A Conversation With Vaclav Havel
When Vaclav Havel was elected president of a Czechoslovakia just emerging from the Velvet Revolution in December 1989, Western observers were intrigued by the idea of a dissident playwright turned politician. In fact, in the following interview we do see a politician with a human face, one who is willing to engage “on record” the complexities of his intellectual and social life rather than to retreat behind euphemism, doublespeak, or vacuous generality. But — even more importantly — we see that for the most part the underlying motifs of his life have remained constant, that Vaclav Havel the head of state is still the same individual who became known to the world first as independent playwright and social conscience.
Born in 1936, Vaclav Havel appeared on the Czechoslovak cultural scene as early as 1956, when as an aspiring young writer he took advantage of Khrushchev’s post-Stalin “thaw,” which to varying degrees was taking place in the U.S.S.R. and in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Havel’s first published text was a letter to the editor of the new literary magazine Kveten, challenging the magazine’s claim that it really had jettisoned the strictures of socialist realism. This outspoken critique of the official literary culture was then followed by an outspoken address at an official gathering of new writers at the Dobris Writers’ House outside Prague.
Raised in an educated, upper-middle class family, Havel as a child was steeped in the democratic traditions of the first Czechoslovak Republic, founded at the end of the World War I. Unfortunately, due to his “bourgeois” background, Havel’s attempts to enter the university were repeatedly thwarted by the communist regime. Nonetheless, he discovered his love for the theatre early on, first while serving an obligatory two-year stint in the army (1957-59), and then briefly as a stagehand at the ABC Theatre in Prague. In 1960 he joined the Theatre on the Balustrade, again initially as a stagehand, and ultimately as its literary adviser, a position he held until his resignation in the summer of 1968. It was during his years at the Balustrade that Havel seriously began writing plays. The first to be produced, The Garden Party, had its premiere there in December 1963, followed by The Memorandum in July 1965 — the latter receiving the prestigious Obie Award when it was staged in New York in 1968. By the mid-’60s Havel was also prominently involved in the developing scene of literary politics, as Czechoslovakia experienced the gradual liberalization that would culminate in the Prague Spring, followed by the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968. He also managed to complete a university degree at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts in 1967.
With the suppression of Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” and the post-invasion onset of “normalization,” Havel and his colleagues found themselves turned into virtual internal exiles. In his book-length interview with Karel Hvizdala (published abroad in Czech in 1986 as Dalkovy vyslech [A Long-Distance Hearing], but in the 1990 English translation entitled Disturbing the Peace), Havel referred to those years as “an era of apathy and widespread demoralization. . . , an era of gray, everyday totalitarian consumerism.” He spent most of his time at Hradecek, his family’s cottage in the Krkonose Mountains, writing and meeting regularly with friends from the intelligentsia. They even held unofficial writers’ congresses there every summer. Yet Havel longed for more. In 1974, partly from malaise, he went to work for ten months in a local brewery, an experience which inspired the play The Audience (1975), in which he created the character, Ferdinand Vanek, who soon attained within Czech alternative culture a celebrity akin to that of Jaroslav Hasek’s classic Good Soldier Svejk.
Then, with the writing of his open letter to Dubcek’s hardline successor as president, Gustav Husak, a document which circulated widely in samizdat, Havel again became openly and actively engaged in the political and cultural arena. For example, he helped found Charter 77, the Czechoslovak human rights organization that served as the focus of resistance to the communist regime until its demise in November 1989 — but not before Havel had been sentenced for his activism to four and a half years in jail, of which he served all but a year. It was there he wrote his Letters to Olga, philosophical musings in the guise of correspondence with his wife.
To his role as president Havel has brought the moral and existential concerns that have been with him from the start. If earlier he was a political playwright and philosophical essayist, now he may be seen as a philosophical politician. Certainly he is atypical among his fellow heads of state. At the same time, however, within a specifically Czech context, it is perhaps not so surprising that a playwright might become president, given the legacy of the founder of the first Czechoslovak Republic, the professor Tomas G. Masaryk.
