by Tess Megginson
1968 was a watershed year for political activism and artistic expression in both the United States and Czechoslovakia. The United States’ failure in the Tet Offensive led to an unprecedented number of protests against American involvement in Vietnam. Czechoslovakia’s relaxation of censorship laws led to an unprecedented number of publications. Throughout the mid-to-late 1960s, the theatre scenes in Prague and New York City experienced similar upheavals against conventional theatre. It was in this political and creative climate that Václav Havel visited the United States for the first time to see the first American performance of his play, The Memorandum, at the New York Public Theatre in April 1968. Arriving only weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Havel encountered an America as tumultuous and changing as his home country. I will use Havel’s visit to New York City to discuss the political climate at the time, focusing on the American theatre scene in a year that has become synonymous with political activism and rejection of the status quo. In 1968, Czechoslovak and American theatre fostered the unconventional and the absurd.
By the mid-1960s, Czechoslovak theatre was being produced across the globe, with Václav Havel as an internationally acclaimed Czech playwright. (1) Havel’s first play, The Garden Party (Zahradní slavnost), was staged at Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade in 1963 and met with great critical acclaim. (2) The Garden Party follows Hugo, a young bureaucrat who faces dehumanization as he advances his career through an unidentified institution. (3) In 1965, the same theatre produced Havel’s new play, The Memorandum. This play continued Havel’s tradition of combining theatre of the absurd with Czech theatre of the appeal, focusing on the dehumanization of over-bureaucratization. (4) The language used in The Memorandum, Ptydepe, is indicative of the censorship laws in Czechoslovakia, while also acting as a critique of the inefficiency of bureaucracy. Havel’s plays were a reflection of the internal situation in Czechoslovakia, but like all his works, they contained an external, more universal, dimension as well. Writing in 1999, American reviewer Phyllis Carey recognized the universality of The Memorandum in her analysis. She wrote: “[The Memorandum] also reflects, especially for Western audiences, the succumbing of the individual and society to a worldview that disregards human responsibility.” (5) Because of their universality and familiar absurdity, Havel’s plays were successful wherever they were performed.
Czechoslovak theatre reflected the easing of censorship and liberalization of the country that occurred during the spring of 1968. Because of the relaxed political climate of Communist Czechoslovakia under First Secretary Alexander Dubček’s “socialism with a human face” in 1968, Havel was able to accept an invitation from Joseph Papp to visit New York City in April to see the first American performance of The Memorandum. Havel’s 1968 trip to New York City was the only time he would visit the United States before the fall of Communism and his assumption of the role of president of a democratic and free Czechoslovakia. (6) Despite this being his only visit to America before 1990, April 1968 would be one of the most momentous times of the postwar period to visit America. (7)
As in Czechoslovakia, the United States had a politically turbulent 1968 in the lead-up to Havel’s visit. This year saw the escalation of the Vietnam War, where allied troops increased from 23,000 in 1964 to 536,000 in 1968. (8) Anti-war demonstrations reached unprecedented levels, causing President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce that he would no longer seek reelection in the November elections. (9) Civil rights demonstrations also reached monumental levels following April 4 when American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, riots and protests against racism swept across the country. (10) In the same month, a student strike took place at Columbia University in New York, where students closed down administrative buildings and classrooms in response to overregulation. (11) Havel arrived in the United States as the strike at Columbia University persisted. In 1990, on an official visit to the United States (then as the President of Czechoslovakia), Havel recalled an invitation to speak to the striking students at Columbia. He stated: “I must tell that the atmosphere of the sixties in universities in the United States and the whole atmosphere of that time very much inspired me, influenced me”. (12) Havel’s experiences in one of the most turbulent months of the 1960s would continue to impact his thinking throughout the Communist period.
