The Jára Cimrman Theatre Diary

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Bust of Jára Cimrman, from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

My way of dealing with stress and keeping my blood pressure textbook perfect is going to hilarious plays performed by the Jára Cimrman Theatre in the gritty, down-to-earth Žižkov district of Prague. For me it is a sort of home, a cozy theatre with a little more than 200 seats on a steep, cobblestoned street. I go as often as I can get tickets, usually between once and four times a month.

The plays have helped me cope with life’s trials and tribulations. On November 9, 2016 I was in shock and despair because Donald Trump had just been elected president of the USA. I just happened to have a ticket to the Czech version of The Conquest of the North Pole (It is performed by different actors in English, too.)

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The Conquest of the North Pole, Dobytí severního Polu

One of my two favorite plays, The Conquest of the North Pole  focuses on an expedition to the North Pole, led by Czech Karel Němec (then played by the late Bořivoj Penc), whose common Czech surname translates as “a German.”  The play takes place during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Germanization was enforced throughout the lands. At one point, when they think they are out of food, the Czechs even consider eating one of their fellow travelers. Although the Czechs are the first to conquer the North Pole –one day before the Americans -, the feat goes unrecorded because the Czechs do not want hated Austria-Hungary to get credit for their accomplishment.

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Blaník

That performance saved me from falling into a deep depression. I watched the Czech expedition overcome a bout of pessimism and other obstacles to go on to conquer the North Pole, and I thought that I, too, could get through four years of Trump’s presidency. I thought I could keep my sanity as I watched the events in the USA unfold from Europe. That play provided me with an outlook that wouldn’t allow me capitulate to negative thoughts. At the theatre that evening, instead of crying over Trump’s victory, I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

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Pub in the Glade, Hospoda Na mýtince

Significant contributors to Czech culture and Czech national identity, the 15 plays performed by the all-male Jára Cimrman (pronounced Tsimmerman) Theatre ensemble feature an unlucky fictional Czech character living in the Austrian part of the oppressive Habsburg-controlled Austro-Hungarian Empire in which German was the official language. (Several plays do not take place during the monarchy’s rule. For instance, The Act is set in the 1960s.) The ensemble, which even includes two octogenarians, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October of 2016, and all performances from its inception have been sold out. Many spectators know the plays by heart. Most actors have been with the theatre for decades. In Murder in the Parlor Car, two father-and-son acting teams (one for each cast) performed until one of the fathers (the talented Václav Kotek) died in 2019.

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The Plum Tree, Svěstka

Humor is how the Czechs have come to terms with a past punctuated by oppression. Czechs found themselves living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II and later in Communist Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years, before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought democracy to the nation. The plays were written by co-founders of the theatre Zdeněk Svěrák (who is perhaps best known for his 1996 Oscar-winning performance in Kolya) and the late Ladislav Smoljak, who made a name for himself as an actor and director in both theatre and film.

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The Long, Short and Sharp-sighted, Dlouhý, krátký a bystrozraký

The productions are divided into two parts. The first hour is a seminar in which the actors, as themselves, discuss various aspects of Cimrman’s fictional life and work. After the intermission, the ensemble performs the play itself.

Chosen the greatest Czech in a survey conducted during 2005 (though disqualified because he isn’t a real person), Jára Cimrman was a Czech nationalist who was adamantly anti-Habsburg. An inventor who came too late to the patent office with his creations, Cimrman is presented as an unlucky outsider whose feats go unrecognized until 1966, when Svěrák and his cousin discover Cimrman’s posthumous papers and bust at Liptákov 12, a cottage in a hamlet nestled in the Jizera valley.

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The Stand-In, Záskok

Born to an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor, Cimrman was much more than an inventor. He was a prolific writer of plays, operas, fairy tales and novels as well as poetry and amassed the largest collection of stories in the world. He was also an avid traveler who visited six continents, including the North Pole. The man whose parents forced him to dress as a girl for the first 15 years of his life was also a philosopher, teacher, filmmaker, psychologist, builder, self-taught gynecologist and physicist, among numerous other professions. He did time, incarcerated for two months because he told a joke about the emperor. While in prison, Cimrman formed a choir and orchestra with the inmates and organized contests in Morse Code. At another time, he worked as a travelling dentist, lugging with him a foot-operated drill on wheels and a dentist’s trolley.

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Czech Heaven, České nebe

Perhaps what makes this theatre unique is the sense of mystery that pervades Cimrman’s identity. The only photos of Cimrman are group shots taken too far away to make out his features. Cimrman’s bust is so damaged that it is only possible to decipher two eye sockets, two ear holes and two chins. No one even knows when exactly he was born or when he died.

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Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, Cimrman v říši hudby

In Cimrman in the Kingdom of Music, another of my favorites, the actors discuss how Cimrman entered a contest for best operetta with his seven-hour, 96-scene creation but, because he did not send it registered mail, famous composers stole his ideas. In that same play, the group performs Cimrman’s operetta The Success of a Czech Engineer in India. The plot revolves around a Czech engineer (Miloň Čepelka or Petr Reidinger) tinkering with a broken machine that is supposed to make sugar. He fixes the apparatus so that it makes Czech beer. At the end, a British Colonel (Svěrák) sings that he wishes he had been born Czech. A small orchestra plays superbly during this play, and Čepelka’s singing is a true delight.

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The Act by Cimrman English Theatre

For the last five seasons, the character of Jára Cimrman has been introduced to English speakers. The popular Cimrman English Theatre performs four of the plays – The Stand-In, The Conquest of the North Pole, Pub in a Glade and The Act – in English at the same theatre. These plays are perfect for theatregoers who don’t speak Czech but want to experience Czech culture and understand Czech history. The translations are top-notch. The acting and singing by the professional ensemble are amazing.

