Czech emigres and American friends in the New York rock, theater scenes contemplate the life of Vaclav Havel

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At the Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street. (Magdalena Kopicova)
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Daphne Carr

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At the Renaissance Revival-style Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street, one of New York City’s few surviving 19th-century ethnic halls, last week's events were canceled after the news broke on Dec. 18 that Vaclav Havel had died.

Instead, from last Wednesday through Friday, there was a sort-of open house in the hall’s Grand Ballroom with a condolence book that diplomats might use to record their memories of the Czech dissident and, ultimately, president. Or, rather, not only diplomats. Havel was also a playwright, philosopher, passionate rock fan, and humanitarian who touched so many with his writing, works, and life. Here in New York City, home to many Bohemists, Czech émigrés, expats, and diplomats, and many of Havel’s Western supporters from the theater, the intellectual community, and the contemporary rock scene, the grief was especially acute.

Pavla Niklová runs the Hall, which was recently restored after decades of neglect at great expense to the Czech Republic. She had been following the reaction back in Prague.

"It's weird, all the people on the streets," she said. Her voice sounded stunned still; fewer events of the Bohemian National Hall these past few years had centered on the anti-Communist dissidence of the 1970s and ’80s, and something essential to the modern history of the Czech Republic has become the simple past.

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The Center’s phones were ringing, offers of help and warm thoughts popped up on email. Meetings were put off to plan an event in memory of Havel for early January, but a date wasn’t settled yet. The 6th would be ideal; it is the anniversary of Charter 77. Wouldn't it be nice if Havel's many New York friends, Lou Reed, Ivan Kral, and Suzanne Vega, came together? Perhaps a reading?

Niklová can’t say just yet what will happen or when. Even though Havel was 75 and had been in poor health for more than a decade, the news was a shock to her and the others.

The one exhibit that remained open all week was Samizdat: the Czech Art of Resistance 1968-1989, which Havel had personally thanked Niklová for setting up. The exhibit tells the story of samizdat, the manuscripts reproduced during the Communist era via typewriter and circulated informally through networks of trusted friends. Samizdat was the illegal solution to a problem of supply and demand under state economic and social control: many writers wanted to write, many readers wanted to read. Most of us think of political tracts or experimental fiction, but the most popular samizdat in Czechoslovakia was The Lord of the Rings, followed up by other forms of enchantment such as Christian liturgy, pornography, and scientific journals.

Samizdat was a crucial element in Havel’s development as a public figure and artist. Born into an intellectual family that grew to prosperity during the First Republic, he suffered for this under Communism, and was banned from humanities study. He dropped out of an economics program after two years and became a playwright, only to find himself banned from that as well. It was via samizdat that his early works gained wide circulation, and he became an important member of the dissident literary community, publishing his own editions under the name Edice Expedice. Later his work gained a reputation as "tamizdat," the name for works smuggled out and published in the West. His plays were performed at Joe Papp’s Public Theater, among other places, and to Americans he became a symbolic head of Czechoslovakia’s dissident intellectuals, largely through the championing of Tom Stoppard.

The samizdat exhibit's opening had been held on Nov. 10 at the Czech Center; that day, another famous Czech artist named Ivan Jirous died. Known as Magor (“the crazy one”), Jirous was a poet, writer, academic, band manager, and raconteur slightly younger than Havel whose life was philosophically parallel but who saw little of his elder’s success. At Jirous’s first New York reading in 2010 at the Harriman Institute of Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies (which I organized), one speaker called him "the moral force of the nation." Magor shuffled behind the speaker, still mid-presentation, eyed the door of the Institute’s president’s office, then cracked open his beer on the doorknob, spilling foam all over the carpet.

Magor wasn't just the embodiment of Havel's credo to "live in truth," he was the very person who electrified Havel's words into the human rights document, and later the movement, known as Charter 77.