April 1968 was one of the most eventful months of that year in both the United States and Czechoslovakia. The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., First Secretary Alexander Dubček announced the Action Programme of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which outlined their liberalizing plan for the country and Dubček’s “socialism with a human face.” (13) Only a couple weeks following both of these monumental events, each of which had its own ripple-effect across their respective countries (and continents), Havel took a trip to New York City to see the first American production of one of his plays: Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre put on a production of The Memorandum, which premiered on April 23. (14)
Theatre in New York had begun to rebel against convention in the mid-to-late 1960s, making many artists’ focus the issues surrounding Broadway theatre. While Off-Broadway theatre had begun long before the 1960s as a way to perform the underappreciated plays of playwrights such as Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, (15) it became popular enough to rival Broadway in the 1950s. (16) The attraction of Off-Broadway theatre is evident in the name: that is, theatre which is geographically and ideologically separated from Broadway — even anti-Broadway. Despite beginning as a protest to Broadway, by the early 1960s, Off-Broadway became a place that directors and producers would do test-runs of plays and musicals to assess if they were worthy of investment for Broadway. (17) In the mid-1960s, many former supporters of the Off-Broadway movement perceived an artistic and creative decline in Off-Broadway theatre, creating Off-Off-Broadway movement in opposition to the alleged conformity of Off-Broadway; Off-Broadway had become the bridge between Off-Off Broadway and Broadway. (18) In the late 1960s, influential figures in the Off-Broadway theatre scene cultivated its renaissance. During 1967-68, theatres such as Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre returned Off-Broadway to a place that fostered unconventional and controversial theatre. Out of Papp’s theatre came one of the most successful musicals to move from Off-Broadway to Broadway: Hair. The musical was performed only months before the Public Theatre would stage The Memorandum. (19)
Unlike Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway were eager to tackle controversial themes and challenge norms, conventions, and censorship laws. (20) Since his emergence onto the scene, Joseph Papp had been trying to revolutionize the theatrical experience in New York. Papp was dedicated to showing alternative theatre, believing Broadway was over-commercialized and that American theatregoers no longer saw the theatre as art, but as entertainment. (21) In 1967, Papp’s Public Theatre premiered the new musical, Hair, which dealt with controversial and taboo subjects, such as the hippie movement, nudity and free love, and anti-war demonstrations. Despite Papp’s theatre not intending to be a test-run theatre for Broadway like so many Off-Broadway theatres had become, Broadway producers picked up Hair for Broadway in the spring of 1968. (22) Havel attended the premiere of Hair on Broadway during his visit to New York, on Papp’s invitation. (23) The production of Hair that Havel saw was extremely different from the production Papp had produced at the Public Theatre, after it was adapted for Broadway, toning down its more risqué themes. (24) Off-Broadway was gaining such significant popularity by the time Havel visited New York that even the Off-Broadway theatres that did not want themselves associated with Broadway had eagle-eyed producers watching them, hoping to find the next hit.
The transition from Off-Broadway to Broadway was not the only marker of success for plays in New York. Off-Broadway recognized its best plays at its own annual theatre awards, the Obies. The Village Voice’s theatre reviewers judged the awards. Every month they would meet and create a list of the month’s best plays, creating a list of winners by the end of the theatre season. (25) At the 1968 Obies, Havel won Best Foreign Play for the Public Theatre’s production of The Memorandum. (26) This was an especially impressive feat, considering the 1967-68 season (on Broadway, at least) had over a third more foreign plays than it would the next year, a trend that was likely reflected Off-Broadway as well. (27) Havel would not be the only name that would become popular following his win as at the same awards. Al Pacino was a rising Off-Broadway star at the same time and won Best Actor for Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx, a play about racism and harassment following two men who torment an East Indian man at a bus stop. (28) In the same year, Gertrude Stein and Al Carmines won best musical for In Circles. (29) The Obies would recognize Havel again when his play The Increased Difficulty of Concentration earned the award for distinguished play for its 1970 American production. (30)
Havel arrived in New York City in mid-to-late April and was immediately immersed in the ongoing revolution in American theatre. Papp had invited Havel for the performance of The Memorandum, (31) but also spent much time with his guest during the six week visit. (32) As Havel recalls in his 2008 memoir To the Castle and Back, immediately upon his landing at JFK in New York City, he was ushered off of the airplane and into one of the final rehearsals of The Memorandum at the Public Theatre in the East Village. (33) He remarked how the audience reacted similarly to the audience back in Prague, despite the translation and change of scenery. (34) The Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague and the Public Theatre in New York catered to similar audiences and performances, with both theatres having international recognition.
In 1990, following Havel’s second visit to New York, his former schoolmate and longtime friend Miloš Forman recalled their many walks through the Village during Havel’s trip: “[w]e walked all the way from Sheridan Square to Bleecker Street to the East Village. We dropped into places which we remembered — the Bitter End, CBGB’s”. (35) While Václav Havel’s six-week trip to the United States was ripe with fond memories, it also had its beginning and end marked by two tragic political assassinations. Around that same time Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6 1968 in Los Angeles, Havel returned from his trip to an increasingly nervous Czechoslovakia, which, in a little over two months’ time would experience the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion which abruptly ended the Prague Spring. The event ruined any chance of Havel returning to the United States for the next 22 years. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Havel rehearsed his role as the lead dissident in a heartbroken Czechoslovakia, gaining international recognition for his activism, rather than his plays. Havel would return to New York City’s East Village in 1990; this time not as a playwright, but as a president.
