Uncertain Revival: The Prague Shakespeare Company Presents The Life & Times Of Bedřich Smetana
In Deaf Empire: Replaying Bedřich Smetana, Stephan Delbos’ new play about the 19th century Czech revivalist composer Bedřich Smetana produced by the Prague Shakespeare Company and directed by Amy Huck at Prague’s Kolowrat theatre, we are presented with an intimate portrait of one of the Czech nation’s greatest musical icons. In Delbos’ humorous yet moving portrayal, we are reminded that the acceptance, and even the existence, of some of our culture’s most essential works of art were far from inevitable. From its opening scene, Deaf Empire deftly peels away the mask of familiarity that makes us imagine lives blessed only by fame and recognition to reveal a life that was both difficult and complicated, and whose path may easily have been entirely different.
The play opens in the Grand Cafe, in 1850. The scene recounts the moment when Smetana (Gregory Gudgeon) first meets Jan Neruda (William Valerián), the famous Czech poet who would go on to become the composer’s most important friend. Neruda, a fierce advocate of Czech culture (and the eponym of Pablo Neruda, who adopted the surname as an homage to the great poet), is seated at Smetana’s table by a smug, German-only speaking waiter (Joe Weintraub) who clearly disdains them. Neruda, unfazed by scorn, immediately recognises Smetana as a fellow Czech and attempts to engage him in their shared native language. What follows provides immediate insight into the tension and complexity of the historical moment — a period when the fabric of empire was beginning to fray and national consciousness was on the rise.
For Smetana, who was of a generation of Czechs who were taught that to be Czech was to be unsophisticated, unurbane, and unworthy of status or recognition — and who was educated only in German — the Czech language is both a source of unfamiliarity and shame. The younger poet (Neruda was 10 years Smetana’s junior), however, relishes his native tongue — at one point declaring, “If we’re to be friends, you should know I speak primarily to hear the sound of words.”
Over the course of the play’s first act, Neruda campaigns for Smetana to embrace his Czech heritage and commit himself to composing works of truly Czech music. Smetana, humiliated by his service to Emperor Ferdinand V (Andrej Polák), at first resists, insisting on established hierarchies, to which he has become painfully obsequious. (“There is a strict set of rules. A hierarchy,” he tells Neruda. “You don’t just barge into the Estates theatre speaking Czech and force your way onstage!”) It is a premise that Neruda categorically rejects, insisting there should be theatre for “your music, for Czech music.” Smetana eventually embraces Neruda’s argument and commits to the “Czech Cultural Revival”, going on to become one of its most iconic representatives.It was far from an easy path. Beset by financial difficulties, mental illness, the loss of his first wife and several of his children, as well as a nearly complete loss of hearing, Smetana was also dogged by fierce critics who felt threatened by Smetana’s embrace of traditional Czech folk songs and themes, as well as his experimental forms.
In director Amy Huck’s light-hearted yet compelling production, Deaf Empire recreates both the period and Smetana’s winding, uncertain path to national significance with fidelity and humour. From the production’s well-lit minimalistic set, supple costumes, live music and simple but effective props, to its delightfully well-cast characters, Huck allows the Smetana’s life to unfold over a series of short, immersive scenes that are almost awkwardly real and believable as they are farcical. Each scene serves to punctuate a larger gesture in a life swept by the tides of history.
In one particularly poignant moment, Smetana — having reluctantly agreed to compose a final opera in order to secure funding for his magnum opus, Má vlast (My Homeland) — argues with his mezzo soprano (Lucie Špičková) over his choice of a single note, which she finds unpleasant. In this brief, amusing scene, Smetana lays out his theory of music, ideas of beauty, the pressure he feels to represent the nation, and the forces of creativity that drive him.
“Does every feeling you have please your heart?” he asks her. “Does every word you say please your tongue? Life isn’t all beauty, and it’s not all joy. There’s loss and regret and loneliness and there’s pain. And all of that should be in music.”
–Jiří Stolař for Opus Osm
Photo Credits: Philip J. Heijmans