Jitka Sloupová and the return of political theatre to the Czech stage

‘Endangered Species’, photo: Hynek Gos, National Theatre

For some years after the fall of communism, Czech audiences avoided any kind of theatre that might have been perceived as political. After decades of putting up with politics at every level of life, they had simply had enough. But today political drama is back with a vengeance. With a mixture of masochism and schadenfreude, Czech audiences are relishing new plays and productions that comment on contemporary political life with biting satire. David Vaughan reports.

Jitka Sloupová,  photo: David Vaughan
Ever since the beginning of the 19th century, when the Czech language was reemerging after two centuries of decline, theatre has had a special place in the Czech heart, and it was not such a surprise that with the fall of communism a playwright became president. But how is theatre faring today, a year after the death of Vaclav Havel? No one is better qualified to talk on the subject than Jitka Sloupová. As a theatre critic, translator and literary agent, she has been following developments closely for over three decades.

“The number of theatres in Prague is still enormous and it’s something that some other countries really envy us.”

That’s in Prague. What about other parts of the country?

“It’s the same in the provinces, because the theatrical network has been almost the same for about 40 years.”

Does that mean that grants and state support for theatres are also still functioning?

“Compared to other countries, probably yes. The grants are declining but they are still sent to most of the theatres and there is hardly any theatre that has gone out of existence due to money.”

So, there are plenty of theatres around. What are they performing? I assume that theatre has become more commercial in the 20 years since the fall of communism, but that is not the whole story.

“Yes, I think the reaction to the crisis in society and the economy could be in two ways. One is the tendency to a light repertory, which is mostly in the commercial theatres or big theatres, which want to draw big audiences. In the smaller theatres I think there’s a much bigger stress on political issues, political themes in the repertory. You can see it in the new plays, which are being written.”

‘Kristýna the Fair-Haired Beast’,  photo: YouTube
You mention political theatre, which is interesting because I know that in the years immediately after the fall of communism there was a reaction against political theatre and political literature generally. People were relieved not to have to be political. So that means there’s a return to politics in the theatre.

“You are totally right. It was not only a tendency. Audiences and theatre people found it almost disgusting to speak about politics in the theatre. So it’s rather new, but I think this tendency can be traced back for about five years already.”

What sort of politics are you talking about? Do you mean plays which are commenting on the current political situation? For example, a typical theme would be corruption.

“Yes. For instance there are political cabarets, which are almost a cult, like ‘Kristýna the Fair-Haired Beast’ and ‘The Return of the Fair-Haired Beast’ from the repertory of A-Studio Rubín, which draw from authentic political materials.”

The Kristýna that it’s referring to is a real politician. Famously, the conversations on her mobile phone were recorded and published. This particular play was actually enacting these conversations, wasn’t it?

“Yes. They are highly theatrical in themselves. There is really a lot of absurd humour in it…”

… and language that I wouldn’t want my children to hear.

“Yes, definitely.”

One well-known and well-established playwright and also filmmaker, Petr Zelenka, has also devoted one of his most recent plays, “Endangered Species”, to a political theme. It’s about the pressures of the corporate world. A new drug has gone on the market, which appears to have side-affects, and there’s a whole drama that develops around that.

‘Endangered Species’,  photo: Hynek Gos,  National Theatre
“I think it’s also significant for this playwright that he moved to more political themes, like corporate evil or criticism of the effect of the media on today’s relations and moral integrity of a person.”

And these are themes which are relevant not just in the Czech Republic but also internationally. It’s interesting that Petr Zelenka is one of the most translated contemporary Czech playwrights and also one of the most performed playwrights abroad.

“He is, I think, the best known Czech playwright of today, after Václav Havel’s death.”

And to stay with Václav Havel, your agency represents his estate. Have you seen any significant developments since his death in attitudes towards his plays or the extent to which they are performed – or maybe some kind of rethinking of Havel’s legacy as a playwright?

