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Curtain Rises on Vaclav Havel

Czech playwright says he has no political designs, but the people may make him president. PROFILE

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A FEW weeks ago, Vaclav Havel lived the typical life of the beleaguered dissident. He endured censorship, countless hours of brutal police interrogations, and five years of hard labor behind prison bars. Wherever he went he carried toothpaste, cigarettes, and razor blades - his emergency kit for prison in case police seized him. Today, Mr. Havel stands center stage in Czechoslovakia's continuing political drama. He provided the inspiration for Civic Forum, the group that organized the recent demonstrations and strikes that toppled Czechoslovakia's hard-line communist regime. When hundreds of thousands of people demanding democracy massed in Wenceslas Square, he addressed them. When Communist officials talk about dialogue with the opposition, they mean first and foremost Havel.

His voice rings out over the airwaves. His photos are pasted all over Prague. People wear stickers blaring, ``We love Havel.''

In many ways, it is surprising that Havel plays such a key role. He is no charismatic, working-class leader or politician like Poland's Lech Walesa. He has little experience organizing factory strikes or street demonstrations.

Instead, he is a small, shy, soft-spoken man who considers himself only a simple playwright. His renown comes from his plays, absurdist dramas mocking his homeland's gray communism, and his essays, which are deep, difficult philosophical tomes on the perverse effect an individual can have on totalitarianism.

``I am a writer and human rights activist,'' he repeats over and over, ``not a politician.''

Words and writers, however, play a much more important role in Eastern Europe than in the West. Because normal political activity long was suppressed by an overweening state, it was left to the artist to voice the longings of the nation.

During the 19th century, when Czechoslovakia was submerged within the larger Austro-Hungarian Empire, writers led the Czech nationalist revival, concentrating on reviving national culture rather than on organizing a nationalist political party. Havel himself is often compared to Karel Havilcek-Borovsky, the great 19th-century nationalist writer who - like Havel - was banned.

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