Actor, comedian and writer Jan Werich was born 100 years ago


Jan Werich, one of the most famous and best-loved Czech actors and comedians would have turned 100 this Sunday. Werich is probably best-known for his theatre performances but he also appeared in many films and wrote a number of books, including children's fairy tales. Looking back, Werich's life and work seem to have faithfully mirrored the twists and turns of history that the whole Czech nation went through in the 20th century.

Jan Werich was born in Prague in 1905. It was back in his school years that he met his future stage partner Jiri Voskovec with whom he wrote many plays from absurd drama to grim political satire between 1927 and 1938, when the two actors and writers were forced into exile. They left for the United States together with the outstandingly talented composer Jaroslav Jezek who wrote the music to their plays. Jaroslav Jezek died in 1942 and Jiri Voskovec decided to return to the United States after the war.

Jan Werich decided to stay in communist Czechoslovakia. He found a new stage partner in Miroslav Hornicek who took over the parts previously played by Voskovec and was Werich's straight man in the 1960s. The pre-war satires were no less relevant in the communist days and even took on new meanings that the audiences understood and appreciated. The famous dialogues of Werich and Hornicek circulated on illicit copies until the very fall of the communist regime, very much adding to the growing myth of Jan Werich.

After the Soviet invasion in 1968 Jan Werich had limited opportunities to perform in public. When he signed a pro-reform manifesto in 1972 he was banned from public life altogether. In the end Werich succumbed to pressure from the communist authorities and in 1977 he even appeared at a meeting of artists condemning the Charter 77 human rights manifesto. 1977 was also the year of Jan Werich's last public appearance.

That was only three years before Jan Werich's death. A heavy smoker all his life Werich had a tumour removed from his throat in the 1970s and never fully recovered. He died on October 31, 1980. Despite his controversial political stances, in modern-day Czech mythology Jan Werich became a symbol of anti-communist resistance through wit and intelligent humour.