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The reception of Havel's early plays in Britain

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This paper is based mainly on articles and reviews from British newspapers and magazines charting the not-always favourable reaction of the press and public to productions of Vaclav Havel’s plays on radio and TV as well as professional and amateur
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  The reception of Havel ’s early plays in Britain I will focus in this paper on the early reception of Václav Havel’s plays in Britain, and on how they fared before British critics began to pay homage to the prisoner of conscience, the fighter for human rights, and the philosopher president  –   that is, in the brief years when Havel was simply an emerging young playwright, described as “pleasant, boyish - looking”; 1   “short, cherubic, chubby and cheer ful” with a “beaming appearance”; 2  and “slight, agile… with an easy smile and a shock of unruly hair” . 3  It did not last long  –   as early as in 1967 Havel wrote to his translator Vera Blackwell: 4   “You know what I sometimes remember with a touch of nostalgia? How we sat chatting in the Hilton Hotel in West Berlin. It was my first day ever in the West… That was before we started having problems with all the Robertses, Simpsons, Jordans, Tynans, Voskoveces, before The Times wrote about me…” 5  Havel ’s first association with the Western theatrical avant -garde came in 1964. Actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company (hereafter RSC), 6  on tour with Peter Brook’s iconic production of King Lear  , enthusiastically acclaimed Otomar Krej ča’s staging of Havel’s  Záhradní slavnost   at Prague’s    Divadlo Na zábradlí  . John Roberts, London manager of the RSC, tentatively hoping that the comedy might make the transition to the British stage, commissioned the playwright N. F. Simpson to make an adaptation. Simpson, who like Havel was at that time compared with Ionesco, must have seemed an appropriate choice; the critic Martin Esslin had, in his seminal book   The Theatre of the Absurd,  described his work as “proof that the Theatre of the Absurd is by no means unable to provide highly effective social comment.” 7  However, the RSC management, fearful that the social and political reality of  Záhradní slavnost might be too specific, gave Simpson a free hand to come up with a substantially different play  –   one so lacklustre, it never even appeared in Simpson’s bibliography. 8  Another disappointment came the following year when Kenneth Tynan, dramaturge of the National Theatre in London, told Havel that   Vyrozumění   had been turned down as being unsuitable for “ English consumption”  and “ too long for what it had to say ” . 9  The National Theatre and the RSC were and are , beyond comparison, Britain’s most prestigious subsidised theatre companies. They have the power to attract major creative talents, but a re at the same time bound by the duty “ not to waste the tax-payer ’s money”. It was difficult to make the case for an absurd play by an author from Eastern Europe, whence little had emerged since before the Second World War. It happened, however, that readers of Britain’s most conservative daily paper,   The Times , were at this time being introduced to  contemporary East European theatre by an American professor, Henry Popkin. Probably the earliest reference to Havel in the British press can be found in an article written by Popkin after his first visit Prague in 1964. 10  Popkin had seen a range of productions including Kundera and Kohout, and in his final paragraph, “Advocate of the Absurd” , praised Jan Grossman’s dramaturgy at the  Divadlo Na zábradlí  . “This group has its own dramatist”, he wrote, “the very young -looking Václav Havel… his ‘absurdist’ play  Záhradní slavnost is in the repertory”, noting that “to be an absurdist in P ragu e requires a certain audacity.”  In August 1966, Popkin devoted an entire article   to Havel, 11  drawing attention to nearly 30 productions of  Záhradní slavnost around Europe and emphasising Havel’s role as dramaturge in Grossman’s   “appellative theatre” . Popkin   wrote that the recently premièred Vyrozumění  : “could have been written  only by someone who was as interested in anatomizing the gag as in analysing dialectical metaphysics”. 12  In the same year, 1966 (in March), an excerpt from Vyrozumění  , had been featured in the official glossy propaganda magazine for foreigners, Czechoslovak Life . 13  It was introduced by George Theiner, 14  who emigrated after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Theiner became editor of the London-based journal  Index on Censorship , where he consistently promoted Havel and other banned writers (not only Czechoslovak). In Autumn 1976 he published his own translation of the first Vaněk play,  Audience (which he entitled Conversation  in English) . 