Contemporary Czech drama – a brief (and personal) insight into the topic
Ferdinande! written and performed by Michal Hába; photo by Michaela Škvrňáková
An important springboard for Czech contemporary drama was the year 1989 – the Czech “Velvet revolution” was unquestionably a revolution of a theatrical nature. A number of the important political discussions of that time actually took place on a theatre stage – theatre became synonymous with engaged, free, liberated speech. Symptomatically, the first truly democratic political party, Občanské fórum (Civic Forum) was founded on November 19, 1989, two days after the outbreak of the revolution, in the theatre Činoherní klub (Drama Club). The first informal leader of this party was Václav Havel.
Czech post-revolutionary theatre was dominated at first by a thirst for plays that previously could not be staged due to censorship bans – Havel’s plays, for example, were played in parallel in 17 different theatres in 1990, with the repertoire dominated by his Garden Party. Other authors such as Pavel Kohout, Ivan Klíma or Milan Uhde also officially returned to the stage. However, Czech theatre was only at the beginning of the search for current topics – many of its important protagonists were unavailable, some have left the stage for politics (Václav Havel as President and Milan Uhde as Minister of Culture and later Speaker of Parliament); others, such as the poet-playwright Josef Topol, took a break from writing for theatre.
The 1990s were subsequently marked by a search for new expressive possibilities of theatre – it was evident that political theatre and drama, which in the past had a clear enemy in the form of the totalitarian regime, would have to be redefined. And so it came about that one of the most prominent Czech critics of the totalitarian system, Václav Havel, was not to write his only post-Velvet Revolution until 19 years after the revolution. His play Leaving (premiered in 2008, Archa Theatre, Prague) was considered at the time of its creation as Havel’s reckoning with his own political career. However, Havel constructs the affair of the ousted Chancellor Rieger and the entire accompanying media circus with his distinctive sense of the farcical language of authoritarian rhetoric. It transpired that his absurd theatre, deconstructing the hollow phrases of contemporary political stakeholders and their underlings, worked as well in the capitalist world as in “real socialism”.
Reflections on the totalitarian past
Reflections on the totalitarian past play an important role in the plays of a number of Havel’s peers. This is the case, for example, of Pavel Kohout‘s current play Vítězný únor (Victorious February; premiered 2016, Klicper Theatre, Hradec Králové), which is dedicated to the events of the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. The play, subtitled Alžbětinské drama z léta Páně 1948 (An Elizabethan Drama from AD 1948) is written in blank verse and examines historical events on both the level of the intimate fates of the individual protagonists (President Edvard Beneš, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk and also the young writer Pavka – Kohout’s alter ego) and on the archetypal level of analysis of the inhumane principles of a society that is subjugated to a totalitarian doctrine. The way in which an individual ends up in the clutches of the power games of “grand politics” was a significant inspiration for Kohout in his farcical social-critical plays for many years.
In the case of Milan Uhde, the attempt to come to terms with the past has a more intimate feel. After ending his political career, Uhde returned to the theatre with his play Zázrak v černém domě (Miracle in the Black House; premiered 2007, Na Zábradlí Theatre, Prague), in which he construes a meeting of relatives in their family house, in which each of the protagonists represents in a certain sense a schematic role in relation to the totalitarian period. Uhde then built on his collaboration with the composer Miloš Štědroň, with whom, as a playwright and librettist, he had written in the 1970s (at that time secretly, covered by the director Zdeněk Pospíšil) the cult musical Balada pro banditu (Ballad for a Bandit; premiered 1975, Divadlo na provázku – Theatre on a String, now Husa na provázku – Goose on a String Theatre, Brno). This duo of authors also created contemporary musicals such as Leoš aneb Tvá nejvěrnější (Leoš, or Most Faithfully Yours; premiered 2011) and Moc Art aneb Amadeus v Brně (The Power of Art, or Amadeus in Brno; premiered 2014, both in Goose on a String Theatre).
