Deaf Empire: An Interview with Playwright Stephan Delbos
In Deaf Empire: Replaying Bedřich Smetana, the Prague Shakespeare Company’s newest production at the Kolowrat Theatre, which premiered this week to rapturous applause, playwright Stephan Delbos reimagines the life of the famous Czech classical composer through a series of scenes that serve as intimate portraits not only of Smetana’s life, but of the era in which he lived and wrote his greatest works. Opus Osm met up with the author of the play to ask a few questions about how the play was created.
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Why is the play called “Deaf Empire”? (the connection with Smetana is obvious but why Empire?)
The play is set, and Smetana lived, during the the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cultural arbiters at the time didn’t believe that Czechs were capable of producing works of musical genius and they certainly didn’t believe that Czech themes and melodies were appropriate for symphonic music or opera. So the empire in which Smetana was living and working was purposefully deaf to his music. Then obviously Smetana went deaf and that plays an important part in the second half of the play. There’s also the sense that Smetana, despite his deafness, created his own empire or his own homeland through music.
What drew you to Smetana?
I was introduced to Má vlast when I first came to Prague and immediately felt very moved by the music, especially Vltava. To this day, I still find that melody very moving. And then when you look a little deeper you see how that melody has flowed through music and culture for centuries. It’s an old melody that has roots in Yiddish traveling theater and regional folk songs, then finds its way through Smetana to Brecht, into jazz with “Dear Old Stockholm” and even into “Hatikvah,” the national anthem of Israel. So that kind of fluidity is interesting to me. Then when I started reading about Smetana’s life I discovered that he was much more complex and dramatic than the national hero we know today.
What did you learn about him that surprised you?
The whole complex tragedy of his life was a surprise when I started researching him. Everyone in the Czech Republic knows Smetana as a national hero, but behind that veneer there is a very complex and difficult struggle. From his early political period when he was on the barricades during the revolution in 1848, to his real struggle to be taken seriously as a Czech composer and all the smear campaigns that when on against him, then the death of his first wife and several children, his illness and deafness and the fact that he died in poverty and relative obscurity. During his life he achieved phenomenal success, but then just a few years later he was forced to sell the royalties of all his music and move out of Prague to his daughter’s farmhouse in the middle of nowhere just to survive and make ends meet. So there’s that classic tragic story made all the more complex by the nationalist elements.
Which sources did you use when writing the play?
Early on, I visited the excellent Bedřich Smetana Museum in Prague and visited his daughter’s farmhouse in Jabkenice, where he lived in later life. I also went to all of the performances of his music that I could find. The National Theatre and the other theaters in Prague do a great job of providing really rich historical context in their programs. I also read several monographs in Czech and the one book on Smetana that has been translated from Czech into English, which includes quotations from Smetana’s diaries and letters.
How involved were you in the staging of the play?
The staging of the play has largely been the vision of the director Amy Huck and the Prague Shakespeare Company. I’ve been lucky enough to attend several rehearsals and have been able to tinker with the script according to feedback from the actors. But theater is different from other types of writing in that it is by necessity collaborative. I am thankfully aware of the fact that I’m a writer, not an actor or a director, so I leave those things in the hands of people who really know what they’re doing. And I would just like to add that Prague Shakespeare company thanks Dominika Kolowrat, Maximilian Kolowrat and Francesca Kolowrat for their generous and selfless support.