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Theatre in Prague, past and present.

THEATRE in Prague is no longer a platform for social and political debate as it once was. Politicians, on one hand, have placed culture aside as they address themselves to economic reform, the federacy question, and the drafting of a new constitution. Many theatres, on the other hand, are turning away from overtly political subjects to the more comfortable forms of comedy and farce. It is a measure of the lack of communication between two groups who are largely drawn from the same intellectual circles, that state subsidy for the theatre was cut long before the legalization of private sponsorship. But the most important change is that people have stopped attending the theatre to find messages of political protest in 'the living line of European theatre that', as one Czech director put it, 'concretizes the life of the human spirit on stage'.

In the past, Czech theatre has always engaged itself in political conflict, whether overtly or covertly, by design or by force of circumstance. The first Czech, as opposed to German, theatre was founded in Prague to confirm the separate cultural identity of Bohemia within the Austro-Hungarian empire. The experimental avant-garde of the inter-war period was a joyful, baroque expression of Czechoslovakia's brief independence from either German or Russian domination. In the 1960s, criticism of the communist regime was expressed from the stage, until that outlet was forcibly silenced in August, 1968. Even so, the theatres of Prague continued to provide a focal point for social unrest until finally, in 1989, the revolutionary movement Civic Forum established its headquarters in the Magic Lantern Theatre, and elected the dramatist Vaclav Havel as its spokesman. Meanwhile, letters of protest were being drafted and signatures collected in smaller theatres throughout Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

Immediately after the events of December 1989, a kind of euphoria overtook Prague's theatres. They had helped to win the revolution, and they had won considerable freedom of expression. There was an influx of plays from the west, both classic and modern. Tom Stoppard came to Prague to give his blessing to a Czech production of Travesties, and to renew his acquaintance with Havel. Michael Frayn's Noises Off was another popular import. Outspoken political plays about Stalinist and Nazi atrocities, such as Arnost Goldflam's production of Jurjev's Little Pogrom in a Station Cafe, multiplied in dark studio theatres across the city.

Above all, previously banned Czech authors enjoyed a period of instantaneous publicity. The showing of Skvorecky's exuberant Tank Corps coincided with a ridiculous quarrel between MPs and an art student about whether the last Russian tank on Czech soil should be painted pink, or repainted green, or removed altogether. The Capek brothers' classic anatomy of human folly, The Insect Play, enjoyed a well-attended revival at the National Theatre. Pavel Kohout, until recently exiled in Vienna, was rehabilitated with his portrait of madness and illusion, The Poor Murderer, in a lush production at the Theatre on Vinohrady (Armady Theatre has been renamed: Theatre on Vinohrady). Even Milan Kundera, the celebrated exile whom Czechs regard with sharp-edged ambivalence, staged a careful come-back with early works such as his black-humoured novel, The Joke, and his humanist homage to Diderot, Jacques and His Master.

And of course there was a plethora of Havel productions, not only at the National and other large theatres, but also at Havel's own Theatre On the Balustrade, produced by the man who first discovered him, Jan Grossman. This great director of absurdist theatre has the intellectual insight, the ironic edge, and the technical poise to turn Havel's texts into swift and devastating exposes of dehumanized society. Like many others, Grossman was rescued from exile and small-town oblivion by the changes of 1989.

After the first flush of euphoria, however, the popularity of Czech revivals began to wane. From 1989 to 1992, social conditions have changed at incredible speed; a society insulated for twenty years is facing a tidal wave of western influence. People naturally want Czech drama to reflect these new experiences; meanwhile, Czech dramatists are preserving an apprehensive silence.

A sad example of this shift in public opinion is the critical reaction to Josef Topol's introverted 1980s play, Goodbye Socrates. Topol's works, previously banned, are considered by many to be examples of Czechoslovakia's greatest drama; hence this production was expected to attract widespread public acclaim. It was produced in the dazzlingly renovated Theatre of the Estates, once one of the grandest homes of German theatre, where Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed. But even a solid production by a distinguished director could not make this strange and dislocating play palatable to contemporary Czech audiences. Critical reaction was unanimously negative, with the possible result that a major artist has been discouraged from writing for several years to come.

