|Vaclav Havel (1936, Prague)
Vaclav Havel is the son of a wealthy businessman; the family home was full of culture and intellectual activity. When a Moscow-backed coup took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the Havel family was declared a "class enemy" and their property confiscated. Havel was not allowed automatic school promotion above the elementary grades. He finished high school at night by working days as a laboratory technician. His applications to liberal arts colleges were rejected, so he studied economics at the University of Technology. Then he served two years in the army. He began a regimental theater company while in the military. Then he applied to the university drama school in Prague, but was turned down.
He took a job as a stagehand at Prague's ABC Theater in 1959. He published an article defending the absurdist plays shown by Theater on the Balustrade, which he joined during a politically tolerant period (1962-1968). He wrote absurdist, Kafka-esque comedies satirizing the Communist bureaucracy: The Garden Party (1963), and The Memorandum (1965), in which the head of an office tries to comply with a government directive written in unintelligible bureaucratic language. In 1968 he traveled to the USA, where he identified with the '60s counterculture.
Russian tanks brought an end to Czechoslovakia's brief period of artistic freedom in August 1968. Afterward, the Soviet-dominated, hard-line Communist government banned Havel's plays. The only job he was allowed was as a brewery laborer, loading barrels of beer. In those years he wrote The Conspirators and The Mountain Hotel, two existential plays. He wrote also underground press "samizdat" works (one-act plays to be performed in secret): Interview (1975), A Private View (1975) and Protest (1978). The regime arrested Havel in 1975 after he wrote an open letter to President Husak.
The 1977 arrest and trial of a Czech rock band had a profound effect on Havel's outlook. Many Czech intellectuals signed a manifesto (Charter 77) protesting the situation. Havel was tried on charges of subversion. The following year he formed an organization, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, but he was arrested and sentenced to 4 years of hard labor. In 1983 he wrote Mistake, in which he criticized the tendency of humans to not only adapt to repressive systems but to devise totalitarian societies at their own levels. He wrote also Largo Desolato, dramatizing humans pitted against the totalitarian state, and Temptation an adaptation of the Faustian theme. In 1988, he wrote Tomorrow. A 1986 memoir was translated into English as Disturbing the Peace.
In the waning days of the Communist government in 1989, Havel was sentenced again for leading antigovernment demonstrations. When the Communist regime collapsed in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Havel was elected president. In 1992, Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Havel resigned to show his disapproval, but the new Czech Republic elected him president for a five-year term. After he was elected president, Havel wrote Summer Meditations (1992), in which he reflects on his political experiences.
Havel's wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer in January 1996. Havel himself has been treated for cancer. Surgeons removed half of his right lung and a small malignant tumor in December 1996.
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