Václav Havel, The Vaněk Plays: Audience, Vernisáž (Unveiling), Protest

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Mary Orsak (Yale University) ; Karen von Kunes (Yale University)

The trilogy of one-act plays by Václav Havel, Audience, Vernisáž [Unveiling] and Protest (the first two written in 1975 and the third in 1978), are often known as the Vaněk plays (“vaňkovky” in Czech) because they are connected through the character Ferdinand Vaněk, whose biography closely resembles the author’s: a former playwright prohibited from publicly staging his plays and resigned to working in a brewery. Havel initially wrote Audience and Unveiling to amuse his friends, but they were among his most successful both domestically and internationally. While the character of Vaněk links the trilogy into one series, Protest emerged from a radically different political reality in Czechoslovakia, with a dramatic increase of dissident activity in the later 1970s, in which Havel played a central role. The tension between the public dissident Vaněk and private citizens under Communism, who wrestle with the ethics of their participation in the state structure they abhor, is one of the trilogy’s central themes.

Although the Vaněk plays explore the repressive period of the 1970s in which many artists shared a sense of disillusionment and defeatism, the interpretation of Havel’s work as purely political neglects his contribution to the movement of the Theatre of the Absurd. Havel began his career in the theatre as a stagehand for Divadlo ABC [Theatre ABC] and later in various roles for Divadlo Na zábradlí [Theatre on the Balustrade]. In the following years, Havel wrote several successful plays, including the 1963 Zahradní slavnost [The Garden Party] and the 1965 Vyrozumění [The Memorandum]. His formal experimentation and his meditations on existentialism aligned him with his Western contemporaries such as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. The relative liberalism of this period of de-Stalinization in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR) afforded Havel the liberty of staging these plays at the Theatre on the Balustrade. However, the Prague Spring, during which Alexander Dubček initiated a period of reform and liberalization, prompted the brutal retaliation of the Soviet Union with the Warsaw Pact Invasion on August 21, 1968.

In April 1969, Gustav Husák became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) and introduced a period of political “normalization” (normalizace), which reversed Dubček’s liberal reforms. Ivan Jirous, the artistic director of the Czech rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, and a friend of Havel, described the period of normalization as “a rather dead period as far as our collective activities were concerned; a time of muteness and hangover as far as the official cultural situation was concerned” (Jirous 25). The Communist Party censorship banned the publication and staging of Havel’s plays, which prompted a period of creative ennui for the playwright. During this period of “muteness”, Havel found work in a brewery, Pivovar Krakonoš in Trutnov. In the book-long interview with Karel Hvížďala, Dálkový výslech (published in English translation as Disturbing the Peace), Havel admits that although he claimed to work at the brewery for “financial reasons”, he truly needed a change: “The suffocating inactivity all around me was beginning to get on my nerves. I wanted to get out of my shelter for a while and take a look around, be among different people” (Disturbing the Peace 122).

In 1975, after several months of working in Pivovar Krakonoš, Havel was inspired to write his first Vaněk play, Audience, which he penned in a matter of days to amuse his friends during a visit to his summer home in Hrádeček. In the same year, he wrote the second play, Unveiling, and the following year witnessed the unofficial staging of Audience by the director Andrej Krob in Havel’s barn at Hrádeček, in which Havel himself starred as Vaněk. In March of 1976, the Czech émigré film director Vojtěch Jasný officially staged the first two Vaněk plays in Vienna’s Burgtheater, which marked the start of the period during which Havel’s plays exclusively premiered abroad. Havel pivoted away from the existentialist Theatre of the Absurd toward politics after the arrest in 1976 of nineteen musicians from The Plastic People of the Universe and other underground rock groups. These arrests, which Havel deemed as “an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity”, galvanized the dramatist to organize a campaign to free the musicians (Disturbing the Peace 128). A petition penned by Havel and several other dissidents began to circulate, and the more than seventy signatories became the central core of Charter 77, a manifesto that condemned the state for its failure to implement human rights provisions. Havel’s political activism inspired his third and last Vaněk play, Protest (1978).

As was the case with Havel’s contemporary and compatriot Milan Kundera, the fact that he was banned from publishing in Czechoslovakia makes the publication history of his works rather complex. Despite Havel’s inability to stage the plays in Czechoslovak theatres, samizdat copies circulated widely among Czech readers, beginning in 1975 with Audience and Unveiling. These two plays first appeared in print in Czech in 1977 in the Toronto publishing house 68 Publishers run by Czech expatriates Josef Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová. Protest was circulated in samizdat soon after it was completed in 1978, but only received an official publication in Czech in 1992, in a collection of Havel’s plays. The series has been published together and separately in English in various editions from different British and American translators, beginning with George Theiner’s 1976 version of Audience (under the title Conversation) in Index of Censorship. Unveiling has also been published under the title Private View. The trilogy appeared together in English in 1987, with translations by Jan Novák and Vera Blackwell. Most recently, in 2012 New York’s Theater 61 published a collection of Havel’s works that included a new edition of the Vaněk series, with the addition of a previously unpublished sequel to Unveiling called Dozens of Cousins, this time all translated by Novák. These multiple translations illustrate Havel's lasting popularity in the West over several decades.

The Czech novelist and dramatist Pavel Kohout described Vaněk as Havel’s “fictional twin brother” (qtd. in Goetz-Stankiewicz xxvii). Havel stressed that the “Vaněk” plays are not autobiographical; however, scholars and readers alike have noted the similarities between the two. In many ways, the biographies of Havel and Vaněk align: The Communist Party censorship has banned the former dramatist Ferdinand Vaněk from staging his plays—about which Havel does not elaborate—and thus, Vaněk, like Havel, finds work in a brewery where he rolls barrels of ale. Despite these parallels with Havel’s actual biography, Vaněk reveals little about his own life. An antipode to Jaroslav Hašek’s Švejk, who liberally shares his colorful stories, Vaněk retreats from the empty and censored language emblematic of the period of “normalization”. Instead, Vaněk appears as an anti-character, whose frequent silences and concise statements provide space for his interlocutors to dominate the conversation. The German actor Joachim Bissmeier, who starred in the role of Vaněk in all three of Havel’s plays, described the character as “the catalyst, it is the others who bring the problems” (qtd. in Goetz-Stankiewicz xx). Vaněk’s lack of a stable identity throughout Havel’s three plays is shown by the fact that in Unveiling, Havel names the Vaněk-like character Bedřich (in the English translations he is referred to as Ferdinand in both works). The three plays—Audience, Unveiling, and Protest—mirror the style of Plato’s dialogues, in which Vaněk/Bedřich prompts his interlocutors to expound upon their philosophies for coping with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the Communist Party.

As evidence of these plays’ success within Czechoslovakia, Havel shared an anecdote that a hitchhiker, who failed to recognize Havel as the driver, quoted Audience to the author (Disturbing the Peace 123-4). Whether this anecdote is true or not, further evidence of Vaněk’s cultural resonance may be found in the fact that three contemporaries of Havel co-opted the character for their own plays. Pavel Kohout’s Permit (1979) and Morass (1981), Pavel Landovský’s Arrest (1983) and Jiří Dienstbier’s Reception (1983) each continued the Vaněk narrative. In Kohout’s plays, Vaněk confronts the bureaucracy to obtain a dog license and a driver’s license, while in Landovský’s and Dienstbier’s, Vaněk returns to prison, thus completing the cycle that began in Havel’s Audience with Vaněk’s release from prison.

Audience features an unnamed brewmaster (“Sládek” in Czech), who at first converses pleasantly with Vaněk about his new job and their colorful coworkers. However, over the course of the conversation, during which the brewmaster consumes fifteen glasses of beer, he reveals his frustration with the new regime and its consequent culture of paranoia—in grammatically incorrect and incoherent vernacular that both underscores the class divide between the brewmaster and Vaněk, as well as his increasing intoxication. Another victim of the oppressive bureaucracy, the brewmaster timidly reveals that he could have run a brewery in Pardubice, but a rumor that he had stolen five hundred barrels of surplus lager constrains him to his current, unfulfilling job. In the climax of the play, the brewmaster divulges that his friend employed by State Security (Státní bezpečnost) has enlisted him to provide weekly reports on the dissident Vaněk, and in an attempt to placate State Security, the brewmaster tries to convince Vaněk to secretly write these weekly reports himself in return for an office job. However, Vaněk, exemplifying Havel’s philosophy of “living in truth,” rejects this quid pro quo “as a matter of principle” (Audience 23). The infuriated brewmaster inveighs against the intellectual Vaněk and his ilk, whom he deems the “VIPs.” Because of their status as threats to the state, these “VIPs” matter to the faceless bureaucracy, and their principles, which have cemented their celebrity status, protect them and even sustain them. On the other hand, the brewmaster, without the privileges afforded by the “VIP dissident” status, has no ability to live by his principles and must make Faustian deals with the unjust state to survive.

