Politics and Theatre

The late Czech leader on a world of players

Opinion | Vaclav Havel | February 2012

I recently read an article entitled "Politics as Theatre," a critique of all that I have tried to do in politics. It argued that in politics, there is no place for a realm as superfluous as theatre. To be sure, in the early months of my presidency, some of my ideas demonstrated more theatrical flair than political foresight. But the author erred in one fundamental issue: he misunderstood both the meaning of theatre and a crucial dimension of politics…

One definition of politics holds that it is the conduct, concern for, and administration of public affairs. Obviously, concern for these public affairs means concern for humanity and for the world, which in turn requires a recognition of humanity’s self-awareness in that world. I do not see how a politician can achieve this without recognizing drama as an inherent aspect of the world as seen by human beings…

On a limited stage, within limited time, and with limited figures or props, theatre says something about the world, about history, about human existence. It explores the world in order to influence it.

Theatre is always both symbol and abbreviation. In theatre, the wealth and complexity of being are compressed into a simplified code that attempts to extract what is most essential from the substance of the universe and to convey this to its audience. This, in fact, is what thinking creatures do every day. Theatre is simply one of the many ways of expressing the human ability to generalize and comprehend the invisible order of things…

The collective nature of a theatrical experience is no less important: theatre always presupposes the presence of a community – actors and audience – who experience it together.

All these qualities have counterparts in politics. A friend once said that politics is "the sum of all things concentrated." It encompasses law, economics, philosophy, and psychology. Inevitably, politics is theatre as well – theatre as a system of symbols addressing us as a whole, as individuals, and as members of a community, and testifying through the specific event in which it is embodied, to the great happenings of life and the world, enhancing our imagination and sensibilities…

The symbols that politics employs are by nature theatrical. National anthems, flags, decorations, holidays, do not mean much of themselves, but the meanings that they evoke are instruments of a society’s self-understanding, tools for creating awareness of social identity and continuity. Politics is also charged with symbols in other, less visible respects. When Germany’s President came to Prague, shortly after our Velvet Revolution, on March 15, 1990 (the 51st anniversary of the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands), he did not have to say much, because the fact of his visit on such a day spoke volumes…

Even doubters cannot deny one aspect of theatricality in politics: the dependence of politics on media. Many politicians would be helpless without coaches to teach them the techniques of performing in front of a camera. All politicians, including those who sneer at theatre as superfluous, something that has no place in politics, unwittingly become actors, dramatists, directors, or entertainers.

The significant role that a theatrical sensibility plays in politics is two-edged. Those possessing it can arouse society to great deeds and nurture democratic culture, civic courage, and a sense of responsibility. Such people can also mobilize the worst instincts and passions, make masses fanatical, and lead societies into hell. Recall the gigantic Nazi congresses, torchlight processions, the inflammatory speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, and the cult of German mythology. We could hardly find a more monstrous abuse of politics’ theatrical aspect. And today – even in Europe – rulers use theatrical tools to arouse the kind of blind nationalism that leads to war, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and genocide.

So where is the boundary between legitimate respect for national identity and symbols, and the devilish music of pied pipers, dark magicians, and mesmerizers? …How can we recognize the point beyond which expression of the need for collective experience and integrating rituals becomes evil manipulation and an assault on human freedom?

Here is where we see the huge difference between theatre as art and the theatrical dimension of politics. A mad theatrical performance by a group of fanatics is part of cultural pluralism, and, as such, helps to expand the realm of freedom without posing a threat to anyone. A mad performance by a fanatical politician can plunge millions into endless calamity.

So the drama of politics demands not an audience, but a world of players. In a theatre, our consciences are touched, but responsibility ends when the curtain falls. The theatre of politics makes permanent demands on us all, as dramatists, actors, and audience – on our common sense, our moderation, our responsibility, our good taste, and our conscience.


Václav Havel was president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1993), and the author of 21 plays. He died on 18 Dec., 2011, aged 75. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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