A forgotten wartime play about Czechoslovakia’s first president

Tomáš G. Masaryk, photo: Public Domain

A few years ago several boxes of wartime radio recordings from London were found lying forgotten in an attic at the Czech Foreign ministry. Some are in English and some in Czech, many of them are broadcasts produced by the BBC, others by the Czechoslovak government in exile as part of the fight against Nazi Germany on the airwaves. Radio archivists are gradually working through the material and already some fascinating recordings have turned up. They include a completely forgotten radio play by František Langer who was one of the best known playwrights in pre-war Czechoslovakia. The play, recorded in English, tells the life story of the first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. David Vaughan has more.

František Langer,  photo: Public Domain
During World War II, František Langer was one of several significant Czech writers who went into exile in London and worked with the BBC as part of the propaganda battle against Nazi Germany. He had been a successful playwright during the First Republic and as far back as 1925 his play Periphery had been directed by the legendary Max Reinhardt in Vienna. In the 1930s he was closely associated with Karel Čapek and the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague. With the German occupation in 1939 he escaped via Poland to France, heading the medical corps of the exile Czechoslovak Army, and when German troops rolled into France, he went on to Britain. He began to work closely with the Czechoslovak section of the BBC.

His wartime radio play about Tomáš Masaryk is a fascinating curiosity. It was probably intended as a reminder to the English-speaking world that Czechoslovakia – Chamberlain’s “faraway country” – was a democratic and reliable ally whose freedom worth fighting for. Masaryk, who had died in 1937 at the age of 87, provided an ideal symbol of these values. His wife Charlotte had been American, and he was both Anglophile and Anglophone. Langer’s play is not a great piece of innovative writing, but it does give a vivid sense of the mood among the Czechoslovak community in exile during the dark years of the war, and offers an affectionate portrait of the country’s first president.

In this programme, we hear a couple of extracts from the play, which is broadly based on Karel Čapek’s “Conversations with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk“ (1926-1935). It starts with the story of Masaryk’s impoverished childhood in the Moravian countryside, and then tells how he came to study in Vienna. The scenes between the young Masaryk and his future wife are endearing, reminding us how he was an early advocate of feminism, to the extent of taking his wife’s surname, Garrigue, as part of his own. The brief scenes between Tomáš and Charlotte are some of the most memorable in the play.

Another theme that would have been particularly relevant when the play was written at the height of World War II is Masaryk’s struggle against anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish sentiment was widespread among both German and Czech patriots at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In one scene in the play Masaryk, at the time a professor in the new Czech university in Prague, is mobbed by the audience of one of his Prague public lectures in which he condemns superstition and prejudice against Jews. We are reminded how close he came at that stage to leaving Prague for good.

Tomáš G. Masaryk,  photo: Public Domain
The play moves on to Masaryk’s time in exile during World War I, when he found a close ally in the American President Woodrow Wilson, and in one scene the two meet, discussing the post-war future of Germany. The play ends with Masaryk arriving back in Prague in 1918, somewhat embarrassed by the hero’s welcome he is given. His joy at returning as the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia is tempered by his wife’s last illness. Just before the end of the play Karel Čapek asks Masaryk whether he feels that his life reached its zenith on the day that Czechoslovakia was formed. The president replies – and here his words are paraphrased from his published conversations with Čapek:

“Life does not reach its zenith on any particular day or as the result of any particular event. If I had to say what I regard as my zenith, I would express it like this: it is comprised of the fact that not even as the head of the state did I discard one iota of what I believed when I was a student, a university professor, an unpopular critic and a new-style politician. The things I have always believed in have proved true in the course of my life, so that today, wielding the authority I do, I need not make the slightest change in my faith in humane ideas and democracy, in my quest for truth, nor in the supreme moral and religious command of love for mankind. These ideals, which I have avowed, have proved their worth to me in adversity over and over again, and I know that in this unequal struggle for a better future, I have been on the right side, and for this reason you can say that my life has been a happy one.”

And at that, the play ends with the stirring sound of a Czech male voice choir!

Unfortunately I have none of the names of the actors who performed in the radio play, nor do I know exactly who was the intended audience, although it was probably aimed at listeners to Britain’s domestic broadcasts, and possibly also in the Commonwealth and the United States. Although it is unashamedly a piece of propaganda, the play is well written, in the spirit of some of Langer’s education writings for children, and to this day it reminds us how in many ways Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was a modern figure. In his fight for women’s rights and the rights of workers, and against anti-Semitism, he was, for much of his life, going against the current of the time.