Thursday, 22 May 2008

Vaclav Havel: "Leaving"

I caught a short piece on Radio 4's Today programme about the premiere of Vaclav Havel's new play, "Leaving". Vaclav Havel was the first President of a free Czechoslovakia, following the "velvet revolution" that overthrew Communism in the country. And before that, he was a leading figure in the dissident/resistance movement against the Communists. One of his most famous pieces of writing is an essay entitled "The power of the powerless"; part of this essay discusses why a greengrocer might put a sign "Workers of the World unite" in his shop when he has no belief in its message at all, essentially to avoid trouble from the authorities if he removed it. It is a wonderful image of how people go along with the flow of contemporary thinking, even though an even cursory examination will reveal that they have no personal belief in it at all. The "gay agenda" could be equally subjected to its critique - how many people really do believe that LGBT behaviour is morally identical/equivalent to heterosexual behaviour?

His new play seems to at least reflect the genre of underground theatre, though it may not fall into it exactly. In this style of theatre, a relatively innocuous or politically acceptable narrative hides a coded message that challenges the authorities. During the Communist times, this had to be done very cleverly so that only those tuned into the coded message would detect it and read it in to the play. There is a good account of this type of theatre in the introduction to Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay, where she describes attending the theatre in Moscow during Communist times. [The book then develops a theme of coded, Catholic messages in the plays of Shakespeare.]

So I wonder what the coded message of "Leaving" is? According to the Radio 4 item, the anti-hero to the hero of the retiring politician is someone who initiates the destruction of the former politician's residence (and cherry orchard) and replaces it with a shopping mall and brothel. The name given to this anti-hero is very close to that of Vaclav Klaus, who succeeded Vaclav Havel as President of the Czech republic. Czech society was described in the Radio 4 item as being split down the middle, between those "Havelites" who supported his vision of the world as "a place where we must strive for a more moral society" [this reflects Havel's writing about and experience of the dissident movements during the Communist era] and those "Klausites" who "believe more in the economic side of the transition that followed 1989".

So, is the coded message of "Leaving" that a politics worthy of the name should strive for a more moral society rather than limiting itself only to the economic sphere? And what do we make of this in Britain after this week's votes in the House of Commons?

UPDATE: I have just found Vaclav Havel's website and an item on the BBC website.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

zero spotted an article about "Leaving" today in the Times maybe you would like it.