The great Czech actor and comedian Jan Werich was born 100 years ago this past Sunday. Together with his life-long friend and long-time acting partner Jiri Voskovec (also known as George Voskovec) - who was just a few months younger - he made the so-called "Liberated Theatre" of the 1920's and 1930's famous — it remains an icon of pre-war Czechoslovakia culture. Voskovec and Werich were pioneers of avant-garde theatre, but also gifted comedians, singers and writers.
As theatre historian Jiri Just points out, the duo served an inspiration for their contemporaries but also for future generations of artists.
"In terms of their contribution to Czech theatre, I believe that the whole movement of the 'small theatres' — as well as the Czech Film 'New Wave' in the sixties — would not have evolved without the impulse of the 'Liberated Theatre', whether we speak of theatre, literature or music. Their strong influence continued throughout the whole of the 1960s; even though the theatre had disappeared long before. Their plays were still performed, their songs were widely played, and above all, many new theatres were inspired by their example."
Voskovec & Werich met in high school. Their first show - the legendary 'Vest Pocket Revue' was in fact originally designed for a student party. When they joined the Liberated Theatre in 1927, they continued to perform the Revue, along with dozens of other successful comedies. Within a few years the Liberated Theatre became one of the most popular scenes in Prague. Performing to the music of Jaroslav Jezek — "the father of Czech jazz" — contributed greatly to their meteoric rise to stardom.
Voskovec & Werich featured in many films, some of which were known even outside Czechoslovakia, says Jakub Skorpil, who has done extensive research on the pair's body of work.
"They were regularly reviewed in the German press, of course, especially later when they got in conflict with the fascist ideology. Their performances were strictly anti-fascist in late thirties which led to closing of the Liberated Theatre in 1938. Some performances were occasionally reviewed in France, Germany and also in other countries, for example in Russia. So they were known at their times."
Voskovec & Werich's unconventional humour often poked fun at the pompous petty bourgeoisie and is often seen today as left wing — which is not always warmly appreciated in a country with a communist past. But as Jiri Just says, the humour should be understood within the context of the times.
"They were no more left wing than any other inter-war, avant-garde artist. Of course, they pointed especially at nationalism and patriotic clichés. Between the wars, these clichés were used mainly by the ultra-right wing fascist forces, at which they focused their satire, but they were quite critical towards communists as well. And I have to say, their left wing cues were nothing compared with what was at the same time written about the Soviet Union's Lion Feuchtwanger, Bernard Shaw or Heinrich Mann, and a whole myriad of writers and artists who had the illusion about Stalin's Russia."
Ahead of the widely anticipated German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Voskovec & Werich, who were known for their anti-fascist humour, both fled to the United States in early 1939.
They returned to their homeland after the war and re-established their theatre in Prague, but it was not to last for long. The communists seized power in February 1948, and the humour of Voskovec & Werich was not welcomed by the new totalitarian regime: The V&W Theatre again closed its doors under political pressure.
While Jiri Voskovec returned to the United States and settled there, his partner Jan Werich stayed on in communist Czechoslovakia, and made a glorious career as a theatre and film star. Although he is sometimes criticised for his loyal attitude to the regime, Werich also fell into disgrace with the communist authorities' after openly siding with reformists following the "Prague Spring" of 1968 — the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, Jiri Voskovec had taken the stage name of George Voskovec, and became a respected actor in America.
"George Voskovec was quite a successful actor. His best known film role is 'juror number 11' in the movie '12 angry men'. He also played some main roles in TV series in the end of seventies like 'Skeg'. He was also quite successful on Broadway, where he played some long running performances. He also received an Obie Award for his role in 'Uncle Vana'."
A huge number of events are now underway to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich. I asked Jakub Skorpil to guide me through an exhibition at Prague Town Hall and comment on some of the interesting pieces.
"Those are parts of diaries or letters of very young Jan Werich. On the opposite side there are also the same pictures by very young Jiri Voskovec. We can see there how their humour and poetry later evolved."
RP: The other panel we are just standing in front of depicts the time when Voskovec & Werich immigrated to the United States. Is it right?
"Those are pictures from the forties. There are four pictures where they are joking. They were taken when they arrived to Hollywood. They made the photos in a way so that it looked like they were greeted by some huge crowds, they are pretending that two internationally known actors are arriving to Hollywood, but in fact nobody was waiting there."
RP: There are also some pictures that look like from a later period, because both Voskovec & Werich are sort of bearded elderly men.
"Those are pictures from Vienna where they met in the mid sixties. After they had departed they've met unfortunately only five or six times, because Jan Werich was of course not allowed to travel to Western Europe as often as he would like to."
RP: So George Voskovec was not allowed to visit Czechoslovakia anymore?
"He was afraid that there could be some danger from the communist police. There was one chance in 1968 during the Prague Spring and he was already planning the trip. But then he started to perform in a musical cabaret in America and he performed eight times a week, so the producers did not allow him to come to Czechoslovakia."
Voskovec & Werich met for the last time in 1974, in Vienna. Although they chose different paths, their destinies were more closely intertwined than either could have imagined. They were born — and died — within a few months of each other.