John Keane | Reviews
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Reviews Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts


  • Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism – Slavoj Zizek

London Review of Books | Vol. 21 No. 21 dated 28 October 1999

Vaclav Havel’s life would seem to be an unrivalled success story: the Philosopher-King, a man who combines political power with a global moral authority comparable only to that of the Pope, the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela. And just as at the end of a fairy tale when the hero is rewarded for all his suffering by marrying the princess, he is married to a beautiful movie actress. Why, then, has John Keane chosen as the subtitle of his biography ‘A Political Tragedy in Six Acts’?

  • Foreign Affairs

Reviewed by Robert Legvold, July/August 2000

To see Havel as a tragic figure, notwithstanding his recent physical misery and the sadness of Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce,” requires poetic license. That is what Keane liberally permits himself throughout this combination of philosophical essay and biography. The trivial (or at least predictable) part of the tragedy is that, in Adam Michnik’s words, “the charismatic leader becomes a caricature of himself” under the burdens of office. The larger and more involved argument features Havel’s life as the heroic yet ultimately broken object of political power — power abused by others, power as a beckoning quest, and power as a cross. This is an engaged biography that is not so much for or against the protagonist (although Keane is for Havel) than subordinate to philosophical speculations. Even so, it contains much interesting biographical detail.

  • -> The Economist

‘An extraordinary drama and all the more gripping for having at its center a hero with such obvious failings and such human appeal. It is an important political story as well, raising urgent questions about co-operation and resistance, power and democracy.’

  • Review

John Keane’s biography of Vaclav Havel is subtitled A political tragedy in six acts . Havel, of course, came to prominence as a dissident playwright; but come the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, as Eastern Europe toppled into democracy in a few weeks, ending the Cold War and changing the world, Havel was the iconic protagonist, dressed in jeans and leather jacket, leading a coalition of civil rights and political protest groups against a harsh and ultimately enervated regime. This part of the story is a romantic triumph; the tragedy comes with Havel’s later years, clinging to the presidency despite ill-health, unpopularity and the gaffes of his young second wife.

Keane is alert to theatricality–whether as metaphor or in the management of news, propaganda and revolution–and describes Havel as someone who, quite simply, remained on the stage too long. So, this is not a hagiography: but, drawing on a vast number of sources, including contemporary letters, interviews and documents, Keane draws a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable man, whose charisma and cunning at a time of revolution achieved something truly astonishing.

He places Havel in the context of the 20th century’s unique convulsions: Stalinism, Hitler, the Prague Spring and the horrors of Cold War communism. Keane has always been an astute and lucid theorist in his analysis of political structures and the dynamics of violence and political change, and his chapters on 1989 are genuinely moving and exciting. As the subtitle suggests, Keane paints the many faces of Havel with a mixture of hard fact and impressionistic license– tableaux vivants , as he describes them, and challengeable truths.

The result is a thrillingly vivid picture of the man and his times that captures not merely the essences of the revolutionary hero and fading elder statesman but something of the despair and excitement of a troubled country in a violent century.– Robert Potts

  • Roger Bishop – BookPage

Vaclav Havel is one of the genuine political and moral heroes of the last half of the 20th century. A highly regarded and influential playwright in Czechoslovakia, he became the most prominent dissident leader in his country from the late 1960s until the Velvet Revolution ousted the Communist government in 1989. Since then he has served as the elected president of Czechoslovakia and, later, the Czech Republic. Throughout the years of his struggle of harassment and imprisonment by the Communist regime and also in his later role as a world statesman, Havel has written some of the most eloquent and insightful essays of our time about such subjects as the nature of totalitarianism, the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, and civil society. Download full PDF text

-> The Mark, Vaclav Havel’s Message Resonates Still by Barbara J. Falk (PDF)

-> The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Eastern European Intellectual by Lavinia Stan

Appeared in Government and Opposition, vol. 35, no. 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 265-271. (PDF)


-> Unbalanced Czech Book by Gregg Easterbrook

Appeared in The Washington Monthly, vol. 32. no. 9 (September 2000), pp. 48-49. (PDF)


-> The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 178-181. Reviewed by R. B. Pynsent (PDF)


-> Society, Vol. 39, Issue. 5 (July 2002), pp. 80-87. Reviewed by James E Pontuso (PDF)


-> The wager of Vaclav Havel by Vladimir Tismaneanu

Appeared in Partisan Review, Vol. 68. Issue. 4 (Fall 2001), pp. 650-655. (PDF)


-> International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs), Vol. 76, No. 2 (Apr 2000), p. 387. Review by Rick Fawn (PDF)


-> Publishers Weekly, 247. 26 (Jun 26, 2000), pp. 63-64. reviewed by Mark Rotella; Charlotte Abbott; Sarah F Gold (PDF)


-> Havel Deserves Better: Promises and Failures of a Political Biography By Anthony Kammas

Appeared in East European Politics & Societies, Vol. 15,  No. 3 (September 2001), pp. 722-731. (PDF)


-> The Booklist, Vol. 96, No 21. (July 2000), p 2003. Reviewed by Mary Carroll

Keane, author of Tom Paine: A Political Life ( 1995) and editor of Havel’s Power of the Powerless (reprint 1990), argues the Czech playwright- politician has taught the world “more about the powerful and the power less, power-grabbing and power-sharing, than Virtually any other of his twentieth century rivals .” But Keane views his study as a tragedy because “Havel suffered the misfortune of being born into the twentieth century,” with earth-shaking changes from the fall of the Hapsburg empire through Nazism and Communism to the effort to build democratic institutions. Rather than an inclusive biography, Keane offers a series of tableaux vivants, capturing key moments in Havel’s often dramatic life but emphasizing the impact of external forces he could not control. Although Keane celebrates Havel’s contribution to the analysis of power and to his nation’s post-Communist recovery, he makes clear Havel’s political limitations as well. Where interest in Eastern European democracy is strong, this postmodern assessment of Havel’s career should circulate. Download PDF