07 OCTOBER 2002: ALCHEMY
AND PUPPETRY: A PRAGUE SOJOURN…
“A Gothic footbridge made
of stone spans the broad Vltava River, linking five ancient towns together
into Prague, the hauntingly beautiful capital city of the Czech Republic.
West of the bridge is the Old Town; to the east is Mala Strana (the Little
Quarter), a collection of crooked cobbled streets between the river and
the castle on the hill. Strolling across Charles Bridge at twilight, the
“City of One Hundred Spires” looks distinctly unreal, as dreamlike and
hallucinatory as any of the art it has inspired. This is Franz Kafka’s
city, after all. A town where nothing is quite as it appears. A town steeped
in legends and alchemy, with a long, bizarre, rather tragic history. Where
the past is tangible, crowding the present-day streets with ghosts and
The apartment where I am staying is in Mala Strana, tucked between crumbling
Baroque buildings, quiet parks and the bubbling Devil’s Stream — named,
I am told, for a demon in the water, or else for a washerwoman’s temper.
I have come because of the Art Nouveau movement which blossomed here one
hundred years before. With its roots deeply planted in Czech folklore,
Art Nouveau architecture and design has turned Prague into a fantasist’s
dream: extravagantly adorned with sprites, undines, and the pensive heroes
of myth and legend, standing draped over doorways, on turret towers, holding
up the red-tile roofs. Stories surround me everywhere I look. Music, too,
is a constant presence. The sound of Mozart on a solo violin follows me
down a dusky alleyway. I glimpse the form of the young musician in a lit
window on a floor above. The next block, I hear piano scales; and down
the street, the strains of a string quartet from a small palace concert
hall. The night air is crisp, cold, the last of autumn shading into winter.
The friends I am visiting here in Prague are involved in a world of magic
themselves. William Todd-Jones is a Welsh puppeteer at work on a film of
Pinocchio. The film crew, directed by Steve Barron, have made use of these
old, unspoiled streets to recreate the timeless landscape of a classic
children’s story. Although ostensibly set in Italy, Carlos Collodi’s tale
of a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy is a fitting one to bring
to Prague — and not just because of the economic climate that lures so
many film productions here. This is a city filled with puppets: from the
simplest wooden marionettes hawked by street vendors on Charles Bridge
to the elaborate, fanciful figures found on display in posh art galleries.
This ancient folk art/folk theater tradition still flourishes here in Eastern
Europe in a way unimaginable in the West — where puppetry, like fantasy
itself, is deemed to be for children only.
Czech puppets often depict the figures from old Bohemian folktales, a rich
oral storytelling tradition that dates back to the founding of this land.
According to the history books the Czech tribe established itself in Bohemia
sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries, following a vanished Celtic
tribe, and one of Germanic peoples. The Premysls were the first ruling
dynasty, founded by the Queen Libuse — a romantic, half-legendary figure
described by Cosmas of Prague (c. 1045-1125) as “. . .a wonderful woman
among women, chaste in body, righteous in all her morals, second to none
as a judge over the people, affable to all and even amiable, the pride
and glory of the female sex, doing wise and manly deeds; but, as nobody
is perfect, this so praise-worthy woman was, alas, a soothsayer. . . .”
When the men of her tribe grew disgruntled about being ruled by a woman,
she fell into a trance, pointed toward the hills, and instructed them to
follow her horse; it would lead them to the simple ploughman who was destined
to be her husband. That ploughman was the first Premysls, a muscular and
handsome young man according to the legends — and to the many statues
of the pair one finds in Prague today. Another legend attributes the founding
of the city itself to Libuse’s visions. In a trance she saw two golden
olive trees and “a town, the glory of which will reach the stars.” The
spot described by the queen was found, and on it was a man building a doorsill
for his cottage. The Czech word for doorsill is prah, giving Libuse’s new
town it’s name: Praha (Prague). The town was then erected on the hill where
Prague Castle stands today.
The Premysls rule over Bohemia lasted well into the Middle Ages. Prague
thrived, and by the 14th century, under the rule of Charles IV, the city
was larger than London or Paris and boasted western Europe’s first university.
But religious strife between various Christian faiths presented serious
on-going problems, resulting in many bloody massacres, assassinations and
executions. A series of weak absentee Kings further damaged the independent
kingdom until, in the 16th century, the Austrian Habsburgs claimed the
throne. German became the official court language as tiny Bohemia was swallowed
up by the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1583, the Emperor Rudolph II moved his capital from Vienna to Prague.