“There was a wave of commemorating Václav Havel’s work in the year after his death. So we gave a lot of consents to readings of his plays and to some gatherings of people who knew him and wanted to commemorate him by a small production. It was quite often, but I think that things haven’t really changed. I think he has already been part of the legacy of absurdist drama and so he is being staged continually.”

One of the playwrights whom you represent is a very young playwright called Petr Kolečko, who is known for writing entertaining theatre.

“He’s a very interesting young man. His plays are shocking sometimes and he has very good ideas. He always draws from some paradox which is very theatrical. One of his plays – it has the form of a musical – is called ‘Porn Stars’, and it really is about porn actors. It’s a sort of soap opera – romantic fiction from the background of the porn film industry.”

‘Porn Stars’,  photo: Roxy/NoD
And so it’s very provocative…

“Yes, it is, and it makes a travesty of the changes in society.”

I read an interview with Petr Kolečko about his stay in London not long ago when he was a guest dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre, considered one of Britain’s top theatres. He was very sarcastic about theatre in Britain, saying that it’s really rather backward, rather conservative, compared with the much more experimental and interesting theatre that’s going on in countries like the Czech Republic – and Austria and Germany.

“Well, I think that these remarks usually draw from this specific Czech thing, which is our tendency to see the world as grotesque.”

So, you think that audiences in the Czech Republic are maybe less conventional when they go to the theatre and that in Britain and the United States people would expect something more conventional, whereas it’s more or less taken for granted here that theatre is going to be grotesque and absurd?

“Yes. It’s the way we see the world that is different. That’s the problem, I think. For instance, to come back to Czech theatres, I think the best company in Prague nowadays is the Dejvické divadlo, which had a fantastic production of ‘A Blockage in the System’ by Irvine Welsh. It’s a dramatization of several of his stories. One Czech-American critic, quite an old professor from New York, said, ‘Oh, it’s interesting; this sort of theatre – something in the style of in-your-face drama – is played all over the world, but nobody laughs at it as much as the Czechs do.’ And that’s a fact, because Czechs find every single moment in these plays so funny. If it’s real, they find it funny. They love to laugh in the theatre.”

And in a country like the Czech Republic, which was so long subject to censorship, there has been a lot of writing in recent years that has looked at recent Czech and Czechoslovak history and tried to uncover the things that have been taboo. Is this also the case in theatre?

“I think it’s a trend in the past few years, because previously there was also a sense of disgust at things like that being done in theatre.”

People simply didn’t want to talk about the past.

‘A Blockage in the System’,  photo: Hynek Glos,  Dejvické divadlo
“Yes. There are only a few playwrights who have the courage or feel it being their theme. One of them is Milan Uhde, who wrote a play ‘Miracle in the Dark House’ about coming to terms with the older heritage. It’s the theme of a Jewish family in the post-war Czechoslovakia, or even during the Second World War. The second author of this kind is Karel Steigerwald, who wrote highly political satires even in the times of the previous regime. He had to cover it up more at that time, but nowadays he writes about the communist past and his plays are not only historical plays, or even historical cabarets in a way, but also the theme of these plays is the moral apathy of society today to come to terms with the past.”

All the writers we’ve spoken about so far are men. Is that just coincidence?

“I was just thinking about this too, because in the 1990s and at the beginning of the new century we had a lot of female playwrights and they sort of disappeared. I think it’s a generational problem because some of them were absorbed by maternity, some of them work in theatres or in the media for a living. So they did not write more than one, two or three plays. Even the most prolific of them – that’s Iva Klestilová Volánková – hasn’t written a play for about five years. I don’t know what the problem is, but I think there is a sort of pressure, an existential pressure, in it. I’m not sure.”

And finally, you represent various playwrights. Is there much interest abroad in what’s going on in Czech theatre?

“It’s rather difficult, because it’s also a problem of Czech playwrights themselves, or Czech theatre, because we haven’t got enough contacts with theatres abroad and with playwrights abroad. It’s a pity. But Czech authors are usually very individualistic.”

And also, as you hinted earlier, maybe nobody understands Czech humour.

“It may be a problem…”