Václav Havel archive: Mistake

This piece by Vaclav Havel was published in Index on Censorship in 1984 after he was released from prison in March 1983, having served almost four years on charges of “subversive activities against the Socialist state” of Czechoslovakia. The “subversive activities” were his signature on the Charter 77 manifesto (he was one of the three original spokesmen of Charter 77), his membership of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) and his numerous plays and essays which, in his own country, appear only in samizdat editions. Our previous issue, Index 6/1983, contained the first interview given by Havel to a foreign journalist after his release from imprisonment.

Havel died on 17 December this year.


The following sketch is Havel’s first literary work written since leaving prison. Its world premiere took place at the end of November 1983 in Stockholm and is published here by permission of Rowohlt Theater-Verlag, Reinbek. The Stockholm performance was introduced by Vaclav Havel himself, the tape-recorded message he sent from Prague being played to the audience. The message appears on page 15.

Dramatis personae:

KING (a trustie)

(As the curtain rises, we see a door, left, with the FIRST, SECOND, and THIRD PRISONER crowding the doorway, KING in front. All four have shaven heads and a variety of tattoos on their arms and torsos — KING most of all. They are dressed in prison uniforms and are gazing intently at XIBOY. On the opposite side of the stage there is a tier of three iron bunks; XIBOY is sitting on the top one, like the others in prison garb and with shaven head but no tattoos. XIBOY is a newcomer and he looks with some apprehension at the group in the doorway. A long, tense silence…)

KING (to XIBOY) I hear you lit a fag after slop – out…

(Short pause)

FIRST PRISONER (to KING) ‘e did — I saw ‘im.


SECOND PRISONER Sure, that’s right.

KING (to XIBOY,) Don’t you know when we fall out for breakfast?

(Short pause)

FIRST PRISONER (to KING) Sure, he knows…The minutes after slop-out.

KING (to SECOND PRISONER.) Does ‘e know?

SECOND PRISONER Sure he knows! They tell all the new boys, don’t they…

KING (to XIBOY) Now listen ‘ere, friend. We have ten minutes between slop-out and breakfast. In that time we’ve all gotta get dressed, those as wants can wash or ‘ave a piss, there’s no objection to that, you understand, everyone’s got a perfect right to do it, if they wanna, you can even start making your bed so we don’t all start at once and get in each other’s way. And we open the windows to get rid of all the farts first thing. That’s the custom ‘ere, that’s the way it’s done and always ‘as been. Then we all grab our caps and food bowls and wait for the order to fall in. And when they yell fall in’ we gotta look sharp and line up outside the cell. If we don’t get out there quick enough, they send us back and we gotta wait our turn again. So we don’t want anybody fartarsing around holding things up, looking for his things or tipping a fagend or anything like that — and the rest of us get in the shit on ‘is account. Understand? Because of one lousy slowcoach we ain’t all gonna go back and ‘ang around waiting. I ‘ope that’s clear. And if anyone thinks it ain’t, we’ll soon put ‘im right!

FIRST PRISONER (to KING) It’s clear, all right, and everyone does it just like you said.

SECOND PRISONER (to XIBOY) That’s right — and if some cunt thinks ‘e can mess us about, ‘e’ll do it just once and never again . ..

KING(to XIBOY) So, as I said, there’s a hell of a lot to do between slop-out and breakfast. No time for fartarsing around. Much less for smoking. That’s not the way we do things ‘ere. Now, after breakfast, that’s something else again, then you can light up if you’ve got any fags, that is. Then there’s time and nobody gives a shit. But not before breakfast. That’s how it’s always been in this pad, and it’s going to stay that way. Nobody’s gonna tell me they can’t wait a lousy twenty minutes for a smoke. That ain’t asking too much, is it? (to SECOND PRISONER) Am I right?


FIRST PRISONER (to KING) We can wait.

KING (to XIBOX) So, from now on remember — no smoking before breakfast…

FIRST PRISONER Especially as we’re trying to air the fucking place…

KING (to XIBOY) Yeah, that’s right. And some people just can’t stand the smell of smoke first thing in the morning. They don’t like it, their lungs don’t like it, they can’t stand it. As is their right. Is that clear?

(XIBOY says nothing, looks embarrassed and shrugs)

SECOND PRISONER (shouts at XIBOY) Didn’t you hear what ‘e said? (XIBOY says nothing, looks embarrassed, shrugs) Anyone we catch smoking after slopout gets a fistful, see?

