Václav Havel

Updated
30 Nov 2016

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Václav Havel at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, May 26, 2010. Photo by Karl Seifert.

"Every decent play is about leaving."

Václav Havel (1936–2011) was a renowned playwright and political activist who became president of the Czech Republic in 1990, the country's first noncommunist leader since 1948. He was a prominent participant in the liberal reforms of 1968, and, after the Soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia, his plays were banned. He continued to write plays that explored the self-delusions and moral compromises that characterize life under a totalitarian system. In 1977, he and more than 200 other dissidents founded the human-rights movement Charter 77, which established itself as a leading opposition force. The following year, he wrote a seminal essay, "The Power of the Powerless," in which he described Czechoslovakia's post-1968 "normalization" regime as morally bankrupt and dishonest. In 1979, he was sentenced to a five-year prison term and his Letters to Olga, philosophical essays written from prison and addressed to his wife, quickly became a classic of anti-totalitarian literature. As Czech president from 1990 to 2003, he gained a reputation as a leader who prioritized human rights in his own nation and worldwide.

Havel premiered a new play, Leaving, in 2010; the play made its American debut at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater in May 2010, a production funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. On May 26, 2010, Havel visited the Wilma to see Leaving and to participate in a live interview with Tom Sellar, editor of Theater magazine, organized by the Center and The Wilma Theater. An audience of over 200 people packed the theater's space to hear the former President speak about his political career and its influence on his work, as well as his reflections on power, contemporary theater, and the freedom of writing for the stage. Havel passed away in 2011.