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E. F. Burian and faith.

When several events were held to mark the E. F. Burian anniversary, I was puzzled by the way the living witnesses of his era sometimes maintained a strange silence, or gave ambiguous answers and contradictory accounts, while the speakers who had no personal experience of him insisted on sitting in judgment on his communist "agression". Paradoxically, on both sides the atmosphere seemed dominated by faith: on the one hand faith in a legacy (and a mysterious legacy), and on the other faith in judgment after death (and a rather presumptuous identification of that judgment with the speaker's own opinion). Meanwhile, what was remarkable about Burian was precisely his faith. When we look at the "history of faith" it is generally clear that the earlier faith (linked with Christianity), which believed in a "great cause" and was even strong enough to change reality, declined in the course of time into faith in mankind (the Renaissance) and progress (the 19th century), Burian not only believed in a great idea (communism), but a kind of metaphysical faith saturated his entire life's work. He himself believed he was capable of doing world theatre, and capable of making Czech a world language. He simply had a hundred-percent belief in everything he was doing and wanted to do, even when they turned out to be complete trifles. Yes, Burian had absolute faith in every kind of apparently secondary thing. So he believed both in communist ideals, and absolutely, but also in the idea that he could create revolutionarily vertiginous theatre with two headlights that the actors would keep rejigging during the performance. And he gain he had absolute faith in this banality. For us it is all rather ridiculous, but our sense of the ridiculous is based on our completely different disposition and completely different historical context.

I recall Burian's speech to the company at the re-opening of his Theatre D after the Second World War. Rationally, the only real content in the speech was that they would "be faithful to the legacy of dead comrades" and would be "a communist avantgarde in every respect", but Burian nevertheless talked for maybe 40 minutes and the speech conceals several pieces of guile. On the objective level we simply can't understand him today. We can't grasp the point of all this endless relating of the self to history (this says something symptomatic about the way the post-1989 period has come to terms, or rather not come to terms with our history). We can't grasp what all this faith in an "absolutely perfect theatre" is about, when most Czech theatres today could be nicknamed "U Nejdu" (i.e. most things "nejde"--in English "don't or won't work"). We don't understand what faith in the "communist avantgarde" is, since we ourselves don't believe in anything, and are only concerned with getting by in the profane day-to-day world. We are incapable of seeing the meaning of Burian's speech, which is partly to the point, but partly unprecedentedly (in expression) poetic and also often escapes logic and "clear thinking" as if Burian was sometimes wrenching himself away into a curious world of pataphysics. We don't understand why he goes on talking so long, when today we live in a world of photography and short slogans that convey nothing.

In the present period, which tends to be characterised by absolute doubt about everything, nobody can understand it. But this is of course the stumbling block of all histories of the 20th century that cannot comprehend how anyone could have believed in the idea of national socialism or communism. Yet national socialism actually represents one of the greatest onslaughts of faith; the idea of the birth of the "Third Reich", "the new man", "the next world", into which forces and civilisations still concealed in the underground world will break through. And communism is similar in its great faith in an absolutely "just society" where everyone will receive what he needs, making it paradoxically akin to another breakthrough faith of the 20th century, satanism, with its slogan of "do what you will". These three circles of ideas were paradoxically the final wave of vision in the 20th century. No vision has come after them. If for example we ask an American President about his vision today, we shall evidently get the answer "the war on terrorism" and "increasing the gross national product". Yet few people today are capable of saying what that terrorism springs from, if they have a duty to "fight" it, how and why and in the name of what vision, and why society ought to be rich and nor for example "happy" or "wise".

From this perspective we can understand the embarrassment of the living witnesses, who naturally in today's unbelieving age tend to keep their head down. But what we can't understand is the fury with which contemporary people without faith want to stand in for the Christian God and call E. F. Burian before "the eternal court". These people should instead be doing something else. They should be humbly gathering Burian's legacy, ensuring that it is presented and so trying to set Burian in the context of 20th-century art.

For the moment, however, this field is left grievously unploughed. For example Burian's musical work sits with his heirs unnoticed by any publisher, recordings of his work do not come out, and the existing recordings at the Czech Radio contains only 5% of his output. With the exception of the admirable work by Bonvoj Srba nobody pays any attention to Burian's theatre work and there is a glaring absence of any comprehensive Burian biography, which would look at Burian's work in relation to all aspects of his activities. Such a work would, for example, bring to light that in the Fifties, when we have classified Burian as a decadent theatre director in a colonel's uniform writing "Seedbed", he actually wrote a series of very intimate and we can even say deeply tragic string quartets, and so on, and so forth.