As Stoppard famously wrote in Rock and Roll, his play about 1970s Czechoslovakia, all the dissidents in the world could not piss off authorities as much as drunken longhaired kids who wanted to rock, because those kids weren't fighting against the rules, they just lived by their own. In 1975 Magor wrote a samizdat essay in which he called this underground the "parallel polis." It became the policy statement of the underground, and he the underground's unofficial leader. He became the manager of Plastic People of the Universe, a grungy band of Velvet Underground and beat poetry lovers who made scrappy performance art with homemade instruments, to help them articulate their alternate world. Beat downs, arrests, and repression ensued.

Havel saw the moral valence of this stance and soon it became the narrative of the larger dissident movement: the slaughter of the rock-and-roll innocents was the ultimate corruption of the public faith in leadership (what faith remained) because it was apolitical, unnecessary, and violent.

Havel's country home, Hradiček, became one of the Plastics illegal venues, as well as a theater. It was a bit of a culture clash, since Havel wasn’t part of the underground: he wasn’t that rough. But most photos and stories of shows at Hradeček have him smiling, a drink in hand: a supporter, a fan. It was the same house in which Havel died.

MICHAL NANORU HEARD THE NEWS OF HAVEL’S death and called his wife into the room and they both cried.

They live in a building that houses the Czech Mission to the United Nations, where later that evening flowers appeared and delegates decided to place an enlarged black-and-white photo in the corner. By the next day there were candles, more flowers. A second impromptu shrine appeared at the Bohemian National Home.

This is one of the Catholic-inspired acts that made sense as protest during the state-mandated secularism of the Communist era, and yet survived into the new, post-Communist Czech Republic as a secular act. (The Czech Republic is, incidentally, the most atheist country in Europe.) A similar ritual is repeated every year in November in the wide boulevard of Národní třída in Prague to commemorate the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Non-violent, solemnly protesting students commemorating the Nazi murder of Czechoslovak students during International Students Day were kettled by police into an enclosed street arcade and beaten. The resulting public outrage over the event was a spark, and each year the arcade glows with candles to remember the birth of the Velvet Revolution.

Nanoru was 11 when the protests broke out. His parents kept him and his brother at their grandparents’ house until it was clear that no more violence would occur. The closest he ever got to Havel was once, in a crowd, when chants of Havel na Hrad ("Havel to the castle") filled the air. Havel and others formed an opposition party, the Civic Forum, two days after the violence against the students, and things moved quickly after that.

Courtesy Vaclav Havel Library.

“I loved the excitement," Nanoru remembered when I emailed with him last week. “I was a small anti-Communist. I sang the national anthem and other songs and was clinking my keys. As soon as I got to school I put my grandmother's Masaryk pictures on the board.”

IN 1978 BRIAN SWIRSKY READ AN ARTICLE BY SIMON FRITH in Creem Magazine about “the most subversive band in the world,” the Czechoslovak psychedelic rock band Plastic People of the Universe. To Swirsky, Czechoslovakia seemed an impossible place.

“It was on the enemy list,” he said on the phone last week, hearkening back to the days of ’80s paranoia about the big bad Eastern Bloc. Still, the way Frith described the Plastics’ encounters with authorities reminded Swirsky of the way punks were being treated all over the world. He was intrigued. In the 1980s, he’d gone from a punk purist to a ’60s rock fiend, and suddenly was reintroduced to the Czechs via Frank Zappa, who maintained a friendship with Havel.

“He was one of the only politicians at the time who had a connection to rock and roll and was very open about it,” Swirsky said. “Then, when I read more about [Havel’s] vision of the world, I became more enamored with him. He equated the radicalism of the Velvet Underground with democratic thought. I wish we had a little bit of that here, and I especially wished it during the Reagan/Bush years.”

