Audience: The Vanek Plays

Trap Door Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Vaclav Havel wrote the three plays that make up this evening of one-acts in the mid-70s, during a time of personal crisis. Driven out of his chosen profession–playwriting–by communist bureaucrats who feared their Soviet “protectors” would be angered by his satirical, absurdist plays, Havel was forced to work in a brewery, spending his days rolling empty beer barrels across the plant floor.

As if that weren’t punishment enough, the once popular writer, one of the flowers of the Prague Spring, was under constant surveillance by the state police, and his employers were given a full account of who this dangerous man was and promised the full blessing of the state for any information they might be able to provide about his extracurricular life: where he went, with whom, what he read. Then his friends were harassed.

In the years following the Soviet invasion of 1968, all of Czechoslovakia was in a sense under surveillance. A great, gray conformity was forced down the throats of a people that only a few years earlier had been exuberantly forging a new brand of socialism, one that tolerated idiosyncrasy and encouraged creativity. The Soviets, still grappling with the ghost of their psychopathic Man of Steel, would have none of that. Havel recalls in his memoir Disturbing the Peace that with the prisons filled with preinvasion reformers, and Soviet spies everywhere, “the people withdrew into themselves and stopped taking an interest in public affairs. An era of apathy and widespread demoralization began, an era of gray, everyday totalitarian consumerism.”

While Havel was working at the brewery, he wrote Audience–“in a couple days,” he says, “originally just to amuse my friends.” Soon afterward he wrote two companion pieces, Protest and Unveiling. All three are very much plays written during and about the time when Czech “society was atomized, small islands of resistance were destroyed, and a disappointed and exhausted public pretended not to notice,” as Havel describes it.

If that were all there was to these plays, their relevance would have ended with the Velvet Revolution, which in 1989 overturned the communist government and put in its place a democracy with a freely elected leader–ironically, Havel himself. But these plays remain extraordinary for what the playwright reveals in them about life in any repressive society, any culture that actively prevents people from doing or becoming what they want, whether the ideology is corporate-capitalist, fundamentalist, or just plain neurotic and dysfunctional. The communists had no monopoly on repression: creativity in others terrifies anyone who fears change or self-knowledge.

Each autobiographical play concerns the comic misadventures of a dissident writer named Vanek, adrift in a society that is itself adrift–as well as stagnant and corrupt. Audience features a portrait of Vanek’s foreman at the brewery, a man paralyzed by resentment, driven to alcoholism, and totally at odds with himself: he wants desperately to show Vanek he’s a good guy–after all, he allows him to keep his job despite his dissident past–but is determined to get the goods on him and his friends so he can brownnose an unseen party official.

In Unveiling Havel turns his satiric wit on the complacent middle class, showing us an educated couple–members, perhaps, of the power elite–utterly co-opted by their love of luxury. Like the brewery foreman, they’re clearly uncomfortable with Vanek’s political activism and use their “friendship” to try to win him over to their numbed-out consumerism. “You’re our best friend,” the well-dressed, well-coiffed wife coos at one point in Unveiling. “We like you a lot–you have no idea how happy we’d be for you if your situation finally got resolved somehow.” And in Protest Havel skewers a comfortable hack named Stanek, a mediocrity who makes big money writing for TV but who insists he’s still on Vanek’s side. When Vanek presses him to join in a protest, however, the spineless Stanek provides a thousand reasons why this is not the right time for him to take a stand.

The issue at the center of all three plays is the same: How to remain free in an unfree world? How to maintain your integrity when everyone around you is willing to sell out cheap? A lesser playwright would have supplied a couple of easy ideological answers to these difficult questions. But not Havel. His own uncertainty about what to do rings loud and clear in these plays: Havel’s alter ego Vanek is very much a man caught in the same totalitarian machinery as his fellow Czechs and Slovaks. The only thing that sets him apart is his willingness to think about what he’s doing, choosing his own path–and that alone is a heroic act during a general “attack on…spiritual and intellectual freedom.”

That thoughtfulness–which could be seen as passivity–doesn’t necessarily lead to great theater, however. It’s a mark of Havel’s greatness that he’s able to take what are essentially three long conversations and make them riveting and hilarious, leavening his serious concerns with comedy and softening his satire with honest, heartbreaking observations about human nature: everyone in Havel’s plays is a fool–the bosses, the sellout friends, even Vanek–but likable nonetheless.

It takes a rare director, especially in deep-dish rock ‘n’ roll Chicago, to spin gold from such potentially sedentary material. Happily, Michael Claypool is up to the task of finding the drama in plays where no one breaks a chair or curses or gives in to the urge to deliver long speeches to the choir. In his intelligent, understated Trap Door production, the perfectly pitched cast–led by Aaron Morgan’s wonderfully enigmatic Vanek–expertly walks the line between comedy and tragedy, wringing laughs from Havel’s absurdist wit without going for the jokes, then revealing in a devastating line or two how wounded everyone is in this world, how much they once yearned for a freer world, and how much they yearn for it still. Frustrated and helpless, trusting no one, they want to be left alone, secretly hoping that the world will be swept clean of all the pesky Vaneks who remind them that they once hoped for something better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Audience: The Vanek Plays photo by Michael Claypool.