The Death of the Playwright-President: Vaclav Havel (1936–2011)

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Michal Cizek / AFP / Getty Images

Former Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel speaks during a presentation of the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague on March 1, 2011

In the euphoric days after Vaclav Havel went from ex-prisoner to Czechoslovak President, he told friends, "I feel like an impostor." He kept dreaming that the old secret police showed up, stripped him of power and threw him back in jail.

It did seem unreal. Havel, a short, absurdist playwright, had led the bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled one of Eastern Europe's coldest Cold War regimes. Now he was President of a democratic country, dining at the White House and welcoming the Rolling Stones, the Dalai lama and Prince Charles to Prague, the Czech capital city that had become the spiritual center of a new Eastern Europe.

Havel's death at age 75 was announced on Dec. 18. The man who wrote absurdist dramas that ridiculed the brutal communist flunkies who ruled his country — indeed, the Soviet bloc — had had severe health problems for years. In 1998 Havel battled lung cancer, a ruptured colon and a perforated ulcer and came close to dying. But he managed to hang on for 13 more years — long enough to see the Prague Spring and his work as a dissident inspire Chinese activists like Liu Xiaobo and to see his experiences reincarnated in the Arab Spring, where beaten-down populations rose up against regimes almost as totalitarian and thuggishly imbecile as the one he helped overthrow. The cries of "The people want the regime to fall" in Cairo and Tunis were echoes of "Havel to the Castle," the roar of the crowds as they insisted that their playwright hero take the reins of power in Prague.

Havel was no longer President after the end of his term in 2003. But he remained iconic and relevant, even after reformers and other dissidents — such as Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and Lech Walesa in Poland — lost their luster. The Czechs have lost an irreplaceable moral leader. He led them out of totalitarianism and into democracy. He made the world care about their country and became the conscience of a confused region searching for a postcommunist order.

Havel at first glance was an unlikely beacon of morality. He was not slick or square-jawed. He mumbled and moved with an odd, racing shuffle. He cheated on his wife Olga and smoked too much. But to a nation used to lies, he was an electrifyingly honest voice. When Havel told Czechs to live in truth, to resist becoming totalitarian cogs, he had credibility because he had backed up his words with his life.

Havel spent most of his life feeling like an outsider. As a child, he was a shy bookworm embarrassed by his family's real estate fortune. "Add to that," Havel said, "the fact that I was overweight, and the other children, as children will, laughed at my tubbiness." In 1948 Havel became a different kind of pariah when the communists seized power in postwar Czechoslovakia, confiscating his family's property and barring him from high school. Havel washed test tubes for a living and decided that life was absurd. From there, it was a short step to absurdist theater. Drafted into military service, Havel wrote a rousing drama for his battalion that army officials praised until they took a closer look and realized that this chubby, polite soldier was making fun of them. After the army, he got a job as a stagehand at Prague's Theater on the Balustrade. There he wooed and wed a sharp-tongued usher named Olga Splichalova and wrote acerbic plays that stuck audiences' noses in the ridiculousness of their totalitarian world. These were the relatively relaxed political days leading up to the 1968 Prague Spring, when the communists allowed some criticism. In The Memorandum (1965), for example, authorities introduce a language called Ptydepe and order everyone to speak it even though it's Orwellian nonsense.

Havel the playwright painted the world as absurd. But Havel the citizen had a solution: Don't repeat the nonsense. Those who live in truth, he declared, have tremendous power in a system supported by lies, simply because they threaten its foundation. Havel did. After invading Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, the authorities banned Havel's writings and harassed friends who talked to him. Those were lonely years, but Havel beat back depression and wrote plays, started an underground press and founded the human-rights group Charter 77. That earned him prison time; the longest stretch began in 1979, when Havel received a 4½-year sentence.

The naturally nervous Havel was a difficult prisoner. He wrote petulant letters to his wife (later published as Letters to Olga) berating her for failing to make home repairs, to write him more letters or to improve her hairdo. But when authorities offered him visas abroad or chances to recant, he refused. When they released him, he kept being Havel and got arrested again; his last arrest came just months before the Velvet Revolution.

Havel didn't start the revolution — that happened when police beat unarmed students on Nov. 17, 1989 — but he masterminded it. He told the beaten-down Czechs they could prevail. They believed him and filled Wenceslas Square, giddy with their own courage. And Havel, backed by these people who had rediscovered their backbone, negotiated the communists out of power.

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