Vaclav Havel at 70: A 'Fairy Tale Story'

Vaclav Havel, photographed on his 70th birthday during a visit to Slovakia. i i

Vaclav Havel, photographed on his 70th birthday during a visit to Slovakia. Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images
Vaclav Havel, photographed on his 70th birthday during a visit to Slovakia.

Vaclav Havel, photographed on his 70th birthday during a visit to Slovakia.

Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who became president of his country after the Velvet Revolution and the demise of the Soviet Union, reflects on his eventful life and times.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In a world in which revolutionary leaders are often firebrands, Vaclav Havel was quiet, a playwright who seemed to use words to shed light, not spark heat. As his Velvet Revolution challenged Czechoslovakia's communist regime in 1989, he told Western reporters...

Mr. VACLAV HAVEL (Playwright): Now we are in time when there are beginnings of real opposition in our country. And this opposition is based on openly expressed sympathy of a part of society. Perhaps what will happen in the next time and in next minutes, hours, days, weeks, I don't know, of course. But I feel that something has to change in our country.

SIMON: Communist regime came down bloodlessly and Vaclav Havel, who had been more famous as a playwright and political prisoner than activist, became the president of Czechoslovakia. Mr. Havel has spent eight weeks this winter as an artist in residence at Columbia University. He spoke with students, had dialogues with other famous public figures, including Bill Clinton, George Soros and Milos Forman, and went to a couple of hockey games. He told me it was a thrill.

Mr. HAVEL: It was first time when I see NHL live, not only in TV, and for me it was a very interesting thing. It was big show. Those players were able to do unbelievable things. And half of them were Czechs.

SIMON: At the age of 70, there is gray spreading into Vaclav Havel's signature mustache and a huskiness in his voice that may linger from lung cancer surgery. While he's been at Columbia, the Untitled Theatre Company has presented Vaclav Havel's plays. He wrote "The Conspirators" while in prison in 1971, smuggling it out of the country by handing it to a German agent in a men's room.

In that play, people surrounding the democratic leader plot a coup to preserve their democracy, they say, from being overthrown by a charismatic tyrant. Thirty-five years after he wrote "The Conspirators," he says through interpreter Veronica Tukarova(ph), the play surprised him.

Mr. HAVEL: (Through translator) And I actually never liked that play, and I even persecuted the play in some ways. I didn't want it to be performed. And it was performed here in New York in some apartment theater and it was played in an excellent way. And it worked for the audience as if the play was written yesterday. It was perfectly relevant and the audience was capable of finding in it their own world. So the answer to their own questions.

So what I am saying is that the play should be smarter than the author is. It should have new significance, new meanings; it should provoke new associations with every new audience in every new place.

SIMON: But by now, Vaclav Havel's had a larger audience as a politician than a playwright. He notices that sometimes when he uses a pen, even a telephone, people take it as some kind of souvenir.

Mr. HAVEL: (Through translator) Due to particular historical situations, I became a sort of mythological figure and my life became a fairytale story. And n some respects it, of course, makes my life easier but it also makes it much more difficult, because sometimes it feels that it is a role for somebody who is already no longer alive.

And the distress, the pressure is that I will do something or that a person like me would do something that does not fit the role. But of course what I meant is that I am not as nice as my own story is.

SIMON: Vaclav Havel is one of the world's best-known rock fans. He was jailed for defending the band Plastic People of the Universe, and wrote that the band embodied life's intrinsic desire to express itself freely in its own authentic and sovereign way, which has been called a good definition of both democracy and rock and roll.

We asked him to suggest a song to end this interview. He said Lou Reed's "Perfect Day."

(Soundbite of song, "Perfect Day")

Mr. LOU REED (Singer): (Singing) Just a summer's day, drink Sangria in the park, then later when it gets dark we go home. Just a perfect day, feed animals in the zoo...

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