The totalitarian past is treated with an almost obsessive emphasis by the playwright Karel Steigerwald, who in his plays often confronts individual destinies with grand political history. In his play Horáková, Gottwald, for example (premiered 2006, Mezery civic association – La Fabrika, Prague), which Steigerwald calls a “comedy about tragedy”, confronts the fate of the Czechoslovak politician Milada Horáková, murdered in 1950 on the basis of a contrived trial, with phenomena of the time, and indirectly with the biography of communist president Klement Gottwald. It is a bitterly ironic play in which the cruel theatricality of totalitarian regimes comes to the forefront.
The topic of the political processes of the 1950s was nonetheless also taken up by the younger generation of creators. In his play S nadějí, i bez ní (With Hope and Without It; premiered 2012, Komorní scéna Aréna, Ostrava), the playwright Tomáš Vůjtek processes the memoirs of Josefa Slánská, the wife of Rudolf Slánský, who was executed in 1952 in the context of the political trials of the 1950s. This play is one of Vůjtek’s documentary trilogy, which also includes the plays Slyšení (The Hearing; premiered 2015, Komorní scéna Aréna, Ostrava), dealing with the phenomenon of Nazi ringleader Adolf Eichmann in confrontation with the local Ostrava context, and Smíření (Reconciliation; premiered 2017 in the same theatre), the theme of which is the so-called savage expulsion of the Sudeten German population after World War II.
The expulsion of the German population from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, the existence and independent historical analysis of which was discredited and downplayed by the communist regime, is an important topic for playwright and director Miroslav Bambušek. In his plays, he processes in documentary style historical events in direct connection with the present and combines them with surreal and lyrical motifs. His project perzekuce.cz comprises a series of plays dealing with the deportation of the Sudeten Germans – for example, in the play Porta Apostolorum (premiered 2005, La Fabrika, Prague) he thematizes the murder of more than 800 German civilians in the village of Postoloprty in the Žatec region in 1945.
The well-known Czech prose writer Kateřina Tučková also successfully adapted her novel Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch (The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch – premiered 2014, HaDivadlo theatre, Brno) to the stage. The story of her fictional heroine begins in the primarily German urban territory of First Republic Brno, passes through all the vicissitudes of World War II and ends in the phase of post-war tyranny of the German population. The production was received very emotionally in Brno and the performance often provokes a standing ovation – for a city in which many families with German roots are still living, this is evidently still a topical issue.
Among the newer generation of playwrights, Martina Kinská, for example, deals remarkably with the consequences of totalitarianism. In collaboration with historian Radek Schovánek, she wrote the play Agent tzv. společenský (The So-Called Social Agent; premiered 2018 within the context of the Testis ensemble, presented at the Švandovo divadlo Theatre Studio, Prague). The play, based on an intimate family story in which the father is revealed to be a Secret Police agent, deals very three-dimensionally and with tight focus on the manipulative power of the totalitarian apparatus and its infiltration into the most intimate interpersonal spheres.
The playwright David Košťák also works subtly to the point of subliminally with elements of analysis of the manipulative role of totalitarian systems in his play for young audiences called Lajka vzhůru letí (My Name is Lajka; premiered 2017, Malé divadlo theatre, České Budějovice), which, on the basis of the story of the first dog in space, raises questions about freedom and self-determination.
Many contemporary playwrights today are also trying to analyse contemporary reality, often in conjunction with a critical assessment of the “post-Velvet” era.
One name that can stand in for all is that of the director and playwright Michal Hába, whose original production Ferdinande! (in which Hába himself is the main performer) brings back to the stage the character of Ferdinand Vaňek, Havel’s dramatic alter ego. In a performative dialogue with the audience, Hába examines how Vaněk would behave today, simultaneously analysing the role of the intellectual in the public space and referencing the neoliberally-conditioned division of society into masses and elites, with which are associated other structural inequalities.
