A Stage for Revolution: Part 2

Photo: Karolinum Press

In the first episode of this two-part series we got to know Barbara Day, who first came from England to Prague in 1965 and whose life has been closely connected to this country ever since. She talked about her interest in Czechoslovak theatre, and her involvement with some notable Czech theatres over the last five decades. Azadeh Kangarani continues the story.

Barbara Day,  photo: archive of The English College in Prague
Barbara witnessed the social constraints of communism and saw how theatre became an outlet for voices that were otherwise oppressed and silenced. She also built up links between Czechoslovak theatre scene and her own country. After the invasion of 1968, Barbara went back to England. But a decade later she decided to get back to Prague to do her Ph.D. dissertation on Czechoslovak theatre.

I talked to Barbara in her Prague flat.

You have a beautiful view from the window…

“The best trees were about a week ago…”

You mean the colours…

“The colours were amazing. It was like some, some North American forest.

Your dissertation was on the Theatre on the Balustrade and the Czech tradition of small-scale theatre. How did you start working on it?

“Well, the first year I spent in Britain going to libraries and reading as much as I could, and then at the end of the year I went back to Czechoslovakia for the first time in many years. I wanted to find Jan Grossman again. I really needed to talk to him about the dissertation. And within a week someone took me there. He had a flat on the quay of the Vltava looking towards Hradčany; and I went. It was a wonderful reunion. He agreed to be interviewed.”

What did he talk about?

“I asked him about his own career. He told me about different places he had worked and then he told me about what he had planned when he came to the Balustrade Theatre and how far he had managed to carry it out.”

Did he tell you about his vision, his approach to theatre?

“Well, this was really when he told me about the theatre, what was called the “apelativnost”: theatre that was unfinished until it came to a confrontation with the audience. He said that under socialist realism people were being presented with ready-made answers. They had to agree and go home thinking, oh yes I’ve got to be a better socialist worker.”

Here is Jan Grossman in a short extract from that interview in 1981:

Jan Grossman: “It was an idea that the theatre shouldn’t give you a solution. Especially in the social context, and in the context of the theatre which was ruled by the idea of socialist realism.”

“He wanted people to go home thinking, what does this really mean to my life? What are my values? what do I care about? And how am I behaving? And this theatre of questions was something that he shared with Václav Havel. They worked very closely together during those years in the 1960s.”

Jan Grossman,  Marie Málková,  photo: Jaroslav Krejčí – Jaroslav Krejčí heirs,  CC BY-SA 4.0
Here is Jan Grossman again, from the same interview:

Jan Grossman: “The Theatre on the Balustrade was the theatre of ‘text appeal’ with amateurs, with non-actors, with writers and poets discussing, improvising, it was a theatre which tried to involve the actor, the auditorium in the action, to break this barrier between the actors. It was a theatre, which really created a dialogue.”

Jan Grossman also talked about the importance of small theatres like the Theatre on the Balustrade. How about the rest of the small theatres?

“There was still exciting theatre going on. Because Evald Schorm who had been a director of new wave films was now allowed to do some productions at the Balustrade Theatre. He wasn’t allowed to be permanently employed. But he did some very interesting productions of Shakespeare especially. Then there were new theatres that I hadn’t seen before, the Theatre on the Fringe which performed in Rubín, and the Theatre on a String in Brno and that was really a fateful discovery for me.”

You also helped taking a production of the Theatre on a String to England. How did you connect to them?

“What happened was that when I was there in 1982, I asked my supervisor what theatres I should see. And he said: Well, this theatre from Brno is performing just this week in a hotel ballroom in Žižkov [an inner suburb of Prague]. And he said: Look for this particular person and tell him my name. Always I had a magic name to use. Someone would say: Speak to so-and-so and give them my name. And then I wanted to go to Brno and see them, where they performed in an art gallery.

“And I arranged to meet the dramaturge of the theatre, Petr Oslzlý. When I met him, I realized not only that they were a very exciting theatre, as an individual theatre in terms of their artistic work, but they were very important from a social and political point of view. And he first suggested that what they needed was to travel more to become better known abroad. I helped them to go to Great Britain.

“I went back to Britain, with this mission, I thought, to find someone who would organize it. I went to the Visiting Arts unit, which provides grants for this kind of activity and said: Please would they invite the Theatre on a String from Czechoslovakia? The deputy director who was a wonderful woman called Hannah Horowitz, said: Oh, I do agree, they must come, they have to come. But we can’t invite them. You’ve got to invite them. And I said how can I invite them? And she said: Well, you go to your university where they have just had a Japanese Festival and tell them that you want to do a Czech Festival.”

And you did?

