A FEW weeks ago, Vaclav Havel lived the typical life of the beleaguered dissident. He endured censorship, countless hours of brutal police interrogations, and five years of hard labor behind prison bars. Wherever he went he carried toothpaste, cigarettes, and razor blades - his emergency kit for prison in case police seized him. Today, Mr. Havel stands center stage in Czechoslovakia's continuing political drama. He provided the inspiration for Civic Forum, the group that organized the recent demonstrations and strikes that toppled Czechoslovakia's hard-line communist regime. When hundreds of thousands of people demanding democracy massed in Wenceslas Square, he addressed them. When Communist officials talk about dialogue with the opposition, they mean first and foremost Havel.
His voice rings out over the airwaves. His photos are pasted all over Prague. People wear stickers blaring, ``We love Havel.''
In many ways, it is surprising that Havel plays such a key role. He is no charismatic, working-class leader or politician like Poland's Lech Walesa. He has little experience organizing factory strikes or street demonstrations.
Instead, he is a small, shy, soft-spoken man who considers himself only a simple playwright. His renown comes from his plays, absurdist dramas mocking his homeland's gray communism, and his essays, which are deep, difficult philosophical tomes on the perverse effect an individual can have on totalitarianism.
``I am a writer and human rights activist,'' he repeats over and over, ``not a politician.''
Words and writers, however, play a much more important role in Eastern Europe than in the West. Because normal political activity long was suppressed by an overweening state, it was left to the artist to voice the longings of the nation.
During the 19th century, when Czechoslovakia was submerged within the larger Austro-Hungarian Empire, writers led the Czech nationalist revival, concentrating on reviving national culture rather than on organizing a nationalist political party. Havel himself is often compared to Karel Havilcek-Borovsky, the great 19th-century nationalist writer who - like Havel - was banned.
``The Great Havel,'' says Jiri Dienstbier, his friend and fellow founder of Civic Forum. ``He has become larger than life, almost a myth.''
His life itself followed a strange, quirky path. He entered the theater game by chance, after becoming a stagehand. Captivated, he began writing for fun. After his first play was produced (``The Garden Party'' is a powerful story of a student whose consuming interest is playing chess), he became artistic director of Prague's most important avant-garde theater, the Ballustrade.
When a wave of freedom spread over Czechoslovakia during the so-called Prague Spring, Havel's plays led the way. After the August 1968 Soviet-led invasion, the then-32-year-old playwright condemned it in a courageous, clandestine shortwave broadcast. During the grim ``normalization'' process that cut off the most prominent Prague Spring participants from their jobs and futures, Havel's books were removed from all libraries and his plays were banned.
In 1977, he helped draft Charter 77's ``Declaration'' of Human Rights. Within 24 hours, he and four other organizers were arrested and their homes ransacked.
In Havel's view, moral courage is the necessary ingredient to bring about a more democratic society. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev helps speed the process, but the push must come from below - from, as Havel puts it, people ``living in truth.''
To get across his point, he tells the story of a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop who places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan ``workers of the world, unite.'' Nobody believes in the slogan. But if the manager refused to display it he would be demoted, he would lose the chance of spending his holidays in Black Sea resorts, and his children would not be able to go to university. Out of fear, he continues to wave the slogan. For positive change to come, Havel reasons that the owner must take down the false sign.
This passage, from the essay ``The Power of the Powerless,'' has become the rallying cry of Czechoslovakia's nonviolent ``revolution.'' Over the past few evenings, actors and writers have taken to reading it aloud in theaters across the country. Crowds react in near rapture.
``It's a marvelous passage, which describes just what has happened here,'' says Milos Calda, a philosophy professor. ``People have finally stood up and said: `We lived a lie.'''
Throughout the demonstrations, Czechs chanted, shouted, honked their horns, shook their keys. But they never lost sight of Havel's warning against violence and lies. These, Havel told them, are the methods of his oppressors.
The best path forward, he says, is dialogue with Czechoslovakia's crumbling Communist Party. After 20 years of refusing, that dialogue has begun, with Havel playing the leading role. He has been meeting with the new prime minister, Marian Calfa, to discuss the formation of the new government.
Appearing before 15,000 cheering youngsters at a recent rock concert, he looked tired and uncomfortable. On stage, he fidgeted in his seat. Although no one doubts his moral integrity, some observers here fear that Havel may not turn out to be a good, practical politician.
``In Poland, the Solidarity leaders like [Bronislaw] Geremek are like acupuncturists; they know exactly what points to prick,'' says British analyst Timothy Garton-Ash. ``Havel and his friends in the Czechoslovak Civic Forum may not have the same political skills.''
Havel long repeated that he desires no position for himself. But circumstances and his own conscience have catapulted him into the political arena.
``Havel insists he is not a politician, that he is first of all a playwright,'' says Civic Forum activist Petr Friedenberger. ``Yet he is the only person capable of taking this country out of the mess. Our people trust him. So even if he himself doesn't like it, he has no choice except to take a job.''
As a result of this popular pressure, Havel has agreed that if asked he would accept the presidency for a short time. The president enjoys little control over day-to-day governing. Instead, the post is designed for moral leadership.
``It's an amazing idea, `Havel the nonperson' as president,'' says Karel Dyba, an official at the Economic Forecasting Institute. ``But it may be the only solution. He is the only individual who enjoys sufficient public confidence.''