Czechs in History Vaclav Kliment Klicpera

18-04-2001 | Alena Škodová

By Alena Skodova.

19th century plays are a common feature of the repertoire in theatres throughout the country, but it's usually Chekhov or Ibsen who attract a 21st century audience more used to modern drama. In the Czech Republic there's a tradition of introducing older Czech authors to a young audience, because children and students usually learn about them at school. The two most famous names in Czech 19th century drama are Josef Kajetan Tyl and Vaclav Kliment Klicpera. In this week's edition of Czechs in History I'll acquaint you with the latter - Vaclav Kliment Klicpera, a playwright who penned more than 50 plays in the first half of the 19th century.

I spoke to the programme director of the National Theatre in Prague, Miloslav Klima, and asked him first about Klicpera's significance for the 19th century Czech cultural scene:

"Vaclav Kliment Klicpera was somebody who definitely helped Czech theatre stand on its own two feet in the 19th century. We have to realise that there were several attempts to do so before Klicpera, but nobody was so systematic and so versatile in genres. Klicpera wrote vaudeville, comedies and historic plays, and succeeded in bringing Czech drama up to a certain level, so that Tyl already had something to build on. Klicpera's plays were performed fairly regularly, and as a result Czech drama started gaining experience and was given the chance to develop independently from German culture, which lived a parallel existence in the Czech lands at the time."

All in all, Vaclav Kliment Klicpera did not have an easy childhood. He was born in November 1792 as the second of three boys, and so he could not devote himself to his studies like his elder brother. He started life as a butcher's apprentice, but very soon, due to health reasons, he had to give up the job. After the death of Vaclav's younger brother, his family decided to send him to university, where he studied philosophy, medicine and social sciences.

In 1819, after passing all his exams to become a school professor, Klicpera was appointed Director of Hradec Kralove Grammar School. But Klicpera had already gained considerable experience with dramatic work. He was an actor in an amateur theatre troop, and it was his life's dream to become a dramatic poet. He wrote his first play, Blanik, at the age of 20. "The play lasted from 7 to 11 o'clock and there were so many spectators that there was not a single seat free in the auditorium," wrote a critic at the time.

This, of course, encouraged young Klicpera, and so before he left his studies in Prague he wrote another 10 plays, including the Magic Hat, Hadrian of Rimsy and The Liar and His Kin to name but a few. So when he returned to Hradec Kralove, he was immediately approached by the local amateur theatre company. But Klicpera only staged tried and tested plays by other authors, and moreover all of them were in German, which was the official language in the Czech lands at the time.

Klicpera continued writing plays, which he also succeeded in having published in an edition called simply "Theatre". But it was not until the 1820s that his plays were performed in the prestigious Estates Theatre in Prague. Miloslav Klima says Klicpera's plays have a special zest:

"We should accept Klicpera neither over-critically nor with too much admiration, but we should take from him the most positive aspects of his plays - and I think there's a lot in Klicpera's work: for instance each of his characters comes to a certain moment when he suddenly unveils his inner self. We're laughing, but suddenly we stop and say to ourselves: "Is this man not suffering? Isn't he sad? Isn't he lonely?" ... but the play goes on and our character starts doing silly things again...."

With his plays on the stage of the Estates Theatre, Klicpera soon became disappointed with ruthless editing of his texts, and a feud with his publishers silenced him as a playwright for some time. He continued writing plays, but he kept them in drawer and did not publish them. Later on he decided to stage them for the German audience, but by doing so he only irritated his Czech spectators.

Fortunately a new theatre opened soon afterwards in Prague - The Kajetan Theatre - which opened its doors in February 1835 with Klicpera's vaudeville Zizka's Sword. Among the company were such well-known personalities as the poets Karel Hynek Macha and Jan Kollar. And Klicpera's plays were a great success. But Mr Klima explained that critics looked at Klicpera from a different angle:

"As I said, Klicpera had a special ability to put his characters into a comic situation and at its peak they suddenly stop and we can read their internal thoughts, which are serious. Then everything goes back to laughter. Well, some critics used to say this was proof the Czechs had an inferior complex, because what should have been done was to bring the mockery to its bitter end, like in Beckett or Ionescu. Instead of that we step back and smooth the edges in order to return to reality. The other interpretation says that Klicpera enables us to look at people from another angle, from a different situation. Laughter but not mockery, that was Klicpera's credo."

In the revolutionary year 1848 Klicpera became involved in politics. He was a member of a Czech delegation sent to the Emperor to Vienna. Czechs wanted their demands heard by the Austrian court. Negotiations grew into revolution. After the uprising was suppressed, the Austrian authorities loosened the reins for a while - and Czech was taught at schools. Klicpera was very active at that time - he wrote a text book of Czech history, was appointed a member of an association for building a Czech national theatre and at the same time became the director of a secondary school in Prague. However, the 1848 revolution had a negative impact on his publisher, too, and so the plan to publish Klicpera's collected works never came true. Klicpera continued to write, especially historical dramas, but his state of health was deteriorating. He enjoyed a good reputation among other Czech playwrights, and on festive occasions it was his dramas that were always played. Klicpera died in June 1859, but long after his death a Klicpera cult prevailed in Czech dramatic writing.

Klicpera's speciality was 'the knight drama', where he used guises, changing the identity of characters. This was characteristic of all the plays he wrote in the 1840s. He also used the techniques of popular vaudevilles, but improved them and actually enabled the transition of 19th century Czech plays into modern drama. Mr Klima explained to me Klicpera's position among all the Becketts and Ionescus he mentioned before. He told me he was glad that theatre had not remained 'mass culture', only attracting people interested in theatre and choosing carefully what they want to see. Over the past 40 years, Mr. Klima told me, the exclusivity of some plays had become digestible for more viewers.

"This is also the case with Klicpera. The theatregoer who despises him shouldn't bother going to see Klicpera at all. Moreover I think because Klicpera's plays are old, those who stage them today are forced to make him more contemporary. In some places, the story goes at a very slow pace, and we know that modern theatregoers get bored. And so we try to condense Klicpera's plays, to make them faster, more telegraphic. We simply have to take into consideration that the audience's tastes have changed."

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