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The Act, Akt, Czech production

In a world that often seems overwhelming, I keep my sanity and balance in life by going to the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre on 5 Štítného Street, where I can always count on humor to give me a fresh perspective on my problems and the world’s troubles.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.

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Blaník, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Conquest of the North Pole, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Africa, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Names of Important Czech Historical Figures with Cimrman also listed, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

 

Theatre Review Diary: The Act

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Ben Bradshaw as Mrs. Žila dances in The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

I have decided to add theatre reviews to my blog. Most, if not all, of the plays reviewed will be understandable to an English-speaking audience or will somehow enhance an English speaker’s knowledge of the Czech Republic’s culture and history.

Humor is in full force in the Cimrman English Theatre’s production of The Act, a witty and hilarious comedy brought to life in English translation by British, American and Czech thespians. I thought the group performed well when I saw the second performance they ever staged, The Stand-In, three years ago, but now the professional ensemble performs even the minutest gesture seemingly with ease.

The play is expertly written in Czech by the co-founders of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiří Šebánek as well as Ladislav Smoljak. The Act was the first play in the Czech group’s repertoire, premiering in 1967. It introduced Czechs to the unlucky fictional master of all trades, Jára Cimrman, who was chosen as the Greatest Czech in a survey during 2005. Cimrman was not only a prolific writer of plays and works of other genres but also an inventor, self-taught gynecologist, dentist, world traveler, composer, criminologist and philosopher, among other professions. Many of the plays take place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s reign over the Czech lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though The Act is set in the 1960s.

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The dancing and singing are two excellent reasons to see The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

Cimrman was definitely unlucky: Alexander Graham Bell made it to the patent office just before he did, so Cimrman did not get credit for inventing the telephone. Famous composters stole pieces of Cimrman’s seven-hour operetta Proso and incorporated them into their own works. Cimrman’s writings were discovered during 1966, when a dynamite explosion of a chest in the village of Liptákov scattered his papers, and his creative endeavors were appreciated for the first time.

All the Cimrman plays are divided into two parts. In the first act, the actors play themselves, posing as experts of Jára Cimrman’s life, love of animals, philosophy and inventions, for instance. The actors perform a hilarious scene from Cimrman’s horror play, The Electric Stool, an invention that has a heating spiral and utilizes 360 volts. They perform the skit in witty verse, which is excellently translated into English. An inventor tries to trick his tailor into sitting on the stool so he can find out if it works. His plan backfires, though, and the inventor winds up sitting on the stool and dying.

In the first act spectators also learn of Cimrman’s failed attempt to teach his pet hen Zora to tie his shoes and about Zora’s tragic death. Cimrman the philosopher is the theme of one lecture. His philosophy consists of the idea that the external world exists, but he does not. The actors also explain why spectators will see a big hole shaped like a person in the set’s back wall during the second act. That’s how Cimrman escaped the one performance of this play in his lifetime as it was greeted with a very negative response.

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Ben Bradshaw’s character shines brilliantly in the play. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

In the first act, actors are seated in simple chairs on the stage while one of them speaks at a podium. While the man at the podium tackles a topic concerning Jára Cimrman, the actors in the background also are often interacting with each other silently using gestures and facial expressions as they react to what is being said. Thus, this sort of action in the background complements the action in the foreground, making the lecture part of the play more dynamic and lively. Spectators see how well the actors interact with each other. This is true of the plays in Czech as well.

The second part is the play itself. The plot of The Act revolves around three men who do not think they know each other and seemingly have nothing in common visiting the home of Mr. and Mrs. Žila, who have invited them in order to explain why Mr. Žila (Peter Hosking) never was able to finish his painting of a nude. Their lives are changed forever as they learn secrets about their pasts. Mrs. Žilová (Ben Bradshaw) steals the show with his gestures, facial expressions, dancing and ability to belt back beer. In fact, all the dances are well-choreographed. It is evident that the actors have painstakingly rehearsed the dances. Not only the dancing but also the singing is expertly performed.

Bedřich (Adam Stewart) is very convincing as a man who has done three stints in jail, someone who at first only stays to scarf down the chicken that Mrs. Žilová has prepared for her guests. His thick British accent seems to suit his character.

The other actors are just as convincing – there’s Pepa, the sexologist (Brian Caspe) whom Mrs. Žilová mistakes for a barber because he dons a white doctor’s coat; Mr. Žila, who hit his wife on the forehead with a mallet so she would lose her memory; and Láďa (Curt Matthew), who defecates in his pants whenever he gets very emotional. It is clear that director Michael Pitthan has studied the Czech version down to the minutest detail.

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Mr. Žila and Mrs. Žila with the nude painting. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

During the past several years, the ensemble has gelled into a group that works masterfully together. Teamwork is the key to the success of this production, as the actors seem very comfortable performing with each other. The translation, especially the dialogue in verse and the lyrics of the songs, is top-notch, bringing out the humor of the Czech original.

The Cimrman English Theatre also performs in English three other plays from the Czech Jára Cimrman Theatre’s repertoire – The Stand-in (Záskok), Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního Pólu) and Pub in the Glade (Hospoda na mýtince). My review of the latter play is on www.czechoutyourancestors.com. The English-speaking ensemble has received accolades for their performances in America as well.

The Act

Cimrman English Theatre

Žižkovské Divadlo Járy Cimrmana

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Prague 3 – Žižkov

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Bedřich, played by Adam Stewart, has everyone’s attention. Photo from @CimrmanTheatre.

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The dancing is brilliant. Photo from prague.tv.

 

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.