Significant contributors to Czech culture and Czech national identity, the 15 plays performed by the all-male Jára Cimrman (pronounced Tsimmerman) Theatre focus on an unlucky fictional Czech character living in the Austrian part of the oppressive Habsburg-controlled regime of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which enforced Germanization. The ensemble, which even includes four octogenarians, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in October of 2016, and all performances from its inception have been sold out. Spectators know the plays by heart. Most actors have been with the theatre for decades. In Murder in the Parlor Car, two father-and-son acting teams (one for each cast) perform.
Humor is how the Czechs have come to terms with a past punctuated by oppression. Czechs found themselves living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II and later in Communist Czechoslovakia for more than forty years, before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought democracy to the nation. The plays, which take place around the turn of the 20th century, were written by co-founders of the theatre Zdeněk Svěrák (who is perhaps best known for his 1996 Oscar-winning performance in Kolya) and the late Ladislav Smoljak, who made a name for himself as an actor and director in both theatre and film.
The productions are divided into two parts. The first hour is a seminar in which the actors, as themselves, discuss various aspects of Cimrman’s life and work. After the intermission, the ensemble performs the play itself. Each play deals with different aspects of Cimrman’s identity.
Chosen the greatest Czech in a survey conducted during 2005 (though disqualified because he is a fictional character), Jára Cimrman was a Czech nationalist who was adamantly anti-Habsburg. An inventor who came too late to the patent office with his creations, Cimrman is presented as an unlucky outsider whose feats go unrecognized until 1966, when Dr. Svěrák and his cousin discover Cimrman’s posthumous papers and bust at Liptákov 12, a cottage in a hamlet nestled in the Jizera valley.
Born to an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor, Cimrman was much more than an inventor. He was a prolific writer of plays, operas, fairy tales and novels as well as poetry and amassed the largest collection of stories in the world. He was also an avid traveler who visited six continents, including the North Pole. The man whose parents forced him to dress as a girl for the first 15 years of his life was also a philosopher, teacher, filmmaker, psychologist, builder, gynecologist and physicist, among numerous other professions. He did time, incarcerated for two months because he told a joke about the emperor. While in prison, Cimrman formed a choir and orchestra with the inmates and organized contests in Morse Code. He also worked as a travelling dentist, lugging with him a foot-operated drill on wheels and a dentist’s trolley.
Perhaps what makes this theatre unique is the sense of mystery that pervades Cimrman’s identity. The only photos of Cimrman are group shots taken too far away to make out his features. Cimrman’s bust is so damaged that it is only possible to decipher two eye sockets, two ear holes and two chins. No one even knows when exactly he was born or when he died.
In The Conquest of the North Pole, the expedition is led by Czech Karel Němec, whose common Czech surname translates as “German.” Although the Czechs are the first to conquer the North Pole –one day before the Americans -, the feat goes unrecorded because the Czechs do not want hated Austria-Hungary to get credit for their accomplishment.
In Cimrman in the Kingdom of Music, the actors discuss how Cimrman entered a contest for best operetta with his seven-hour, 96-scene creation but, because he did not send it registered mail, famous composers stole his ideas. In that same play, the group performs Cimrman’s operetta The Success of a Czech Engineer in India. The plot revolves around a Czech engineer (Miloň Čepelka) tinkering with a broken machine that is supposed to make sugar and fixing it so that it makes Czech beer. At the end, a British Colonel (Dr. Svěrák) sings that he wishes he had been born Czech.
For the last two seasons, the character of Jára Cimrman has been introduced to some nonCzechs. The popular Cimrman English Theatre performs two of the plays – The Stand-In and The Conquest of the North Pole – in English at the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre.
PHOTOS: Dobytí Severního pólu from cimrman mypage.cz, Cimrman v říší hudby from www.divadlozatec.cz, Záskok from www.k3bohumin.cz, Blaník from www.youtube.com, Afrika from www.nasejablonecko.cz, Ceské nebe from world.pavelj.cz