Theatre in Prague, Past and Present

Article excerpt

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. …