Fourth Jára Cimrman play to be performed in English

The Act was the first of the dry comedies by the Czech writer who never really existed

Jára Cimrman’s play The Act (Akta) will premiere in English on March 29 at Žižkovské divadlo Járy Cimrmana, the same theater where the plays have long been performed in Czech, with the same props and stage design.

Chronologically speaking, The Act (Akt) was the first Cimrman play, premiering in Czech in 1967. It will join three others that have already been translated and staged by Cimrman English Theatre: The Stand In (Záskok), The Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního pólu) and The Pub in the Glade (Hospoda Na mýtince).

Jára Cimrman does not actually exist. The plays are suspected to be the work of “Cimrman scholars” Ladislav Smoljak and Zdeněk Svěrák, and grew out of the 1960s radio show The Nonalcoholic Wine Bar Called At the Spider (Nealkoholická vinárna U Pavouka).

This fourth entry in the Czech repertoire has a different translating team than the previous ones. Brian Caspe rendered this one into English, along with Dagmar Caspe and Hanka Jelínková-Svěráková. Brian Caspe has appeared in the previous Cimrman plays and has also had roles in films shot in Prague such as The Ottoman Lieutenant, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Underworld: Blood Wars and Anthropoid. We will also be in the upcoming series Whiskey Cavalier.

He shed some light on the new project. “It was called The Act (Akt) for two reasons: Akt in Czech also means the female form as in a nude painting or sculpture, and second, an act of a play. When the Cimrman Theater came do creating their first stage play after only doing radio shows, they found that the play they were writing was only enough for one act of an evening,” he said.

People who have seen the previous plays know the evening starts with a lecture that goes off the rails, despite good intentions, and then a play that is filled with very dry, deadpan humor.

“They came up with the seminars as a way to fill the evening out,” Caspe said.
The Act, as the first of the Cimrman plays, was rather experimental.

“The play itself is about a painter and his wife, who summon three random men — a teacher, a salesman and a sexologist — to their house to reveal something important about their past. The painter never finished his masterwork because every time he beheld his model, a malicious demon took the brush out of his hand and made him ravish her. The play is part slapstick and part absurd. It has songs, recitals and lots of fun jokes,” Caspe said.

Some of the humor is word play, which poses difficulties in translation. “There were some tough nuts to crack. For instance, one place in the seminar talks about them finding 28 full-length plays (celovečerní hry) in Cimrman's papers, of which 2 were all-night card games (celovečerní hry karet). We weren't able to find a suitable direct translation as we don't have ‘card plays,’ but ‘card games.’ But we replaced the double meaning of ‘play’ with something suitable,” he said.

The plays by Czechoslovak genius Jára Cimrman were long considered untranslatable, but three so far have proven to be big hits with the English speaking audience, usually selling out.

Suspected co-author Zdeněk Svěrák attended some of the performances of the previously translated plays and has had high praise for the results so far, saying they far exceeded his expectations and proved wrong those who said Czech humor was untranslatable. (Ladislav Smoljak sadly passed away in 2010.)

Aside from writing plays and even operas, many of which are lost, the fictional Cimrman was also a poet, athlete, philosopher, inventor and mathematician. He is famous for giving great advice that nobody listened to, among other things. Cimrman, though, was plagued with bad luck. He showed up at the patent office with his idea for TNT just minutes after Alfred Nobel registered the same idea, for example.

In 2005, the Czech Television (ČT) held a contest to choose The Greatest Czech, but almost all of the early votes were for Cimrman. ČT changed the rules to exclude fictional characters. Public outcry caused ČT to create a special category for fictional characters, which Cimrman won. King Charles IV won among the real historical figures. Zdeněk Svěrák came in 25th and Ladislav Smoljak was 79th.

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