But this harsh response to Topol's play is part of a general recession in revolutionary euphoria. The 1990s have ushered in economic and political changes which overshadow such introspective analyses of the past. Moreover, as many will argue, depleted audience numbers may be a feature of the new, democratic society. A wider range of choice means fewer numbers at any one production. Since ticket prices have remained low (with a National Theatre ticket costing the price of two pints of beer, and tickets for smaller venues, up to half that amount), it seems likely that attractive content, rather than affordability, will determine which theatres remain in operation.

Before one predicts the emergence of a West End in the Czech capital, however, it may be worth remembering how deeply involved its theatre has been in the shaping and preserving of a national, political consciousness. Ironically, the communist government's programme of 'normalization' after 1968 raised some theatres to a privileged position in Czech society. During the years of Prague Spring and after, actors carried played a closely observed game of dare with the authorities. Sometimes, the game consisted of using a dramatic text to attack government actions that could not otherwise be publicly criticized. In other places, no manipulation of the text was needed. An audience accustomed to thinking analogically received Chekhov, Gogol and Shakespeare with an immediacy difficult to conceive of beyond the confines of an oppressive regime.

At the National Theatre in 1963, for example, Otomar Krejca produced a Romeo and Juliet that spoke for the sixties decade. The translation was by Topol, the parts of Romeo and Juliet were taken by two great actors, and the play gave voice to political unrest in Prague at the time. As Professor Stribni, a Shakespeare scholar at the Charles University, recalls, 'they took Romeo's lines, "the time and my intent are savage wild ...", and they stressed them to express the great anger and frustration of the younger generation, and their willingness for self-sacrifice'.

Five years later, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard directed by Jan Kacer at the Drama Club acquired acute topicality in 1968. 'Suddenly the Russian tanks were here', Kacer recalls. 'They seized Wenceslas Square. That was our cherry orchard and everyone knew it.' Not only were there coincidences in plot, but Chekhov's characters were recognizable as Czech types. 'When Landovsky played Lopakhin in Cherry Orchard, he simply played what he was', Kacer says, 'a huge, lumbering, ugly immigrant. What he produced was no actor's interpretation; it was his own existence'.

If Shakespeare and Chekhov survived the 'normalization period' following the Russian invasion, many contemporary Czech plays did not. At the National Theatre, Krejca had initiated a huge drive for new work, encouraging young Czech poets to write for the stage. After a trip to London where he saw Arnold Wesker's trilogy of realist plays, Krejca succeeded in persuading a generation of writers to believe that the 'humanity of Wesker's plays' and their exploration of 'community problems' could be produced in a Czech context. Topol's End of the Carnival, produced at the National Theatre in 1963, revolves around the issue of independent farming as opposed to communes. Krejca regards the play as deeply political, 'not just in the way that it describes a party treasurer who wants to collectivize the farms, but in the platonic sense of the word, politics: the struggle for human happiness'.

Krejca's programme of new writing had soon become too adventurous for the National Theatre. Krejca then moved on to establish his own theatre, Beyond the Gate, where he opened the 1965 season with another new Topol play. This company lasted another seven years, 'playing whatever pleased us', until by government order the theatre was shut down and its leading members banned from further performance in Prague.

Other casualties of 'normalization' after 1968 were the Drama Club and Theatre on the Balustrade. At the Drama Club, Kacer had united theatre and film, such personalities as the film directors Forman and Menzel, and the comic absurdist playwright, Ladislav Smocek. The Drama Club according to Jiri Menzel was 'theatre for his neighbour'. Director Jan Kacer shared with Krejca 'an advanced interest in the individual, in society as a collection of individuals'. Because the company consisted of well-known personalities from film, TV and the stage, relations between audience and company were intimate, and mutually appreciative. The golden age of this popular theatre, however, lasted only three years, from 1965 to 1968.

The fate of Jan Grossman's studio theatre, where Havel began his writing career, followed a similar pattern. Grossman's productions of three plays, Alfred Jarry's King Ubu (1964), Kafka's The Trial (1966), and Havel's Memorandum (1965) had brought Theatre on the Balustrade international acclaim as the Czech Theatre of the Absurd. But Havel's plays gained popularity in Czechoslovakia because their absurdities addressed recognizable social and political conditions. Karel Steigerwald, writer and now dramaturg at the Balustrade, says dismissively that absurdist theatre in the west raised 'aesthetic questions', while 'in this country it addressed social problems ... Absurd theatre in Bohemia was actually realistic'. Absurdist drama revolved around an absence of moral values in the west, and an absence of just government in the east.

Czech authorities apparently perceived the attack, as they quickly suppressed performances of fifties' and sixties' absurdist drama in Prague. Jan Kacer believes there was a well-organized plan to kill off politically challenging theatre. 'Whatever you think about totalitarian power', he says, 'they were extremely skilful when it came to ideology. They knew perfectly well who was at the heart of the Balustrade, ... and the Drama Club'. Following Kacer, Havel and Grossman were both banned from public performances by the early 1970s.

Some artists continued to perform privately, and in the 1970s, a number of plays were recorded in private flats, and secretly circulated on video and cassette. Among these 'home theatre' productions was Living Room Macbeth performed by five banned but well-known artists. In the last scene on the video, the five characters stand up to deliver Malcolm's final speech in unison, in the affirmation that society as a whole, rather than any single ruler, would bring an end to corrupt government.

Meanwhile, many theatres turned to the repertoire of established European classics to challenge the prevailing ideology. Thus while the west became familiar with Havel's plays, his own theatre in Prague filtered the same vision through Shakespeare. Evald Schorm produced a much-edited, Quarto-version of Hamlet to which, Professor Stribni says, the audience 'listened as a sort of protest. It was quite clear that Hamlet was a young student involved against his fellow and the whole state'. Lines such as 'the insolence of office' and 'the laws delay' produced electric approval in the audience. 'The two grave diggers in Little Hamlet were dressed as clowns with red plastic noses', says Stribni, a reminder of Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. In the final scene, the grave diggers came on again, 'looked at all the dead bodies, which was a kind of holocaust, and they turned it into a mass grave'. In a detached manner, 'they spread powder of chloride over the bodies, as was done in the concentration camps'. Ironically, it may have been Schorm's use of imagery from the Nazi period that allowed his critique of the abuses of power past the censor.

At the Balustrade, such political references were deliberate, if safely couched in a Shakespearean context. Elsewhere, spectators needed no direction to recognize topical analogies. Professor Hilsky, head of the English Department at Charles University, says of Shakespeare performed under a totalitarian regime that 'whatever you say, it may be nothing about your own society, it might be Love's Labours Lost, to say nothing of King Lear or Macbeth where the idea of power is explicitly discussed, in any case the play acquires a new vibrant energy, which comes from the political context'.

Hilsky, a foremost translator of Shakespeare into Czech, has frequently witnessed how 'the meaning is generated by the context, perhaps even more than the text itself' in Love's Labours Lost, the king of Navarre and his courtiers disguise themselves as Muscovites to gain access to the princess of France, a subterfuge which the princess recognizes and submits to ridicule. When Hilsky's translation was performed at the municipal theatre in 1988, this scene provoked enormous laughter in the audience, because 'every Czech heart warmed to the idea of mocking a group of Russians'.

And when Costard comes with a message for the princess and asks 'which is the greatest lady, the highest?', the princess answers elusively, 'The thickest and the tallest'. Hilsky translates 'greatest' as cele or 'at the head' and puns this with a Czech homonym v cele, meaning 'in a prison cell'. This exchange becomes a political allusion Czech dissidents imprisoned at the time: 'Please, can you tell me who stands at the head of state? You will recognize him by those who are sitting in prison'.

The backcloth of a totalitarian regime against which such explosive political puns were fashioned is thankfully removed. And yet, the political punning continues. In the National Theatre's production of As You Like It, commissioned before the Revolution and still playing in 1992, Touchstone has begun to improvise with Hilsky's text, inserting topical jokes about two flammable issues, relations between Czechs and Slovaks, and lustrace, the post-revolutionary political screening of former collaborators with the secret police. 'The argument is that the Fool is supposed to improvise anyway', says Hilsky. The license taken by this particular Fool does not please everyone, least of all Hilsky, who says quite frankly that As You Like It would be better off without it'. Nevertheless, it brings an explosive immediacy to the text, as is acknowledged by fanatical applause at Touchstone's curtain call.

