Vaclav Havel: Artist. Dissident. President. Icon

He was the playwright whose work was banned by the Communists. He was the leader of the revolution that drove them from power. He was the President who was courted by rock stars and royalty. Now Vaclav Havel's role in bringing freedom to Czechoslovakia is celebrated in Tom Stoppard's extraordinary new play. John Walsh meets a living legend
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The Independent Online

It's a hot summer evening in Chelsea, and upstairs at the Royal Court, a reception is under way. On the balcony of this slightly flyblown theatre - home of British radical drama in the Sixties - philanthropists, corporate sponsors, arts administrators and famous TV faces nibble chicken bits on toast and sip champagne in the cool breeze above the Sloane Square traffic. Richard and Ruth Rogers, Alan Yentob and Harold Pinter hang out beside Tony Elliott, the Time Out founder, and Jane Ashley, heir to the Laura Ashley empire.

It's a communion between the Human Rights Watch organisation, dedicated to documenting rights abuses in countries from Burma to Bangladesh (and holding "advocacy" meetings with government ministers therefrom), and their financial sponsors. On this warm night they're getting together for a stage event called Cries from the Heart 2006, the fourth annual "celebration of voices for justice", in which two dozen performers, some of dizzy-making eminence, read testimonials, poems and prose pieces from the officially voiceless shadowlands of the imprisoned, kidnapped and interrogated worldwide. It's a potentially harrowing evening, made bearable and even triumphant by the sophistication of the performers; having Brian Cox and Janet Suzman emoting at you is more guaranteed to raise your consciousness about Uzbekistan than reading a dozen editorials.

In the midst of this throng, however, all eyes are on two figures being snapped by photographers. They are a curious pair. One is tall, rumpled and hirsute, his presence and gestures some way larger than life. The other is small, tidy, Brylcreemed and modest in his movements, like a retired bank manager reluctantly rising to speak at a wedding. Beside the expansive, bouncily oratorical Oliver Hardy that is Sir Tom Stoppard, OM, CBE, Vaclav Havel is a shy, nervous-seeming Stan Laurel. There's no doubt at all, however, of just who is the star of the show tonight. Even as he introduces Havel with the words "...former jailbird, President of the Czech Republic..." Stoppard exudes deference towards his fellow countryman, fellow playwright and friend of 30 years. He himself is a major writer who can chronicle, better than anyone, the transformation of Czechoslovakia from a satellite state of the Soviet Union to a working democracy, and can celebrate the career of Havel as dissident, intellectual, anti-autocratic free-thinker and soul of the people. But Havel lived it, endured imprisonment for it, embodied the historic struggle of his country. To paraphrase Whitman: he was the man; he suffered; he was there.

Havel was also there (physically and dramatically) at the Royal Court on Wednesday night, when Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, dedicated to the former President, directed by Trevor Nunn and charting 22 years of Czech history, had its press night. The atmosphere inside and outside the Court was extraordinary - charged, expectant, electric, hyperadrenalinated. Partly this was explained by the presence of rock-star glamour (Mick Jagger and L'Wren Scott, and David and Polly Gilmour were in the stalls) and a strangely random convocation of famous faces. Havel was seated beside Raine Spencer in a Lady Tottington hairdo; I found myself next to Kim Cattrall, who played the man-eating Samantha in Sex and the City (dear God, the rigours of research one has to undergo). But mostly it was explained by the Havel-Stoppard combination, as if their joint attendance has infected London's drama-loving masses like a virus of libertarian joy, as if Sloane Square had briefly turned into Wenceslas Square c1968, and we were celebrating an unexpected impulse of revolution. I'm not sure if people were smoking joints or reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being on the theatre steps in the late evening sunlight; it certainly felt like they were.

When I met Havel on Sunday at a small table covered in Sol beer bottles, surrounded by Paul, his Canadian translator, Jakub, his secretary and Tom Stoppard, his biggest fan, he seemed an unusual candidate for the role of global statesman (since his tenure as first President of the Czech Republic ended in February 2003) and saint. Did he feel a personal responsibility for drawing the world's attention to human rights abominations?

"I have to say that I've always spoken out for human rights and justice and against un-freedom," he said. "I did so long before I was President, then when I was in office, and I continue to do so now that I'm no longer President. It's something to do with my nature, not with the fact that I was President of my country for a time. And as far as my 'saint' status is concerned, my becoming a well-known, positive hero - that's something I can be ironic or sceptical about, but I have to take a balanced view, and appreciate that people can see that an apparently hopeless cause can have a happy ending." He frowned, as if a teensy bit tired of Western sceptics. "The story may seem somewhat like a fairy tale, somewhat kitschy; you can laugh at it, but at the same time it wouldn't be entirely right to laugh at it. It's good when people admire such an outcome: it speaks well of their understanding of values."

So where, especially in the modern world, are the countries that most need their own Charter 77, their own people's revolution?

