Written By: Vaclav Havel
Directed By: Martin Jago
Production Dates: October 31st - December 2nd, 2012
"In the Fall of 2012, Theatrum Elysium presented an ambitious production of one-act plays by former Czech president, and acclaimed playwright, Václav Havel. This trilogy centers on the author's fictional alter ego Ferdinand Vanek, who, like the late playwright-turned-statesman Havel, worked in a brewery before being jailed as a political dissident.
Known as Havel's most accessible work, this trilogy was written in the late 1960s after the Soviet clampdown in Czechoslovakia. They serve as a painfully honest documentation of the dehumanization that occurs under an oppressive government. Like the irrepressible Czech people, however, these plays contained a generous dose of ironic humor that kept things entertaining and served as a stark reminder of the importance of art within social commentary.
Theatrum Elysium was proud to partner with two prestigious cultural institutions during this production, The Wende Museum of Cold War artifacts and The Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles. Our friends brought us even further into the brilliant storytelling of director Martin Jago and his cast."
NOTES FROM THE DIRECTOR
The eponymous hero of these plays in drawn directly from experiences in Havel’s own life as a writer and political dissident. From time he spent working in a brewery (the only job available to him during the period) to the moral courage of a man who refused to accept conditions imposed on society by the communist regime of the 1970s Czechoslovakia (and of course, the heavy price that such a man would pay for his opposition).
Under the communist regime, Havel spent much of his adult life subjected to around the clock surveillance and in constant fear of arrest and imprisonment. It was a world where agents of the state were as likely to be snapping your photograph from across the street as they were masquerading as friends, partners and in some cases, even as husbands and wives.
In the years that followed the Velvet Revolution of 1989 the joy at the birth of a new democracy was tempered by ghosts of the past. The names of those who had been spied on and those who had done the spying revealed the extent of betrayal that had permeated society from the office or factory to the inner sanctum of family life.
The moral wrongs and rights might seem to us clear cut, yet the true craft of Havel’s plays is that he never addresses the issues in black and white. Instead, he presents the relationship between individual and state as a complex web, nuanced and layered, just as it is in real life.
In doing so, Havel leads us to understand the motives behind behaviour that is morally objectionable while showing the enormous pressures to comply that everyday people faced.
With one foot in Absurdism and the other in astute political observation, Havel takes us on a journey with Vanek as our moral compass. It is Vanek who provides the bearings from which we begin to understand those who surround him. We follow his course intellectually (and literally in this production) as we travel with Vanek from the brewery to the middle class comfort of suburban life, before finally arriving at the cottage retreat of the intellectual class, home of Vanek’s fellow writer, Stanek.
The shifting sands of friendship against a tide and culture of pervasive mistrust is never far away. Neither is the feeling that no matter where we travel in this world, we are being watched.
In such a climate, to stand as Vanek does, steadfast and principled without ever knowing if his opposition would ultimately be little more than a futile protest or whether his stand could affect real change is the kind of heroism that resonated deeply within Czech life and culture.
Vanek became a hero, a symbol of moral integrity, a new national personification. Other Vanek plays began to emerge, penned not by Havel but by Czech contemporaries, writers like Pavel Landovsky, Pavel Kohout and Jiri Dienstbier.
Further afield, Tom Stoppard (who was born in Czechoslovakia) introduces the character Ferda, based on Ferdinand Vanek from the Vanek Trilogy in his 2006 play, Rock ‘n’ Roll.
However, The Vanek Trilogy is not just a series of plays about the past but one that speaks of contemporary political life too, and in the midst of the current election season, this production is, I believe, all the more timely.
The ability of politicians to talk and talk without actually saying anything, the scare-mongering, sound bites, sloganeering and negative advertising all take a toll on the democratic process.
The hope among the candidates is that they can convince the working man, the middle classes and the well-heeled that they will all get something out the deal, even when the substance of what they are getting, remains out of sight, and may in fact never reveal itself.
What does this process say about the relationship between the individual and state today?
And to what extent does the disparity between the promise of what we will get and the reality, affect our investment in the process?
Perhaps it is this disparity between ideas and reality, between promises and substance that accounts for the high degree of voter apathy and a feeling among many of political disenfranchisement; a belief that when all is said and done, politicians are all the same.
The Michaels and Veras of this world are as much a part of 21st century America as they were a part of Vanek’s Czechoslovakia and are quite self-obsessed enough with their private world of gadgets and collectibles to bury their heads in the sand and wait for all the political kerfuffle to pass them by.
Similarly, the Staneks and brewery Foremans of today staunchly defend their positions, voicing moral objections and indignations at the opposition from their entrenched camps. But where, I ask you, are all the Vaneks? Where are those rare individuals who can unite a nation, bring people together in the name of a common cause or embrace a political landscape from both sides of the divide?
Does Vanek have a place in our society anymore or are the economic woes of America in 2012 simply too deep to recover from partisan politics?