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Voices at the Crossroads…
or the Soul after Victory II

© Herwig Lewy
The Mouse Paradise Experiment, directed by Jiri Havelka. Národní divadlo, Prague. Photo © Herwig Lewy

A love letter at Národní divadlo: To Havel with love. In honor of Václav Havel, the Prague National Theatre’s festival Prazské krizovatky / Prague Crossroads (October 4th to 9th) presented 80 hours to celebrate the late theatre-maker and President of the Czech Republic’s 80th birthday, 27 years after the start of the Velvet Revolution: 22 events over the course of seven days; winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Svetlana Alexievich in a discussion with Jáchym Topol; the theatre’s own production of The Mouse Paradise Experiment; guest performances from Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Built between 1977 and 1983, next to the National Theatre on the banks of the Vltava hangs the glass encased Nová Scéna, dark and cubic on four cement stilts. Inside are the green slabs of marble across four floors that create, strangely enough, a sacred atmosphere. The Crossroads Festival took place in the courtyard in front of the theatre (Piazzeta), in the mezzanine, in Café Nova, and in the foyer, which leads to the main hall, and which also serves as home court for the world famous avant-garde theatre group Laterna magika. The festival honoring Václav Havel felt in a symbolic way like a crossroad, at which many spirited voices proclaim their doubts about the present.

The Mountain Giants

For Luigi Pirandello it’s the rejects of society that meet a company of actors in the villa “Misadventure” and who, without props, attempt to perform the piece with the help of their imagination. Václav Havel brings together both sides of this coin and an exhibit in the mezzanine pointed it out. On the walls hang posters with documents from Amnesty International. In the case of Jirina Siklóva, Petr Uhl, Ivan Martin Jirous and Václav Havel, human rights offences were made public. The date on all of the posters: 1989. It is important to know that Václav Havel could not follow his classmate Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) to film school because he did not meet the requirements for his secondary school examinations after finishing his compulsory education in 1951.
He worked as a taxi driver in order to pay for his night classes, completed two years of military service and in 1954 he began working as a stagehand at the ABC Theatre and at the Theatre on the Balustrade. He began to write plays in the absurdist style, including The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.
Culturally and politically, Havel appeared at the 9th Writers’ Congress in Prague and openly criticized the censorship of the communist party. As head of the “Club of Independent Writers” he supported the reforms initiated by Alexander Dubček in 1968 which were repealed during the Prague Spring. In 1977 Havel was one of the three main initiators of the Charter 77 manifesto. Because of this, he was arrested three times and spent a total of five years in prison. After international protest in the early 80s he was released, but in January 1989 was jailed again for nine months for “disturbing the peace.” As candidate for the Civic Forum Občanské fórum (OF) Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.

In light of this background, we have to ask this question: Which form of language is attached to this exhibit? It’s too naïve for “(Anti-)Communism in Museums”; much too concerned about facts for an artistic installation; the sounds from the foyer make their way into the exhibit. There, Marek Hejduk’s adaptation of the production of Protest, one of Havel’s best known pieces around the world, Protest/Rest (Theater Švandovo, Director: Daniel Hrbek) is being played. The sounds are evocative of a chorus and one floor further probably call to mind a tradition of collective passion in the Stalinist papal state. A sonorous illustration of the heartfelt matter in the mezzanine, it takes on a perspective of hero worship. As if to confirm this, a TV documentary with and about the man in his mid-fifties, with a rather anti-hero-like impression: “Go Havel! Go Havel!” can be read in the surtitles on the screen showing a mass rally. Above the screen, pictures flash of Havel in his robe (yawning) with his morning coffee, Havel in a suit (formal) performing a bodyguard’s salute. Pictures that show him with friends and artistic colleagues and companions, how they opened the locks of the atomic bunker left from his predecessor, Gustáv Husák, deep underneath the palace. “They really were afraid that war could break out as they stood in the reception and toasted; that someone would say, ‘The war has started!’ and they would push a button and ride down eleven stories!”, Havel recalled laughing, only “The elevator wasn’t ready!”

The atomic bunker was the most expensive investment in the history of the “Villa”, the Prague Castle on Castle Hill. The abys of the Cold War is sometimes considered the inheritance left from World War I, when Woodrow Wilson and Lenin tried to outdo each other concerning which political system was best able to help the people get back on their feet: With private ownership of resources or without. How should we go about shaking off the chasm?
Here it’s also important to know that Czechoslovakia came out of WWI as an independent state from the Habsburg Monarchy and existed until the Munich Agreement in 1938, with which Hitler-Germany took over the parts of Czechoslovakia containing ethnic German speakers and made them a part of the “Greater German Reich”, hereby creating the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The first president was the philosopher and writer Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who served until 1935 and later died in Lány.
At this point, Havel’s life as a theatre person is required, as the TV documentary asks about his skills as master of ceremony and Havel responds: “If the first elements of a market economy should decisively and lawfully enter into our lives today, then we will also have to keep in mind in the following days, that a nation is an entity also made up of a spiritual component.” Borrowing from radio broadcasts with Woodrow Wilson, the Talks from Lány were born. The president needed a channel of direct communication. The idea came from the former ambassador in Washington and London, Havel biographer, and current director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague, Michael Žantovský.

