May 9, 2016

Cimrman: The Myth of the Man

By Anthony Freda

Cimrman: The man doesn't exist, yet his influence reaches farther than anybody else's in the country. His work is essential to understanding Czech culture. To a non-native, however, it reads more like a long-running inside joke; not only are his plays filled with obscure history and wordplay, but the nuances of his non-existence strike an ironic tone that is uniquely Czech.

So what, exactly, would a play by Cimrman look like when performed in English? Thanks to the translation work of Brian Stewart and Emília Machalová, overseen by one of the original authors Zdeněk Svěrák, we have our answer. The Jára Cimrman theatre in Žižkov introduced The Stand-In to their English-language repertoire in 2014, and this April, they add The North Pole. If the former work is any indication, the latter promises to be an unflinchingly funny, clever production. We talked to actor Adam Stewart about his experience presenting a local phenomenon to a foreign audience:

When I went to the Žižkovské divadlo Járy Cimrmana (The Jára Cimrman Theatre), I was greeted by a modest establishment: an intimate auditorium, where the whispers of the other audience members were clearly audible, and a humble bar area with limited seating, as though it were a salon in someone's home. Adorning the walls were photos of past performances decades old, black-and-white photography elevating their importance and imparting a sense of legacy. It comes off as an expression of understated pride, a family photo from a labor of love.

Disorienting, to say the least – because while the theater has a sincere, transparent aspect, the entire phenomenon of Jára Cimrman is maddeningly opaque. To research him is to learn of a radio programme broadcast in 1966, in which Zdeněk Svěrák and others casually made reference to a thitherto unknown individual named Jára Cimrman. An unsung hero and undiscovered genius, he is reported, for example, to have invented many of the things Edison did; the only reason we don't regard the Czech as the inventor is that he arrived at the patent office mere hours after Edison. Cimrman, in fact, penned all of the plays in the Žižkov theatre's repertoire (actually written by Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak), though nobody alive today has ever seen him.

The story of this playwright, inventor, etc. is filled with similarly absurd episodes, told as though they were true. Just how far does it go? Well, next time you walk up Petřín Hill to take in that gorgeous view of the castle, make sure you venture into the basement of Petřín Tower, where you'll find a museum proudly celebrating all of Cimrman's achievements, with not a single disclaimer of fiction to be found. One begins to wonder: where does the fiction end and the reality begin?

As the night went on and the play began, however, any impression of complexity quickly went away. The idea of a non-existent man secretly orchestrating major events in European history becomes simply funny, and the play aims not to confuse, but entertain. That evening's show, The Stand-In, tells the story of a theater troupe without their lead man and the famous (though incompetent) actor they get to replace him. We watch the troupe struggle through their performance as Prácheňský (the titular character) flubs lines and misses cues. Truly good writing survives the translation process, and the company delivers it with perfect comedic timing.

One thing to know about the structure of the play: the first half is comprised of mock lectures that set the tone for the play itself. Cast members take turns at the podium to elucidate key events in Czech “history” and Cimrman's “life,” which bear thematic relations to the play that follows in the second half. The deadpan delivery in the first half brings to mind a classic Monty Python sketch – but the play proper is what you stay for.

So if it's all simply to entertain, why, again, such an elaborate backstory? Well, that backstory provides something like another “play,” one in which a culture makes fun of itself for its relative irrelevance, its peripheral status in European history. “We don't have an icon that the entire world knows about,” they seem to say, “so why not make one up?” The phenomenon of Jára Cimrman grows more nuanced and multi-faceted the more you read about him. It strikes a tone of irony difficult to define.

How, then, could something like Cimrman be translated? Adam Stewart of the Cimrman English theatre doesn't see the problem: “A lot of Czechs say, when they come to see it, 'I really didn't think it would work in English. I couldn't see how you could possible translate Cimrman and it still be funny.' But they love it.” And the difficulties of cultural exchange don't hurt, either: “I think they like hearing the way we pronounce certain words... Křižík is a very difficult name to say, and I think they take some enjoyment out of us butchering it.”

As conduits between foreigner and local, much of the cast know the city quite well. Stewart himself has lived here since 2005. He founded and runs the Prague Youth Theatre, where over a hundred children and teenagers perform plays in English, including Shakespeare. Not to mention, his uncle is directly involved in the official translations of Cimrman's plays:

“[My uncle's partner, Emília Machalová] did the translation, and then [my uncle, Brian Stewart] went through it. She explained the joke and he then came up with the English translation. He writes comedy himself, so he had already had the background in writing comedy and therefore he was able to shape up that translation. Then Svěrák's daughter, Hanka, an English teacher, could then have conversations with him about it. . . . It's the only English translation that's been blessed by Svěrák.”

Likewise, the English performance makes possible a continued bridging of cultures: “There's a lot of bilingual couples here. The Czech person in that couple has probably talked to their non-Czech speaking partner about Cimrman, and so now we're giving people the opportunity to see that who wouldn't otherwise have been able to see it or understand it. And I think there's a lot of subtleties, maybe moreso in The North Pole, subtleties in the script which, even if you have a fairly good level of Czech, you'd struggle to understand.” (The English company premieres The North Pole later this April.)

So, what point of reference can a native English speaker use, going into this play? “I think Brits have a very similar sense of humor to the Czechs, in the way that they're sort of underdogs. . . . If you look at some of the most famous comedies to come out of Britain – The Office, Fawlty Towers – they all concern underdogs, and I think both Brits and Czechs like to laugh at the underdog. They want the underdog to succeed and to then knock him down when he does succeed.”

On the other hand, the cultural specificity of these plays is no accident. Originally, the jokes eluded us because we weren't in on the joke. And while the humor seeks to self-deprecate, it simultaneously bonds the native audience members. Cimrman – that elusive, impossible-to-define figure who frustrates all accepted notions of what a national icon can be – is uniquely Czech. In Stewart's words: “I think there's a lot of Czechs who quite like the fact that it's theirs.”

As such, the English company has a delicate balance to strike. But Stewart feels positive: “We've had people from all over the Czech Republic come to see the show. We've had a lot of press taking an interest in us. Magazines and papers are still picking it up even now. I think that helps, but for us – I think I speak for all the actors – we all feel very honored to be doing this. It's a labor of love for us all. We're aware [of] the way the Czechs feel very protective and we want to do it justice.”

When I went to see The Stand-In later that evening, I concluded that they had. Not an audience member's side wasn't split. Between acts, I even overheard an eager discussion between one of the bilingual couples Stewart spoke about. Amidst all the confusion about Cimrman, it suffices to visit Žižkovské divadlo Járy Cimrmana, where the joke becomes clear. To discover his theatre is to understand something fundamental about the Czechs, and by extension, the city we live in. Through the work of Adam Stewart and others, we foreigners are given that opportunity.

--

The Cimrman English Theatre premieres The North Pole this April 15th, 2016 at Žižkovské divadlo Járy Cimrmana. Repeat performances of The Stand-In continue throughout the year, including April 29th; visit zdjc.cz for details. They also take The Stand-In to Brno April 11th; see http://www.inbrno.com/.

Illustration by Nick Fox