by David van Belle
Status: Draft 3. I will be working on a new draft of the play at the Banff Playwrights Colony in April/May 2017
Ten days in November 1989 brought an end to 40 years of seemingly unassailable Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. By the end of the year the country had elected its first democratic government since 1948. Two things were particularly remarkable about this change in government. First, it was bloodless, and was thus dubbed the Velvet Revolution. Second, it was initiated by drama students and organized by the theatre community. Between November 17 and 27 the theatres preempted their theatrical programming for nightly political forums led from their stages. They used their status as a respected forum for discussion and their desire to tell the honest truth about the state of their nation to engage the imaginations of the citizenry of Czechoslovakia, who joined them in the streets. The leader that emerged from this movement was playwright/dissident Vaclav Havel, who by the end of 1989 had been elected president of the country, a position he held until 2003.
Velvet Revolution splits the action of these remarkable times into two acts. The first, Freedom, tells the story of the theatre community’s involvement in the Revolution. The second, Responsibility, dives into the much more politically complex realities of the first few years following the Revolution, during which Havel and his colleagues needed to turn their idealism into concrete political realities, at times having to fight what seems to be the very nature of politics in order to attempt their goals. The play ends with the breakup of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak republics, named the Velvet Divorce.
Vaclav Havel is our guide through these events, speaking directly to us as audience members and also participating in the action of the play.
Velvet Revolution is a play for contemporary Albertan and Canadian politics. In the past 18 months we have removed governments that we felt were not meeting the needs of the citizenry and replaced them with ones that more closely reflect the human values with which many artists identify. With leaders like Notley, Nenshi and Trudeau on the scene artists have more access to government than perhaps any time in Canadian history—but can we do any better, politically speaking, when we get into positions of power? How many of our political difficulties are inherently hard-coded into current political systems, and how can this coding be undone?
A further question that underlies the play—what potential does the contemporary theatre world have to effect political change? If the opportunity arose, would we have the necessary engagement with our communities and the moral authority to stage an effective and just revolution?