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Selected Translations of Vaclav Havel
by Paul Wilson

Click on a title below to view covers, summaries and full bibliographical information:

The Beggar's Opera, Vaclav Havel. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. (2001)

The Beggar's OperaThe Beggar's Opera is a free-wheeling, highly politicized adaptation of John Gay's well-known eighteenth century work of the same name. The play, reminiscent of Havel's earlier Garden Party and The Memorandum, is up to his best satirical standard. Like the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera, Havel's play uses an underworld milieu to explore the intermingled themes of love, loyalty, and treachery.

The Beggar's Opera at


The Art of the Impossible - Politics as Morality in Practice, Vaclav Havel. Knopf. New York. (1997)

The Art of the ImpossibleThere is no shortage of politicians who make a habit of shooting from the hip, but it is much rarer to find one who speaks from the heart. Vaclav Havel knows no other way to speak, or to write. Both as a dissident and as a playwright it was his sworn purpose for many years to combat evil with nothing but truth. As president of Czechoslovakia, and now the Czech Republic, he has clung to that habit, refusing to turn over either his conscience or his voice to political handlers and professional speechwriters. Instead he assumes the additional burden- for him, it is a distinct pleasure - of composing all of his oratory. Audiences from New York to New Delhi, Oslo to Tokyo, have been the luckier for his decision.

This volume consists of thirty-five of these essays, written between the years 1990 and 1996, that manage to be both profoundly personal and profoundly political. Havel writes of totalitarianism, its miseries and the nonetheless difficult emergence from it. He describes how his country and the other post-communist countries are learning democracy from scratch and are encountering obstacles from inside and out. He marvels at the single technology driven civilization that envelops the globe, and the challenges this presents to multicultural realities. He invokes the duty of every person alive to prevent hatred and fear from derailing history ever again. He acknowledges "the advantage it is for doing a good job as president to know that I do not belong in the position and that I can at any moment, and justifiably, be removed from it." And he reminds us that - contrary to all appearances - common sense, moderation, responsibility, good taste, feeling, instinct, and conscience are not alien to politics, but are the very key to its long-term success.

The Art of the Impossible: Politics As Morality in Practice at


Toward a Civil Society: Selected Speeches and Writings, Vaclav Havel. Nakladatestvi Lidove Noviny. Prague. (1994)

Vaclav Havel was born in Prague on October 5, 1936. Because of his "bourgeois" background, his education options were limited. Havel studied at the Economics Faculty of the Czech Technical University from 1955 to 1957, and after compulsory military service began working in theater. He joined Prague's Theater on the Balustrade in 1960, where his plays enjoyed their first international success.

From 1962 to 1966, Havel studied dramaturgy at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He was active in the Prague Spring era of reforms, which ended with the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968. Havel actively opposed the invasion and the resulting hard-line communist policies, and in 1969 his work was banned in Czechoslovakia. In 1977, Havel became a cofounder of the Charter 77 human rights initiative. He was under house arrest in 1978-79 and was incarcerated several times for his beliefs.

In November 1989 Havel became one of the leaders of Civic Forum, the opposition movement that helped bring about the end of Communist rule. On December 29, 1989, he was elected president of Czechoslovakia. The new, freely elected Parliament reelected him on July 5, 1990. Havel resigned on July 20, 1992, as the country headed for dissolution. On January 26, 1993, Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic.


Summer Meditations, Vaclav Havel. Knopf Canada; Knopf USA; Faber & Faber London. ( 1991)

Summer MeditationsIn his first book as president of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, Vaclav Havel offers us a profound meditation on the nature and practice of politics and a stirring plea for morality, civility, and openness to public life in a time of overwhelming global change.

From his unique perspective as both the head of a state and a writer of great clarity and eloquence, Havel reflects on his experience in office, and on the questions that his own presence there brings so powerfully to mind: Is there a place for morality and for simple decency, in politics? Have his ideals and principles - forged through two decades of courageous opposition to totalitarianism - a place in public life?

His answer, put forth with remarkable candor, is unequivocally affirmative. He explores in this forthright book the practical problems facing his country today and openly examines the traumas of economic transition that have become central not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the former Communist bloc. He grapples with the details of political change, and with the complex emotional issues of nationalism, separatism, and environmental devastation. He argues for a dynamic new market economy tempered by compassion, and for the central role of art and culture in transforming society. Writing with passion and energy, Havel reveals his dreams and his vision for a civil society of the future, stressing the essential goodwill in people, the responsibilities of those who lead them, and the need for tolerance. In the great seriousness of his commitment he demonstrates a moral and political consistency all too rare in public life.

Summer Meditations is a timely and necessary book. Illuminated by Vaclav Havel's sincerity and directness, by his common sense and by his uncommon moral courage, it gives us an essential understanding of the problems and the promise in the post-Communist world.

Summer Meditations at


Open Letters: Selected Writing 1963-1989, Vaclav Havel. Selected, translated and edited with an introduction by Paul Wilson. Knopf USA; Faber & Faber, London. (1991)

Open LettersNearly everything Vaclav Havel has ever written has acquired a new resonance since he became President of Czechoslovakia in 1989. Here, brought together for the first time in authorized translations, are his most important writings--spanning twenty-five years of political activism--from the early sixties when he was a relatively unknown dissident playwright to the remarkable New Year's Address, his first as president ("...I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you").


