Modern Czech Theatre
Reflector and Conscience of a Nation
Publication Year: 2000
The story of Czech theatre in the twentieth century involves generations of mesmerizing players and memorable productions. Beyond these artistic considerations, however, lies a larger story: a theatre that has resonated with the intense concerns of its audiences acquires a significance and a force beyond anything created by striking individual talents or random stage hits. Amid the variety of performances during the past hundred years, that basic and provocative reality has been repeatedly demonstrated, as Jarka Burian reveals in his extraordinary history of the dramatic world of Czech theatre.
Following a brief historical background, Burian provides a chronological series of perspectives and observations on the evolving nature of Czech theatre productions during this century in relation to their similarly evolving social and political contexts. Once Czechoslovak independence was achieved in 1918, a repeated interplay of theatre with political realities became the norm, sometimes stifling the creative urge but often producing even greater artistry. When playwright Václav Havel became president in 1990, this was but the latest and most celebrated example of the vital engagement between stage and society that has been a repeated condition of Czech theatre for the past two hundred years. In Jarka Burian's skillful hands, Modern Czech Theatre becomes an extremely important touchstone for understanding the history of modern theatre within western culture.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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c o n t e n t s
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p r e fa c e
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Although the achievements of Czech theatre and its leading individuals have been noted abroad throughout the century in reviews, articles, and even textbooks and encyclopedias, such foreign attention for the most part has been sporadic and fragmentary. A few books in English have been devoted to the work of individuals like Karel Capek or Josef Svoboda or to Czech playwrights of the mid-century, but a book-length study of Czech theatre has yet to appear in...
a c k n o w l e d g m e n t s
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i n t r o d u c t i o n
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The evolution of twentieth-century Czech theatre is a historical achievement warranting critical observation and documentation primarily because of the artistic accomplishments of that theatre. Equally important, however, Czech theatre also provides distinctive examples of the complex relations between art and society, stage and audience, which are a vital but often submerged part of an understanding of the special reality of living theatre anywhere. ...
1. 1780–1900: Some Exposition before the Main Action
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A century of heightening religious tensions and subordination to Habsburg rulers culminated with the defeat of rebellious Czech Protestant forces by Habsburg Catholic forces at the Battle of White Mountain, near Prague, in 1620. It was the first significant military encounter of the Thirty Years War. Largely because of the subsequent decimation of the Czech Protestant nobility and the persecution and emigration of other educated Czech Protestants, the Czech...
2. 1900–1938: From the Turn of the Century to Munich
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Despite interesting and varied theatrical activity by others, the work of two men dominated Czech theatre in the early years of the twentieth century. Then, soon after the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic at the end of World War I, other, more youthful, talents emerged, and by the mid-1930s Czech stages were at the forefront of innovative, imaginative European theatre. But this promising evolution was aborted by the disastrous international events at Munich in the early...
3. Theatre during the Occupation and War Years
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The period from the full occupation of Czechoslovakia by German forces on March 15, 1939, until the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet and American forces on May 9, 1945, is often ignored or given scant attention in commentaries on Czech theatre. Yet a number of events and activities relating to the main flow of theatre during those years are worth noting. All plays by Jewish authors and others unacceptable to the Nazi regime, such...
4. The Postwar Years and the 1950s
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By the middle of the 1960s theatre in Czechoslovakia had drawn the attention of the rest of Europe and was beginning to be mentioned in American theatre publications. Prewar Czech theatre of the 1920s and 1930s had also achieved international recognition and even acclaim for its imagination, social relevance, and expressive theatricality. But between the prewar achievements and those of the 1960s lay the shadow not only of the war, but of the 1950s, or, to be more...
5. The Dynamic 1960s, Part One: Significant New Plays
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The 1960s represent the high-water crest of Czech theatre of the twentieth century. The many repressed talents of the postwar generation began to assert themselves as the contra-artistic ideology and practices of the Communist regime entered a slackened phase after the death of Stalin and other hardliners and, later, the official denunciation of the worst excesses of the Stalinist era. As already indicated, notable creative work began to appear in the late 1950s. It spread and grew...
6. The Dynamic 1960s, Part Two: Key Productions in New Studio Theatres and Elsewhere
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The surge in provocative new plays in the late 1950s and the 1960s went hand in hand with new vitality and imaginativeness in their staging, as already suggested in the previous chapter. All Czech theatres, from the National Theatre to smaller regional theatres in the provinces, began to do much more interesting production work in the 1960s, but the most fresh and innovative work could be seen in a number of newly established small theatres in Prague. I saw much of the...
7. August 1968: The Trauma and Its Aftermath
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Although reference to some plays and productions after August 1968 has been made in the previous chapters, the full effect of that event on Czech theatre in the following months warrants a more detailed account. The remarkable evolution of Czech theatre in the 1960s—as an art form sensitively responding to its time—suffered a crippling blow. Although the sheer energy and talents of that theatre carried it on for a surprisingly long time after August 1968, it eventually...
8. A Gradual Thawing in the 1980s
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From today’s vantage point (1999), the period 1975–1985 was probably the ebb tide of Czech theatre’s significance as an artistic, relevant force. For undistinguished achievement, it was a decade rivaled only by the hard-line years of 1948–1958. In fact, the decade after 1975 was truly bleaker in lacking the exceptional, outstanding productions that occasionally appeared in the years after 1948 as well as the major personalities that created them: Alfred Radok, Jirí Frejka, ...
9. 1989: Annus Mirabilis for the Czechs and Their Theatre
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In the space of a few short weeks toward the end of 1989, more than forty years of imposed ideology, inept social engineering, economic mismanagement, political repression, and cultural distortion were swept away as Czechoslovakia experienced its Velvet Revolution. What no one seriously anticipated but only hoped for in a distant future happened with almost startling ease. By the late 1980s the Communist system in Czechoslovakia was more vulnerable than anyone...
10. Liberation and Its Pains: The First Year after the November Revolution
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My first chance to visit Prague after the Velvet Revolution occurred during a one-semester sabbatical in the fall of 1990, just about a year after the event. For three months, I saw a variety of performances and interviewed many theatre people, while something of the revolution’s momentum was still perceivable. The following is an account of my impressions then.1 One of the many observations by Czech theatre people describing the essence...
11. Czech Theatre of the 1990s
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The constituent elements of what had been Czechoslovakia—the Czech lands (comprising Bohemia and Moravia) and Slovakia— achieved a peaceful divorce in January 1993, after a union lasting virtually seventy-five years. Very few signs of the separation were evident when I visited Prague again several times in the 1990s, including the entire 1993–1994 theatre season. On the other hand, Prague was increasingly filled with tourists, and evidence of Western...
n o t e s
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Studies in Theatre History and Culture
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Page Count: 284
Publication Year: 2000
Series Title: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture