WAT > eWAT > eWAT I. (December 2012) > The Myth of National Character
Lenka Dombrovská

The Myth of National Character


National Moravian-Silesian Theatre - photo by Radovan Šťastný
What are the Czechs like? Are they Schweiks; Are they laughing monsters, heathens, cowards, thieves... Even if we agree that there is actually something like a "national character", we would probably just be throwing around pejorative labels and comparisons. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we do. But it hasn't always been that way.

At the beginning of the National Awakening, we turned to our Slavonic nature. Maybe it was a way to make ourselves look better, but it was also a way to prove (and not just to the Germans) that we existed as a nation with a rich culture. This was supposed to be proved by the discovery of hundred-year old "manuscripts" for example, though later on they were found to be fake. (So are we also a nation of crooks on top of everything else?) Many revivalists have adopted the symbolism that Jan Kollár used to characterize not just the Czechs, but all the Slavs. In his words, we were ‘little bees, lime trees and honey’. Hostile Germans were self-indulgent swine and oak trees. Yes, we - the sweet and hard-working ones - faced a bitter and lazy enemy... But that was a long time ago, and today we just smile at the memory. But maybe we should be inspired by such an attitude.

What does Polish journalist Mariusz Szczygieł write about the Czechs? His book Gottland was originally written for a Polish readership. But while the author doesn’t show the Czech character in general, because he is describing particular tragic lives, he introduces these lives from a new point of view and without judgment. And that's why his book has been able to stand one test, namely – the ability to become a bestseller even in the Czech Republic.

The fact is that some of the people appearing in the book are relatively unknown to Czechs, for example the sculptor Otakar Švec, who designed the Stalin monument at Letná, or the writer Karel Fabián, who completely changed his literary and personal identity after February 1948, and also there is a short chapter about Franz Kafka's niece, who hides away from the world in a Kafkaesque way when anyone tries to interview her about her uncle.

In the chapter called ‘The Film Must be Shot’, Szczygieł uses the example of Jaroslava Moserová to serve as a link between ‘human torches’ Jan Palach and Zdeněk Adamec. The author has created his report from testimonies; and made a mosaic of antagonist statements, complementing them with archive documents and jokes from that particular time period.

He is neither ironic nor overly benevolent and agreeable. He is trying to be neutral. He intentionally chooses lives which escape explicit assessment. All are linked by a political system and the state of society, being the elements that brought these people into situations where they had to choose correctly. If they hadn’t, we would laugh at them today.
The author's opinion of the Czechs is only revealed in one passage of Gottland. All the rest are our own assumption and projections. There is just one hero whom Szczygieł doesn't spare judgement: the one hidden in the title of the book.
"In July 2006, his museum was opened in Jevany near Prague. With the name Gottland above the entrance in neon lights. No other living artist - at least in Czechia - has ever had his own museum where paid tour guides provide a commentary in three different languages. Karel Gott is a sacred object in a secularized society. A world without God isn't possible, so in the most atheistic country in the world, the Czech Republic, this 67 years old singer plays an important role. A role called mein Gott. /…/ They loved Gott and together with him they survived communism. If he “had to comply with what was the only right thing”, how could we not? To find ourselves in Gottland is comparable to gaining the imprimatur, our past is ok."

The author's ability to describe on a small scale the key moments in another’s life is a big asset of the book. From the individual chapters, which are actually autonomous literal reports, we often learn more than we would from biographies several hundred pages long. On top of that, the chapters are more readable and witty. But it seems to be more difficult to turn them into a theatre piece.

At the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre, director Jan Mikulášek and literary manager Marek Pivovar, both inspired by the well-known hockey chant, subtitled their production Whoever Doesn't Jump isn't Czech. At the Švanda Theatre in Smíchov, director Petr Štindl and artistic director Dodo Gombár went for a different subtitle – The Masks of Tragic Helplessness. Both productions stayed faithful to their subtitles. The one in Ostrava portrays the Czechs as a herd, while the Prague production describes individual tragic lives.

Neither of them has dealt with all the characters from the book, and the production in Ostrava didn't sustain Szczygieł's neutral outlook. Mikulášek and Pivovar make it much clearer who should be exonerated. Particularly the famous Czech actress Lída Baarová, whom Joseph Goebbels loved, is described as an innocent victim of the manipulated herd. This is suggested to the audience by the theatrically nice stage image: two men reveal her back, on which they draw the swastika. The poor star then tries to wipe it off, but she can't reach her own back. It is a wonderful theatrical metaphor, but the message it delivers is problematic.

