Powerlessness, the Stage, and the Presidency

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The frail, former Czech President Vaclav Havel sat near the middle of the Wilma Theater Wednesday night, alongside his second wife, the beautiful actress Dagmar Havlova, and his good friend Madeleine Albright, smiling broadly, and, on occasion, offering a heartfelt laugh.

Havel, the unlikely maestro of the Velvet Revolution, was in Philadelphia to see the US debut of "Leaving," a play he first published in 2007 and will adapt for the screen this summer. Jiri Zizka, the Czech director of the Wilma's production, grew up following Havel and his absurdist theater productions in 1960's Prague. Many of those works offered a brazen dissent against the communist regime and the grey malaise Havel felt that it wrought upon society; more than the deprivation of political freedoms, it was banality of communism that inspired Havel. Some of his earliest material, notably "The Garden Party," "The Memorandum," and "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration," slipped through the Iron Curtain and found its way to stages in Western Europe and the US, thus lifting Havel to international renown.

"Leaving," though delightful and sardonic, is ultimately about control: about being in office and being out it, about being entirely in command yet feeling absolutely powerless. As such, the most appropriate guest of honor for the premiere may have been Barack Obama, who at this moment in particular, must be astounded by the impotency of the bully pulpit. The BP oil spill hardly represents the first bout of anemia that Obama has suffered. He finds himself powerless to make good on a promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; he finds his hands tied in the debate over "don't ask don't tell" as the House moves swiftly and the military resists. He was powerless at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, when world leaders gathered for what Gordon Brown called "the most important conference since the Second World War," and the Chinese premier Wen Jiabo simply refused to negotiate. Despite a campaign promise to move us decisively toward nuclear zero, his new START treaty will only reduce deployed weapons by roughly a hundred, and that meager step requires $180 billion to modernize the arsenal and appease defense hawks. The emotion this must stir within the president is certainly akin to what Havel puts on the stage with "Leaving."

Havel's play follows Dr. Villelm Rieger as he leaves the chancellorship in an unnamed European country. There are frequent references to Rieger's vision for innovation in education and elsewhere that he fails to deliver upon. Rieger, who bares an uncanny resemblance to Havel himself, is quickly replaced by a new, kleptocratic regime, represented by a greasy hustler named Klein, a character that, we're asked to believe, was in no way influenced by Havel's distaste for his own successor, Václav Klaus. As the play unfolds, Rieger -- played wonderfully by Academy Award nominee David Strathairn -- is slowly driven mad by circumstances around him. His world, quite simply, is pulling apart at the seams; he is powerless to deal with the press, the new regime, his own family.

The play's most interesting study of power, though, comes in the form an imposing, bodiless voice; it's Havel's voice, speaking not as a narrator, but rather as the author, the conductor, the god of this little stage. It demands that actors repeat lines in more sensible tones; it toys with players' entrances and exits and announces that it will leave characters on stage simply for the fun of it. It is, quite simply, the voice of Havel once again in power. After years on the political roller coaster, he is now free again and once more in control, sitting squarely behind his writing desk.

Havel, as he sat with fellow theatergoers Wednesday night, was once again powerless, suffering the impuissance a playwright must always endure once the story leaves the page for the stage.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, remains in control, as unnervingly untrue as that may feel. He can steer the debate on oil, environmental degradation, and the embarrassing (read: porn and bribe related) government failures of the last year. He can once again speak to our higher ideals; he can launch a broad inquest into efficiency and efficacy across the federal bureaucracy, not only in defense spending.

Obama can take control again, no matter how absurd the production feels to have gone.

"Leaving" will be at the Wilma Theater all month.


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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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