The interview that follows was conducted and translated into Polish by Andrzej Jagodzinski, the Czech and Slovak correspondent of the Warsaw newspaper Gazeta wyborcza, currently the leading Polish daily, and appeared in Gazeta wyborcza on October 19, 1993, on the eve of Havel’s trip to Warsaw on an official state visit to discuss with Polish President Lech Walesa the issue of Czech and Polish entrance into NATO. It might seem ironic that the content of such an interview would involve the personal side of Havel-especially at a time when he is grappling with the enormous complexities of political transition within post-Cold War Central Europe. But Havel, indeed, seems constantly to emphasize the human measure of all things. His recent remarks upon receiving the Philadelphia Liberty Medal at Independence Hall (July 1994) also come to mind, echoing a theme that has run consistently through his essays and, implicitly, his plays: “. . . in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to peaceful co-existence and creative cooperation must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence.” —Elena Sokol, Wooster, Ohio, August 9, 1994
Andrzej Jagodzinski: Except for a short interruption, you have already been president of the Czech Republic for almost four years. One of your closest associates until fairly recently, Prince Jan Karel Schwarzenberk, said in an interview with the Czech Playboy that if a person wants to dedicate himself to politics, he must be willing to come to actual decisions, to defend them and be willing to pay for them. Have you somehow had to pay for your entrance to politics?
Vaclav Havel: I think I’ve paid doubly. First, I am aware of a great responsibility for every decision and every step I take, something that constantly weighs down on my nervous system. Moreover, compared to that earlier time when I could say whatever I wanted, now I must choose my words diplomatically. I never lie, but nonetheless I am forced to use a different language, because in politics there is no other way. I admit that for a long time I could not get used to this.
AJ: How much did your going into politics change you as a person?
Havel: In this matter others should be the ones to say, because I certainly am not able to judge everything. But since you ask, I’ll reply that in my opinion I haven’t changed, that I’m still the same.
AJ: Then maybe we should use a concrete example. After the appearance of Charter 77 you moved within a community of people threatened by the communist regime, people who due to this threat were very close to each other. After the Velvet Revolution, this situation had to change. Has anything remained among you from those former ties?
Havel: Of course, I’m not in a position now to meet with friends as often as before, because each day I have a horribly full schedule of activities. Nevertheless I strive not to lose contact with them, and it seems to me that nothing has changed in our relationships as friends. I don’t hide the fact, though, that there is one group of former friends with whom my relationship has considerably cooled. I believe, though, that the fault has not been mine-and if so, then only a little. They just couldn’t understand that I couldn’t go out for beer every evening. And they took from this the conclusion that I was either alienating myself or that I had soared up to the heights of power someplace. Several even think I’ve betrayed the original group. They act like scorned lovers, and in some of them the love has turned to hate. Then they criticize me in public for all mistakes real and imagined, when actually at the heart of every criticism they make is the feeling I have cast them off.
AJ: In fairy tales the leader is often very lonely. But could it be that what you are lacking is a moment of solitude?
Havel: I don’t feel lonely. Just the opposite. It’s a difficult struggle to find a moment for myself-that just for an hour I could sit by myself in a bar and think, or to have the luxury of being alone for an entire weekend so that I could read or write something. A speech, of course, since I no longer write anything else. I am most certainly not some lonely ruler, shut up inside my castle.
AJ: Let’s back up to the time of your childhood. Today, in fact, you took part with your brother Ivan in a promotion for the memoirs of your father, Vaclav Milos Havel. I should add for my readers that your father was a well known Prague building contractor, the creator of not only a prominent entertainment-restaurant complex but also the Barrandov residential district, and that alongside your uncle (the creator of the Barrandov Film Studios) and grandfather (the creator of the art nouveau Lucerna Palace) he has gained for himself a permanent place in the history of Czech architecture.
Havel: The entire atmosphere of my family home had its effect on me. Above all my parents, of course, but also my grandfather, the family friends, the family traditions and home library. My father was friends with many prominent intellectuals of the interwar period, and as a result I grew up within the ideological climate of Masaryk humanism. Thanks to this as well as to my early reading I had favorable conditions for a good start.
