Category Archives: Antiwords

Vaclav Havel – The power of words

 Eliza Anna Falk:  Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011) – The power of words 
“At the beginning of everything is the word (…).  It is a miracle to which we owe the fact that we are human (…). The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays (…) true at one moment and false the next (…) worst of all, at times they can be one or the other. They can even be both at once” (Havel 1).

The family bookworm
        Already as a child Vaclav preferred written words to outdoor pastimes. His mother Bozena, daughter of a journalist, diplomat and art lover and herself academically gifted and multilingual, imparted her high educational standards onto both of her sons. However it was Vaclav, the older sibling, who took intellectual interests to the extreme. The boy quickly became the family bookworm spending most of his free time indoors reading philosophy, poetry and literature or looking through foreign language magazines. Vaclav was very fond of poetry as a child; reading it, reciting and eventually writing his own at the age of ten (Keane: 85). “I’ve been writing since I was about six, or rather since I first learned the alphabet” he once wrote to his wife Olga. He stressed that writing was not the only outlet for his burning desire to create and say something about the world (Havel 2:131), which may explain his interest in other media, such as theatre.                                                                          
          As was expected of a well-to-do,’ bourgeoisie’ family, eleven years old Vaclav was placed in a private boarding school near Prague, where fellow students included future prominent individuals including filmmakers, politicians and entrepreneurs. After only two and a half years the Communist coup of 1948 put an end to private education, and Havel, now officially a member of a privileged ‘bourgeoisie’, was forced to commence state schooling. Discouraged and resentful, he did not take communist curriculum seriously and after attending several institutions passed his matriculation exams in night school, while working as an apprentice laboratory assistant. His tertiary education was equally inadequate, as he had no choice but to study urban transport  after being denied entry into Charles University to pursue a humanities program.
         While the state schools served as means to remain outside the communist radar, it was the after- school activities, which held the true importance in the intellectual development of the teenager. Conversations about philosophy and politics with likeminded high school peers paired with private philosophy classes with family friend J.L. Fischer kept developing his interests and sharpened his mind. Discussions continued at Havel’s home and soon a group of art-loving, free spirited and talented ‘bourgeoisie’ youth started regular meetings, with Vaclav naturally emerging as a convener. Apart from discussions, photography and poetry competitions, the group self-named ‘Thirty-sixters’ (as most were born the same year), made visits to prominent cultural figures of 1950s Prague’s art and literary scene (Keane: 104-108). Throughout this time Havel continued his intellectual pursuits, shaping his future as a poet, playwright, essayist, speech writer, philosopher and a politician.