Tess is a history student from Ottawa, Canada set to begin her MA at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto in Fall 2018. She completed her undergraduate degree in history at McGill University, with a special focus on Czechoslovak history. In her graduate studies, she plans to focus on the history of cartography in central and eastern Europe. In her free time, Tess enjoys playing music, cooking (and eating), and rewatching old Eurovision Song Contests.
1 Jarka Burian, Modern Czech Theatre: Reflector and Conscience of a Nation (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), 93.
2 Burian, Modern Czech Theatre, 119.
3 Ibid., 103.
4 David S. Danaher, Reading Václav Havel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 74.
5 Danaher, Reading Václav Havel, 145.
6 Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back, trans. Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 7.
7 Michael Žantovský, Havel: A Life (New York: Grove Press, 2014), 109.
8 John H. Houchin, Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 178.
9 Houchin, Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century, 179.
10 Ibid., 179.
11 Ibid., 177.
12 Joseph Schrabal, “Havel Returns to Columbia, Received Honorary Degree,” Columbia University Record 15, no. 17 (1990): http://www.columbia.edu/~js322/nyl/1990/havel-cu.html.
13 Hugh Lunghi and Paul Ello, Dubček’s Blueprint for Freedom: His Documents on Czechoslovakia Leading to the Soviet Invasion (London: William Kimber, 1969), 123.
14 Žantovský, Havel: A Life, 109.
15 Ross Wetzsteon, The Obie Winners: The Best of Off-Broadway (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), vii.
16 Wetzsteon, The Obie Winners, vii.
17 Houchin, Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century, 179.
18 Wetzsteon, The Obie Winners, ix-x.
19 Wetzsteon, The Obie Winners, x.
20 Don B. Wilmeth and C W E Bigsby, The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Vol. 3, Post-World War II to the 1990’s (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 176
21 Wilmeth and Bigsby, The Cambridge History of American Theatre, 171
22 Houchin, Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century, 208.
23 Havel, To the Castle and Back, 7.
24 Wilmeth and Bigsby, The Cambridge History of American Theatre, 175.
25 Wetzsteon, The Obie Winners, xi. xi.
26 Ibid., 794.
27 Gerald Martin Bordman and Thomas S Hischak, American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 426.
28 Wetzsteon, The Obie Winners, 165-6.
29 Ibid., 794.
30 Ibid., 795.
31 Havel, To the Castle and Back, 6.
32 Žantovský, Havel: A Life, 110.
33 Havel, To the Castle and Back, 6.
34 Ibid., 7.
35 Sara Rimer, “Upheaval in the East: Czechoslovakia; Havel Takes Manhattan, an Isle of Luncheons,” New York Times, February 23, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/23/world/upheaval-in-the-east-czechoslovakia-havel-takes-manhattan-an-isle-of-luncheons.html
Bordman, Gerald Martin and Thomas S Hischak. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Burian, Jarka. Modern Czech Theatre: Reflector and Conscience of a Nation. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.
Danaher, David S. Reading Václav Havel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.
Havel, Václav. To the Castle and Back. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Houchin, John H. Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Lunghi, Hugh and Paul Ello. Dubček’s Blueprint for Freedom: His Documents on Czechoslovakia Leading to the Soviet Invasion. London: William Kimber, 1969).
Rimer, Sara. “Upheaval in the East: Czechoslovakia; Havel Takes Manhattan, an Isle of Luncheons.” New York Times, February 23, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/23/world/upheaval-in-the-east-czechoslovakia-havel-takes-manhattan-an-isle-of-luncheons.html
Schrabal, Joseph. “Havel Returns to Columbia, Received Honorary Degree.” Columbia University Record 15, no. 17 (1990): http://www.columbia.edu/~js322/nyl/1990/havel-cu.html.
Wetzsteon, Ross. The Obie Winners: The Best of Off-Broadway. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
Wilmeth, Don B. and C W E Bigsby. The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Vol. 3, Post-World War II to the 1990’s. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Žantovský, Michael. Havel: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 2014.