Open LettersThis volume contains several previously untranslated pieces (including a private letter written to Alexander Dubcek after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and unpublished prison letters), the famous "Open Letter" to Dr. Husak, and Havel's most powerfully argued and influential essays (such as "Politics and Conscience" and "The Power of the Powerless") all of them lucid, witty, and written with formidable conviction and courage. There are also revealing interviews with Havel and a number of his own often absurdist accounts of police repression.

Open Letters stands as an essential addition to the literature of dissent. These essays, written out of Havel's immediate experience of the world, are at once a chronicle of recent European history and direct agents of that history. They are a vivid record of the development and moral philosophy of a greatly admired and beloved European intellectual figure.


Disturbing the Peace, Vaclav Havel. Knopf USA; Faber & Faber, London. (1990)

Disturbing the PeaceIn December 1989, the celebrated playwright and defender of human rights Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. The poetic and historic justice of the even will powerfully strike the reader of Havel's revelatory self-portrait, Disturbing the Peace.

This memoir derives from months of long-distance conversation-conducted by letter and tape recorder in 1986-with Karel Hvizdala, a Czech journalist living in West Germany. Havel, who was then approaching his fiftieth birthday, gives us a wonderfully open and engaging account of himself. He looks back on his Prague childhood-at once privileged and isolated-and contemplates its effect on his life, both as a writer and as a rebel - one of the truly dangerous ones" as Heinrich Boll called him, "the gentle and courteous sort". He talks about his life in the theatre, particularly the "theatre of the absurd," where he feels art has most directly addressed the spiritual predicament of modern man. He recalls the literary and political battles of his early years, his involvement in the Prague Spring of 1968, and the hopeless stagnation that followed the Soviet invasion. He talks about his part in the long struggle to bring moral and civic responsibility back into his country's public life. Without bitterness, he describes the constant surveillance to which he was subjected, the harassment by police, the years in prison, and the banning, for more than two decades, of his plays, essays, and books. Throughout, Havel speaks with candor and wit, fully attuned to the abundant ironies of his paradoxical life: a diffident, introspective intellectual indicted for crimes of subversion and "hooliganism"; a lover of order drawing meaning from absurdity; a "mercilessly skeptical" playwright whose life embodies the politics of hope.

Disturbing the Peace is a meditation on the transcendent clarity of art, on human identity and responsibility, on the necessity of speaking the truth, and on the necessity of laughter. It stands as an essential statement about Havel's life and work, and about the power of an artist to awaken the national conscience-an awakening that has had a profound effect on the course of his country's history and on the imagination of the world.


Letters to Olga, Vaclav Havel. Selected, edited and translated by Paul Wilson. Knopf USA; Faber & Faber, London. (1988)

Letters to OlgaThese are the letters that Vaclav Havel wrote to his wife, Olga, while he was in prison. Allowed to write once a week, only to Olga and only on "family matters", Havel is determined to make his slender connection to the world mean something. As he talks about himself, his past, his moods, his failings, about the theater and his own plays, he tries to express what is most important to him in a style sometimes elliptical and abstract, sometimes subversively mischievous, that will baffle the prison censors. What evolves is an extraordinary discourse (remarkable too, in that it did elude the censors) on the nature of belief and the necessity of "being in the world," on the dangers facing the modern world from the seductions of ideology and from our blind faith in technology and progress. Again and again he contemplates the meaning of the sentence he is serving and the problem of individual responsibility in a world indifferent to human identity. From the isolation of his prison cell, he remains unrepentantly outspoken, deeply involved in the public life and the fate of his nation.

These letters are a work of self-preservation; they reveal a man of formidable moral courage struggling not to succumb to the tempting embrace of nihilistic despair, struggling to defend his dignity and his identity under circumstances of humiliation and deprivation. Prison becomes for him "a school of great self control"; as it enlarges the circle of things he can understand, it more clearly and narrowly defines the circle of things he can respect. Difficult, demanding (in his own words "politely intractable") Havel triumphs over isolation and powerlessness through the clarity he achieves in these letters, leaving us with a multi-layered work of lasting value, a profound and moving meditation on our world.

Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982 at


The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel. Hutchinson, London. (1985) Sharpe, New York. (1986)

The Power of the PowerlessThis powerful collection of essays by Czechoslovak writers is now published in the West for the first time. Written shortly after the formation of Charter 77, and just prior to the birth of solidarity, it is among the most original and compelling pieces of political writing to have emerged from central and eastern Europe during the whole post-war period. Vaclav Havel's essay provides the title for the book. It was read by all the contributors who in turn responded to the many questions which Havel raises about the potential power of the powerless.

The essays explain the anti-democratic features and limits of Soviet type totalitarian systems of power. They discuss such concepts as ideology, democracy, civil liberty, law and the state from a perspective which is radically different from that of people living in liberal western democracies. The authors also discuss the prospects for democratic change under totalitarian conditions. Steven Lukes's introduction provides an invaluable political and historical context for these writings.

The authors represent a very broad spectrum of democratic opinion, including liberal, conservative and socialist.




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