A Czech Perspective on ‘Audience’

We are now in our third week of rehearsal for AUDIENCE by Vaclav Havel, and the play is taking shape in an exciting way. Last night, we were privileged to have a friend of one of the actors who immigrated to the states from Czechoslovakia shortly before Prague Spring come to the rehearsal. Helena’s firsthand knowledge of the early days of the occupation, the stories of her friends and family who stayed, and her understanding of the play in its original Czech were invaluable in helping us delve deeper into the text (and ensureing that we were pronouncing the names correctly).

An audience member watching AUDIENCE would not need to know anything about Vaclav Havel or the Soviet period in Czechoslovakia to understand or enjoy the play, but seeing the play in context is terrifically revealing. During the crackdown following Prague Spring in 1968, Havel’s plays were banned from theaters in Czechoslovakia. Havel became more actively involved with dissident groups – including Charter 77 – and spent some time in prison as a result. When he was released, Havel was forced to take a job at a brewery, which inspired AUDIENCE. During the time of the occupation, the play was distributed secretly in samizdat form along with UNVEILING and PROTEST, two other plays that also center around the character of Ferdinand Vanek (a stand-in for Havel). Today, AUDIENCE is one of the most celebrated plays in Czech Republic, and has enjoyed continued popularity since it’s first publication in 1975.

The play paints a simultaneously comic, chilling, and beer-soaked portrait of the informant culture in Czechoslovakia during the occupation. Helena suspects that possibly as many as one in every ten people in the country at the time were informants of some capacity, and that citizens of all social levels experienced that pressure. Helena also offered some great insight on the “brain drain” in Czechoslovakia following the crackdown. Since so many members of the intelligencia fled to avoid persecution, Havel was among a dwindling minority of well-educated citizens. With this understanding, the character of Vanek in the play is a true outsider, struggling to keep his head down in an new and potentially dangerous environment.

Getting back into the script after Helena left us last night, the cast and I were excited for the possibilities these discoveries afforded. It is helping us work towards a tone that is both wonderfully humorous and grippingly tense.

-Bennett Fisher

AUDIENCE opens Tuesday April 13 at the Cafe Royale (800 Post Street, at Leavenworth) and plays April 13, 19, 20 and May 3 and 4. Shows are at 8pm and admission is free. Email theaterpub@atmostheatre.com for reservations.