The Space-Time in Secondhand Societies

A foray into the festival programme reveals a central focus on current events and present aptness in East European bordering countries. Voices questioning the present came to honor Václav Havel from Belarus (Belarus Free Theatre, Time of Women, Director: Nikolai Khalezin), from the Ukraine (DAKH Theater Kiev, Dreams of Lost Roads, Director: Vladyslav Troitskiy), and from the Russian Federation (Teatro di Capua, A Life for the Tsar, Director: Giuliano Di Capua). These productions show that the “happy fracking” that Lev Dodin started in Gaudemaus has since differentiated itself in the last 27 years. A wider attention for these works would be desirable, attention which recognizes their formal language and content related characteristics in relation to social coherency in their respective societies.

Maybe a guest performance from Poland could have added something to this central focus. Current developments in Poland show perhaps symbolically, through the hero worship for General Józef Piłsudski, political objectives diametrically opposed to those of the artist-president Havel.
The situation in the Baltic States is similar. It doesn’t hurt to know about the constant conflict zone in the space-time continuum of spiritual border conflicts in the eastern part of the European Union: Created in the inheritance of the Romanov Monarchy — because in 1918 the Bolsheviks were supposedly waiting on a socialist revolution in Germany — these countries were united in their search for “identity” following the fall of their shared past in the Stalinist Papal State.
One doesn’t have to be surprised about the extreme nationalism that has taken hold since changes in 1989/1992, the sometimes racial and Christian fundamentalist tones. The German Heer (military) went forward with its regime on Romanov territory — despite the peace treaties of Brest-Litowsk (March 1918) — and capitulated on the western front (failed spring offensive), and Woodrow Wilson must have forgotten to negotiate a border by the end of the First World War (November 1918). This led to a civil war against Soviet Russia (1919 – 1921) after the start of General Piłsudski’s “preventative war”, supported by Great Britain and France.
The arrival of the Cavalier Budjonnyjs led to the complete recapture of the Ukraine (1920) but also to Crossing the River Zbrucz in the first chapter of Red Cavalry by Issak Babel, the literary man from Odessa, as if paying homage to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.

On the other hand, in literature, like in theater, it’s the interpersonal relationships in this space-time continuum that counts, not the dates or schemes of political or historical developments. In her novel Second-hand Time, Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich traces this axis of conflict. Like Issak Babel once did, she lends a voice to stories that have been ground down somewhere between Raison d’Etat and individual emotions, wishes and hopes.
On the stage of the sold-out theatre hall of the Nová Scéna, she spoke with the iconic Czech author Jáchym Topol, famous for his theatre piece The Journey to Bugulma. In this piece Topol deals with the open secret of Czech literary history, according to which The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek has to do with his activities as a political officer without a weapon on behalf of the Red Army in Bugulma during the civil war. Topol makes Bugulma into the iconic embodiment of the Stalinist gulag system where any thoughts of a communist utopia crumble into a dystopia and end in a pile of corpses. Alexievich deals with the past, the effects of which are still felt today, in a similar way. She once stated that she has now been working for nearly forty years on a single book, a kind of Russian-Soviet chronicle: Revolution, gulag, war, Chernobyl, and the fall of the “Red Imperium.”

After a short but heartfelt greeting Topol leads us through the period of the Soviet Union, the time of Glasnost and Perestroika, through the time of a reconstruction of society. Excerpts from Second-hand Time are read. It is a panorama of fates after the collapse of the Stalinist structure. At one point Jáchym Topol speaks about being Czech in Prague. He expresses his surprise at the Russian, Slavic patriotism, which for him was no issue. Topol asks where this love of the Fatherland comes from, which allows one to die for Stalin (meaning Iosseb Dschughaschwili) although he stands for the destruction of culture?
Alexievich answers him in two respects: on the one hand, she is interested in literature and not in patriotism. She is interested in the mentality, for cultural codes that are hidden behind people’s fates. She is not interested in people as a part of a contemporary process, but instead in concrete individuals in space, who exist in the world. On the other hand, one could examine Stalin in this way. The people who lived in Stalin’s time were dependent upon him. And, Alexievich adds, Russia was always a totalitarian country and the Russian people had again and again attempted to free themselves from this totalitarian chain, but always in vain. This is the movement that defines Russian culture, which is also frustrating, because it never brings its ideal to fruition. Alexievich gives an example from her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, and also mentioned that it will soon be available in Czech. In the book there is a woman who knows she is going to die soon. Fascism is the enemy. The woman didn’t really want to die in the spring. Suddenly she hears bird singing. She starts to see everything around her. She sees a flower blossoming. She sees colors. This woman begins to cry, in spite of her fate that she cannot change. And this is where literature is created, according to Alexievich.

