Tanned and Rested: Vaclav Havel Marks His Return with ‘Leaving’

Author’s note: This article is dedicated to Jiri Krizan (October 29, 1941 – October 13, 2010), an unsung hero of the Velvet Revolution, one of the best screenwriters of his generation, and a friend.

The Czech spa town of Frantiskovy Lazne (Franzensbad to Germans) is known mostly for peat-based wraps administered to cardiac patients and infertile women. Compared to the world-renowned Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), with its processions of moneyed Russians, from czars of old to some of the latest oligarchs—or to the almost equally well-known Marianske Lazne (Marienbad), whose Last Year was famously celebrated by new-wave filmmaker Alain Resnais—Frantiskovy Lazne remains a minor destination. True, Goethe visited there at least thirty-three times, but much of the time he was nearly out of his mind over the teenage Ulrike von Levetzow, who lived nearby. The other visitor of note was Richard Wagner, who was not known for his mental stability either.

Today, the resort looks much like it did a century ago, a sleepy enclave of tranquility in a sea of highways, gas stations, shopping centers, and housing projects. The spa pavilions, which are something between a hotel and a hospital, are discreetly hidden inside a big park. People, mostly patients with deeply concentrated expressions on their faces, move around at a noticeably slower pace. Of all the villas where one can spend a fortnight buried up to the neck therapeutically in a heap of smelly mud, Hotel Imperial is the most romantic and the least inexpensive, bringing to mind the image of an expensively refurbished Pavilion No. 6 from the eponymous Chekhov short story. One does not immediately recognize it as the kind of place where Vaclav Havel would go for treatment, but that is in fact where he went to “take the waters”—and where I came looking for him—last summer.

When Havel retired in February 2003, after four presidential terms and thirteen years at the helm of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, two different though not unrelated countries, he was sixty-six years old. Over roughly half a century of his adult life he was a minor poet, celebrated playwright, leading dissident, political prisoner of almost five years, profound thinker, velvet revolutionary, and one of the most respected statesmen of his generation. Because of a nearly fatal bout of pneumonia in prison and an even more threatening bout of lung cancer during his time in office that was in all likelihood the consequence both of his prison illness and his decades of chain-smoking, his health was extremely frail. To friends and strangers alike, he also looked to be totally exhausted and spent after presiding over one of the most dramatic, totally exhilarating, and on occasion deeply painful decades in the nation’s history.

Looking back, he might also be forgiven for having some mixed feelings. Although the things he set out to do—transforming the country into a parliamentary democracy governed by the rule of law, increasingly prosperous thanks to market economy, and part and parcel of the West thanks to its membership in NATO, OECD, and the EU—were all accomplished during his presidency, at the moment of his departure his political and personal status did not quite correspond to the momentous achievements in which he played a leading part. The onetime icon of the Velvet Revolution had gradually lost much of his power, if not his influence—some of it to constitutional changes, some to the emergence of competing sources of political power—and he had been criticized and then ridiculed by some as an impractical, irrelevant dreamer, or a devious, overambitious schemer, and sometimes as both at the same time. His international aura of a moral politician, a paragon of tolerance, nonviolence, and humanistic values, had also started to evaporate due to his association with some of the more controversial political events and decisions of recent decades.

Naturally, a large part of the criticism above could be attributed to the endemic ill will permeating the world of party politics. When not living in moments of historical upheaval, existential threat, and revolutionary change, politicians have to deal with the recurring problems and issues of economy, security, and welfare that can cut any legend down to size. Politics thus has to continually reinvent itself, and it has no other way to do this than in contrast to what, and who, has come before. As a dramatist who has dealt with contrast and counterpoint all his life, Havel understood this all too well. But he could not help being silently hurt by the grounding that new political realities had subjected him to, which led his opponents to accuse him of sulking and plotting.

It was therefore not surprising that many people expected Havel to retreat, fade away, or worse. When he left office, those who wished him well thought that he had done enough for several lifetimes and deserved to spend his remaining years in comfortable irrelevance. Those who did not would not miss him anyway.

Havel had other ideas. Almost immediately he started setting up an ex-presidential office, something perfectly customary in the United States but largely unprecedented in Central Europe. It was not his style to go on the lucrative speaker circuit (he may be an exceptionally gifted speechwriter but he’s a middling speaker) or to leverage his celebrity in the world of business. He has also largely avoided commenting on public affairs back home. Rather, he has continued in what he was doing for most of his adult life—advocating human rights causes and supporting dissidents around the world—in Cuba, Belarus, Burma, North Korea.

