It’s been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its collapse in 1989 was a monumental and symbolic event. It sparked the explosions toward freedom that reverberated in the Eastern block countries and Balkins until the U.S.S.R. finally could not hold and cracked like Humpty Dumpty and continued to fracture.
There were celebrations of this momentous event in Berlin and in other cities these past two weeks. One celebration related to the fall of the Berlin Wall took place in New York City. The Untitled Theater Company No. 61 in association with The Consulate General of the Czech Republic in New York and the Czech Center are presenting The Velvet Oratorio by Edward Einhorn and Henry Akona. on select dates.* The Velvet Oratorio is a wonderfully conceived distillation in words (found text), and operatic music of what happened in Czechoslovakia after the Berlin Wall ceased to exist and the Czech people, led by Václav Havel, his Civic Forum, and others took a stand against the communist party of Czechoslovakia. It is no coincidence that Einhorn and Akona have stated this work as an oratorio (often oratorios are performed in religious places); truly the meaning of the production is sacred because its larger context represents freedom and the rights of mankind and womankind.
The Velvet Oratorio, (Edward Einhorn-Librettist; Henry Akona-Composer and Director), chronicles the sequence of events in an episodic shorthand of how Václav Havel, and his Civic Forum unified and encouraged dissidents, students, and others that the overthrow of a matrix of oppression cozened by an overweening security apparatus did not have to incur violence. Havel and the Civic Forum believed that freedom could be uplifted peacefully with protest marches and sit ins in a “Velvet Revolution.” The absurdist playwright was a fan of Lou Reed and his 1960s group The Velvet Underground which inspired Havel and his dissidents toward a path from which there was no turning. Havel, who eventually became Reed’s friend, has suggested as has Reed (in interviews), that the revolution was so named because Havel and the dissidents were listening to The Velvet Underground leading up to the overthrow of the Czechoslovakian communist party.
The Velvet Oratorio is an oratorio whose plot is historic and whose music is melodic, complex and beautifully configured to convey the events of The Velvet Revolution. The songs and spoken vignettes recall the the eight days in Czechoslovakia after the Berlin Wall fell and lead up to the overthrow of the communist government and subsequent events which found Havel elected as the President of Czechoslovakia in December 29. Some of the characters like Shirley Temple Black (Black, Ambassador to Czechoslovakia was present during the Velvet Revolution and sympathized with dissidents), represent historical figures and their impact on the Velvet Revolution. The part of Shirley Temple Black is portrayed by Andrea Gallo. Other characters are a compendium of individuals who represent students, dissidents, ordinary Czech citizens, and communist party members. Einhorn incorporates these players to recall the true events which begin on November 17th, 1989 (the beginning of the Velvet Revolution), after the news of the Berlin Wall inspired hope and amazement in Prague. It was during this time that university students organized a protest march remembering a fallen Czech hero (Jan Opletal), who stood up against another oppressive security state, the Nazi fascists in 1939.
Einhorn intertwines these real and representative characters with the story of the character Ferdinand Vaněk, who is in prison being interrogated. Vaněk, is a character who appears in Havel’s Vaněk plays (Audience, Unveiling, Protest, Dozens of Cousins), and is thought to be Havel’s alter-ego. He is the ineffectual, quiet one, an artist and political dissident remaining outside the constructs of power, continually fighting to maintain his individuality and failing in a humorous and ironic interplay with others who keep the repressive state “strong” until it shatters.
In the superb The Velvet Oratorio, the characterization of Vaněk (played by Matthew Trumbull), is in keeping with the Vaněk, of Havel’s plays; he is ironically funny in the scenarios where he is present. He serves up the universal conflicts and themes: what the artistic everyman confronts when going up against repression with steadfast conscience though others about him lose theirs to fear and self-loathing. When we first meet Vaněk, he is in prison being interrogated by a police officer (Ross DeGraw), of the security state. Einhorn portrays Vaněk, as does Havel with a very human and anti-heroic demeanor; indeed, he is shifting in his chair uncomfortable not because of fear but because of his hemorrhoids. Vaněk is questioned because the state thinks he is engineering the protest march and other protests because of the Berlin Wall. Imprisoned, Vaněk is a hapless victim not even aware the Wall fell; he reveals nothing because, isolated in prison, he knows nothing.
When Vaněk is released from his imprisonment, the revolution has begun and word gets out that during the protest march for the Czech martyr who stood against the Nazis, a student is killed. Einhorn captures the completely haphazard and ironic events that fomented the revolution which is like an ironic comedy sparked by confusion. The student, Martin Smid, who was supposedly killed by the police during a violent dispersal of the Jan Opletal protest, is very much alive. In fact in a humorous scene two students of the same name show up to verify to Vaněk that all is well and the rumor of the killing is just that, a false rumor.