“I went to my professor and said: I’ve got this wonderful idea and this marvellous company from Brno. Wouldn’t you like to do a Czech festival? And he said: Look, Japan is a large country, with which we have a lot of trading links. There is a lot of sense in doing a festival for Japan; but a small Iron Curtain country? Eventually they said: Well alright, what do you really want to do? I said, we’d bring the best artists in Czechoslovakia to this festival. I was only imagining inviting one theatre, but it was Hannah Horowitz who said: You have to have a festival otherwise no one is interested.”

What was the biggest outcome for you personally out of this festival?

Theatre on a String in Brno,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Well, for me personally, the biggest outcome came through the Theatre on a String, which was a tremendous success. It was just very exciting. But what I discovered in the course of that was that Petr Oslzlý was connected with people in Britain and they were actually running an underground seminar. The people in Britain were working with the people in Brno and in Prague and through that I made my next extraordinary connection. This was the Jan Hus Educational Foundation.

“I had a meeting with one of the board, we met in London, and she’d been just saying that they needed someone to work for the foundation. They needed someone to organize it. And then we looked at each other, and that was how I came to work for them.”

What was the main activity of Jan Hus Educational Foundation?

“Seminars, mainly on philosophy, but also on theology, political science, contemporary history and also music, art and literature. Mainly for people who hadn’t been allowed to go to university in Czechoslovakia or who were not satisfied with the university courses.”

Can you tell us more about the role of the theatre in the run-up to the Velvet Revolution?

“It was a quite extraordinary phenomenon, because the Prague Spring movement in the 60s had been mainly through writers. They had been the ones who pushed the ideas forward and helped people to become more free and more independent. They were more or less suppressed in the 70s and the 80s. All the writers from the 60s were no longer allowed to publish.

“But the theatre was very active. I think one of reasons was that people who couldn’t make a career in politics or business or in universities looked for an outlet for their creative activities and they found it in theatre. Not only did you have a really good professional theatre but also amateur theatre. The amateur theatre was tremendously important. There were hundreds of companies, and I think these people really built-up a trust between themselves.”

The Theatre people?

“The theatre people, and they were consciously proactive. There was a group within the theatre that used to meet regularly but secretly. And they would work out what they could do to bring back the banned authors, people like Topol and Havel, to bring their plays back into the theatre. And they were always planning new activities. So, along with the students after November the 17th, they went on strike as well.”

Underground seminars,  photo: Courtesy of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation
Do you think theatre plays the same role today as during communism?

“After 1989, what people said was that the theatre now could get on with what it’s meant to be doing, and all the politics and speeches and everything can go back into the public arena, where they are supposed to be. I think the theatre is not as significant as it was. But that’s because the times are different.

So how about other platforms, other media?

“I don’t follow the other media so closely. The problem with the other media is the ownership of them. It’s extraordinary that the prime minister is allowed to own two of the leading newspapers. That just is not correct. I think there is a problem in the other media, and there is a problem of ownership and who can control them. When you buy them and read them you always read in between the lines. There are some independent papers but they are not widely read.”

I would like to get back to you. You’ve been in the field of education, you are a university professor yourself. How do you make this link between theatre and social awareness?

“Well, I think it’s all part of history and history that has to be remembered, and one thing that I like to do when I’m teaching and writing is to remember these great people who suffered so much for it. And another thing is that it’s important to study history to know how to deal with the present. Issues like power and the abuse of power, and the theatre is very good at putting these in terms that people can understand.”

So it means that the medium might be different according to the context and perhaps education would be the main point?

“I think education is the key point of being able to make connections. I was at a talk by Helen Epstein yesterday evening about the Me Too movement and someone said: Why didn’t all these people who knew about the perpetrators complain? Why didn’t they band together? Why didn’t they say that something bad is going on?

“And I thought, well, that was the case under normalization, that people could have talked more, and could have spoken more to each other. But everyone individually was afraid of what had happened to them and their family. That was getting to the answer of why the people didn’t band together in the case of these sexual abuses as well. One situation historically will teach you about another.”

Photo: Karolinum Press
I would like to ask you about your book ‘Trial by Theatre’ which has just been published. Can you tell us about it briefly?

“Trial by theatre is really a very old book, because it’s based on my dissertation, the one I wrote back after 1979. And I wrote it then about the theatre of the 60s. I went on to write about the theatre of the 1980s, that was contemporary then. And I finished it in 1985. When I came to start thinking about it again, of course I had to bring it up to date with the Velvet Revolution. It’s a sort of retrospect view of how the Czech theatre came to play such a role in the Velvet Revolution and why it was important, and why some other people were important in the theatre right through the 19th century. It was because of my students that I really decided I had to finish it and publish it.”

Barbara, thank you for the time you gave to all your work and thank you for the interview today.

“Not at all. I enjoyed it.”

That was an interview with Barbara Day recorded in September 2019. The sound design and original music were by Petar Mrdjen. The interviewer and producer was Azadeh Kangarani.