AJ: You are the first and as of right now the only Czech politician to disclose your personal assets. What prompted you to do this?
Havel: Various speculations and rumors about my assets were reaching me. To many people it seemed strange that I — someone who always would laugh when the communists swore I was fighting them because I wanted the return of my family property, and someone to whom it honestly seemed a joke that I could ever become a private entrepreneur — that all of a sudden after the re-privatization I would in fact become joint-owner of the old family businesses. This might very well seem paradoxical, inconsistent or contradictory to someone. Moreover, I believe that the private assets of politicians should be universally known, especially in our situation. In the West it’s a matter of course that politicians should disclose their personal finances. For instance the wife of the President of the USA must account publicly for every new outfit. It should be even more like that with us, since such a huge transformation of the means of ownership is being brought about right now. It’s essential to remove any suspicion that someone who has political influence might abuse this power for personal gain and might participate in the privatization process in an unclean way.
AJ: In the book, Disturbing the Peace, you admit to being influenced by the counter-culture of the 1960s. To the present day I still run into you at rock concerts — the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Paul Simon. What do you notice in their music? And what do you talk about during your private get-togethers with them before or after the concerts? Are these only courtesy calls?
Havel: When I meet with such famous rock stars, our conversation touches on all sorts of subjects, and in general we talk less about music than we do politics, because their opinion on various events interests me. Of course I belong to a generation upon whom rock and roll exerted a tremendous influence. And I also must say that in my case Poland played a substantial role. In the mid-’50s, when rock hadn’t yet caught on very much in Prague, in Poland after October 56 it was already being played everywhere. In 1957 I went for the first time to the Polish Wybrzeze Festival for a ten-day vacation. My wife Olga and I went every day to the bars or clubs, where the rock music would be pounding out and we would dance like crazy to the next morning. They didn’t call those places discos yet. All of this is still a very pleasant and vivid recollection for me.
AJ: In 1976 you came to the defense of the Czech rock group Plastic People of the Universe, which was being persecuted then.
Havel: This group did not enjoy the respect of any of the artistic or intellectual circles, which looked upon its members as lunatics, eccentrics, long-haired out-of-control dilettantes. But I knew it would be hard for these upstanding philosophers or writers or former politicians, especially the older ones, to get caught up in this type of music. Several of these intellectuals would ask me, “Are those truly important people? They drink beer, they have long hair.” I felt, however, that in their work there was a valid expression of the experiences and emotions of a generation younger than mine. And, besides, they were being wronged and needed our solidarity. So this gave me an even greater incentive to get involved and I was able to convince many colleagues as well. And also, thanks to this experience with solidarity, soon Charter 77 was to appear.
AJ: Also thanks to this you were able to organize in the barn of your summer house in Hradecek several Festivals of Alternative Culture.
Havel: There were three or four of these shows, in fact. Every one of them was held in dramatic circumstances, because it was necessary to keep them under wraps from the police for as long as possible. As a result the majority of the participants didn’t know until the last minute where they would actually be travelling to. From each group only one person would know, while the mission of the conspiratorial “cell” was to coordinate the routes so that the groups would all reach Hradecek from different directions, but more or less at the same time, so that the police would not be able to move in and seal off entrance to the house. There was a lot of drama involved while it was happening, but now it’s rather pleasant to recall.
AJ: What kind of music do you listen to now, when by chance you have a moment of time?
Havel: I don’t have any time as a rule, but I still listen to music. Most often it’s in the car, while I’m going somewhere, and I listen to different things, depending on my mood. Most often it’s rock standards from the ’60s or jazz, but it can also be Mozart or Honegger.
AJ: And what do you do to amuse yourself?
Havel: Speaking frankly, I’d say my work now is at times unbelievably amusing, but I won’t be writing anything about this until later and only under the condition that it will appear 50 years after my death. But, despite my numerous obligations, I do sometimes find a moment free for pure amusement or play. For example, today I’m going to the premier of Jurassic Park.