"To the extent that I'm able, I personally engage in the cause of human rights in countries like North Korea, Belarus, Burma, and Cuba, but that doesn't mean that my attention, or the attention of organisations like Human Rights Watch, should be focused exclusively on these four or five guilty countries, but rather on the whole world. Naturally, we are aware of the human rights abuses in China and we also know how often governments or international organisations tend to place economic interests above human rights and, for economic reasons, refrain from any criticism. That seems to me wrong, even suicidal."

He is amused by diplomatic attempts to have it both ways. "In 1990, I was the first head of state to invite the Dalai Lama for an official state visit. The Chinese ambassador approached various ministries, and no one wanted to receive him because they thought he was coming to protest [about] the Dalai Lama's visit. But on the contrary, his intention was to inform them that although there would be official protests, the Czechs were not to be misled by them, because normal economic relations would continue undisturbed."

Havel's Charter 77 was the most ringing endorsement of the rights of the individual since the American Declaration of Independence. But how did he respond to the apparent repudiation of human rights at Guantanamo Bay? And were the rights granted to terrorist suspects the same as anybody else's?

"On the one hand, you can understand that a way of fighting against terrorism must be found, and it will probably be necessary to choose harsher and more drastic measures than the ones we're accustomed to. On the other hand, I don't like at all what is happening at the Guantanamo base, even less so in that I'm a former prisoner myself."

Our Government has let it be known that they'd prefer to see the prison closed down. Were they to blame in not demanding a bit more loudly that something should be done? "It's hard to say. I'm not competent to advise the UK Government, or any other government, for that matter. But it seems to me that the fact that one holds political office should not prevent one from saying what one thinks. One perhaps uses more diplomatic language. I held office for fifteen years and my experience is that you can't speak the way you would if you were an independent intellectual, but that doesn't mean that one should lie, or not say what one thinks. So if Tony Blair thinks that what is happening at Guantanamo Bay is not good, and that it's located outside US territory so methods that would not be allowed in the US itself can be used, then he should say so."

How did a rationalist such as himself approach the concept of holy war? What did the intellectual peacemaker say to the dedicated jihadist with the waistcoat of explosives?

"I think that, along with the struggle against terrorism, you have to think about why people sympathise with the terrorists in the countries from which they come. Even though most of those people [in Muslim countries] aren't terrorists, they have a quiet sympathy for those terrorists, and you have to analyse why. And one of the reasons is the unconscious, superior behaviour of Euro-American civilisation. When President Bush says, 'We're going to export democracy,' it's insensitive. He should be speaking about solidarity with the tortured and the suffering people, and not about exporting his own political system. Solidarity with one's fellow humans has nothing to do with whether we are a superpower or not. It's a general, human affair, and that's what should be emphasised, not to go around saying that we're the strongest and therefore can dictate to the world."

Vaclav Havel was born in October 1936, to a well-to-do family of Prague entrepreneurs. His namesake grandfather Vaclav built the Lucerna Palace dancehall in Wenceslas Square. After the coup d'état in 1948, when Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet domination, the family's fortunes nosedived. The Havels were declared "class enemies", their wealth confiscated, and the children were denied state education beyond the nursery level. Vaclav worked as a lab technician by day and attended night classes. Denied access to anything that smacked of the artistic, he studied economics at a technical university. The theatre, though, was in his blood. He staged sketches while doing military service and, when turned down for drama school, worked as a stagehand. As the Prague Spring dawned, he turned to writing plays - The Garden Party, The Memorandum, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

But after Brezhnev sent in the tanks to crush Alexander Dubcek's brief Spring, his work was banned. Working in a brewery, he wrote essays and articles for samizdat publications. And he became involved with a local rock band, called The Plastic People of the Universe, formed just a month after the tanks invaded. His involvement with them changed his life, and the life of his nation.

They were a weird, unclassifiable bunch who started by playing cover versions of The Velvet Underground, The Fugs, The Doors, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, with added light shows and psychedelic grooviness. Contemporary photographs show a winsome quintet of long-haired visionaries wearing togas and looking incredibly silly. The government revoked their musical licence and wouldn't let them have state-owned instruments, but they kept going on the underground circuit, and a whole movement grew up around them. Havel met them in September 1976, when the band went on trial for "Organised disturbance of the Peace", and became their champion. He let them hold concerts at his house and his farm - and more crucially he helped to found a human rights organisation around them, with a statement of principles. It was called Charter 77, and its reverberations were felt in the fall of Communism right across Europe 12 years later.

Havel wrote, in his seminal essay, The Power of the Powerless, how his world of "post-totalitarian" sterility and ennui was shaken up by the trial of the Plastic People. "Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together; it was an attack on the very notion of 'living within the truth', on the real aims of life. The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, to express and defend the social and political interests of society."

I asked him about the band. What were they like? Apart from their symbolic function, were they actually any good?

