If an entity called “Central European literature” truly exists, as some believe (and their most persuasive spokesperson is Milan Kundera, a novelist, playwright, and Pavel Kohout’s countryman), then it would exhibit features that could define the work of Kohout as well. It would be literature (and drama) concerned with the nature of reality. It would have an obsessive urge to unmask, to demythologize, and to tear off the disguises. It would try to approach the truth mindful of the fact that the ultimate truth remains hidden.
Rationalism, the belief underpinning the modern doctrine of progress, is itself challenged when the results of the application of the most progressive thought are as disappointing as the Central European experience suggests. Furthermore, there are areas in human life that resist cool, rational analysis, in which the inquisitor is helpless. Kohout dramatizes this belief in his triumphantly successful early play Taková láska through the ostensibly trivial but eternal love triangle, in which A loves B, but B loves C (who is unfortunately already married). The twist is that the love of two men and one woman leads to a tragedy, the suicide of the woman, Lida, and that this suicide is treated as a social case, like a murder, for which a judge—in the play identified only as “The Man in a Legal Robe”—attempts to find a cause, that is, a guilty party.
Formally, the interesting premise of the play is fortified by a judicious use of elements borrowed from avant-garde dramatists such as Pirandello and Brecht. Although the play has about it an air of absurdity, in the light of far more absurd stage trials (in which obviously innocent victims perished) such an air of absurdity paradoxically brings to the stage a semblance of normality rather than contrived absurdity. Compared with the lifeless propaganda plays of Socialist Realism, the viewers in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc viewed the play as refreshingly authentic: It dealt with human problems that are impervious to neat solutions and that are offered wholesale in a world in which ideology attempts to eliminate uncertainty and present the world as monochromatic. The very fact that the play’s topic has absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology of any kind (because the tragedy is derived from the timeless theme of love) itself makes the play political: It proves there are limits to politics, as well as to reason.
In a Brechtian move, the audience is asked to make its own judgment, to become the judges establishing the guilt of those responsible for the death of Lida. It turns out that it is impossible to make a clear-cut judgment, that life is too complex even in the case about which one knows the details. There is a Pirandello-like minimalism about the staging that underlines the philosophical implications of the play. A courtroom set is transformed into a variety of locations, without elaborate stage sets, by the use of light. The play progresses through carefully administered doses of “illuminations,” gradually stripping the certainty from the heretofore rather predictable plot. While the series of flashbacks does illuminate the past, it also paradoxically relativizes it: The audience moves closer to the truth, only to see it (the truth) become more elusive.
After this success, Kohout embarked on a series of dramatic adaptations of novels and short stories from a variety of sources. Not all of them merit much critical interest, but some are definitely masterpieces. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the modern age puts such a stress on originality. Kohout would have found a more sympathetic audience in the age of William Shakespeare. It is refreshing, however, that Kohout himself lacks any embarrassment on this score, regarding his dramatic adaptations as a challenge, whether he is adapting Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1873; Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873), Karel apek’s Válka s mloky (1936; War with the Newts, 1939), or Jaroslav Haek’s Osudy dobrého vojáka vejka ve svtove války (1921-1923; The Good Soldier vejk, 1930). Each of these projects posed a truly formidable challenge, and in each case, Kohout surmounted the difficulties imaginatively. Verne’s novel, with its huge cast of characters and locations, is staged with half a dozen characters playing ten roles each, with a twentieth century commentator/raisonneur supplying an additional dimension as well as a bridging device. Válka s mloky was staged as a television broadcast featuring the apocalyptic destruction of the world. Yet it was Haek’s The Good Soldier vejk that presented Kohout with the biggest challenge. No fewer than thirty dramatists had tried to stage the novel, from Erwin Piscator to Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s adaptation was particularly unsuccessful, but it taught Kohout a lesson. Where Brecht put vejk in a German uniform and sent him to fight in World War II, Kohout decided to let vejk be vejk. He did it by concentrating on the first of four books...
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