A Havel theme was also taken up by Anna Saavedra in her play Olga (Horrory z Hrádečku) (Olga: Horror Stories from Hrádeček; premiered 2016, Divadlo Letí theatre, Prague). She brings the audience to Havels’ cottage and announces that she intends to dedicate her play to Olga Havel. From the outset, however, all of Olga’s discourse is interrupted by Václav, who struggles with not being the centre of attention. The autobiographically-styled play captures Olga without pathos as a sarcastic commentator on events ranging from exuberant dissident parties to official castle ceremonies. For Saavedra, Olga’s world is not lacking in daily absurdities – she may never enjoy mushroom picking on her own, since in the previous regime she was watched by the Secret Police, and in the post-revolutionary period by the presidential security team. The play is a portrait of a strong female personality, in which intimacy is blended with an ironic perspective.
The loss of illusions following the Velvet Revolution is also dealt with by the versatile and very productive playwright and screenwriter Petr Kolečko. In his play Pokerface (premiered 2013, Divadlo Letí theatre, Prague), he confronts his heroes with two time planes – the period around 1989, full of enthusiasm and expectations, and the time after 2011, when Václav Havel dies and, along with him, symbolically, trust in “better times” and democratic conditions.
Among the range of plays with a “post-Velvet” theme, Jaroslav Rudiš‘s Národní třída (National Avenue) may also be included. He wrote it based on his own eponymous short story (premiered 2012, Divadlo Feste theatre, Brno), which he skilfully remoulded into all possible genres, from prose, through radio play to film script. Rudiš’s hero Vandam, who took part in the revolutionary events on Národní třída in 1989, is a typical loser of the neoliberal conditions, whose failures in life culminate in a xenophobic view of the world and in violence.
Theatrical agencies, competitions, publication of plays
For Czech theatre, opening up to the world also meant many changes in the structure of copyright management and the mediation of new plays. In contrast to the diversity commonplace abroad, only two theatrical agencies play a major role in our country – the Dilia agency, which emerged from the prior state agency established in the post-war period and which, alongside agency representation, provides collective administration of works, and the Aura-Pont agency founded in 1990.
Both agencies play an important role in supporting new drama. Up to 2013, the Aura-Pont agency participated in the playwriting competition for the Alfred Radok Award, in which it continues today in the form of the Anonymous Drama Competition. The Alfred Radok Award was a prestigious award in its day, and many of its laureates can be found among today’s important playwrights, such as Arnošt Goldflam, Roman Sikora, David Drábek, Kateřina Rudčenková, Eva Prchalová, Miroslav Bambušek and Iva Klestilová.
Since 2001, the Dilia agency has been awarding the Ewald Schorm Prize, which is open to beginning artists (students) in the field of original dramatic production and theatrical translation. Dilia supports new translations of contemporary dramatic literature with its translation workshops, each of which focuses on one linguistic area. At the same time, Dilia participates in the stage readings of new plays in the 8@8 series mounted by the Divadlo Letí theatre.
One Czech peculiarity is that both agencies represent the rights of their authors, but do not carry out any publishing activities. Contemporary plays are published by other book publishers such as Brkola, Větrné mlýny, Akropolis, Host, Torst and Prostor. The Arts and Theatre Institute, as an institution connecting scientific and structurally supporting goals, also has its own book series of contemporary plays and systematically promotes Czech theatre abroad (e.g., through a system of internal grants and on the performczech.cz website).
Ferdinande! written and performed by Michal Hába; photo by Michaela Škvrňáková
Writing for “one’s own” theatre
Many of today’s successful authors are united by close collaboration with their home theatre, for which they write and often direct their plays. For example, the plays of Arnošt Goldflam, one of the most successful Czech playwrights, are inseparable from his relationship to Brno’s HaDivadlo. Characteristic of Goldflam are the specifics of a farcical view of the world, and he also likes to make light of historical events. The long-term repertoire in HaDivadlo now includes his successful play Doma u Hitlerů aneb Historky z Hitlerovic kuchyně (At Home with the Hitlers, or Tales from the Hitlers’ Kitchen; premiered 2007, HaDivadlo). Goldflam is the spiritual brother of Georg Tabori – both of them work idiosyncratically with harsh Jewish humour. Besides, Goldflam’s Hitler also meets little Tabori in a play: at the Brno railway station, where the little boy misses his train. Goldflam’s theatrical satire depicting Hitler in his private setting, full of picturesque details, is also a rousing critique of the trivialization of Nazi crimes. In a time of the onset of right-wing nationalist tendencies, it has lost none of its topicality.