Today Swirsky is a rock promoter, head of the Brooklyn-based Complete Control agency. He routinely books international bands. Last year he helped book Zuby Nehty, the first all-woman punk band from Czechoslovakia, on their first U.S. tour. Right now he is working on a two-album set of music by Communist-era punk bands due out in 2012. He is just one of many who fall for the story of the Plastics and then find other musical riches less known to American ears. (I am another, writing my dissertation on Czech popular music between 1968-2010 after hearing the story of the Plastics, Havel, and Communism, then realizing the truth was more complex and still untold). After the initial 1990s burst of curiosity over Central European pop, Americans largely fell deaf to both its back catalog and its contemporary bands. It is only now that a new generation of Czechs, emboldened by years of international travel and study of Pitchfork archetypes, have stared to find an audience outside their small nation once again.

Jason Gross was similarly turned on to Havel through rock, coming to the confluence of the two through Robert Christgau’s writings on the Plastic People in the Village Voice. Gross runs the webzine Perfect Sound Forever, which has been chronicling the downtown art-pop crossover for two decades, and for him the Plastics were just another band creatively mixing the anti-authoritarian and the avant garde. “Except for 2 Live Crew (and by association Too Much Joy), it's rare for American bands to be jailed for censored music,” Gross writes, pointing to the Plastics' 1976 arrest as a key moment in the band’s narrative. Havel’s death, for Gross, is about the closing of a generational narrative about rock in opposition, one that had tied downtown New York to Central Europe since Ivan Kral defected from Prague in 1968 and began shooting 8mm films of his friends at CBGB’s, which would become Blank Generation, the first punk documentary. Kral joined the Patti Smith Group, and after the fall of communism, returned to Prague sing a Plastics song for Havel.

The 1976 arrest of the Plastic People on charges of being máničky, long-hairs, and for disturbing the peace through pop music led to Havel and others writing a petition to the authorities on injustice of the arrests, which became known as Charter 77. This was the moment when international politics was abuzz with the concept of universal “human rights,” and Moscow had just signed the Helsinki Accords. Havel’s petition appealed not against Communism but towards human rights, asking for something simple: live by the rules you signed on to, respect human rights. Free the Plastics.

Havel and others went to jail for the Charter. While imprisoned, he was only allowed to write once a week to his wife, fellow dissident Olga. Christopher Harwood, a lecturer on Czech culture and language at Columbia University, suggests that resulting collection, Letters to Olga is the best introduction to Havel’s thinking because it is so clearly written, well translated, and articulates his philosophies as well as his doubts.

Catharine Nepomnyashchy, professor and chair of the Slavic Department at Barnard College, suggested that Charter 77 and what it stood for have as much relevance today as ever: “My nephew is a poet and he was arrested on the street in Moscow this month,” she said on the phone last week, referring to the protests against the results of Russia's recent national election. On Christmas Eve, tens of thousands took to Moscow’s streets once again.

Havel and other Charter 77 members founded the Communist-opposition Civic Forum party shortly after the protests began, and actors went on strike. Theaters across Czechoslovakia opened their doors to free public discussion. Students soon joined the strike as well. In less than a month the Communist president Gustáv Husák resigned, and before the year was out Havel had been elected president, which he would remain until 2003.

For Americans, President Havel was closely aligned with the Clintons, who said that they were “deeply saddened” to hear of Havel’s death, calling him “a towering figure in the world of human rights and a force for progress in Eastern Europe.” The Clintons were part of the American representatives at Havel’s funeral. The two presidents were known to retire to Prague or New York jazz clubs after meetings, and once famously traded sax solos (although Havel was rustier than Clinton).

The 1990s began with a rush in Czechoslovakia as socialism disappeared from Eastern Europe. Immediately works of dissidents like Havel exploded into books, albums, and performances by thousands of small businesses joyous at the new freedom to print. But, as Gwen Orel, theater critic and expert on Czech alternative theater said, “by the mid-1990s these plays had lost their freshness.” 

It was a new reality to which dissident works could not speak, and Havel’s works were replaced in Czech minds with thoughts of his somewhat ineffectual leadership. Havel as intellectual had become, by the late ’90s, unfashionable.