Rudolph was an unusual man: an intellectual and a mystic, reputed to be
mentally unhinged (he walked around with the fingers of a dead man stuffed
in his back pocket). Rudolfine Prague was glittering and surreal, a city
teeming with alchemists, astrologists, necromancers, soothsayers, artists,
musicians, brilliant mathematicians, and religious zealots of every stripe
and color. The search for the Philosopher’s Stone (“the stone which is
not a stone, a precious thing which has no value, a thing of many shapes,
this unknown which is most known of all,” according to the alchemist Hermes
Trismegistus) consumed Rudolph and his court, and indeed much of Prague
nobility. The famed English astrologer/wizard John Dee and his partner
Edward Kelly spent five years together in Prague (much of it on Rudolph’s
payroll), gazing into crystal balls and conducting conversations with angels.
Kelly stayed on when Dee returned to England, claiming to have discovered
the coveted secret of turning lead into gold. Kelly gained a knighthood,
but eventually landed in prison on sorcery and heresy charges. Legend has
it he died in Prague, but no one really knows for sure.
Despite continued religious strife, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian rule
did not weaken until the 19th century. Then the Czech language, which had
all but died out, was revived by a handful of writers and language scholars.
A wave of nationalism swept the country, and a strong desire for Slav self-rule.
In the arts, this translated into a passion for the history, myths and
folklore of Bohemia. The national operas of Bedrich Smetana drew upon rustic
traditional stories, and the symphonies of Antonin Dvorak were influenced
by Slav folk music. Art Nouveau was a 19th century movement that came to
Prague via Paris and Vienna. In architecture, the style was distinguished
by the abundant use of decorative elements drawn from sensual, natural
forms: vines and lilies, sunflowers, poppies, and the shapes of the human
body. Czech artists used this fluid style to cover the faces of new buildings
with figures drawn from Slav folklore, creating some of the finest examples
of Art Nouveau to be found anywhere in Europe. A huge slum clearance in
the old Jewish Quarter led to many new buildings in the Art Nouveau style
— buildings miraculously preserved despite the ravages of two World Wars.
The most famous Czech Art Nouveau artist was not an architect but a graphic
designer: Alphonse Mucha, whose theater posters for the actress Sara Bernhardt
catapulted him into sudden fame. In Paris between 1890 and 1910, his posters,
prints, even jewelry designs, were ubiquitous in fashionable circles —
standing the test of time with their great popularity to this day. Although
Mucha’s distinctive work has come to exemplify the Art Nouveau style, he
himself hated the term, insisting that art could never be “new” because
it was eternal. A fiercely nationalistic man, literate, and prone to mystic
leanings, Mucha himself was most proud of the work completed upon his return
to Prague: the Slav Epic, comprised of twenty large panels in tempera and
oil paint. Commissioned for Prague’s Municipal Building, an Art Nouveau
masterpiece itself, these gorgeous paintings illustrate Slav history and
legend in rich detail. Mucha spent his later years in Prague, watching
his dream of national independence turn to reality in 1918, when the Czechs
paired with neighboring Slovakia to establish their own republic. Twenty
years later that dream crumbled as Hitler’s army rolled into the city.
Mucha was one of the first of the nationalist intellectuals to be grilled
by the Gestapo. Already in poor health, the artist died three months later,
a broken man.
A lesser known but equally interesting Czech artist is Frantisek Bilek,
who brought Art Nouveau ideas back to Prague after studying in Paris in
the 1890s. Bilek was an intelligent, iconoclastic and wildly inventive
man, a sculptor and designer who worked with an astonishing variety of
materials. Like Mucha, he had a strong mystical bent, and a passion for
Czech history and lore. His art combined ideas from music, literature and
philosophy to explore the mysticism, magic and spirituality inherent in
everyday life. The peculiar house Bilek built for himself (in a design
meant to represent a cornfield) is now a museum of the artist’s work and
The most famous of Prague’s creative figures, of course, was the German-speaking
Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose brooding surrealistic vision captured the
darker flavor of the city where he lived for all but a few years of his
life. The tormented man-turned-cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the
bleak labyrinthine despair of his novel The Castle are now well known to
generations of readers and philosophy students around the world. Kafka
never lived to see any of the fame that would one day emblazon his name
across his city’s tourist maps and postcards. He died, surrounded by unpublished
manuscripts, in a small flat over Old Town Square — a place of Gothic
towers and Baroque rooftops aptly described as the Brothers Grimm in stone,
which Kafka considered “the most beautiful setting that has ever been seen
on this earth.”
In Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere in Europe, artists moved on to Cubism and
Surrealism in the period between the two world wars. It is not surprising
that a city with a history of alchemy and mysticism would become the second
most active center of Surrealism after Paris. Karel Capek was a writer
whose engaging work shows the influence of both movements — combined with
a love of Czech folklore, and a distrust of industrialized life. Often
called “the Czech Kurt Vonnegut,” he is best known for his novel War of
the Newts, and for his science fiction play R.U.R., a Broadway hit which
gave the world the word robot (from the Czech robota, meaning: hard labor).
His brother Josef was a noted Cubist painter, but he also produced Thurber-esque
cartoons to illustrate some of Karel’s work. Together they published a
charming book called Nine Fairy Tales and One Thrown in for Good Measure.
Translated into English by Dagmar Herrmann, it was published in the US
in 1990 to mark the centenary of Karl Capek’s birth.
The extraordinary Prague art scene that existed between the two World Wars
was all but stamped out when the new country fell to Hitler’s armies. Intellectuals,
many of them Jewish, fled or were exterminated. Out of ninety thousand
people in the Old Jewish Quarter of Prague, eighty thousand were killed.
The Old Jewish Quarter, an extravaganza of beautiful Art Nouveau architecture,
had originally been established many centuries before as a walled medieval
ghetto, often locked to segregate its inhabitants. The community had its
own folktales, particularly those of the Golem and Rabbi Loew. Loew was
a Talmudic scholar said to have lived in the 15th century — a hero in
various fairy tale exploits whose villain was usually Brother Thaddeus,
a wicked cleric prone to pogroms and accusing Jews of killing Christian
babies. The Golem comes from the mystical cabalist idea that each mortal
contains within him a spark of the divine. In prayer, Loew was instructed
to build a man out of mud, to walk around it several times, and then place
the unknown name of God (the shem) in its mouth. The Golem thus created
is a rather humorous, slapstick creature who nonetheless appears at times
of crisis to save the Jews from danger. He did not, alas, make an appearance
when Hitler’s Gestapo came to town.
After the war, Czech arts fared no better under the strict Social Realist
doctrine of Communism. In the Sixties, this seemed to loosen a bit; art
and optimism swept Prague, culminating in the student revolt of Prague
Spring in ’68. Then Soviet tanks rolled into the city, and all Prague watched
in horror as hundreds of unarmed people were shot, effectively crushing
the resistance and the spirits of a whole generation. Another two decades
of Communism passed before the Czech people revolted again. After the fall
of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Prague students confronted baton-wielding police
on the streets of New Town. The televised confrontation, showing the brutality
of the police against students armed only with candles and flowers, shook
the Czech population to the core, and a million people took to the streets
to demand the government’s resignation. This extraordinary peaceful uprising,
known as The Velvet Revolution, toppled the old Communist regime, and in
less than two months playwright Vaclav Havel was elected to the presidency.
Since then, Czech and Slovakia have formed two separate nations. Prague
has opened its doors to the West, and called home its many exiles. The
city’s beauty, mystique, and cheap rents have attracted a large English-speaking
community, many of them writers, artists and filmmakers hoping to find,
or recreate, the “cafe life” of Europe between the wars. At sidewalk cafes
and in coffee bars one sees many young faces these days and hears many
different languages spoken. Some Czechs are delighted with this new infusion
of young energy, others are dismayed by the tourist invasion. But despite
the crowds in Old Town Square and around the other tourist attractions,
the real life of Prague goes in the back streets of the city — in the
casual and unmarked beer halls which one discovers only with the aid of
Czech friends, in the art studios, theaters and jazz clubs tucked away
on unlikely streets, where the Czechs exercise their hard-won right to
gather, to argue, and to create.
In recent years, Hollywood in particular has discovered the charms of Eastern
Europe, with its economical labor pool and a wealth of exotic locations
from castles to cities to countryside. My friend’s film, Pinocchio, has
been shot in Prague’s back streets, on its rooftops, in a quarry, and in
a small Czech village. Now they are doing bluescreen shots in the large
film studio on the outskirts of town, the painstaking work that will make
the wooden puppet come to life on film. It is fascinating to watch Todd
and the others at work manipulating the puppet. It takes several puppeteers
working together to move, in co-ordination, the legs, the arms, the torso,
the head, and all the facial movements that give the puppet expression.
Todd wears what looks like a blue diving suit so that he can be eliminated
from the picture, leaving behind only the image of the wooden puppet in
motion. It is an unusual and highly skilled form of acting — physical,
even acrobatic. A good team seems to work together as if by magic or telepathy.
