In memoriam: Actress, Charter 77 signatory Vlasta Chramostová

Vlasta Chramostová, photo: Czech Television

Vlasta Chramostová, a theatre and film actress banned under communism from performing in public, died on Sunday at the age of 92. She was among the first Charter 77 signatories and a prominent figure during the Velvet Revolution. Some are calling for her to be buried with state honours.

Vlasta Chramostová,  photo: Czech Television
In November 1989, Vlasta Chramostová returned to the public eye after decades of living what she called “a censored life”. Before an audience of an altogether different kind at the Vinohrady Theatre, in the early days of the Velvet Revolution, she famously asked, “If not now, when? If not us, then who?”

In an interview for a Czech Radio documentary several years ago, she spoke of the terrible psychological pressure, depression – but also determined sense of purpose – that she felt during her years as a blacklisted artist and Charter 77 signatory.

“I was happiest in dissent, those 20 years, although it was the cruellest of times. I was not allowed to perform in the theatre; I was a so-called nonperson. But I was the most in harmony with myself.”

During the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968, Vlasta Chramostová assisted her future husband, the renowned cameraman Stanislav Milota, in documenting the crushing of the Prague Spring reforms and later the funeral of Jan Palach.

Chramostová refused to engage in the ritual of self-criticism or denounce others and was banned from performing in Prague. But as the so-called Normalisation era set in, she was allowed her to perform with a provincial theatre.

If intended to break her spirit, the slight had the opposite effect.

Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth, and the ‘Living-Room Theatre’

Vlasta Chramostová in 'The Cremator',  photo: Czech Television
People drove hundreds of kilometres to see her in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's anti-war classic “Mother Courage”, the story of a simple woman who shows great bravery in standing up to a totalitarian system.

Chramostová was then officially fully banned from the stage, in 1973, and compelled to eke out a living making lamp shades. But in 1976, she gave a private reading for then-banned poet Jaroslav Seifert, the first performance of what would become the “Living Room Theatre”, staged in her Prague flat.

In 1978, she and four other actors, including Charter signatories, famously staged 17 performances of an adaptation of Macbeth, dividing 25 roles among them. Chramostová recalled for Czech Radio how the StB once broke up a performance under the pretext an “orgy” was taking place in the flat.

“The text bothered the secret police. When they took me in for interrogation, they asked, ‘Who wrote this play Macbeth?’ I told them Shakespeare. I’m convinced that the line which bothered them most was how morning comes even after the darkest night.”

In a personal manuscript from 1984 entitled “A Censored Life”, Chramostová wrote that police repression “became an inspiring climate for experimental excursions to the roots of acting and theatre”. It also left her with “eternal and unmitigated sorrow” that she could not act in public.

Vlasta Chramostová,  photo: Czech Television
In her biography, Chramostová acknowledged having agreed in 1957 under pressure to cooperate with the secret police. But StB archives confirm her assertion that she never gave them any real information. “The Devil handed me a fountain pen and I signed,” she wrote, “because I wanted to be famous, to perform freely.”

Chramostová was awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk for her contribution to the democracy, humanity and human rights and a Thalia Award for her lifelong contribution to the theatre. Her final tribute is to be staged at the National Theatre on October 14.