Opening Remarks by Ayad Akhtar, President of PEN America | VHLF & BBLA Annual Gala Honoring Sir Tom Stoppard

VHLF & BBLA Annual Gala Honoring Sir Tom Stoppard |
September 23rd, 2021 |

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist, playwright, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the president of PEN America.

I want to thank the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation for the opportunity to address you all this evening, on the occasion of this gala and of this award to Tom Stoppard.

Ayad Akhtar, photo © Vincent Tullo

Vaclav Havel’s legacy — first a man of the theater, a political dissident, then prisoner, and finally a president — is, at least in its third act, an unusual trajectory. And yet, playwrights have always understood a few things about power and politics, their effects on the human psyche, the merciless exigencies, and the way they shape and are shaped by history. Indeed, what is more deeply political, in the original sense of the word polis – or city – than citizens speaking to citizens, the stage and house being a distillation of the circumstances of the city, the encounter between the people and their representations of power.

Our best playwrights, from Shakespeare to Ibsen, Shaw to Miller, Brecht to Stoppard — all of them have not only articulated the deeper patterns in our politics, but crafted the language through which our collective conscience, our politics, makes sense of itself. Indeed, the Bard’s deepest reflections on the political inform the history of grand strategy, among the finest, most enduring reflections on power and politics our story-hungry species has even known. The political then, in its deepest sense I might argue, is the essence of the theater – the archetypal birthright of the stage, however modestly our own culture may avail itself of its possibilities.

On this celebration of Havel and his legacy and the foundation’s work, I want to say a few words on freedom. It may be hard for some of us here in this room to understand just what it might mean to fight for one’s freedom in the sense that Havel and his generation did. Even if we take ourselves to be in solidarity with those oppressed by state power, we may not ourselves be able to imagine the nature of this struggle, its texture and immediacy. Many of us are not coerced by governing authorities to accept a version of reality that does not accord with our own, and most of us are certainly not threatened with prison or death if we fail to tow the proverbial party line.

But let me suggest that this matter of freedom cannot be defined by punishment alone. The truth is – we are always, all of us, dependent on and implicated in the state of our collective political freedom. In following Havel’s own articulation of his generation’s dilemma of having to live the lie of the regime, it would be hard not to recognize the threats of the lies we, too, are being forced to contend with in the present day.

And I am not just talking here about the so-called Big Lie casting its noxious shadow on our national political life. No. I’m also referring to the deformation of reality our manifold outrages are unleashing upon us from all quarters. Besieged by a seemingly ubiquitous lust for unreality, we, like characters in Havel plays, are increasingly beset by ideology.

Indeed, ideologies — now passionate, now canny — are in ascendence everywhere. One thing is certain: It will be up to us to figure out what we want to do about it. Until then, we can only hope that an artist of Havel’s mettle and humor and clear-eyed vision will rise among us and play a part in helping us see more clearly, and be more brave. Thank you.

The Vaclav Havel Center