In a couple of weeks’ time, audiences in Prague will get their first chance to see a Jára Cimrman play performed in English. Known as a dramatist, inventor, philosopher, traveller and all-round genius, the fictional character has been hugely popular with Czech audiences since the first Cimrman play in 1967. Ahead of the premiere of the English Cimrman Studio’s production of Záskok or The Stand-In, I spoke to its founder, Brian Stewart – what was his introduction to one of the best-loved comic figures in Czech culture?
“My introduction was essentially through my partner, who’s also co-translator [of Záskok]. I’ve been coming to Prague for a number of years and I’ve really got into Czech cinema. I’ve watched a lot of films incidentally written by [Cimrman co-creator] Mr. [Zdeněk] Svěrák [Cimrman co-creator].
“One night she said to me, you won’t understand Czech culture unless you actually understand Cimrman. She had a recording from a play from back in the mid-1990s; we watched it and although I didn’t understand all of it, I could see there was great comic potential there. And she would stop it occasionally to explain the jokes.”
About the humour of Cimrman, it’s quite intellectual, it’s quite absurd, and it seems to me to be very Czech. What for you is the appeal of the particular Cimrman brand of humour?
“I just think it’s very funny. And it is very clever, it is. Parallels have been drawn to Monthy Python, which is not an unfair parallel.
“It’s clever humour, there’s wordplay, but it also goes to the bizarre, the surreal and the slapstick. It seems to have everything [laughs].”
For people who don’t know Cimrman, could you describe what Cimrman is?
“Well, Cimrman is a fictional character. He was actually voted the greatest Czech, in 2005, despite the fact that he’s a fictional character.
“He’s a poet, he’s a playwright, he’s a philosopher, he’s an inventor, a mathematician and all-round genius, really.
And he appears in several plays that often touch on real historical events in a humourous way.
“But the plays are normally set at the turn of the century when they are still under the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
It’s almost 50 years since the first play Akt and there’s huge interest still. I used to work by the theatre and once a month there’d be a queue of mainly young people, queuing to get tickets. What place do you think Cimrman has in Czech culture? I know you’ve already said he was voted the greatest Czech.
“I think he’s got a very important role in Czech culture. From what I understand, people are very familiar with Cimrman. Many of the phrases and words used in the Cimrman plays have passed into everyday usage.
“If you say ‘Cimrman’ to any Czech person, they know who you’re talking about. It’s quite phenomenal really.
“It’s still inordinately popular and I think not only with people of a certain seniority – you did comment that it was 50 years ago. But I think also young people are still very much taken with the joy of Cimrman, because it’s funny.
“I think it’s also partly because they’ve been brought up on it. Perhaps it’s a sort of nostalgia for them…”
I guess there around a dozen Cimrman plays. What are your particular favourites?
“I haven’t seen them all but I’ve taken advice on which ones are maybe the most accessible. I think Záskok [The Stand-In] is one of the most accessible, followed by the Conquest of the North Pole and Plum, which we are interested in looking at as well. There’s a certain beauty to Záskok…”
That’s one of the relatively recent ones. It’s from the 1990s. What was your reason for choosing that particular play?
Tell us about the challenges of translating it. You said your partner translated it and then you worked on what she had translated.
“That’s right. She did a literal translation and I worked on it. The difficulty is – and I have to say that Mr. Svěrák’s daughter Hanka has been a kind of script adviser and editor, and I unflatteringly call her the Zaskok police – the difficulty is that you can see what the comic intent is.
“It’s about trying to capture that comic intent, which is difficult. Sometimes some things will be lost because of wordplay.
“There were some things which we could not translate. For example there’s a section where Cimrman is talking to the first artistic director of the National Theatre.
“He’s talking about Říp and then he talks about řepa, meaning beet, and no matter how long we talked about it we couldn’t make that work. But it’s only one paragraph in the entire play.”
In a couple of weeks you’re starting a full production of The Stand-In. In June you had a staged reading. How did that go down? Were there laughs in different places from the English native speakers and the Czechs in the audience?
“I don’t think so. I think all the laughter seemed to happen at the same time, which was very satisfying. Myself, the actors and Mr. Kotek – who’s part of the Cimrman troupe but also its producer with Agentura Echo – were all surprised I think by the reception we got.
“It seemed to go down remarkably well. That’s why we’re encouraged to add it to the monthly repertoire of the Cimrman theatre. Now we are officially the Cimrman English Studio, whose sole purpose is to perform Cimrman plays in English.”
“Very positive. Very enthusiastic. I think a lot of Czechs were very pleased that it worked. But I think some Czechs were a bit disappointed actually, as well [laughs], because they wanted to think that Cimrman was uniquely Czech – it’s ours, the world can’t have it.”
I’ve often been told that I wouldn’t understand it…
“I think as you said it touches upon history sometimes and the historical events could be lost. That’s why in the translation we had occasionally we have to add little descriptive sentences…”
A bit of exposition?
“Yes, that’s right. It’s better than some translations where they put footnotes at the bottom. You can’t do that with an audience – can you turn to footnote number 23, please?
“But on the whole, I think the Czechs really enjoyed it. So too did the English speaking audience, who said, this is a revelation, I’ve heard about Cimrman but I didn’t really know that it was this funny.”
You’ve mentioned a couple of times Zdeněk Svěrák, who I guess is the last remaining main mover in the Cimrman theatre. Is Svěrák aware of what you’re doing? Has he shown any interest?
“Oh yes, absolutely. When we’d done the translation, in order to convince him, I did a little try-out in the UK with a group of actors and a small audience…that was well-received and I videoed it.
“Then we had a meeting with Mr. Kotek and Mr. Svěrák, just to show them that people were laughing at the right places.
“He’s been very supportive. We got his backing. He came to the first night and he was very pleased with what he saw. He said when we came off stage, it’ll be even better when you haven’t got the scripts in your hand. And I think that’s absolutely true.
“Also we have his backing for the name The Cimrman English Studio, which we’re allowed to use. So, yes, he’s very much behind the project.”
What does the future hold for your group? You have the production of The Stand-In – what comes after that?
“Essentially what we’d like to do is create a repertoire of Cimrman plays that not only Czechs can enjoy but also people maybe visiting or expats who live here who haven’t experienced Cimrman. We hope we’ll be able to introduce him to wider range of audiences.”
The premiere of The Stand-In takes place at Žižkov’s Jára Cimrman theatre on October 25.