Czech Drama 2006–2015

Over the past ten years or so, Czech drama has begun to show a more distinctive character, with young non-established writers, the lifeblood of the theatre, being discovered, while the appearance of new plays has also contributed to the prestige of individual theatres, including those outside of the traditional cultural centres. The stars of literary dissent from the 1970s and 1980s have also contributed new works to add to the variety of original dramatic literature. Josef Topol has fallen silent, while apart from his autobiographical prose the hard-working Pavel Kohout (1928) has translated his skilfully written action-morality play Eine kleine Machtmusik (2007) from the German as A Little Power Music for the National Theatre. Together with the composer Miloš Štědroň, Milan Uhde (1936) has again been writing musicals based on motifs from Czech and world literature, and after several years and many revisions he has returned with his dramatic opus magnum Miracle in the Black House (dated 2004 but first performed on stage in 2007), an analysis of family relationships scarred by two totalitarian regimes. And finally, Václav Havel (1936-2011) lived up to the expectations of his admirers with Departure (2007), which made good use of his political experience.
From the same generation as the above, the creators of the Cimrman myth, Zdeněk Svěrák (1936) and Ladislav Smoljak (1931-2010), contributed to the treasury of Czech humour with the generally accessible, clever, schoolmasterly diversion Czech Heaven (2008). Of those authors who were known and struggled to write honestly during the period of Normalization, Karel Steigerwald (1945) and Arnošt Goldflam (1946) have gained new strength. Steigerwald now focuses entirely on plays, examining the turbulent moments in our modern history (including the worthy plays Horáková, Gottwald – 2006, She Kissed Dubček – 2008, My Distant Homeland – 2012 and The Price of a Slap or Gottwald’s Shoes – 2014). Goldflam reflects affectionately on the peculiarities of the wonderful profession of acting in the opuses Ladies’ Changing Room (2008), The Rickety Boards (2011) and The Comedians (2013). He also created a macabre satire with his fantastical images of the Führer’s life in In the Hitlers’ Kitchen (2007).

Over the past few years, several playwrights have made a name for themselves who – due to their distinctive creative talents and the volume of their output – can be described as driving forces in the theatre of the early 21st century. Foremost among them are Lenka Lagronová, Petr Zelenka, David Drábek, Martin Františák and Petr Koleček. Among other things, Lenka Lagronová (1963) has been able to draw on her personal experience as a nun. A leitmotif in her work is the complicated relationship between a daughter and her mother. An introverted writer who also studied dramaturgy at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) in Prague, she was successful in the Alfréd Radok Foundation’s competition for an original play and quickly found kindred spirits in the form of directors Petr Lébl, Jan Nebeský and Radovan Lipus. Her fragile works appear on the Czech stage from time to time, and even if they are not smash hits with audiences, they certainly enrich the repertoire of our theatres. In the decade under examination, the plays Wing (2009) and From Stardust (2011) particularly stand out. Wing was produced at the Moravian Slovak Theatre in Uherské Hradiště and presents the confession of a successful playwright to her friend and painter, this confession being complicated by the relationship with her mother. From Stardust was staged by the National Theatre drama company, and here the author expands upon her main themes with an allusion to Chekhov. Three sisters live with their mother and, like Chekhov’s three sisters, they are part-resigned and part-expecting something to change which will fundamentally alter their lives. The youngest has Asperger’s syndrome and as a result has an obsessive interest in information relating specifically to the secrets of the universe and the desire to communicate with extraterrestrials. Both of the older sisters previously had a fleeting relationship with a man of the theatre who committed suicide; what’s more, their father also took his own life (Lagronová had worked with Petr Lébl at the Theatre on the Balustrade).

Having written the successful plays Tales of Common Insanity and Theremin, which he created for the Dejvice Theatre, Petr Zelenka (1967) then entered into the consciousness of theatre-goers with his outstanding work Absolution. Dating back to 2007, it was first shown in Poland, as Zelenka had been commissioned to write the play by the Stary teatr in Krakow. Absolution was performed three years later in the Czech Republic, though (significantly?) not in Prague, but in České Budějovice. This dark tragicomedy about guilt, a crime gone unpunished and the monstrous power of the mass media has a middle-aged writer as its main character. He confesses to a friend, his publisher, that while looking after his neighbour’s eleven-year-old son he abused the sleeping boy. He wants to turn himself in to the police and he has also decided to tell his wife. However, the publisher advises him to go on a TV reality show and tell everyone about the offence. But there is to be no absolution. The publisher talks the writer out of going to the police, and his wife is washing her hair as he makes his admission and does not hear the essential information. As for the television confession, the programme is never broadcast due to falling ratings. At the end, the main character, whose confession disappears into the void, becomes a screenwriter for an even more aggressive form of reality show. Zelenka wrote Endangered Species (2011) for the National Theatre in Prague. This play is about a “war” photographer trying to preserve his moral integrity when faced with the temptation to compromise and work in advertising. Dubbing Street (2012) was again written for the Dejvice Theatre. This time Zelenka trained his sights on a different professional circle that is ruthlessly exploited by the rapid pace of our time. With great skill the play vividly portrays the life of a community of voice actors and their downfall through alcohol and drugs, boredom and sexual experimentation. Zelenka’s latest work to date, Jobinterviews (2014), was written for the West Bohemian Theatre and portrays the rise and fall of an extremely ruthless “personnel manager” who will stop at nothing to get her way. In terms of their plot development, linguistic level and ability to surprise with unexpected twists and turns, Zelenka’s plays are among the most proficient in the craft.