KING (to XIBOY) What they do in other cells, that’s their business. But nobody smokes in this one after slop-out. That goes for everybody, ‘specially for new boys like you. That’s all I wanted to say to you, friend. And not just for myself but for all of us. (to SECOND PRISONER) Right?


FIRST PRISONER (to KING) That’s what we all say — right…

KING (to XIBOY; Everybody saw you smoking first thing, and everybody yakked about it. But I told ’em: ‘e’s a new boy, doesn’t know the ropes yet. And so they stopped yakking. So you’re OK for today. But next time just remember we don’t hold with nobody trying to be clever and going it alone. Not on your life . ..

FIRST PRISONER (to KING) As long as I been ‘ere, nobody ever had the nerve to light a fag before breakfast.

KING (to XIBOY) So, as I said, you got away with it this time, but see it don’t ‘appen no more. Is that clear?

(XIBOY looks embarrassed and shrugs)

SECOND PRISONER (yells at XIBOY) What’re you gawping at, you cunt? King asked you a question!


KING (to XIBOY) We’re trying to be nice to you, see? So we’ll skip it this once—but now you know and kindly keep your nose clean.

(Longer silence)

Oh, and while we’re on the subject … From tomorrow, you’ll make your bed exactly like all the rest of us. If the others can do it, so can you. We don’t want to lose a point every day just because some stupid bastard doesn’t know how to make his bed properly, do we? We don’t want the whole lot of us to get it in the neck on account of one miserable rookie what doesn’t know how to make his bed. So you’d better hurry up and learn, ‘cos if tomorrow your bed isn’t just like everybody else’s, we’ll make you practise all evening.

SECOND PRISONER (to XIBOY,) We’ll make you do it ten times in a row, see if we don’t.

KING (to XIBOY,) Blanket’s gotta be two inches from the edge on both sides, the sheet neatly folded over, and so on and so forth. The boys’ll show you how it’s done.

FIRST PRISONER (to KING,) I’ll show ‘im . . .

KING (to XIBOY,) Is that clear?


Everybody in ‘ere gets the ‘ang of it sooner or later, so no reason why you shouldn’t get the ‘ang of it. Understand?


SECOND PRISONER (to XIBOY,) Bloody hell! Cat got your tongue, you bastard? Speak up when King asks you something!

FIRST PRISONER (to KING,) What ‘s the matter with ‘im? Stupid idiot!

KING (to XIBOY) Did you clean the washbasin?


Your turn to scrub and clean this week, so you’d better look smart! And if you think you’re just going to tickle the floor with the brush and that’s it, you’re bloody well mistaken. You get down and scrub the floor under the bunks, ‘specially in the corners by the wall —the screws shine their torches down there. You dust everywhere, and the washbasin’s gotta be washed, wiped dry and shined — and the same goes for the kaazie. Today it’s a mess, so you can thank your lucky stars we haven’t had the screws round ‘ere. They’d ‘ave shown you a thing or two. Tonight, before inspection, I’ll come and look personal like. We’re all in the same boat ‘ere, nobody gets any privileges, ‘specially not a rookie whose fag-end is still burning outside the prison gate! Pankrac Prison, Prague

SECOND PRISONER (yells at XIBOY) So why don’t you come down off of there, you cunt, when King’s talking to you!

(XIBOY remains sitting on his bunk, smiling in embarrassment. Tense silence, SECOND PRISONER is about to lunge at XIBOY and drag him down but KING stops him)

KING (to SECOND PRISONER,) Wait a sec!


(to XIBOY) Now look ‘ere, me lad! If you’ve got it in yer ‘ead that you’re going to do as you bloody well please ‘ere, or maybe play at being King, you’ve got another think coming! We know how to deal with the likes of you. Understand?


FIRST PRISONER (to KING) What a stubborn bastard!

SECOND PRISONER (to XIBOY,) Come down off that bloody bunk, and be quick about it!

(SilenceXIBOY doesn’t move)


(SilenceXIBOY doesn’t move)

KING (to XIBOY,) Now then, you, I don’t take kindly to them as tries to make a monkey out of me. So don’t get any ideas!

FIRST PRISONER (to XIBOY,) Down you come this minute and apologise to King!

