Today is the anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, which existed as a country for just 74 years. Like other nation-states in the region, it was a creation of the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. But there were long-standing tensions between the two peoples which gave the country its name, and It was dissolved in 1992 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The anniversary is still celebrated in the Czech Republic. But what I continue to find interesting and am going to talk about is how it was observed in the last two years of the 1980s by three studio theatres when the state was still officially the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. What they staged was an uncanny anticipation of what theatres offered during the first days of the Velvet Revolution. It was the furthest thing imaginable from what one would expect in a theatrical production, and it showed incredible inventiveness, agility and courage.

Any state anniversary celebrates certain values. In Czechoslovakia, it was those of The First Republic, as the government of the new nation was known: hope, democratic process, self-determination and vigorous discussion and debate. These values were particularly strong because the Czech and Slovak peoples had just emerged from centuries of domination under the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

Such values made the Czech and Slovak nomenclature of the 1980s deeply uncomfortable. Internal changes in Hungary and Poland, together with the influence of Gorbachev’s reforms from mid-decade had helped to relax regime control in those two countries. But the Party hardliners who had been put in power following the Warsaw Pact invasion were still clinging tightly to a system characterised by cultural amnesia, top-down control of all aspects of life and punitive measures to keep them in place.

Many theatres, especially small ones, and many theatre professionals, remembering their heritage from the sixties, had learned to subvert this kind of control in clever ways. Three studio theatres and their creations are players in this story: two in Moravia, HaTheatre and Theatre on the String, and one in Prague, the Realistic Theatre of Zdenĕk Nejedlý.

HaTheatre, which developed during the second half of the seventies, took its name from the Haná region in Central Moravia. Theatre on a String, originally known as Goose on a String, began as an amateur group in Brno, Moravia’s principal city, in 1967. (The theatre had to change its name when Gustáv Husák replaced Alexander Dubček as Party General Secretary in 1971. “Husák” means a male goose, and the possibilities of jokes and caricatures were just too inviting.)

Into the stiff normalisation protocols following the Warsaw Pact invasion, the theatres’ young members carried the elan of sixties’ experimentation. This meant not only the so-called Prague Spring, which was Spring in Brno and everywhere else in the country. It tapped into the international boundary breaking of the era by the tremendously influential Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and the Living Theatre of Beck and Malina. It also drew upon the avant-garde in Prague and Brno during the twenties and thirties, another period of questioning and experimentation.

The upshot of this was that the actors and directors of Theatre on a String were not likely to respect Communist norms, and they did not. HaTheatre didn’t either. By 1980 it had a seat in Brno, and the two theatres began collaborating. Theatre on a String had already developed what they called “author’s theatre”. They often drew upon non-dramatic material, such as novels, poetry, games, etc. Both these choices and the process of developing them into a staging gave considerable freedom to directors, but also to the actors, who worked closely with each director and developed their capacities for improvisation. Although the theatres did not call their approach “audience theatre”, it was very much that too. They involved audiences directly during performances but also reached out through questionnaires and surveys. The kinds of exchanges they fostered broke down the separation that any totalitarian regime attempts to maintain and created communities. The two theatres were not alone in their resistance to socialist norms, but they were the most daring and inventive.

In the course of the eighties, many small theatres were also developing connections with each other through collective discussions and workshops, frequently meeting with resistance from the authorities. HaTheatre and Theatre on a String managed to perform in various projects, one, with three other theatres, another with a third theatre at the beginning of 1988. One of the common aims of these theatres was to break down censorship, fight cultural amnesia and cast the cultural net much wider than socialist prescriptions allowed.

When their application to publish a newspaper was denied, Theatre on the String teamed up again with HaTheatre to create a “stage magazine” whose first issue was entitled Rozrazil 1/88: On Democracy. (Rozrazil refers to the flower veronica but also means “broken up” or “smashed”.) It was premiered in Brno 21st October, and in Prague, on the seventieth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia 28th October, with police cars stationed outside the performance venue.

The “articles” included a “survey”, a sketch in which young people maintained that they did not live in a democracy. (I saw this as both a criticism of the current political situation, and an allusion to the sixties when abolition of censorship made public opinion polls so popular.) Another article was a “discussion” set in a prison or soup kitchen where the characters were philosophers. When the woman ladling out the soup called the name of Jan Patočka, another answered, “He’s dead”. There were gasps from the audience because that broke a taboo. Patočka was one of the founders of Charter 77. Already in poor health, he died after police interrogation in the spring of 1977. Little wonder that his name was never to be mentioned in public.

