Between Art and Life: Voskovec and Werich and The Affair of 1934

Holly Raynard, University of California, Los Angeles

The staging of the politically provocative Executioner and Fool (1934), a thinly veiled satire of local fascist politicians, represents a turning point in the history of Prague's Liberated Theater and the career of its main actor-writer duo, Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich. While Executioner and Fool was not Voskovec and Werich's first political play (their political comedy dates to 1931), it was the first to generate such controversy.

After right-wing forces organized protests during a performance of Executioner and Fool on October 30, 1934, Voskovec and Werich (or V+W) were featured almost daily in the press — not only in theater reviews, but in connection with such non-theatrical topics as university finance, politics, and the homeless. In short, they were used by the media to further various social, cultural and political agendas. V+W, in turn, manipulated the press as a new arena for their comic presentations. This new “stage” had important implications for theatrical performance. V+W were transformed in the public eye from actors into cultural icons — roles not easily shed in the theater proper. I argue that these theatrical and social roles were not mutually exclusive, but promoted a dynamic interplay that transformed and broadened the nature of performance for performers and viewers alike.

It is precisely at this juncture, moreover, that we see a new direction emerge in V+W's drama: self-referential plays that blur the lines between life and art. After 1934 V+W look less to external social and political events as inspiration for their comedies and more to events surrounding their own lives. When V+W appear in the 1935 play Always with a Smile as the characters "Voskovec" and "Werich," viewers cannot be sure where to draw the line between fiction and reality.

In April 1937 the Liberated Theater celebrated its first decade with a commemorative performance, Panorama 1927-1937, featuring popular plays from its repertoire. While V+W had many hits to choose from for their 19-act program, they departed from their canon and looked to “life” in authoring a new piece for Act 12, The Affair of 1934. This short act dramatizes the tribulations V+W (and their sympathizers) had suffered since the staging of Executioner and Fool; it features their detractors, supporters and even their audience as characters. While The Affair of 1934 is hardly remarkable by dramatic standards, it articulates (and performs) the new direction that had emerged in the Liberated Theater since the fall of 1934: self-referential drama that blurs the lines between art and life.

V+W's avant-garde contemporaries, along with subsequent scholars and even Voskovec himself, tend to marginalize or even disavow their political comedies from the mid- to late 1930s as representational satire and hence a betrayal of their early tradition of apolitical, poetistic performances. My paper, then, will rehabilitate the satirical plays of V+W on their own terms. I argue that their satire was hardly retrograde, but captured a compelling interplay of art and life befitting V+W's avant-garde roots.