Words to look at – Anticodes
         In 1956, aged 20 and a member of young Czech and Slovak Writers’ Group, Havel wrote poetry and critical essays and wanted to study dramaturgy. Formal studies did not eventuate; instead he landed a job in a theatre and soon started co-writing plays whilst continuing his poetic endeavors. His first book of experimental, typographic poems Anticodes was written in 1964 and continued in 1964-69; 1970-1989 and after 1989. Anticodes contained visual, thought-provoking poems which captured Havel’s humor and imagination, restlessness in search for expression and importance of a dialog with his audience. Although they “were originally written to amuse himself and friends” according to Carol Rocamora (author of Acts of Courage: Vaclav Havel’s Life in the Theatre) and were called by Joseph Hirsal, a Czech experimental poet, “engaged articulations of absurdity” (Danaher: 4-5), there was much more to them than just language games and visual effects.
        The early poetry not only heralded Havel’s fixation with words and his love of the visual and the absurd, but also his rebellion against dehumanizing and destructive effects of totalitarianism and its absurd messages. Drawing on modernist art forms and techniques, such as pop-art and collage, became Havel’s trademark and allowed him to play with absurd reality of his times by deconstructing and re-arranging it in order to reach his audiences with important messages. Both the readers and spectators were being encouraged by Havel to interpret the often puzzling messages and language games in his poems and plays in the context of their own experiences. The author’s goal was to stimulate and provoke them to self-reflect and to realize that they had the power to deconstruct and reconstruct their own reality despite the totalitarian regime’s agenda to prevent them from living independent and meaningful lives (Keane: 329).                                                      
         A Czech theatre director Brano Mazuch, one of the creators of a multimedia production of Anticodes, honored Havel’s mission to engage audiences when he staged the event at the Czech National Theatre in Prague on 21 March 2013. He and his collaborators approached Havel’s experimental poetry and its intelligent humor as a vehicle providing spectators with an opportunity to reflect on the society and themselves via allusions and triggers put in place to stimulate self-examination (Mazuch).
         Mirenka Cechova and Sivan Eldar from the Spitfire Company also reached for the visual power of Anticodes while developing the concept for their performance Antiwords, based primarily on Havel’s play Audience and its film adaptation. The creators of Antiwords, which premiered at the 2013 Zero Point Festival at the Celetna Theatre, abandoned the play’s dialog and conventional acting and transformed the play into a physical spectacle with the help of music, dance, silence and puppetry-like props. The Spitfire Company’s radical and challenging interpretation of Audience received critical acclaim with Marie Resslova suggesting in her review that the authors of the spectacle “found an inkling of Samuel Beckett in Vaclav Havel”. “How do you dance Havel?” she asks and answers that the creators of Antiwords rework the words of Audience “into knots and translate them into dance” and “beyond words, they uncover existential anxiety sublimated into the rituals of beer culture…” and convey the play “accurately and with perhaps greater urgency than would be feasible by means of words” (Resslova). 

