Monday 5 December 2011

Vaclav Havel: For One Night Only

First published in Words with Jam

This is the story of a play which – for over twenty years – saw just one performance. A play written and rehearsed in secret. An act of defiance against a totalitarian state that almost (but not quite) succeeded. The story of The Beggar’s Opera, by Václav Havel, sometime president of the Czech Republic.

In 1968, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and the process of so-called ‘normalisation’ began, Havel was already a successful playwright. But as the Communist Party reestablished its position of absolute power, he along with thousands of others became a ‘non-person’. His books were removed from library shelves, his plays could no longer be performed and his name effectively vanished from public life.

Havel wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1968, but it was four years later that he and his friend Andrej Krob concocted a plan to stage it. No professional theatre dared touch it and any professional actor taking part would risk their career. So through a network of friends, they assembled an amateur company of teachers and students, white-collar workers and mechanics. Copies of the play were typed out on the tissue-thin paper used for samizdat publications and passed round in secret. Rehearsals took place in people’s homes – never in the same place twice to avoid arousing suspicion. They called themselves ‘The Theatre on the Move’.

Rehearsing the play was one thing; putting it on in public was another matter. After two years of working in secret, they approached a ‘House of Culture’ in an obscure suburb of Prague and requested permission to put on a play.

If the title, The Beggar’s Opera, sounds familiar, then that’s no coincidence. This is the same story of Macheath, Peachum and Lockett first written by John Gray in 18th Century England, then reimagined by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil as The Threepenny Opera – and now given another twist in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. By calling it The Beggar’s Opera, they were able to persuade the authorities that this was simply a translation of an English classic, adapted slightly to remove the musical numbers. So effective had the state’s erasure of Havel’s name been that the company didn’t even hide his involvement: the minor officials in this out of the way suburb had never heard of him. Permission was granted, provided the performance was not advertised and no charge was made for admission.

Three hundred trusted friends, secretly invited to view the play, first had to find their way to the House of Culture in Horní Pŏcernice. Imagine a cross between a school auditorium and one of those characterless pubs plonked down in the middle of housing estates in the ‘70s. A place avoided by the locals because most of the entertainment provided was thinly disguised propaganda. An hour before the play began, half the audience were driving round in circles, not daring to ask for directions for fear of giving the game away to the authorities.

Just as the play was due to start, it seemed as if their worst fears had been realised. A man came out onto the stage. He lit a cigarette and stood there, blowing smoke rings out over the audience, his eyes travelling over their faces as if memorising them. The audience held its collective breath, fear catching in their throats. But it was a coup de théâtre: the man was Andrej Krob, Havel’s friend and the director of the play, reminding everyone – audience and actors alike – that they were always being watched.

But not that evening. No secret service men were in the audience or outside, taking note of car registrations.  It seemed as if the whole venture had been a resounding success. The play had been put on, under the nose of the authorities, and they had got away with it. The set was disassembled and the troupe retired to the Little Bears pub in the centre of Prague to celebrate. A second performance was planned for a week later. But their downfall came, not from spies and traitors within Czechoslovakia, but from their allies in the West.

An eyewitness account of the play’s performance was broadcast on Radio Free Europe out of Zurich, and then published in Der Spiegel. The authorities were furious, but to some extent their hands were tied. The Warsaw Pact countries had just signed the Helsinki Accord which, among other things, guaranteed a certain degree of respect for human rights. They could not be seen to respond too ruthlessly to the single performance of an obscure play. So reprisals against the members of the Theatre on the Move had to be discreet. No one was thrown in gaol or sent away to a camp. But passports and driving licences were revoked. Jobs, including Krob’s, were mysteriously ‘restructured’ out of existence. Children of participants failed to find places at university. Even people who were merely suspected of participation suffered. Havel’s play was not performed again in the Czech Republic until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

So what was it about this play that so threatened the Czech regime? After all, the story is familiar enough. Macheath the gallant highwayman, seducing the daughters of a fence and a gaoler, playing off the fathers against each other and dodging an ignominious fate at the end of a rope. But in Havel’s hands, it becomes an indictment of the conditions of living under a totalitarian state.

