Jara Cimrman - the "greatest ever" Czech?

Zdenek Sverak as Jara Cimrman in the movie 'Jara Cimrman laying sleeping'

Jara Cimrman is known to many in this country as perhaps the greatest Czech inventor, artist, explorer and musician of all time. He has been the subject of a dozen plays, which are frequently staged in a Prague theatre that is named after him. The plays aim to highlight the contribution of a man who many believe has never received proper recognition for his achievements.

The theatre of Jara Cimrman,  photo: CTK
Jana Pazdernikova runs the theatre in Prague's Zizkov area, where the plays are regularly performed every month. She says the plays featuring Jara Cimrman are massively popular among Czech audiences.

"We begin selling tickets on the second-last Tuesday of every month and there's always around 250 people there every month on the first day the tickets go on sale. People come to us again and again, and not just to individual shows. They want to see everything. They endure all sorts of hardship to come. It's simply heart-warming how they want to experience it all again."

In addition to being an accomplished musician, Jara Cimrman's many other achievements include proposing the construction of the Panama Canal to the Americans, inventing the light bulb and then getting to the patent office five minutes too late to register it, and even making it to within seven metres of the North Pole before being chased away at the last minute by a starving tribe of Native Americans.

As you've probably already guessed, Jara Cimrman is actually a fictional character. He's a kind of comic Czech everyman figure, who has somehow managed to be present at or involved in many defining moments in modern history.

He first came to the attention of the Czech public in a satirical radio play, which was broadcast in 1967. Since that time, he has become something of a cult hero who is now a firmly established feature of Czech life.

The character of Jara Cimrman was created by the Oscar-winning writer and actor Zdenek Sverak with his friend Jiri Sebanek. So what does he think about the character's huge popularity among Czechs?

"I'm surprised that the idea of rehabilitating an unrecognized Czech genius, who lived at the start of the last century, has been so persuasive that it has convinced the whole Czech nation that this is a character who is worthy of attention. We, the authors and actors, are most pleased by the fact that we have been doing the shows for 38 years and that the audience now includes our grandchildren's generation, not just our children's, which puts it into a beautiful perspective. And they also still find things we made up 35 years ago funny."

Mr Sverak thinks that Jara Cimrman's popularity reflects some underlying characteristics of the Czech psyche:

"He probably embodies the desire of a small nation to be great. He knew every one in the world and was on familiar terms with every genius in Europe. He advised them and he advised them well. But he himself never achieved success. And that probably encapsulates a complex that we [Czechs] have, in that we'd like to be greater than we actually are."

The affection which the Czech nation has for Jara Cimrman is so strong that he was recently voted the unofficial winner of a poll conducted by Czech television to find out who was the greatest ever Czech.

Unfortunately, Mr Cimrman could not be officially named as the greatest ever Czech, because the organisers stipulated that the poll was only open to real people. The fact that an imaginary character could be held in higher regard by Czechs than major historical figures such as King Charles IV and Tomas Garrigue Masaryk was headline news in this country and caused a certain amount of disquiet in some quarters.

Nevertheless, TV host Marek Eben, who will be presenting a show on the official results of the survey, himself understands the huge levels of support for the unofficial winner:

"I'm surprised but I'm proud of the Czech nation, because this is something typically Czech. Cimrmann involves a quite intellectual kind of humour so I must say I was quite proud of the fact that the Czech nation have this sense of humour, which I think is quite unique. I don't know if such a person could win [this award] in any other country."

Amazingly, Jara Cimrman is held in such high esteem by many Czechs that thousands of people have now signed a petition demanding that the national television station reverse its decision to exclude him from this poll.

Zdenek Sverak is overwhelmed by such a massive display of public affection for his creation:

"I was shocked by it. [I was amazed that] Cimrman had infected this nation to such an extent that people would consider him as the greatest ever Czech. First and foremost, I would see it as an expression of our sense of humour. I also think the objective of this sort of survey is difficult. It's hard to measure great Czech figures such as Charles IV, Jan Hus, Comenius, etc. against each other. It's a difficult task and so I think people might have decided that the only thing they could be certain about was a sense of fun and amusement."

And what does he think Jara Cimrman's being elected as the "greatest ever" Czech says about the Czech nation?

"It says that it is sceptical about those who are major figures and those who are supposedly 'the greatest'. And that the only certainty that has saved the nation many times throughout history is its humour."

And so what exactly does Jara Cimrman mean to his diehard fans?

Radio Prague went to the Cimrman Theatre on Tuesday morning when tickets went on sale for next month's shows. As usual, hundreds of people were queuing outside in the cold to buy them.

"I've been waiting here since five o'clock [in the morning] for tickets to the Cimrman theatre."

Is it worth standing here in the freezing cold for hours?

"Yes, it is. It's really good."

Can you tell me why Mr Cimrman is so popular with Czechs?

"I'm not sure. I think there is some typical Czech humour there."

Apparently, during a recent poll to find out whom people thought was the greatest ever Czech Jara Cimrman was the unofficial winner. Would you agree with this result?

"Yes, I think it's the best outcome. I think that this survey is kind of a pity, because we can't vote for the greatest single person of all time. So I think a vote for Cimrman is the best one."

Can I ask you why you are standing here?

"To get a ticket for the theatre... for the Cimrman show."

Could you tell me a little bit about Jara Cimrman, why do so many Czechs seem to like him?

"For me, it's because the show is so funny and the jokes are so good that you just have to see it."

There was talk recently of Jara Cimrman being the unofficial winner of a poll to find the greatest ever Czech. What do you think of that?

"It would be very funny. It goes along with the tradition of our nation to just make fun of everything. It's a great idea actually."

The monument of Jara Cimrman
"It's hard to explain to someone else, but Jara Cimrman is a style of life. If you love him and if you love this kind of theatre, you are willing to stand here and to freeze all day. It's normal for people to be waiting here from four o'clock in the morning."

What do you think Czechs like so much about Jara Cimrman?

"I can give you one piece of advice: Just go and see any of the plays and you will know."

Why are you standing here, are you a fan of Jara Cimrman?

"Yes, he's fantastic. It's a special kind of theatre. It's funny but also witty. It's more than just comedy."

I read recently that Jara Cimrman won a poll for the greatest ever Czech. Would you agree with this?

"I think it's a good joke, and he should be the greatest Czech."