- Czech Theatre Design in the Twentieth Century: Metaphor and Irony Revisited
Between 2000 and 2005, two exhibitions of twentieth-century Czech theatre design were presented in the United States, assembled by co-curators Joe Brandesky, renowned scholar of Czech theatre, and Helena Albertova, director of the Theatre Institute in Prague. The first exhibition, “Metaphor and Irony: Czech Scenic and Costume Design 1920–1999,” provided an overview of twentieth-century theatre design in the Czech Republic, describing modernist trends and the adjustments in theatrical practice that evolved in response to the political forces in the country. The second, “Metaphor and Irony 2: Frantisek Troster and Contemporary Czech Theatre Design,” focused on the connections between the work of Frantisek Troster, arguably the most influential mid-twentieth-century Czech designer, and the work of contemporary designers. This book, and the accompanying CD, document the exhibitions through pictures, brief biographies of designers, and five essays outlining the development of twentieth-century Czech theatre design, which were first commissioned for the exhibition catalogs (here reedited and updated).
In the first essay, “Sources of the Czech Design Legacy,” Brandesky establishes the context for the development of Czech theatre design, tracing the tumultuous political history of the Czech Republic from 1415, when Catholic priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake for advocating church reform, thus marking the beginning of the Bohemian Reformation, through the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which resulted in the election of a dissident playwright, Václav Havel, as president of the new Czechoslovakia, reinforcing theatre as an institution of national identity. Brandesky’s historical overview not only gives a back-story for the development of Czech theatre, it also provides a rationale for the Czech legacy of metaphoric, nonrealistic theatre techniques—the signs, codes, and symbols whose surfaces belied and protected its subtexts from repressive regimes.
Vera Ptackova’s essay, “Trends in Twentieth-Century Czech Theatre Design,” links Czech design with various modern art movements, emphasizing the contributions made to theatre design by architects and painters whose works bear the influences of symbolism, expressionism, and cubism. Painters in 1930s Czech theatre design included Jan Sladek, whose influence was later seen in the work of Josef Svoboda and Frantisek Troster. By the end of the 1960s, many designers shifted the visual emphasis away from elaborate scenic environments, toward the body of the actor, ushering in the “action design” movement. Ptackova highlights the work of action designers such as Jaroslav Malina and Miroslav Melena, and discusses the contributions of other designers, including Marta Roszkopfova, Josef Jelinek, Jana Prekova, and costume designer Simona Rybakova.
Dennis Christilles’s “Czech Scenography in America” provides for the American reader definitions of [End Page 148] the use of metaphor and irony as related to Czech theatre design. He describes Czech theatre design as being “an active agent in society; ironically public and yet secret—a shared secret between audiences and theatre artists. . . . This subtext (the physical spectacle of the theatre design) most often spoke quite eloquently in the secret language of irony and metaphor” (43). The idea that theatre is most effective when it evokes rather than explicates is at the root of Christilles’s essay.
In “Modernism to Imagism,” Delbert Unruh focuses on a sixty-seven-year period of Czech design development, from the early work of Frantisek Troster in 1936 through productions completed in 2003, identifying four artistic movements that shaped the Czech theatre: modernism, scenography, action design, and imagism. Unruh compares Troster’s impact on Czech design with that of Robert Edmond Jones’s influence on American theatre. He describes the design aesthetic of the 1950s as “an abstract, kinetic, and metaphoric style of stage design . . . [that] incorporated the latest technological advances into stage design” (46). In response to action design, which had dominated Czech theatre from 1965 to 1990, a new, eclectic, and imagistic style of design emerged—a postmodern approach, borrowing from any sources appropriate to the designer’s aesthetic. David Marek and Katerina Stefkova are two designers identified with...