Today's task in relation to E. F. Burian should then be to construct a kind of historical psychology that would attempt to grasp by empathy and then to explain what faith has meant in the 20th century (in the Third Reich, in the Communist Empire, in the Absolutely Individualist Empire ...), and that would explore the meaning of the sudden fulfilment of this faith (which Burian lived to see in some form immediately after the war and again after 1948), and the meaning of doubts about that faith (undoubtedly the case with Burian in the Fifties). Otherwise we shall just be forever materialistically circling around certain associated phenomena (how many people fell in the 2nd World War as victims of the Nazis, how many nations Stalin deported and so on), without ever understanding what it means to sacrifice anything for a vision. If I am not mistaken, the slogan "the end sanctifies the means" comes from the Jesuits, i.e. from an environment of absolute faith convinced that any kind of sacrifice is justified to attain the goal. When we are aware of this, we can finally grasps why given the approach we have, part of the Nazi elite sat silent through the Nuremberg trials, sometimes with a mysterious smile, and why the living witnesses to E. F. Burian behave in the same way. All of them knew and still know something about faith and sacrifice, but nobody understands them. (When during the Nuremberg trials there was talk of the occult roots of Nazism, the materialist jury rapidly backed away from the theme and once again played at being "Last Judge") In this unbelieving age another task is to bring Burian's work objectively into the present, especially his musical and literary work, because the theatre work is temporal and has historical significance (although in at the time Burian's drama was in no way inferior in stature to that of his German fellow-traveler Bertold Brecht, for example, whom the Germans elevated to the world theatrical pantheon). It is the sad lot of the theatre that what we most associate with Burian, i.e. his voiceband, is today a dead genre, which awaits some--as yet unsuspected--resurrection in a new artistic context.


When I and the Agon Orchestra presented some of Burian's works for the first time in 2004, we discovered a remarkable thing. For example when playing the 1922 piece Slapak, we were groping about as to where to place it in the development of 20th-century music. It is slightly reminiscent of Frank Zappa in its strange mingling of musical idioms, recalls Mauricio Kagel in its peculiar treatment of banality, and is influenced by jazz but with such a strange, perhaps ironic, overview. It looks as if, confronted by a musical work that is not presented and does not work in the context of the period, you cannot say anything--if it revived after a long interval--at all. We don't know what Burian meant by it; we don't know how the lay and professional public perceived it, and so the piece is hard to fit into the picture of the 20th century ...

Of course, the only way forward then is to turn the whole question around: to publish the whole work in note form and in recordings and to make it into a new canon, against which to measure up the whole development of music in the Czech Lands and Europe in the 20th century. But that of course is an impossible task for the small Czech nation. And so we shall most likely just going on hearing drivel about his communist orientation, even though this reversal would be the only way of coming to terms with Burian's work, and avoiding the complete disorientation in values so peculiar to Czechs with their tendency to alternate self-denigration and self-overestimation.

This inferiority/superiority complex obviously relates to the smallness of our nation and its disturbed history (an artificially hot-house forced nation with a history of defeats). The nation therefore absolutely lacks a kind of conscious core, as a basis for self-evaluation. This core has to be gradually built out of fragments, and one of those fragments must be the absolute rendering present of Burian's work. This will mean we can stop going round and round in meaningless claims that Burian was either a local unimportant director, or on the other hand a visionary paving the way for the comprehensive theatre of the future.

But how should we approach Burian's life? Today we can only gather information about the dead and create our own picture, i.e. by individual interpretation. But by doing so we get nowhere near the issue of what Burian was like. We would just be producing a new art work about E. F. Burian. We shall now never uncover E. F. Burian's inner motivation, the social pressures upon him, and we shall never know what sprang from his faith, what from his personal life, what were covering manoeuvres and so on. Often E. F. Burian himself did not know. All the influences combined in him in a strange way and no one has the right to judge. All that remains is to act a new play about his life, which will tell us something about ourselves, but not about E. F. Burian.
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Title Annotation:portrait
Author:Kofron, Petr
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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