In keeping with his holistic view of the world as a network of cultures, ideologies, and religions, Havel designed and developed a forum where all these strands of modern civilization can meet and debate. The Forum 2000 conference was first held in Prague in 1997 and was intended to be a one-off. But instead it took off. In October, the fourteenth Forum 2000 conference, attended by politicians, experts, journalists, philosophers, and religious figures, took place under the title “The World We Want to Live In.”

Havel and his wife Dagmar also run a foundation called Vize 97, which helps the handicapped and the elderly, purchases medical equipment for the treatment of cancer, awards an annual prize to an important social thinker (the list of laureates includes novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, neuropsychologist Karl H. Pribram, economist Robert B. Reich, and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman), and runs a unique public space called the Prague Crossroads, adapted from an old dilapidated church in the center of the city.

The model of American presidencies does not stop at offices and philanthropy but extends to a Havel Presidential Library, the only institution of its kind in Europe. It collects, archives, and presents all the available documents pertaining to Havel and his presidency.

A volume of memoirs is an almost obligatory task for any former president. But the book Havel compiled, To the Castle and Back (2007), is like no other presidential book. It consists of an extensive interview covering the whole period of Havel’s presidency, transcripts of Havel’s notorious “instructions to the office” (originally written in a perfectionist’s meticulous longhand), and items from the diary he kept in 2005 during his three-month fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington. The charm of the book consists in the counterpoint between the seemingly disparate strands of highbrow political pronouncements, lowbrow struggle with issues of the everyday running of the president’s office, and comparative observations of life in the United States and the Czech Republic. For example: “I have become increasingly aware of an important difference between America, or Washington, and the Czech Republic, or Prague. People enjoy politics here [in America], back home they don’t like it; here they love to talk about it, back home they just curse it; here apparently politicians, scholars, journalists and other important people stay fresh all day and perhaps save their most brilliant conversation for the evening, back home in the evening people like that are either very tired, or desperately trying to catch up, or drunk, or just happy to be home, watching TV and not having to talk to anyone.” As anyone can see from this quote, the most subversive of all the tools in Havel’s literary armory, his humor, has made it back into his writing. In personal contact, it never quite disappeared. Havel’s speeches, however, which were his most frequent, if not his preferred, mode of verbal expression for thirteen years, had become increasingly serious, repetitive, and on some occasions, even a little pompous. (For all that, they differ from a standard political speech in having a beginning, a middle, and an end—and sometimes even what is called a dramatic arc. In his address to the joint session of the US Congress, for instance, he first points out that the rate of historical change has accelerated enormously, then demonstrates that it is the human spirit rather than any material forces that is the causal agent, and finally concludes by expressing hope that the human spirit will be capable, through action, of reflecting its own acceleration. Most political speeches could begin and end anywhere in this text. Some would have never even begun.)

Then came the unexpected. After several near-death episodes at the end of the last century, Havel’s health more or less held and then, almost imperceptibly at first, started to improve. Whether the return of humor was a symptom of the change or its instrument is immaterial in this context, but it was a sure sign that Havel was back to his playful ways. Some kind of a creation could not be far behind. In fact, the ex-president was writing a play.

When Havel completed Leaving in 2007, he told friends this was his last creative adventure and thereafter he was planning to enjoy his retirement. The work had the rumor mill running overtime even before anyone saw its text. Its main character is a recently retired statesman (Chancellor Rieger) going through the withdrawal symptoms of power within the general framework of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Step by step, he is being stripped of his support network, his perks, and his memorabilia of office to be finally moved out of the government villa that for years he considered home. All this with the smug help of Patrick Klein, his longtime political opponent and nemesis, along with the painful background of petty betrayals by people close to him and the ghoulish attention of the media.

On its face, the plot should not be too difficult to decipher. Havel, of course, is Chancellor Rieger in the play, as in life he was the president, first of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, from 1989 until 2003. And of course his nemesis is his successor and the current president, Vaclav Klaus. All the other characters in the play have their more or less transparent real-life counterparts as well, to the point that some assumed Leaving to be Havel’s version of a score-settling tell-all memoir.

