Our Václav

Václav Havel, writer, playwright and politician – the Czech Republic's most famous citizen – died on December 18 of last year.   

 

When he was leaving the post of the president of the Czech Republic, the Prague residents lit an enormous crimson heart over the city as a sign of gratitude to their president.  Havel himself directed the last play "Leaving" about a president, who was removed from office and the price which the person pays for his sojourn at the political Olympus. “Leaving” was written by Havel when he was already aware of his terminal illness.

Václav Havel's first meeting with theatre took place in the army, in combat engineering corps, where he was sent as politically unreliable (the son of a major entrepreneur, owner of a mansion in downtown Prague and the Barrandov Film Studios that were confiscated for the entire duration of the Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia).  There, together with a friend of his, he wrote his first and last "social realist" play, but the army command was smart enough to discern mockery in it.  Impaired in many rights, including the right to education, Havel worked his way up from stagehand to president, loaded barrels at a brewery and received prestigious awards, spent time in prison and defined the moral environment in Europe.  But all these roles that life offered to him merely served to nourish his primary role – that of a playwright, a writer, a thinker.   "As I reread my plays now, many years later," he said, "they invoke one feeling in me: no matter how awful or cruel their subject is, they are alight with a feeling of joy; the energy of demystification, which inspired them was cheerful per se."

Although practically all Václav Havel’s plays were staged in different theatres all over the world and translated into foreign languages, he who was not permitted to travel abroad, by no means always could witness their success. By the way, Czech Theatre Institute, with which Václav Havel has been in close connection since the sixties,  carries out an enormous work on systematization of theatrical heritage of the Czech leader all over the world (with the great help of his personal secretary Anna Freimanová).

His success has never been and apparently won’t be a mass one – either in a socialist or in a capitalist society. As if prompting the critics, Havel diagnoses

Actor and director Alexander Filippenko, who can be considered the Czech president's ambassador on Russian theatre stage, remembers the following about Václav Havel:

- The first time I heard about Havel was from our directors at the "Our House" studio of the Student Theatre of the Moscow State University.  They knew both the early Mrožek and the early Havel very well.   And they infected the others with this dramaturgy (there was a reason we used to joke that Slavkin was our Beckett, and Rozovsky -- our Ionesco).  Years later Sergei Yursky called me to do a part in Vacetis's play "The Dressing Room."  "Alexander, maybe there is something that you don't understand here?" he asked.  "What's not to understand?" I say.  "It's model dramaturgy of the Sixties.  When do we start rehearsing?"  

On the eve of 1968, "Our House" was giving a performance at the Czechoslovakian embassy.  We were given a very cordial welcome: guys, have some beer, have as much as you want, things are so crazy around here now...  Then came Alexander Dubček's famous January plenum, and the Prague Spring began.  Next was August of '68, a terrible blow to the naive belief in socialism with a human face.  Our youthful hope that this system could be reformed was crushed by tanks on the Wenceslas Square.  And soon "Our House" was shut down as well, and we were given an ironclad reason for it: after all, in Czechoslovakia it all started with student theatres as well.

Years went by, but the interest in the tortured Prague Spring didn't wane.  I visited Czechoslovakia, where I made friends with Czech actors.  Once during Taganka's golden years, we even had a friendly soccer match between the Taganka Theatre and Laterna Magika (the poster for the game had the intriguing heading: "Soccer Game USSR - ČSSR"). The two goals scored by Boris Khmelnitsky the Czech actors remembered for years to come.  I read semi-forbidden newspapers, and, of course, I knew Charter 77, whose authors included Václav Havel. 

Perestroika began.  At the time I was just getting ready to go to Czechoslovakia for the filming of a historical movie (it was the only place that still had decent castles left), and my friends asked me to bring the revolution there.  So I bought a whole bunch of Perestroika ties at the Izmailovsky Park and went to the South of Czechoslovakia, the Budĕjovice.  Someone from the film crew didn't get a visa; there was a holdback, and I ended up getting some free time, during which I decided to take my family to Prague.   "Does pane Filippenko know what happened in Prague?" the driver asked me gloomily.  It turned out that there were student unrests and serious ones at that.  I arrived at my friends' house and immediately received the following directive: tomorrow we're going to the demonstration.  And so it happened that I spent the entire Velvet Revolution on the Wenceslas Square.  In subways students handed out leaflets – but only if you reached for them.  And some distance away from the Square life went on as usual.  My four-year-old daughter was absolutely thrilled: trips to the zoo in the morning, sitting on dad's shoulders during a demonstration in the evening, and warming ourselves up at the famous Czech coffee houses near the Václavák. Later she even said during an interview, "The things I liked the most about Prague were the zoo and the revolution."  

At the demonstrations I was in the same column with the Laterna Magika Theatre.  "Dear Lord, I never had such success," said one of my colleagues (every group was met with applause upon entering the Square).   I was holding Havel's portrait.  The thing was that virtually no one knew what he looked like (he was banned), although everyone knew his name.   And when people would recognize whose portrait I was holding, the reaction would be one of extreme enthusiasm. I remember his first balcony appearance in front of the people, "Now, I'm going to talk fast – I'm afraid they'll   cut us off."  Back then musicians from Karel Gott's ensemble gave him the equipment for his address.  Later we found out that the local anti-riot police were sitting in their cars on the side streets around the Square, ready to confront the demonstrators.  But that Gorbachev, supposedly, said: sort this out yourselves, it's your own business. And the Politburo hesitated to use force.