The demolition of censorship was vividly announced for each article by an actor bursting through an oversized blank page. One of the most vivid, a “study”, was a play entitled Tomorrow We’ll Set it Off. It depicted the fast-paced machinations of a small circle of patriots on a tapped phone to exiles in Vienna the evening of 27th October 1918 as the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled with lightning speed. It was full of allusions to repression and the secret police and was continually interrupted by laughter and applause. It had been secretly written by Václav Havel and passed off as a creation of the company; The String was an “author’s theatre” after all. The ruse was not admitted openly, but it was a feat which many suspected.

The staging by the Realistic Theatre of Zdenĕk Nejedlý in Prague on the same occasion harked back to the First Republic differently, by documenting and evoking it. The theatre was older than the two from Brno. It was founded in 1945, named for the then Minister of Education, Arts and Sciences who was a stalwart Communist. During the cultural thaw of the mid-sixties, though, its repertoire included plays by progressive Czech writers, some of whom were banned after the Warsaw Pact invasion.

In the course of the 1980s the dramaturgy became more daring in Prague, just as it did in Brno and a number of other cities. New directors and a new dramaturge came to The Realistic, as it was called, and made it an important part of this evolution. While the Rozrazil performance broke through censorship overtly in raising normalisation issues that ranged from uncomfortable to taboo, and secretly by producing a banned playwright, The Realistic evoked through texts, music and memory the era of The First Republic which had been more or less censured since the Communists took power in 1948 – with the exception of a few years in the 1960s.

The staging was entitled Res public I and actors and guests in street dress were seated at tables onstage in a discussion format. Readings of texts by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Karel Čapek, Jaroslav Seifert and others were interspersed with scenes from the Liberated Theatre of Voskovec and Werich, with music (Janáček, Martinú) and with descriptions of life during The First Republic by guests who had lived it. One of them was an original signatory of Charter 77 (the gentleman standing on the left side of the photo). Daring to present a Chartist in a public performance was a first, and police cars were stationed outside this theatre too. The “backdrop” was a wide paper band with censored and “marginal” names written all over it. “Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk” was front, top and centre. The band stretched into the auditorium and out into the foyer, and theatre-goers were encouraged to write names on it, remembering those who were supposed to be forgotten.

The Realistic staged Res public II for the October anniversary the following year. This time, the theme was the 1960’s. The staging included tapes of Karel Kryl, the exiled composer-singer who composed the famous “Close the Gate, Little Brother” immediately after the Warsaw Pact invasion, scenes from Václav Havel’s 1963 play for Theatre on the Balustrade, The Garden Party, and the semi-autobiographical novel The Tank Corps by Josef Škvorecký who founded the exile Sixty-Eight Publishers. Together with Havel, he was the regime’s persona non grata par excellence. That was too much for the apparatchiks, and the staging was banned.

Three weeks later, the Realistic was packed with hundreds of theatre professionals who voted a theatre strike in response to the attack on a peaceful student-organised demonstration. It is a fine irony that these events occurred in a theatre named for Nejedlý who destroyed the careers of many non-conformist artists.

The strike took a form very much like the Rozrazil and Res publica stagings. The theatres were opened free to the public. Performances were replaced by programmes with actors, directors and technicians in street dress hosting student activists, members of the newly created Civic Forum and experts in economics, ecology and other fields. Together, they created a living newspaper which countered the fabrications of the Communist-controlled media during the first crucial week. Besides that, directors, whose professions required them to articulate instructions and ideas, were skilful moderators who helped a silenced public begin to express themselves. Many theatre strike programmes mixed information with cultural creations from the First Republic, the 1960s and the margins of normalisation: poetry, songs and stories. It was an important way of overcoming cultural amnesia, reclaiming authentic culture, remembering what was supposed to be forgotten.

With Rozrazil and Res publica I and II, theatre had already moved far beyond its specific cultural role and assumed a much wider one which was also social-political. That, and the networks that had formed by 1989, not only among theatres, but between theatres and their audiences, allowed a degree of organisation which few other professions possessed. Allowed it with a rapidity that benefited citizens in the first days of the Velvet Revolution when the direction that events would take was anything but certain.

Photo credits:  Res publica I, Jaroslav Kořán, courtesy of Barbara Day, personal archive. A theatre strike meeting at the ABC Theatre, a studio theatre in the centre of Prague, November 1989. An actor speaks to a packed house while theatre personnel listen onstage. Photographer unknown, courtesy of ABC Theatre Archive, Prague, Czech Republic.

Tags: Czechoslovakia, Velvet Revolution, First Republic, Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček, theatre, Jerzy Grotowski, Living Theatre, HaTheatre, Theatre Goose on a String, Theatre on a String, Realistic Theatre, Václav Havel, cultural amnesia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Karel Čapek, Communist, democratic, Josef Škvorecký, Sixty-Eight Publishers

Celebration of Founding of CS