This is not quite the case, though. First of all, Havel planned to write his “Lear play” as early as 1987, a full two years before he changed from a revolutionary into a statesman. Writing a realistic stage character, let alone a real-life character is quite foreign to his work. Since his first enormously successful play, The Garden Party (1963), Havel has been closely linked with the theater of the absurd, and like many of his colleagues in that genre was primarily preoccupied with the convoluted logic of situations, and with turns of language rather than with the psychology of his characters. True, the lead character in Leaving could easily be Vaclav Havel, but then he could also be any other statesman looking back at his career, just as his successor can be any other up-and-coming politician. Leaving is an every(states)man play.

Second, Leaving is definitely not a realistic play in terms of its story. Everything that happens outside the stage happens in Far East Asia. The inventory of trophies that Rieger is going through, trying to decide which belong to the state and which belong to him personally, comes from a chronologically impossible series of donors starting with Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. And whenever the action on the stage comes too close to possessing real-life qualities, it is interrupted by a deus ex machina–like voiceover from the author: “I would remind the actors to play their parts as civilly and naturally as possible, with no grotesque or comic overacting. They should not try to make the play more entertaining by using exaggerated facial gestures. Thank you.”

The play is heavily peppered with quotes, paraphrases, and allusions. Some of them come directly from King Lear and The Cherry Orchard. Lear’s “storm” monologue—“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”—gets recited, rather to the detriment of dramatic effect, in a cherry orchard. A character named Old Yepichodov wanders drunk somewhere in the wings. Other references, including quotes from Samuel Beckett and other dramatists, are not so obvious. Some are references to earlier Havel plays. Some are quotes from his famous speeches. And some, particularly those in an interview in which Rieger is desperately trying to sum up his political philosophy for posterity, are crude pastiches of Havel the politician: “The government exists to serve the citizen; the citizen does not exist to serve the government . . . I placed great importance on human rights. In the name of freedom of expression, I imposed significant limits on censorship. I honored the right of assembly, and during my terms as chancellor, fewer than half of all public demonstrations were broken up by the police.”

Rieger, as should be obvious, is not entirely an admirable character. He is as vain and self-centered as any politician. He postures, he cheats on his wife, and he is perfectly incapable of weaning himself from power. When at the end he is offered a humiliating position of “an advisor to an advisor to an advisor of an advisor,” he accepts it in a tragicomic rationalization, which Havel widely used to illustrate the moral capitulations of his heroes in his plays from the Communist era: “Either I will constantly reminisce about the past, returning to it over and over again, analyzing it, explaining it, defending it, comparing it again and again to what exists now, in the present, persuading myself just how much better everything was back then. In other words, I could easily become completely obsessed with my own footprint in history, my past achievements, my legacy . . . Everyone would think I was just a vain and embittered old man who thumbed his nose at a generous offer to contribute his experience to the service of his country. But there is a second choice before me: to demonstrate clearly to everyone that serving my country is of greater importance to me than my personal position. I have been guided by that principle, sir, all my life and I don’t see why I should back away from it now just because of the trivial concern that I would, officially, hold a somewhat inferior position to the one I have held for so long.”

This is where the comedy turns into a tragedy: No matter how moral, humble, and immune to the temptations of power you are, once you’ve had it, it’s impossible to ever be free of it. It comes to define you as much in its absence as in its presence. The more you have achieved, the higher you have reached, the stronger its grip on you will be. You cannot keep it, at least not in a democracy, and yet psychologically you cannot entirely give it up. For the rest of your life, you are going to be defined not by what you do but by what you did. You are condemned to be an ex-chancellor, ex-secretary, ex-president.

So what do you do? How do you resolve this dilemma so common to former top politicians, retired athletes, and aging movie stars? On the face of it, Leaving is pessimistic about the possibility of a solution. Rieger accedes to becoming a shadow of himself. But there are also smaller, subtler hints at a solution, which though far short of being a universal recipe, could work for at least one individual. Some of them have to do with cinnamon.

When Rieger offers Dick, who is interviewing him for a tabloid paper, a beer, the man asks for a little cinnamon with it. When the same thing happens a few minutes later, the audience is naturally somewhat puzzled. The author’s voiceover comes to our rescue: “The business with the cinnamon: there is no psychological or any other explanation for it whatsoever. Or at least as far as I know there isn’t. For now, let’s just call it a product of pure authorial whimsy, or of my somewhat self-centered delight that I can come up with any harebrained idea at all and the actors will have to play it with a straight face.”

