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The Peasant and the Actor

April 1, 2011

Jaro, on the left, and his friends on stage in Pivnica, 1930's

When the Republicans recently cancelled all federal funding for NPR, Sarah Palin chimed in and declared the National Endowment for the Arts to be “frivolous” as well.  And here I always thought the arts were what made life worth living.

In the 1930’s, with great gusto Pauline and her fiance, Jaro, took part in Slovak amateur theater.  They performed on a makeshift stage in a pub right across the street from Pauline’s parents’ bakery (and a stone’s throw from their church). The tables would be pushed aside, and folding chairs would be placed on the floor in neat rows, facing a one foot high stage. The audience would be packed in, and nearly as many performers would crowd the stage; theater was wildly popular at the time.

Pauline and Jaro in a play in Pivnica, circa 1936. They are at the back, in the middle. The audience seems fairly sophisticated - fancy hats, blond bobs, fur trimmed coats.

For Slovaks, theater was a relatively young art. The earliest playwrights date back to the mid 19th century, and the first Slovak theater opened in 1866 in Bačsky Petrovec, the Slovak village in Vojvodina where Jaro went to high school.  The theater in the pub in Pivnica opened up in 1906, but amazingly, it wasn’t until 1938 that the first Slovak plays were performed in Bratislava, when the amateur troupe from Kysáč traveled there to perform.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had cracked down on Slovak culture for hundreds of years, but for some reason Queen Maria Teresia had turned a blind eye to the artistic expressions of the stubborn Evangelical Lutherans she had banished to the swamplands of Vojvodina.

Pivnica pub with the theater inside, 1920's-30's. The owner of the pub is the woman standing at the door. The little girl is dressed as a bride; it was common to have little children acting in wedding clothes.

Pauline loved acting on the stage, according to her son.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear this, because the Pauline I knew never liked to be the center of attention; to me, she seemed shy and reticent.  From the pictures of Jaro acting, it is clear that he loved hamming it up on stage with his friends. Jan Suster, Jaro’s uncle (who was the same age as Jaro), was also a popular actor until he moved to Pula during the war.


Jaro and his friends acting in a play in Pivnica, around 1935. Jaro has the gun and is holding up the others.

As Slovak theater blossomed in the early decades, there was only a small handful of Slovak playwrights, and as far as I can tell, they were all Protestant; the arts, like education, were keenly important to them.  The two earliest dramatists were Jozef Viktor Rohoň (1845 – 1923) and Félix Kutlík (1843 – 1890). Kutlik was a Protestant minister from Kulpin whose first play in 1872 was Stratený Syn (“The Lost Son“) and it was played by the amateur actors from Bačsky Petrovec.  The most famous playwright from the acting era of Pauline and Jaro was another minister from nearby Stará Pazova, Vladimír Hurban Vladimírov (1884 – 1950), better known as “VHV.”

Play in Pivnica, 1935 or so. Jaro is on the right.

Pauline and Jaro would have been acting in VHV’s realism style plays that were popular between the two world wars.  For the first time in history, Slovaks could openly produce, act in and see plays that resembled their own lives.  VHV’s play, Blowing (1922), for example, is a three act play with 4 male and 2 female actors.  The play takes place in a rustic, peasant style house that is luxuriously furnished, over an eight day period just as the first winter snow begins to fall.  Through the window one can see drifts of snow, and in the house, the audience sees drifts forming between the occupants.  Martin, a young man, has married a sickly young woman named Katyusha who is unable to bear children.  Alas, their marriage is doomed from the beginning, and as Martin grows frustrated and distant, he begins to look for a new wife.  Katyusha leaves the house in anger, determined not to stay where she is not wanted.  The play was celebrated for openly dealing with the emancipation of women.

Pauline and Jaro in the play, Pivnica, 1936

The joy Pauline and Jaro felt in those few brief years on stage would abruptly come to an end, and the plays that resembled the real lives of Slovaks would soon take on a decidedly communist slant for the next 50 years.  “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”, said Oscar Wilde.  I wonder if Sarah gets that.

“There is but one stage for the peasant and the actor.”   Henry David Thoreau

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2011 9:38 am

    Fascinating! I had no idea!

  2. Lily Shuster permalink
    April 2, 2011 11:47 am

    I never knew that about my parents. It’s amazing how much you don’t know about people who are so close to you!
    It explains where some of us got our love of theatre and drama! Uncle Milan was an active member of the “Leamington Players” while in high school. Both Ruth and I participated in theatre as young children in Leamington’s summer program, and the drama club at good old LDHS. I continued to participate in University and to this day love live theatre!
    Thanks Tonya for another glimpse at our past!

    • April 2, 2011 1:12 pm

      I had no idea you were all so active in the theater! I will have to dig up photos and stories of your acting days… 🙂

  3. Lily Shuster permalink
    April 2, 2011 11:48 am

    Forgot to mention how much Ruth looks like our mother in the photo! Could have sworn it was her!

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