Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Greatest Czech: Jara Cimrman

Commentary by Kaja

In the heat of an early and humid summer, I had my first encounter with the famed Jara Cimrman, the Czech Genius. I’d heard the tales and only seen the dents in the sofa left by Cimrman’s fame before, but last night I went to a production of one of his plays, AKT.

I emerged from the show, but this elusive Bigfoot of great minds remained as ephemeral as before. The reason? The persona of Cimrman is a creation of the great Czech actors Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak. They created the character during an era of satirical self-reflection and the transitional post-WWII era. While originally intended as a caricature of Czech people, history, and culture, he became and remains an immensely popular national hero. This is most evident when considers that Jara Cimrman would have won the Czech Television contest to choose THE GREATEST CZECH. Including candidates from pop-singers, kings, and other national heroes, Cimrman was disqualified from the competition only because he never truly existed. The prize went to the runner up, King Charles IV, founder of the Charles University and Charles Bridge in Prague during the 1300s.

The story goes that Cimrman was ridiculed and eschewed throughout his life. Thus, he passed into and out of this life understated and with only a bang or two. However, as with many great geniuses, Cimrman rose to glory only after his death when, in 1966, Dr. Evzen Hedvabny (Dr. Silky) discovered a locked chest containing many of Cimrman’s works. The brilliance of these works were instantly recognizable—needing little more than a glance at a title—and Cimrman became recognized as one of the world’s most accomplished men (certainly the greatest for the Czechs) as a poet, a composer, playwright, not to mention a philosopher and inventor.

In order to further expound and present Cimrman’s greatness to society, a panel of experts (in each field) was assembled to lecture on these accomplishments. Thus, the composition of the performance was as follows: lecture, intermission, and performance. Most likely needless to say, the panel of experts was composed of the actors. This first section was perhaps the most interesting and entertaining. Playing on inter-discipline tensions and differences, the academic territoriality became increasingly evident with each presentation. Of course, each performance was replete with stereotypes; most notably, the spacey engineer.

The second half was a performance of one of Cimrman’s discovered plays—contextualized, of course, by the preceding lecture. AKT, as the play is named, presents an elderly couple in a painter’s loft atelier. In one corner is a covered painting. The couple is anxious. Mind you, this is a seasoned and well-respected, all-male ensemble. From here on out, imagine all events saturated with cross-gender humor.

Much waiting and three guests later, the plot thickens. The first guest is a teacher with a touch of pedophilia. The second, a fat realtor. And the last, a sex-crazed psychoanalytic. Each believes that their invitation is related to their field and that they have arrived at this mysterious place, on some mysterious day, at some mysterious time to make a little extra money under the table.

The rest of the play revolves around an uncompleted painting of a nude woman: the elderly wife as a young woman. The elderly artist states, that each time he set out to finish the painting he was seized by a fit of passion and that one of the three guests was the result of these “artistic” sessions. And there we have it! The plot: gentleman, I am your father. She is your mother.

I am not averse to sexual insinuation and lowbrow humor. However, when juxtaposing the two halves, I find the turn of phrase and intellectual foray more interesting than the latter. An example of the intellectual texture is the layers of meaning captured by the name "Cimrman". The name conveys a duality of heritage that is representative of the Czech nation. Jara Cimrman was the son of an Austrian mother, Marlen Jelinek (a Czech name meaning young stag) and a Czech father, Leopold Zimmerman (a German name meaning carpenter). The name “Cimrman” is the Czech phonetic version of his father's German name. While considering himself Czech and associating most with his Czech heritage, he is so confused by his ancestry and education that he speaks German with Czech-isms and Czech with German-isms, supported by a fair number of quotations on a number of topics. This linguistic word play persists throughout, even in the text of AKT itself. This first part, I believe, most fully engenders Czech people, history, and zeitgeist.

The most striking part of the performance was realizing a connection between Cimrman and another Czech folk hero: the good soldier Svejk. Both characters are created personas supposedly representative of the Czech nation. Yet, Svejk and Cimrman are antithetical. One is the greatest Czech in accomplishment and societal contribution. The other is a bumbling good-natured fool who, despite his repeated screw-ups, always manages to survive and escape harsh consequences. Cimrman’s success is his active and intellectual engagement with the world and its events. Svejk’s success stems from his complete disengagement from anything beyond his immediate surroundings. I have puzzled over this ostensible contradiction since the performance. I have yet to reconcile how both can stand shoulder-to-shoulder, filling the same role in modern Czech folklore.

I recommend that everyone read Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. I would also recommend that you visit the Theater of Jara Cimrman, but unfortunately this is limited to those who understand Czech (or Slovak).

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