Entertaining as it is, Leaving provokes some uncomfortable questions about its text and its author. Is it self-referential? If all politics is just an absurd farce of musical chairs in which politicians say their interchangeable and ultimately empty lines only to make room for other interchangeable versions of themselves, does that also apply to the author who was once a politician? Can someone whose vision of the world is intrinsically absurd preach to others about conscience, responsibility, and “living in truth”? And if the sacrosanct slogans of the Velvet Revolution can be parodied on stage to the point of making them meaningless kitsch, does that imply a measure of hypocrisy bordering on cynicism in this playwright, both in the play and in real life? It is not an idle question. Hypocrisy and kitsch are something of which Havel has sometimes been accused by his domestic critics.

Havel does not dismiss the question but ponders it, politely and seriously, and then somewhat hesitantly suggests a few considerations rather than a coherent answer. “I am not sure one is capable of reflecting absurdity without having a strong sense of meaning. Absurdity makes sense only against a meaningful background. It is the deeper meaning that is shedding light on the absurdity. There must be a vanish point, a metaphysical horizon if you will where absurdity and meaning merge.”

But cannot perceived absurdity lead to exactly opposite results? Are not there many people for whom the experience of absurdity opens a way to an absolute nihilism? And by implication, are not you such a person yourself? Again the hesitant pause. “Yes, it is possible. Yes. My feeling is that when that happens it has to do with the loss of the metaphysical horizon. We are the first atheistic and global, all-embracing civilization. You cannot tell whether you are sitting at an airport in Hong Kong or in a hotel in Alaska. Everything is instrumentalized, subjected to a short-term purpose. It is quite possible that in such a situation any sense of a deeper meaning gets lost.”

Credo quia absurdum est? Is it after all a question of faith, something about which Havel has always been rather ambiguous, sometimes resembling a person who is irresistibly attracted yet cannot make the final jump? Is he more or less of a believer today? “It is hard to say. If by believing you mean praying to an anthropomorphic deity who created the world and half controls it and half observes it, then I am probably not a believer. But if you mean that it is not all accidental, that there is a mystery to existence, a deeper meaning, that I do believe in. Actually, I am pretty sure of it. We ask ourselves all kinds of questions, such as why does a peacock have such beautiful feathers, and we may answer that he needs the feathers to impress a female peacock, but then we ask ourselves, and why is there a peacock? And then we ask, why is there anything living? And then we ask, why is there anything at all? And if you tell some advocate of scientism that the answer is a secret, he will go white hot and write a book. But it is a secret. And the experience of living with the secret and thinking about it is in itself a kind of faith.”

You can try to probe and press to get a better answer, but you will not get much further. There is something about Havel, as I have learned after countless press interviews with starry-eyed journalists who walked away somewhat disappointed, that refuses to please. A man of faith who does not believe in God does not make for very good copy, although he himself is quite content to live with the complexity.

This is also something that makes him such an imperfect icon. It is quite impossible to make him stand for a particular worldview or an ideology. Back home he is often depicted as a man of the Left. He does not worship the free market, although he acknowledges its uses; he is somewhat critical of the system of political parties but admits that his sympathies are green; and he is a keen supporter of the European Union and an equally strong advocate of a distinct Czech identity. Internationally, though, he is often seen as a right-leaning cold warrior. Indeed, he is consistently and vocally critical of human rights abuses in Cuba, China, and Russia. He supported the bombing of Kosovo and the war in Iraq, prompting Jacques Chirac and other like-minded European politicians to reproach him for missing a good opportunity to stay silent. He considers George W. Bush a good friend. He considers Bill Clinton a good friend, too. In a slightly more critical vein, he joined a score of other politicians from post-Communist countries to voice fears in a letter to President Obama last year that the recently freed part of Europe might fall victim to the new president’s “reset” with Russia. Most recently, he joined an initiative of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar against attempts at demonizing Israel and casting doubt on its legitimacy—hardly a popular cause with the European Left.

