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Vaclav Havel was one of the most respected playwrights in the world before he became president of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1989. He left office in 2003 and recently published his first play in almost 20 years. The play is called "Leaving." Its U.S. premiere is tomorrow in Philadelphia.
Joel Rose has more.
JOEL ROSE: "Leaving" is about the leader of an unspecified country who steps down after many years in power, but Vaclav Havel insists this is not autobiography. Havel says he began writing the play in the 1980s, long before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Mr. VACLAV HAVEL (Playwright, "Leaving"): (Through translator) When the Velvet Revolution came along, I forgot about the play. I had completely different worries and responsibilities, and I thought I'd just tossed it out.
ROSE: A neighbor saved an early draft. And despite what Havel says, there are some similarities between the playwright and Vilem Rieger, the central character of "Leaving."
(Soundbite of play, "Leaving")
Mr. DAVID STRATHAIRN (Actor): (as Vilem Rieger) So, you're a political scientist?
Ms. MARY McCOOL (Actor): (as Bea Weissenmuttelhofova) Yes. But I've taken a couple of terms of multicultural socio-psychology and intermedia communications.
Mr. STRATHAIRN: (as Vilem Rieger) And may I ask what your name is?
Ms. McCOOL: (as Bea Weissenmuttelhofova) Weisenmuttelhofova. Beatrice Weisenmuttelhofova. But you can call me Bea, Mr. Chancellor.
Mr. STRATHAIRN: (as Vilem Rieger) Delighted, Bea. But I'm no longer chancellor.
Ms. McCOOL: (as Bea Weissenmuttelhofova) For me, you will always be chancellor, Mr. Chancellor.
Mr. HAVEL: (Through translator) Some small details from my life found their way into my play, but on the whole, the play has nothing in common with my own departure. And also the main character, I hope, is quite different from me.
ROSE: Rieger turns out to be more clown than hero. He's played in the U.S. production by David Strathairn, best known for his starring role in "Good Night and Good Luck."
Mr. STRATHAIRN: Havel calls it a tragedy. But every time people come to a read-through or watch a little bit of rehearsal or something, they're laughing.
ROSE: Strathairn says "Leaving" is a reflection on endings of all kinds, full of references to Shakespeare and Chekhov.
(Soundbite of play, "Leaving")
Ms. McCOOL: (as Bea Weissenmuttelhofova) Is this from your orchard?
Mr. STRATHAIRN: (as Vilem Rieger) No, my daughter brought them. We just have a cherry orchard.
ROSE: Havel brought the same wry sense of humor to his career in politics. He was famous in the West for riding a scooter through Prague Castle, meditating with the Dalai Lama and generally appearing to enjoy his job. But where the character Rieger clings to power and its trappings, Havel says he was glad to leave the presidency after 13 years.
Mr. HAVEL: (Through translator) I felt that a huge weight had fallen from my shoulders. I don't mean to make a light of it or say that it was only a burden. On the contrary, it was not just a burden, but a gift of fate, because the whole world was transformed and I was able to be at the center of the action and even have an influence on that action, and that's hardly an everyday occurrence.
ROSE: Vaclav Havel was born into an upper-class family in Prague. He was banned from going to college after the Communist Party came to power, so he worked his way up in the theater.
Jiri Zizka, who's directing the U.S. premiere of "Leaving" at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, grew up seeing Havel's plays in Czechoslovakia.
Mr. JIRI ZIZKA (Director, "Leaving"): He was a fresh voice. He had nothing to do with the sort of classical Czech theater. I suppose you could call it the theater of the absurd. He's very interested in creating arguments that make no sense whatsoever. But it was much deeper than that. He has become a very significant voice in the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia.
ROSE: Havel was in and out of prison during the 1970s and '80s. That didn't stop him from publishing more than a dozen plays. It was only when Havel was elected president that he had to put his writing aside. He still struggles to find time for it.
Mr. HAVEL: (Through translator) I was looking forward to a time when the public's interest in me would subside and I would have more time to concentrate on my own work. I wanted to return to the theater, to writing, and it turned out that interest in me did not diminish. On the contrary, it may even have increased. You are president for five years; you are a former president for life. That was something I hadn't really realized before.
ROSE: Plenty of former politicians publish their memoirs, and Havel is no exception. But as actor David Strathairn notes, not many use the stage to reflect on politics.
Mr. STRATHAIRN: How many of our presidents have written plays that have been produced? It is kind of special to have this kind of insight to one man's experience as a leader on the world stage.
ROSE: So far, Havel's career as a politician has threatened to overshadow his work as a playwright. But in the long run, he says, it may be the other way around.
Mr. HAVEL: (Through translator) I think that if you are a good writer, a good playwright - which I'm not claiming to be; that is for others to judge - then you are not forgotten as quickly as politicians. Politicians come and go; literature remains.
ROSE: The 73-year-old playwright is in Philadelphia for the U.S. premiere of "Leaving." In between his obligations as former president, Vaclav Havel is making time to direct a film version of his play. When that's finished, he plans to write another one.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
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