What happens when an artist becomes commander-in-chief?

Vaclav Havel provided a stirring example of leadership in challenging times, whether picking generals or asking citizens to ‘live in the truth’

Shortly after he became president of Czechoslovakia, borne by the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the dissident playwright Václav Havel had a problem. He needed to find an army general he could trust.

Someone was needed to lead the military office, but the only officers in this fledgling democracy were leftover apparatchiks, soldiers who had risen through communist indoctrination. Rather than purge their ranks and start afresh, Havel was inclined to give the existing military a chance.

He had arrived to Prague Castle with some reluctance (the face of the revolution, he never aspired to the presidency), but he brought with him a team of unlikely advisers drawn largely from the arts world. They were "better qualified to run a theatre than a presidential office", noted his friend, press secretary and later biographer Michael Zantovsky.

A psychologist by training, Zantovsky sat on an interview panel with a screenwriter, an actor, and someone “known to be in communication with the higher spheres of the universe”. The generals were terrified.


After some hours of monosyllabic answers to dry questions, Zantovsky had a novel idea: he asked them what they read at night. The first consulted military manuals; the second read Marxist classics in Russian; the third, "slightly more enlightened" enjoyed accounts of historical battles. The fourth hesitated for a long time. Finally, he blurted out, Catch 22.

"It was no contest," Zantovsky writes in Havel: A Life. The general served for 15 years.

Zantovsky – later the Czech ambassador to the USA, Israel and Britain, now director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague – was in Dublin last month to speak on “Václav Havel: Theatre as Politics, Politics as Theatre”. He talks as he writes: informed, incisive, affectionate, humorous.

An artist in charge

The congruence between art and politics can be a source of inspiration or anxiety – the spur to revolution in Ireland, say, or Walter Benjamin’s understanding that fascism begins with the aestheticisation of politics.

But Havel’s is a rare example of what happens when an artist is in charge, fluent in reflection, surging with hope and caution, marked with achievements and frustrations, see-sawing between inspiration and disenchantment.

As an essayist, whose works were shared during occupation in samizdat copies, Havel wrote that in totalitarian systems "the state has an outpost in everyone's mind". The presence of an inner life, though, as innocuous or as subversive as a Joseph Heller novel or an absurdist play, can establish personal strongholds. (When Barack Obama recently emphasised the importance of reading during his presidency, the arts seemed to provide as much of a window into the world as a necessary escape.)

During the limbo of communism, when the future was always certain but the past was continually redrafted, Havel, like many of his generation, would while away the time with sex, drugs and – you guessed it, Zantovsky even dubs him “the president of rock’n’roll”.

In power, however, he avoided anything like glib assertions and easy answers. Soviet rule had insisted on bleating state-sanctioned positivity, but Havel’s philosophy was one of continuous challenge.

His first act was to transfer his skills as a playwright to rigorous speech writing, telling the nation, refreshingly, "our country is not flourishing". Politicians are expected to give answers; artists to pose questions. And Havel, whose admonishing fable The Power of the Powerless was an exhortation to people to "live in the truth", never saw that as an easy process. Charismatic, self-doubting, sometimes deeply depressive, he also knew he could never deliver on the nation's expectations.


The surprising thing may be how much he achieved. The transformation to democracy took place without crisis, even as Czechoslovakia soon split into two new nations; a successful economic transition, following communist nationalisation of every service, was described by one economist as “remaking a fish from fish soup”. The ordeal of the largest redistribution of property, amid flaws and corruption scandals, without alienating the citizens (“was there a coup overnight?” Havel asked every morning) eventually led to a prosperous modern nation returned to the heart of Europe.

But capitalism brought new concerns, and “living in the truth” was not chief among them.

After 13 years in office, in waning health and plummeting popularity, Havel quietly retired and immediately returned to playwriting. He was characteristically stark about the differences between his careers.

“You write something in a couple of weeks and it is here for the ages,” he said of his art. “What will remain when the presidents and prime ministers are gone?”

It may be fitting, then, that in the five years since his death Havel has made a lasting accomplishment as a symbol; officially mourned by two nations, reappraised by academics, revered by artists, and the only foreign head of state to be honoured with a bust in Leinster House.

Havel once delivered a speech to the EU, while Czech membership was still pending, in which he said that the Union impressed his reason, but not his heart. Lasting cohesion required something more stirring, personal, artistic, to build a better presence in the mind, he understood. It still does.