When I suggest to him that maybe he’s been a closet neocon all along, he just laughs. “I am always amused when people try to put me in a drawer and label me as this or that. It is not all that important. What is important to me is the truth. And the truth is that Russia has become a threat to its neighbors. I don’t care whether this be considered liberal, or conservative, or progressive. But it is the truth. I am not a friend of war. But it is the truth that if we had intervened in Kosovo sooner, we might have saved many lives. The same thing holds for Iraq. When the first Gulf War took place, I was all for going all the way to Baghdad. When dictators get appeased, people die.” Why is something that seems so evident to us so often so unpalatable to others? Do we have a Munich syndrome? “Yes, it could be. Munich is our point of reference for many things. But when my friend, the film director Milos Forman, wanted to shoot a film about Munich, some of the countries then involved were not very keen to fund it.”

Havel and Forman are old friends. They enjoy each other’s company, praise each other’s work, and hold each other in high respect, although it has not always been so. When they attended the same boarding school soon after World War II, Forman, who is four years older, together with a bunch of friends, including Ivan Passer, now also a Hollywood director, used to get their kicks out of knocking the somewhat nerdy and distinctly unathletic Havel off the bicycle he was learning to ride. There may have been a class element involved as well. Forman was an orphaned son of a mixed Czech-Jewish couple murdered by the Nazis, while Havel was the scion of one of the leading Prague bourgeois families. More importantly, his father, a developer, built—and his uncle, one of the founders of the Czech film industry, ran—one of the largest European film studios, still known to every Czech as the Barrandov, a name akin to “Hollywood” in the US. The family also owned Lucerna Palace, the largest and the most glamorous movie house in the center of Prague. Havel has been smitten with movies since he was a child, but in the perverted logic of the Communist era, as a son of a capitalist film entrepreneur, he was barred from movies. Hence the theater became a surrogate.

It is thus somehow fitting that at the young age of seventy-three Havel should close the loop by embarking on a career as a film director, adapting Leaving for the silver screen. “It is the last adventure of my life,” he declares. He is so totally immersed in the eighteen-month-long effort that he finds it hard to talk about the outside world, so obsessed is he with the immense complexities and demands of making a feature-length film and overseeing a crew of more than a hundred accomplished movie professionals while also quashing any thought of self-aggrandizement: “The director does not really do very much himself. Most of the time he waits.”

He is extremely jealous of any leaks from the set and does not allow any outsiders to see the dailies. But judging from a few of his asides, and from the final shot in which he cast a multitude of his friends (including yours truly) as extras playing paparazzi, he is taking the logic of the play a step further, doing away with most of the conventions of the uniformity of time and place, inserting a generous dose of film quotes and allusions and parodying some of his most dearly held ideas, as well as some of his most famous sayings. In the grand finale, before Rieger/Lear leaves the cherry orchard in a carriage that happens to bear an uncanny likeness to the eponymous vehicle in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, the tragic hero declaims the sacred slogan of the Velvet Revolution: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”

Is it not a bit over the top, one might be tempted to ask before remembering the endless trouble Havel went through on account of these nine words he says he improvised when called upon to speak at one of the massive demonstrations on Wenceslas Square during the November 1989 revolution? The slogan worked like magic as long as the revolutionary inebriation lasted. When the hangover of statecraft set in, it became an object of derision, ridicule, and even loathing. Too cute, too empty, too kitschy, utterly fake. So went the verdicts. In some circles, Havel and his friends and allies became known as “truth-and-love-ists.” It was not intended as a compliment.

Never mind that the slogan came with an impeccable pedigree. “Truth prevails,” originally veritas vincit, translated in more combative times as “truth conquers,” originally ascribed to Seneca, is the inscription on the Czech presidential heraldic standard. (“I just added love as an element of personal commitment without which truth, in and of itself, may not necessarily prevail,” Havel said.) And as for the movie, “The more serious things are, the more detachment one should use in approaching them. One should be able to laugh at oneself or you risk becoming petrified.”

That, in the end, is the Havel solution. Although he would probably deny it as too much of a construction, by taking his bow as a Chekhovian Lear in a stagecoach right out of an old Western, parodying the most deeply held verities of the Velvet era and putting cinnamon in his beer, Havel is finally again able to do his own thing, to be rid of the entanglements of power and leave as he came in—a free man. But he is not quite leaving yet.

“I am thinking of writing another play,” he says. “It will be my last adventure.”

Michael Zantovsky is currently the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He has previously served as ambassador to Israel and the United States and as press secretary, spokesman, and political director for President Vaclav Havel. He blogs regularly for World Affairs. Photo and homepage slideshow photo by the author.
OG Image: