From Daruvar to Vancouver: Czechs tread the boards on five continents

Julek Neumann, photo: author

Julek Neumann is a man of many talents: theatrical director, actor, journalist, playwright and poet. He is currently writing, directing and acting with a number of Czech theatres after over 25 years abroad, first in Vienna, where he moved from communist Czechoslovakia in 1984, and then in London, where for many years he worked for the Czech section of the BBC. David Vaughan spoke to Julek about a rather neglected, but fascinating aspect of Czech theatre – the central role it has played in the life of Czech communities abroad.

Julek Neumann, photo: author
The Czech diaspora is spread over five continents – from farmers who established Czech villages in Croatia or Ukraine two centuries ago and have clung to their Czech identity ever since, to the tens of thousands who reluctantly fled after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. These hugely diverse groups have one thing in common – an active interest in the theatre. This means that to this day, you can come across performances in Czech in places as far afield as Vancouver in Canada, Daruvar in Croatia and even in the very heart of the European Union – Brussels. Julek Neumann has been mapping this global Czech thespian community. We met during rehearsals at Prague’s Ypsilon Theatre, and he began by telling me that in order to explain this tradition you need to go back to the very roots of Czech theatre, when the official language under Austro-Hungarian rule was German:

“If we start far back in history, there was a movement that started around the 1780s, which aimed to revive Czech as a literary language, as a language of the arts, as a language of theatre. There were two branches of this. One was semi-professional. Czech German-speaking literati and authors were trying to present the Czech language on stage. At the same time, or just slightly later, there was another branch, which saw more of a need to do amateur theatre in the Czech language to spread the language around the country again.”

And was this tolerated at the time by the German-speaking authorities?

“It was all very small-scale at the beginning and I think there was no feeling it would endanger anything, because I think that the policy of Germanisation was not a thought-through policy by the authorities. It was just happening, and the Czech language was just receding.”

Karel Hynek Mácha
And so, in a sense, the whole history of Czech theatre, as it developed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, has its roots in amateur, provincial theatre.

“It has roots in theatre which was done outside the official circles of theatre. It was started by people realizing that they can use the language as an instrument to enlighten. It was a time of enlightenment. It was influenced by the feeling that there is a tradition to be revived.”

So even at home in Bohemia and Moravia, theatre played a central role from the early 19th century onwards in keeping the very sense of Czech identity and language alive. One of the key figures at the very beginning of this process was Karel Hynek Mácha, better known today as the Czech Republic’s best-loved Romantic poet. He was followed by the actor playwright Jan Nepomuk Štěpánek and by Václav Kliment Klicpera, whose comedies, inspired by the Viennese theatre of the 1840s and 50s are still performed to this day. This was a theatre steeped in the life of provincial Bohemia and it was close to the people.

Czechs took their love of theatre with them when they went abroad. The most compact Czech ex-pat community to this day is in and around the Croatian town of Daruvar, where Czech still remains the official second language and Czechs make up nearly a quarter of the local population, well over 150 years after first settling there.

“In about 10-15 places they have their own amateur theatres in Croatia. I think that this kind of ex-pat theatre is about keeping the language, keeping the tradition, but keeping it in a pickled form.”

Czech ex-pat theatre in Rijeka, Croatia
So, it’s a kind of folklore…

“Not necessarily, but it is a theatre which doesn’t look into new theatrical ways of doing stuff. It’s trying to reconfirm the community. All of these theatres are about confirming – we belong together in an environment alien to our language, we are trying to be ourselves while being in this foreign country. In Croatia, it’s mostly the village genre, trying to do simple stuff, and the accent is not on theatre but on language and on the community…”

…. and also music, I should imagine.

“Music plays a very strong role, especially since all of the theatres have a certain preference for operetta, for musical theatre. It’s probably also because many Czechs going abroad are good musicians and there is enough support at that level.”

Since the Second World War Czech émigré theatre has played a further role. Under communism, many contemporary playwrights were banned in Czechoslovakia, most prominently, Václav Havel, and, especially in Canada, émigré theatre became a place were these plays could be performed:

“There’s the Divadlo Za Rohem (Theatre Round the Corner) in Vancouver and Nové divadlo (New Theatre) in Toronto, and they are really émigré theatres, created by people – intelligentsia – who moved abroad in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, then after 1968. And they had an ambition of creating theatre not only around language, but also about important themes – plenty of contemporary Czech plays by Havel were performed at a time when it wasn’t possible to put them on in Czechoslovakia.”

To a lesser extent, the situation was similar in other cities where Czech and Slovak émigrés were concentrated. But in Vienna, in the last decade of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, it was slightly different, as one of the best known Czech writers and playwrights, Pavel Kohout, was dramaturge at the city’s most famous theatre, the Burgtheater. Julek Neumann was there at the time.

“I was living in Vienna from 1984-88. Most of the productions that were using texts that were banned at that time in Czechoslovakia were put on at the Burgtheater at that time. Havel’s plays were put on at the Akademietheater and the Burgtheater.”

They were put on in German translation….

“The were put on in German translation. There were readings in Czech. I was reading one of Havel’s plays, Mountain Hotel, for the first time in 1985, but they were not produced.”

These days, of course, Havel’s plays are frequently produced here in the Czech Republic. Since the fall of communism, the fate of Czech theatre abroad has been mixed. In Canada and Croatia it continues to thrive, while in Australia, Julek Neumann tells me, it has all but died out. And there is one brand new Czech amateur theatrical company – set up in Brussels, a city with a very young Czech ex-pat tradition.

Divadlo Jen tak
“The company started working fully about three years ago, in 2007, and I think that’s partly because there’s such an influx of people who do work which is slightly boring – like translating, interpreting and so on. And some of them came from the Czech Republic, where the tradition is very strong. It only takes one person who decides it’s really important, and in this case it was a guy from the town of Velká Bíteš, who had been running an amateur company there. He went to Brussels, because his wife got a job there. He was a little bit bored, so he started a company, and it is an interesting company. They all go for a kind of traditional repertory. Everybody who does anything in amateur dramatics, starts with Lucerna – the lantern – by Alois Jirásek, which is a traditional Czech fairy-tale type play about national independence. Everybody always has this as a first production.”

And the Czech theatrical troupe in Brussels – the Divadlo Jen tak – is planning its next new production in the spring, proving that the two-centuries-old tradition of the Czech amateur theatrical diaspora is alive and well.