"I think they were a good band," said Havel. "Unlike other rock bands, they has a very special mystical, magical flavour, a very Prague flavour. It was partly to do with the texts of Egon Bondy, and also with the figure of Milan Hlavsa [the founder, bass-player and composer, who died six years ago]. The fact that the Plastic People became the subject of a famous story [that is, their arrest, and becoming a cause célèbre] is another matter, but they couldn't have become the centre of that story without being an interesting band in their own right."

Who was this chap Bondy, whose lyrics were so important to them? "Bondy is, above all, a remarkable eccentric. He's been a part of our scene for 60 years. He was a Maoist, a Trotskyist, an emigrant, a police informer - a phenomenon unto himself. The important thing is that the texts of his that the Plastics chose, and Hlavsa's musicality, led to the creation of a special sound. They had a great impact. When I hear rock bands today, I can hear the influence of the Plastic People."

Rock 'n' Roll is dedicated to Havel and charts the course of Czech history from 1968 to 1990, when the Velvet Revolution had unseated the Communist Husak from power, and Havel had been installed as the first President of Czechoslovakia (before the nation bifurcated into Slovakia and the Czech Republic). The main character, Jan, is a Czech emigrant and Cambridge student, an idealist who returns to Prague but distrusts the "moral exhibitionism" of his more politically engaged peers, like his friend Ferdinand, who is always coming round looking for signatures to petitions for reform; Jan is keener on his record collection. He needs to learn that even supposedly neutral music is a political statement - one that's more disconcerting than dissent to an autocratic power - and the political importance of making personal choices, of "living within the truth". By Act Two, Jan has grown into a world-weary sceptic, spouting Havel-ish lines about the "mass-produced banality" and "pseudo-history" of post-1968 Czechoslovakia.

Not very surprisingly, Havel liked Rock 'n' Roll a lot. Had he identified with Ferdinand, or would he admit to having had moments like Jan, for whom rock music was enough? "It's a very sophisticated play," he said evasively, "that uses paraphrases or direct quotations from various authors, but they are distributed that no single character can be identified with any living person. Ferda in the play [can't] be identified with me, or with any other existing figure. What's important are the arguments that are batted back and forth among the characters."

In the play, Stoppard offers a nice riff about compromise - how, if you do a single, tiny thing to placate the authorities, it will be followed by another tiny compromise, then another, and you will wind up wholly under their control. Havel brings up the name of Ivan Jirous, an art historian and cultural theoretician, who became the Plastic People's manager and "artistic director" - Warhol to their Velvet Underground. "It was Jirous who taught them, among other things, that if you start cutting your hair to please the regime, it's the beginning of the end." He explained how the band had asked him, in 1988, if they thought they should change their name to Pulnoc ("Midnight") in order to be allowed to travel to the US for the first time. Havel told them he thought it a harmless compromise. Years later he met Jiri Kabes, the viola player, at a wedding and was furiously upbraided for "permitting" them to change their name (it had led to the band's final bust-up.) Was it all his fault?

"I told them the decision was theirs," he said, smiling modestly. "I am not God."

This will be news to some people. After the Velvet Revolution, graffiti went up all over the city proclaiming, Havel je kril - "Havel is King". The former contrarian became a reclusive figure, ensconced in Hradcany castle overlooking the Charles river and dominating the skyline. He dined with popes and princes - and of course rock stars. When I was in Prague in 1994 for the Pink Floyd gig at the Strahov Stadium, Nick Mason the drummer boasted: "Oh yeah, usual rock band behaviour - drive into town, do sound check, have dinner with the President..." When the Rolling Stones were on their world tour a year earlier, Mick and Keith came to say hello at the castle. Havel showed them around and discovered that the grand chandeliers in the ancient Spanish Hall were on the blink. No problem - the Glimmer Twins had a word with their roadies and paid for some new ones to be bought and installed.

Havel is now 69, retired as a politician but energetically active as a statesman. Once a chain smoker, his health isn't particularly great (he was diagnosed with cancer and had half a lung removed 10 years ago) but he is indefatigable - and there's more than a vestigial touch of hippie idealism about him -- in promoting "peaceful coexistence" and "what is at the root of all cultures, and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion - self-transcendence... a hand that reaches out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe."

I wondered if now was the time for him to write about a long-term dissident thinker who unexpectedly becomes the most powerful man in his country, takes the reins of power for a dozen years then has to give it up and assess how he feels? A kind of Czech King Lear...

Yes, he'd though about it a lot. "Such a play, such a King Lear, has been on my mind for many years, even before I was in power, and before I left office. I even had the play half written in the mid-1980s, when the main character was a dissident. And now, after all those experiences, I would like to come back to it again. It's connected, not just with King Lear, but also, somewhat, in its themes, to Endgame, by Beckett, and The Cherry Orchard, by Chekhov: someone loses his function, his raison d'etre and his world starts to fall apart; he has to leave his game, or a private developer comes and cuts down his orchard. That's the kind of thing that's been on my mind, and as soon as I have time, I'm going to sit down and write it."

Someone should nip round to the Royal Court and inform Trevor Nunn without delay.