How The Worst Play I’ve Ever Read Wormed Its Way Into My Heart
Way back in a former life, when I was a partner in an English-language theater in Prague, Czech Republic, I had the opportunity to translate and produce one of the most gloriously unbelievable pieces of shite I’ve ever come across. I say this with tremendous affection — really. Because while horribly written, emotionally shallow, childish in its simplicity, banal and overly long, Parta Brusiče Karhana (or Karhan’s Men, according to my translation) was a gem.
Written in 1950 by Vašek Káňa, Karhan’s Men was probably the most famous (and believe it or not the best by far) Communist propaganda play ever to be thrust down the throat of the Czechoslovak public. It had everything a Communist propaganda play could ask for — an unnecessarily large and cumbersome cast (the whole point was to employ people, after all), a theme that promoted the idea of working exclusively for the profit and benefit of The State, and one dimensional characters who spoke not in dialogue, but slogans.
Sample this love scene:
Božka: Please don’t laugh, but I’d like to write poetry.
Jarka: Of love?
Božka: Yes, always of love. Love of five-year plans, of machines, of work.
Is it getting hot in here or what?
For years, Karhan’s Men was required by law as part of the repertoire of every theater in the country — kind of like if Ronald Reagan had made each Cineplex in the US of A feature Bedtime for Bonzo.
But somehow, despite everything the play had going against it — including a deeply resentful public — it managed to worm its way into people’s hearts.
Maybe it was the fact that Karhan’s Men tried — albeit clumsily — to have a sense of humor? The incessant bickering between Karhan and his wife was like a cross between The Honeymooners and Rihanna and Chris Brown.
Or maybe just the sheer numbers on the stage created a party-like atmosphere? In a small city like Prague, half the audience would’ve been well acquainted with most of the actors. Kind of like a Woody Allen movie, but without the wit.
But I think it came down to the play’s heartfelt sincerity. However feeble was Vašek Káňa’s ability to pen a script, the one thing you had to give him is that he was a true believer. That came through in Karhan’s Men in a way it didn’t with the dozens of other propaganda plays written by functionaries or bitter scribes.
And when our little theater endeavored to stage Karhan’s men as a piece of history, we knew we had to approach the subject with the same innocence as Mr. Káňa or face subjecting our audience to what was nothing short of a literary abortion. Or worse, re-opening a wound on the soul of our host country that had only recently, jaggedly begun to heal. We wanted desperately to get this right.
So, on opening night we all took a deep breath, channeled our inner Noam Chomsky, and took to the stage — a huge red banner hanging as a backdrop. To the eternal credit of our actors, they delivered their lines like it was Shakespeare and poured all the love they could muster into the bankrupt ideology that the play espoused.
And to our relief, the audience laughed and cheered. Granted, they didn’t laugh where Mr. Káňa had intended. Mr. Káňa’s jokes simply weren’t funny. They laughed, because for the first time they could. They laughed at the absurdity of the premise, the doltish logic and tragic dogma of an ideology that had promised so much in the aftermath of a world war.
And they laughed that it was finally over.