By Tracy A. Burns.
English speakers in Prague can get acquainted with the highly praised plays about the fictional character Jára Cimrman, who was chosen the Greatest Czech in a survey in 2005 and who has greatly influenced Czech culture. The Cimrman English Theatre performs three of the Cimrman works in English – The Stand-In (Záskok), Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního pólu) and their latest, Pub in the Glade
(Hospoda na mýtince), which premiered in the fall of 2016.
Created by actors Zděnek Svěrák and Ladislav Smojlak, Cimrman was born to an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a man of all trades –an inventor, a philosopher, a world traveler, a self-taught gynecologist, a teacher and a travelling dentist, for example. He was a prolific writer of plays, operas, fairy tales and novels as well as poetry. Luck was never on his side, though. Cimrman was an unlucky outsider whose accomplishments were not appreciated until 1966, when his posthumous papers and featureless bust were discovered in a cottage in the Jizera valley, and the Czech Jára Cimrman Theatre ensemble was established. To say the 15 Czech plays are popular with Czechs is quite an understatement. Performances in Czech sell out within minutes.
The first part of these plays always takes the form of a lecture by Cimrmanologists, experts on Cimrman’s works. In the Pub in the Glade, one Cimrmanologist explains that Cimrman sent his seven-hour opera, Proso, to a contest judged in Vienna by well-known personalities, such as Johann Strauss. The judges had assumed that they would choose each other’s works as winners and split the prizes. Then they received Cimrman’s package. They realized that Cimrman, who was always trying to cheat the post office, did not send his text registered mail, so they stole sections from it for their own compositions. The Hungarian judge, Béla Kálmán, the father of composer Imre Kálmán, occasionally would blurt out the words “power station.” No one knows the reason why.
The second half of the production is the opera itself. The setting is a pub in a deep forest, where the innkeeper’s only guest is the dummy Ludvík. The innkeeper accidentally shoots down an airship, and, now grounded, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, happens upon the pub. Then an escaped convict finds that his underground tunnel leads straight to the pub. In song, all three praise women’s beauty and love. The innkeeper lies that his granddaughter Růženka lives with him but is currently on an errand, and the two compete for her love.
Those who are familiar with Cimrman’s works in Czech will no doubt notice that the English translation is not totally faithful to the Czech text. The English version incorporates several scenes from the play Cimrman in the Paradise of Music (Cimrman v říši hudby), which features another opera written by Cimrman. Because scenes from Cimrman in the Paradise of Music are also opera-related, they fit into the structure of the Pub in the Glade, but if Cimrman in the Paradise of Music is ever translated into English, – as it should be – some of the same scenes will be in both plays.
In the first half, one funny scene involves a Cimrmanologist introducing a student of the newly opened evening school of Cimrmanology. The student bumbles hilariously through his presentation. In the second part, one of many moments that is sure to draw laughs involves the prisoner Kulhánek, who was incarcerated for almost 20 years, mistaking a sausage for a cigar, trying to light it and spitting out the end. The
songs, which are reminiscent of those performed in music halls from the 1890s to 1930s, are brilliantly translated into English. The acting in this zany comedy is top-notch. When the actors dance, it is hysterical.
The two other plays performed by the English Cimrman Theatre include The Stand-In, which revolves around a humorous, pompous actor who cannot remember his lines. Family secrets change the meaning of the will that the mother rewrites on her deathbed.
In the second play staged by this group, The Conquest of the North Pole, members of the Braník Cold-Water Swimmers Association set out for the North Pole. They must overcome hilarious trials and tribulations to reach their goal. They even consider eating a member of their group when they think they are out of food.
The plays are performed at the Žižkov Theatre of Jára Cimrman in Prague’s third district. See www.zdjc.cz to reserve seats.
Check out Tracy’s blog Tracy Travels, which is all about her travels throughout the Czech Republic and beyond!