As if there were no nationalism in the Czech Republic, which was familiar with the category of “ethnic purity”, someone in the audience whether it wasn’t an ethnical question of whether or not nations exist “that have a tendency towards totalitarianism, where the people themselves wish to be dominated” — She wouldn’t know, Alexievich answers. One could not say that the Germans are a country with fascist tendencies. There is however a moment of tendencies in which a mind forms opinions that might lead to totalitarianism. When she reads in newspaper about how Lukashenko is a dictator or how Putin is a dictator, she sees just the tip of an iceberg, under which a whole people is hidden, a whole nation. And these words are raised up in each of her books in order to test what is stable and what is not. Second-Hand Time is a collage of everyday voices, separate from the banalities of a political search for confrontation, which Alexievich attempts to give a metaphysical outlet.

Her books follow an aesthetic which she has perfected over time. First she wrote I’ve Left My Village which was not published in 1976 and which Alexievich herself considered too journalistic. She tried again, wrote short stories and essays, traced the voices around her. These are the voices at the crossroads which fascinate her. She met with a Belarusian writer Ales Adamovitch. He was dealing with a new literary model which he called “Collective Novella.” The two were brought together by a desire for the greatest possible convergence with real life. While receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2013 she gave the audience this message: “Flaubert called himself ‘a man of the quill’. I can say for myself: I am a person of the ear.”

Should the Numbers Count?

The humor and biting play on words in the theatre pieces of Václav Havel could be found all throughout the festival. Under an open sky the Theatre Husa na provázku gave a guest performance of Havel’s piece The Pig (Director: Vladimir Morávek) on the Piazzeta. The piece Redevelopment resonated in two different interpretations in the theatre hall, the guest performance from Hradec Králové (Director: Andrej Krob) and the guest performance of the Ivana Franka Theatre (Director: Břetislav Rychlík). Two different performances of Unveiling were interpreted in the foyer by Studenti DAMU (Director: Miroslava Pleštilová) and by První část projektu (Director: Ivan Buraj). Comparable to a reenactment, the Petra Bezruče Theatre attempted Audience (Director: Stepán Pácl) in the style of socialist realism. The inclination to stay true to the originals was obvious in a few pieces, as well as a conscious decision, which protected the absurdities put there by Havel. Twenty-seven years later the communist-bashing is however still funny, but also somehow boring as a spectator.

Looking for contemporary dissonance, the theatre’s own production of The Mouse Paradise Experiment by Jiri Havelka (Director), Martina Slukova (Script), and Marta Ljubkova (Dramaturg) stood out. It handled totalitarian world relations in contemporary scientism and thereby fit better into the central focus of the programme. Going into the theatre, the audience members were each given a mouse mask made of PVC. Taking part in a scientific conference, the theatre is rearranged into a meeting room. On the stage lie half-visible disembodied mice tails at the edges of the carpet. A lectern on the right, behind it an oversized mouse wheel. In the middle there is a green marble conference lectern for three scientists: sociologist, psychologist, biologist. Directly behind them the same conference lectern for just one scientist: the philosopher. A chair on the left, stairs, and a feeding trough, out of which fall croissants. Behind the trough hangs a curtain, to the left and to the right of which monitors have been attached. Visible between them and authoritative for all: the UN symbol, with the addition of a mouse head. We are now part of a mouse society, that seems to be clear. The basics of life together are going to be examined, based on numerical values: birth rates and demographic changes, social behaviour and suicide rates, social stress levels and freedom, how younger and older members of society interact with one another …

The conference starts with an excerpt from a documentary [view here] about the Mouse Utopia Experiments performed by American ethnologist and behaviourist John B. Calhoun. Back in the 60s the National Institute of Mental Health recruited Calhoun to place a few mice in a habitat which provided the perfect conditions for their survival. The result was simple: the greater the security for providing basic needs thanks to external factors, the faster the population lost their social competencies, became violent towards one another, or removed themselves from society, until the population reached a maximum for demographic expansion and finally died out. These characteristics from the mouse species have been compared to the human species. The scene is set.

We mouse-scientists know about the dramatic situation of our species and attempt at this conference to together figure out how much happiness is required to motivate us to live a life of purpose. Amusingly, qualitative questions are posed in a dialogue between the audience and the stage, which are then quantitatively evaluated. It makes for a fantastic parody of views from surveys, studies or even think tanks that operate on the basis of numerical values, often also containing recommendations for political developments and which are spread through radio and TV.
The cynical climax unfurls with a chorus of We Shall Overcome, the classic hymn of the American Civil Rights Movement, which also found its place in the repertoire of symbolic forms in the Czech Republic, the spiritual consequence of building a nation since 1989. However, the performance doesn’t go beyond this cynical commentary. But: the last representative of our species to die is the philosopher and president of the conference. An homage to artist-president Václav Havel, maybe? No one thinks to take a look at the trough. Would that be sacrosanct? Just one misadventure remains. It doesn’t get more humorous than that, at the crossroads between ideal and reality. Czech culture is known for such sharp-witted details, it’s a certain lightness of being. Havel would have been pleased!



Published on 28 October 2016 (Article originally written in German)