Jiří (George) Voskovec – the Czech theatrical pioneer who carved out a Cold-War career in Hollywood

Jiří Voskovec

This edition of Czechs in History looks at the life and career of Jiří Voskovec, one half of the legendary Czech duo Voskovec and Werich, whose work at the “Liberated Theatre” or Osvobozené Divadlo in the 1920s and 30s left an indelible mark on Czech culture.

Jiří Voskovec was born near Benešov in 1905. He became friends with his future collaborator Jan Werich after they met while they were still in high school. In 1925, they established “Osvobozené Divadlo” or the “Liberated Theatre”, which soon became one of the most popular venues in Czechoslovakia.

The editor of the Svět a divadlo theatre magazine Jakub Škorpil has done extensive research on the work of Voskovec and Werich and is in no doubt about the duo’s importance to the development of Czech theatre:

“They somehow became cult figures, because they were using the principles of avant garde and modern theatre combined with popular culture and popular music, especially jazz. They were the first who were able to combine Czech lyrics with jazz music, which was a breakthrough and really unique during that era.”

Voskovec and Werich’s astute use of popular music by legendary jazz pianist Jaroslav Ježek and their own unconventional humour soon had crowds flocking to the intimate space of the Liberated Theatre and the pair quickly became a fixture on the cultural landscape of Czechoslovakia between the wars. According to Jakub Škorpil, their success left a lasting impact on Czech theatre and influenced subsequent generations of theatrical artists.

“After the war and during the communist era, they somehow became models for a new generation of performers and the so-called movement of small theatres, like the Semafor theatre with Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr in particular. They had a big influence on this movement that defined the 1960s.”

Photo: ČTK
As Voskovec and Werich’s work evolved it became more satirical in tone and they used their biting humour to address many of the issues that preoccupied the generation that came of age in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 30s. Jakub Škorpil again:

“Of course, they spoke for socially disadvantaged people. They were talking about and making fun of things that normal people thought were funny or they talked about the troubles that normal people had. So they were extremely popular and became two cult figures during the pre-war era.”

Sometimes, Voskovec and Werich’s plays were so provocative that their work took on a relevance that was not simply confined to the cultural arena but to society at large, not least when an infamous riot broke out after right-wing extremists tried to break up a performance of their anti-Nazi piece Executioner and Fool in 1934.

Given the subversive, anti-fascist tone of much of their output, it is no surprise that both Voskovec and Werich felt compelled to flee Czechoslovakia just before Nazi Germany annexed the country in 1939.

They spent the war years in the United States where they continued to work whenever they could. This included playing Stephano and Trinculo on a Broadway production of The Tempest, which was well received by critics. They also wrote and broadcast many Czech radio programmes for the Voice of America station.

When the war ended both men returned to Prague to reopen the Liberated Theatre. Their attempts to repeat their pre-war success were cut short, however, when the Communist Party seized power in 1948. There was no place for the seditious humour of Voskovec and Werich’s work under the new totalitarian regime and their theatre was closed down.

Sadly, this spelled the end of the hugely successful Voskovec and Werich partnership, as Voskovec decided to emigrate while his friend elected to stay at home. Jakub Škorpil says both men probably took their decision on the basis of their family circumstances:

“Werich already had a wife from the Czech Republic and he had a daughter. Maybe this had some role in his deciding to stay in the Czech Republic. Maybe he and his family had not been so happy in America as Voskovec had been. He had always been a more international type of person. Even his mother had been French. So he had the basics that perhaps made it easier for him to leave.”

Voskovec eventually settled in the United States after spending a couple of years in France. Although his background meant that it was possible for him to make a new life for himself in a foreign country, he never forgot his Czech origins. The art collector and fellow Czech émigré Meda Mládková became friends with Voskovec in America and he often stayed at her house in Washington:

Meda Mládková,  photo: ČTK
“We became very good friends obviously. Every night we had dinner together and we had very wonderful discussions because we were both refugees and we both remembered our country, especially Prague. Voskovec was a great patriot. When we were alone, we only ever talked about our country.”

After emigrating, Voskovec found himself playing supporting roles, which was a big change for an actor who had always enjoyed star billing in his homeland. Nevertheless, Meda Mládková says this was something he had to get used to in America.

“He spoke English well but he always had an accent. If you don’t start to learn the language when you are three years old you never lose the accent. Because of this he never could have the leading role. It was always the second or third. But he played with Elizabeth Taylor, [Richard] Burton and other great actors. Sometimes, though, he was very unhappy because he had to sometimes accept parts that he wouldn’t have liked doing so much. He had a very difficult life. We have a beautiful house in the Caribbean and I remember offering to let him stay there and rest. But he told me he couldn’t afford it. He had to stay next to the telephone day and night to get a new engagement. Can you imagine? He could not afford to spend three or four weeks somewhere resting.”

Despite the fact that Jiří Voskovec or “George Voskovec(k)” as he became known to Western audiences often had to struggle to make ends meet, he did eventually establish himself as a highly respected character actor in both theatre and film.

He played Juror No. 11 in the classic legal drama 12 Angry Men and also had substantial roles in many other films.

He was equally prolific in the theatre. He won an Obie award for his performance of the title role in Franchot Tone’s production of Uncle Vanya and was a member of the original cast for the first theatrical run of Cabaret. He also worked with many of the leading directors of his day including John Gielgud, Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Brook.

Jiří Voskovec died at the age of 76 in his adopted country just a few months after his longstanding friend and partner Jan Werich had also passed away.

Despite the fact that they had spent decades on different sides of the Iron Curtain, both men had managed to maintain contact with each other over the years. They exchanged letters, which were often smuggled in and out of Czechoslovakia to avoid the censors, and even managed to meet each other on some of the rare of occasions when Jan Werich was allowed to leave the country. They last met face to face in Vienna in 1974.

Meda Mládková, who was given copyright to the letters, has since had them published. She says the fact that the first two volumes of these texts have been selling like hotcakes is indicative of the enduring popularity of Jiří Voskovec and his partner Jan Werich more than eight decades after they first embarked on their long and fruitful theatrical careers.

“I was surprised at the enthusiasm in the population. The book was sold out in two weeks in Prague. I can’t speak for young people, but I was told that my generation bought two, three or four copies of the book as Christmas presents. They love it because it reminds them of the past. People are delighted to read it and for me this is a very happy surprise.”