Connected with Dejvice Theatre in Prague is the career of the playwright and director Petr Zelenka, who presented here his internationally successful play Příběhy obyčejného šílenství (Stories of Ordinary Madness; premiered 2001, Dejvické divadlo, Prague). Zelenka, with his specific sense of the absurdity of everyday life, delights in tragicomedy – his hero Petr, longing to win the heart of his love Jana, is a likeable loser surrounded by people with a wide variety of perversions and deviations. Despite all its intimate concentration, Zelenka’s play is also a convincing crisis diagnosis of our era. In the play Teremin (premiered 2005, Dejvické divadlo), Zelenka finds a hero whose biography harmonizes perfectly with the author’s poetics. He is the Russian scientist Lev Sergeyevich Teremin, who develops, as a by-product of security system research for Lenin, a predecessor of today’s synthesizer and then launches a remarkable musical career in the USA with his innovative contactless musical instrument, the theremin.
The playwright David Drábek has also been associated for many years with his home stage at Klicper Theatre in Hradec Králové, where he worked until 2017 and, in addition to directing and dramaturgical work, also held the position of artistic director for many years. A number of Hradec Králové actors then left with him for his current engagement in the Prague City Theatres. Drábek’s first major international success came with the production of Akvabely (Synchronized Swimming; premiered 2005, Klicper Theatre), a humorously existential story of stressed urban neurotics who relax with synchronized swimming. Drábek writes farcical melodramas, which in their stage concept work extensively with situation comedy (the author also often directs his own plays and takes advantage of the potential of his ensemble). Drábek’s successful recent plays include, for example, Náměstí bratří Mašínů (Mašín Brothers Square; premiered 2009, Klicper Theatre), a panopticon of down-and-outs whose attempts to break free from the trappings of their existence (e.g., the spectacular hijacking of a tram) always end in fiasco, or Jedlíci čokolády (The Chocolate Eaters; premiered 2011 at the same theatre), a melodramatic, lightly absurd story of three sisters written specifically for the Hradec Králové actresses.
Playwright René Levínský covers a remarkable range of genres and writes his plays with a feeling for a farcically exposed and punchline-geared stage situation. The productions of his plays are inseparable from his home theatre, the independent theatre ensemble Nejhodnější medvídci (The Nicest Teddy Bears). Levínský, who, in addition to his theatrical activities, is also a theoretical mathematician, often works with elements of parody, e.g., in the play Kašpárek, četník koločavský (Buffoon, the Kolochava Gendarme; written under the pseudonym Šimon Olivětín, premiered 1997, Nejhodnější medvídci) he parodies the coarse humour of folk plays; in Harila aneb Čtyři z punku a pes (Harila, or Four Punks and a Dog; written under the pseudonym Helmut Kuhl, premiered 2006, Nejhodnější medvídci), in a story in which four German punks debate the end of Western civilization, he takes issue with so-called cool drama. But Levínsky’s plays also find their way into the repertoires of large theatres, such as his farce about man as a scientific design project Dotkni se vesmíru a pokračuj (Touch the Universe and Continue; premiered 2016, National Theatre, Prague).
The playwright and artist Miloslav Vojtíšek, who appears under the pseudonym S.d.Ch., has long staged his plays primarily himself, for example in his own theatre called Varlénův loutkový seminář (Varlén’s Puppet Seminary). These texts are characterized by an avant-garde, ornamental language, such as a satire on the perverse logic of the world of today’s political ringleaders, Poslední husička (The Last Goose; premiered 2015 as a stage sketch, Dejvické divadlo).
