Skupa began to make his presence felt as an actor, director and author. He soon showed an ability to take control of master the puppet theatre in its entirely and went on to become the exact personality, with a complex sense of theatre, which Czech theatre was lacking.
His great talent as an actor led Skupa to an unerring understanding of the laws of the puppet theatre. He often deferred his artistic aims to the capabilities of the puppets, and thus sought to limit the artistic hegemony which was characteristic of that period. For the first time in the modern history of puppetry in this country a new hierarchy was established among the production elements, in which priority was given to the puppet and its specific characteristics.
Josef Skupa´s other significant contribution was his relationship to traditional puppeteering. While the first generation of amateur puppeteers had fought for the right to their own development, distancing themselves from traditional puppeteering. Skupa´s relation to the phenomenon was influenced by his relationship of several years with K. Novák. Despite reinforcing the modern approach to puppet theatre, in accordance with new tendencies in theatre development, Skupa was perhaps the only one of his age who managed to distinguish between outdated mannerism in the work of the traditional puppeteers and the valuable experience originating in the laws of the puppet theatre which they had grasped intuitively and verified with years of experience, and who also managed to apply the latter in his work.
Taking a lead from folk puppetry, Skupa started to examine the possibilities offered by stock characters, as for example Kašpárek was among the folk puppeteers, and after several years of searching, he created new character types which could provide contemporary replacements for the archaic Kašpárek. In the second half of the 20s, his main means of artistic expressions became the pair Spejbl and Hurvínek.
The puppet of Spejbl, which was carved by Karel Nosek from Skupa´s design, appeared on the Camper´s stage as early as 1919. He was stylised artistic impression of a balding big-eared father figure with goggle eyes and matching grotesque costume of shapeless dress jacket, white sleeves and clogs. This stylisation differentiated Spejbl from other puppets to such an extent from the other puppets used on the Campers´stage, that initially, he only appeared as a comic figure in the literary revues shown at the beginning of the 20s.
The Hurvínek puppet was carved in 1926 by a close associate of Skupa´s, Gustav Nosek (1887–1974). He was related to Spejbl by an obvious resemblance and almost identical grotesque stylisation. Skupa made this pair into an unforgettable team: the muddle-headed, semi-educated, but ambitious father Spejbl and the inquisitive and provocative street urchin Hurvínek.
The grotesque characterisation in the design of both puppets gave Skupa the freedom to try other forms of realisation. As an author and with Frank Wenig co-author of the majority of the texts the pair used, he created a quite original vocabulary for them. He spoke for both puppets himself – a snuffley bass for Spejbl and a staccato treble for Hurvínek. This vocal characterisation also served to define their character. Both puppets soon acquired national celebrity.
Many theories have been put forward, attempting to place interpretations on Spejbl and Hurvínek. Some looked at them in a narrow contemporary perspective and understood them as period caricatures of townspeople and outmoded styles of behaviour. Other interpreters stressed the timeless significance of these two figures representing an archetypal form of the relationship between generations. It was apparently the multi-faceted nature and at the same time the undeniable lovingness in the subtext of Skupa´s humour which lay behind their immense audience popularity.
In 1930 Skupa founded a professional theatre The Pilsen Puppet Theatre of Professor Skupa. On tours of the whole republic Skupa performed mostly puppet revues (e.g. Tip-top Revue; History versus Spejbl 0:5, Spejbl and the Blind Passion), in which Spejbl and Hurvínek had the main roles. At the beginning of the 30s the pair were supplemented by an enthusiastic girl, Máni?ka (artistically created by Ji?í Trnka) and a dog Žeryk.
Author: Alice Dubská
Czech Puppet Theatre over the Centuries