Saturday, November 18, 2006

Theatre and Drinks with Vaclav and Madeleine

I received a tip from a friend last week. Vaclav Havel and his friend Madeleine Albright were to attend a performance of one of his plays being featured in the ongoing Havel Festival. The occasion was the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. If you’re imagining red carpet and velvet ropes, you’re way off. The venue was The Brick, a tiny little black box in scruffy, hipster-packed Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

There might not have been red carpet, but there sure were a couple of flashes going off when the guests of honor pulled up to the theatre. They arrived together, along with Mr. Havel’s pretty wife (who was on crutches – hopefully not for long) and a small retinue. They sat on the front row.

The theatre made sure the house was packed… they even had people sitting on cushions, at the edge of the risers. Emails had been sent to the theatre’s stalwarts: show up, but don’t tell the cast who’s coming! Depending on your point of view, this was either a gesture of mercy or sadism. As I arrived to the theatre a little earlier than usual I met one cast member outside who I knew socially; she seemed veritably nonchalant about the evening. Later on, when I spoke to the lead after the show he confirmed that he didn’t know who was in the audience until intermission, and that he was glad he didn’t. I’m not sure whether everyone in the cast felt that way or not. I spoke to an actor who was not in the play, and she said she might have found it extremely disconcerting to be in performance and, out the corner of your eye, catch sight of the very famous author of the words you’re speaking.

The play is called Temptation and was written in 1986. It’s a retelling of the Faust story, but your sympathy is definitely with the devil. A scientist, appropriately named Foustka, labors by day in a research institute where power plays and sucking up are the main order of business. Foustka has developed a secret interest in the occult which, if it were known, would threaten his position at the institute. A Sorceror comes to visit him and attempts to seduce him into the ways of black magic. The tension between these two worlds puts strains on the Foustka’s kinky affair with an office-mate, in which they play-act scenes of betrayal. Finally, we discover that the Sorceror was really an informer for the institute; Foustka’s fate is sealed. No doubt the play had special resonance in 80’s Czechoslovakia, but its message of struggle against orthodoxy retains a universal punch.

The production had enough credible performances that the audience was with the piece all the way through its three-hour length. Yes, the pacing could have been a little faster, and the show suffered from that scourge of off-off-Broadway: moving furniture during the blackouts between scenes. Nevertheless, like a rolling snowball, the evening seemed to accrete power as it went along, so that by the time we see Foustka’s fall we are surprisingly moved.

After the performance and the curtain call, the director came onstage in a fireman outfit and invited everyone to stay for the reception. A band playing Velvet Underground covers was coming on, he said, so please clear the aisles so they can get through. The faces of the cast curdled at this point. Someone whispered in the Director’s ear and he got out of the way: Mr. Havel joined the cast for another curtain call and everyone was happy again.

The band came to play, bringing all acoustic instruments including an accordion, a violin, and an upright bass. Mr. Havel and Ms. Albright drank beer from the bottle. The band leader onstage asked the Havel retinue what an appropriate Czech greeting would be for the Velvet Revolution anniversary (which he kept mangling into “Velvet Underground Revolution Day”). Mr. Havel came to the microphone, more as a shy playwright than a retired politician. He uttered a few un-sonorous words in Czech, which we were glad to hear even if we couldn’t understand them. It seemed like that would be that, but of course, Madame Secretary knew what was the right greeting, and of course she was self-possessed enough to let us know. “The correct greeting for this day is ‘Havel na hrad!’. Havel to the castle!” said the Prague-born Ms. Albright. So Havel na hrad it was.

They stayed for a couple of songs, but by the last chords of Waiting for My Man the slight figures of Ms. Albright and Mr. Havel were pushing up the aisle. All the actors, the playwrights, the hipsters in the audience turned to face Mr. Havel as he exited. Most of that crowd were young people trying to create an artistic legacy of their own; they said goodbye to a man who had done that, impressively… and also freed his country from despotism without firing a single shot.


SAS said...

How many heads of state are there that started off as famous artists? I can't think of many. What a fascinating have done so well in two such different areas. Do you think of him as a writer or a politician?

Wagster said...

How many heads of state are there that started off as famous artists? I can't think of many.

You mean if you don't count actors? (Oh-oh. My actor friends are throwing stuff.) I can only think of one: Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic, who was a distinguished short story writer before he became President. I think of Havel as a writer first because that's what gave him the credibility to be President... and because he just doesn't act like a politician.