Yesterday, the first President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, died. He was 75. Havel was also first, a Playwright, and that distinction is important and intimate as he led and saved a new nation.
His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took just weeks to complete, without a single shot fired.
He was chosen as post-Communist Czechoslovakia’s first president — a role he insisted was more duty than aspiration — and after the country split in January 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic. He linked the country firmly to the West, clearing the way for the Czech Republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union five years later.
While I was in graduate school studying for my MFA in Playwriting, the crisis in Czechoslovakia was rising and Havel, a Playwright, was at the center of the revolution. Havel was a hot topic in class and at the theatre and in any informal discussions we shared as a class. He was our hero because he rose above the social limits of a theatrical career. He was one of us.
The important point of Havel’s example was that a trained artist could lead a nation. He inspired his people, and us, with a gentle intelligence and wicked wit. Havel proved that words were more powerful than swords and he lifted up our ploughshare hopes and heartfelt aspirations that the world could be changed through Art and that Artists can have influence and viability beyond the the realm of mere entertainment.
I can’t say 20 years later, that Havel’s Presidency proved to be more than a one-off in the realm of fantastical things in a life that make the rest of us wonder — but the fact that he existed, that his life was lived as a pathway to brightness through a tested and verifiable aesthetic — is enough of a clarion call to succor a hundred generations of Playwrights who will choose to formally train and actively produce and precisely perform the truth as they know it first on the intimate stage of the human condition before daring to ask the rest of society to follow them up the hill and down into the river valley below.