Why I Read Havel

Bennett Fisher, a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, talks about his upcoming project, which you can catch on Tuesday, May 15th, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale.

Since Vaclav Havel’s passing in December of last year, I have had a number of people come up to me and say things like “so, you’re into Havel’s writing, right? Why should I read his plays?” It feels odd that– at least in my very limited circle – I am now somewhat of an authority on Havel’s work, but I think it has less to do with any kind of extensive expertise but rather because I seem to be one of the few people to take a serious interest in that particular dimension of Havel’s full and fascinating life.

Indeed, it was this unusual interest that made grant money available and opened doors for me to meet Havel and other Czech theater makers. I was sponsored to attend the Forum 2000 conference in Prague in 2007 because I wanted to learn about Havel the writer, and not Havel the public figure – if I had only been interested in the latter, I would not have received the funds to go. While at the conference, I spoke with a lot of former Czech cabinet members and high-level bureaucrats about their previous lives as directors, actors, stage managers, scenic designers, and so on. When Havel was named president of Czechoslovakia, he had to fill out positions of government with people he knew. Since most people he knew were from the theater or the literary world, well…

Just imagine, for a moment, a government largely composed of theater people. Are you encouraged? Frightened?

It is so improbable to think that someone who was an international sensation as a writer in his prime would have their literary career eclipsed by their accomplishments as a revolutionary and statesman (imagine Athol Fugard turning into Nelson Mandela). In the many obituaries I read, Havel’s playwriting often seemed like a footnote – a diversion before he harkens to his true calling as an activist and politician. Having spent quite a bit of time with his plays, I believe that Havel became a revolutionary not in addition to his work as an artist, but because of his work as an artist.

Havel’s plays explore what happens when people stop listening, when we go about our lives so robotic that we begin to treat others with a kind of off-hand cruelty, when a proposed system of solutions backfires. Havel’s plays are stories about the power of empathy over brutishness, about how no amount of intellectual ability can substitute for action, about how idealism means nothing if it cannot be embodied in our conduct. When I read Havel, I feel invigorated by the possibility of his writing – art as the spark that ignites a conversation, which grows into deeds, which grows into reform. The true power of plays like The Memorandum is the velvet glove of wit, humor, and playful intellectualism that hides a clenched fist ready to deliver an emotional haymaker.

Or, it should, if I don’t screw up the direction.

Don’t miss the Pub’s rendition of Havel’s work this May 15th at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale! Admission is the usual free (or donation at the door) and we recommend you get there early as seating can be limited!