Eloquence From a Playwright Drenched in Politics


NOW that the tumult has died down, I've been thinking back over Vaclav Havel's address to Congress as Czechoslovakia's new president. Congress and the news media went wild with enthusiasm. But one sensed, for all their euphoria, a vague reservation about Mr. Havel. If spelled out, it would go something like this: Havel made a wonderful speech. And no wonder: He's a man of words. Writers, of course, have the time to give to words. They don't have to run things. Running things is what we politicians do. And Havel's not a politician - he's a playwright. Of course, it's awfully hard to run something - a country, for instance - if you're an amateur. But running things is what really matters. All well and good to stand before Congress and speak great truths. But can a mere literary figure survive the rough-and-tumble of politics? We'll have to wait and see.

To a certain extent, of course, Havel himself encouraged that view. ``I have not attended any schools for presidents,'' he confessed to Congress, and he gave the impression of a man counting on the upcoming election to set him free. But the notion that because he is a significant literary figure he is somehow divorced from politics is a view as lamentably American as it is inaccurate.

In the literature of the English-speaking nations, to be sure, politics is simply one subject among many. In many other cultures, however, politics is the subject, the whetstone upon which every major writer sharpens his or her greatness.

It's not always an easy topic, either. It often must evade censorship and repression by hiding within allegories and couching itself in symbols. Yet in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union - again and again the great modern literary voices, and their publics, understand that politics is the abiding concern.

Modern English literature, and its American cousin, is somehow different. Oscar Wilde, late in the 19th century, observed that all art is perfectly useless. William Butler Yeats, though he once held elective office, railed against the incursion of politics into poetry - even while he longed for the old days when poetry was a political force. W.H. Auden, in his elegy for Yeats, noted with resignation that ``poetry makes nothing happen.''

Perhaps tyranny sharpens literature. Or maybe freedom - a centuries-old elixir for English-speakers that many other nations are just now tasting - finally permits the focus of literary creativity to broaden beyond the political realm.

Whatever the truth, one thing is clear: Havel cannot be judged by American standards. His presidential credentials do not depend simply on his being a political activist. They are inexorably grounded in his plays - in the themes of totalitarianism, bureaucracy, alienation, disintegrating consciousness, conformity, and individuality that permeate his work. He is not a politician because he runs things. He's a politician because, having lived through political repression, he has reflected more deeply about it than most American politicians ever will.

``The salvation of this human world,'' he told Congress, ``lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.'' See him as ``just'' a writer, and those words appear little more than the soaring oratory any pol might use. See him as a playwright drenched in politics, however, and they take on new force. This is the voice of experience telling you what really matters. ``Mere'' playwright, indeed!

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