(SilenceXIBOY doesn’t move, just sits there smiling in embarrassment)

SECOND PRISONER (yells at XIBOY.) You fucking mother-fucker!’

(SECOND PRISONER leaps forward and catches XIBOY by one leg, pulling him down, XIBOY falls on the floor, SECOND PRISONER kicks him and returns to KING’S side, XIBOY rises slowly, looks at the others, puzzled. Silence.)

THIRD PRISONER (softly) ‘ere, lads…

(Silence — they all gaze at XIBOY)

KING (without turning to THIRD PRISONER,) What?

(Silence — they all gaze at XIBOY)

THIRD PRISONER (softly) Know what? He’s some kind of a bloody foreigner…

(All three look questioningly at KING. Tense silence)

KING (after a pause, softly) Well, that’s his bloody funeral…

KING starts out menacingly towards XIBOY, followed by FIRST, SECOND and THIRD PRISONER. They slowly edge closer to him. Curtain falls)


Translated by George Theiner. This play originally appeared in Index on Censorship magazine in 1984 Volume 13: Issue 13

Havel archive: Why go to jail?: Ludvik Vaculik & Václav Havel

How are ordinary, decent people to react to the imposition of a repressive regime, how much should they risk in showing their opposition to it? These questions were raised by Ludvik Vaculik in a feuilleton he wrote in December 1978, which brought an indignant reply from Václav Havel, as well as a dozen other dissidents. The controversy was given a poignant twist by the arrest of Václav Havel, together with nine other Chartists. Prior to his arrest, he had been under virtual house arrest for several months.

Václav Havel died on 17 December this year.

On bravery

I sometimes wonder if I’m mature enough to go to prison. It frightens me. We should all come to terms with this problem once we reach adulthood, and either behave in such a way as not to have to fear imprisonment or consider what is worth such a risk. It is hard to be locked up for something that will have ceased to excite anyone even before your sentence is up. That, I think, is what happened to the people who were imprisoned for the pre-election leaflets in 1972. And that is why I was greatly moved and encouraged by Jifi Miiller’s message from prison in which he advised people to act in an effective way and to avoid arrest.

It is one thing if they imprison someone who knows exactly what he is doing and why, and quite another when a young, immature person lands in jail, more or less by accident. I was amazed, for instance, by the fate of Karel Pecka (a leading dissident writer who made his literary debut in the sixties), who frittered his youth away in the uranium mines. For someone to be able to pick up the pieces of such a wrecked life and to give it a meaning and value I believe requires a kind of courage he surely did not possess before his prison experience. A normal human being, even a relatively calm one, if he opens a chess game badly, feels like sweeping the board clean and starting again. You can do that in a game of chess, but you can’t do it in life.

Just to risk imprisonment is not in itself any kind of achievement, nor is it at all a good thing if during a dispute one side provokes the other to take a step which cannot be revoked without loss of honour, prestige, or authority. To do that can only make the situation worse. A man who suppresses the opinions of others is merely a censor; a censor, whom resistance to censorship leads to imprison people, becomes a dictator; the dictator who, in suppressing a protest demonstration, gives orders to fire at the crowd is a murderer. With the censor we could negotiate, and there was always a possibility that, as a result, his office would in time be abolished, and the censor himself would quietly accept some other desk job. In a murderer we have an enemy who cannot agree to any negotiation if he is not to end on the gallows.

However, where are the decent limits to such reflections?

No one can give a satisfactory reply to the question whether Charter 77 has made things better or worse, and how things would look today without it. Let us give up seeking such an answer, and let us add that the moral motives for our actions are only roughly parallel with political ones, the strongest impulses deriving from our character rather than our views. Charter 77 is today different from what it was in 1977. We have all had our share of trouble. I sometimes hear complaints that it is no longer as nice as it used to be. To this I would say that anyone who doesn’t agree with what those who remain active and committed are doing, should withdraw quietly and undemonstratively and not hamper the work of those who are left. Each and every one of us can try and find methods which suit him best. If some team of people under threat decides to re-define its internal structure and tighten its rules, it can hardly expect to be understood by the public at large. While, on the one hand, a free man is put off by demands for absolute unity, on the other, the majority of sensible people tend to regard the increasingly more heroic actions of an increasingly diminishing platoon of fighters as more and more their own personal affair. I mean this generally, as it applies to all shades of opinion.