David Drábek (1970) has a tendency to poke fun and to provoke, but he is obviously gifted with a rich imagination, a good ear for language and the ability to point to the language itself as a source of humour, to which the author adds his own situational gags. He has been the artistic director of the Klicper Theatre in Hradec Králové since 2009, where he gives the premieres of his own texts and as an artist works freely with classical texts (for example, Drábek takes liberties with Shakespeare’s Richard III and Romeo and Juliet). His musical Lizards from 2006 (music composed by Darek Král) is reminiscent of the journey of the eager schoolchildren in Zeman’s film Journey to the Beginning of Time as well as Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. However, the main theme is the rehearsal of a reptile show for children, which is being organised by a former teacher who had to leave his profession because of accusations of paedophilia. Within this format of a bizarre musical, Drábek gently exposes quite a few taboo subjects. Another of his opuses, Mašín Brothers Square from 2009, might cause some confusion because of its name. However, it is not about the brothers who fought the totalitarian forces on their way to freedom in the West in the 1950s. One of the main characters, a shy terrorist who wants to hijack a tram (all the way to the seaside), decides to change the name of Peace Square in Vinohrady to Mašín Brothers Square in solidarity with that fraternal partnership. The Shot (2011) is a more straightforward play, where the main character reminds us of a once-famous athlete. It is not a superficial satire, but a more complex uncovering of the identity of a sports personality. In spite of that, a famous shot-putter felt personally offended and considered bringing an action against both the author and the theatre. There are two plays where the fates of the main characters are bound together which provide typical examples of Drábek’s unrestrained poeticism: The Chocolate Eaters from 2011 and The Great Mermaid from 2014. These are variations on Chekhov’s eternally inspirational Three Sisters, with all of them living together in The Chocolate Eaters following the death of their parents. They live quite extraordinary lives, and the title of the story refers to the oldest sister. She has become part of an advertising campaign for slimming, but she is first photographed after her successful treatment and then has to be fattened up to look as she did before going on the diet. The Great Mermaid takes place a few years after the Eaters; one of the sisters has married and moved abroad. The fantastical fable begins with the sister’s return to her homeland, and of course a lady with a tail fin appears, which later transpires to be an otherworldly omen for the sisters.

Martin Františák (1974) offers a unique, regional/rural shade to the palette of contemporary Czech drama. His work is linked to his home region of Moravian Wallachia, which the author continually uses as a source of inspiration. He comes from Valašské Meziříčí, which is also a significant cultural point on the Czech map for rock music (when he was younger, Františák was a performer and songwriter in the local club scene). He has worked with the Karolinka amateur dramatics society for a long time, though as a director he has also worked at the Petr Bezruč Theatre in Ostrava, and he was recently appointed artistic director of the National Theatre Drama Company in Brno. His most impressive recent works include The Bride (2007) and Karla (2012). The Bride is based on the real diary of a village woman. In a village in Wallachia there lived a widowed mother and her daughter. The villagers called them the brides, but they were looked upon as harlots and so the behaviour of the villagers towards them was exploitative and cruel. The drama gains momentum when the neighbours begin to rummage around the property of the deceased “brides” and the younger daughter arrives in the village. The play Karla appeared in the National Theatre’s repertoire and it also reflects upon similarly dark, interconnected fates. Some women are meeting at a bar beside a petrol station after their shift at a glassworks has ended (their husbands have been earning money away from home for a long time, which naturally has an influence on the behaviour of their partners). There is one who doesn’t belong there, who “earns” money in the lorries parked by the bar. She talks all the time about her daughter, the titular Karla, who is treated like the property of her father, a ruthless businessman who is planning to close down the glassworks, the only source of livelihood in the village. Františák’s plays are written in a tough yet imaginative language, they have an elegiac atmosphere and their communicative value also comes from the concerns of people on the borders, both psychologically and geographically.

