Czech Puppeteers under the Nazi occupation

Czech Puppeteers under the Nazi occupation

The historical events of 1938, when the Munich agreement led to the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Republic and, in spring 1939, the occupation of the whole Czech lands by nazi Germany, together with the ensuing outbreak of the second world war, had a profound effect on the whole of the Czech nation.

The initial skepticism and despair was soon replaced by a national determination not to submit to the pressure of the German occupants and protect the threatened national identity, especially in the field of national culture ant the arts. Needless to say, this new situation also had consequences for Czech puppetry. With the annexation of the border regions, Czech puppeteering lost almost a quarter of its puppet theatres. The outlawing of the Sokol organisation in 1940 had a particularly harsh effect on Czech puppeteering, as its puppet component was one of the most active elements of Czech puppetry at that time. One notable characteristic of the period of occupation was a reawakening of public interest in the productions of the folk puppeteers.

This phenomenon was related to the tremendous revival of interest in folk culture, where the threatened nation perceived its cultural roots. The descendants of Matěj Kopecký, especially Antonín Kopecký, the Maisners, Dubskýs and other folk puppeteers reminded spectators of the national revival, that important period in Czech history, with their patriotic plays, and they found grateful audiences, even in towns with a developed theatre culture.

The activity of Josef Skupa and his travelling company occupy a unique position in the history of Czech puppetry of the period. Already in the second half of the 30s, Skupa was attempting to react to the growing danger of fascism. At the beginning of the occupation he wrote together with F. Wenig, an allegorical comedy Merry-go round with Three Floors in which he satirized the occupational designs of Hitler in the bossy figure of Mrs Drbálková (Mrs Gossip). Other allegorical comedies: Bouquets (1939), Long Live Tomorrow (1941) and Miracles Today and Tomorrow (1942) were written for Skupa´s company by J. Malík under the pseudonym Ji?í Kubeš. Hundreds of performances of these plays were seen by thousands of spectators, who fully comprehended their symbolism. With his plays, in which even Spejbl and Hurvínek were somewhat altered because they too had become victims of the tragic historical events, Skupa gave his audience restored faith in the future.

The performances of his theatre became silent demonstrations of patriotism and determination to continue to resist the occupying powers. The Gestapo reacted against this in January 1944 by arresting Josef Skupa and disbanding his company. The events of the war in 1945 in some towns completely paralysed the activity of even the puppet theatres. Only a few theatres e.g. Prague´s Realm of Puppets of the PULS handpuppet company, were able to play almost up to the final days of the war. Many puppeteers were however already preparing to renew their activities once the war was over. The prevalent tend of thought was that after the war, it was necessary to guarantee the growth of Czech puppeteering, first and foremostly by forming new organisations and especially by regulating puppet theatre and thereby putting it on an equal footing with the other theatrical forms.

In was obvious to many amateur puppeteers that the foremost puppet theatres had already reached such a level that the amateur statutes would restrict their further growth, and therefore their future development should be to focus purely on the establishment of professional puppet theatres – the development of Skupa´s theatre fully supporting them in this opinion. So they started to prepare for these changes. Thus the end of the war marked the end of the phase of amateur puppeteering , which had lasted for more than half a century. With their searching, experimentation and the results of their work, the amateur puppeteers of the first half of the 20th century had fulfilled their historic task – they had paved the way for Czech puppet theatre to enter a new phase of development in which in the post-war years the baton was passed on to the professional puppeteers.

Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppet Theatre over the Centuries

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