In Ostrava, they didn't stage Szczygieł's book, they rather used it as an inspirational source. Unfortunately as a result, most of the additional material felt superficial - at least in comparison to the original.

The first part of the Prague production takes place among members of a virtual community of Facebook fans; the second is located in some strange sanatorium for the dead, who during their lives used to be addicted to social networks (which is a very poignant metaphor). Sometimes the stage becomes the Gottland museum (including visitors walking around) or the metro stop at Muzeum (near the place where Jan Palach and Zdeněk Adamec burned themselves to death). And even here, there are some added characters: especially the architect Jan Kaplický, or more accurately his model of the "Octopus", the winning design for the Prague National Library, the construction of which was cancelled by Prague councillors - probably under the influence of ‘artistic outrage’ by President Klaus. At the very end of the production a letter by Kaplický is cited. He, as an emigrant, expresses his conviction that once certain circumstances in our country change, he will be able to have his designs realized in his native land. That's quite a bitter end to the production, but very poignant.

Both productions share the motif of an all-powerful media. Again, the Prague creative team incorporates it better in their production. The first part of the story is situated in an environment where (theoretically) the characters could have met (of course it's necessary to take into account that they come from a different time period). It is situated in an internet social network that allows for many ‘Facebook jokes’ projected on a large screen: for example Goebbels asks Baarová to become his friend, and a group called The Final Solution is founded etc... However, for the older and less computer-skilled generation this update might be completely wasted, maybe even annoying. Also the importance of the characters of journalists Egon Ervín Kisch and Renáta Kalenská is underlined here while in the book they are mentioned rather marginally. In the production they play the roles of registrars and truth seekers.

The Ostrava production is again rather simplistic in comparison. At the very beginning, the chants draw attention to the cheesiness of the tabloids, and to those who are treated as our "national heroes" today: especially the entertainer Leoš Mareš and the pop music star of the socialist era Michal David. And of course, Karel Gott. Later, during the story of the discrediting of writer Jan Procházka, one of the icons of the Prague Spring, the added character of a Showman appears. During a staged New Year's Eve variety show he jovially comments on Procházka's fate, adding jokes about other dissidents who had to work as window and stairway cleaners.

Švandovo divadlo - photo by Patrik Borecký
This principle somehow manages to reflect the era and its values. It is also possible to find a link between the media in the past and in the present: the information delivered used to be and still is distorted, superficial and even untrue. These links feel quite obvious, however.

In both productions, the stage and costume designs are based on similar principles. At the beginning of the Prague version, an indistinguishable crowd dressed in black and white office outfits gather in an austere room. In the second half, each character gets an individual outfit, for example Baarová wears an evening gown while Adamec is bandaged head to toe...

In Ostrava, individuals dressed in brown, badly-sewn outfits, enter the stage. Later they turn into a jumping crowd, and even later individual characters are distinguished by their costumes. All this happens in a spacious hall with a back stairway, and there is a black sign “I DON'T WANT TO” written on the wall.

In terms of acting, the performances of the actresses in the role of Lída Baarová were outstanding. In Ostrava, Gabriela Mikulková portraits the star as a beautiful, proud and tragic woman. Alexandra Gasnárková as an older Baarová is already an unhappy woman, broken by historical events (that this Baarová lacks a sense of her own uniqueness and importance is the result the creative team’s interpretation). Her final monologue on the injustice of fate is a brilliant acting and rhetorical performance.

At Švanda Theatre, just one actress - Kristýna Frejová - portraits the famous star (Baarová's beauty is renewed after her death). Her Baarová is a seemingly self-confident star, but she loses her advantage as a beautiful woman and offers a more human side of her personality after an encounter with the Nazi chiefs (especially Hitler).

Probably no one else in the cast made as strong an impact on the audience. In Prague all the performers were precise, in Ostrava they seemed to make incidental appearances during the production. However, both actors performing the role of Karel Gott - David Viktora in Ostrava and Tomáš Pavelka in Prague - are worth mentioning. Their caricatures of Gott were thorough and their singing perfect.

Mariusz Szczygieł: Gottland, dramatization by Marek Pivovar and Jan Mikulášek, directed and music by J. Mikulášek, dramaturgy M. Pivovar, set and costume design Marek Cpin, National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in v Ostrava, press night 20. 1. 2011.

Mariusz Szczygieł: Gottland, script Petr Štindl and Dodo Gombár, directed by P. Štindl, music by Karel Albrecht, set design by Petr B. Novák, costumes by Zuzana Přidalová, dramaturgy Lucie Kolouchová, Švanda Theatre in Smíchov, press night 19. 3. 2011

english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 3, volume 2011
translated by Blanka Křivánková