The Peasant and the Actor
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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