When I was told in May 1968 that Václav Havel had liked my play and was waiting in Astor Place Theatre’s lobby to say hello, I had no idea who he was beyond his being the author of “The Memorandum,’’ a play Joseph Papp was producing across the street at The Public.
John Cazale filled me in.
Havel was instantly likable, a universe more charming than I’d expected, given Cazale’s description of Havel’s dissidence as “Panther-like.’’ Havel and I chatted about politics and plays, as best we could with Havel’s then-limited English and my non-existent Czech. What I remembered mostly from our brief meeting was Havel’s silly-streak, which matched my own. I was 29, he was 32.
Havel asked me where my father’s family was from in Czechoslovakia, assuring me my name was Czech. I assured him that my father’s family’s roots were in Russia and Poland.
Havel’s 1968 visit to New York was the last time he would be allowed out of Czechoslovakia while the country was under Communist rule. Shortly after Havel’s return to Prague, he and I both won Obie Awards for our plays, he for “The Memorandum’’ (as best foreign play), and me for “The Indian Wants the Bronx.’’
In the mid-1970s, Joseph Papp hand-delivered Havel’s Obie to him at Havel’s country house in the northern Bohemian village of Hrádecek, where Havel had been placed under house-arrest by the Czech-Communist government.
Two years later, when Havel was jailed, I joined with Papp and fellow writers around the world to work for his release.
In 1989, when Communism fell in Czechoslovakia and Havel was ultimately elected president of the newly-formed Czech Republic, I felt the thrill of his success as did much of the free world. The curve of Havel’s life was magnificent.
And while it was undeniably cool to know a president, it was nothing less than astonishing to know a president who was also a playwright.
All past was prologue to our reunion in 2005, when my wife, Gillian, and I traveled to Prague for the opening of my play “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard’’ which starred Dagmar Veskrnova, a.k.a. Dasha, a.k.a. Mrs. Václav Havel. Evidently, Havel’s marriage to Dasha was less than popular back in the day, but, by the time I met Dasha, she was already enjoying rock-star status. Above all, she was a deeply talented actress. My play met with wonderful success and Havel seemed to enjoy my good fortune as much as I.
Havel and I spent days walking the streets of Prague together. Two aging playwrights in blue jeans, chatting vigorously about politics and plays. He shared his city in a most generous, loving way. We visited what seemed to me to be every theatre in Prague, often interrupting rehearsals so Havel could introduce me to wide-eyed actors he assumed were delighted to meet me. The actors were, in fact, wide-eyed because of Havel’s presence - thrilled to be visited by their hero, their president. It occurred to me that I was witness to a story these actors would be telling their children and grandchildren for years to come.
And once again, Havel asked me if I knew where my father’s family was from in the Czech Republic, assuring me my name was Czech. And once again, I assured him that my father’s family was from Russia and Poland. This time, however, Havel gently suggested that Gill and I take a ride (in his car) to Horovice (Czech pronunciation: horso-veecha), a small town in central Bohemia, where Havel was “quite certain’’ my family had originated. Of course, he was correct - every Horovitz, Horowitz, Horvitz, Horwitz, Gorwitz, etc., had passed through Horovice and attached some form of the village’s name to his or her own. The mayor of Horovice led Gill and me to a tiny church that had been the village’s sole synagogue prior to the slaughter of Horovice’s Jews. An undistinguished slip of paper taped to the church’s front door listed the names of the synagogue’s dozen founders. Among the founders was a man with the exact same name as my father’s - Julius Horovitz.
Later in the week, Havel organized a tour of Prague Castle for Gill and me along with Havel’s old pal, my neighbor Lou Reed, who happened to be performing in Prague that night. Havel told me that he wanted me to see the castle so I could begin to understand “the absurdity of living in such a place.’’
Havel assured me that he “was never anything special’’ . . . “What was special was what happened to me.’’ Such is the humility and simplicity of the few truly great people I have met in my lifetime.
I returned to Prague in 2007 for the opening of my play “My Old Lady.’’ Gill and I shared a private box with Václav and Dasha. Again, my play met with approval and again Havel was as thrilled as I for my play’s success. Of Jirina Jirásková, the aging actress who played Mathilde, the lead role in my play, Havel said, “She is simply the best actress we have in the Czech Republic.’’ And Dasha nodded her head in agreement, generously.
I directed Havel’s play “Garden Party’’ for Columbia University’s Havelfest in November 2006. I thought Dustin Hoffman to be perfect casting for the lead role and called him in California, telling Dustin that Havel would be at the performances. Dustin’s answer was simply “OK, sure. . . . How can I say no?’’
Václav and Dasha came to New York for Columbia’s events as well as for Edward Einhorn’s Untitled Theatre Company #61 productions of 19 of Havel’s plays. Havel sat on the aisle in the third row, alongside Dasha and my neighbor Lou Reed. Havel smiled through every word, thrilled to have his plays on stage in New York. And again, wide-eyed actors stared down from a stage at a hero-playwright. After the performance, Havel chatted with every actor, equally, and was as thrilled to meet Dustin as Dustin was to meet him.
Havel told me that he was writing a new play, “an extremely personal play,’’ he said, and was struggling with the ending. He asked if he might send it to me for my suggestions. How could I say no? Havel sent his play and I replied with copious notes. Havel responded to my notes with painstaking care and a level of gratitude that embarrassed me.
While in New York, Havel took ill. The extent of his illness was kept secret. He called me before he left to say that he was OK.
Gill and I returned to the Czech Republic a few months ago for a production of my play “Lebensraum’’ at a national theatre in Ostrava. Dasha had let me know that Havel had been seriously ill and I wanted to spend some time with him. The Ostrava production was a perfect excuse.
Dasha organized Havel’s driver to take us to a country house in Hrádecek, three hours from Prague, where Papp had visited Havel nearly four decades earlier. It was instantly apparent that Havel was dying. He seemed to be half his normal size, and he was exhausted. He discussed his illness in great detail as if describing a character in a Havel play. I instantly remembered Beckett doing the same, telling me that he couldn’t be certain when his feet were on the floor, that leaving a chair was as if “stepping into quicksand.’’ Havel talked about a mini-stroke he’d had, calling his temporary paralysis “. . . interesting . . . amusing, really. I liked it.’’ He talked about weeks of double vision and how often it made him laugh. “I would be talking with a politician and wondering ‘Which of them is the real one?’ . . . and sometimes I’d decide ‘Neither one.’ ’’ He laughed a silly laugh, adding “I had twice as many friends. I liked it.’’
Gill and I had been warned to keep our visit brief, but Havel wouldn’t let us go. We sat outdoors with Havel and his neighbors in glorious September sunshine for the better part of the entire day. We talked politics and plays. But, mostly plays. He told us that he had an idea for a new play that he planned to write as soon as he got past the ordeal of the long-planned official celebration of his 75th birthday.
I’ve often wondered if Václav Havel viewed his presidency as an interruption to his playwriting.
I should have asked him.
Gill and I were in Barcelona on December 18 when Havel died in his sleep at age 75. We watched Spanish television with reports and images of the Czech nation mourning its playwright/president/hero. Gill and I wept for our friend.
For some years now, I have been obsessed by the notion that it is difficult if not impossible to name a single country on the planet - democracies included - in which its political leader is truly loved.
Václav Havel’s Czech Republic is a glowing exception.
Israel Horovitz was born in Wakefield and founded the Gloucester Stage Company. An award-winning playwright and screenwriter living in New York, his plays have been translated and performed in as many as 30 languages worldwide. He wrote this essay for his recently published memoirs and granted permission to the Globe to publish it.