In plays or politics, Havel always stood for freedom

Vaclav Havel.

By JERRY TALLMER  |  It was, of course, Joseph Papp who introduced Vaclav Havel to the United States of America, and vice versa.

The year was that terrible one all over the world, 1968 — here, Paris, Prague, Chicago, Beijing, everywhere — and the play, translated by Vera Blackwell, was poet-politician Havel’s “The Memorandum,” in a bang-up production directed by Papp himself at the Public Theater right here on Lafayette Street.

Ir was a drama rooted in the nightmare no-man’s land of Prague’s own Franz Kafka, and revolved around the problems of a certain middle-level civil servant named Josef Gross as he grappled with an anonymous, depersonalized memorandum from on high in a new (and insane) officialese language called Ptydepe.Josef Gross was played by Paul Stevens. His hectic secretary was Mari Corman. Others in a top-flight Off Broadway cast included George Bartenieff, Sudi Bond, Raul Julia, Olympia Dukakis. The show ran that spring from May into June.

The next year, repeated political prisoner Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. He would serve that term, from 1989 to 1992, and then, when Slovakia broke away on its own, would be re-elected to the presidency of the Czech Republic, 1993-2003.

But he never stopped writing plays, essays and other works of high intelligence and artistry, always on the side of individual freedom in a world — a universe — that was not so free  A close ally in all this was Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard. In 1986, another man of high imagination, MacArthur Award winner Richard Foreman put his directorial hand and eye to bringing Havel back to the Public Theater with “Largo Desolato.”

Vaclav Havel, born October 5, 1936, a reformed heavy smoker, died this past Sunday, December 18, 2011, age 75.

He was often in America, whether as president, ex-president, playwright or general intelligence. I covered an event at Trinity Church a few years ago in which he and Rudolph Giuliani were honored for past braveries, the New Yorker during 9/11, the Czech president-playwright for his whole life.

Havel during part of 2006 was a visiting playwright in residence at Columbia University. One beautiful day that year, he and another ex-president, a fellow named Bill Clinton, packed an auditorium of a thousand students and many faculty members as they — Havel and Clinton — kicked the gong around.

Here is a bit of what Vaclav Havel said from that stage that day: “It seems I am always a pioneer. I go where no one has gone before. Now I’m the pioneer of ex-Czech presidents, [whereas] the United States is full of ex-presidents.

“This gives me a certain creative inspiration. People want to know how to address me. Mr. President? Mr. Ex-President? Mr. Former President? Mr. Havel? I’m waiting for someone to say: Mr. Former Havel?”

Take a memorandum to that effect.

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