Rock n' Roll: Vaclav Havel and the Birth of Charter 77

Much Madness is divinest Sense--
To a discerning Eye--
Much Sense--the starkest Madness--
(emily dickinson)
The world is beautiful
But plastic people don't see it.
Flowers are beautiful
But plastic people don't see it.
The sunset is beautiful
But plastic people don't see it.
(The Plastic People of The Universe)

One of the strange facts about the Czechoslovak struggle for freedom in the 1970's is the importance of rock n' roll. The Czech rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, is intimately connected to the birth of the famous citizens' initiative, Charter 77.

In March 2007 The Plastic People of the Universe are perhaps at the height of their fame. The band has just returned to Prague from a tour of England. They are playing in the current Prague production of Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock n' Roll. On March 21 they will give a concert as part of a 30th Anniversary Conference on Charter 77: From the Assertion of Human Rights to the Democratic Revolution: 1977.

How did it happen? How did the Plastic People of the Universe become a major symbol of the assertion of human rights during the 1970's?

The answer: Vaclav Havel made them so. The power of his interpretation transformed a group of socially alienated rock 'n roller's into the dramatic embodiment of the elemental human desire to "live in truth" clashing with the Communist regime of "living in lies."

Disturbing the Peace (June 1986)

Disturbing the Peace is the key text for understanding Havel's connection with the Plastic People of the Universe. The book, written during 1985 and 1986, is his autobiographical reflection in the form of interviews, which he taped with Karel Havizdala. At one point Havizdala asks the question: Do you feel like reminiscing about the prehistory and the origin of Charter 77? His answer is the fascinating story of how Havel became involved with the Plastic People and why the band played a central role in the birth of Charter 77.

The story begins: For me personally, it all began sometime in January or February 1976 (p.125). A friend came to visit him at Hradecek, his country home, one night in the middle of a blizzard. This friend suggested that he should meet Ivan Jirous who was the artistic director of The Plastic People of the Universe. Havel says he didn't know much about Jirous but had heard negative things about him and the rock band.

About a month later Havel met Jirous. This meeting was decisive for Havel. Jirous opened his eyes to the significance of The Plastics and the undeground world of rock music. Jirous gave him his essay, "Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival," and he played some songs by The Plastic People and other groups.

While talking to Jirous and listening to the music, Havel had a flash of insight: Suddenly I realized that, regardless of how many vulgar words these people used or how long their hair was, truth was on their side. Somewhere in the midst of this group, their attitudes, and their creations, I sensed a special purity, a shame, and a vulnerability; in their music was an experience of metaphysical sorrow and a longing for salvation. (p. 127).

This is a lovely understanding of the meaning of the music. Would anyone else from Havel's generation have had such a response to the discordant sounds of a bunch of social misfits and losers? But Havel's discerning eye sees "divinest sense" in the madness of rock n' roll.

Jirous invited Havel to a concert by The Plastics, but it never took place because the police arrested Jirous, The Plastics and some other musicians. When Havel learned of the arrests, he says, ... I came to Prague immediately, since it was obvious that something had to be done, and equally obvious that it was up to me to do it (p. 127). Of course it isn't obvious why Havel had to do something about what the rest of the society saw as completely insignificant. Havel, who had never been to an underground concert and had never met The Plastic People of the Universe, decides to defend them.

This is the decisive moment in our story. Havel's decision to risk himself in their defense is the beginning of the transformation of the Plastics into a major symbol of freedom and sets in motion the events that will ultimately give birth to Charter 77. If Havel had stayed in Hradeck tending his garden, would we know The Plastic People of the Universe today? Would there have been a Charter 77?

But Havel did come to Prague. He knew that what he had to do would be difficult: to convince others that The Plastics were worth risking themselves for. He said: I also knew it wouldn't be easy to gain some kind of wider support for these boys. . . . I had almost nothing concrete to prove that they weren't the layabouts, hooligans, alcoholics, and drug addicts that the regime was protraying them as in the hopes of being able simply to sweep them out of the way (p. 127).

Havel had only his words to make his fellow writers and friends see what he saw. So he began to develop his interpretation of the significance of The Plastics and their trial in the struggle for human rights. Here's one of his most poweful formulations:

They were simply young people who wanted to live in their own way, to make music they liked, to sing what they wanted to sing, to live in harmony with themselves, and to express themselves in a truthful way. . . . So these arrests were genuinely alarming: they were an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality, and therefore designed to gain support from a disinformed public (p.128-29).

