Pavel Kohout Kohout, Pavel - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kohout, Pavel 1928–

Kohout is a controversial Czech playwright, novelist, flimscript writer, essayist, and poet. His work is no longer published or produced in his own country as a consequence of his support for the 1968 "Spring in Prague." His provocative themes presented in highly original forms have gained him a wide audience. His satirical novels From the Diary of a Counterrevolutionary and White Book in the Case of Adam Juráček both attack the intractability of Marxism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Ronald Steel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Journal d'un contre-révolutionnaire, though completed in 1969, does not suffer from lack of perspective. It is a work of literature, perhaps the most brilliant and accomplished to come from Czechoslovakia since the intervention, and at the same time a triumph of clever political journalism….

Kohout's book is not a self-justification, but an attempt to get the contradictions in his own life into some sort of coherent relationship. The Journal is made up three separate narratives, printed with rather obvious symbolism in three different typefaces, which advance in a sort of triple formation by installments. There is a journal which starts on August 21, which finds Kohout on holiday in Italy at a crisis in his relationship with the young girl Z. The second element is a refurbished journal covering the years between 1945 and late 1967, beginning with the Prague rising against the Germans and ending with a comic and memorable dramatization of the writers' congress on the eve of the reform. The third journal describes his own activities and reactions from January, 1968, until the last weeks before the [Soviet] invasion.

The three narratives are tightly pulled together by the presence of friends who appear in all of them in their own equally extraordinary transformations…. I know of no other book, apart from the novels of Kundera and Vaculik, that brings the foreigner closer to the personal realities of Czechoslovakia. (p. 24)

Ronald Steel, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1971 Nyrev, Inc.), September 2, 1971.

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Poor Murderer"] is highly accessible in its wit, in its unflagging energy, and in its nimble, crisscrossing cat's cradle of a plot, which throws off pleasing little surprises from first line to last. There are moments when it will put you in mind of Peter Weiss's "Marat/Sade," or of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," or possibly of one or another of Pirandello's darkly prankish pirouettes through time, but far from disowning these distinguished ancestors, "Poor Murderer" pays open tribute to them; [Pavel Kohout] also acknowledges his debt to Shakespeare, whose "Hamlet" forms portions of a play within the play, and to a short story by Leonid Andreyev called "Thought." For the thousandth time and with the usual delight, we observe how the artist, out of a past laboriously mastered, fashions with seeming ease something indisputably new. (p. 99)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 1, 1976.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pavel Kohout's Poor Murderer makes me doubly sorry for its author. Bad enough to be physically restrained in Czechoslovakia by refusal of a travel visa; how much worse to be intellectually sequestered from what goes on in the free world, so that you write as if Pirandello, Giraudoux and Anouilh were the reigning dramatists and concoct a pale pastiche of their manner.

The play (based on a story by the now passé Leonid Andreyev) concerns Kerzhentsev, an actor confined to a mental institution in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg….

We next are meant to wonder whether he is really mad, or merely, like Hamlet, feigning madness, but—since he is a garrulous, self-important dullard—it is unfortunately rather hard to care. As for the romantic triangle underlying the tale, it is so limply passionless as to make it sublimely unimportant who ends up with whom. Of course, it is also possible that the whole thing takes place in the hero's mind, that the entire thing is just a piece of phantasmagoria; but then there are things in the play that contradict even this—rather boring—possibility.

We are also meant to be in suspense about the outcome: Will the hero be declared sane and have to face [trial for murder]? Or insane, and remain confined to the asylum? Or somehow be set free?… I wouldn't give a kopek to know, even if the playwright had deigned to shed some of that ambiguity he wraps himself in. (p. 26)

John Simon, in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), November 22, 1976.

Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Pavel Kohout was given to our theater so that there would not be any peace and quiet." With these words a well-known Czech critic begins an essay on Kohout in which he commiserates with an imaginary scholar writing a book on contemporary Czechoslovak theatre. Faced with this enfant terrible of the Czech stage who has evoked more praise and more abuse than any other contemporary Czechoslovak writer, the hapless imaginary scholar would apparently feel himself "sliding down a curving ramp" which permitted neither foothold nor sense of direction. Appreciative of this unsolicited a priori description of the problematic nature of the task at hand, I shall try merely to suggest some areas of interest and value in Kohout's colourful body of work. (p. 251)

Kohout is an exciting writer. The very ease and nonchalance with which he manages to turn out one work after another—extremely varied in nature, each seeming to bear the imprint of a different type of creative genius—make his productions a cornucopia of surprises. (p. 252)

[The tremendous success of Such a Love (1957) is] surprising if we remind ourselves of the almost banal theme of the play: a two men/one woman situation that ends in the suicide of the girl. The main reason for the impact of this well-worn story was that Kohout had told it in a special form. Not that this form was particularly new; among others Brecht had used it and Pirandello before him. But Kohout seems to have found a particularly happy way of building the play around a courtroom scene and gradually illuminating the motivations of the characters involved…. As the past events of this seemingly simple story are brought to light, definite concepts of "guilt" and "innocence" fade, and it becomes less and less possible to use these absolute terms with regard to the characters' actions.

It is here perhaps that we find the essential reason for the great success of [his play]…. For the first time since the hiatus of the Second World War, an East European writer had written a play about an insoluble problem. The basic questions raised by the play—who is guilty of the tragedy? who is to judge where the borderline between guilt and innocence lies?—were new and provocative in a society where an unquestionable system had been providing unshakeable truths.

With this acute sense for the "hot topic"—a sense that has been called his glory as well as his downfall—Kohout had written a play that satisfied people's increasing need to think about those regions of life where relationships are multi-levelled, where the smooth road of predictable development turns out to be a delusion. (pp. 252-53)

Controversial in another way, Pavel Kohout, like Bertolt Brecht, has been variously chided for his willingness to use and adapt other writers' material…. [Kohout answers:] "I admit, I have more fun with adaptations for the stage than with my own plays. Writing is like a game of solitaire, the author plays against himself. An adaptation, on the other hand, is like a duel. You must force the picture to leave its frame and become alive. You must breathe life even into a collection of newspaper clippings." Without digressing into the question of the precision or fairness of this opinion, we can recognize Kohout's attitude that the main task of the playwright-adapter is to add "a third dimension" to a two-dimensional work of art. (pp. 253-54)

[The] artistic director of the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague asked Kohout to write a play for the 1962/63 season…. The result was the "Musical mystery" War with the Newts [an adaption of Karel Čapek's novel, Válka s mloky], conceived—and here again appear Kohout's sure dramatic intuition and flexibility—as a "live television coverage of the destruction of the world, with documentary photographs about the cause and the development of the apocalypse, relayed by the last yet unsubmerged television tower." The whole stage was conceived as one giant television screen. A chorus-like group of reporters propelled the action. Individually they would step out of the group in order to re-enact the most important incidents of Čapek's novel. Then they would merge again with the unified chorus, who recited in hexameter the terrible story of the rise of the Newts, thus giving the events the timeless awe-inspiring character of Greek tragedy. Čapek's roman feuilleton had been expanded into Kohout's "third dimension" and become something like a lightweight Gesamtkunstwerk, combining the explosive spectacle of a contemporary war film with the stark serenity of Greek tragedy.

The play was a huge success. Open to a variety of interpretations, Čapek's masterpiece of a utopian allegory about creatures initiated in methods of destructiveness by man himself radiated from the stage a variety of meanings that were electrifying to an audience who was eager to hear the opposite of a single-minded ideological message. Yet, ironically, Kohout's play was immune to political censorship, because long ago Čapek's novel had passed the censorship board with high marks…. [Paradoxically], Čapek's work found itself with just the right credentials to pass censorship despite the fact that it consistently attacks non-democratic systems in any form as the prime enemies of all human culture and intellectual freedom....

(The entire section is 2207 words.)

Josef šKvorecký

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


In his personal story Pavel Kohout, known best as a playwright …, literally embodies the development of the intellectual core of the Czechoslovak Communist Party from the idealistic and sometimes downright idiotic acceptance of socialism reduced to Stalinist dogma in the fifties (his first poems and plays are an excellent example) to the sophistication of Czechoslovak Marxist thinking of the second half of the sixties (his latest plays amply demonstrate this). White Book is Kohout's first novel….

