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Havel, Václav

Entry updated 16 December 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

(1936-2011) One of the most prominent intellectuals of twentieth-century Czechoslovakia (see Czech and Slovak SF); author of plays and essays, a political dissident several times arrested by the communist government (for almost five years in sum), later the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and first president of Czech Republic (1993-2003). Havel's writing expresses a deep interest in the human Identity, especially within the context of a social system which erases aspects of individuality. But it is a human self in general which also tends to fall into the traps of mechanical thinking and behaviour. Some of Havel's works can be read as Fabulation or Absurdist SF.

Early in his career Havel collaborated briefly with another important absurdist playwright and actor, Ivan Vyskočil (1929-2023). For their joint revue Autostop ["Hitchhiking"] (performed 19 March 1961) he wrote the sketch "Motomorfóza" ["Motormorphosis"], an absurd drama about a "psychoneurotic" disease turning people into automobiles (or for sadder cases and lesser minds, mopeds). During rehearsals this was cut from the performance, replaced by a solo "lecture" on the theme by Vyskočil, and appeared only in print (limited-distribution duplicated script 1961; in Humorem i satirou: repertoárový sborník ["Through Humour and Satire: Repertoire Anthology"] anth 1963 ed Lydie Vernerová; in Motomorfózy ["Motormorphoses"] coll 2011 with another cut and long-lost nonfantastic sketch).

Havel's second play Vyrozumění (1965; trans Vera Blackwell as The Memorandum 1967; trans Paul Wilson as The Memo 2012) analyses the use of Linguistics in the struggle for power within a bureaucratic system. In the unnamed office, an artificial language called Ptydepe is being promoted, allegedly to achieve the most exact expression of the message. Ptydepe is based on a rule that every word must differ by at least 60% from any other word in Ptydepe; the protagonist's initial dilemma is that in order to have the unreadable titular memorandum translated from Ptydepe he must make an application in Ptydepe. (Later another language is introduced: Chorukor, designed to increase similarities rather than differences between words.) In describing the language Václav Havel was assisted his brother Ivan Havel (1938-2021), a computer scientist, who also influenced some of the author's other work, most notably Ztížená možnost soustředění (1969, trans Vera Blackwell as The Increased Difficulty of Concentration 1972). Here a Sociologist is being studied by a group of Scientists in attempt to measure what is truly unique in human individuality. For this purpose, they use a Computer running a barely functioning AI called Puzuk. While this artificial intelligence seems far too human, the human characters appears to live rather mechanistic lives. Some early thoughts on this theme can be traced in Havel's magazine article "Kybernetika a divadlo" ["Cybernetics and Theatre"] (1960 Divadlo).

Pokoušení ["Tempting"] (samizdat 1985; exile edition 1986; trans George Theiner as Temptation 1988; first edition in Czech Republic 1990) is a modern variation of the Faust legend. Dr Foustka is a scientist seduced by the Mephistophelian figure Fistula to study Magic and to betray both the ideals of materialistic science and his own moral integrity. The idea for the play originated after Havel's arrest for his political activism in 1977, as a metaphor for the seductive practices of the secret police used on prosecuted dissidents.

With a life-long interest in Cinema, Havel wrote in early 1969 (in collaboration with movie director Jan Němec, 1936-2016) the screenplay Heart Beat. Intended as a social and political Satire, its plot features a secret international gang dealing with transplanted human hearts (see Medicine) and assassinations of politicians that influence the world's Politics. The movie was never made; the screenplay was first published in the collection Václav Havel a film: Scénáře, analýzy a úvahy z let 1957-1989 ["Václav Havel and Film: Screenplays, Analyses and Reflections 1957-1989"] (coll 2019). Jan Němec himself made a considerably different experimental movie based on parts of the original idea: Heart Beat 3D (2010).

Of marginal sf interest is Havel's book of experimental Poetry, Antikódy: sbírka typogramů ["Anticodes: Collection of Typograms"] (manuscript coll circulated 1964; in Protokoly ["Protocols"] omni 1966; exp 1993). This includes "Pět rysů člověka budoucnosti" ["Five Features of the Man of the Future"] (1965 Tvář), which are listed in a Ptydepe-like language. [IA]

see also: Karel Čapek.

Václav Havel

born Prague, Czechoslovakia [now Czech Republic]: 5 October 1936

died Vlčice-Hrádeček, Czech Republic: 18 December 2011

works (selected)

  • Vyrozumění ["The Memorandum"] (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Dilia, 1965) [play: pb/]
    • The Memorandum (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967) [play: trans of the above by Vera Blackwell: hb/]
    • The Memorandum (New York: Grove Press, 1967) [play: trans of the above by Vera Blackwell: pb/]
    • The Memo (New York: Theater 61 Press, 2012) [play: new trans of the above by Paul Wilson: pb/photographic]
  • Protokoly ["Protocols"] (Prague: Mladá fronta, 1966) [omni: Havel's first play Zahradní slavnost, Vyrozumění, two essays and Antikódy (sbírka typogramů) ["Anticodes (Collection of Typograms)"]: pb/Jiří Rathouský]
  • Ztížená možnost soustředění ["The Increased Difficulty of Concentration"] (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Orbis, 1969) [play: pb/]
  • Pokoušení ["Tempting"] (Munich, Germany: Obrys/Kontur, 1986) [play: pb/]
    • Temptation (London: Faber and Faber, 1988) [play: trans of the above by George Theiner: hb/]
    • Temptation (New York: Grove Press, 1989) [play: new trans of the above by Marie Winn: pb/nonpictorial]
  • Antikódy ["Anticodes"] (Prague: Odeon, 1993) [poetry: exp vt of Antikódy from Protokoly above, without subtitle: pb/Jiří Kolář]
  • Motomorfózy ["Motormorphoses"] (Prague: Galén, 2011) [coll: edited with notes and afterword by Lenka Jungmannová: "Motomorfóza" with another nonfantastic sketch cut from Autostop and long lost: pb/Clara Istlerová]
  • Václav Havel a film: Scénáře, analýzy a úvahy z let 1957-1989 ["Václav Havel and Film: Screenplays, Analyses and Reflections 1957-1989"] (Prague: Knihovna Václava Havla and Národní filmový archiv, 2019) [coll: edited and with introduction by Jan Bernard: hb/photographic]

about the author

  • Kenneth Tynan. "Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos" (19 December 1977 The New Yorker) [vt "Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos – Tom Stoppard" in Tynan's Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (coll 1979): contrasts Havel with Stoppard: mag/]
  • John Keane. Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (New York: Basic Books, 2000) [nonfiction: hb/photographic]
  • Michael Žantovský. Havel: A Life (New York: Grove Press, 2014) [nonfiction: pb/photographic]
  • David S Danaher. Reading Václav Havel (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2015) [nonfiction: hb/photographic]
  • Kiernan Williams. Václav Havel (London: Reaktion Books, 2016) [nonfiction: in the publisher's Critical Lives series: pb/photographic]


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