Totalitarian Circus brings the bad old days back to Prague

Photo: CTK

The Cirkus totality (or Totalitarian Circus) was one of the cultural projects chosen to accompany the Czech Republic’s EU presidency. As part of the project, a new textbook about Central Europe’s communist past has been written, there will be a series of plays and performances staged, and a giant ‘communism timeline’ has been unveiled on Prague’s náměstí Republiky. I went along to have a look:

Ondřej Cihlář,  photo: Carlos Ferrer
A song by legendary Czech pop star Karel Gott blares out the speakers and encourages passers-by to roll-up, roll-up to the Totalitarian Circus. The project, which was selected by the government to tie into this country’s EU presidency, focuses on all that was grotesque about this country’s communist past. In the true spirit of any circus, the project is set to hit the road and tour the continent in the coming months. Ondřej Cihlář was its artistic director:

Photo: CTK
“We are trying to focus on the history of three other Central European countries as well – so this means that we present here Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and Poland. And we plan to go around all of these countries and other Czech towns also.”

You don’t seem such an old man, and you were the artistic director of this Cirkus totality. How did you do your research and do you really have a relationship with that time – you must have been around 10 when communism fell?

“You are right. I was 11. And of course, this is very often a question we are asked – how can we speak about totalitarianism when we were so young then. And the important thing is this: that we are not trying to tell people about how it was when there was communism here, but we are trying to search and find the ways that our totalitarian past stays with us to this day. And I think that the atmosphere in society, the passivity, I think that this is what we are bringing with us a little bit still from totalitarian times.”

Photo: CTK
On display on Prague’s náměstí Republiky on Thursday was a colourful communism timeline with information both in Czech and English. Those reading about the era were assailed by actors in period costume staging a street performance. Pepa Vízner was one of the performers:

“It is about the communist system. We have just done a sort of fashion show, but a funny sort of fashion show. But for me, this is a very important theme here and now in the Czech Republic.”

The fashion show provoked somewhat mixed reviews from passers-by:

Man: “My great-great grandfather fought in the Red Army for the liberation of Czechoslovakia on the Eastern Front in WWII. And he died fighting for this country. And I would say that this is an insult to his memory, and the memory of all Czech soldiers who died for this country in WWII.”

“I think that was really interesting, that the girls and the boys, they were a little bit funny, but also a little bit sad. Because when I think that that was about our history, it was really, really sad.”

Girl: “It was nice, but I didn’t understand everything, I think. I am too young. I saw something of our history from the time that I was born maybe, but I don’t remember it first hand.”

And has it changed the way you think about this period?

“Yes, it has changed the way I think about it, but then my view of this period changes every day.”

The communism timeline will be on Prague’s náměstí Republiky until May 3. Look out for theatre performances at Divadlo Archa and a communism simulator in the capital’s NOD gallery, which both form part of the project.