The author's theatrical experience is clearly noticeable: the book uses techniques essentially similar to those employed by writers who, in the sixties, read their stories from the stages of the "small theatres" of Prague; these "text-appeal" stories too were predominantly satirical, and, more often than not, of an absurdist nature. But White Book is a fine novel, well shaped and absorbing, to which—as to the works of Kafka—history has added another dimension….

White Book, written long before the latest Prague demonstrations of the "class concept" of legality, sheds a prophetic and wildly sarcastic light on the regime's present legal contradictions by having its hero break a natural law: contrary to Newton, Adam Juráček manages to levitate. There are numerous allusions to the events of 1968, but in the last analysis the entire grimly black joke can stand as a metaphorical judgment of a Marxism that can no longer cope with new facts, except in a (pseudo) legal and psychiatric fashion….

White Book convincingly demonstrates that its author is one of those versatile writers who feel at home in all literary forms and in several genres. (p. 308)

Josef Škvorecký, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978.

Jeremy Treglown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Satire rarely translates well. It depends not only on common assumptions (no sweat in the particular case of Pavel Kohout's critique of Soviet oppression) but, more problematically, on a common shock-threshold. So White Book presents a dilemma. I wanted to find it a courageously funny act of protest by this Czech author against a regime whose response to such acts is (as the fiction reminds us) notably humourless. But after a few pages it reads predictably, a story that suffers in translation by comparison with the Western satiric fantasies it emulates (Pynchon, Vonnegut, Brautigan).

The first problem is that east of Berlin everyone needs something blunter than a rapier to get his ideas home…. We're in a particularly bad position to enjoy communist anti-establishment irony because the capitalist variety is—in proportion to the deviousness of its targets—so much subtler. Besides, in the Soviet case we don't really see the joke. The further an audience is from tragedy, the gloomier it wants to be made. What we ask from these chaps is a bit of pity and terror.

Kohout's absurdist story has a low surprise-quotient, too. It begins promisingly with a young PE teacher who, in defiance of socialist physics, learns to levitate. Every so often he just walks on the ceiling. What makes this idea in a damaging way more tragic than absurd is the inevitability of everything that follows. He becomes a folk hero but an official enemy; is involved in some bureaucratic confusions resulting from alternate attempts to exploit and obscure his achievement; is tried on various charges and sent to a psychiatric 'hospital' where, after prolonged resistance, he capitulates to gravity.

All this is presented as a sequence of heavily comic reconstructions of contemporary records, interspersed with accounts by people involved, transcripts of meetings, and so on, all annotated by anonymous officials. It's these Dunciad-like notes that pay off best, their plodding unimaginativeness a funny contrast with such freedom as the narrative manages. Historical 'errors' are corrected, jokes laboriously explained. In the end, though, it all seems underrealised: you need your own idiom—as provided in Stop-pard's most recent plays—to bring the situation home in anything other than documentary terms. (p. 249)

Jeremy Treglown, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 25, 1978.

Arthur N. Athanason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

New York Times critic Clive Barnes described Poor Murderer as "a strange, dazzling … intellectual play that zigzags across the stage and richochets across the mind."

The play's protagonist Anton Ignatyevich Kerzhentsev is a young turn-of-the-century Russian actor confined in the St. Elizabeth Institute for Nervous Disorders in St. Petersburg….

[He] is granted permission to stage an autobiographical play in the great hall of the institute as a means of proving to the authorities and to himself that he is sane as well as guilty of a murderous act of passion. It becomes subtly apparent that Kerzhentsev's performance of the play-within-the-play is a desperate attempt to refute to himself and others his fear of being passionless; but the result is his realization that for his whole life, he, more than anyone else, has perpetrated his own emotional incarceration.

Poor Murderer is neither a great nor always dramatically satisfying play, for it attempts to deal with more awesome complexities of the human spirit than it can effectively handle in its two acts. But it is an ambitious, courageous and often passionate play about passionlessness and the enforced incarceration of the artist. (p. 654)

Arthur N. Athanason, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978.