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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blaník, from Museum of Jára Cimrman
Conquest of the North Pole, from Museum of Jára Cimrman
Africa, from Museum of Jára Cimrman
Names of Important Czech Historical Figures with Cimrman also listed, from Museum of Jára Cimrman
Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia
View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia
View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia