Havel here, Havel here. The recording with the Plastik music is a production where nothing is missing

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This “historical documentary” is so engaging and entertaining that it is worth including among the literary events of the season. It also sheds new light on Václav Havel as a creator of plays. For the first time ever, an audio recording of the play Temptation, as narrated by the author in 1985, was released to the public. He plays all the roles of both sexes in his play. And the original music of Plastik pulsates with it.

The recording called Václav Havel & The Plastic People of the Universe: Temptation was published by Guerilla Records, a label that systematically cares for the legacy of the Czech underground. It’s not about the music, though: it’s more about a happy, slightly crazy moment when a “forbidden” playwright became an audio creator and actor.

The temptation, introduced by the now famous “Here Havel, here Havel! I’ll read my new play…”, circulated on cassette tapes at the time of its creation: even the fourth copy, which was slightly hummed, was gratefully received. However, the producer Vladimír Lábus Drápal now found the original tapes from the sound engineer Robin Karl Popper and had at his disposal the music of the Plastiků at the time, which was created directly on the order of the playwright.

Of course, the most attractive thing is Havel’s “playing” of all the roles, which is moderate and yet makes watching the text a great attraction. Temptation has a simple plot. The scientist Foustka, showing features of both Faust and Havel, is followed by a suspicious fellow, Fistula. It’s not clear whether this sulphur-sniffing obnoxious man is an emissary from hell or a fiend.

The topic has been bothering Havel ever since his imprisonment in 1977, “when the devils tempted me in a strange way in the basement”, the dissident wrote to his friend and fellow Chartist Pavlo Landovský. He dealt with the motif repeatedly, always without result. Only in October 1985, “when I was alone in Hrádeček, I suddenly got an idea and wrote the play in a kind of trance in ten days”. The speed surprised him: he created his other plays over the course of several years. Fearing that the police might confiscate his one copy, he read it for himself. “It happened a few times that Václav lost some texts during house searches in Hrádečka,” recalled director Andrej Krob.

Havel acted as if he was leading

At first, it is said, the audio version was created really only for its own use: however, with such Havel-like care that it gave birth to a kind of authorial interpretation. Havel changes the tempo, the rhythm, and the seriousness or, on the contrary, the sarcasm in his voice indicate how to deal with the text during the staging. Sometimes we hear a cut and a dog barks in the background for a while: really the result of homework, a “punk” do-it-yourself approach.

Václav Havel recording the music for Temptation. | Photo: Guerilla Records archive

Then descriptions of the Temptation began to spread, and Václav Havel received a warm response. A number of people spoke of his best play, including fellow playwrights Josef Topol, Daniela Fischerová and Karel Steigerwald. However, the “working dub” of the game also spread to the world, and Havel was surprised to discover that the cassette underground was spreading faster, more numerous and further than he would have said. He received feedback from layers of society that he would not have expected to come into contact with his work. The cassette medium was really a tiny oasis of freedom under totalitarianism: while the record market was policed ​​and highly circumscribed, anyone could record, cassettes were sold as empty media meant to be filled. Fans of unavailable music, whether foreign or domestic bands and songwriters, who were not allowed into recording studios and media for a long time by censorship, used this zeal.

Havel saw with Temptation that the audio recording had excellently got his text among the people. His next play, Asanace, from 1987, he apparently already narrated directly, knowing that he would have an audience.

Space music for the Sabbath

Havel’s authorial instructions for the parts of the music have a special role in Temptation. He asks for cosmic, spherical, psychedelic rock in all the rearrangements and breaks, as if delegating ceremony and ecstatic rapture to it. In addition, the music has a very specific place in the graduated conclusion, when a masquerade party of scientists takes place with the theme of a witch’s sabbath, and Havel’s vision – actually more cinematic than theatrical – envelops everything in clouds of smoke.

The music at its most unleashed stage is to rumble, choke and wail into this finale. To make the apocalypse complete, the playwright prescribed conventional, “comfortable” period music for the very end. The publisher followed this stage note: he found out which song was leading the local hit parade at the time of Havel’s writing, and mercilessly mixed Karel Gott’s Zůstanu svoja hit into the recording. Good choice: after all, the question of how to “remain yourself” is a key theme of Temptation.

The Plastic People of the Universe record music for Temptation. | Photo: Guerilla Records archive

Havel of the “space rock” side knew what he wanted. He commissioned Milan Hlavsa and his band The Plastic People of the Universe to compose and record the music for the game. That really happened – and only now Vladimír Lábus Drápal tracked down both and published them together.

It is an obvious merit. However, it has more of a documentary character: the Plastik’s music is the least prominent part of the project. The minimalistic repetition of simple segments is too mechanical, authorial to the point of being worn out, always in the same unison, only with an occasional resonance of irritating energy. It sounds thin and has no dynamics: sure, the banned band didn’t have the technology for a better recording, that must be understood. Unfortunately, the playwright’s request for music with a cosmic, hypnotic, rebellious and spiritual dimension was not achieved.

If Plastici won a lot of respect for “how they meant it”, how they created concept albums and how much they ignored the usual boundaries of rock, then the understated nature of the music here does not follow up on these strong moments.

But Havel’s reading, as if at work, and yet full of meaning and humor, is reason enough to pay attention to the official edition of Temptation. It is available on a compact disc, quickly and easily in empetroix format on the Supraphonline server. It’s a shame we don’t have a limited edition on cassette available: the recording would thus come full circle and return to the medium to which it fatefully owes its existence. One last sip of warm recommendation: Havel’s second tape effort, the drama Asanace, please publish it too!

Václav Havel & The Plastic People of the Universe: Temptation

Václav Havel & The Plastic People of the Universe: Temptation
Guerilla Records, 2024

The article is in Czech

Tags: Havel Havel recording Plastik music production missing

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