Though the death never happened, the events the rumored death create are surreal and they snowball into an avalanche. In the perception of the Czech people, the dissidents and the students, the unjust violence did occur and that is enough for crowds to take to the streets in protest. Czech citizens who were risk-averse where the communists were concerned before the Wall fell, come together. As the momentum swells, waves of citizens follow Havel, who with his Civic Forum, the dissidents and students plan a general strike throughout the country.
Reminiscent of a scene in Havel’s play Protest, Vaněk meets his friend Stanek (Eric E. Oleson), who is part of the power structure. However, even those on the inside cave and the government is forced to bend to the will of the people. In another humorous vignette, the soldier who interrogated Vaněk in prison has returned to his humanity and they see each other in a bar and are friendly, revealing they were both victims of the state which is foundering in the shallows having run into the reef of justice upheld by the protesters. As the strike achieves critical mass, the communist ship of state sinks into the deep, an irretrievable wreck. Havel is elected President of Czechoslovakia on December 29th and Vaněk joins friends to celebrate. They wonder in awe about what will happen next? Czechoslovakia and Havel and the people will have to make it up as they go along, facing the vicissitudes and bumpy roads of freedom with a smile and remembrance of where they’ve come from.
In retrospect the name “Velvet Revolution” sparked by a rock-in-roll band was the finest name that could have been chosen for what happened: not one drop of blood was shed in the takeover. This was a far cry from the scene witnessed by Shirley Temple Black when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 and a woman was gunned down in front of her. As Havel always manifested a sense of humor, like a playful iconoclast, Einhorn has used a lively, absurdist approach for his Velvet Oratorio recalling these events that individuals find amazing if they consider the iron grip that communism held for 40 years in Czechoslovakia and satellites of the former Soviet Union.
Einhorn’s inclusion of Havel’s timeless and absurdist character of Vaněk makes an important statement. Havel was an individual who stepped out from history, yet he was born of the times and was able to effect change and create new political structures that benefited the citizens and freed them from oppression.
The character of Vaněk is unlike Havel: he is unable to effect change, and is acted upon by circumstances. In the creation and use of this anti-hero, we are reminded of the individuals like ourselves who are swept up and engulfed by history, part of the amorphous, faceless mass who are acted upon by unjust power structures. Such citizens, stripped of identity and distinction remain outside the halls of power, a hapless, shapeless majority waiting in the wings. If a few attempt to rise up, their very actions are demeaned, re-characterized or co-opted because they threaten the fragility of the power construct.
The irony, of course, is that power is elusive and those abiding in the matrix live in fear of its loss which is why the repression is so great. They, most of all, know that any moment, the people in the majority can shatter the lies of the structure’s unjust inviolability. They know that eventually, the glass house they’ve constructed to look like steel through “legalized” oppression, intimidation and surreptitious murder will shatter. In Havel’s work (and Einhorn’s celebration of Havel and the revolution in The Velvet Oratorio), there is always the absurd hope, the ironic comedy that true change is possible. Indeed, the more unformed it is to allow its own creative design, the more difficult to oppose, greater the likelihood, the stronger its impact.
Havel himself had no heady notions of who he was and the realities of the government that was created after communism left Czechoslovakia which later became the Czech Republic. In essays and talks afterward, he warned democracies “guaranteeing” civil rights, that it is easy to become corrupted, lose sight of their mission, fall in on themselves and erode the substance of their freedoms. It most often occurs when it is encouraged by a governmental apparatus that exists to benefit itself and will do whatever it takes to maintain power even if it means to brainwash risk-averse citizens to submit to greater controls which subtly become oppressive and tyrannical. Havel also suggests it is easy for democracies to become what they once opposed, exacerbated by systemic corruption and media censorship.
In this 25th-year-celebration of the end of the Berlin Wall, it is of vital importance to remember the symbolism of the Velvet Revolution aptly highlighted in Einhorn’s and Akona’s The Velvet Oratorio. The nonviolent tactics, the irony, the flexibility to follow critical mass each stand as a milestone for all of us now who watch the power structures currently vying for dominance. The more oppressive and controlling, the more fragile. The more trenchant and serious, the more easily ridiculed and exposed to weakness and flaws. The more they exist to serve themselves, the more transparent their greed and corruption. The more they resist change, the greater the changes that will happen when they come; and they will come. The readiness is all. And as Havel inspires us as we wait and gain readiness, we must laugh, for all power and dominance are subject to human mortality.
The Velvet Oratorio was written for the Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern Europe Festival at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts and presented in concert version at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center in November 2009. My review is of the fully-staged production.
*Fri Dec 12 at 8pm Sat Dec 13 at 8pm
*Tue Jan 13 at 8pm Wed Jan 14 at 8pm
Bohemian National Hall
321 East 73rd Street