His plan of action was simple: My role, I saw, would be to make use of my various contacts to stir up interest in the affair and to stimulate some action for the support and defense of these people (p. 129). He first persuaded a colleague, Jiri Nemec, of the truth of his view. Together they orchestrated a publicity campaign to convince others that the persecution of The Plastic People had great moral and political significance. They went around to their friends and colleagues to get support. But it wasn't easy. At first we encountered misunderstanding and even resistance, which in that state of affairs was only to be expected (p.130).

The Trial (September 1976)

Havel's interpretation of the significance of The Plastic People prevailed. He was quite successful in convincing a broad spectrum of people--writers, musicians and many Reform Communists of the Prague Spring who had been purged after August '68--that The Plastics were indeed worth defending. Havel gathered over seventy signatures on a letter to Heinrich Boll, the famous German writer (p.130, Disturbing the Peace). By the time of the trial the case of the Plastic People of the Universe had become a major international media event.

Havel was allowed to attend the trial which began in September 1976. He wrote his famous essay about the trial in which he articulates the symbolic significance of The Plastics. Havel opens his essay by giving the trial the status of a momentous world event:

It doesn't often happen and when it does it usually happens when least expected: somewhere, something slips out of joint and suddenly a particular event, because of an unforeseen interplay between its inner premises and more or less fortuitous external circumstances, crosses the threshold of its usual place in the everyday world, breaks through the shell of what it is supposed to be and what it seems, and reveals its innermost symbolic significance. ("The Trial" in Open Letters, p. 102-3)

What did the trial illuminate? It demonstrated the utter moral bankrupcy of the regime that tried to crush and humiliate a few young people for simply expressing themselves truthfully. The prosecutor and judge were exposed as pathetic instruments of repression by a regime living in lies.

And The Plastics? The trial has revealed their true symbolic significance:

But what did they become? The unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names and to penetrate--as Pavel Zajicek said at the trial--to the "deeper level of being," and to do so at one's own risk, aware that at any time one may come up against the disfavor of the "masters," the incomprehension of the dull-witted, or their own limitations (p.104).

Havel has transformed the Plastic People of the Universe into a symbol of everything Czech dissidents had fought for through the dark years since 1968. They embody the inalienable human right to freedom of expression--the right to live in truth.

Of course, The Plastics are convicted and sent to jail. But Havel makes the trial an epiphany:

At a deeper level it was, oddly enough, not depressing at all. There was even something elevating about it. This was perhaps because of the very awareness that we were participants in a unique illumination of the world. But chiefly, I suppose, it was the exciting realization that there are still people among us who assume the existential responsibility for their own truth and are willing to pay a high price for it (p.106).

The trial was a strange and beautiful victory. The Plastics were inspiring. By their willingness to go to jail for their beliefs, they win the battle of values. But only to discerning eyes.

The Power of the Powerless (October 1978)

Two years after the trial, Havel wrote his most influential essay "The Power of the Powerless," in which he expanded his interpretation of the band. In Section X of the essay, he reiterated his arguments about the importance of their trial as the impetus to the formation of Charter 77. But now The Plastics have become the embodiment of the central concept of the essay: the power of the powerless. Their trial was a clash between the Powerful state with its regime of lies and the powerless: ...unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership (Open Letters, p. 154 ).

People repressed by the overwhelming power of the State have the power of living within the truth. This power cannot be destroyed by the Powerful because it is the internal integrity of each individual human being. The Plastics' desire to live within the truth is the power of the powerless.

Havel asserted:

Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life (p. 155).

Yes, everyone in 1978 understood this, but only because Vaclav Havel had made them understand. How beautifully he expresses what "everyone understood" then and what we understand today:

The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society. People were inspired to feel a genuine sense of solidarity with the young musicians and they came to realize that not standing up for the freedom of others, regardless of how remote their means of creativity or their attitude to life, meant surrendering one's own freedom (p. 155).

Those who understood came together in support of the band and soon formed a new community of the powerless--better known as Charter 77.

On March 21 2007 The Plastic People of the Universe will perform at the National Museum in Prague. In the sounds of rock n' roll we will hear the sounds of freedom and remember the story of how those sounds gave birth to Charter 77. Thanks to Vaclav Havel.

Dr. John Hartzog
March 17 2007