Ferdinand Vanek, the eternal dissident, is the central character in Private View, in Protest and in this impressive autobiographical one act. Here Vanek, formerly a well known scriptwriter in Prague who is laboring in a brewery, is offered a better position if he will write reports for the secret police.
Citizen Vaněk: Historical background
In 1974, Václav Havel was a playwright in danger of being declared a “social parasite” by the neo-Stalinist regime of Gustav Husák. His plays had been banned and, in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic of that time, you could go to prison if you did not have a stamp in the employment box of your Citizen Identification passport. Havel solved the problem by finding a job as a brewery hand. For nearly a year, he rolled barrels in the basement of a regional brewery in Trutnov and the experience profoundly changed his writing. Havel had then recently finished a play, Conspirators, which he later likened to a roast that had been left in the oven for too long and dried up completely. He noted that “it probably was not by accident that I wrote a fifty-page commentary on Conspiratorsin which I had explicated and analyzed in detail all their complicated intentions and motivation.” His work in the brewery, however, suddenly gave him back the refreshing existential perspective “from below, from where the absurd and grotesque dimensions of the world are always more plainly visible.” And then an incident occured on the job that gave him the inspirational seed for what is his best loved, and arguably finest, play. Called Audience, and written quickly and easily “from the hip,” this long one-act opened up a new way of working in the theater for Havel - it was his first autobiographical play.
Audience features for the first time the character of Vaněk, a former playwright and an awkward and slightly comical figure. Havel’s theatrical self-portrait is merciless and completely devoid of narcisism. Vaněk soon appears in two more one-acts written “from the hip,” Unveiling and Protest, which between them completely sum up the moral dilemmas of the Czechoslovak life of that era. The Vaněk plays were quickly recognized and produced abroad, in theaters all over the world, giving Havel an official source of income again. He could no longer be prosecuted as a “social parasite,” so he quit the brewery and stopped getting up at four o’clock in the morning to earn his inspiration in the sweat of his brow.
Havel on the Trutnov brewery
Interview with Jiří Lederer, spring of 1975
Lederer: Do you have any stories from the brewery that are worth passing on?
Havel: I do. At the time, we called it our “Watergate affair.” One day in the lager cellar where I worked, they discovered some amateur eavesdropping gear, which had been installed there by the brewmaster and which extended directly into his apartment. That good man wanted to kill two birds with one stone: know what the workers were saying about him and, at the same time, curry favor with the state power by offering them my surveillance. In short, under the pretext of serving the motherland in the form of eavesdropping on me, he wanted to serve himself by eavesdropping on his workers. However, the thing was discovered – and it happened in such a fortunate way that it could not be swept under the rug – and the good brew master had to leave the operation in disgrace. And once it became a scandal, the state security of course washed its hands of it, denying that the mechanism had been installed with its blessing. The brewmaster couldn’t very well boast about that, either. And so in the end it all amounted only to an insult of the working class on the part of a leading cadre, which no one dared to justify. As you know, I had once already discovered eavesdropping gear in my Prague apartment: it was in comparison to that event that this brewery Watergate really amused me. Even though this second time I had nothing to do with the discovery of that gear, the State Security must now imagine that it could not have been an accident and that I am a master in uncovering bugging devices. I think it was very typical that once the affair happened, everybody – starting with the district authorities, State Security, the director of the brewery, all the way down to the brewmaster – got scared. And do you know who they were scared of? Me! There were afraid that I’d publish this somewhere abroad, that I’d carry their inglorious little pecadillo beyond the borders of their district and that I will cause their central bosses to reprimand them for acting in such a amateurish fashion. I have experienced a long string of such paradoxical situations at the brewery, since as soon as I started working there – which in itself was not an easy thing to do – the director of the district party authorities was notified in writing to watch me closely, because in my case there existed the danger that, in case of any injustice, I might announce it – as they wrote – to the “world press!” I was a factory helper in the provinces and, at the same time, “an enemy of the motherland” of chief importance, and that necessarily brought about all sorts of grotesque situations.
Audience was first presented at Vienna's Burgtheater in Austria in 1976.