Leaving, the first play written in 20 years by the late former Czech Republic President Václav Havel, made its American debut at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater on May 19, 2010, giving local audiences the first chance to see this new work by an international artist and champion of human rights. The Wilma Theater, led by co-artistic directors Jiri Zizka and Blanka Zizka, natives of the former Czechoslovakia, received support in 2009 from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to produce this exciting premiere. The production starred a cast of fifteen that included Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck).
On May 26, Havel visited the Wilma to see Leaving and to participate in a live interview with Tom Sellar, editor of Theater magazine. The event was organized by the Center and The Wilma Theater. An audience of over 200 people packed the theater’s space to hear the former President speak about his political career and its influence on his work, as well as his reflections on power, contemporary theater, and the freedom he feels in writing for the stage. Jiri Zizka and translator Paul Wilson joined Havel and Sellar on the colorful set of the Leaving stage, a surreal display of multiple doors in a vibrant color palette, the vision of award-winning set designer Klara Zieglerova. Havel spoke of his personal belief that “every decent play is about leaving,” and that theatre reflects departure and loss. “We step into a different world when we go through a door,” Havel said. “Even Saint Peter has a door.”
Havel started work on Leaving prior to 1989, which saw both the Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent overthrow of Czechoslovakia’s former Communist government, and Havel’s appointment as the country’s first democratically elected leader. He abandoned his first draft, convinced that the themes of the play would no longer interest him after his time in office, but then returned to the absurdist drama and completed it after his retirement in 2003. Leaving tells the story of a recently retired chancellor of an unnamed European country, as he deals with questions of truth and power amidst eccentric family members and functionaries. Paul Wilson, who lived in Prague for ten years and has worked with Havel’s writing for a quarter century, translated the play’s manuscript into English. Walter Bilderback, the Wilma’s dramaturg and literary manager, writes about Havel’s return to the genre on the theater’s website and quotes the playwright: “[T]heater is more than just the performance of stories or tales. It is a place for human encounter, a space for authentic human existence, above all for the kind of existence that transcends itself in order to give an account of the world and of itself.”
This production of Leaving marked a new chapter in The Wilma Theater’s history with Václav Havel; Jiri Zizka previously directed the U.S. premiere of Havel’s Temptation at New York’s Public Theater, as well as a feature film of Havel’s Largo Desolato, adapted by British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard for PBS’s Great Performances series.
About Václav Havel
Václav Havel (1936–2011) was a renowned playwright and political activist who became president of the Czech Republic in 1990, the country’s first noncommunist leader since 1948. He was a prominent participant in the liberal reforms of 1968, and, after the Soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia, his plays were banned. He continued to write plays that explored the self-delusions and moral compromises that characterize life under a totalitarian system. In 1977, he and more than 200 other dissidents founded the human-rights movement Charter 77, which established itself as a leading opposition force. In 1979, he was sentenced to a five-year prison term and his Letters to Olga, philosophical essays written from prison and addressed to his wife, quickly became a classic of anti-totalitarian literature. As Czech president from 1990 to 2003, he gained a reputation as a leader who prioritized human rights in his own nation and worldwide.