HAVEL AND SLAVIA
On Wednesday 17th November, the 32nd Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the sixth cast of a bronze bust by Marie Seborova of the late President Havel was unveiled in the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU’) owned Café Slavia opposite the National Theatre in Prague. The event was jointly organized by Amnesty International Czech Republic, The Vaclav Havel Library and the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation.
Remarks by Michael Žantovský, Director, Václav Havel Library
In their admiring gaze at the Golden Shrine of Czech theatre, the National, the vast majority of foreign tourists, and even a large number of Czechs, do not realize that they are standing with their backs to another shrine of Czech culture, literature, theatre and visual arts, the Slavia Café. A Czech entrepreneur with a lovely theatrical name, Václav Zoufalý, meaning Desperate, opened the luxurious establishment, designed as a theatre café where the audience could admire famous actors after a performance, a year after the National Theatre was reopened in 1884. In fact, the destinies, downs and ups of the two shrines have been closely linked.
The Slavia started out as a theatre café, where the nation’s idols from the opposite Golden Shrine, as well as actors from rural touring theatres, used to come after performances. Antonín Dvořák, Jindřich Mošna, Jaroslav Kvapil, Karel Hašler, Karel Hugo Hilar, Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich came here, and later also Karel Höger, Alfred Radok, Ladislav Pešek, Rudolf Hrušínský, Jana Hlaváčová and Dana Medřická. I can’t resist mentioning that in this golden period of its existence the establishment was managed by two outstanding Prague café owners, Václav Fišer and Jaroslav Štěrba, the first of whom was my great-great-uncle and the second, his nephew, my second great-cousin. The famous Otakar Coubine-Kubín used to sit in Slavia after his return from France but it also attracted exiled writers like Marina Tsvetaeva and, in the 1960s, the entire Latin American left-wing avant-garde, including Jorge Amado, Pablo Neruda, Roque Dalton, Nicolas Guillén and Gabriel García Márquez.
However, a particularly significant role in the history of Czech culture and politics was played by the table under the window overlooking Smetana Embankment, where a whole generation of Czech poètes maudits of the 20th century gathered from the 1950s onwards. By their own admission, some of them, like the table’s uncrowned leader, Jiří Kolář, waited here for someone to pay for their coffee, while their prominent colleagues grew corpulent two houses away, at the headquarters of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union on Národní 11, in orgies of regime-subsidized gluttony. There was not much else for them left to do either, because they must have suspected that 90% of the literary talent, creative abilities and moral qualities were sitting, squabbling, grumbling and rejoicing in Slavia. The names of the writers Jiří Kolář, Zdeněk Urbánek, Josef Hiršal, Jan Zábrana, Miloslav Žilina, Jiří Valja, and occasionally Jan Grossman, Bohumil Hrabal and Josef Škvorecký, the artists Vladimír Fuka and Kamil Lhoták, Mikuláš Medek and Libor Fára, were completely unknown to a large part of the public, but they gradually and deservedly rose to the Czech literary and artistic Parnassus, although they could hardly afford lunch in the restaurant of the same name next door.
In the early 1950s, a fifteen-year-old aspiring poet named Václav Havel first approached and then joined this club as he began to frequent the café with his generational comrades Josef Topol, Věra Linhartová, Viola Fischerová and Miloš Forman. Here, under the supervision of often ruthless mentors such as Kolář and Urbánek, he honed his literary tastes and moral standards. Here he also met the aspiring amateur actress Olga Šplíchalová, who, although she took a few years to persuade, became Václav’s wife in 1961. It was here that the Circle of Independent Writers was founded in 1968, of which the now world-famous playwright Havel became the chairman. This is where the initiators of Charter 77 collected the first signatures under their declaration. This is where Václav Havel’s first steps led him every time he returned from prison, for here, as he said, “I was important for a while, regaling the others with stories of what I went through there.” A Few Sentences and other petitions were also signed here. And this is also where Václav Havel’s late dissident gesture as president was directed, when he initiated a protest petition against the actions of an opportunistic American company which had leased the café in the days of wild capitalism in Bohemia: ‘We strongly protest against the fact that for three years now the Slavia café, this important and traditional meeting place of Prague intellectuals, students and the elderly, has been closed to the public without any justification or defence. We call on the company that leases this café to open it to the public without delay. Failure to do so will seriously damage the good relations of the Prague intelligentsia with capitalism and with the United States.” The petition actually led to the intended result, the Slavia reopened, and the good relations of the Prague intelligentsia to the United States of America remained intact. This proves that even as president, Václav Havel did not lose his dissident zeal or his sense of humour. After all, this is also where his first steps as an ordinary citizen led him in 2003, at the end of an evening when the entire National Theatre gave him a standing ovation after he left office. Today, on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, we are painfully aware of how much we miss his wisdom, his courage, his kindness and his absurdist humour. There is nothing to do but to settle for his bust.