Most people are well aware of their own limits and refrain from actions whose consequences they would be unable to bear. Anyone who, in a cool season, persuades people to take on more, should not be surprised when they break. An instinctive fear of hunger prevents a healthy and sensible person from feeling sympathy for someone who, in his own and the general cause, goes on hunger-strike. A matter of life and death? The sensible person gets cold feet and tries to find a way of dissociating himself from it at least a little. Psychologists and politicians cannot expect heroism in everyday life except when the whole environment is literally ionised by radiation from some powerful source. Heroic deeds are alien to everyday life. They are special events, which ought to be reported. They flourish in exceptional situations, but these must not be of long duration. A mass psychosis of heroism is a fine thing, provided there are in the vicinity some sober minds who have access to information and contacts and who know what’s to be done afterwards.

I make a distinction between heroism and the integrity of the ordinary man. The ordinary man has a reserve of good habits and virtues, possesses his own integrity and knows how to protect it from erosion. Just as he doesn’t like to see anyone acting in too dangerously defiant a manner, he also likes to reassure himself that quiet, honest toil is the best, even if it isn’t particularly well rewarded, and that decent behaviour will find a decent response. Today, the main brunt of the attack is not directed so much at heroes as against what we used to consider the norm of work, behaviour and relationships. I would go so far as to say that the heroes are being given only measured doses of repression, which the regime feels duty bound to administer. It is reluctant to do this because it doesn’t want to give publicity to any heroes. The war should remain anonymous, without any recognisable faces or data. That is why the real explosive charges are scattered among the crowd, the intention being not to destroy anyone but rather to cause him to change his norms. A kind of neutron bomb: undamaged empty figures carry on walking to and from work.

We sometimes argue whether things are worse now than in the fifties, or if they are better. We can find sufficient evidence for both contentions. A truthful assessment will depend on how much we can gain from our present situation to benefit the future. The fifties had their revolutionary cruelty as well as their selfless enthusiasm. Certain sections of the population suffered grievously. Today there is no sign of any enthusiasm and, except: in the case of a few excesses, no particular cruelty. Also, it no longer matters to which group anyone belongs. Violence has become humanised. The total surveillance of the entire population has been spread more gently over everyone and everything, it is devoid of the former spasms of hate. Is this better or worse? It is an attack on the very concept of normal life. I consider it more dangerous than in the fifties, yet we find it easier to live with.

Under these circumstances, every bit of honest work, every expression of incorruptibility, every gesture of goodwill, every deviation from cold routine, and every step or glance without a mask has the value of a heroic deed. Our opponent, in particular, should find us ready – not to die for some rotten sacred cause, but to understand its positive aspects and to hold on to them. While heroic deeds frighten people, giving them the truthful excuse that they are not made for them, everyone can bravely adhere to the norm of good bshaviour at the price of acceptable sacrifice, and everyone knows it. Prague, 6 December 1978 – on the occasion of Karel Pecka’s 50th birthday.

Dear Mr. Ludvik

You say: either one should act so as not to have to fear prison, or else consider whether it’s worth his while to risk imprisonment.

I agree: if one intends to burgle a supermarket, one has to consider whether the likely proceeds make the risk worthwhile.

But people aren’t locked up only for burgling supermarkets. They are locked up, for instance, for writing novels. A certain Vaculik was not locked up for his Guinea-pigs, but a certain Grusa was locked up for his Questionnaire.

According to you, Grusa evidently acted carelessly in writing The Questionnaire, since it is stupid to go to prison. Vaculik was more prudent in writing only The Guinea-pigs. You see, I trust, how absurd this is. After all, you know better than anyone that Grusa didn’t have to go inside for The Questionnaire but Vaculik might have gone inside for The Guinea-pigs. You know that the decision

whether to lock up Grusa or Vaculik has nothing at all to do with which one of them was better able to assess the risks, it is purely and simply a cold-blooded calculation on the part of the powersthat-be. Sometimes it is more tactical to arrest Grusa and thus try and intimidate Vaculik, at other times it might be better to arrest Vaculik and thus try and intimidate Grusa.

Grusa’s novel is a good one, and so to that extent the two months inside were worth it. But what if it had not been a good novel? Or what if he had spent two years behind bars instead of two months? Then no doubt it would be incumbent on us to pity Grusa, as we pitied those naive souls who, in the early seventies, thought they could get away with reminding voters of their constitutional right not to vote.

