Tales of Common Insanity: Petr Zelenka's award-winning play comes out in English

Petr Zelenka

Without a doubt this has been a successful year for young Czech filmmaker Petr Zelenka; in July his third feature The Year of the Devil, won top prize at the International Film festival in Karlovy Vary. Now, the Theatre Institute in Prague has launched the English version of Zelenka's award-winning play Tales of Common Insanity, as part of its series the New Czech Play. To the delight of an English-speaking audience last week a reading took place at Prague's popular Globe cafe.

The mood was one of anticipation and excitement last Thursday evening at the city's Globe bookstore/cafe; the place was simply full of English speakers on hand to hear scenes from Pribehy obycejneho silenstvi, or, Tales of Common Insanity, read in English for the very first time.

"I'm going over there tomorrow. Must work out a plan."

"Of course. There's another tried and tested method of getting a woman back."

"Oh yeah?"

"Get someone to pack you up in a box and post you to her. It's a bit risky but it's clean, no magic or anything."

"A box?"

"Yes. Registered mail."

The scenes read by professional actors quickly revealed crisp and very funny dialogue in situations that have become Petr Zelenka trademarks; the play features over a dozen characters - some of them misfits reminiscent of the underdogs in Zelenka's film The Buttoners. All find themselves in situations we can recognise, struggling with loneliness and the inability to understand each other, as well as themselves, although they take things to extremes. One character goes to almost any length to get back his former girlfriend; another, also scarred by relationships, searches for replacements for women entirely, finding solace in household appliances that include his vacuum cleaner.

"What've you been doing with this hoover?"

"I was just trying something out."


"Once you get the hang of it, it's almost like being inside of a woman."

"You're kidding!"

"Well, no. It doesn't quite measure up to a woman, but, still it's better than nothing."

"To Jana, to her coming back."

Outrageous, certainly, but also honest and very funny - Tales of Common Insanity invites audiences to laugh all the way through; one is easily charmed by the protagonists, who at times are cutting and uncompromising, but at other moments are vulnerable. What makes them so interesting is that they are more than just victims of chance, they are active initiators upsetting their own lives and the social order, responsible for the topsy-turvy situations in which they find themselves. Their predicaments - and how they come to terms - are what give this black comedy intensity and drive. Director and author Petr Zelenka:

"Whenever it's possible I try to catch life when it acts funny or stupid, whenever the absurdity is somehow in real life, so I try to get it out of real life and show it in light. Probably the character in the play that's closest to my heart is Jerry, a guy that composes music and they play his music in elevators in hotels, and they don't pay him royalties for that, so he's suing them for the royalties. And, this sheer frustration, this sort of fight with the establishment in a very funny way, that's what I like, that's what I sometimes feel like."

Many of those present at the reading said afterwards they would love to see the English version of the play on stage in the Czech Republic, something which is momentarily not in the works.

"This was just beautifully zany, the last time I heard anything like it was a long time ago - Ionesco. Very much the theatre of the absurd."

Another English reading is being planned for the future, however, this time it will take place in New York City; it would certainly be interesting to see just how audiences will react over there.

For more information on the Theatre Institute's New Czech Play series visit the following web-site: institute.theatre.cz