Petr Kolečko (1984) is an exceptionally prolific writer who might be termed an enfant terrible. Along with his plays with their distinctive, provocative poetics, he also produces texts for commercial media (for example, he writes screenplays for television serials). In 2008 students from DAMU performed Kolečko’s play Love, You Idiot, where romantic conflicts are reflected in rock-band rivalry. Gods Don’t Play Hockey (2009) displayed the author’s penchant for combining bizarre characters and settings (a socially destitute industrial zone, stupid mass-media employees, “engaged” songwriters and a Roma visionary) as well as an obsession with being superficially ironical about the tabloid press (in the play, the singer Bartošová was “stung” while she was still alive). The Soprano from Slapy Dam (2010) connected the story of a trip to the country, a discussion on dairy nutrition and meeting a retired opera singer. Kolečko proceeds by combining what at first seem to be disparate themes; he has an ability to spark a situation and an intuition for the impact of the proverbial “meeting of the umbrella with a sewing machine on an operating table”. One of Kolečko’s plays which has been successfully staged is The Salome Case (2010), which the author worked on with director Daniel Špinar. The famous Old Testament story is combined with the storytelling of the famous Oscar Wilde and placed within a contemporary setting. Herod is an oil tycoon and John the Baptist is a moralizing junkie, who lives in the garden of the magnate’s enormous mansion. Salome celebrates her 16th birthday and as a gift asks for the head of the prophet… One of his noteworthy fantasy works is the play The Autistics’ Club (2011), where the characters are afflicted by Asperger’s syndrome (as though the theme “was hanging in the air”, see Lenka Lagronová’s From Stardust). The bizarreness of this affliction creates crazy situations in Kolečko’s play and at the same time allows him to dream up a type of storytelling that is not limited by normal motivations. Along with director Tomáš Svoboda, Kolečko also wrote the audience hits Jaromír Jágr, Kladeňák and the Pornostars (both plays from 2009). Kolečko’s inventiveness is also evident in the plays Buns and the Goddess (2012) and Winnetou (2013). Buns and the Goddess was originally written for a graduate performance at DAMU. The main characters are Nicole, who wants to be a singer, Marie, an uncompromising trainer at a fitness centre, Christina, who promotes organic food, and the beautiful Eva, who is studying psychology (both her teacher and her fellow student fall in love with her). The actor Pavel begins a “romantic relationship” with Nicole, although his biological cousin Christina is attracted to him. At the fitness centre, Marie kills both the psychologists who had wanted to improve their physiques in order to attract Eva. In jail she meets Christina, who was working as a cook and accidentally poisoned the guests at a snobbish party. Both convicted women discover a mutual erotic attraction. Risky storytelling with striking dialogue was at the heart of this refreshing student production. In Winnetou, a rather indecisive conservationist has matured as a citizen through the constant reading of this popular book. He identifies with the righteous Old Shatterhand, and when he comes up against a briber, he sees him through the prism of May’s villain Santer. The briber wants the main character to add his signature to a document which would destroy an important archaeological monument to make way for a planned motorway. However, the conservationist does not give in – how could he, when his conscience is supported by his red brother Winnetou?

Today Lagronová, Zelenka, Drábek, Františák and Kolečko are among the established authors whose new works are eagerly anticipated by theatre-goers across the whole republic. It is much more difficult, however, for other playwrights who are just starting to “collect points” in the new century.

One of the characteristics of post-1989 Czech theatre is the large number of plays developed for a specific company on the computers of their resident dramaturgs; sometimes these are adaptations of prose texts, but there are many original works too. Some of these plays even stand on their own as literary works (they create a suitable impression in printed form), even though they were only developed in connection with the company for which they were written. In this way we can say that the director David Jařab (1971) is a serious dramatist, whose texts were written for the Prague Chamber Theatre (on the Comedy Theatre stage) in the last years of its cult existence. A critical reflection on the topography of Prague in a wider historical perspective can be seen in the trilogy Vodičkova-Lazarská (2005), Žižkov (2006) and Charles Square(2008). The political horror of the kidnapping of a member of parliament by his opponents in Captives (2009) was a refreshingly engaged (in the best sense of the word) local production. Jařab wrote a rather less distinctive play Voices (2009) for the Dejvice Theatre, where he also directed it. The Ostrava-born Tomáš Vůjtek (1967) from the Arena Chamber Scene wrote a political thriller for the theatre where he works called With and Without Hope (2009), inspired by the life of Josefa Slánská, the wife of the First Secretary of the Communist Party, who was sentenced to death in the political trials of the 1950s, and he also grappled with questions of guilt and “professionalism” in the Eichmann story Hearing (2015). Karel František Tománek (1962), dramaturg at the Dejvice Theatre, continued to write plays (he had already enriched the repertoire of “his” theatre with several works) about well-known personalities (Wanted Welzl – 2011, Kafka 24 – 2014) as well as the quirky tragicomedy Kakadu (2015) about an autistic girl (together with director Jiří Havelka). And the Dejvice Theatre director Miroslav Krobot (1951) wrote a dreamlike meditative play called Brian (2012) for his company, in which he intertwines the tragic life of Rolling Stones member Brian Jones with a drug trip involving animals from Winnie the Pooh. The young dramaturg at Brno’s HaDivadlo Anna Saavedra (1984) surprised many with her comedy Czech Currency – 2011 (arguments between the people on our banknotes about various historical and contemporary themes) as well as a pioneering variation on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Smokers and Saviours (2012). Another Brno writer, Simona Petrů (1984), works mainly with the director Anna Petrželková on plays about real-life celebrities as well as those who are insufficiently adored by the media. One successful example of this is the opus The Quiet Tarzan (2012), about the life and work of the Kyjov photographer Tichý, who wasn’t discovered until he was older. Jiří Janků (1967) and Petr Svojtka (1972) looked at the notorious case of the “privatizer” in their political satire Viktor K.(2011).

