Protest (1978), in which the wealthy television writer Stanek, enjoying the ruling regime's patronage, strives to present himself to Vanek as a principled opponent of the police state, while steering clear of his "dissident ghetto" whose routine protests are utterly futile because (claims Stanek) they are fatally predictable.

Following Charter 77's challenge to the one-eyed regime, Havel was placed under a form of house arrest, a black Tatra permanently stationed outside his apartment, a police detail ever present on the landing, intercepting visitors. His phone was cut off, his mail censored. In 1979 he was sentenced to four and a half years in a category one prison. There, he worked as a welder. Writing from prison, Havel reflected that human responsibility was the basis of identity: "The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility."

In the new play (ably translated by Paul Wilson), there are no Vaneks. Power and wealth have taken their toll. All the main characters are loquacious, burdened by swollen egos, by pride, by vanity. But Havel makes light of it - this is a comedy leaning towards tragedy via farce. Take, for instance, the torrent of deliberate anachronisms. The script offers no time setting but we may assume that the pivotal figure, Vilém Rieger, has only recently stepped down as "chancellor". This is reinforced by his recall of something Tony Blair said to him, and President Havel himself once told him that "popularity isn't everything" - yet Rieger pitches into wild anachronism when recalling how Chiang Kai-shek was impressed by his policy speeches and how Mao Zedong admired Rieger's bust of Gandhi "when he came to visit". Amusing enough if you know your dates, but isn't the teasing Havel waiting to see if we do? The teasing also extends to frequent voice-over authorial interventions (recorded recently by Havel in Prague), during which the actors are required to freeze. At one juncture, the Voice mentions "my somewhat self-centred delight in being able to come up with any hare-brained idea at all, which the actors have to play with a straight face".

It has been widely assumed that the character Patrick Klein represents Havel's long-term real-life adversary while in office, the free-marketeer Václav Klaus, formerly prime minister and now Havel's successor as president. (Havel himself has denied any correspondence with actual figures.) In the play, Klein is the venal spokesman for the new "leadership" now demanding a statement of endorsement from Rieger, failing which he will be forced to vacate his government-owned villa and its beloved cherry orchard (shades of Shakespeare and Chekhov). Where I suspect the central political revenge resides is in the extended interview concerning his policies when in office that Rieger - by now a windbag wrapped in sexual vanity - gives to a journalist. Starting with humanist platitudes, Rieger moves on to claim economic policies clearly intended to parody those of Klaus: he talks of incentives to foreign investors, "including zero-sum or negative-sum tax payments and special profit-based rewards . . . a polyfunctional promotional campaign for qualifying corporations".

Yet Leaving contains few echoes of the real issues that clouded Václav Havel's presidency and domestic popularity. The play likewise evades the striking disparities between his view of the world as discovered in his prison letters, and the international policies he pursued when in office. Can one doubt that the playwright-president is cleverly pleading guilty to failings no one need believe in?

"Leaving" is at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey, from 19 September until 13 December. For more information and booking details visit: http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Václav Havel: the CV

  • 1936 Born in Prague into a culturally and politically active family
  • 1951-54 Trains as a chemical lab assistant
  • 1963 His first full-length play, The Garden Party, premieres at the Theatre on the Balustrade, Prague
  • 1964 Marries Olga Splíchalová, an usher at the Balustrade
  • 1968 Takes part in the Prague Spring, the seven-month period of reform and liberalisation when Alexander Dubcek takes control of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. After the Soviet Union invades, Havel's plays are banned. However, he gains international attention the same year when The Memorandum is performed at the Public Theatre, New York
  • 1977 Signs the Charter 77 manifesto, which declares itself "a powerful reminder of the extent to which basic human rights in our country exist, regrettably, on paper alone"
  • 1979 Imprisoned four and a half years for his political involvement
  • 1989 Takes part in Velvet Revolution, overthrowing Communist government. Havel is made president of Czechoslovakia on 29 December
  • 1992 Resigns after Slovakia declares independence
  • 1993 Elected president of the newly created Czech Republic
  • 1996 Havel's wife, Olga, dies. He marries the actress Dagmar Veskrnová the following year
  • 2003 Steps down after his second term in office
  • Graeme Allister