Unveiling explores a different coping mechanism: resignation to the private bourgeois domestic lifestyle. Bedřich—a substitute or, perhaps, alter ego of Vaněk—attends a private “unveiling” of his friends’ newly decorated apartment. In this parody of an opening night at a theater or gallery, Věra and Michal provide a detailed tour of the antiques acquired to adorn their home: a Turkish scimitar, a Baroque sexton, a Gothic Madonna, etc. Věra and Michal tempt Bedřich (Ferdinand)/Vaněk with the spoils from their recent trip abroad to Switzerland including sauteed groombles and new music records. Extolling the joys of their domestic bliss, Věra and Michal attempt to persuade Bedřich to abandon his principles and his dissident group of friends in order to enjoy the privileges afforded to those who tacitly comply with the new regime. With each rebuff by the unyielding Bedřich, Věra and Michal grow more eager to exhibit their bliss and to persuade him to adopt their lifestyle. Like in Audience, Havel only reveals the rationale behind Věra and Michal’s philosophy at the end of the one-act play. An exasperated Michal exclaims: “The world doesn’t give a damn about us and nobody’s coming to our rescue—we’re in a nasty predicament, and it will get worse and worse—and you are not going to change any of it!” (Unveiling 46). Věra and Michal exemplify the resignation and complacency prevalent during the period of “normalization.” Without any recourse for political change, the couple retreats to the domestic sphere, but this focus on bourgeois family life proves unfulfilling for Věra and Michal, who can only find gratification through validation from Bedřich. During the play, Věra and Michal reveal that their mental state is shattered: they invite Bedřich to join the sauna because of its healing effects on their mental anguish. After the altercation becomes violent and Věra hurls a bouquet at Bedřich while crying “I hate you,” the accommodating Bedřich quietly returns the bouquet to the vase, and the record plays a popular melody until the last member of the audience leaves (Unveiling 48). Evoking the Theatre of the Absurd, this endless repetition stresses the absurd cyclicality of life under totalitarianism.

With its explicitly political tone, the third and final Vaněk play, Protest, offers a fictional account of the 1976 arrest of members of the band The Plastic People of the Universe and of other underground rock groups. At the start of the play, Vaněk arrives at the house of the film and TV producer Staněk, who has summoned him to discuss the recent arrest of his daughter’s partner Javůrek. The police arrested the pop singer Javůrek ostensibly for “telling a story during one of his performances…the story about the cop who meets a penguin in the street”, but Staněk believes that Javůrek’s music provoked the arrest (Protest 62). Staněk admits to Vaněk that his private interventions on behalf of Javůrek have thus far failed, and he suggests that Vaněk and his “dissident” friends circulate a protest or petition. To Staněk’s surprise, Vaněk has already written such a document, which Vaněk then presents to Staněk in the hopes of obtaining his signature. As mentioned above, the arrest of a pop singer and the subsequent publication of a protest directly mirrors the 1976 arrest of several members of prominent rock groups, such as The Plastic People of the Universe, and Havel’s intervention on their behalf. In Disturbing the Peace, Havel described these arrests as “an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality” (128-9). Moreover, the tension between the approaches of Vaněk and Staněk parallels Havel’s conflict with Jiří Němec, a philosopher and clinical psychologist. Havel endorsed a public campaign to garner wider support, while Němec considered “internal” interventions on behalf of the Plastics far more likely to succeed. However, Havel eventually convinced Němec to pursue an aggressive campaign that culminated in the public document, Charter 77, about violation of human rights by the Czechoslovak government, similar to the one mentioned in Protest.

In Protest, Havel explores with great compassion the two conflicting philosophies. Collaborating with the state in his film productions, Staněk has cultivated political connections, which allow him to influence politics from behind the scenes. To Staněk, publicly endorsing this petition to release Javůrek would jeopardize his ability to intervene privately in the future. Simultaneously, Staněk recognizes the need for public dissidents, like Vaněk: “It’s extremely important there should be at least a few people here who aren’t afraid to speak the truth aloud, to defend others, to call a spade a spade! What I’m going to say might sound a bit solemn perhaps, but frankly, the way I see it, you and your friends have taken on an almost superhuman task: to preserve and to carry the remains, the remnant of moral conscience through the present quagmire!” (Protest 59). Although at first Staněk felt compelled to add his signature to the petition, Staněk ultimately convinces himself with remarkable alacrity that signing the petition would cause more harm than good. In his typical non-confrontational and compassionate manner, Vaněk states that he respects Staněk’s reasoning, yet Staněk fears that Vaněk has cloaked his “feeling of moral superiority” behind the artifice of his benevolence. In an absurd turn of fate, Staněk receives a call that Javůrek has been released from prison. Thus, the Socratic dialogue that concludes with Staněk accusing Vaněk of informing on others while in prison has become moot.