The most exciting performances in Prague following the change to democracy in 1989, are those which, in my view, may be termed politically topical. Scattered and fragmented such theatrical highlights may be, but this fragmentation reflects the very nature of Czech society in a period of transition. For example, Otomar Krejca's production of Waiting for Godot, at the newly revived Beyond the Gate Theatre, is unconvincing as a whole. But fragments of the production are powerful, and clearly born of experience. Especially commanding is the portrayal of Pozzo as a tired over-lord, brutal by force of habit in the first act, failing to understand the reasons for his fall in the second.

Also at Beyond the Gate II, is Bernanos' Dialogue with the Carmelites, directed by Krejca's younger colleague, Helena Glancova. In a stunning final scene, reminiscent of Manet's painting The Execution of Maximilian, a group of nuns, condemned by revolutionaries, approach an exit wall in darkness, then with up-tilted faces step into sudden illumination and a rattle of gun-fire. This is one of several recent productions which draws parallels between the French revolution and Prague, 1968. Another point of topicality is its support of the revival of Catholicism in Czechoslovakia.

Neither of these productions gives voice to a current, commonly held belief in the way that Krejca's Romeo and Juliet did in the 1960s, but then such a conviction would be difficult to identify today. Krejca reflects that 'what we are living now seems to be the end of one of the greatest of human dreams. We are living our incapacity to realize that dream'. His own answer to this collapse of belief is individualistic, 'to be faithful to oneself, to be conservative, not in the sense of conserving the old, but in the sense of realizing the eternal again and again'. Performances at Beyond the Gate II are manifestations of Krejca's view that art must be 'faithful to itself', even at the expense of relinquishing any recognizable social function.

A less isolating solution might be expected from Jan Kacer, who divided his time in 1991 between the National Theatre and the Czech parliament. Kacer decided not to stand for office again, and on election day, May 1992, he commented on the lack of direction in both politics and the arts. 'People are hesitating before the vote', he said. 'They are looking for new representatives in government,... they are also looking for a new style of theatre.' While the people chose Vaclav Klaus, a right-wing member of the former Civic Forum, Kacer believes the basic uncertainties are unresolved.

In his forthcoming production of The Winter's Tale, Kacer will be reflecting the current mood of social and political fragmentation. He intends his Winter's Tale to be 'very strange, without any over-all idea'. There will be hints of miracles, horror at metamorphosis, sudden aging. 'The audience will hear every note, not only the notes that I have chosen to emphasise'. Kacer's is a pluralistic vision of the play, and possibly a chaotic one.

Professor Hilsky, who is providing the translation, finds evidence for his view that 'you don't have to make Shakespeare topical; he already is'. In the opening scene, a lord from Bohemia displays a 'typically Czech' embarrassment at a wealthy Sicilian lord's offer of hospitality. 'There is the awkwardness that you always have here, with western visitors and their marvellous exchange rates ... It's painful on both sides.' The Bohemian's solution is also typically Czech, according to Hilsky: he says, 'But if you come to Bohemia, we will give you some strong drink so you won't be able to recall our shortcomings'.

For his part, Kacer empathizes with the late Shakespeare who has aged, seen radical changes in government, and grown bitter and critical of his former work. Kacer believes that the late romances betray a deep mistrust not only of language but also of human character. He looks back on his own experience in similar terms: 'I have never advocated any ideology, but that is a happy coincidence ... I don't like communism because I preferred interesting, fully rounded characters to simplified ones'.

Meanwhile, at the Balustrade, Steigerwald characterizes Shakespeare as a rag-and-bones man. He describes the structure of The Merchant of Venice, possibly on next season's repertoire, as a 'brilliant patch-work', whose pattern is 'a metaphor for human existence'. It is an artistic patchwork that seems likely to reflect the pervading sense of social and political fragmentation. The Merchant of Venice will be cut and pasted by Grossman into an absurdist collage that will focus, in Steigerwald's words, 'on intolerance, racism and the degradation of society'.

