Jan Werich - Czechoslovakia's "wise clown"

Welcome to Czechs in History. Today we look at the famous Czech actor Jan Werich, who never lost his ability to laugh or his sharp social awareness, even through two world wars. Known throughout his career as the "Wise Clown" his body of work is said to symbolize Czech intellectual humour. He has been crowned as a phenomenon of the first Republic amongst such revered names as Masaryk, Capek and Bata and has also been called the backbone of Czech modern theatre. Today we'll take you briefly through the phases of Werich's complex life and career. You'll hear how his fusion of music and intelligent text earned him the name of "liberator of theatre" in Czechoslovakia.

Jan Werich was born in Prague in 1905. He studied at the faculty of law until 1927, from which he made an early departure to begin his artistic career and forge one of the most important partnerships of his life. His collaboration with the theatrical talent Jiri Voskovec and musical legend Jaroslav Jezek lasted for more than 10 years between the two world wars. Their partnership was a platform for their numerous lively left-wing political satires.

The trio's work took inspiration from Dada, with its love of the absurd, a reaction against bourgeois values and the horrors of World War I. The two intellectual clowns attacked the inanities of totalitarianism as well as the mistakes of democracy.

But in the bitter reality leading to the Second World War and the closure of Czechoslovak theatres Werich, Voskovec and Jezek were forced into exile in the United States in 1938, where Voskovec and Jezek remained for the rest of their lives. But Jan Werich returned to his homeland five years later. Upon his return to Czechoslovakia he started a partnership with Miroslav Hornicek and also worked with famous puppeteer Jiri Trnka to write modern fairy tales. With his new partner Miroslav Hornicek at his side, he re-mounted many of the plays he had created with Voskovec in the 30s but integrated political content specific to the time.

From left to right: Jaroslav Jezek, Jan Werich and Jiri VoskovecFrom left to right: Jaroslav Jezek, Jan Werich and Jiri Voskovec Jan Werich made his debut in film and television where movies he starred in have kept their mythic status in Czech popular culture to this day. They include Byl jednou jeden kral or the Once upon a Time There Was a King, which was released in 1955, and made many political compromises to appease the communist censors. Although Czechs saw the caricatures in the film as nothing more than communist propaganda, the film was colourful and had all the ingredients of a good fairy tale. The 60's were a peak in Werich's career. From the creation of the ABC Theatre he moved to the City Theatres of Prague and then to the Musical Theatre of Karlin and Nusle. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, he and his wife immediately fled to Vienna along with many other Czechs at the time. After long deliberations he realized he had to go back, saying that his "home was his castle" and realizing that if he stayed abroad he would never work again. He had limited opportunities to perform in public until 1972.

On December 31st, 1972 Jan Werich signed the pro-reform manifesto 2000 Words; immediately all his publications were withdrawn from bookshops. He was banned from public life for the next 5 years. In the end he succumbed to pressure from the communist authorities and in order to be able to work again, publicly proclaimed his full loyalty to the regime, even apologizing for signing 2000 Words.

Jan WerichJan Werich Since Jan Werich's death in 1980, he has remained immensely popular, and one of his most famous lines has gone down into popular legend

"Kdyz uz clovek jednou je, tak ma koukat, aby byl. A kdyz kouka, aby byl a je, tak ma bejt to, co je a nema bejt to, co neni - jak tomu v mnoha pripadech je."

This quote is from the play Caesar written in 1932. Although this play on words may not sound as rich in English I have translated it for you...here it goes.

"If somebody already is, then he should see to it that he be. And when he sees that he be and is, then he must make sure, that he is what he is, and is not what he isn't - as is the case in most cases."