In 1968, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and the process of so-called ‘normalisation’ began, Havel was already a successful playwright. But as the Communist Party reestablished its position of absolute power, he along with thousands of others became a ‘non-person’. His books were removed from library shelves, his plays could no longer be performed and his name effectively vanished from public life.
Havel wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1968, but it was four years later that he and his friend Andrej Krob concocted a plan to stage it. No professional theatre dared touch it and any professional actor taking part would risk their career. So through a network of friends, they assembled an amateur company of teachers and students, white-collar workers and mechanics. Copies of the play were typed out on the tissue-thin paper used for samizdat publications and passed round in secret. Rehearsals took place in people’s homes – never in the same place twice to avoid arousing suspicion. They called themselves ‘The Theatre on the Move’.
Rehearsing the play was one thing; putting it on in public was another matter. After two years of working in secret, they approached a ‘House of Culture’ in an obscure suburb of Prague and requested permission to put on a play.
If the title, The Beggar’s Opera, sounds familiar, then that’s no coincidence. This is the same story of Macheath, Peachum and Lockett first written by John Gray in 18th Century England, then reimagined by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil as The Threepenny Opera – and now given another twist in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. By calling it The Beggar’s Opera, they were able to persuade the authorities that this was simply a translation of an English classic, adapted slightly to remove the musical numbers. So effective had the state’s erasure of Havel’s name been that the company didn’t even hide his involvement: the minor officials in this out of the way suburb had never heard of him. Permission was granted, provided the performance was not advertised and no charge was made for admission.
Three hundred trusted friends, secretly invited to view the play, first had to find their way to the House of Culture in Horní Pŏcernice. Imagine a cross between a school auditorium and one of those characterless pubs plonked down in the middle of housing estates in the ‘70s. A place avoided by the locals because most of the entertainment provided was thinly disguised propaganda. An hour before the play began, half the audience were driving round in circles, not daring to ask for directions for fear of giving the game away to the authorities.
Just as the play was due to start, it seemed as if their worst fears had been realised. A man came out onto the stage. He lit a cigarette and stood there, blowing smoke rings out over the audience, his eyes travelling over their faces as if memorising them. The audience held its collective breath, fear catching in their throats. But it was a coup de théâtre: the man was Andrej Krob, Havel’s friend and the director of the play, reminding everyone – audience and actors alike – that they were always being watched.
But not that evening. No secret service men were in the audience or outside, taking note of car registrations. It seemed as if the whole venture had been a resounding success. The play had been put on, under the nose of the authorities, and they had got away with it. The set was disassembled and the troupe retired to the Little Bears pub in the centre of Prague to celebrate. A second performance was planned for a week later. But their downfall came, not from spies and traitors within Czechoslovakia, but from their allies in the West.
An eyewitness account of the play’s performance was broadcast on Radio Free Europe out of Zurich, and then published in Der Spiegel. The authorities were furious, but to some extent their hands were tied. The Warsaw Pact countries had just signed the Helsinki Accord which, among other things, guaranteed a certain degree of respect for human rights. They could not be seen to respond too ruthlessly to the single performance of an obscure play. So reprisals against the members of the Theatre on the Move had to be discreet. No one was thrown in gaol or sent away to a camp. But passports and driving licences were revoked. Jobs, including Krob’s, were mysteriously ‘restructured’ out of existence. Children of participants failed to find places at university. Even people who were merely suspected of participation suffered. Havel’s play was not performed again in the Czech Republic until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
So what was it about this play that so threatened the Czech regime? After all, the story is familiar enough. Macheath the gallant highwayman, seducing the daughters of a fence and a gaoler, playing off the fathers against each other and dodging an ignominious fate at the end of a rope. But in Havel’s hands, it becomes an indictment of the conditions of living under a totalitarian state.
Aynsley Moorhouse has compared the totalitarian state to Jeremy Bentham’s design of the Panopticon: the ideal prison where each prisoner is under constant observation from every angle. And this, Havel argued, creates a situation where the truth is constantly distorted, where every action is done for appearance only and nothing can be taken at face value. In his essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, Havel cites the example of the greengrocer who puts a sign in his window that reads ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ He does it, not because he believes in international socialist revolution, but because he fears the consequences of not appearing to believe in it. And this constant need to dissemble, Havel believes, causes people to shrivel from within until they lose their humanity altogether.
In Havel’s play, every character appears to be constantly and eloquently justifying their own actions – but nothing they say can be trusted or taken at face value. When, in a final twist unique to Havel’s version, the policeman Lockett is ‘revealed’ to be a criminal who has taken control, first of the police force and now of the whole criminal underworld, the audience is left to guess that he, too, may be the victim of a giant self-deception.
The message of Havel’s writing, and what made him so dangerous, was not simply ‘stop believing what you are told’ (few people did) but ‘stop pretending to believe’. Act like human beings again. Take the sign out of your window and face the consequences of being honest.
Maybe it’s a lesson we could all learn.
• Václav Havel, The Beggar’s Opera, (translated by Paul Wilson), Cornell Press, 2001
• Paul Steiner: Introduction the The Beggar’s Opera, Cornell Press, 2001
• Václav Havel, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, 1978
• Aynsley Moorhouse, ‘Reframing the Theatrical Event: Václav Havel’s The Beggar’s Opera’, Transverse Journal, 2010