15  In comparison with the more literary translation produced earlier by Vera Blackwell, Theiner’s translation follows English speech rhythms and flows naturally. It is unfortunate that the modest and reserved Theiner arrived late on the scene; twenty years later , he was RSC’s preferred translator for their production of Pokou  š  ení   in 1987. Let us return to 1966, when Havel was eventually introduced to the British public through the medium of radio, on the minority Third Programme of the BBC. Martin Esslin, not only author of the book on the theatre of the absurd, but also head of BBC Radio Drama, was responsible for the British radio première of Vyrozumění   in December 1966. 16  To introduce the work, Esslin invited Blackwell (née Jakešová) to give a radio talk on the new Czech drama. 17  Her focus was literary rather than theatrical; she was interested mainly in communicating to listeners the intellectual roots of Havel’s plays. Blackwell made strenuous efforts to promote the plays; at the same time going to great lengths to protect the English text from changes by directors or actors. Her strong views on how they should be staged brought her into conflict with almost everyone involved in productions of the plays in English, in  particular Havel’s agent Klaus Juncker. 18   It is ironic that the first of Havel’s plays to  be  performed in Britain should deal with the topic of translation. In retrospect, however, the partnership of the Czech émigré Blackwell with the Hungarian émigré Martin Esslin for BBC radio was probably the best way to introduce Havel’s idiosyncratic manipulation of language to the British public  –   far better than through a botched adaptation by another playwright. Havel appreciated Blackwell’s insistence that precision of meaning came before theatricality, and had granted her the translation rights into English  –   an unusual procedure when a translation is involved; all the more so, in that she did it in spite of  –   or, as she saw it, because of  –    Havel’s slender knowledge of English.  The radio production of    Vyrozumění   had mixed reviews; The Scotsman  tho ught that “though [the play’s]   implications are strongly relevant in Eastern Europe, they lack substance here” , 19  and that the play was “Entertaining, clever, provocative, but thin.” The Times , on the other hand, praised the “cleanly narrated tale of bureaucratic intrigue” which “also works brilliantly as ideological satire”. 20   The Guardian  dismissed it as “one more bureaucratic doodling on the great blank face of totalitarianism ” , claiming that the text “presented absolutely no challenge to [Esslin’s] cast”. 21  Four years later, however, when the production was rebroadcast, another reviewer wrote in the same paper : “…the greatness of the play lies in the universality of the satire. One would have to be very narrow-minded indeed to see it only as an allegory of Iron Curtain politics.” 22  Who knows whether the reversed opinion was due to the new reviewer, a better-informed public  –   or the change in Havel’s status? In the same review, the author referred to the recent repeat  broadcast of Havel’s  Anděl strážný   (directed by Charles Lefeaux) 23  as “…an allegory of persecution and death, again full of political overtones which could be interpreted bey ond their native context.” 24  When  Anděl strážný  had first been broadcast in 1969, the Sunday Telegraph had declared it an “ast ounding play ” , with a “wordless climax extraordinary beyond any ordinary listener’s imagining”. 25  This was  ,  however, not so long after the events of 1968, and it could be argued that the crisis had sharpened the public’s awareness    –   or that, on the other hand, that sympathy had suppressed their critical faculties. Vyrozumění    was not only published (by Jonathan Cape) 26  soon after its first broadcast in 1967, but also shown on the minority TV channel BBC2, to be repeated on BBC1 in the more exciting times of June 1968. 27  Reviews in both  The Times 28   and The Guardian  evoked Kafka, although the latter added that “the obvious political tone of the play makes it perhaps closer to our own George Orwell (particularly    Farma zvířat  ) ” . 29   The casting of some of Britain’s star  comic actors and the Whitehall setting makes me wonder whether this TV version did successfully adapt to the British milieu. It seems to be worth asking whether the  Divadlo Na zábradlí   miscalculated by not featuring Ha vel’s work   when, in the late 1960s, it was invited to London’s  World Theatre Season. One wonders whether the decision was made by Grossman or by the director of the World Theatre Season, Peter Daubeny. Time and logistics allowed the drama company to bring only one  production, and those chosen were Grossman’s adaptations of Kafka’s Proces  (in 1967) and  Jarry’s   Král Ubu (in 1968). The  Divadlo za branou  similarly never scheduled Topol, although the Činoherní klub  brought Alena Vostrá ’s  Na koho to slovo padne. A lthough Havel’s pla ys had now been premièred in America, there were still no professional productions in Britain, just the occasional school or amateur performance.  