Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakian Pantomime

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Figure 156: Scene from “Blázni (Fools)” (1965), pantomime by Ladislav Fialka (right) with Zdena Kratochvill (left). Photo: Tanecni Aktuality (2021)

Czechoslovakian Pantomime

A few countries in the Eastern bloc favored the clown paradigm of pantomime. In Czechoslovakia, Cold War pantomime culture emerged around the figure of Ladislav Fialka (1931-1991), who developed clown personas modeled after Marcel Marceau, Pierrot, and a kind of Chaplinesque whiteface figure wearing a bow tie and straw hat. He studied dance at the Prague Conservatory of Dance, and in 1953-1954, he staged pantomimic dances based on Pierrot stories enacted by Jean-Gaspard Deburau. After meeting Marceau in Paris in 1956, he resolved to found in 1958 his own pantomime company with students from the Conservatory. The following year, the company moved into the renovated Theater of the Balustrade, built in 1832, and began producing revue/cabaret pantomime shows in which the action revolved around his clown characters. He seems to have wanted to revive the sort of comic cabaret entertainment that the clown duo of George Voskovec (1905-1981) and Jan Werich (1905-1980) perfected so successfully in Prague in the 1930s. Voscovec and Werich offered leftwing political satire, but they were not pantomimes, and their revue acts consisted mostly of witty banter and jesting songs augmented with dance numbers. Fialka avoided political commentary and instead introduced absurdist elements; he was fond of dramatic works by Samuel Beckett and performed in them on stage and on television. In the 1970s, his shows became more poetic without becoming any less comic, such as the six-scene “collage” Caprichos (1971), inspired by Goya’s satiric-grotesque drawings that caricatured the corruption of the Catholic Church, and Funambules (1977), scenes based around the life of Jean-Gaspard Deburau. But audiences declined and the company entered a period of “greatly decreasing invention.” By the 1980s, the company developed clown acts inspired by the writings of Gogol, the films of Fellini, and the dream imagery of artists like the puppeteer-animator Jiri Trnka (1912-1969) and the symbolist painter Jan Preisler (1872-1918), by which time the company catered primarily to tourist audiences (Gillar 1971; Holeňová 2001: 72-74). Fialka did not confine himself to pantomime performance, but collaborated with puppet and animated filmmakers, acted in films, developed children’s television shows, wrote a book on pantomime, and eventually became a professor of pantomime. In 1964, he choreographed the pantomimic actions in Jan Grossman’s disruptive, clown-oriented production of Alfred Jarry’s maniacal 1896 play King Ubu, which attempted to move pantomime away from the influence of Marceau and toward the ideas of Artaud, although it was still a kind of insane clown show (Plicková 2012; Miholová 2007: 103-107). An energetic promoter of pantomime in schools, in the media, and at mime festivals, he was a beloved figure in Prague and within the European theatrical community, but one feels that he was always waiting for a time when pantomime might become something more serious than he was able to make it, and then his time came to an end. Boris Hybner (1941-2016) worked with Fialka on the King Ubu production and then joined Fialka’s company until he formed his own Alfred Jarry Pantomime Company in 1966. However, Hybner had a less stable personality than Fialka, which made it difficult for him to form serious, successful alternatives to the Theater of the Balustrade, even after Fialka’s death (1991) and the end of that pantomime company in 1993. He did not develop a signature clown persona; rather, he made clown performances out of his impersonations of different, otherwise commonplace characters, such as a pianist in a nightclub orchestra, a sailor demonstrating life jackets, or an academic trying to read a book in a bar. What most inspired him were silent film comedians like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, which led to the formation of the Czech Gagman TV series in 1987 and his Gagman company performance of his show A Garden Named Hollywood (1987), in which he played various characters involved in the production and consumption of Hollywood slapstick comedy films in the early 1920s. Though shot in color, the TV series, which contained no speech, emulated the physical movements of people seen in films made during the period represented on the screen. Many people worked with Fialka and Hybner, but none seemed to make any headway in pantomime on their own. Even after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990, Czech pantomime, when it fitfully appeared, remained steadfast in its devotion to the clown paradigm, as if, in spite of the grotesque example provided by the King Ubu production, any other kind of pantomime had never been imaginable anyway. Yet since the fall of the Communist regime, pantomime has become the subject of fairly abundant Czech scholarly-theoretical discourse (cf., Nagy 2016: 7-15). 

The Slovakian pantomime Milan Sládek (b. 1938) did not develop a strong connection to the Decroux-Marceau style of pantomime. He first studied art at the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava, but as a result of performing amateur theatricals, he studied (1958-1960) acting at the Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts, where his teacher was the modernist theater director and writer Emil František Burian (1904-1959). With Eduard Zlábek (1930-1988), a dancer at the Burian Theater, he formed a pantomime ensemble in 1960. He created a Pierrot-like persona, Kefka, a white-faced clown who wore a variety of bizarre costumes. By 1962, his Kefka ensemble was a unit within the Slovak National Theater, where he began performing pantomimic versions of well-known dramas, Biblical tales, and operas. In 1968, Sládek planned to open a theater that featured pantomime, cabaret, and plays, but the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia put an end to the venture. He escaped to Sweden before migrating in 1970 to Cologne, Germany, where he established the Kefka Pantomime Theater. There he embarked on a successful series of pantomimic adapations of well-know literary works: Das Geschenck (1971), Don Juan (1978), Carmen (1983), König Ubu (1984), and Apocalyptica (1989), among others (Sládek 1985). His productions attracted enthusiastic international audiences from the nearby diplomatic community in Bonn, the Goethe Institute sponsored tours to numerous countries, and The Folkwang School in Essen recruited him to teach pantomime. In 1989, he returned to Slovakia with the idea of residing there permanently: “The reason I returned [to Czechoslovakia] was not only to show that I care for the country I come from, but also because I firmly hoped I could continue doing the art at home that I had developed abroad” (Habšudová 2002: Paragraph 5). He continued with ensemble pantomimes derived from “classic” literary or venerated sources, such as The Marriage of Figaro (1991), The Coronation of Poppea (1993), Grand Pierrot (1994), and The Threepenny Opera (2001). The government appointed him (1994) director of a newly formed Institute for Motion Theater and provided funding for the reconstruction of the Arena Theater, which would provide a home for his pantomime productions. In 2002, however, he decided to return to Germany “for good,” after denouncing the Slovakian Culture Ministry for its failure to support the Arena: because “there was no mime tradition in this country, our work was considered ‘experimental,’ and we were never able to make enough money to support the theatre on our own. After seeing that I wouldn’t get adequate [state financial] support here, I made my decision,” although the Culture Ministry asserted that the subsidies it offered were perhaps too generous in relation to the small audiences that Sládek’s productions attracted (Habšudová 2002). Back in Cologne, he pursued his “classics” approach to pantomime with help from the city and the Goethe Institute: Magic Night (2003) and Pantalon und Colombine (2006). In 2007, he performed three solo pieces on the mosaic floor of the Römisch-Germanischen Museum in Cologne, including Leda and the SwanSamson and Delilah, and Party, in all of which which he metamorphosed into different persons, male and female. Kreuzweg (2007), was another solo pantomime, an eighty-minute church performance, in which he enacted Jesus and the fourteen stations of the cross accompanied by Le Chemin de la croix (1931), an enormous organ work by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971). In 2015, he staged a pantomime,  Antigone, with a small, all-male cast, and at the age of 80, he continued to perform pieces he had created decades earlier. Except for Kreuzweg, Sládek devoted himself to a comic style of pantomime that evoked the artificiality of eighteenth century commedia performance and the physicality of silent film comedians in the years 1913-1918. His Kefka persona was present in all of his pieces. In Marriage of Figaro, his actors interacted with puppets; in Antigone, his actors used grotesque masks, prostheses, and luxuriously colored costumes. In ensemble pieces, he liked bodies to move with dancelike exaggeration of gesture. Scenic context for the action was minimal, if not altogether absent. His pieces conjured up an “old” mode of clown performance that somewhat recalled the Prague cabaret scene of the 1930s, if not the frolicking atmosphere of the eighteen century foires. He never really saw pantomime as a medium for embodying a modern idea of reality. Indeed, pantomime was an escape from political realities that could never achieve accurate or satisfying representation in comic form (Sládek Archive). 

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