Václav Havel (1936–2011) was a Czech writer, dramatist, philosopher, dissident, politician, and important figure of the Czechoslovak alternative and counter-culture before 1989. Because of his bourgeois background, Havel’s access to higher education was limited. Already in the 1950s, Havel became acquainted with the milieu of the “second” culture and samizdat as he met “forbidden” authors associated with the poet and artist Jiří Kolář. Thus, as Havel stated later, already at that time he had “spontaneously and naturally entered among those who were active on the border of allowed, even more often beyond its frontier.” In 1955, Havel made literary debut in the magazine Květen, and until the end of the 1960s, his texts appeared in many Czech magazines. In 1959, he finished his first drama, the one-act play Rodinný večer (An Evening with the Family). In the same year, he was accepted as a stagehand at the Divadlo ABC (ABC Theatre) in Prague. In the following year, he took up work at the Divadlo na zábradlí (Theatre on the Balustrade) in Prague, first as a stagehand and later as an assistant director and literary manager. In December 1963, Divadlo na zábradlí performed Havel’s first full-length play Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party). Another one of Havel’s play, Vyrozumění (The Memorandum), was performed by this theatre in 1965. Apart from theatre plays, Havel also wrote experimental poetry in the 1960s. At that time, he studied dramatic art theory at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, from where he graduated in 1966. Already in the middle of the 1960s, the Czechoslovak State Security started to take an interest in Václav Havel. In their reports, Václav Havel was labeled as someone around whom were a wide group of young artists who disagreed with the cultural policy of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CzCP) and demanded “absolute creative freedom” was united. Havel criticised the cultural policy of the CzCP, for example at the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Union of Writers in 1967, which led to his expulsion from the Central Committee of the Union.
Václav Havel played an active role in democratization and renewal of culture during the era of reforms, known as the Prague Spring. In March 1968, he, along with 150 other writers and artists signed an open letter to the Central Committee of the CzCP on the democratization process. In June of the same year, he became the chairman of the Circle of Independent Writers. At that time, Divadlo na zábradlí presented another one of Havel’s plays, Ztížená možnost soustředění (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration).
The Prague Spring ended with the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968. Václav Havel actively opposed the invasion and the resulting hardline Communist policies. As a result, his work was banned in Czechoslovakia. He moved from Prague to the countryside, where he continued his activities against the Communist regime, including hosting concerts of banned music. In 1975 he created the samizdat edition Expedice (Expedition) which issued a total of 232 volumes of “banned literature” including Czech prose and poetry, plays, philosophical texts and translations of important foreign works. Havel reflected on restrictions of cultural freedom in Czechoslovakia in his famous open letter addressed to the first secretary of the Central Committee of the CzCP and later President of the Republic, Gustáv Husák, in 1975. In this letter, Havel wrote about “cultural police,” banned books, abolished magazines and “plundered” exhibition halls. In November of the same year, Havel’s play Žebrácká opera (The Beggar’s Opera) was performed by an amateur theatre group. Although Havel was not officially mentioned as the author of the play, the group was later persecuted.
In 1976, Havel supported persecuted artists connected with the band The Plastic People of the Universe. Later, he co-founded Charter 77 and was one of its first spokespersons. Charter 77 was a civic initiative which, among other things, actively embraced alternative culture in Czechoslovakia. Thus, in 1983, it issued a report about the banned and restricted Czechoslovak rock music. In 1978 Havel co-founded The Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) and became its spokesman. During the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to write plays. At that time, Audience (1975), Largo desolato (1984), Pokušení (Temptation, 1985) and many other plays were created. Havel was also known for his essays, especially Moc bezmocných (The Power of the Powerless) from 1978. Between 1977 and 1989 he was imprisoned several times for his beliefs, his longest prison term lasting from 1979 to 1983. This period is reflected in Havel’s letters to his wife, later published as Dopisy Olze (Letters to Olga).
Václav Havel was an important figure of the Czechoslovak alternative cultural milieu not only because of his plays, but also because of his support for other artists. Through recommendations and intercessions, he helped “unofficial” writers, visual artists, musicians or photographers, and in the second half of the 1980s, also creators from the audio-visual sphere. He supported, among others, the exile revue Paternoster and the samizdat magazine Revolver Revue, and initiated the foundation of an underground publicistic programme the Original Videojournal. He had subscriptions to magazines that were distributed in Czechoslovakia via diplomatic post from the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre in Scheinfeld, West Germany. Havel also often listened to “unofficial” music production, as the majority of his tapes were recorded “in flats, semi-secret concerts, exile, and cellars.” Thus, as noted by Czech historian Jiří Suk, alternative culture meant to Havel “his natural cultural milieu, where he felt well and free.”
In November 1989, Václav Havel co-founded the Civic Forum, and in December of the same year, he was elected the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992). When Czechoslovakia split, he became the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). After his presidency, he devoted his time again to theatre and literature, and he supported prosecuted and imprisoned human rights defenders around the world. In 2008, the Prague theatre Archa performed his play Odcházení (Leaving). Based on this play, Václav Havel made a film by the same name in 2011. Václav Havel died in December 2011. His state funeral was attended by many Czech and foreign politicians, artists, and other eminent figures.