AJ: What kind of place does the theater hold in your life today?
Havel: I have an assistant here at the Castle, who looks after my contact with the theater for me. About every two months I take in a show, which I select with great care. I can’t allow myself to do it more often.
AJ: In 1989, when you hosted Adam Michnik and some other Polish colleagues at your house in Hradecek, you treated them to some homemade goulash. Do you like to cook? What is your specialty?
Havel: I don’t consider myself any expert of the culinary art, but I do love to cook. I treat it as a possible way to relax, and I gladly let it open up my imagination. I wouldn’t enjoy cooking that involved following recipes at all, whereas the testing of different combinations and mixtures is exciting and dramatic. I never know for certain if what I’ve made will be edible.
AJ: Hradecek. A small house in the Krkonose Mountains near the foot of Snezka. It’s a place inextricably bound up with the history of the Czech opposition in the ’70s and ’80s. Do you still go there? What is Hradecek for you today?
Havel: Hradecek is too far from Prague to travel there for a day, but whenever I have just a few days free, it is there I like to spend them. I am rooted with this place, if only because it was there that I wrote all of my most important texts of the past twenty-five years. Together with my wife I lived through a thousand different things there — fun, pleasant, dramatic, sad. It’s the place I consider to be my real home, and it’s the only place where I can be a private person these days. Prague’s Castle or the Palace in Lany always remind me that I’m the President. Only Hradecek has nothing in common with all this.
AJ: With the exception of the guard detail, perhaps-though you also had one at Hradecek earlier. . .
Havel: Yes, though my present guards are considerably better and nicer than the earlier ones, the secret police ones.
AJ: In your play The Audience, Ferdinand Vanek divulges that he isn’t an excessive fancier of beer, but prefers wine. What about you?
Havel: It depends on the mood and the circumstances. At times I have a taste for a noisy beer-hall, while at another time I’ll prefer a cozy little wine cellar. It also depends on whom I’m meeting. If for example I was meeting with some minister or other in a packed beer-hall, then we wouldn’t get very many things talked through.
AJ: In your Letters to Olga you don’t write one word about personal sentiments, while in Disturbing the Peace you came out with an extremely beautiful expression of the emotional and spiritual bonds still connecting you with your wife:
It seems it’s been two hundred years since Olga and I expressed our love to each other, yet despite this we still feel inextricably bound. . . . My whole life I have consulted her on everything, though scoffers claim I am just demanding acquiescence from her to the sins with which I have caused her pain, and that I consult her only about the problems I’ve heaped on myself by my periodic “rebounds” of affection.
AJ: Have your present professional lives influenced your relationship?
Havel: Not to a great degree. We see each other more rarely, but nothing in our relationship has changed otherwise. When we are together, I tell about something that has happened and if necessary my wife will critique my actions just as before. And I continue to listen gladly to her criticisms. Frankly, it has amazed me that in the time since she became First Lady my wife has not changed one bit. She is still just the same, with the same habits as before, and has not tried to act all-powerful. Even if she is being harsh or unpleasant in regards to someone, it’s not because she’s now the president’s wife, but because this is the way she has been all her life.
AJ: There have been many beautiful women working in the Presidential Chancellory. What meaning do women have for your personal life? Is this influence significant?
Havel: I don’t dare speak out on the role of women in my personal life, but I won’t try to avoid your question, either. Politics is principally a male domain, especially in the Czech Republic. When suddenly I broke into politics and found myself in a world of men, I missed the female element. I needed a bit of female warmth. That is why I’ve always tried to have women amongst my closest advisers. At first there were even two women in my guard detail, two absolute gems, top quality sharpshooters. But now I have opened my eyes to realize a life in high-level politics is a little reminiscent of my situation in prison — where you’re a man alone among other men.
AJ: Have you given any thought about what you will do when you are no longer President?
Havel: It’s fairly clear. And it doesn’t require any special thought. I’ll take a rest and travel around the world like a common tourist. And I’ll write.
AJ: Plays, also?
(Translated from the Polish by Daniel Bourne)
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