Of Zelensky and Havel: Ukraine’s Heroic Leader Recalls Another Artist-Turned-President

(The following article is re-posted (slightly amended) from Critically Speaking (Spring 2022), the newsletter of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.)

It is spring in Kyiv and right now there is a playwright who is trying to capture the horrific events as they unfold. The play may or may not ever be produced. That is inconsequential. The point is artists will do what they must do as long as they have life in them to do it. 

In 1937, Picasso created his epic oil painting, Guernica, after the northern Basque Country town by the same name was bombed by nazi Germany and fascist Italy in support of General Francisco Franco’s Spanish Nationalists, killing innocent civilians most of whom were women and children who were attending market day in the town’s core. The image has remained so powerful that a tapestry copy of the painting, which hangs outside the Security Council chambers at the United Nations, was covered over in 2003 at the request of the U.S. Department of State because it was felt that the strong anti-war message would conflict with General Colin Powell’s press conference presenting his casus belli for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  

On social media the other day, I saw opera singers, members of the National Opera of Ukraine, sing the national anthem while filling sandbags to defend their city and their opera house, a famed structure established in 1867, and now named after the Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. This, while principal dancer Oleksii Potiomkin and Lesya Vorotnyk, members of the ballet company, traded their ballet shoes for combat boots, grabbed rifles and joined the resistance. 

And in Russia, too, the anti-war movement is growing. Elena Kovalskaya, the director of Moscow’s Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theatre and Cultural Centre, resigned her position in protest, saying: “It’s impossible to work for a murderer and collect a salary from him.” Meyerhold himself was a victim of Stalin’s purges. Moscow’s Mayakovsky Theatre has forbidden its actors to speak out against the war. The theatre’s management said nothing about its playwrights but you can be sure that the samizdat is making the rounds as I write. 

As Ukrainian president Voldymyr Zelensky pleads for the world to find its collective humanity and stop the violence, he has requested that prisoners with military experience be released from custody throughout the country and be allowed to join the armed forces. This put me in mind of the playwright, Václav Havel, who became president of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution (1989-1992) after which he became the first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). Before that, he was an officially banned writer during the “Prague Spring” of 1968 when 250,000 troops initiated by the Soviet Union via the Warsaw Pact, invaded his homeland. 

Before his blacklisting for political activism as an outspoken member of Charter 77, Havel had made a name for himself in the theatre by way of his work with the avant-garde Balustrade company. Two of his most well known plays, The Garden Party (1963) and The Memorandum (1965) were produced at the Balustrade and began to make his reputation as a playwright internationally.  

In 1975, after his work was officially banned by the communist regime, he wrote Audience, the first of a trilogy of plays that would come to be known as “the Vanĕk plays.” It would be easy to categorize Audience as theatre of the absurd by the way it satirizes the state bureaucracy, except that it came out of a real encounter with the foreman of a brewery where Havel worked when he could not find employment in the arts. I daresay in style it more clearly resembles an ironic take on the “socialist realism” of its day. 

The play is a short and clever two-hander wherein the central character, Ferdinand Vanĕk (a stand-in for Havel), is asked by the foreman of the brewery to inform on himself so the foreman doesn’t have to make something up when he goes through perfunctory meetings with the secret police every week in order to inform them of any suspicious political activity in which Vanĕk might be engaged while he is rolling out barrels in the cellar of the brewery. Vanĕk, who was known to the foreman as a writer and an intellectual, should just write a little fiction for the alcoholic foreman to use as his script and that would save him one big weekly hangover headache.

On a visit to Prague in the spring of 2014, I visited an exhibition mounted by the students in the Faculty of Arts at Charles University that focussed on interpreting the mise-en-scène of Havel’s early plays. Audience, with its modest scenic elements, was mounted in small venues including a rural farm house and various living rooms in and outside of metropolitan areas. Within several months, the play had made its way abroad and was produced at the prestigious Burgtheatre in Vienna.

When Havel was released from prison in 1983, the movement that was building toward “The Velvet Revolution” had begun in earnest. The massive peaceful protests across the country removed any legitimacy to govern from the regime and a non-violent transfer of power took place electing Havel to the presidency in 1989. 

[The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre’s revival of Václav Havel’s Audience, with Vit Horejs, left as Vanĕk and Theresa Linnihan as the Brewmaster, played New York’s Rehearsal for Truth Festival in 2021. The annual festival of sociopolitical theatre is staged in honour of Havel. (Photo: Joathan Slaff)]

Shortly after taking office, the playwright/president announced that he was declaring an amnesty for prisoners. He noted that at first it was his intention to free only political prisoners who, like himself, were imprisoned for crimes that were non-violent and falsely constructed by the state. But he soon decided a major reset was in order.

Trying to figure out who qualified for this kind of amnesty, who had received a fair trial and who had not, required a great deal of time and labour. Better to just declare a blanket release which was really unheard of at the time and unheard of since. Upward toward 30,000 prisoners (all but murderers, violent criminals and rapists) were released from a total prison population of approximately 40,000 in Czechoslovakia. The amnesty was provocative and not without consequences. The right assailed president Havel’s judgement and for a period of time the crime rate did go up but it soon levelled out as the former prisoners gained employment and re-integrated into society. In the meantime, Havel felt that it was high time for morality and politics to start holding hands. 

Perhaps our whole notion of carcerality might be changed as a result of leaders like Zelensky and Havel. It is the authoritarian autocrats and oligarchs of the world – those who profit from war, poverty, climate disaster, famine and disease who ought to be penalized and prevented from doing any more harm to the Earth and its people. It’s doubtful that solitary confinement in a prison cell would do these plutocrats any good at all. In the end, it is an entirely new economic landscape that needs to be designed that argues for the creation of wealth that benefits the common good and honors peace and social justice over  speculation, greed and private profit. 

As we approach another spring, the artists of the world are creating new vistas of tolerance and emancipation sometimes against odds that seem insurmountable. Yesterday (March 11th) I watched a live news feed from Latin America, as Gabriel Boric, the 36 year old newly elected president of Chile was sworn into office with his new cabinet, the majority of whom are women. He spoke from the balcony of La Moneda, at the presidential palace in Santiago. It is the same balcony that was bombed during a bloody fascist coup, orchestrated as yet another “regime change” by the U.S. in 1973, that overthrew the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Dr. Salvador Allende. 

In his address, President Boric proclaimed to Chileans that, “The world is watching us. The people and the world are watching us with interest. We have an opportunity to modestly contribute to the construction of a more just society. I am sure that we will live up to the democratic process that was decided by an immense majority of citizens. Let us replicate the result… the life we dream of can only be born of coexistence, dialog, democracy, collaboration and non-exclusion.”

He concluded with the last words spoken by Salvador Allende recorded moments before his death in La Moneda and released to a local radio station almost a half century ago. “The great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men and women to construct a better society.”

Another world is possible.

Whenever I visit a foreign city, I search out a street artist who normally does caricatures or charcoal portraits for tourists. My approach is always the same, I say to the artist: “I don’t want a portrait of myself, but I’m wondering if you would be good enough to spend the same amount of time that you usually take with one of your portraits and give me your impression of the streetscape before us?” Although not every artist agrees, usually I will find a taker. As you can see here, by way of this sketch of the Charles Bridge with the Presidential Palace looming in the background, I’ve seldom been disappointed!

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