Aynsley Moorhouse has compared the totalitarian state to Jeremy Bentham’s design of the Panopticon: the ideal prison where each prisoner is under constant observation from every angle. And this, Havel argued, creates a situation where the truth is constantly distorted, where every action is done for appearance only and nothing can be taken at face value. In his essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, Havel cites the example of the greengrocer who puts a sign in his window that reads ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ He does it, not because he believes in international socialist revolution, but because he fears the consequences of not appearing to believe in it. And this constant need to dissemble, Havel believes, causes people to shrivel from within until they lose their humanity altogether.

In Havel’s play, every character appears to be constantly and eloquently justifying their own actions – but nothing they say can be trusted or taken at face value. When, in a final twist unique to Havel’s version, the policeman Lockett is ‘revealed’ to be a criminal who has taken control, first of the police force and now of the whole criminal underworld, the audience is left to guess that he, too, may be the victim of a giant self-deception.

The message of Havel’s writing, and what made him so dangerous, was not simply ‘stop believing what you are told’ (few people did) but ‘stop pretending to believe’. Act like human beings again. Take the sign out of your window and face the consequences of being honest.

Maybe it’s a lesson we could all learn.

• Václav Havel, The Beggar’s Opera, (translated by Paul Wilson), Cornell Press, 2001
• Paul Steiner: Introduction the The Beggar’s Opera, Cornell Press, 2001
• Václav Havel, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, 1978
• Aynsley Moorhouse, ‘Reframing the Theatrical Event: Václav Havel’s The Beggar’s Opera’, Transverse Journal, 2010

For One Night Only was originally published in the December 2011 edition of Words with JAM.

Friday 11 November 2011

On Dreaming and Doing: Therapeutic Writing

As Gillie Bolton says in the opening to her book, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, “Art has the power to help people understand themselves, each other and the world better.”

Writing is still a relative newcomer on the therapeutic block, less well recognised, even by professionals, than, say, art or music therapy. Nevertheless, you can now find therapeutic writing groups in all kinds of settings – working with adults and children, the sick and the dying, refugees and people in prison, recovering addicts and those with mental health problems, and many more.

So what exactly is therapeutic writing?

Those of us who write know that almost any writing can, at times, be therapeutic. However, the essential purpose of therapeutic writing is the exploration of self. We may choose, at some point, to show it to others. We may publish what we have written; we may perform it in public. But first and foremost, we are writing for ourselves.

As one member of a therapeutic writing group put it: “I didn’t know what I felt until I heard what I had written.”

Unlike when we talk – be it to a friend, a family member or a therapist – the words we write on a page are recorded, just as we first wrote them. We can put them aside for days or weeks if we choose, and then return to them, exactly as they were. We can “go deeper into our own truths.”

We can edit them, shape them, fashion them into something new.

We can choose how and when we share them with someone else. We can destroy them, if we wish.

And when someone does read the words, or listens to us read, they don’t interrupt or interact. They hear the whole thing, as we intended.

Filling in the Gaps

Gillie Bolton is one of a handful of people in the UK who, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, more or less invented the field of therapeutic writing from their own experiences.

For Bolton, it began when her own demons began to catch her up and her husband, not knowing how to help her, suggested that she wrote her autobiography.

“I sat down at my kitchen table and wrote a nice neat story on every other line of a hardback notebook. A childhood in a lovely farming village. Somehow writing that first version gave me permission to explore what was wrong. I went back and filled in the gaps, scrawling in red felt tip all over big sheets of paper. ”

As many others have discovered since, Bolton found that writing down our experiences can help provide separation, a necessary distance. Rather than thoughts going round and round in our heads, we have a narrative that can be shaped. And shaping that narrative allows us to make sense of traumatic events and to begin the process of recovery.