A playwright focusing on the topics of his generation influenced by new media and social networks, Tomáš Dianiška founded the underground and punk F. X. Kalba Theatre in Liberec, for which he wrote a number of plays and in which he also works as an actor. Dianiška’s plays are crammed with pop-cultural references and even a serious topic such as the dark 1950s in the play Mlčení bobříků (Silence of the Beavers; premiered 2016, Divadlo pod Palmovkou, studio PalmOFF) have for him a satirical dimension. His most successful plays include Transky, body, vteřiny (Transes, Points, Seconds; premiered 2019, Petr Bezruč Theatre), loosely inspired by the fate of Zdeněk Koubek, who before his operation in 1936 was the female world running record holder Zdeňka Koubková. In addition to a number of farcical moments, Dianiška characterizes the interwar sports environment as one full of intolerance, prejudice and anti-Semitic sentiments.
The original productions of director and playwright Jiří Havelka are inspired by his collaboration with the VOSTO5 theatre, characterized by distinctive humorous poetics. The successful production Společenstvo vlastníků (Homeowners’ Association; premiered 2017, VOSTO5), for example, depicts the microclimate of a meeting of apartment owners of one house and becomes the impetus for the farcically developing interface between disparate human characters. At the same time, however, it is an insightful illustration of the power struggle within society.
The poetics of Jiří Adámek, who as an author and director creates his key productions with the theatre Boca Loca Lab, are based on associative playfulness with language and its onomatopoeic properties. Strictly formally directed productions such as Libozvuky (Euphonics; premiered 2015, Boca Loca Lab) or Bludiště seznamů (Maze of Lists; premiered 2016, Boca Loca Lab) are characterized by a musically stylized linguistic expression and draw their humour from puns and unexpected word associations. In addition to their playful, musical level, however, they are also carried by a critical attitude towards the meaning-bearing functions of language.
It cannot be overlooked that it is predominantly men who write “for their own theatre” in the Czech Republic. Many of the above-mentioned authors also direct their plays themselves. However, there are very few women in the position of directors or even artistic directors. This relates to the overall order of Czech society, in which structural inequalities between men and women are still tolerated (e.g., the gender pay gap) and the adjective “feminist” is regarded almost as pejorative. Among the previously mentioned artists, Martina Kinská, who is also a dramaturge at the theatre Švandovo divadlo, appears as the director of her own plays. An important personality in this regard is the director Martina Schlegelová, who is the artistic director of the independent Divadlo Letí theatre and focuses on contemporary Czech and world drama in her directing work. (Divadlo Letí, with its residency program for contemporary playwrights, plays a key role in presenting contemporary plays in the Czech Republic) and, moreover, since February 2018, she has also been the artistic lead of the South Bohemian Theatre, in which she has contributed to the experimental and social-critical expansion of the repertoire of this state theatre.
Another exceptional director and author is Pavla Dombrovská, who founded and runs the independent Divadlo Líšeň theatre, for which she creates original productions. Dombrovská was a student of the famous Eva Tálská, director of Brno’s Goose on a String Theatre and one of the most progressive Czech theatre artists. Similar to Tálská, Dombrovská works with the principles of folk theatre (e.g., carnival theatrical rituals), metaphorically combines drama with puppet and object theatre and writes and polishes her plays in collaboration with her theatrical team. Out of her works, let us mention at least the production Putin lyžuje (Putin Skis) with the subtitle Jevištní reportáž na motivy knihy Anny Politkovské zavražděné v roce 2006 (Stage Reportage Based on Motifs from the Book by Anna Politkovskaya Murdered in 2006; premiered 2010, Divadlo Líšeň, Brno) or Paramisa (Chytrý hloupý Rom) (Paramisa: Smart Stupid Roma), in which, on the basis of Roma fairy tales, she mixes elements of Czech folk theatre and Romani dances (premiered 2005, Divadlo Líšeň theatre in collaboration with Romani artists).
