Major American figures in the arts, literature and theater paid tribute Thursday to Vaclav Havel, the playwright who endured confinement and official recrimination during decades of Communist domination in Czechoslovakia, but whose work carried him to the presidency of his country last year. Havel, who has gained stature as a dramatist in the tradition of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, was praised at impressive ceremonies at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, after receiving an honorary degree at Columbia University.
The ceremonies were symbolic of deepening artistic ties between Eastern Europe and the West, and had roots in a visit to Prague by a group from New York's Actors Studio in January to present Havel's play Audience. Havel, who spent years in prison, had never seen the play staged.
"It was a remarkable moment. Everything had a heightened reality," said Patty Ewald, executive producer at the Actors Studio and one of those who saw Havel experience the production in Prague. "Someone said to me (that) it was the end of World War II."
The program featured appearances by a host of major figures in the arts ranging from Nobel Peace laureate and author Elie Weisel to actor Paul Newman and producer Joseph Papp.
"I have been in the presence of some great artists. I have been in the presence of some great statesmen," Newman said. "I have never been in the presence of an artist-statesman."
Standing next to Newman, Havel said:
"I am very glad that I am among my colleagues. I will not speak a very long time because I am very nervous."
The Czech president said that Newman loomed as large as a legend, "I didn't think Mr. Newman physically existed." There was great laughter and applause.
Earlier in the day, Havel, who was elected Czechoslovakia's president Dec. 29, mixed international affairs with artistic politics, attending the Council on Foreign Relations, holding a news conference at the United Nations, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and meeting New York's Mayor David Dinkins for breakfast at the mayor's official residence.
Guests at the breakfast included Papp, playwrights Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein, author Kurt Vonnegut and dean of the Yale Dama School LLoyd Richards.
Havel said he had enjoyed a "wonderful evening" while touring pubs in Manhattan's East Village with film director Milos Forman. Havel and Forman, an emigre, attended boarding school together in Czechoslovakia 43 years ago and have remained friends over the years.
"I didn't run for president," Havel told Dinkins. "I was raised to that post by public opinion, public pressure."
Havel, 53, a leading symbol of Czech dissidence, has been writing plays for over a quarter of a century. He made his only previous trip to the United States in 1968 to see Papp produce his play, The Memorandum.