Prague Shakespeare Company production highlights ‘Masaryk in America’

Т. Г. Масарик, Фото: Library of Congress / public domain

A debut performance by Prague Shakespeare Company premieres tonight at the National Theatre’s Estates Theatre. Masaryk in America tells the story of the founding of Czechoslovakia and highlights Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s time in the United States.

‘Masaryk in America’,  photo: archive of National Theatre
Composed and directed by Prague Shakespeare Company founder Guy Roberts, Masaryk in America draws on the speeches and writings of the great Czechoslovak statesman, along with the words of writer Karel Čapek and the American president Woodrow Wilson. I caught up with Roberts in the midst of the final days of rehearsal and asked him why he took on this story and how he got started.

“Well, you know, it's such an important year for the history of the Czech Republic, and also for Czech and US relations. We wanted to honor the great legacy of T.G. Masaryk in some way, and we started talking to people about what we could do this year to really honor the Czech legacy and the connection to America. And since I'm part Czech, my grandmother and her family immigrated to the US around 1900, I knew there was this really unique Czech-American connection. We had this idea to create a theatre piece about Masaryk's time when he was in America, really influencing the American public and getting support for the idea of this country that no one had ever heard of before, Czechoslovakia. He went around and made speeches in major cities all around America, and slowly this enormous wave of public consciousness started rising up about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and all these countries that really needed to be in charge of their own fate, in the way that Americans take great pride in charge of their own destiny.

“So we began to do research, and we thought we were going to do a very traditional, almost biographical play. But as we were reading and doing research for many months and really thinking about what Masaryk was really saying, it was so amazing. Everything he said, everything he wrote, in so many ways is applicable today. And the issues and things he's talking about seem just as pressing today as they did in 1917, 1918 when he was traveling around the US. So what we decided to do was to actually get out of the way and present a snapshot of Masaryk's time in America by only using Masaryk's own words. These are words that either he wrote in books...or journalists have made notes about his speeches. So we chronicle his whole journey, especially in 1918, when he was in America, and we recreate key moments: some very famous speeches in Chicago, in Pittsburgh, and editorials for The New York Times. We give the audience an idea of what Masaryk actually said that got all of America and US president Woodrow Wilson to pay attention to Czechoslovakia. So in a way, it's almost like a celebration that you would find perhaps at Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center, for example. And we have a string quartet with new arrangements from Dvořák and Smetana by Patrick Neil Doyle, our resident composer who works with us. He's in Prague today, rehearsing with the Electroshock String Quartet.

Guy Roberts,  photo: archive of Prague Shakespeare Company
“The really exciting thing is, we dramatize, for example, the correspondence between Woodrow Wilson and Masaryk. And we have special guests come onstage and read the letters and telegrams they sent to each other. So the audience can not only get an idea how Masaryk rallied America behind this idea, but they can re-experience those words that he said. And I think the striking thing is, those words could be spoken today about similar issues that are happening—I mean, his thoughts on issues such as immigration, the unity of nations, sovereignty: these sorts of things seem incredibly timely to us. And we just wanted to get out of the way and present Masaryk in the most unadulterated manner possible.”

It's a huge undertaking, and I'm curious to know if you've created any other docu-dramas.

“We've never done something like this. And at first the script was three hours long, because the material was just so fantastic, and it was really painful to whittle it all down. It's about 80, 85 minutes now with no intermission. But it begins and ends with Masaryk and Čapek under the tree from that very famous book Talks with T.G. Masaryk, which has also just recently been made a film. And that sort of bookends it. So we have the historical Masaryk, looking back on his life, and Capek sort of serves as the narrator for the evening.

“The exciting thing we think about the evening is that it will be presented in both Czech and English. So when Masaryk made a speech in English, it's performed in English, and when it's in Czech, it's in Czech. And then we have alternating surtitles. So when someone is speaking in English there are Czech surtitles, and when someone is speaking in Czech there are English titles.”

I was curious to ask you about this, because I wanted to know if that was a difficult decision to make or if you considered doing it any other way.

“No, I mean, what we wanted to do was to really try to give, you know, the most historically accurate representation we could. We did think about performing the piece entirely in English because what we really want to do is share Masaryk with English-speaking audiences that may not know the great role that he played in creating Czechslovakia and his time in America. But then we didn't want to exclude our Czech-speaking audiences as well. So this to us seemed the best solution.”

Karel Čapek,  photo: Public Domain
You mentioned Čapek. It's not just Masaryk, obviously: The other characters are also larger-than-life historic figures in Czech history. Was that sort of a daunting task, dramatizing these people?

“It is. Certainly when you're dealing with the great men and women who led to the formation of Czechoslovakia, there's so many people. And we made a decision early on to only focus on Masaryk, and for example, Beneš is referred to. But Masaryk and Čapek are the only Czech historical figures that are represented onstage. And then we have Woodrow Wilson and the US governmental official Robert Lansing, they are represented. But other people who were instrumental in that effort—Charles Crane, the industrialist Charles Crane, who financed a lot of it—they're certainly mentioned as well. But onstage we just have Masaryk.”

I know you have a performance on Thursday night, but any plans to reprise the show?

“Yes. We're definitely bringing the show back. This is just the world premiere of it, so—I shouldn't say ‘just,’ it's the world premiere! We're incredibly excited. The US ambassador should be there, too, and we think he'd introduce the performance.”

If it's alright with you. I'd like to go back a little bit. You founded Prague Shakespeare Company in 2008, and I'm curious to know how the theatre scene is different now than it was at that time, and maybe how the English-speaking community has changed as well.

“You know, we're incredibly fortunate in that we have a terrific association with the National Theatre, and now after ten years, we're playing regularly at the Estates Theatre, and we have a terrific partnership with the Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle, and we just played there as well. We really enjoy our relationships with the Czech theatres, such as Divadlo Bez Zábradli. But I think the difficult thing about creating an English-language theatre, wherever you are in Europe, in some ways, is the transient nature of the expatriate population. For example, we'll have actors who moved to Prague, or artists, and they're here for three or four years, and then they move on. So in some ways it's very different from 2008 when we started the company. Many different people, and people perhaps won't be here five years from now. I think that makes it really exciting for audiences because there's always something new.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk | Photo: Library of Congress,  public domain
“And certainly there are some well-known familiar faces who've been around for a long time. It's really terrific, also, that the City of Prague and the Czech government are putting renewed effort into filming so much now, especially with the Hollywood productions and these kinds of things coming. It's a great joy to share how exciting Prague is as a city with everyone who's a guest here. I'm shooting the Jan Žižka film now with Michael Caine and Ben Foster starring as Jan Žižka, and it's been great fun sharing with people from other places in the world how special and exciting Prague is, and showing them. We're definitely proud of the city here and want everyone to know about it.”

The English-speaking community here I think has a reputation, whether rightly or not, of being somewhat ignorant of goings-on in Czech politics and culture, and I think a lot of us struggle with the language. I wonder if a project like this one helps combat that transience that you mention, that's inherent in expatriate life.

“Sure. We're hoping that this can be a bridge and extend a hand to our Czech audiences to maybe take a chance on some of our English-language productions, and also for our English-language audience, that they'll start taking a chance on some of the exciting things happening here in the Czech Republic.’