One of the youngest artistic directors is Dagmar Radová, who in A Studio Rubín creates an original and dramaturgically unique program based on intimate themes with overlaps into a social-critical context (e.g., Burnout aneb Vyhoř!; premiered 2019, A studio Rubín).
Ferdinande! written and performed by Michal Hába; photo by Michaela Škvrňáková
The female perspective and feminist positions
For many years, Czech playwrighting has been dominated by men, and Czech theatre has only become used to the concept of the female playwright in recent decades. Nowadays, Czech theatres are staging several contemporary plays by present-day women playwrights who are consciously reflecting the position of women in contemporary Czech society.
In her work, the poet and playwright Kateřina Rudčenková is concerned with a critique of the view of women as objects of male desire and thematizes inequalities and clichéd approaches in looking at independent female existence. In her play Čas třešňového dýmu (The Time of Cherry Smoke; premiered 2007 as a stage reading, Royal Court Theatre), for example, she enquires why the word “genius” does not have a feminine form? In this play, three generations – mother, daughter and grandmother – meet and confront each other with their own life paths. With her playful language full of poetic images, the author thematizes the social pressure on a woman to submit to given socio-cultural patterns. Alongside the real level, dream scenes are inserted into the play, in which all the female protagonists await their weddings (in an allusion to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”) and acquire the attributes of traditional female fairy-tale characters. In her dramatic poem, the play Niekur (the Lithuanian term for “nowhere”; premiered 2008, Ungelt Theatre, Prague), she again deals with the unequal position of a woman in relation to an older man.
Also feminist in mood are the plays of Iva Klestilová (formerly Volánková), who battles existing gender stereotypes. Her trilogy Minach (premiered 2002, HaDivadlo, Brno) deals with the unequal division of roles in a family in which a woman is subject to multiple exploitation, since she is, with characteristic obviousness, both a cleaning and caring force, but also a sex object. Klestilová also differentiates the feminine and masculine perspectives linguistically – while the men speak in a factual, almost bureaucratic tone, the feminine language of her heroines is poetic, associative and full of lags and exclamations, such as in Stísněná 22 (Constricted 22; premiered 2003, National Theatre, Prague).
A critical assessment of gender-based inequalities can also be found in Lenka Lagronová‘s poetic plays, which are often inspired by biographical stories – e.g., Jako břitva/Němcová (Like a Razor/Nemcová; premiered 2016, National Theatre, Prague), in which the life of the female icon of Czech literature, Božena Němcová, serves as inspiration. The well-known prose writer Radka Denemarková stages a posthumous meeting of three biographically inspired female characters in her remarkable theatrical debut Spací vady (Sleep Defects; premiered 2010, Na Zábradlí Theatre) – in which appear the writers Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, as well as the ex-wife of the former US President, former Czech skier Ivana Trump.
Grand political topics, always inspected from a woman’s perspective, are brought to the stage by the Czech-Slovak author and filmmaker Anna Grusková. Her documentary-inspired drama Rabínka (the Female Rabbi; premiered 2012, Studio of the Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava) is dedicated to the heroic stance of “Rabbi” Gisi Fleischmann, who in 1942 founded a working group in the Bratislava Jewish community to protect her Slovak Jewish fellow citizens. In another of her plays Komůrky (Chambers; premiered 2013 as a reading in the Duha festival, Villa Tugendhat, Brno), she brings to life a specific Czechoslovak language, today an almost extinct language of the former Czechoslovakia that mixes together Czech, Slovak and other influences. In the intimate family drama, two time planes are interwoven – the 1970s period of “real socialism” and today.
