Enduring Interest

James Pontuso on Václav Havel’s Audience, The Unveiling and Protest

July 12, 2021

In this episode I speak with James Pontuso, the Charles Patterson Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at Hampton Sydney College, about Václav Havel’s trilogy revolving around the remarkable character Ferdinand Vaněk.

We discuss Havel’s life as a playwright, dissident, and statesman and the immediate context in which these plays were written—the “normalization” regime in post-1968 Communist Czechoslovakia. Havel wrote the first play Audience in the summer of 1975 to amuse his friends during gatherings at his cottage in the country. Despite this modest beginning, not only would Havel go on to write two more plays about Vaněk, but three other authors would also make Vaněk a character in their one-act plays. Havel once picked up a hitchhiker, who, without knowing whose car he had entered, began quoting lines from Audience. The plays would go on to be performed in theaters around the world.

The character Vaněk is a writer who is known to have taken oppositional stances in his home country. He is often frustratingly shy and somewhat reticent to share his opinions. In each play he speaks much less often that his interlocutors do, who in each case need something from Vaněk. While Vaněk engages them awkwardly and at a distance, he does so with genuine sympathy—yet he also makes it clear there are certain lines he will not cross. Jim and I talk about the kind of moral responsibility that Vaněk seems to embody. We also discuss Havel’s plays more broadly and the tradition of absurdist theater. The plays are genuinely philosophical in their treatment of themes like friendship, virtue, and responsibility. They are also by turns very funny and sad.

We hope you enjoy the episode. Be sure to check out Jim’s book Václav Havel: Civic Responsibility in the Postmodern Age. And Theater 61 Press has a very nice edition of the trilogy called The Vaněk Plays.

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