An Irish classic at home in Prague


When John Millington Synge’s masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World was first performed in Dublin in 1907, there were riots in protest. The black comedy with its tale of attempted patricide was seen as going beyond the limits of decency, and was even accused of putting the Irish nation into disrepute. Set in an isolated and poor rural community, Synge’s play relishes the wealth of western Irish dialect, and today is universally acknowledged as one of the classics of Irish drama. But what does that have to do with the Czech Republic? In this programme, we tell the fascinating story of how The Playboy of the Western World also came to be a Czech classic.

It began with Karel Mušek, a director of Prague’s National Theatre, and one of the last of the great tradition of actor-directors. In 1905 he came across Synge’s work more or less by chance, and he immediately fell in love with his writing, translating and staging his one act play, “In the Shadow of the Glen”, at Prague’s Švanda Theatre, the first production of Synge in any foreign language. Ondřej Pilný from Prague’s Charles University has long been intrigued by this unexpected Czech-Irish link. He picks up the story.

John Millington Synge
“Mušek proceeded to correspond with Synge and he decided to go and visit the playwright in Ireland. He spent about two weeks there. Half the trip was spent with Synge himself in Dublin, where Mušek met members of the new national theatre, the Abbey Theatre, and was then dispatched by Synge to the west of Ireland to meet Lady Gregory at Coole Park and the poet W. B. Yeats, as the central figures of Irish National Theatre and of the literary revival. Together with some other authors he spent a few days at Coole Park, hiking around and taking photographs, which is another curious link between Mušek and Synge, because both of them were avid photographers at the beginning of the century, which was not usual at the time. They left a collection of fairly unique snapshots of the Irish countryside.”

It must have been extraordinary for him to see the contrast between the poverty in the countryside and the wealth of the Irish gentry, in particular Lady Gregory.

“Yes, as you say, the contrast between the countryside and Coole Park itself was stunning to Mušek. He grew up in an orphanage, so he came from very humble circumstances, but he was still shocked by the poverty that he saw in the Irish countryside. But then when he was eventually ushered into Coole Park itself - into the big house - he was stunned. He said: ‘This is probably the one and only time in my life when I’m spending the night in a bedroom with a Velasquez painting on the wall.’ And he wrote an extended travelogue – a series of articles for one of the Prague journals – where he outlined his experiences. This, for instance, is what he said about the dinner being served at Coole Park:

At half past seven, a gong was sounded as a signal to get dressed. The bedrooms already featured hot water and evening attire at the ready. A dress suit or a dinner jacket for the gentlemen. When the entire company [consisting of Lady Gregory, her son Robert, W. B. Yeats “and two ladies”] were gathered in the library, which was adjacent to the dining room, the butler […] entered and announced that dinner was ready. This always consisted of a soup, fish or salad, poultry, roast meat, a dessert and fruit. The food was being brought to the table by the butler, who placed it in front of the mistress of the house. She distributed it onto individual plates which were then carried to their destinations around the table by a chamber-maid […] The meal was being washed down with wine, sherry and claret […] Beer did not arrive at the table whatsoever.

“I love this image of Lady Gregory as a Mama, serving the food to her guests.”

Lady Gregory
And it’s such a contrast, isn’t it, with the world of J. M. Synge’s plays, the raw lives of the farmers in the west of Ireland? The language they used would have been in total contrast with the gentility of a place like Coole Park.

“This was actually one of the primary impulses for Mušek’s visit. He was a realistic director by disposition and when he was staging Synge’s plays here he insisted on realistic details on the stage. But he had absolutely no first-hand experience. For the first production he used photographs that were sent to him from Dublin – photographs of Irish cottages. But here in the west of Ireland with Lady Gregory, he was taken to some houses of the so-called Irish peasantry - I mean extremely poor farmers in the west of Ireland - and he was shocked by the poverty. He said that he knew the Czech countryside quite well himself, but he had never seen such human abodes in his life.”

There is a political element here as well, because this was the period of the Czech “National Revival” – as it is called here – coinciding with the long struggle for Home Rule in Ireland, which was eventually to lead to independence. I understand that he was shocked when he saw that the Czechs were actually much better off in terms of their national emancipation than the Irish.

“He was astonished to learn that because, like many other Czech patriots, he had been used to perpetual grumbling about the oppression of the Czechs and the condition of minorities generally in the [Austro-Hungarian] Empire. But then, when he was talking to Yeats in particular in the west of Ireland, Yeats could not believe the news that the Czech National Theatre was actually subsidized by the state. Here is another passage from Mušek’s travelogue:

My intimation that our theatre had been the recipient of an annual subsidy caused genuine astonishment. “How, you receive a subsidy? From the provincial government? What else could you wish for then?” I explained that the subsidy was authorized by the provincial assembly – further astonishment. “You have an assembly? What else do you want? We have been struggling in vain to get Home Rule for a whole century.”

Poster for opening of Abbey Theatre featuring 'In the Shadow of the Glen'
“So yes, he was astonished indeed, and in fact his conversation with Yeats in particular resulted in a brief correspondence where Yeats essentially asked Mušek to write down most of the information that Mušek had given him, particularly about the management of the National Theatre, because the Abbey Theatre – the Irish national theatre – was just at a very early stage. They had only just acquired a building which they were renting, and the information from the Czech context was really useful to them – practical information about funding, staging plays, everything.”

Karel Mušek came back to Prague with all these very vivid experiences of Ireland. Given that he was such an influential figure, it must have influenced the Czech theatrical scene in some way…

“What was important was that the Synge plays were actually staged here very early on. They unanimously had a very short run. They became the subject of interest from critics. Half of the reviews were negative, but at least the productions were written about. And then, finally in the early 20s, Mušek funded from his own pocket the publication of these translations, together with Synge’s literary journal, ‘The Aran Islands’. So again, we have these texts in print, so they were readily available for any theatres to take them up, which indeed they did. The Playboy of the Western World became one of the modern classics on Czech stages afterwards.”

When The Playboy of the Western World was first performed in Ireland it caused a huge controversy, with riots in the streets. Prague was one of the first other cities where it was performed. But it didn’t cause a scandal here, did it?

“No, not really. The main issue with the original production concerned the authenticity of the representation of the nation, which obviously was not an issue here in Prague and the Czech Lands whatsoever. No one really minded the various ways that the Irish may be depicted in this play. The next production in 1928 by Divadlo Dada – the Theatre Dada – directed by Jiří Frejka, was totally avant garde and really successful and actually started a tradition of staging the play here – as one of the very, very popular plays.”

The National Theatre in Prague
And that tradition continues to this day, doesn’t it? There is a production of The Playboy of the Western World playing in Prague right now.

“There is one in Činoherní klub, one of the most successful productions of any play. It won major national awards. It is indeed a very good production. I was trying to count before this interview – there were eleven productions of the play in the period between 1993 and now. So we can see that the play tends to be very frequently produced.”

And how do you go about translating the extremely rich but very local language of western Ireland into modern Czech. It takes a big cultural shift, doesn’t it? How did Mušek solve that problem and how have subsequent translators solved it?

“Well, Mušek was facing the same problem as any translator into Czech, which concerns dialect. Czech has relatively few dialects, and they’re all very distinctive and localized to particular parts of the country. So, essentially, if you use a Northern Moravian dialect, you’re immediately making all your characters coalminers. So it does come with a particular stereotype. This means that Czech dialects are not really usable for translation of material that’s written in dialect in English originally. At the same time, Synge’s language is not a documentary copy of an existing dialect of English either. It’s written in a very regular rhythm. So unless you’re ready to say that there’s a place on earth where people speak in verse, you must acknowledge that the language is completely synthetic. Yes, it does use idiom, turns of phrase from the Irish language and from different dialects of English, but it is all completely synthetic, so perhaps that helps when you try to tackle a Synge play, that you have to keep an eye on the rhythm, at the same time invent a language that would sound like a dialect, but not as an existing one. It is quite challenging.”

At the moment there is a great interest in contemporary Irish drama in the Czech Republic. At any one time there are several productions of contemporary Irish plays performing in Prague. Do you think that part of that is the legacy of Mušek?

Ondřej Pilný,  photo: David Vaughan
“I wouldn’t dare to make claims like that, really, because there are various ways in which plays reach the Czech stage. If you survey the recent situation, translators certainly have a say in this, that you have individuals who discover plays, translate them and offer them to theatres, but there is also much more travel than there was before, so you have directors on a fairly regular basis going to see plays in Germany, in London, etc., and quite a lot of the repertoire is actually influenced by things like what is a current hit at the Royal Court Theatre in London, for instance. That’s one of the main reasons why the work of Martin McDonagh, has reached us so early here. We have all his plays on stage, or they have been staged.”

You have shown a great interest in Irish drama. You’ve written books about it, you teach about it. What is it that has particularly drawn you to Irish drama?

“Coincidence, I suppose. I studied in Dublin briefly in the early 1990s, and started looking at Irish literature somewhat more closely. When I was about to go there and spend a year there as a student, I was approached by a theatre director, a friend of mine, who asked me specifically to look at recent drama and bring some plays over and perhaps translate them. So I did a bit of research, and ever since, I’ve been dealing with Irish drama.”