Havel’s Audience and its audience
         Audience, as well as, The Garden Party (1963), Memorandum (1965), The Vanek Trilogy (1975-78)) and Largo Desolato (1984,) are Havel’s political plays written in the convention of the absurdist theatre of “appeals” (Keane: 157) and are his best known. Through satire and irony and often taking the boundaries of theatrical forms and language to the extreme, the plays reveal the evil of communism and alert the audiences to the damage being done to them by the regime. Havel’s ultimate goal as a playwright was to appeal to the spectators (initially listeners of illegal recordings as the plays had been banned) and to their sense of truth and responsibility, by encouraging them to overcome fear and to resist de-humanization. Havel truly believed that “those that say that individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses” (Havel 4) and that “the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility” (Havel 5).                           
         Audience, written in 1975 belongs to The Vanek Trilogy, three partly autobiographical one-act plays (also including A Private View or Unveiling and Protest) created after 1968 Soviet clampdown in Czechoslovakia.  The plays’ binding element is a character of Havel’s alter-ego Ferdinand Vanek, a dissident writer and intellectual, and his struggles with pressures of life in the oppressive state. In the Audience Vanek, just like Havel in real life, is forced to work at a brewery, rolling barrels. The absurd starts when his boss, the brew master and avid beer drinker who earns brownie points with authorities by reporting on his dissident subordinates, offers him a better job in return for inventing and admitting to political activities. Vanek refuses to participate in “something I have always found repugnant” (Havel 6: 208) and asserts his identity and values despite all odds.                                                                                                                                   
          The play is one of many satirical works in which Havel examines the psychology of totalitarianism and reveals  damages it causes to human relationships by exposing people to hypocrisies and power games based on fear and blackmail. Its time-transcending message about the importance of remaining responsible, honest and true to one-self in the face of oppression, was at its strongest and most needed in the communist Czechoslovakia when citizens were paralyzed by fear and where resistance struggled to spread. Despite the fear, hearts and minds of Czechs and Slovaks were hungry for inspiration and support. Havel became the nation’s voice of freedom and free expression. His plays were recorded privately and unofficially circulated across the country. Such was the appeal of Audience, recorded in Prague in 1978 and published in Sweden, that many Czechs knew parts of it by heart and recited it in private as a gesture of defiance and contempt for the oppressors.
The value of words – Letters to Olga
           The strongest and most desperate need for words, as well as the harshest test of Havel’s identity and values, came with his imprisonment in June 1979, and lasted until his release in January 1984. The strictness of prison correspondence’s rules imposed on Havel was crushing: “No more than one four-page letter a week. No copies of the letters to be retained. No letters to anybody but immediate family. No mention of prison conditions, or politics. No underlining. No scratching our or correction. No illegible handwriting. No quotation marks. No foreign words or expressions. No humour” (Keane: 293). Forced into isolation and quasi silence Havel clanged to the letters with desperation as they were his only means of expression and contact with the outside world. He later wrote that he had become “more and more wrapped up in them” and that he “ depended on them to the point where almost nothing else mattered” not only because they were his life line and but also because letter writing served as means to review his fundamental attitudes and the way he looked at himself (Havel 2: 8).                                 
          Although addressed only to his wife Olga, an art-loving actress from a working class background, whom he met when seventeen and married 11 years later, the 144 letters Havel wrote during his five year incarceration were also meant to reach his family, friends and others close to him, of both sexes. Despite hardship, separation and Havel’s closeness to other women, Olga remained his wife and closest friend, anchor and point of stability until her death in 1996. She was the first to open the letters and acted as a link between Havel and his circle. After his release from prison Havel said: “It’s true that you won’t find many heartfelt, personal passages specifically addressed to my wife in my prison letters. Even so, I think that Olga is their main hero, though admittedly hidden. That is why I put her name in the title of the book” (…) “We both feel that we are probably inseparable” (Havel 2: 10).             
         The letters allowed Havel to feel human and however restricted in frequency and content, were priceless and life sustaining. They also forced him to use his creative imagination and mastery with words. With so many limitations imposed by prison rules he had no choice but to repeat the same themes and use only his wife as an addressee. At the same time, however,  he had to think of brilliant language tricks to allow him to hide messages amongst apparently routine sentences for Olga and others to decode: “The letters, in fact, are endless spirals in which I’ve tried to enclose something (…) which is why the letters are full of (…) the complicated ways of saying things (Havel 2: 9).          
Words and politics
           Correctly described as “the master juggler of words” (Keane: 148), Havel was a restless and versatile writer testing the boundaries of language, form and meaning, and employing a range of literary genres to examine vital issues and carry his messages across.  His awareness of the power of words combined with talent and passion for writing and the extraordinary way with words were priceless in his roles as a dissident playwright and a political prisoner. When deprived of his right to write the truth and not wanting his writings to be confiscated, he was forced to reach for the world of language games, coded messages and clever ‘double-meanings’ both in his plays and letters from prison. Importance of reaching his intended audience required him to stretch the boundaries of language, to use puzzles and repetitions to emphasize messages and accentuate absurd situations. 
            When the time came to use words as weapons in an open battle with the communist government, Havel did just that. In 1976 he co-created and co-wrote the ground-breaking Charter 77, which openly criticized the regime for failing to implement basic human rights, and as a result exposed its creators and signatories to harassment and punishment. Despite the Charter being banned and its creators labeled traitors and persecuted, the impact of the document could not be reversed and its growing influence halted. “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions” said Havel in October 1989 while accepting a peace prize.                                                                                                                              
          The cost of Havel’s association with the Charter 77 was five years of his freedom. Little did he know spending time in prison, that one day he will be asked to assume yet another role, that of a politician and a head of state, which will avail him of new opportunities to exercise the power of words, this time without any limitations and restrictions. His political and philosophical essays, acceptance and other speeches created during his political career are numerous and their profound messages are quoted frequently. The common threads binding them are Havel’s concern for human identity in the modern world and his belief in the importance of truth, responsibility and hope. “Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred” is one of his most famous quotes (Havel 7).                                                                                    
            Havel’s legacy as a freedom fighter, philosopher and a politician lives on. As for his plays, Milan Kundera’s words have become prophetic: “If there are any theatres left that base work entirely on the writer’s text, theatres that value the development of poetry in drama, then Havel’s plays will never be out of the repertoire” (Havel 6).

