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1916

The relationship of William Shakespeare and Czech arts and literature is a long one. “Apart from identifying (him) and his plays with an ideal value system” [1] of a better world that goes well beyond the troubles of everyday lives, within the Czech context Shakespeare has been endlessly used as a mean of resistance against the unapproved ruling power. One of the most important moments of Czech Shakespearean resistance was the 1916 Prague Shakespearean Cycle which celebrated the 300th anniversary of his death. The aim of this celebration had both artistic and political implications, to draw attention of the rest of the world to the existence, maturity and the rights of the oppressed Czech nation.

The whole cycle originally embraced 16 evenings with 16 plays by William Shakespeare including a five hour long version of both the parts of Henry IV., which were to be presented in one evening. Due to censorship [2] this premiere had to be postponed to a separate staging in autumn 1916. The final order of the plays was: The Comedy of Errors (27. 3. 1916), The Life and Death of King Richard III (30. 3. 1916), Romeo and Juliet (1. 4. 1916), The Midsummer Night´s Dream (4. 4. 1916), The Merchant of Venice (7. 4. 1916), Taming of the Shrew (13. 4. 1916), As You Like It (15. 4. 1916), Measure for Measure (17. 4. 1916), Twelfth Night, or What You Will (19. 4. 1916), Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark (23. 4. 1916), King Lear (25. 4. 1916), Macbeth (28. 4. 1916), Othello, the Moor of Venice (30. 4. 1916), and The Winter´s Tale (4. 5. 1916).

The whole cycle opened on 27th March 1916 with an hour long lecture, held by an important Czech intellectual, novelist, and scholar, František Xaver Šalda, entitled Genius Shakespeare, and His Oeuvre. The lecture is interesting in its very structure, with the usage of the second person singular as if speaking to Shakespeare himself when describing his oeuvre, stressing “the establishment of ‘concrete humanity’, consisting in the fullness and complexity of dramatic characters” [3], and contrary in the very last sentence using the second person plural when activating the audience, with: “Hurry, hurry to love, what shall not be seen twice” [4], which was well heard by the audience, and reflected by press. The majority of the performances were entirely sold out, and despite the terrors of the War, spectators were enthusiastic, as stated by F.X. Šalda: “By creating the jubilee Shakespearean Dramatic Cycle in spring 1916, the National Theater understood what is expected from it, and by those means formed a silent political protest.” [5].

The celebration of the anniversary however did not focus only on the National Theater but was supported by other Shakespearean productions, as for example The Merchant of Venice in the Švanda Theater on the left bank of the Vltava river, The Merry Wives of Windsor in the Municipal Theater in Vinohrady, and Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark which was performed by a travelling theater troupe outside of Prague. [6] The press was also much involved in the preparation of the cycle informing about the rehearsal, and separate evenings of the cycle, two magazines (Světozor, and Zlatá Praha) prepared special editions dedicated to William Shakespeare. Publishing houses reprinted popular essays and publications by elite Czech scholars, for example Vilém Mathesius, the founder of English studies on the Prague University. Shakespeare´s plays were adapted into prose and published in popular book editions, and also into texts suitable for marionette theaters. [7]

P.S.

Illustration: František Xaver Šalda, 1937 (source).

Latest update: Saturday 10 September 2011, by Kateřina Jenčová Hipská


Footnotes

[1Martin Procházka, “Shakespeare and Czech Resistance”. in Heather Kerr, Robin Eaden, Madge Mitton (eds), Shakespeare: World Views (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996) 45.

[2Despite the fact that due to the severe cuts the political notion of the play became less evident, and the production turned into series of comic scene interconnected with the figure of Falstaff, Kvapil had to tear this premiere away from the rest of the cycle specifically due to the extra attached coronation scene which was by censorship perceived as the key political statement of the play. See: Martin Procházka, “Shakespeare and Czech Resistance”, 53.

[3Martin Procházka, “Shakespeare and Czech Resistance”, 52 .

[4“Spěště, spěšte milovati, čeho neuzříte dvakráte!” Translation mine. František X. Šalda, Genius Shakespeare a jeho tvorba/Genius Shakespeare and His Oeuvre (Praha: Nakladatel Fr. Borový 1916) 21.

[5„Národní divadlo pochopilo co se od něho očekává, když uspořádala na jaře roku 1916 jubilejní shakespearovský cyklus dramatický, který dopadl jako tichý protest politický.“Translation mine. František Xaver Šalda, “O naší moderní kultuře divadelně dramatické” (About our Modern Theatrical and Dramatic Culture), in Soubor díla F.X.Šaldy (Praha: Čs. spisovatel, 1961) 217. But a systematic reflection of the political implications of this event is not extant.

[6Vladimír Müller, Kvapilův Shakespeare/Kvapil´s Shakespeare, Shakespearovské kapitoly/Chapters on Shakespeare I., III., manuscript, Praha: Divadelní ústav, 1960, 60.

[7Vladimír Müller, 60.

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