Not long ago, I heard a powerful interview on the radio: Bob Geldof, describing his reaction to hearing that his ex-wife, Paula Yates, had committed suicide. After weeks of being barely able to function, he went down into his basement and began composing music. He poured his anguish onto a CD and once it was done, the hurt was there, but it was contained. Manageable. He could function again.

Not all of us can distil our emotions into a musical composition, but we can call write. As Sheila Hayman, coordinator of Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life group says, “all it takes is a pen, paper and enough peace to let the words come out.” 

 Exploring the Hinterland

Bolton began to study how writing could help others as well as herself, eventually gaining her PhD in Reflective Practice: Therapeutic Writing for Professional Development, particularly in the medical profession.

“I trawled therapeutic practices. One of my favourites was the ‘two chair’ method, where you have a conversation with yourself in two different voices. I got people to write in different voices. If they had written something in the voice of their inner critic, they had to consciously seek out their inner mentor and write in that voice too.”

Bolton is particularly interested in what social anthropologists call ‘liminal states’: periods of transition between one life stage and another. Bereavement, convalescence, retirement, redundancy, ‘empty nest syndrome’ are all liminal states.

“Our society is particularly bad at allowing us time to make adjustments from one stage to another and to come to terms with the new conditions of our lives,” says Bolton. “But they are often also times of tremendous opportunity.”

A primary influence mentioned by several of my interviewees is Marion Milner. Milner was a psychoanalyst in the early 20th century. In her book, A Life of One’s Own she explored the benefits of keeping a journal and of ‘letting one’s mind speak for itself’ – perhaps the first experiment in tapping into the unconscious mind through free writing.

Free writing – writing done in that ‘hypnagogic state’ between waking and dreaming – is the first step in therapeutic writing. As Marion Milner found, allowing oneself space and time – and silence – can be a powerful way to access something beyond our conscious minds – whether we think of this as something spiritual or as what Bolton refers to as our ‘inner mentor’.

Free writing is best done with the body as well as with the mind – something may be lost if it’s mediated through a keyboard and a computer screen – when those insidious red and green lines start to criticise even before your thought is fully formed.

But free writing is only a first step. Milner went on to explore the nature of creative activity in On Not Being Able to Paint. Having experimented with free drawing, as she had with free writing, she became aware of a parallel need for a frame or structure, “without which human activity can spend itself in disastrous dissipation of energy.”

Bolton agrees. She has reservations about the practice, expounded in books such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, simply to write for thirty minutes every day. Sometimes, that can be a trap. “You can get stuck with the voice of your critic, with everything just getting blacker and blacker.”

To avoid this, Bolton suggests free-writing for just six minutes at a time. “After that, you need something playful.”

Plenty of ideas can found for such ‘playful’ exercises. Some people respond to the formal structures of poetry, others to the familiar form of fairytales. “Once upon a time there was a… is such a powerful trigger,” says Bolton. “You can use it to explore your own archetypes, or discover what magic gifts you would give yourself. The golden rule is: you must write the positive.”

This is not simply a facile instruction to ‘always look on the bright side of life’. It is important not to shy away from the dark stuff. But afterwards, it’s vital to actively seek out the light.

Another trap that people may fall into is to imagine that what they have tapped from their subconscious is somehow sacrosanct – immune from the need to edit. Virginia Woolf described finding ‘diamonds in the dust heap’ when she wrote her diaries ‘at a gallop’. But as she well knew, those diamonds still require cutting and polishing. Often it is the shaping and reshaping of an image or a narrative that will allow you to find its real meaning.

 You don’t have to join a group to take advantage of the benefits of therapeutic writing. Bolton’s advice to anyone thinking of starting out of their own is to find a trusted friend. “Not a life partner or a business partner. And preferably someone who also wants to write, so there is an exchange, a quid pro quo.” If possible, she says, read aloud to each other. There is something tremendously powerful about the process of giving your words a voice.

The full version of this article was first published in Words with Jam Magazine.