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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 510-511
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Modern Czech Theatre:
Reflector and Conscience of a Nation
Modern Czech Theatre: Reflector and Conscience of a Nation. By Jarka M. Burian. Studies in Theatre History and Culture series. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000; pp. xiii + 265. $37.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.
Despite the fact that in 1967 Kenneth Tynan announced, "Prague has a strong claim to be regarded as the theatre capital of Europe," the Czech stage has received little historical attention in English. Particularly lacking has been a critical history providing a general sense of Czechs' theatrical achievements and tendencies. Jarka Burian's Modern Czech Theatre begins to redress this oversight and takes a place among other recent histories of theatre in former Communist-bloc countries, such as Kazimierz Braun's A History of Polish Theatre, 1939-1989 and Anatoly Smeliansky's The Russian Theatre after Stalin. While all three writers fill a gap in scholarship partially attributable to the Cold War, only Burian does not attempt to shed particular light on theatre during the Cold War. Rather, Burian's work addresses the entire twentieth century. As a first-generation American of Czech heritage who visited Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic on extended research trips, his perspective joins a native's immediacy with a foreigner's more detached overview. Combining traditional textual scholarship, archival research, interviews, and observations of specific productions dating back to the 1930s, Modern Czech Theatre distills the experience and study of the leading English-language authority on Czech theatre into a survey relevant in multiple contexts.
Fitting a land witnessing nine different governmental configurations in the twentieth century, Burian arranges the chapters in accord with sociopolitical conditions. Each begins by establishing shifts in social and political context and then illustrates how Czech theatre artists responded to new conditions, both in terms of political pressures and felt social exigencies. These two forces were often in conflict, since Czechs spent all but thirty-three years of the century effectively ruled by outsiders (Austro-Hungary 1900-18, Germany 1938-45, USSR 1948-89). Consequently, Czech theatre makers developed an unusually keen talent for negotiating political pressures in order to respond to creative and audience needs. Burian establishes this trend in a brief "exposition" of Czech theatre 1780-1900 as a key component of the National Revival movement and the attempt to rescue the Czech language, culture, and nation from the erasures of Habsburg rule. The following two chapters, approaching 1945, are particularly valuable, [End Page 510] since only Burian, among English-language scholars, consistently researches pre-Communist era Czech theatre. The creative work of K. H. Hilar, E. F. Burian, Jirí Voskovec and Jan Werich, and Jirí Frejka establish two themes of Czech practice that Burian illustrates without specifying: Czechs, without a significant realistic or melodramatic tradition, work largely outside these modes and often revise dramatic texts to serve their stage vision.
Burian gives greatest attention to the latter half of the century; his accounts become especially vivid as he begins drawing on his own observation of productions. His description of Czech theatre artists' negotiation and extrication from the demands of socialist realism and regulation, as well as the toll they took on theatre lives and careers, sensitively traces the many streams that would later contribute to the "dynamic 1960s" rivers of activity. Burian devotes a chapter to one channel, Chekhovian and absurdist plays, by Václav Havel and others, giving voice to the tensions and senselessness that Czechs experienced in their bureaucratized society. A chapter dedicated to key productions complements it and follows the development of new studio theatres from obscurity to artistic leadership and international acclaim in the 1960s. As with the earlier generation, Burian describes individual productions with clarity and concision, while insightfully distilling the qualities of theatres and individual artists' work. Following the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, Burian demonstrates that the devastation to Czech playwriting and established theatre careers was slow and gradual, in part to avoid dispelling the illusion of a free society. Arguing that "the period 1975-1985...