The dramaturg Dora Viceníková deserves much of the credit for the success of the creative team at the Theatre on the Balustrade. She has written many scripts, though they cannot be described exactly as dramatic literature, as these scripts tend to have fewer verbal elements and in some cases no sound at all. Miloš Orson Štědroň (1973) is also part of the Theatre on the Balustrade, writing libretti and music in a distinctive cabaret style and examining the lives of well-known public figures (Gočár Theatre 2013, Velvet Havel 2014).

The best productions from the Czech puppet scene have also shown a high standard of theatrical texts (Dragon Hradec Králové, Naive Theatre Liberec, Alfa Plzeň). The prematurely deceased, very prolific author of texts of this type was Iva Peřinová (1944-2008) who bade farewell to her admirers with the play Swan Lake – 2008 (an ironic version of a fairy tale based on the famous ballet). Her son Vít Peřina (1978) has continued this energetic mockery in James Blond – 2009 (based on the filming of a Bond movie) and Puppets are Looking for Talent – 2013 (a variation on the TV competition with real wooden wannabes). The creative duo of Tomáš Jarkovský (1986) – Jakub Vašíček (1979) use puppets as well as actors to make fun of “school themes”: (2010), Hamleteen (2012).

Perhaps one surprising phenomenon in recent years has been the growth of political cabaret, perhaps in reaction to the fact that after November 1989 Czech drama tended to steer clear of current events. In this respect, the writer/director Tomáš Svoboda (1972) has been particularly active. He also works with Karel Steigerwald, and for several years has been part of a creative duo with Petr Kolečko. From the workshops of these “cabarettists” have come works such as Blonde Beast (2011), inspired by the phone-tapping scandal surrounding a politician from a now-forgotten political party, and then shortly after the first presidential election Miloš Ubu or…Almost King (2013). It is obvious that many of these humorous satires have very short shelf lives. Another trend in the cabaret genre is represented by the Cabaret Calembour company, whose owner Milan Šotek (1985) tends towards a Cimrman style of retro absurdity in his plays and also continues the favourite tradition of playing on words (synonyms, homonyms, double meanings). The company’s most popular work Fin Whale (2012) is set in 1890 and the comic situation centres on the installation of a whale skeleton in the National Museum.

Any other attempts at thematizing contemporary Czech drama would be sporadic, as in recent years other new drama texts have been produced either by more experienced solitary writers or authors who are just starting out. Jiří Pokorný (1967) came to prominence through his homeless féerie My Homeland (2011) and the brutal comedy Bomber Jacket. There was a surprising, unique excursion into the world of drama by Jáchym Topol (1962) with his post-apocalyptic thriller Journey to Bugulma (Czech premiere 2007). The experienced educationalist and dramaturg Jan Vedral (1955) presented the theme of the guilt of those artists who had collaborated with the totalitarian regime in the political farce We got him! (The Old Directors)- 2008. The angry, left-wing Roman Sikora (1970) found success principally with the satire The Confession of a Masochist (2011), where this well-known sexual deviance is transferred into the social arena (for example, the main character “utilizes” the pleasure of humiliation from his continued low salary, and it does not even occur to him to ask for a raise), and the play has even been shown on the international stage. Burial (2012) is a blatant piece of political persiflage (about the fictional burial of President Klaus, who was still in office when the play was written). The above-mentioned plays have all been shown on the professional stage. The plays by one of the greatest talents in contemporary Czech drama, Miloslav Vojtíšek, artistic name S.d.Ch. (1970) can only be seen in amateur or more or less private productions. His play Still Life in the Slovan (2012) won 1st prize in the Alfréd Radok competition for an original stage play. The writing of this original author can be characterized as a complicated intellectual féerie, with narrative freedom, linguistic inventiveness as well as strong humour reminiscent of Ladislav Klíma.

Jan Kerbr