Dramatic Revolutions: How Theater Gave Czechoslovakia Its Political Voice

Theater has long been central to Czech identity and efforts to celebrate Czech culture in the face of suppression by a foreign empire. To understand the importance of the Velvet Revolution on its 30-year anniversary, it helps to look back at the development of Czech theater. Photo: Mahen Theater. Credit: NdB. Prepared by: Aaron Collier.

Czech, Rep., Nov 14 (BD) – The expression of a national culture through the theater started long before the Czech Republic was a nation, and even before it was half of Czechoslovakia. The national revival that lay the groundwork for the first independent Czechoslovak state included the construction of the National Theatre in Prague, for which a national collection was organized to build a permanent stage to showcase Czech drama and opera.

The building opened to great acclaim in 1881, but this joy was not to last. A fire broke out two months after the grand opening, severely damaging the theater. Not to be knocked off track in the quest to build a national identity that included a theater, one million guldens (about $10 million today) were collected within two months to rebuild it. The building still stands today with the inscription “Národ sobě” indicating the building is a gift from the nation to itself.

This gift gave Czech playwrights and composers space to shine, and many took advantage as they gained more and more freedom, including an independent country in 1918. The National Theatre hosted premieres from such artists as Janáček, Smetana, and Čapek, helping them to build a truly international reputation for Czech productions.

This space to operate freely came to an end in 1938 when the Nazis invaded and restarted the suppression of Czech culture. After the Nazis were forced out, the suppression continued after 1948, when the Communist Party seized control over the country. While formally it was an independent country, its status as a satellite state marked a return to being under the thumb of a large foreign power.

For a long time, Czech authors worked under a system of strict censorship, where any perceived criticism of the ruling party would be punished severely. This system began to loosen slightly in the 1960s, culminating in a program for “socialism with a human face” in 1968, which set off a brief period of freedom of politics, expression, and culture known as the Prague Spring. During this short breath of fresh air, many Czech artists got a taste for freedom and the ability to produce all sorts of creative work.

This all came crashing to a halt on August 21, 1968, when five Warsaw Pact countries led by the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to keep any human side of socialism from spreading any further. Artists who had shown any sign of support for the resistance to the invasion, such as the playwright Václav Havel, were blacklisted, forcing them out of their artistic professions and into manual labor to survive.

Over the next decades, this censorship turned artists into dissidents struggling against an oppressive regime. Any work they produced could not be officially published, but it was often passed from hand to hand in illegal samizdat publications. Such works helped to shape the ideas of those who were working against the Communist regime. For example, Havel created a series of plays centered around the character Ferdinand Vaněk, a kind of alter ego for Havel, that helped solidify his reputation as a leading intellectual within the dissident movement.

The movement continued underground, with such public expressions as Charter 77, an initiative that produced a document strongly criticizing the government and its lack of respect for human and civil rights. Many of the initiative’s founders, including Havel, were involved in the theater and longed for the ability to return to a life where they could freely express themselves. Instead, they were persecuted and many spent long periods in prison.

Although the Charter 77 initiative did not lead directly to change, its members kept pushing for reform. They finally got their chance in the late 1980s when, following an economic downturn and revolutions in other Soviet satellite states, discontent spread to the wider public. Many citizens began signing petitions against actions such as Havel’s imprisonment and in favor of abolishing censorship and reinstating freedom of expression.

This all came to a head on November 17, 1989, following the violent suppression of a student protest. Students (lead by those at the Academy of Performing Arts) and theater actors across the country agreed to go on strike. The following day, actors in Prague refused to perform and instead read out a proclamation calling for a general strike. Given that all the media was controlled by the state (and so the Communist Party), it was only such personal interactions (along with homemade posters and pamphlets) that spread the word across the country and helped the protest grow into a revolution.

Following the collapse of the Communist Party’s grip on power, the country sought to unity in free elections. They turned to many of the people from Charter 77, now part of the Civic Forum political party, and Havel was elected the first president of the post-Communist country (and later the first president of the Czech Republic). The outsider dissidents, including authors and playwrights, had won the opportunity to lead the country in a new direction where everyone was free to express themselves without fear of institutional reprisal.

It is this direction that we celebrate with the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17.

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