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Vaclav Havel’s Protest Tackles the Dangers of Conformity

Ambassador Theater, founded in Washington, DC five years ago to raise cultural awareness and open cultural dialogue on the international level, has brought to the stage an innovative production of Vaclav Havel’s Protest. The production is part of the Mutual Inspirations Festival, an annual Czech embassy sponsored exploration of the works of important Czech artists. Havel—a playwright and human rights advocate repeatedly jailed for dissent—was a pivotal force in Czechoslavakia’s Velvet Revolution and became the Czech Republic’s first president.

Protest, the final play in Havel’s Vanek Trilogy written in the mid 1970s is, like the other short one-acts, semi-autobiographical. Ferdinand Vanek, Havel’s alter ego, has just been released from prison and is summoned to the house of his old friend, Stanek, who once was an idealist but now works for the government as a writer for state television. Stanek boasts about his garden—he has managed to triple the growth of magnolia trees, since moving in—and presses liquor, peanuts, and a pair of comfortable slippers on Vanek, as if anxious to convert Vanek into a version of himself—comfortable and well provided for. Stanek wants Vanek to be impressed with his lifestyle or at least approve of the choices he’s made, perhaps even pity him for the kinds of compromises he must make in his job and the kinds of people he must surround himself with. Vanek remains noncommittal, cool, and removed.

Under Gail Humphries Mardirosian’s thoughtful direction, two female characters have been added to the cast, Vankova and Stankova, who mirror the interactions and utter the same lines as the men, often simultaneously. The addition is important. We see a woman in the role of courageous human rights advocate, just released from prison; a women, also, in the role of government collaborator.

Jonathan Rushbrook’s set—two raised platforms at opposite ends of the room, with the audience seated at tables in between—helps build a sense of complexity and movement into what might otherwise be a talk-heavy, static play. The four characters switch sides periodically, meet in the middle, and change up into different couplings. Mike Crowley (Vanek) and Sissel Bakken (Vankova) time their lines perfectly, speaking in seamless tandem. Ivan Zizek (Stanek) gracefully matches his lines to Hanna Bondarewska’s Stankova. All are mesmerizingly convincing.

Two actors on stage reading from sheets of paper.
Ivan Zizek (Stanek) and Hanna Bondarewska (Vankova) in Protest,
at the Ambassador Theater.

At opposite ends of the room, Stanek and his female counterpart Stankova question Vanek and Vankova about their current activities. At times it seems they may be informing for the government; Stankova inserts a piece of paper into a typewriter at one point and types up Vankova’s answers, as a prison official might do. Yet Stanek and Stankova praise their guests as heroic, laud them for carrying out important work, and bemoan the constraints of conformism their own jobs impose.

Well into the play, Stanek/Stankova reveal the true reason they have invited Vanek/Vankova over. Stanek/Stankova’s daughter’s fiance, a popular musician critical of the government, has been arrested. They have tried through their government connections to get the young man released, without success.

As it turns out, Vanek (and Vankova) have just such a petition already written. Surely their hosts would like to sign it. Stanek (and his female counterpart, Stankova) consider carefully. As they approach the conclusion that they should sign the petition, music (by Jerzy Sapieyevski) swells, triumphant, heroic, resolute. Then begins a ludicrous back-pedaling by Stanek and Stankova, accompanied by a kind of dirge. They twist logic so furiously that their main reason for not signing is that it will look bad for Vanek if they sign; the government will say Vanek forced them into it.

Once they have established themselves as unwilling to sign, news arrives that the musician has been released. Stanek and Stankova smugly conclude that if the petition had gone out, the government would have gotten its back up and would have resisted releasing him. Your kind, they conclude—transforming into agents of repression set on destroying morale and squashing dissent—sometimes do more harm than good.

Without meaning to, Stanek/Stankova have become the oppressors—not by writing for the government TV station per se, but by being compelled, in conversation with Vanek/Vankova, to defend their own choices and privileges.

Protest is a fascinating study of how, in accommodating oneself to the system and refusing to take personal risks, one can easily become, not simply neutral, but an oppressor, not through ill intent but as a by-product of self-justification. Ultimately, the “Protest” of the title is an ironic reference to Stanek/Stankova’s long-winded and tortuous refusal to sign the petition.

As human beings, we are always balancing risk, personal gain, and a commitment to our values.

The message is an apt one for any era. As human beings, we are always balancing risk, personal gain, and a commitment to our values. In present-day Washington, with its aggressive war on journalistic leaks, its prosecution of whistleblowers, broad surveillance, and an increasingly militarized response to dissent, Havel’s incisive analysis and unbending example are especially needed.

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