Although Václav Havel was an important part of the Czechoslovak cultural opposition before 1989, he did not consider alternative culture as automatically qualitatively better than official culture. Sometimes, good texts could be published officially, and analogically, texts of poor-quality could be found in some samizdat volumes. Thus, the difference between official and alternative culture did not lie, according to Havel, in the fact that one of them was better than the other. It lied in its distinct and incommensurable values, styles, ideas, missions or meanings: “Parallel culture is not a guarantee of anything, it is neither a value nor a counter-value, it is not a style or some culturing principle, it is nothing but a fact.” Therefore, in Havel’s interpretation, the parallel culture was primarily not a field of artistic phenomena, but a social reality that could emerge only in a society controlled by a dictatorship which suppressed freedom of speech and required “total claim to the spirit of individuals and the society.” As pointed out by Jiří Suk, the official and alternative cultures were put in opposition not by Václav Havel, but by the dictatorship. According to Havel, restrictions of cultural freedom had far-reaching consequences, as so-called high culture – literature, theatre or visual arts – was part of the “self-awareness of the society.” Hence, interventions into the cultural and intellectual sphere influenced many more people than only those against whom they were originally directed.
- Auerbach/Vogtland Grünheide, Germany 08209
Dagmar Havlová is a Czech actor. She studied at the Conservatory and at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, graduating in 1975. She was given her first important film role while she was still a student. Her filmography includes more than 50 feature-length films and more than 300 television productions. Dagmar Havlová is also involved in the theatre and from 1979-1997 was a member of the drama group at the Vinohrady Theatre. In 1997 she married the then president, Václav Havel, and temporarily suspended her acting career. In the same year she set up the Vize 97 foundation, which a year later was merged with the Václav and Olga Havel Foundation under the title of the Dagmar and Václav Havel VIZE 1997 Foundation. Dagmar Havlová was then the chair of its board of directors. In 2006 she went back to acting at the Vinohrady Theatre and later also returned to film and television screens. She was behind the establishment of the Václav Havel Library in 2004.
- Praha, Prague, Czech Republic
Olga Havlová (née Šplíchalová), was the first wife of the Czechoslovak and later Czech president Václav Havel. She apprenticed in the Bata shoe factory, where she worked afterwards. In the 1950s, she had a number of different jobs, such as shop assistant or accountant; she also was in an amateur theater performance. In the mid-1950s she met Václav Havel, and they married in 1964. In the 1960s she was employed as an usher in the Theater on the Balustrade, where Václav Havel also was working. After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, she supported the dissident activities of her husband. After Václav Havel’s imprisonment in 1979, Olga was active in the samizdat publisher Expedice, together with her brother-in-law Ivan Havel, and participated in the Charter 77 activities (she signed Charter 77 in 1982). The collection of letters written by Václav Havel from prison to his wife Olga between 1979 and 1983 later became one of Havel’s most important philosophical works. Olga Havlová was active in the underground video-magazine “Originální videojournal” (“Original Video-Journal”), which reported on dissident activities and the then political and cultural situation in Czechoslovakia. She also helped with the distribution of samizdat newspaper Lidové noviny (The People’s Newspaper). After 1989, as the First Lady of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), Olga Havlová mainly focused on charitable activities. In 1990 she co-founded, together with her friends from Charter 77, the Committee of Good Will, and in 1992, she established the Olga Havlová Foundation, which helps people with disabilities. In 1997 Olga Havlová was, in memoriam, awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk for outstanding contribution to democracy and human rights.
- Praha, Prague, Czech Republic
Dušan Havlíček is a media journalist and theorist.
Havlíček graduated from the Prague Teaching Institute and from 1942 he studied conducting at the Prague Conservatory at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. But in 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and in the same year in Nuremberg he was sentenced to six years in prison. He was imprisoned for an illegal activity when he was in the student cell of the, at that time illegitimate, Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, having spread leaflets. After returning from prison in August 1945, he continued his studies, which ended in the summer of 1948. He then worked in several different artistic and concert organizations, such as the People's Art Concert Agency, and then for a while moved to the Artistic and Music Centre. He had engaged in different aspects of the cultural sphere from the circus, to café concerts, to television broadcasting.
At the end of the 1950s, he devoted himself to journalism, and for a short time he also worked in the cultural column of Rudé právo (a communist newspaper). He then went to the magazine "Hudební rozhledy". In 1963, he became editor of Cultural Works, where he dealt mainly with television and music. He also worked as a journalist focusing on culture, mostly about Switzerland. In the autumn of 1967, along with other editors, he left Cultural Arts in protest of the appointment of a new editor-in-chief, known for his ultra-conservative views. He joined the Institute of History and Mass Media Theory at Charles University in Prague.
In May 1968 Havlíček was approached by Čestmír Císař – then the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party – and offered the position of head of the press section. Havlíček finally accepted this position and in June 1968 he was appointed head of the press, radio and television section of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. However, because he spoke about the meeting of the Bureau of the Central Communist Party of the Czechoslovak Communist Party of August 20, 1968, before occupation, in the Radio Free Europe, Havlíček became a target of frequent attacks by the members of the Communist Party of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He remained in his post until March 1969, where he was sent as a correspondent of the Czech Press Agency to Geneva. It was all arranged at the last minute, since Alexandr Dubcek had to approve this position and he did so just before the departure. Havlíček refused to obey calls to return to Prague and in January 1970 requested political asylum, which he was granted. The fact that he did not obey the calls led to him being sentenced in absence to prison in Prague for twelve years. The indictment spoke of the damage of property, illegally leaving the republic and damaging its interests abroad.
Dušan Havlíček has lived in Geneva since then. By the mid-1980s, he was a researcher at the Swiss Broadcasting and Television Directorate in Bern. He was then responsible for audience surveys in Geneva's Swiss television in the mid-90s.
At the same time, Dušan Havlíček has worked for many years as a publicist and contributed political articles on Czechoslovakia to a number of Swiss daily newspapers and other foreign journals, and also worked consistently with the exile “Listy” magazine.
- Geneva, Switzerland