But don’t you remember that you and me both still have the 1969 indictment hanging over us? And surely you cannot be unaware that it could easily have been the two of us who spent all those years in jail instead of Sabata and Hiibl? Do you think that the text we both signed was worth it?

In a sense, nothing is worth it. Not leaflets, nor attendance at a ball, nor the writing of a novel. And what about sending the manuscripts of Czech authors to emigre magazines! Was it worth it where Lederer was concerned? Good job he is one of those cunning heroes who benefit from ‘measured doses of repression’ – after all, he might have got not three years but ten. The law under which they sentenced him allows for that.

Was it worth it for Messrs Simsa and Sabata that they behaved like men when humiliated? Of course not; all they had to do was to bend and people would at once have understood them better and they need not have found themselves among those repugnant heroes. And what about the Plastic

People – had they given concerts with Helena Vondrackova they would have taken their place among decent people within the limits of the law and needn’t have come a cropper.

I don’t know what you had in mind when you wrote your feuilleton. All I know is what effect it has. Divested of its stylistic elegance, it can be summed up like this: a decent bloke doesn’t pretend to be a hero and doesn’t insist on getting himself arrested. Because to be a hero is somehow anti-social; this isn’t the honest, everyday work which decent people respect and which keeps society going; people recoil from it and are frightened by it. Furthermore, heroes are dangerous because they only serve to make matters worse. After all, the secret police aren’t such bad chaps provided they are treated decently.

Why then provoke them needlessly by writing novels, making music, sending books abroad? This literally forces those decent chaps to beat up women and drag one’s friends into the woods and there kick them in the balls. We must have more regard for their prestige and stop invoking all these international treaties, we must no longer insolently copy the writings of people like Cerny, Vaculik, Havel, and others like them – no doubt you know that for this reason three boys of the same age as your sons are at present in a Brno jail. More heroes, who are only helping to make matters worse.

But now without exaggeration: none of us can know in advance how much we can bear, nor what we may be made to bear. That can only be known by your calculating model of a sensible, decent man within the limits of the law. None of us decided in advance that we wanted to go to jail, indeed none of us made a conscious decision that he or she wanted to become a dissident. We became dissidents without actually knowing how, and we found ourselves behind bars without really knowing how. We simply did certain things which we had to do and which it seemed proper to do: nothing more, nor less.

Happy are those who are decent and haven’t landed in jail. But why should those who had that misfortune be set apart from the others? Is it not usually quite arbitrary who lands in it and who doesn’t? Those whom you call heroes, suggesting that they are overdoing things, didn’t get locked up for their ambition to become martyrs – they were locked up because of the indecency of those who put people in jail for writing novels or for playing tapes with the music of unofficial musicians.

No one wants to go to jail. If people were to take your advice and calculate the risks involved in the fashion of a thief deciding whether to burgle a supermarket, there would for a long time now have been in our country not a single expression of solidarity with an unjustly persecuted person, not a single truthful novel or free song, not even a single feuilleton. For how can we be sure that tomorrow they won’t start putting people away for writing feuilletons?

Maybe all you meant to say was that the quiet and inconspicuous humiliation of thousands of anonymous people was worse than the occasional arrest of a well-known dissident. Undoubtedly. But the question surely is, why did they arrest the dissident? Mainly, if you think about it, just because he had tried to tell the truth about that quiet and inconspicuous humiliation of thousands of anonymous people.

Some of us have been experiencing this harsh and depressing confrontation with the secret police for two years, others for ten, still others all their life. Nobody can be said to enjoy it. None of us knows in advance how long he can stand it. And each and every one of us has the right, when he feels he can’t stand it any longer, to draw back, not to do certain things any more, to take; a rest, or even to emigrate. All this is understandable, normal, human – and I’d be the last to hold it against anyone.

What I do hold against people, though, is when they don’t tell the truth. And you – forgive me – this time are not telling the truth.


Václav Havel

This article originally appeared in Index on Censorship magazine in 1979 Issue 8: Volume 39

Goodbye Havel

As the Czech Republic and the wider world bids Václav Havel goodbye,
Pavel Theiner, whose father George worked tirelessly to shine a light on the work of Czech dissidents throughout his editorship at Index on Censorship, looks back on a remarkable man