In the years following the velvet revolution, the central question Theatre on the Balustrade surely faces is whether or not the Czech lands still need a showcase for the theatre of the absurd. Steigerwald is inclined to think they do. And Jan Grossman has put together three brilliant absurdist productions since his return in 1989: Havel's Largo Desolato (in 1990), Temptation (in 1991), and Moliere's Don Juan in much-edited form (in 1989/1992).

Don Juan is a production that straddles the revolution, and its application to the Czech social and political context has markedly changed. In this uncommonly taut, focused revision of the play, Moliere's passionate seducer has degenerated to a man whose self-loathing is only exceeded by his loathing for hypocrisy in others. His servant Sganarell is motivated by mixture of abject terror, greed, and the 'motiveless malignity' of Shakespeare's Iago.

In Grossman's version, there is no divine retribution for Don Juan's crimes. Instead, master and servant fall into an argument as they await the arrival of the statue for supper. A thunderstorm breaks overhead, and at some point in the chaos, Sganarell kills Juan by mistake. Having eliminated divine justice, Grossman focuses on two destructive human types: the dissident, consumed with self-hatred and loathing for hypocrisy in others, and the compromiser, bereft of his customary wit and good humour. The conclusion of their alliance is a particularly apt revision of Moliere, given the political context of the Yugoslavian internecine war, and the shadow of such conflict in divided Czechoslovakia.

If this Don Juan bears some resemblance to Faustus, Grossman's production of Havel's Temptation at Theatre on the Balustrade focuses more explicitly on the Faustus theme. Havel wrote Temptation in 1985 to cauterize the memory of a fatal error of judgement. While serving a prison sentence, Havel had once consented to sign papers securing himself an early release. Later these documents were brought forward as proof of Havel's collaboration with the authorities. Blaming his own judgement, Havel took himself off to the country and spent the next few weeks in a frenzy of writing. The result was Temptation, a modern version of the fall of Faustus, with a distinctly autobiographical slant.

Foustka is a scientist with forbidden interests in the occult to whom a gangrene-afflicted Fistula (Mephistopheles) offers satanic, psychological powers. When to his own surprise, Foustka succeeds in seducing his secretary, a pact with the devil is made. Havel shifts the emphasis from the aims to the means of temptation as Foustka acquires power over people at the price of playing double agent, spying on Fistula for his scientific institute and vice versa. In the end, Fistula turns out to be working for the director of the institute; in his attempt to beat the devil at his own game, Foustka is ruined. The secretary, incidentally, loses her job.

Grossman's production is swift, vividly colourful, and uncompromisingly absurdist. The mechanized movements of the scientists, revolving around a leak in the roof of the institute, contrasts ironically with the erratic, grandiloquent gestures of Foustka, the frank sexuality of his girlfriend, the secretary's sudden, naive passion for his Cause, and Fistula's disarming, old man's charm. But if the humiliation of Foustka seems harshly pessimistic, the play as a whole is affirmative. Former underground poet Magor writes in the programme notes that its 'message of hope lies in refusing to work with the devil'.

In former times, such an interpretation might have sufficed, since the 'devil' was easily defined in concrete, political terms. But Havel's play is not centrally concerned with identifying devils; rather, it focuses on Foustka's responsibility for his own acts. As perhaps can be seen more clearly today, the 'devil' in the play takes both sides. Foustka's mistake is to allow himself to be governed by the demands of either party, instead of his own reason and instinct.

Like all Havel's plays, Temptation analyses the difficulties of choice, and argues the necessity of action. In a recent interview for The Guardian, Havel stated that the way out of today's crises should be sought 'more in a change in people's behaviour and way of looking at the world than in changes in systems or technical wizardry'. Temptation is a play that today invites Czechs to approach privatization and the creation of a free market economy with independent, critical minds. In more general terms, it is a play written in the tradition of theatre that acts on social and political issues: a good sign that the present crisis in Prague's theatre will be quickly overcome.

|Rachel Falconer taught English literature in the Department of Philosophy at the Charles University in Prague from 1990 to 1992.~
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Author:Falconer, Rachel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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