VACLAV HAVEL left home wearing his Sunday best - a gray suit and tie - and carrying his toothbrush. Czechoslovakia's most famous playwright and founder of the Charter 77 Human Rights group had been invited to a breakfast with French President Fran,cois Mitterrand. Being a veteran of police detentions, he explained that the most important object needed to survive prison was a toothbrush.
He was not exaggerating the threat. A few weeks after his breakfast with President Mitterrand, Mr. Havel was arrested for ``hooliganism'' and charged with ``disturbing public order.'' His trial opens today. He faces up to two years in prison. Eight other leading dissidents will be tried at the same time on similar charges.
Havel's legal difficulties stem from a week-long series of demonstrations in January, commemorating the death of Jan Palach, the student who set himself on fire 20 years ago to protest the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Havel is accused of fanning the protests with interviews he gave to the Western press.
The protests were the largest in Prague since the invasion and alarmed the hard-line Czechoslovak communist authorities. Police turned water cannons and shot tear gas at the crowds. Almost 1,000 people were arrested, including Havel, on Jan. 16. In cold-war style, the official party press described Havel's actions as ``provocations'' by Western intelligence agencies and ``antisocialist,'' dissident conspiracies.
Before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow, the Czechoslovak public probably would have stayed silent. During Havel's five previous years in prison, only a few of his close Charter 77 friends openly supported him. But this time, 692 leading artists and theater and film figures sent a letter to Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec demanding the playwright's immediate release. They called on the regime to open a dialogue with its opponents.
``We just don't know how to deal with these demonstrations,'' one Czechoslovak official admitted in private afterward. ``If we give in a little, there are demands for more. And if we don't give in, there still are demands for more.''
Havel's reply to the dilemma is simple: Respect basic human rights. Back in November, Havel already had spent two days locked up in ``preventive detention'' for trying to hold an independent seminar on Czechoslovak history. The day after his release, he spoke with this correspondent in his apartment.
``Czechoslovakia is the greatest test place for Gorbachev's new policy in the Soviet bloc,'' he said. ``We support his restructuring, and yet he permits the old totalitarian structures to remain in place.''
A well-established democratic tradition, though suppressed since 1948, and a rusting but still formidable industrial base make the country a promising candidate for change. But its leadership remains paralyzed by the memory of the 1968 invasion. In Havel's opinion, Czechoslovaks no longer can wait for positive change to come from Moscow; they must push for it themselves.
``The only way our authorities know how to act is to try and isolate society, to make everyone who disagrees an enemy of the state,'' he said. ``They are frightened because we now show more energy, more activity.''
One thing is certain: Havel will not be silenced. The last time he was imprisoned, he wrote a collection of essays to his wife, published in the United States under the title ``Letters to Olga.''
When he spoke with the Monitor, he said he no longer had time to write. Unfortunately, he now could have the time.