Why don't more British theatres put on Václav Havel's plays?

The late Czech dramatist was a hero, but his work is neglected

The death of Václav Havel is a loss to the world of a man of great moral integrity. His activities as a dissident, his essays, his bravery and ultimately his political career, have overshadowed his enormous talents as a playwright.

His first three major plays, The Garden Party, The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, were produced in the years of the Prague Spring, but from the Russian invasion of 1968 onwards he was a banned writer, unperformed in his own country and excluded from any rehearsal process. It is amazing that during the 1970 and 80s, while labouring under restrictions on his freedom, he continued to produce first-class work.

His work in the 1970s culminated in the three one-act "Vanek" plays, with a dissident protagonist at their centre.

But then, on 1 January 1977, Charter 77 burst into the world with Havel as its leading spokesman and, of course, more restrictions followed. In 1979 he was given a four-year prison sentence. In prison he wrote letters to his wife, later published as Letters to Olga; the plays Largo Desolato and Temptation followed his release. His final major play before he found himself thrust into the leadership of his country was Redevelopment in 1987.

In the years before 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall and the upheaval in Eastern Europe led to the Czech Velvet Revolution and Havel's elevation to the presidency of his country, he had begun work on a new play. It took some of its themes from King Lear and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and its subject matter – a leader leaving office – became more pertinent when he returned to the work after ceasing to be President. Leaving received its premiere in Prague in the spring of 2008 and its first production outside the Czech Republic was at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond in September 2008.

In Britain we are still guilty of a certain isolationism towards plays from abroad. This, of course, is partly because we are fortunate in producing a great number of talented homegrown writers. The Orange Tree Theatre, which has had a relationship with Havel and his work over four decades and produced eleven of Havel's plays, initially began that relationship by chance. It was the publication of Audience, the first of the "Vanek" plays, in the magazine Index on Censorship that first caught my attention. The discovery that there was a companion piece, Private View, led to our scheduling a double bill at the beginning of 1977. When Charter 77 then appeared, we found we were presenting plays by the man who had suddenly become the best-known living playwright in the world. We decided to follow the double bill with The Memorandum; we created a documentary called A Faraway Country and, having collected the signatures of our audience on a petition, and with Tom Stoppard at our head, we marched on the Czech Embassy to protest at the treatment of our beleaguered playwright and his colleagues.

The Orange Tree's involvement with Havel, his work and the politics of Czechoslovakia has been the highlight of the theatre's 40-year existence.

But why are we virtually alone in championing his work? Are Havel's plays primarily of interest because of his political life? Politicians talking about him at this time of his death are unlikely to know his plays. Will those who do not know them assume them to be heavy, political and Eastern European, whatever that may mean?

The answer is that regardless of his political stature, he is a major playwright. Although in the late 1960s The Memorandum, his masterpiece, was produced on BBC television, he is now unjustly neglected in this country.

His plays are funny, pertinent, wise and enormously theatrical.


Sam Walters is director of the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor