Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who inspired millions of Czechs to force a bloodless Velvet Revolution in 1989, died Sunday after a long illness in his cottage in the Trutnov hills. He was 75.
The one-time stagehand at Prague’s Theater on the Balustrade spent more than four years in jail for his refusals to temper criticisms of the Soviet-ruled pre-’89 regime. His plays, including “The Garden Party” and “The Beggar’s Opera,” parodied official pomp and dysfunction and won him praise around the globe — and special attention from the police state at home.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, popular protest he had done much to nurture spilled into the streets of Prague and grew to such a scale that the authorities saw they had no choice but to step down.
Havel was swept into an office he never sought as the first democratically elected president in four decades in early 1990 and set about restoring Czech government to accountability and credibility.
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“Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday. “Today his voice has fallen silent. But his example and the cause to which he devoted his life will live on.”
The former president died “peacefully in his sleep,” according to Havel’s spokeswoman, Sabina Tancevova.
In Prague, visitors to the city’s castle gates, outside the former president’s office, laid flowers and lit candles as government staff draped a photo of Havel in black. A Czech television network scheduled a screening of “Leaving,” the film Havel directed in 2010 based on his play of the same name. In characteristic style, the story satirizes both the “mafia capitalism” Havel critiqued during the ’90s and the morally compromised intellectuals who came into office after 1989.
The play’s main character, Vilem Riger, is reluctant to give up his cushy villa after his term ends but faces avaricious successors who want to turn the property into a shopping mall and bordello. Havel’s glee at putting the story onto film was clear on the set of the film in Ceska Skalice last year, though he denied, not very convincingly, that it was based on anyone he knew.
His legacy, including more than 20 plays and nonfiction works, has reached far beyond the Czech Republic, where Havel served as president for 13 years — excluding a period in 1992 in which he stepped down because he did not want to oversee Czechoslovakia dividing into two countries. That event was made inevitable that year, when the former eastern province of Slovakia announced its intention to become independent.
Havel, both during and after his presidency, continued as a voice for human rights around the world, criticizing totalitarian regimes and gathering admirers from the Dalai Lama, who visited him in his last weeks, to Bill Clinton, the Rolling Stones and Samuel Beckett. He won the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom but was passed over for a Nobel Prize.
Havel’s manifesto, Charter 77, named for the year it was penned during a particularly repressive period of the communist administration, still inspires dissidents today. It was cited by China’s Liu Xiaobo who wrote his own version, Charter 08.
Czech authorities made Havel’s life difficult long before his activism, however. Because his father was a key figure in the building of Prague’s Barrandov Studios, Havel was branded bourgeois and banned from his dream of studying film. Later, after criticizing the Soviet crackdown on Prague in 1968, he was relegated to manual labor in a brewery.
He found work in the theater, however, and penned plays, essays and critiques, such as the challenging work “Living in Truth,” that he helped people to smuggle out of the country for publication abroad. He also sided with banned rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, whose polemical songs troubled the authorities. Havel and the musicians got around censorship by staging weddings in small towns, where the band was still legally permitted to play.
After outliving the communist regime, Havel found his presidency almost as troubling. One reason was that rivals such as Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, now president, oversaw a period of laissez-faire growth marked by scandal and corruption.
Though some Czechs, increasingly focused on making their fortunes, grew to find his calls to conscience tiresome, Havel never abandoned the simple motto that rose from his hundreds of pages of prosaic ethical explorations: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”
His personal ethic, that mankind’s greatest folly is taking himself too seriously, also shone through his work, both as dramatist and as president. And, as was clear from his annual New Year’s Day addresses, which drew even his most avowed skeptics around their radios, Havel never ceased his quest to find the right way forward.
Survivors include his wife, Dagmar.