Michael Žantovský on Havel: Dissident, Playwright and Philosopher

In January 1990, Žantovský served as Havel’s spokesman, press secretary and advisor. It was in this capacity that he was able to address a sold out Frontline Club about his lifelong friend. Not only could Žantovský provide a unique perspective on Havel as a statesman, but also as a playwright, essayist, dissident and philosopher. Alongside Žantovský sat Edward Lucas, senior editor at The Economist, and he began the questioning around the issue of Havel’s death in 2011 and what effect that had.

“It brought back many a memory and it bought back the importance of the man,” Žantovský said. “It was not quite self evident at the time [because] the last few years of Havel’s life were years of personal decline and also of some public amnesia of sorts and one could be forgiven for having the impression that he was no longer relevant to the events of the day . . . and then he died and it came as a shock to so many people and the public response was so emotional, so spontaneous and so massive that all of a sudden people realised what he meant for history, what he meant for the Czech nation and for the Slovak nation as well and some of us, including myself, realised what he meant to me personally.”

The interview then led us through Havel’s early life as a playwright and focused particularly on Havel’s 1963 play, The Garden Party, which Žantovský commented, “was an excellent metaphor for the Communist system” as it focused upon a “bureaucratic, heartless system which is only concerned with its own self preservation and with the internal struggles and games that it plays”.

Conversation then zoned in upon Havel’s political dissidence to which Lucas asked about Havel’s role in “nurturing the sentiment of independent thought”. Žantovský replied:

“Havel for a time actually went along with the way. He moved out of Prague with Olga, he stayed . . . in his country house, and he was not – he was watched – but he was not overly bothered as long as he stayed where he was . . . as long as you were not publicly active they, the system, did not necessarily hold it against you, you know, they would let you live a nice life if you didn’t bother them.”

Žantovský then went on to describe a series of events which led to the conclusion, in Havel’s mind that, “If the situation is to change he couldn’t wait for the other side to make the first move, he would have to make the first move.”

The rest of the interview covered topics such as his unconventional marriage, the chaos surrounding the abrupt fall of the Berlin wall, and the common misconceptions surrounding Havel’s character. When the floor was opened to for the question and answer session, Žantovský fielded numerous questions about Havel and his relationship with Václav Klaus. Žantovský replied:

“Again [there is] this stereotype that Václav Havel and Václav Klaus were antagonists who were at loggerheads throughout their political lives and couldn’t get along. I think it shows that, you know, for all their differences and they had significant differences and I comment on a couple of those, they were real politicians, and as politicians they both realised at certain points they couldn’t get some things done without each other. . . . They were able to forget about their differences and do the important things together.”

You can order a copy of Michael Žantovský’s book Havel: A Life here.

Watch and listen to the talk here: