A Stage for Revolution 1

Theater on the Balustrade, photo: Aktron, CC BY-SA 3.0

The date is Tuesday 19 October 1965 and we are in Prague. A 21-year-old British girl has just got off a train at the Art Nouveau building of Prague’s Main Station. Over half a century later, Barbara Day once again lives in the city, which has come to play a central role in her life.

Barbara Day,  photo: archive of The English College in Prague
Barbara Day is a British writer, translator and lecturer. She has written many articles and academic papers on Czech theatre, and her insights into the role of theatre in the years that preceded the fall of the communism in 1989 give a unique perspective on the period. She also played an important role in the underground seminars in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Her book, Trial by Theatre, is shortly to be published by the Karolinum Press.

Right now I am at Barbara’s flat in Prague which has parts of its windows facing the beautiful Stromovka park in Prague 7. Nearly every bit of space on the living room walls is filled with books.

Barbara, you came to Prague at the height of communist rule, you didn’t know anything of the language and people at the time here did not know that much English. Do how did you communicate?

“How did I communicate? Well those people who didn’t know English were very keen to speak it and I found quiet a lot of people who were friendly and helpful and wanted to introduce me to people in theatre especially. My first experience at DAMU [Prague’s drama school], where I was registered to study was not so good, because they said we don’t know what to do with you. You’re only here for a year we don’t have a program for you, so just go and watch some rehearsals. And they sent me out to Libeň which was a long, long, cold ride on the tram, every morning 10 o’clock for the start of rehearsal and the only person spoke English there was the prompter.”

What other theatres did you go to?

“One of the first ones that I went to for a performance was the Theatre on the Balustrade. They were doing plays like King Ubu and plays by Beckett and Ionesco, and new plays by Václav Havel. I really started at the very top right at the beginning.”

And which director had the most influence on you at the Theatre on the Balustrade?

“That was Jan Grossman. I was told by one of my friends that I could have a meeting with Mr. Grossman and he is a very important man. You must be quite clear about what you want and not take up too much of his time. So I was quite nervous when I went to meet him. And I just discovered a wonderful man, who was very, very willing. His English was beautiful. At this time I had just finished my studies and he talked to me as though I was an important colleague and someone from the English theatre. I felt so at home with him.”

Can you tell me more of your experience while you were observing the production of Jan Grossman at the Theater on the Balustrade?

Theater on the Balustrade,  photo: Aktron,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I was very lucky, because I arrived in 1965, and in 1966 Grossman started to rehearse Kafka. The Trial. I didn’t know Kafka, at least I didn’t know The Trial, so I had to get hold of an English copy of the novel. I saw how he took the scenes and treated them rather like anecdotes on stage. The atmosphere, the environment of Prague could be felt strongly in the production, because he used a set that was built with scaffolding, and people who remember Prague in the 60s, 70s and 80s will recall that it was just covered with scaffolding. The whole place was falling down. There had been no repairs to the buildings, so everywhere you went you came across scaffolding, so it was the perfect set for the little stage of the Theatre on the Balustrade.”

What is Kafka’s Trial about?

“It focuses on a man called Josef. K. And K wakes up one morning and finds he’s been arrested. But he doesn’t know what it’s for. So he spends the rest of the time trying to make sense of it, trying to find out what he has been arrested for.

“But what Grossman really identified in the Trial was that Josef K always accepts his guilt. He doesn’t shake them off and say: No, go away! I’m not guilty! In a way he becomes a part of his own guilt, it was something that Grossman was trying to say about the way ordinary people can behave. You could see that what was happening to K could happen to anyone. You could just get sucked into this. world of judges and trials, and blame and guilt.”

So the production was referring to the situation at the time in 1960s Czechoslovakia?

“Yes, he was referring to his experience of communism, or of anyone under any kind of totalitarianism. And how people accepted the rules of society.”

At that time the country was isolated. Was there any connection between the Czech theatre community and the outside world?

“They were beginning to get connected. People were coming from abroad to Prague and seeing this very, very interesting theatre and they were being invited to festivals.”

And was there any connection between the theatre in Czechoslovakia and Britain in that time?

Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968,  photo: František Dostál,  Wikimedia Commmons,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“Yes, at about the same time as I was there, there were people like Martin Esslin, who was with the BBC and Kenneth Tynan who was a journalist, and they began writing about theatre, in fact the first plays by Václav Havel to be performed in Britain were performed on the radio on the BBC. On the subject of festivals, there was a festival that had been started in the middle of the 1960s by a man called Peter Daubeny and he was particularly interested in the Czech theatre. He invited the Theatre on the Balustrade, Theatre Beyond the Gate twice and Činoherní Club.”

And were you involved?

“Well, again it was just sheer luck. 1967 and 1968 were the years that the Theatre on the Balustrade came to Britain. I was an interpreter, though my Czech was still not so good. But what it really meant was that I could be backstage and watch them.”

Were the British audience interested in Czechoslovak theatre because of its artist qualities or was it because of some political interest?

"I think that what the British audiences were originally interested in was purely the artistic quality. The fascination of this kind of theatre was in that it was so different from the more traditional and conventional theatre they were used to. Then they began connecting it to the politics, especially as the Prague Spring came along. Because as the politics was more in the international news and became more tense, the British people became more involved, and those who were in the theatre did care about what was happening to their colleagues in the Iron Curtain countries and in Czechoslovakia especially at this time."

On the night of 21 August 1968 five hundred thousand invading troops from Warsaw Pact countries: the Soviet Union, the East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, crossed the borders of Czechoslovakia. This was just the beginning of the occupation of the country. The occupation was provoked by the Prague Spring, the attempt by Czechoslovak reformers to build a human face for socialism.

Barbara, how did the Prague Spring affect the life of the theatre practitioners?

“When the invasion came, no one knew what was going to happen. The following year went past and all the people I’d known were losing their jobs, were no longer able to work in the theatre. So gradually over the 1970s for several years I lost touch with many of the theatre people here; many playwrights, couldn’t have their works performed, they were even taken out of history books, not only could you not write about them anymore, you couldn’t even read what have been written in 1960s.

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio
"For artists in general what happened was that after the invasion, many of them had to sign that they agreed with the invasion. And those who didn’t sign this document, very often lost their job and couldn’t work anymore in the theater. Everything was under the control of the communist party.”

Let’s talk about Václav Havel, because later he became politically so important in this country.

“Yes, of course, well he was much more political than someone like Jan Grossman. And he was involved in lots of activities that the authorities thought were dangerous. So his plays absolutely could not be performed and what he began to do at this period was to write a different kind of play. He was writing plays for his friends to perform. So they didn’t have large cast, intended for big theaters or intended for any theatre. You could play them in a garden or in a living room.”

How did the British audience react to Václav Havel’s plays?

Martin Esslin from the BBC had broadcast some of his plays. Gradually people had moved on and forgotten about Havel. But it just so happened that in 1977 Sam Walters was going to put on one of Havel’s so-called Vaněk plays for the first time [Vaněk is the name of the main character]. And purely by a coincidence of timing it was when the news came out about Charter 77 and Václav Havel was on the radio and on the television. Then began of a kind of movement among people who knew about Czechoslovakia, and who knew about Havel to try and support his work. Samuel Beckett was one of them. He wrote a play dedicated to Havel which was put on in 1984 during the celebration of George Orwell’s book.”

Launched at the beginning of 1977, Charter 77 had turned attention back to Czechoslovakia. It was an appeal to the Czechoslovak government to fulfil its human rights obligations. The founders of Charter 77 included some important Czechoslovak politicians, philosophers, musicians, artists and writers, with Václav Havel prominent among them. Internationally, Charter 77 put the spotlight back on Havel.

“It was a different kind of spotlight, the first spotlight had been the theatre spotlight but then he became known for his political activity, and that was why he was banned from publishing, banned from writing, banned from traveling; in the beginning of 1977 he was one of the spokespeople for the Charter 77, which was a petition to the government to carry out all the promises that were originally made and was now no longer performing.”

Did British people support Charter 77?

“There was interest in this political movement in England, and interest especially that there was a playwright involved and he was one of the leading people in it.”

How did Havel’s political and theatrical life go on in the 70s?

“He became more involved in political work and more in conflict with the authorities. It culminated in his imprisonment and the first of the trials, as well as the formation of what was called the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted. He was one of the seven or eight people who were put on trial and given a prison sentences for several years. So in 1979 he was sent to prison I think for about 4 years.”

And he was not alone.

Evald Schorm,  photo: Czech Television
“There were hundreds of directors, theatre directors, actors, dramaturges who were punished in the 1970s for having been a part of the Prague Spring movement. All kinds of different punishments. Some of them were not allowed to work in Prague anymore. They could only work in the provinces and others couldn’t work in radio or television or couldn’t make recordings. Film makers like Evald Schorm were not allowed to work in film any longer, only in the theatre and then only as a guest. A lot of it was nothing to do with political reasons. It was just bureaucrats trying to get their own back on these upstart artists.

“Then there was the actress Vlasta Chramostová who wasn’t allowed to work in the professional theatre anymore. She began to perform in her living room. There was a version of Macbeth that became very famous. Of course it was not officially approved. It was performed just in her living room. So, the police would come and raid it and ask what she was doing and whether it was illegal.”

So after this time everything was more under pressure. Were you following all these events, the life in the theatre?

"In the 1970s, I wasn’t really following things very closely because I had given up hope of finding any practical work in the Czech theatre and I worked in a theatre in Britain and did other things, and then in 1979, it was when Václav Havel was put in prison; well I was totally shocked, that someone that I’d known could be imprisoned and for so long. I knew that the theatre of the 1960s couldn’t be written about any longer in Czechoslovakia. But I thought, I am in Britain and I’ve got all my memories, and there is something I can do. I registered at Bristol University to write my dissertation, and that was the point when I registered to write about the Theatre on the Balustrade and the small theatres in Czechoslovakia."

In the second episode of this two-part interview with Barbara, we will discover more about what happened in the 70s and 80s and the role of theatre in the run-up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.