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The Dissident Canon: Literature and Theatre

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Writers played a central role in the dissident movements under State Socialism across Eastern and Central Europe. The Czech playwright Václav Havel, the Hungarian novelist György Konrád, and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert are just a few iconic figures in this context. They represent a larger group of Eastern European intellectuals who were active in various fields, contributed to several genres, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s (while simultaneously accepting the role of the “dissident”) created a discourse of human rights in an alternative public sphere with émigré writers supporting them from the West. Readings will guide students in their discovery of the major writers on dissent in Eastern European countries, and provide an overview of the contexts in which these writers and theatre professionals had to operate. However, source materials from the COURAGE registry will also allow students to challenge the established dissident canon of world literature, and explore authors, literary movements and performative practices beyond that.



  • Kryński, M. J. (1978). Poland 1977: The Emergence of Uncensored Literature. The Polish Review, 23(2), 64–75.
  • Pavlyshyn, M. (2010). Martyrology and Literary Scholarship: The Case of Vasyl Stus. The Slavic and East European Journal, 54(4), 585–606.
  • Bolton, J. (2012). Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, the Plastic People of Theuniverse, and Czech Culture Under Communism. Harvard University Press.
  • Jones, S. (2011). Complicity, Censorship and Criticism: Negotiating Space in the GDR Literary Sphere. De Gruyter.
  • Pucherová, D. (2017). Cabaret Theatre in Communist Czechoslovakia (1960s–1980s) as Political Resistance: The Case of Milan Lasica and Július Satinský. Miscellanea Posttotalitariana Wratislaviensia, 5, 39–53.
  • Cioffi, K. M. (1999). Alternative theatre in Poland: 1954 - 1989 (2. printing). Harwood Acad. Publ.
  • Horvath, R. (2007). “ The Solzhenitsyn Effect”: East European Dissidents and the Demise of the Revolutionary Privilege. Human Rights Quarterly, 29(4), 879–907.
  • Rocamora, C. (2005). Acts of Courage: Vaclav Havel’s Life in the Theater (1st ed). Smith and Kraus.
  • Goldfarb, J. C. (1980). The Persistence of Freedom: The Sociological Implications of Polish Student Theater. Westview Press.
  • Ray, D., & Tollas, T. (Eds.). (1966). From the Hungarian revolution: a collection of poems. Cornell UP.
  • Dasgupta, G. (1989). BITEF: An International Theatre Festival. Performing Arts Journal, 11(3), 219–225.
  • Barańczak, S. (1989). The Absolute Horizon (Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga: June 1979 -September 1982). Salmagundi, 84, 24–34.
  • Darnton, R. (2014). Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature. The British Library.
  • Burt, R., & Social Text Collective (Eds.). (1994). The administration of aesthetics: censorship, political criticism, and the public sphere. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Shaw, T. (2003). ‘Some Writers Are More Equal Than Others’: George Orwell, the State and Cold War Privilege. Cold War History, 4(1), 143–170.
  • Kalnačs, B. (2017). Latvian Writers’ Strategies of Resistance during De-Stalinisation: The Case of Gunārs Priede. Miscellanea Posttotalitariana Wratislaviensia, 5, 67–77.
  • Gottlieb, E. (Ed.). (2001). Kafka’s Ghost: The Trial as Theatre: Klima’s The Castle, Karvas’s The Big Wig, and Havel’s Memorandum. In Dystopian Fiction East and West (pp. 221–232). McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Pichova, H. (2002). Milan Kundera and the Identity of Central Europe. In S. T. de Zepetnek (Ed.), Comparative Central European Culture (pp. 103–114). Purdue University Press.
  • Deak, F. (1990). A Playwright for a President: The Story of Moral Renewal. Performing Arts Journal, 12(2/3), 36–44.
  • Beneš, H. (1972). Czech Literature in the 1968 Crisis. The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 5, 97–114.
  • Carpenter, J., & Carpenter, B. (1980). Zbigniew Herbert: The Poet as Conscience. The Slavic and East European Journal, 24(1), 37.
  • Orlich, I. A. (2017). Subversive Stages: Theater in Pre- and Post-Communist in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Central European University Press.
  • Falk, B. J. (2003). The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings. Central European University Press.
  • Judt, T. (1988). The dilemmas of dissidence: The politics of opposition in East-Central Europe.

Featured Items from COURAGE Registry (selection)

Related Collections from COURAGE Registry (selection)


From COURAGE Registry (selection)
External Links


In-class or short-term assignments
1) Comparative exercise: take a map of Eastern Europe and identify at least one writer (of literature, theater, or essays) from each of the satellite countries. Were each of them censored at some point in their careers? When did they become better known abroad (if they did)? Did this help or hurt their prospects in their home country? Do you think these figures would characterize their artistic work as 'political'?

2) Take a look at the extensive list of featured items from the COURAGE registry and select four figures from the same decade. What can you find out about these people from the encyclopedia or other sources? Is any of their work translated into English and/or your native language?

3) For theater to exist as an alternative or underground practice, unconventional theatrical spaces arise. Identify at least 3 unusual theatrical performances, where the playwright and director had to adapt performances to fit a new space or situation to reach an audience.
Offsite, longer-term assignments
Longer-term project; for each of the well-known writers of the dissident canon (e.g., Havel, Herbert, Kiš, Konrad), find one parallel figure who is lesser known in the West, less translated, with less foreign-language scholarship). This could be someone else from the same country, or who wrote in the same period and genre. The question to try and answer is why some figures became widely known abroad as causes célèbres, while others remained more obscure. Do you think it has to do with the content or quality of their writing? the political climate or size of their respective countries? the different state socialist regimes and their reaction to oppositional figures? Or by Western media and emigres' actions abroad? Clearly it will be near impossible to completely untangle this web of forces acting on writers' notoriety and celebrity, but we can learn more about how the system worked through such comparisons.


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