At a break in the filming, the director, Steve Barron, talks about Pinocchio
with me. It is, he says, a tale that he has long wanted to film. He has
an abiding love for fantasy stories, particularly ones grounded in the
world we know. Steve directed the “Storyteller” series (created with Jim
Henson, of Muppet fame), filming beautiful and intelligent retellings of
lesser known fairy tales, such as the quirky Hans My Hedgehog. What drew
him to Pinocchio was the human emotion lodged within Collodi’s magical
adventure tale: the wooden boy who longs to be like the other boys, to
be real, to fit in. That deep desire to belong, Steve says with a smile,
is a feeling he remembers well.
Carlos Collodi was an Italian journalist who became a popular writer of
children’s stories. He first published Pinocchio in an episodic, serial
form; it was then gathered together as a single book in 1883. Since then
the story has been filmed several times, but never (in America) quite successfully.
The Disney version in particular lacks the original story’s sinister edge
that makes the ultimate reunion between the puppet and his father so affecting.
Like Steve, Mac Wilson (the head puppeteer) says it is a story he has long
wanted to film, the ultimate story for a puppeteer. And a technically challenging
one, for the puppet is on-screen for a great deal of the movie. The task
of Mac’s team of puppeteers is to show how a bit of carved and painted
wood can be turned into a living, breathing character whom an audience
will come to love.
It seems fitting that they must accomplish this here, in the ancient land
of Bohemia, where puppet-makers have been bringing such creatures to life
for centuries. The folktales of Bohemia are full of creatures carved from
trees: male and female, painted, then dressed, then brought to life by
the power of speech. One becomes a ravenous child, eating everything in
sight, his parents, his village, the countryside, until he’s finally destroyed.
Another is a girl, ravishing but mute, who is wed to a prince and then
turns back into wood in his arms on their wedding night. Creation, destruction,
illusion. . .reminding us that all is not as it appears. . . .
Since the Revolution, fantasy, folklore and surrealism is catching up with
Social Realism as a vibrant presence in modern Czech arts. Adolf Born is
an artist whose phantasmagoric paintings could almost be children’s book
illustrations but for the macabre, perversely erotic elements of his imagery.
Jiri Anderle is a master of delicate, surreal pencil drawings. The collection
of his art with text by Vaclav Havel is particularly worth seeking out.
Peter Sis is a Czech painter, filmmaker and children’s book author now
living in New York. The Three Golden Keys is a gorgeous, dreamlike picture
book about his home city of Prague, created for his young daughter who
was born in America. The book captures the beauty and melancholy of the
old city streets; it is an intimate and haunting work which I strongly
recommend. For those interested in Czech folklore, K.J. Erben’s Tales from
Bohemia is a particularly nice collection, reprinted from the original
Prague edition with lovely illustrations by Artus Scheiner.
One Prague book critic has decried the surge in popularity of “works of
mere escapism” — such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (a best-seller
in the Czech Republic), as well as home-grown magical works by young Czech
fantasists. Yet it is not surprising to learn that after years of force-fed
Realism, readers have discovered the pleasures to be found in works of
modern fantasy, the best of which speaks on two levels at once: not only
as a magical “escape” from humdrum reality but also as a metaphorical exploration
of the basic truths underlying modern life: love and hate, loyalty and
betrayal, courage and despair, survival, transformation. Tolkien’s tale,
for instance, is a bittersweet story of war, heroism, and loss. Sauron’s
dark hold on Middle Earth, and the terror of his Dark Riders, must have
a particular resonance for those who saw the Prague Spring crushed, and
watched in horror as police attacked young people armed only with flowers.
. . .
Prague is a place where the old and the new, the realistic and surrealistic,
have come together in a singular manner — in its arts, its streets, its
politics, its way of life, and its stories. This capital city is contemporary,
vital and full of promise for the future; yet ancient blood still stains
the stones and ancient ghosts still haunt the roads: the innocent women
burned as witches, the religious martyrs thrown from the towers, the men
and women executed for the wrong faith, the wrong name, the wrong ideas.
I have never been in a place where so much history seems crowded together,
packed into the few square miles overlooked by old Prague Castle.
On my last night in Prague, I pass through the city riding on the back
of my friend’s motorcycle, the sleek machine passing over the old cobblestones,
slippery with rain. The old and the new flash past us as we speed across
the river and down the streets of Mala Strana. The ghosts of the past are
still whispering their tales: folk tales, fairy tale, history and legend.
But I’m back in the modern world now. I’m moving too fast to listen.