The playwright Eva Prchalová conducts a poetic analysis of disrupted relationship communication. Her play Závrať (Vertigo, premiered 2011 as a stage reading, Činoherní klub), which draws together two completely different couples in a surrealistic horror of an evening, hovers on the verge of a horror-style vision and dreamy romance. In the play Ažura (Openwork; premiered 2015 as stage reading, Czech Centre Berlin), in an artfully constructed story, the various languages of the individual characters become an instrument of power-game oppression and exploitation.
Anna Saavedra is definitely an author who incorporates a feminist worldview with natural obviousness into her dramatic visions. Let us mention here at least her play Tajná zpráva z planety matek / Mamma guerilla (A Secret Message from the Planet of Mothers / Mamma Guerrilla; premiered 2012, HaDivadlo, Brno), a scenic essay on the various forms of motherhood written as a colourful, farcical and socially critical collage of dialogues, monologues, ironic comments and documentary texts.
The theme of women’s self-determination is also a key inspiration for the youngest generation of Czech female playwrights. The winner of the 2018 Ewald Schorm Award, Tereza Agelová, wrote her play Jako ty, mami (Like You, Mummy) in the style of an associative narrative stream of three girls trying to come to terms with their own female existence.
Ferdinande! written and performed by Michal Hába; photo by Michaela Škvrňáková
Czech identity and today’s political theatre
Many Czech female and male authors in theatre thematize current socio-political debates. A very successful play at the box office was Koule. Příběh vrhačky (Sphere. The Story of a Shot-Putter; premiered 2011 as a radio play, ČRo 3 – Vltava, stage premiere 2012, Klicper Theatre) by David Drábek. The fictional portrait of a Czech female shot-putter, who won one medal after another in the pre-revolutionary period of the Socialist Republic and today stylizes herself in a radio interview as a national heroine without the ability to critically reflect on the dark side of mass doping at the time, is an artfully pointed, farcical deconstruction of the myth of a successful socialist sports career.
Set in the present is Drábek’s crazy comedy Kanibalky: Soumrak samců (Female Cannibals: Twilight of the Males; premiered 2018, Rococo Theatre). The ironic detective plot, in which a disparate pair of investigators investigates the murder of five Arab men in a Prague loft, develops into a satire on current political positions, from the right-wing radical practices of “decent Czechs”, through parallel worlds on social networks, to the special kind of cannibalism of former President Václav Klaus.
The topic of the relationship to home and Czechness is also dealt with by the prose writer David Zábranský, who wrote to order for the theatre Studio Hrdinů the play Herec a truhlář Majer mluví o stavu své domoviny (The Actor and Carpenter Majer Speaks about the State of his Homeland; premiered 2016, Studio Hrdinů, Prague). In addition to the life attitudes of Majer (Stanislav Majer – the lead actor – is a well-known actor for whom Zábranský tailored the role) and of the author of the play, director Kamila Polívková, who commissioned the work, is also subjected to scathing analysis, and the environment of Czech theatre, which looks to Germany, is presented in a satirical arc. With exemplary vigour and Bernhardesque hyperbole, Zábranský observes and analyses Czech society, in which the “homeland” is abused by various interest groups.
To mark the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, Zábranský wrote his next play, Konzervativec (The Conservative; premiered 2018, Divadlo Komedie, Prague), in which he examines the impact of historical events on the lives of individuals and philosophically examines the theme of time and infinity.
Petra Hůlová‘s work is characterized by a playful approach to language, and her stylistic elements often include alliterations or twisted idioms and phrases. In addition to her novels, she has also recently focused on writing plays for theatre. In the play Buňka číslo (Cell Number; premiered 2016, Studio Hrdinů), three women meet in a conspiratorial cell to work on saving the Czech national identity. Their conceptual designs, oscillating between patriotic kitsch and internal emigration, are, however, literally pulverized by a hysterical speech gesture.
Hůlová also adapted for the stage one of her latest books, the dystopian novel Stručné dějiny Hnutí (A Brief History of the Movement; 2018) about the winning campaign of a movement set on ridding society of sexism. The play was staged in a Czech-German co-production at Divadlo Komedie and at the State Theatre in Nuremberg (premiered 2019).