Danaher, David S. The restlessness of transcendence: Vaclav Havel’s genres. Web. 19 August 2013 <>
Havel, Vaclav. (1). A Word about Words. Web. 19 August 2013
Havel, Vaclav. (2.) Letters to Olga. June 1979 – September 1982. Alfred. A. Knopf, 1988. Print
Havel, Vaclav. (3). Antikody. Web. 19 August 2013
Havel, Vaclav. (4). Vaclav Havel Quotes. Web. 19 August 2013
Havel, Vaclav. (5). Vaclav Havel Quotes. Web. 19 August 2013.
Havel, Vaclav. (6). The Garden Party and Other Plays. Grove Press, New York, 1993. Print
Havel, Vaclav. (7). Quotes. Web. 20 August 2013.
Keane, John. Vaclav Havel – A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 1999. 
Mazuch, Bran. Interview with Bran Mazuch on the Production of Anticodes. Web. 19 August 2013


In partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the Mutual Inspirations Festival 2013 – Vaclav Havel

As part of the International Artists Series

Ambassador Theater presents

Spitfire Company (Cz) and Sivan Eldar



Based on Václav Havel’s Audience and its legendary film adaptation







Photos courtesy of Michal Hančovský

Physical theater performance and music installation inspired by Václav Havel's Audience and its legendary film adaptation, in which the role of the brewer was played by Landovský with his ability to drink nine pints of beer while in character.  It explores a writer in the process of creation. The music element both recorded and live performed creates the main mean of expression together with the performers´ bodies and absurd humor. 

Concept: Petr Boháč, MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová, Sivan Eldar 
Direction: Petr Boháč, MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová 
Music: Sivan Eldar 
Set and Costume design: Petra Vlachynská 
Producer: Spitfire Company 
Light design: Martin Špetlík, Robert Janč 
Starring: JindÅ™iška KÅ™ivánková, MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová

Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Mead Theatre Lab at FLASHPOINT

916 G Street, NW, Washington DC

Tickets: $20 – 35 ONLINE

CAST and Crew:


Will MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová and JindÅ™iška KÅ™ivánková outdo the legend? Will they reach a state on the edge, recalling Havel's motif of alienation and Hrabal's poetics of loneliness? Aside from the two actors, major roles are played by oversized heads authored by sculptor Paulina Skavova, and by Sivan Eldar's music composed specifically for this performance.

What happens when the words of Václav Havel's play Audience are reworked into knots and translated into dance? Spitfire Company succeed in eliciting both laughter and terror from their audience. The subject matter of Havel's play is conveyed perhaps more urgently than a conventional rendition would have accomplished.”

Dancer-actors MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová and JindÅ™iška KÅ™ivánková, along with director Petr Boháč, have made a radical contribution to the discussion about how to perform Havel's plays today.”

“Beyond words, they uncover existential anxiety sublimated into the rituals of beer culture…”

“The theme of Havel's play is conveyed accurately and with perhaps a greater urgency than would be feasible by means of words and conventional acting…” (Marie Resslová, HospodáÅ™ské noviny)


Václav Havel's celebrated single-act play Audience explores several existential themes. However, one line of questioning predominates: the issue of individual integrity, morality and responsibility. This thread can be traced throughout Havel's work, encompassing many connections such as “my work and my self, my self and my responsibility for my work, my self as an integral part of my work.” From these relationships, we derive the story of Antiwords.  

