Václav Havel

Playwright / Political Leader / President of the Czech Republic

Born: 5 October 1936
Died: 18 December 2011
Birthplace: Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)
Best known as:

The dissident who became the first president of the Czech Republic

Václav Havel was a playwright and political dissenter who became president of the Czech Republic after his country was freed from Soviet domination in 1989. Vaclav Havel was born into a well-to-do family, which made him suspicious in the eyes of the Communists who took control of Czechoslovakia after World War II. Havel was not allowed to study the humanities in secondary school. Instead he studied at a technical school and worked as a lab technician. He also wrote plays and poems, and in the 1960s he was well-known in literary circles. His plays included The Garden Party (1963), The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), and The Memorandum (1966). The latter play introduced Ptydepe, a made-up language created by Havel as a spoof on Communist bureaucratic jargon. Havel's outspoken critiques of the Communist government made it difficult for him to get his works published in Czechoslovakia, and he spent a total of nearly five years in and out of jail for his politics. But in 1989, as the Soviet Union crumbled, Havel emerged as the leader of the Czech democratic movement. The government fell and Havel was named president by the Federal Assembly late in 1989, then elected to the post in 1990. Havel resigned in 1992 when it became clear that the Czechs and Slovaks would split into separate nations. In 1993 he was elected the first president of the newly-separate Czech Republic. He made an unusual president: a lover of rock music and the counterculture, he was also supicious of the back-room dealmaking and rampant development that he called "gangster capitalism." Still, he was re-elected in 1998 and served until February of 2003. He then served as an elder statesman and international lecturer; he was an artist-in-residence at New York City's Columbia University in 2006. His first new play in 18 years, titled Leaving, was produced to much acclaim in 2007.

Extra credit:

After being elected as president of Czechoslovakia, Havel named American rock musician Frank Zappa as "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism."

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