You know, sometimes it all seems like a beautiful dream – all the exciting opening nights, private views, lectures, meetings – the endless discussions about literature and art! All the energy, the hopes, plans, activities, ideas – the wine bars crowded with friends, the wild booze-ups, the madcap affrays in the small hours, the jolly girls dancing attendance on us! And the mountains of work we managed to get done, regardless! That’s all over now. It’ll never come back!
Protest is the final part of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy, which revolves around the author’s comical alter ego, Ferdinand Vanek, an unassuming, meek playwright and political activist who’s always running into people who embody conformity and moral cowardice in the former Soviet Czechoslovakia.
This time Vanek is invited by the writer Stanek to visit him at his study. Like the apartment from Unveiling, the elegance and opulence in Stanek’s study surprises and embarrasses Vanek. The room is covered with bookcases, there’s a built-in bar and even a surrealist painting adorning a wall.
Stanek has invited Vanek over because he needs his experience in political activism to draft a protest letter against the arrest of a pop singer. Previously Stanek had made some unofficial calls to friends in the party to help him, to no avail. Ironically, Vanek arrives with a letter already written – the pop singer plays an important role in inspiring non-conformist in the youth - and fifty signatures collected. Vanek excitedly hands him the letter, expecting him to add his signature to the others, and that’s when the play takes that unique Havel turn into an exercise in self-deception and the power of language to obfuscate moral matters.
Stanek is a writer but not like Vanek. Stanek has never been importuned by the state: he writes for state television, and although he complains about the constant censorship, he lives reasonably well off and without many pangs in his consciousness. He has friends in the party. He lacks experience in activism, hence his need for Vanek. And the pop singer in question happens to be his daughter’s fiancée, although he assures Vanek he’s not moved by personal feelings. But he recoils at the idea of signing the protest letter. In short, Stanek is Vanek’s opposite.
Stanek, like many writers of his generation, initially welcomed the ideals of the Soviet Union only to grow disillusioned:
Stanek: You took me to task for my illusions and my over-optimism. Good Lord! How often since then I’ve had to admit to myself you were right! Of course, in those days I still believed that in spite of everything some of the ideals of my youth could be salvaged and I took you for an incorrigible pessimist.
Vanek: But I’m not a pessimist –
Stanek: You see, everything’s turned around!
Although he claims to be ashamed of working for the state, his actions tell a different story. He seems to live only for his writing and for his garden, about which he constantly boasts. By being apolitical, he’s avoided surveillance and prison, unlike Vanek:
Stanek: Can our sort bear it all?
Vanek: You mean prison? What else can one do?
Stanek: As far as I recall, you used to be bothered by haemorrhoids. Must have been terrible, considering the hygiene in there.
Vanek: They gave me suppositories –
Stanek: You ought to have them operated on, you know. It so happens a friend of mine is our greatest haemorrhoid specialist. Works real miracles. I’ll arrange it for you.
This dialogue not only reveals their political differences, but Stanek’s power over him: if he wanted he could get him medical help. Stanek’s compliance with the party line has yielded him benefits. Stanek, however, in spite of his lack of political commitment, feels indignant over the state of the country:
Stanek: It’s disgusting, Ferdinand, disgusting! The nation is governed by scum! And the people? Can this really be the nation which not very long ago behaved so magnificently? All the horrible cringing, bowing and scraping? The selfishness, corruption and fear wherever you turn! What have they made of us, old pal? Can this really be us?
Vanek: I don’t believe things are as black as all that –
Stanek: Forgive me, Ferdinand, but you don’t happen to live in a normal environment. All you know are people who manage to resist this rot. You just keep on supporting and encouraging each other. You’ve no idea the sort of environment I’ve got to put up with! You’re lucky you no longer have anything to do with it. Makes you sick at your stomach!
Therefore he admires Vanek and his friends for having taken the “almost superhuman task” of preserving the remnants of the country’s moral consciousness. “The more you’re exposed,” he says, “the more responsibility you have towards all those who know about you, trust you, rely on you and look up to you, because to some extent you keep upholding their honour, too!”
Stanek’s heartfelt indignation and his praise of Vanek’s activism, however, are comically grotesque in light of the fact that he refuses to sign the protest letter. In private, he has no trouble confiding with Vanek his contempt for the current socio-political order. But his actions belong to a man who wants to retain the privileges this same order has given him. He respects Vanek only insofar as he can put in motion a protest to release the singer without getting Stanek involved, and one has reason to suspect his concern and honesty. The play reaches its zenith when Stanek delivers a long speech explaining, with a logic as twisted as a corkscrew, why his signature would cause more harm than good to the movement to release the pop singer. Havel’s talent has always been in turning logic and reason inside out; in almost every play he’s written there comes a moment when a character aligned with power convincingly perverts common sense to justify a thought, a decision or an action. Of his many logic twisters, Stanek may be his supreme achievement.
When I read this trilogy a second time, I came to the conclusion that it’s about people running away from themselves, hiding their true nature in false words and false gestures not just from others but from their own consciousnesses. In Audience there’s Vanek’s boss who philosophically believes in everyone helping each other, but then is unmasked as an opportunist working for the state surveillance. In Unveiling, a couple that has sold out to the party tries to tempt Vanek into becoming like them to assuage their guilt. Now in these two plays the characters unravel themselves, thy reach a point where their self-delusion breaks down and they come face to face with who they are. Stanek, however, is special in that he’s so good at manipulating language that he manages to give a convincing justification to avoid political activism, in a manner that portrays him as noble and Vanek as an uppity moral crusader. Stanek is an organism totally fit to survive in a totalitarian state: he’s wrapped himself so tightly in his own narrative of self-deception that it’s become reality for him.
The finale arrives like a punch in Vanek’s stomach that further illustrates how repressive regimes naturally encourage such intellectual perversions. Like I wrote in my review of Audience, Vanek is usually portrayed as a loser, as a good-intentioned man who never achieves, and this play gently mocks the usefulness of his activism. Vanek’s only success is remaining true to himself, which in an oppressive regime is no mean feat.
Protest is an excellent conclusion to the Vanek trilogy. Together, it’s one of the funniest and most powerful works I’ve ever read from the world of theatre, a sublime use of satire to address urgent themes like politics, morality, conformity, censorship and cowardice.