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