Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Revolutionary Improvisation in the Theatre of East Central Europe and Vaclav Havel Remembered (Books - The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash)

Amidst daily skirmishes between 'the people' and the armed forces in Egypt, a stunning year of uprising by the people throughout the Middle East including an overthrowing of Gaddafi regime in Libya, and weeks of somewhat more amorphous protests in cities in the U.S., a beacon of such revolutions has died - Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, one of the leaders of the mostly peaceful revolution of 1989 that broke the hold of the Soviet Union on Central Europe. He was a shy man, and so an unlikely revolutionary hero. But, as Timothy Garton Ash's The Magic Lantern, a collection of essays written during the 1989 uprisings in Poland, Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, makes clear, these were civil uprisings lead by intellectuals and so he became one of the key men of these world changing events.

With the single, signal exception of Romania, these revolutions were also remarkable for the almost complete lack of violence. Like Solidarity in 1980-81 they were that historical contradiction-in-terms, 'peaceful revolution'. No bastilles were stormed, no guillotines erected. Lamp-posts were used only for street-lighting. Romania alone saw tanks and firing squads. Elsewhere the only violence was that used at the outset by police. The young demonstrators in East Berlin and Prague laid candles in front of the police, who responded with truncheons. The Marseillaise of 1989 said not 'aux armes, citoyens' but 'aux bougies [candles], citoyens'. The rationale and tradition of non-violence can be found in the history of all the democratic oppositions of East Central Europe throughout the 1980s. Partly it was pragmatic: the other side had all the weapons. But it was also ethical. It was a statement about how things should be. They wanted to start as they intended to go on. History, said Adam Michnik, had taught them that those who start by storming bastilles will end up building their own.
The ruling elite were brought down by mass demonstrations of workers in the streets but the politics that were born out of them, Garton Ash stresses,
...were made by intellectuals: the playwright Vaclav Havel, the medievalist Bronislaw Geremek, the Catholic editor Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the painter Barbel Bohley in Berlin, the conductor Kurt Masur in Leipzig, the philosophers Janos Kis and Gaspar Miklos Tamas in Budapest, the engineering professor Petre Roman and the poet Mircea Dinescu in Bucharest...As in 1848 the common denominator was ideological.
This book shares the subject matter of Anna Porter's The Ghosts of Europe, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, but while her book offers more historical perspective, having just been written, Garton Ash's, written in the heat of the moment offers an eye-witness account.
I do not pretend to offer a full analysis of Soviet policy, of economic factors, of developments inside the communist parties and governments, let alone of the longer-term causes... To write about 1989 at the beginning of 1990 is perhaps slightly less foolhardy than to write about 1789 at the beginning of 1790; but it is foolhardy enough...My account is largely from inside the opposition movements and from among so-called 'ordinary people' on the streets - and mainly, as the sub-title indicates, the streets of the capital cities. .. The witness can only be in one place at one times, and tends to attach an exaggerated importance to what he personally saw or heard... What happened afterwards changes our view of what went before. The historian usually knows more about what happened afterwards, simply because he writes later. Finally, there is partiality in judgement.

'I am a camera,' said Isherwood. I was not a camera. A camera would not give an election speech in a Silesian coal-mine.
Garton Ash was there as it happened. In the mine with Lech Walesa, walking across the no man's land that sat between the East and West sides of the Berlin wall with some of the first East German citizens to cross legally to the West, and in the Magic Lantern Theatre in Prague with Vaclav Havel (even if they did misspell his name on his Identification badge). As such, this book has the excitement of immediacy, but it is, as Garton Ash writes, not a an account of the consequences but is rather a moment-by-moment evocation of events that, when one looks back, one calls the revolution. The Czechoslovak revolution literally occurred in a theatre and Garton Ash's book makes it clear that these men and women were improvising (this is truly a movement after my own heart) that is they were working through the mess of the moment to reach workable solutions.
Through the heavy metal-and-glass doors, past the second line of volunteer guards, you plunge down a broad flight of stairs into a curving, 1950s style, mirror-lined foyer. People dart around importantly, or sit in little groups on benches, eating improvised canapes and discussing the future of the nation. Down another flight of stairs there is the actual theatre. The set - for Durrenmatt's Minotaurus - is like a funnel, with a hole at the back of the stage just big enough for a small monster to squeeze through. Here, in place of the Magic Lantern's special combination of drama, music and pantomime, they hold the daily press conference: the speakers emerging from the hole deisgned for Durrenmatt's monster. Journalists instead of tourists are let in for the performance.

As one end of the foyer there is a room with a glass wall on which it says, in several languages, 'smoking room'. There is another guard at the door. Some are allowed in. Others not. Flash your magic ticket. In. Familiar bearded faces, old friends from the underground, sit around on rickety chairs, in a crisis meeting. A television mounted high on the wall shows an operetta without the sound. The room smells of cigarette smoke, sweat, damp coats and revolution. I remember the same smell, precisely, from Poland in autumn 1980.

This, you think is the real headquarters. But after a few hours you discover a black door at the other end of the foyer. Through the door you go down a metal stairway into a narrow, desperately overheated corridor, as if into the bowels of an ocean liner. Here, in dressing-rooms ten and eleven, is the very heart of the revolution. For here sits Vaclav Havel, with his 'private secretary' and the few key activists from the Forum who are thrashing out the texts of the latest communique, programmatic statement or negotiating position.
It is in this, the longest chapter in this brief book, that we go into the belly of the beast, and it is here that I thought as I read, that this book could serve as an inspirational manual for the foundering Occupy Wall Street movement. One can see, smell, and taste, how these thinkers became doers. How they kept the ear of both the public and the rulers by working through the mess of their own separate opinions to communicate something coherent and, ultimately, useful. Although, as the concluding chapter smartly posits, living under Soviet rule so long may have given the movement a leg-up in that it created a solidarity of "the people."

Garton Ash's The Magic Lantern is an exciting and topical first-hand account. It led me to add Havel's own Memoir To the Castle and Back and de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America to my reading list and it is a fittingly dramatic way to appreciate the important contribution that Vaclav Havel made to changing the political geography of Europe. If you would like a further detailed appreciation of Havel's role in the Czech revolution, my friend Sheila did an excellent post.

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