Karel Capek's R.U.R & The Robber: A collage by Voyen Koreis, made mainly from the lithographs of Josef Capek

Booksplendour


pek

 

 

 

 

My First Encounter with Karel Čapek

by Voyen Koreis

From the Introduction and Translation Notes to the new English translation of the two plays by Čapek - R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) and THE ROBBER, issued in 2008 by Booksplendour Publishing)

 

Karel Capek: A self-caricature

      Karel Čapek        (self-caricature)

My first serious encounter with Karel Čapek was quite bizarre. I had previously read the author’s children’s books, some of which he wrote together with his brother Joseph, but that could not prepare me for what was to come. In July 1961 I was eighteen years old.  I had just arrived to spend the summer vacation in the town in northeastern Bohemia, where I had lived from the age of ten, and where my widowed mother owned a small house.

I went to the primary school in this town, after we moved here from Prague. Our class teacher in the final year was a rather formidable character, a man of about fifty, whom we all greatly feared and who reigned in his classes with an iron fist. He taught the maths, chemistry and physics, but also literature. Besides being a dedicated educator, he was much into the local amateur theatrics. We had an occasional glimpse of this softer side of him when he directed the school plays, but most of the time we anticipated in trepidation being pulled out of the bench to the blackboard, there to be subjected to a humiliating routine of writing with a piece of chalk mathematical or chemical formulas we knew little about, and accordingly being treated like congenital idiots. I was much relieved when at fourteen I moved on to the high school, and from there on lived in a safe distance from this imperious personality.  Or at least I imagined that I was safe.  

The very next day after my arrival home, I heard a rather timid knock on the front door of our wooden cottage. I went to open it and, to my bewilderment, accompanied by an elderly man, whom I knew to be an accomplished actor who had even spent some years on the professional stage, there stood my former teacher. It turned out that the two men came to convince me of the necessity, or the way they had put it to me, the noble duty, of my becoming a star performer and the saviour of the local amateur theatrical society. A brand new summer theatre arena was recently completed in an old abandoned quarry, and for its inauguration, Karel Čapek’s play The Robber (Loupežník) was selected. The rehearsals had been going on for a few months, and only a week remained to the first night, when a great disaster befell the town’s enthusiastic amateurs. The actor who was to play the main character found himself in hospital after a serious accident, with no prospect of a speedy recovery. In the time of crises my former teacher, who directed the play, remembered that several years earlier I appeared quite successfully in some school plays he had also directed, and he believed that I could step in, even on such short notice. I was flattered by his faith in me, so without much hesitation I said yes.  

Only seven full days remained to the premiere, and while I was assured that there would be full rehearsals held every night, the mission that stretched ahead was a fearsome one. The Robber, whom I was to play, is on the stage for the best part of three hours, and I realised that learning the lines properly was not going to be easy, even for my young and flexible brain. After the two men left, leaving the script in my hand, I walked to the nearby forest, and laying on the grass in a nice little glade where no one could hear me, till the late afternoon I worked seriously on memorising the role. By the evening I was already on the first name terms with my one time foe, and we were rehearsing enthusiastically, full of optimism.

There isn’t a great deal the author of this play provides in the way of instructions, but it is obvious that the Robber is meant to be quite a young man, perhaps not much more than twenty, possibly a student. When I appeared in the same play about three years later in one of the minor roles, this time however on the professional stage, the character was played by an actor who must have been in his mid-forties. Some of his efforts, like the attempts at scaling and falling off the wall, which are an important part of the production, looked laborious and perhaps even slightly ridiculous. I could not help feeling rather jumpy while watching him from the wings, but I knew my place in the pecking order. Now, at eighteen I was young and supple; so climbing up a wall that was about eight feet high presented no great problem. I had to rehearse the scene well enough though, as when in the first act he finds himself on the top of the wall, the Robber is shot at, and wounded, by his rival in love, the Forester. The jealous Forester is provoked into shooting at the Robber by his daring leap onto the top of the wall and by his sardonic exclamation “Adieu, imperishable marksman!”

The hero’s fall off the wall should be spectacular enough for the audience to gasp loudly. When during the dress rehearsal we had ran through the shooting scene it soon became obvious that the traditional method of providing sound to the riffle being shot on stage, by hitting a plank against the wooden floor, brought about a whimper that was quite useless in the open-air theatre. For the full effect we not only needed the gunshot to be loud and impressive, but also its echo to mightily reverberate in the surrounding woods. An expert from the forestry department was called in, who at speed arranged for two proper hunting guns to be lent to us, an empty one to be carried on the stage by the Forester and the other, loaded with a dummy cartridge, to be shot from behind the scene. This proved satisfactory.