This time I ended up bringing the revolution home.  And in November of 1990, for the first time I was performing in a production based on Havel's one-act plays.  The playbill on the stand read as follows: "The President's plays are read by Alexander Filippenko.  'Audience' and 'Unveiling'. During the intermission — their beer and our tanks." I will remind you that it was 1990; store shelves were empty.  The beer was delivered to me by the embassy's cultural attaché. 

A little later I came to Vladimir Molchanov's programme, dedicated to Havel.  And he got into the game, addressing me as "Mr. President", while I responded with quotes from Havel's article "A Word on Words."  He wrote his play for his friends between two prison stints in order to amuse them at Christmas.  "I wrote them quickly and with great pleasure.  I did it initially simply to entertain my friends.  I never even imagined that they might interest someone else, especially not abroad."  And that play ended up being staged in fifteen countries.  For a time, much like Ferdinand Vanĕk, the protagonist of "Audience" and other plays, Havel was forced to work as a loader at a brewery.   As I've already mentioned, few people knew what he looked like, but they knew that he lived in Malý Hrad (something similar to our Peredelkino).  And then one Saturday edition of the party newspaper "Rude Pravo" printed the following ad on its births and deaths announcements page: "Ferdinand Vanĕk of Malý Hrad celebrated his birthday on October 5, 1989.  We thank him for the hard work that he has done and continues to do in his life.  His colleagues and friends wish him many more years of health and much success in his work."    And a small photograph of Havel.  Dated October 5.  And in December "Ferdinand  Vanĕk" became president.  But back when Havel's Vanĕk was being reborn at the end of "Audience", saying, "It's all for shit,"  nothing foretold of this.   During my evening in memory of Brodsky, I was reading a fragment from Havel's play, and I emphasized that we were now in 1975, and immediately following that I gave them the finale of Dovlatov's "The Reserve."  And the audience didn't realize right away that those were two different authors. Yet neither one of these authors could imagine, as they wrote their plays, that their work would be successful in the new Czech Republic and the new Russia. 

I remember being a first-year student at the physics and technology institute, to which I owe everything that is good in me.  I remember how we viewed graduate students back then.  To me Havel is like that same graduate student for a freshman.  Actors rarely take on his plays, because very few enjoy model dramaturgy, few understand an actor's place in that formula.   They prefer to play, according to the formula "I, myself, being placed in the offered circumstances" (that's what the TV series and soap operas demand, and those have dire consequences for young actors' professional development).  They have forgotten what "style and genre" mean, and what the difference is between comedy, farce and grotesque.  And they no longer like creating new forms. 

His dramaturgy is a mark of quality, one of the principal components of the famous Czechoslovak New Wave that came into our consciousness with the movies of the early Forman ("The Firemen's Ball," "Loves of a Blonde") and Menzel ("Closely Watched Trains") and was pushed aside and crushed in August of '68.  But it is not just about the dramaturgy.  To me, Havel is a rare case of an individual, who managed to maintain his self during the unpredictable and inconceivable trials of power. 

It almost came as no surprise to me that our leaders didn't express their condolences regarding his passing.  I, of course, bought flowers and went to the embassy along with my daughter.  And, as I was leaving it, I ran into Naina Yeltsina.   

 

Václav Havel (1936-2011) -- Czech writer, playwright, human rights activist, president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Worked as a chemical laboratory analyst, studied at a polytechnic institute.  Drafted straight out of the institute.  After he was released from the army, he worked as a stagehand at the Divaldo ABC (ABC Theatre), then at the Divaldo Na Zábradlí (Theatre on the Balustrade), where his first plays were staged.   Author of the plays "The Garden Party," "The Memorandum," "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration,"  "The Beggar's Opera," "Audience," "Unveiling," "Protest," "Temptation," "Redevelopment," "Leaving."  His book "Letters to Olga", written in prison, received international acclaim.  One of the architects of the famous Charter 77.

 

Alexander Georgievich Filippenko (b. 1944), People's Artist of Russia.  Graduated from the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute and the Faculty of Directing at the Shchukin Theatre Institute.  Performed at the "Our House" Variety Studio at the Moscow State University, the Taganka Drama and Comedy Theatre and the Vakhtangov Theatre.  Collaborated with the Satirikon Theatre, the Mossovet Theatre, the Praktika Theatre, the Oleg Tabakov Theatre, the Et Cetera Theatre. In 1996, he founded his own Mono-Duet-Trio Theatre at the Mosconcert.  At a time when nonverbal theatre is seeing rapid growth, Alexander Filippenko gives preference to literary theatre, creating arrangements based on the works by Averchenko, Bulgakov, Dovlatov, Zoshchenko, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, Platonov, Gogol, Zhvanetsky, Esenin, Akunin, and other authors.  

 

Olga Fuks

 

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