Director Charles Marowitz directs the former Czech president’s play in Havel’s home country.
By Margot Buff/Special to The Malibu Times
Vaclav Havel wrote his play “Temptation,” a veiled critique of Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, while in prison in the late 1980s, only a few years before he became the country’s first post-Communist president.
At the same time, another playwright was appearing in the role of Havel on stage in Los Angeles, half a world away, turning the famous Eastern European dissident into the strong-willed centerpiece of a production on the subject of censorship and oppression.
That American actor, writer, and director, Charles Marowitz, is now in the midst of his second encounter with Havel, who left the office of president just a year ago. Marowitz, a Malibu resident, is currently directing Havel’s “Temptation” on the Czech Republic’s most prestigious stage, the National Theater in Prague, in an interpretation that brings new life to the anti-communist work.
A one-time director of the Los Angeles Theater Center and the founder of the Malibu Stage Company, Marowitz has kept an eye on European theater throughout his career. When the Czech National Theater asked him to direct Havel’s play this spring, the project appealed to both his theatrical and political sensibilities. Marowitz’s 50 years in the theater have been devoted to reinterpreting and reinventing texts; in “Temptation,” he saw an opportunity to adapt its political critique to the 21st century.
“I could see that it was written in the 1980s, and that it was obviously about the Communist regime, but it was allegorical enough to be about other things as well,” Marowitz said.
In Havel’s reinterpretation of the Faust legend, Dr. Foustka, a scientist working for a soulless research center, makes a deal with a Mephistophelean figure who turns out to be an informer. The play implicates both the act of collaboration and the subjugation of the individual to the institution.
But, Marowitz said, “There would be no point in indicting the Soviet Union and its satellites when all of that is gone.”
His set concept and stage direction have turned Dr. Foustka’s workplace into a modern corporate monolith; the doctor’s pact becomes a collaboration not with the communist apparatus, but with the structures of globalization.
As he updated Havel’s work, Marowitz also revised his earlier interpretation of Havel. In the Los Angeles production, he played the imprisoned activist as a loud, dynamic, outgoing man. “Now that I’ve met him, it’s clear that my performance was totally off-base,” Marowitz said. “He’s a sweet-natured guy with a framework of steel.”
Marowitz adds that the now ex-president has been supportive of his interpretation of the play-with some reservations. “I have enormous respect for Havel,” the American director said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t fiddle around with his work.”
A native New Yorker, Charles Marowitz was directing plays and writing drama criticism for the Village Voice before he was out of high school. A few years later, he enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art on the GI Bill, and remained an expatriate for nearly 20 years.
In London, Marowitz taught workshops on Method acting, directed plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with his collaborator, Peter Brook, formed an experimental theater group that brought the avant-garde Theater of Cruelty and Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade to the London stage. In 1969, he created his own company, The Open Space Theater, one of the first experimental theaters in the city.
Marowitz relocated to California in 1980, but has missed the variety and vibrancy of the European theater scene. He says the three-month rehearsal period he has spent in Prague, along with his wife, Jane Windsor, and 12-year-old son Kostya, has been a breath of fresh air. The actors of the Czech National Theater’s permanent company, he adds, are “absolutely first-rate.”
But Marowitz also brings a director and writer’s eye to Prague, and to the underlying themes of a post-Communist city. “Like a play, it’s got a text and a subtext,” he said. “The text is frolic, tourism, American-style go-getters getting into business, and the subtext is the hangover of 60-some years of occupation. If you scratch the surface, you find embittered people, people with old grievances, which have never been addressed.”
Nevertheless, the American said he’s optimistic that the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union this May means positive changes for the country as a whole-and for Czech theater in particular. “There’s probably going to be a lot more interesting theater here in the Czech Republic than before. They’re going to get an advanced education,” he said.
While weighing his options for a longer stay in Europe, Marowitz is still in the game of interpreting texts and mixing politics with theater. He’s currently adapting a nonfiction book called “Executioner’s Current” into a film script on the creation of the electric chair and the rivalry between electricity barons Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. It’s a tale, Marowitz said, of “two malevolent businessmen, each one trying to outdo the other. It’s the way capitalism works. It’s as dirty as soccer or hockey. That’s what interests me.”