Skip to content
2021 Spring


Ondrej Pilny
For information about registration please contact our admissions.

The primary objective of the course is to introduce the students to Václav Havel, a central figure of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, as Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president, and prior to this a leading political dissident and avant-garde playwright. Students will first discuss Havel’s involvement in the theatre On the Balustrade in the 1960s. His early absurdist plays will be viewed also in association with the work of prominent European playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, whose work Havel helped to introduce in Czechoslovakia, and Tom Stoppard, who has acknowledged a debt to Havel’s drama. The course will move to outline Havel’s involvement as a dissident after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact, and follow his removal from the public sphere by the totalitarian regime. Havel’s work as a political dissident will be traced through the reading of selected essays and petitions, including his letter to President Husák and the Charter 77 declaration. The latter will be read in its broader context of the coming together of various strands of political dissent (from opposition intellectuals through ex-communist politicians to the Czech underground movement) due to the persecution of the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Finally, Havel’s official career as a politician will be outlined, from his role as a founding member of the Civic Forum in 1989, through two terms in office as President, up to his retirement from top politics and return to creative writing, as exemplified by his last play Leaving and his subsequent film version of the same. Throughout, Havel’s career will be viewed on the backdrop of life in Czechoslovakia, through the mild thaw of the 60s, a return to totalitarianism in the 70s and 80s, up to the liberal atmosphere of the Velvet Revolution, with the objective to facilitate a better understanding of everyday life in these various periods. Finally, students will have a chance to discuss a recent (2020) biographical film about Havel, considering how it conceptualises Havel’s importance and legacy. The course will be complemented by screenings of plentiful documentary material (and, the COVID pandemic allowing, the physical presentation of a variety of printed and other materials and artifacts).

Student Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this course, students should be able to:

  • Comprehend and have a clear understanding of Václav Havel’s work as a playwright in the broader context of European theatre, and as a political activist and politician.
  • Comprehend the importance of the production context of drama for the creation of meaning, as instantiated by the interpretation of the theatre of the absurd on either side of the Iron Curtain.
  • Understand the position of Václav Havel’s thought in the context of twentieth-century politics and philosophy.
  • Understand the nature of everyday life in the totalitarian regime of communist Czechoslovakia.
  • Comprehend the nature of political dissent in Czechoslovakia, including the role of anti-communist intellectuals, pre-1968 reform communists, and radical rock musicians.
  • Identify clearly how Czech politics has changed since Havel’s time as President.
  • Understand how Havel’s legacy is perceived in contemporary Czech Republic.

Reading Material

Required Materials

  • Václav Havel, The Garden Party and Other Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1993)
  • Václav Havel, Leaving (London: Faber and Faber, 2008)
  • Václav Havel, Letters to Olga (London: Faber and Faber, 1990)
  • Václav Havel, selected essays from the Václav Havel Library
  • Samuel Beckett Catastrophe, in The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1987)
  • Tom Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll (London: Faber and Faber, 2006)
  • “The Charter 77 Declaration”
  • A selection of secondary and biographical sources.

 All primary materials are available to students in e-form on NEO.

Recommended Materials

Michael Žantovský, A Life (London: Atlantic Books, 2014)

Michael Žantovský, Havel (Praha: Argo, 2014)


Teaching methodology

Classes will combine introductory comments by the instructor, student presentations and debates over these, and detailed discussions of the assigned reading. Screenings of documentary material or extracts from productions, audio clips, photographs and printed material will complement the discussion wherever relevant.


Each session features a set of assigned questions. These are intended to focus the students’ thinking about the texts and to trigger in-class discussion. Students will be expected to formulate provisional answers to the questions prior to each class.

Here is the course outline:


Feb 04

The course syllabus and all materials are available under the Resources. Texts originally written in Czech are provided also in that language for reference. Materials for the individual sessions are listed for each session in the individual Lessons as well.

1. Introduction

Feb 09

Václav Havel: His Life and His Work

2. Václav Havel, The Garden Party and the Theatre of the Absurd

Feb 16

Topic: Václav Havel, The Garden Party and the Theatre of the Absurd Description: A discussion of Václav Havel, The Garden Party and the concept of the theatre of the absurd. Reading: Václav Havel, The Garden Party Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. Outline the basic plot of the play. 2. What is the power of the individual characters (the Director, Falk, the Clerk, the Secretary, Hugo) determined by? 3. Who, or what, are the characters afraid of? Presentation: Martin Esslin on the theatre of the absurd

3. Václav Havel and the Theatre of the Absurd as Hyper-realism

Feb 23

A discussion of Václav Havel, The Memorandum, the work of the Theatre on the Balustrade, and the reception of the theatre of the absurd in the Eastern Bloc. Reading: Václav Havel, The Memorandum; Ondřej Pilný, “Jan Grossman, Prague Structuralism, and the Grotesque” Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. How is Ptydepe supposed to function? 2. How does Ptydepe actually function? 3. Is Gross an honest, old-style director? Presentation: Václav Havel, The Memorandum

4. From Playwright to Dissident

Mar 02

Havel’s Letter to Secretary General Husák Reading: Václav Havel, “Dear Dr. Husák” Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. What are the main characteristics of the “consolidation” of contemporary Czechoslovak society according to Havel? 2. How has consumerism been harnessed by the authorities? 3. How does Havel characterise culture in contemporary Czechoslovakia? 4. How does Havel define an entropic regime? Presentation: The Prague Spring of 1968 and the Invasion of the Warsaw Pact

5. From Playwright to Dissident

Mar 09

The Vaněk Plays Reading: Václav Havel, Audience; Protest Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. Do you interpret the ending of Audience as pessimistic? 2. Why does Staněk in Protest not sign the petition? 3. What are the similarities between Vaněk and Staněk in Protest? Why does Havel not make them much more distinctly different? Presentation 1: Václav Havel, Audience Presentation 2: Václav Havel, Protest

6. The Dissident

Mar 16

The Plastic People of the Universe and Charter 77 Reading: “The Charter 77 Declaration”; Tom Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. What is the effect of the use of rock music in between the scenes in Rock’n’Roll? 2. Is Max wrong in remaining a Marxist after the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia? 3. Does Stoppard’s play argue that rock’n’roll significantly contributed to the removal of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia? Presentation: The Music in Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll

7. The Dissident

Mar 23

“The Power of the Powerless” and Imprisonment Reading: Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless” Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. How does Havel define power? 2. How does Havel define a post-totalitarian regime? 3. How does Havel conceptualise “life in truth”? 4. What are to be the principal roles of the dissidents in the society?

8. The Dissident

Mar 30

Samuel Beckett and Václav Havel Reading: Samuel Beckett, Catastrophe; Václav Havel, Mistake Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. What is the meaning of the actor’s final gesture in Catastrophe? 2. How do you interpret the title of Catastrophe? 3. Is Catastrophe a play about political violence? 4. Is Mistake a play about political violence? And if so, does it relate to a specific context (e.g., 1980s Czechoslovakia)? 5. How do you interpret the final violent action of the prisoners against Xiboy in Mistake? Presentation 1: Samuel Beckett, Catastrophe Presentation 2: Václav Havel, Mistake

9. The Dissident

Apr 13

Havel’s Reflections in Jail; The Life of Olga Havlová Reading: Václav Havel, a selection from Letters to Olga Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. What have you learnt about Havel’s life in jail from his letters? 2. What are the likely reasons for Olga Havlová’s disagreement with the idea of emigration to the USA? 3. On what grounds does Havel say that one should pay the tram fare even when alone and unwatched? Who or what are we ultimately responsible to, according to Havel? Presentation: Havel’s Letters to Olga

10. The Dissident

Apr 20

Disturbing the Peace: Selected Essays Reading: Václav Havel, “Politics and Conscience”; “Stories and Totalitarianism”; “A Word about Words” Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. Why does Havel call East European totalitarian regimes “a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism” in “Politics and Conscience”? 2. How does Havel define “anti-political politics”, and why does he favour it in “Politics and Conscience”? 3. Why is the totalitarian system “directed against the story”, as outlined in “Stories and Totalitarianism”? How does Havel define “story”? 4. Why are private and public life in totalitarianism inseparable according to “Stories and Totalitarianism”? 5. Why is it necessary to always be suspicious of words, according to “A Word about Words”? Consider the contrast of humbleness and arrogance as outlined by Havel, and its validity as regards his examples. Presentation: Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” and its Effect on Eastern Europe.

11. 1989. From Dissident to President

Apr 27

Havel as Politician and President Reading: Václav Havel, “New Year Address, 1990”; “The Role of the Czech President, 1993” Assignments/deadlines: Essay abstracts due. Questions: 1. What are the two main reasons for the future of Czechoslovakia being hopeful according to Havel’s 1990 New Year address? 2. What are the tasks that Havel gives himself as President in 1990? 3. What are the ways in which the Czech president 1) can, and 2) should influence the politics of the country according to Havel’s 1993 article? Presentation: The “Velvet Revolution” and the Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia (1989-90)

12. From President to Citizen

May 04

The Legacy of Václav Havel Reading: Václav Havel, Leaving Assignments/deadlines: Questions: 1. Given that most audiences are going to view the protagonist (Rieger) as being based on the author, what is the role of Voice in the play? 2. What is the role of allusions to King Lear and The Cherry Orchard? 3. Do you interpret the play as a satirical reflection of Havel’s own experience as a politician, or rather a comment on contemporary Western politics in a more general sense? Presentation: Václav Havel, Leaving: The Film Version versus the Play

13. Václav Havel for Posterity?

May 11

Discussion of Slávek Horák’s feature film Havel (2020) Reading: - Assignments/deadlines: Final essays due. Questions: 1. How much have you learnt from the film about Havel as a person? 2. Did you detect any factual errors in the film? 3. Are you happy with the way the film outlines the principal ideas expressed in Havel’s essays?

14. Final test (online).

May 18

Detailed feedback on final essays (optional).

Back to top