It was only a fuzzy memory until I saw his face in the newspaper the other day as one of six convicted Czech dissidents. It had been nearly 10 years since I talked with him in Prague, at a time when the memories of Russian tanks, machine guns and soldiers in the street, and people disappearing at night -- arrested, jailed, gone -- were still fresh. aDubcek was out but, still, the Czechs were optimistic.
We were students, admitted to Prague to study the Eastern European theater. We did not intend to avoid political topics if they arose, but one had to be careful. In the Moscow airport, our 15 posters of Gogol's "Revizor" (a classic Russian play whose theme was the need for social reform under the czars) were confiscated, because, as they said, "What did we intend to do with them?"
Even 10 years ago, Vaclav Havel was known as the most intellectual and most prolific of the new generation of Czech theater people. The Czech theater was the most experimental, dynamic and innovative in Eastern Europe. By nature and tradition, it was political.
In spite of 1968, the theater was still political in 1970. We saw plays like Vostra's "Whose Turn Next?" detailing the rebelliousness of a politicized youth, and Suchy's "Poets and Peasants," which gently poked fun at the bureaucracy. Havel's earlier plays, such as "The Memorandum" and "The Garden Party," were not without their satirical elements. But the climate changed. And, when Havel decided later to follow his conscience in "The Beggar's Opera," he went too far. It was an allegory on the secret police -- which, after all, was a Russian invention, not a Czech one.
I wasn't that interested in Czech theater at the time; I was only along as a language student to improve my Czech and Russian and, I hoped, to learn a little Polish in Warsaw. We were warned that the Czechs were a fiercely proud and independent people who hated outsiders' interfering in their affairs, whether they were Russians or Americans. The Czechs would not be friendly, we were told.
But they were wonderfully warm. The family I stayued with (mother, father, grandparents and daughter, Milena) made room for me in their three-room apartment. The Czechs, they said optimistically in quiet conversations around their kitchen table, would develop their own system of communism, independent of the Russians. No matter how bad things were now, they were almost sure to be better. Even though Milena's husband, Milan, was going to school 100 miles away and was separated from her because the Communist Party had fired him from his radio job and kicked him out of Charles University in Prague during the purge of 1968, they knew that the independence of the Czech spirit would survive.
And Vaclav Havel agreed with them, though cautiously, as he spoke with 15 American students crowded into his small Prague apartment. In the January cold, it was one of the few warm places we had encountered. It was a comfortable apartment, with furniture that could be loosely described as Danish modern. By Czech standards, it might even have been luxurious -- and he didn't have to share it with others.
Havel was more moderate than our student friends, who were eager to get power in their own hands to prove the Czechs could develop their own brand of communism. Writing, he said, was a risky business. It was the way to say things that could not be said any other way, or in any other place. The new generation wrote about the experiences of just one generation, their own, not about their fathers or their grandfathers.
It was a mixture of tragedy (for the past) and comedy (for the future a comedy with hope), he said. It was a personal literature, too, that did not follow the propagandizing genre of Socialist Realism so prevalent in other Eastern European theaters. By history and tradition, Czechs love their independent, political theater. Every Czech is a theatergoer, and everyone has his own favorite theater, the one that caters to his particular tastes. It was, and is, a purely Czech theater, even when interpreting foreign plays.
I do not know what happened to Milena and her husband, Milan. Our communications got lost in the cumbersome system of Iron Curtain politics. I do not know what happened to others I met in Prague in the shuffle. I do know what happened to Vaclav Havel.
For him, the "riskiness" of being an outspoken, innovative writer became a gamble that he lost. The question now is whether he has changed his mind about Czech government: can the Czechs really develop their own type of communism that will also allow their tradition of political criticism in the theater to flourish? And the larger question is: will this latest scandal crush the fierce Czech pride and independence?
Somehow, I doubt it.