DramaturgyVáclav Havel was a very restless human being, an inquisitive person who questioned prefabricated stereotypes presented in the guise of irrefutable fact. His approach can thus be characterized by criticism bordering on skepticism. His critical restlessness and realistic skepticism are reflected in the very nature of his writing, style and thought. His determined struggle for his self, as well as for his integrity and for adequate responsibility weaves through his work like the proverbial red string. This is particularly evident in his Letters to Olga, but also in his interviews, in his texts dealing with theater, and in his plays. In Audience, for instance, the protagonist VanÄ›k (Havel's alter ego) is being coerced by his employer to report himself to the authorities, which VanÄ›k categorically refuses. Self-reflection, the struggle for identity, the unsettled and unsettling mode of writing, as well as owning up to personal responsibility all become cornerstones of the dramaturgy. From the whole oeuvre of Václav Havel, certain passages and fragments will be extracted and reshaped into scenic poetry by means of collage and prollage techniques. At this point, we can glimpse the origin of the title Antiwords, which references Havel's early poetry collected in Anticodes.

Direction Methods

Two core principles are key to the direction style: a minimalist physical vocabulary of movement combined with techniques of montage and film editing, similar to the techniques of collage and prollage employed by visual art and poetry. The overall scenic presentation should be composed of fragments of Havel's entire work. Similarly to Audience, two actors are present on stage. The scenery is dominated by two tables to symbolize writing itself. Audio tapes containing recordings of Havel's works are strewn across the stage. Minimalism and its presentation through movement reference another theme of Havel's work: departure, disappearance. “Silent” dance expression comes into conflict with vocal expression provided by the audio tapes. Along with the meaning of the word departure, the end of Antiwords will be dominated by silence—the de facto disappearance of words, of written works and of verbal expression.

 Scenic Arrangement

The scenography of the performance, like its direction, is minimalist at heart. The stage is diagonally split into two equal halves. The barrier in the middle is made of plexiglass, so that the viewer can see the rear section of the stage as well. This division created with transparent material symbolizes “the writing person” who notices certain features of the self in their writing even while unable to understand these features entirely, to fully identify with the inscribed alter ego. The transparent material also facilitates the implementation of the direction and stage management concepts as outlined by the montage and editing techniques.


Music constitutes the source code of the whole performance. It is composed of voices reciting Havel's texts, playing on intonation as well as on a range of various qualities pertinent to language itself. Owing to all this noise of writing and speech but also silence, the stage becomes an organic space that reveals the restless spirit of Václav Havel's work and his drive to understand his self, his integrity and his interpersonal responsibility through the medium of writing.

Full Review: HospodaÅ™ské noviny 

How Do You Dance Havel? Spitfire Company Translate Havel's Audience into the Language of Physical Theatre

Marie Reslová, Theatre Critic

What happens when the words of Václav Havel's play Audience are reworked into knots and translated into dance? Spitfire Company succeed in eliciting both laughter and terror from their audience. The subject matter of Havel's play is conveyed perhaps more urgently than a conventional rendition would have accomplished.

Can Havel's Audience be performed practically wordlessly, without anything of importance being lost? Those who have read the one-act play, or listened to its famous rendition featuring the author as Ferdinand VanÄ›k and Pavel Landovský as the brewmaster, would probably argue against such a possibility.

And they would be wrong. Dancer-actors MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová and JindÅ™iška KÅ™ivánková, along with director Petr Boháč, have made a radical contribution to the discussion about how to perform Havel's plays today in the form of their piece titled Antiwords, based on Havel's Audience. The performance had its premiere at the 2013 Zero Point Festival at the Celetná Theatre.

Spitfire Company “translate” Havel's play into the language of physical and visual theatre with elements of an improvised clown show. They don't let themselves be constrained by the words and quirks of Havel's absurd dialogue. They take an especial interest in the stagnant, dead-end quality of the situation both characters of Audience are experiencing, in which they perceive more than a few links to the character of Czech society and its icons. Beyond words, they uncover existential anxiety sublimated into the rituals of beer culture.

One could go as far as to say that the authors have found an inkling of Samuel Beckett in Václav Havel.

MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová and JindÅ™iška KÅ™ivánková have reshaped Havel's play Audience into a form no one expected. 

Ceremonial Beer

From the darkness of the stage – out of an endless universe, reflected in the astral music composed by Sivan Eldar – emerge the props including a table, two chairs, a keg of beer and a bucket, just as we know from the classic Audience. Both performers slowly make their way across the stage, a mesh bag containing a beer bottle and mug in hand, a large bronze head that might have been snatched off some nationalist monument under one arm.  

The red cap on Miřenka's head shines like an oversized clown's nose next to the white tops and two pairs of black men's trousers the performers are wearing. The girls slowly take hold of the bottle and place it between the legs, like a penis. They draw a bottle-opener from under one of their tops, hanging about the neck like a set of keys on a string, to pop the lid off the bottle and allow foam to be ejaculated from the head. They grab the mug and pour it full using pelvic thrusts, only to drink from it in a ritualistic fashion soon after. The audience roars with laughter at this depiction of masculinity, applauding the performers' drinking prowess as they encourage each other with pointed looks and improvised gestures.

At the table, the performers put on bronze heads. The brewmaster opens and pours one beer after another, while VanÄ›k shrinks away submissively, coyly wiping the table with a dishcloth. The bronze heads are pushed open like helmets each time the girls return to drinking with determination, although the beer is obviously not to their taste and literally comes out of their noses now and then… The audience keeps score of the downed drinks and cheers. 

In the interplay of light and shadow, the masks' faces appear changeable while movements of the body create an eerily accurate marionette-like expression. The arsenal of innovative beer gags seems inexhaustible. The performers alternate in submissive and dominant roles, which makes for entertaining metamorphoses to watch. 

Urgent Expression

In the audio component of the performance, the words of Havel's play are condensed into a looping playback of the original recording of Audience. The compelling refrains of “let's have a drink”, “people are pigs” or “everything is fucked” eventually crystallize into the very essence of beer philosophy. The murmur of the universe is twice interrupted by the jubilant tenor of Karel Gott. The tune of “Mája the Little Bee” is turned into a brilliant impromptu sketch by the brewmaster, and “Back When I Was a Boy” is the song that unites the drinkers in an embrace.

The characters' beer consumption and mute dialogue seem to be surrounded by a metaphysical emptiness in Antiwords. This gives rise to a simultaneous experience of laughter and terror, producing a strange, difficult-to-articulate feeling of nausea, revulsion and sympathy. The theme of Havel's play is conveyed accurately and with perhaps a greater urgency than would be feasible by means of words and conventional acting.

The creation of Antiwords was incited by the organizers of the Mutual Inspirations Festival in Washington, DC. The annual event was established by the Czech embassy in the US in 2010, each year since then being dedicated to an inspirational figure of Czech culture – after T. G. Masaryk, Antonín DvoÅ™ák, and Miloš Forman, the person of the year 2013 is Václav Havel.

The choice of MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová to be one of the festival's headliners was no coincidence. The talented graduate in Alternative and Marionette Theatre at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) as well as Nonverbal Theatre at the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU) won a Fulbright Scholarship in 2010 and quickly made a name for herself in the independent American theatre scene. Her solo work S/He Is Nancy Joe was ranked by The Washington Post's dance critic and Pulizer Prize holder Sarah Kaufman among the top three productions of 2012 in the category of contemporary dance.

The same critic also left a thoroughly positive review for Light in the Darkness, featuring ÄŒechová with Radim Vizváry and directed by Petr Boháč. The performance was a guest production at the Atlas Performing Center in Washington, the same venue to host Antiwords in September as part of the Havel-themed festival. This is scheduled for the same evening as another VanÄ›k play – Unveiling – which is being rehearsed by American actors under the supervision of MiÅ™enka ÄŒechová. The performer, mime artist and dancer will meanwhile appear in S/He is Nancy Joe at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.


Translation © Alex Lorenzu, 2013