Záhradní slavnost was given its British première in 1970 by an amateur company in what Vera Blackwell rather ungraciously describes as “some hole in Croydon” , where she reported that the audience “rolled with laughter” . 30  In February the same year, students at RADA had announced the British première of Vyrozumění  , only for their production to be dismissed by the critic of The Stage newspaper as “a very dismal affair, an obvious, laboured and pedantic piece…” which “…might have been a stark and startling revolutionary piece had it been written prior to Kafka or Joyce”. 31  RADA had in any case been wrong in claiming the première; they were behind Cambridge University Players at Pembroke College, of whose production Michael Billington of The Times  wrote in a different vein: “I am still surprised that the play has not become a standard part of the modern repertoire since it combines a good deal of surface wit with  pungent political comment.” 32  In spite of the competing premières, Western interest atrophied over the next seven years of “ normalisation ” . 33  The launch of Charter 77, however, demonstrated how a political crisis can generate publicity in the artistic world. Sam Walters, director of an out-of-town fringe theatre, the Orange Tree in Richmond, had scheduled the first professional stage productions of Havel’s plays  in Britain (  Audience and Vernisáž  ) for February 1977. The unprecedented interest of the theatre press led to his staging of eventually almost all Havel’s plays    –   an achievement described in detail by Carol Rocamora in  Acts of Courage . 34   Prestigious productions of the Vaně k plays were now prepared by the BBC, starring Harold Pinter on Radio 4 in April 1977 35  and Michael Crawford on BBC-1 (TV) in November 1978. 36   Interest in Havel’s work was however no longer based on his identity as a playwright;  Charter 77 and detention had intervened to give him political status. Joan Bakewell (who was, incidentally, Pinter’s secret lover at that time) wrote in The Times , “ [Havel] and his work have  been under a cloud since 1968, the cloud being denial of a platform for his plays… It thus be comes clear he is his own central character… Background facts should not of course matter when it comes to judging a piece of writing. Nor are they in this case essential to a thorough enjoyment of Havel’s wit and style. But they do add a sense of reality to this sophisticated fable. For the fable is about actual oppression.” 37  Havel featured in two major articles published in 1977, one by Kenneth Tynan, comparing Havel with Tom Stoppard, 38  and the other by Stoppard himself, after his first (and, for the time being, only) visit to Havel in the summer. 39   Stoppard’s popularity as a British playwright  began to dispel the doubts of theatre managers and audiences about Havel’s  East European “otherness” . In 1978 Stoppard joined the board of  Index on Censorship , in time to be well-briefed when the VONS trials of 1979 took place. Dramatized adaptations of the trial were broadcast on BBC TV (February 1980)  –    with Stoppard in the role of Havel’s lawyer     –   and on BBC Radio 4 (October 1980). 40   By this time Havel’s  third Van ě k play, Protest  , had reached London and was premièred on the stage of the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre (a platform performance directed by Michael Kustow in February 1980), followed by readings and productions by the Institute for Contemporary Arts (June), BBC radio (July), the Orange Tree Theatre (September) and BBC TV (December 1981). The Guardian  reviewer of the National Theatre production noted that Havel’s prison sentence was “the inevitable reward of a regime which, however sound its theoretical reason may be, deprives a bright youth of better education because his parents were rich” and continued with the observation: “A capitalist establishm ent which bars further education to a son of poor parents shapes its own enemies in a similar way.” 41  It appeared that Havel was now sufficiently accepted as to be enlisted into British class warfare. Another mark of acceptance came in the Orwellian year of 1984, when Havel ’s play Chyba , his “ thank you ”  to Samuel Beckett, was performed in the Barbican as one of the RSC Thoughtcrimes presentations (a single performance,  Unpersons ). From the first emergence of Havel’s plays in English, there had been  a nucleus of British theatre workers and critics convinced of their validity and power. One of them was the literary editor of The Guardian  W. L. Webb , who wrote: “ We look into the more or less dark glass of translation and see strange reflections of our own concerns and expressions. The traditional
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