[Viewpoint] Vaclav Havel: Politics and theater

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[Viewpoint] Vaclav Havel: Politics and theater

In March 1997, while serving as president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel - who died on Dec. 18 - offered the following assessment of the intersection of politics and playwriting in his life.

I recently read an article entitled “Politics as Theater,” a critique of all that I have tried to do in politics. It argued that in politics, there is no place for a realm as superfluous as theater. To be sure, in the early months of my presidency, some of my ideas demonstrated more theatrical flair than political foresight. But the author erred in one fundamental issue: he misunderstood both the meaning of theater and a crucial dimension of politics.

Aristotle once wrote that every drama or tragedy requires a beginning, a middle and an end, with antecedent following precedent. The world, experienced as a structured environment, includes Aristotle’s inherent dramatic dimension, and theater is an expression of our desire for a concise way of grasping this essential element. A play of no more than two hours always presents, or is meant to present, a picture of the world and an attempt to say something about it.

One definition of politics holds that it is the conduct, concern for and administration of public affairs. Obviously, concern for public affairs means concern for humanity and the world, which requires a recognition of humanity’s self-awareness in the world. I do not see how a politician can achieve this without recognizing drama as an inherent aspect of the world as seen by human beings, and thus as a fundamental tool of human communication.

Politics without a beginning, a middle and an end, without exposition and catharsis, without gradation and suggestiveness, without the transcendence that develops a real drama, with real people, into a testimony about the world is a neutered, one-legged, toothless politics.

I am not always successful in practicing what I preach, but I work for a politics that knows that it matters what comes first and what follows, a politics that acknowledges that all things have a proper sequence and order. Above all, it is a politics that realizes that citizens - without theorizing, as I am now - know perfectly well whether political actions have direction, structure, a logic in time and space, or whether they lack these qualities and are merely haphazard responses to circumstances.

On a limited stage, within limited time, and with limited figures or props, theater says something about the world, about history, about human existence. It explores the world in order to influence it. Theater is always both symbol and abbreviation. In theater, the wealth and complexity of being are compressed into a simplified code that attempts to extract what is most essential from the substance of the universe and to convey this to its audience. This, in fact, is what thinking creatures do every day. Theater is simply one of the many ways of expressing the human ability to generalize and comprehend the invisible order of things.

Theater, too, possesses a special ability to allude to and convey multiple meanings. Action shown on stage always radiates a broader message, without necessarily being expressed in words. It is a fragment of life organized in a way meant to say something about life as a whole. The collective nature of a theatrical experience is no less important: theater always presupposes the presence of a community - actors and audience - who experience it together.

All these qualities have counterparts in politics. A friend once said that politics is “the sum of all things concentrated.” It encompasses law, economics, philosophy and psychology. Inevitably, politics is theater as well - theater as a system of symbols addressing us as a whole, as individuals and as members of a community, and testifying through the specific event in which it is embodied, to the great happenings of life and the world, enhancing our imagination and sensibilities. I cannot imagine a successful politics without an awareness of these things.

The symbols that politics employs are by nature theatrical. National anthems, flags, decorations, holidays, do not mean much of themselves, but the meanings that they evoke are instruments of a society’s self-understanding, tools for creating awareness of social identity and continuity. Politics is also charged with symbols in other, less visible respects. When Germany’s president came to Prague, shortly after our Velvet Revolution, on March 15, 1990 (the 51st anniversary of the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands), he did not have to say much, because the fact of his visit on such a day spoke volumes. It was equally auspicious when the French president and British prime minister arrived on an anniversary of the Munich Agreement.

Symbolic political acts resemble theater. They, too, involve allusion, multiplicity of meaning and suggestiveness. They, too, portray an abridged reality, making a connection without being explicit. And they, too, have a universally accepted ritual framework that stands the test of time.

Even doubters cannot deny one aspect of theatricality in politics: the dependence of politics on media. Many politicians would be helpless without coaches to teach them the techniques of performing in front of a camera. All politicians, including those who sneer at theater as superfluous, something that has no place in politics, unwittingly become actors, dramatists, directors or entertainers.

The significant role that a theatrical sensibility plays in politics is two-edged. Those possessing it can arouse society to great deeds and nurture democratic culture, civic courage and a sense of responsibility. Such people can also mobilize the worst instincts and passions, make masses fanatical, and lead societies into hell. Recall the gigantic Nazi congresses, torchlight processions, the inflammatory speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, and the cult of German mythology. We could hardly find a more monstrous abuse of politics’ theatrical aspect. And today - even in Europe - rulers use theatrical tools to arouse the kind of blind nationalism that leads to war, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and genocide.

So where is the boundary between legitimate respect for national identity and symbols, and the devilish music of pied pipers, dark magicians and mesmerizers? Where do passionate speeches end and demagogy begin? How can we recognize the point beyond which expression of the need for collective experience and integrating rituals becomes evil manipulation and an assault on human freedom?

Here is where we see the huge difference between theater as art and the theatrical dimension of politics. A mad theatrical performance by a group of fanatics is part of cultural pluralism, and, as such, helps to expand the realm of freedom without posing a threat to anyone. A mad performance by a fanatical politician can plunge millions into endless calamity.

*The writer was the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-93), president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) and author of 21 plays, including “Largo Desolato” and “The Garden Party.”

by Vaclav Havel
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