Although his early plays were staged in the West before Husák-era “normalization”—for example, the Royal Shakespeare Company adapted The Garden Party in 1964—Havel only achieved celebrity status in the West after becoming a vocal “dissident”. After Havel’s arrest in January 1977 for his participation in Charter 77, the Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard spearheaded an effort to garner international attention and sympathy for Havel: the Orange Tree Theatre in London produced three of his plays, including Audience and Unveiling. In 1980, the National Theatre produced “A Havel Afternoon”, during which Protest was staged and the British playwright Harold Pinter read aloud Havel’s “Open Letter” to Husák (Walters). Pinter also acted in the BBC radio version of both Audience and Unveiling, and the popular sitcom actor Michael Crawford starred in the BBC television version of these two Vaněk plays (Woods 5). All of these productions not only reveal the immense popularity enjoyed by Havel in the West, but also emphasize how Cold War narratives contributed to Havel’s success, culminating in his leading role in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and his election as Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist President. In his play Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006), which portrays the interaction of British and Czech intellectuals between 1968 and 1989, Stoppard included a character named Ferdinand, originally intended to represent Havel as another “borrowing” of Vaněk, but who evolved in the final draft into an independent figure distinct from Havel’s viewpoints.

Havel exquisitely captures the existential dilemma faced by Czechs in the period of “normalization”. On the one hand, Vaněk embodies Havel’s concept of “living in truth” (The Power of the Powerless 40). Despite the numerous attempts of his friends and colleagues to reform his personal philosophy, Vaněk retains control over his own sense of responsibility and adheres to his values irrespective of the personal cost. On the other hand, Havel resists the desire of Western voyeurs who desperately seek a dissident hero to validate the Cold War division of the world. In line with the ideas expressed in Havel’s essay “Truth and Conscience”, Vaněk does not seek the audience’s pity or even respect, nor does Vaněk gratify the West’s insatiable desire for the “gory details” of life under a totalitarian regime. In response to Staněk’s questions about life in prison, Vaněk denies the assumptions that he was beaten, drugged, or tortured.

Instead of glorifying the dissident hero, Havel focuses on private citizens who struggle with “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power — the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans” (“Politics and Conscience”). This battle with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy—both ever-present and invisible—aligns Havel with the Theatre of the Absurd. Martin Esslin, who coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd” in 1960, described the Theatre of the Absurd as “a grotesquely heightened picture of their own world: a world without faith, meaning, and genuine freedom of will” (Esslin 6). While the Vaněk plays do not fully adhere to this trend in midcentury European theatre, Havel employed many of the stylistic devices central to the Theatre of the Absurd. Each play lacks a coherent plot, and the characters resemble archetypes rather than complex individuals. Clichés abound within the plays, as Vaněk’s interlocutors struggle to articulate their own reality with language. Most significantly, repetition and circularity define the Vaněk plays. The concept of the Theatre of the Absurd not only offers a framework through which to comprehend Havel’s plays, but it also contextualizes these plays within the broader European theatre tradition. While early Western critics lauded Havel’s plays for its insight into the Czechoslovak struggle with totalitarianism, Havel’s plays may be understood more broadly as an existentialist response to the modern world.

Works Cited

Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 4, no. 4, May 1960, pp. 3-15. JSTOR.
Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa, editor. The Vaněk plays: Four Authors, One Character. University of British Columbia Press, 1987.
Havel, Václav. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karen Hvížďala. Translated by Paul Wilson, Vintage Books, 1991.
---. Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. Edited by Paul Wilson, New York, Vintage Books, 1992.
---. “The Power of the Powerless.” Translated by Paul Wilson. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, edited by John Keane, London, Hutchinson, 1985.
---. Three Vaněk Plays: Audience, Protest, Unveiling. Translated by Jan Novak and Vera Blackwell, Faber and Faber, 1990.
Havel, Václav, and John Keane. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the State in Central-eastern Europe. New York, Routledge, 2015.
Jirous, Ivan Martin. “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival.” Views from the Inside: Czech Underground Literature and Culture (1948-1989), edited by Martin Machovec, Prague, Karolinum Press, 2018, pp. 7-36.
Walters, Sam. “Sam Walters On ... The Orange Tree & Vaclav Havel.” WhatsOnStage, 19 Dec. 2011, www.whatsonstage.com/west-end-theatre/news/sam-walters-on-the-orange-tree-and-vaclav-havel_5862.html.
Woods, Michelle. “Václav Havel and the Expedient Politics of Translation.” NTQ - New Theatre Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, 2010, pp. 3-15. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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Citation: Orsak, Mary, Karen von Kunes. "The Vaněk Plays: Audience, Vernisáž (Unveiling), Protest". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 August 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=40572, accessed 08 February 2023.]

40572 The Vaněk Plays: Audience, Vernisáž (Unveiling), Protest 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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