One of the most prominent representatives of the theatre as an instrument of socio-political criticism is the playwright Roman Sikora. In his comedies, he reacts with singular black humour to current social phenomena, analysing structural inequalities and the distribution of positions of power in a society dominated by the laws of the market and neoliberally deregulated capitalism. His satirical play Zpověď masochisty (The Confessions of a Masochist; premiered 2011, Divadlo Letí) met with remarkable international success. The play is a sarcastic depiction of neoliberal state visions, which – thought through to the nth degree – could only be enthusiastically accepted by masochistic citizens. One such masochist is the main protagonist, Mr. M, who enthusiastically lets his salary be cut and allows his boss to abuse and humiliate him. The play culminates in Mr. M’s participation in a human resources contest, in which the human body is used, for example, as an impurities filter. The play, which is only formally anchored in the reality of the Kalousek-Nečas era, has been performed on many international stages (in Poland, for instance, it was performed simultaneously in six theatres), where it has been perceived as an up-do-date critique of the overall antisocial set-up of the globalized labour market.
In 2017, Sikora also became the winning author of a playwriting competition organized by the State Theatre in Nuremberg with the title Talking About Borders. For the competition he created the play Zámek na Loiře (Palace by the Loire; premiered 2018, Nuremberg State Theatre; Czech premiere 2019, Lachende Bestien ensemble, Venuše ve Švehlovce theatre, Prague). In it, Sikora fine-tunes his playful and formalistic approach to language, characterized by short, nongrammatical, staccato lines full of redundancies, repetitions and appositions. In the play, a high-ranking Czech politician hides away his wife at a magnificent palace by the Loire, because she is discrediting him in the media with her statements at home. Four servants try to figure out why this lady despises French delicacies, prefers cheap canned meats from her husband’s factory and re-designs the Rococo palace in Ikea style.
Sikora’s latest work, which again enters into current debates, is a comedy set in a psychiatric hospital, written to order for Divadlo Feste theatre in Brno with the title Opravdu živé interview s opravdovým Petrem Kellnerem (A Real Live Interview with the Real Petr Kellner; premiered 2020, Divadlo Feste). Comic allusions to the biography of the “richest Czech” are for Sikora primarily the stimulus for a structural critique of a society in which capitalist practices, quite unchecked, have become independent of all ethical principles.
Theatre as training of the immune system
Presenting contemporary Czech plays on the stage means joining in the society-wide debate about the shape of our world – which in theatre is always played out directly, live, face to face. Contemporary drama does not have the easiest of positions in the Czech Republic – many theatres are afraid to include untried new material in their repertoire.
Today, however, it is more painfully apparent than ever that we are not only threatened by a new, as yet insufficiently researched virus against which we have no medication, but also by a lack of cultural discourse.
Theatre as a living and direct art is one of the best kinds of training of the immune system against simplistic phrases and all populist dumbing down. The representation of contemporary Czech drama on stage is thus an essential principle for the emergence of much-needed debate about the socio-political situation of our time.
This essay was originally written in German for the purpose of promoting Czech literature at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2019. The author translated it into Czech and updated it in places.
Mgr. Barbora Schnelle, Ph.D., studied theatre science and aesthetics / culturology in Brno, Berlin and Vienna and graduated from Masaryk University in Brno with her work on the plays of the Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek (in book form: Elfriede Jelinek a její divadlo proti divadlu; Elfriede Jelinek and her Theatre against Theatre: Větrné mlýny, Brno, 2006). She lives in Berlin, where she founded and runs the non-profit organization Drama Panorama e.V., under whose auspices she has since 2014 organised and curated the festival of contemporary Czech theatre Ein Stück: Tschechien. She has published an extensive anthology of contemporary Czech drama in German translation, Von Masochisten und Mamma-Guerillas (Berlin: Neofelis, 2018). She works as a freelance German/Czech translator of plays, a theatre critic and cultural manager.