On the first night the house, roofed with the starry canopy offering a perfect drop to the lyrical night love scenes that with my limited experience I had not anticipated without trepidation, was near full. In the early sixties, television was still in its infancy, and inhabitants of a small town like ours usually had little else to do on a Saturday evening but go to the cinema or, if they had the opportunity, to the theatre. After the six days spent on diligently learning my lines, and the six nights of intense rehearsing with the other actors, I was reasonably confident and comfortable in the role and except for the loves scenes, surprisingly little nervous. But fate spared me from having to be a romantic lover, at least on this one night. No one will ever know how it happened that in the muddle that goes together with every first night, the two guns to be used in the shooting scene were accidentally switched, with the loaded one finding its way into the Forester’s hands. I leaped onto the top of the wall, waved my stage adversary good-bye while uttering the confrontational words after which, while standing close to the wall, he pulled the trigger. The sound was indeed thunderous, and to my surprise I could also see a flame come out from the business end of the Forester’s riffle. At the same time I felt something hot scorching my right thigh. The fall off the wall onto a piece of grassy carpet laid there for the purpose I performed well, exactly as I had rehearsed it. However, even as the echoes of the gunshot were still heard coming back from the forest, I already knew that something was not right. Lying with my left side towards the audience, unobserved I could use my right hand to feel my thigh, which had begun to hurt a great deal while swelling up alarmingly. Eventually my probing fingers reached a hole in the charred fabric of the trouser, and felt a large open wound underneath it. At this moment I knew that I was in serious trouble. Meanwhile the play continued, several villagers crowded the scene and, in accordance to the script, attended to my imaginary head wound, finally loading me onto a barrow and wheeling me off the stage. While all this went on I continued to act as the wounded Robber, even though it was becoming clear to me that I would not be able to continue acting to the end of the play.

The performance had to be called off, and an ambulance arrived. On the operating table in the hospital, the doctor on duty extracted from my wounded leg substantial parts of the cartridge - most of the shell together with several pieces of felt plugs, cardboard, etc. which had no time to disperse as they would have done had the shot been fired from a longer distance. After the treatment I was left with a prominent scar a good ten centimetres long, which to this day reminds me of my first major stage role. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if the Forester had aimed higher (according to the script the shot is supposed to brush the side of the Robber’s head…) I stayed in the hospital for about two weeks and some days later, still limping slightly, I was able to play the role to the end. Also several times after that, always in front of large audiences, as the fame of the Robber shot on the stage grew to high proportions, almost becoming a national legend. Even those who before this event would never come near the theatre suddenly found it irresistible.

Soon after this incident I left the town to live elsewhere, eventually altogether leaving the country. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly leave out of this narrative an episode that occurred more than three decades later. I came back to visit my old hometown, after a long journey from Australia, where I had been living for many years. With a former schoolmate we went to a pub. One of our peers sits there; he casually looks me over as if I had never left the town, and declares in a dry manner:

“I’m not talking to you!”

“What have I done?”, I ask him.

“You caused me getting into a big trouble with my old man.”

This called for an explanation, and subsequently it turned out that the poor fellow was dating a girl that his parents did not want him to go out with, mainly because she was Jewish. Parental authority was still strong in those days and especially in these parts of the world, as was xenophobia. On the same night I was stricken with the gunshot he was with her, stricken by love. When his parents asked him later how he had spent the night, he innocently declared that he was in the theatre with friends. Understandably he knew nothing at all about the shooting accident, which so easily could have ended my life, and of which the whole town was talking. With the deception thus revealed, naturally, his disbelieving parents were not impressed.

I bought him a drink or two and all was well again. On the next day in the town square, coincidentally I ran into the girl, also my classmate, who was the other party in the clandestine rendezvous. I questioned her about it and  she confessed that she too was severely disciplined by her parents for the same transgression, that she broke up with the guy soon after this, and ended up eventually marrying another man whose parents were more broadminded, having several children, and by then even some grandchildren. This too called for a drink. In the nearby pub where I had invited her, we drunk to our glorious though long departed youth and, naturally, to Karel Čapek, who had made such an unexpected and profound impression on our lives.

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