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Flat Theatre of Vlasta Chramostová

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(detail)4.10.1976 | first performance


(detail)Vlasta Chramostová |other

A Czech actress, she played in numerous movies and in the National Theatre during Communist regime, but after she had signed the Charter 77, all her public activity was prohibited so she set up a flat theatre. With fall of the regime she returned onto a stage mainly in the Vinohrady Theatre.



After the Communist Party took over the power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, all public activity was eliminated that would exist outside state supervision. All organizations were grouped together under the so called National Front including such as the Mushroom Pickers Society so they be under the state control and thus under the party control as well.   The state was almost the only employer and for that reason the political attitudes were intermingled with the work environment, in which there was a possibility of blackmailing, bullying or humiliating employees for their non-conformist stances in politics.   The dictatorship loosened in the 1960s and it seemed that establishment of pluralistic democracy couldn't be excluded in the long run.


Armies of five Warsaw pact states crossed the borders of Czechoslovakia on 21st August of 1968 to reverse this development.  One of the main means of the subsequent consolidation of power were  purges, in which people involved in the process of democratization were removed from their jobs and thus positions in the society that followed from the prestige of their jobs.  Many of the elite  on qualified positions were dismissed immediately and the remaining part was a subject of a purge on their workplace when clearance commissions investigated the  attitude of individual participants to recent event and their willingness to conform to a new discourse.    A document called the Lesson from the Crisis Development served as a kind of a discerning point of conformity that offered an interpretation basis of the required stance working as a kind of a confession.   It was similar to Catholic Credo in its social function, in which the worshipper takes a stand against ideas of heretics that were condemned by councils.  According to this conception, the one who wanted to keep his social position should expressed publicly his agreement with this binding interpretation that labelled the dictatorship loosening, "a revitalizing process" in the terminology of that time, as a contra-revolution and welcomed the invasion of Warsaw Pact armies.  The subsequent period of increased repression, in which critique voices were suppressed, was aptly named normalization, because it set the society in the state that was normal in the surrounding repressive regimes.   


Because of all that, a part of intelligentsia found itself out of the public life among other thanks to the activity of the repressive apparatus.  They went through a curve in their professional life when they sank from prestige jobs to auxiliary ones in the better cases or to the worse paid manual jobs in the worse cases.  Deprived of an official platform and prestige, this intelligentsia started spontaneously organizing their unofficial culture in the form of home lectures, theatre, seminars or concerts.


One of those who was deprived of the possibility to be employed in her profession was Vlasta Chramostová, a famous theatre and film actress, as she didn't show enough willingness to comply to the official discourse.  She and her husband, cameraman Stanislav Milota, spent the 1970s by home manufacturing of lamps.  She introduced stage reading from the work of  J. Seifert All the Beuty of the World (direction Luboš Pistorius and  V. Chramostová) that was dedicated to her by this prohibited writer and future holder of the Nobel Prize within the circle of her friends as a part of pastime in her flat in Prague quarter Vinohrady  on 2nd October of 1976.  There were important figures of Czechoslovak dissent between the guests as was Václav Havel, Pavel Kohout, Ivan Klíma, Pavel Landovský or Jan Patočka. The atmosphere left a strong impression in the participants.  The favourable reaction stimulated its repetition and roughly other 20 reruns followed.


This private activity attracted the attention of their circle of acquaintances who predominantly belonged to the dissidents community.   Secret performances for invited guests where a considerable number of dissidents met soon became a point of interest to the State Security.   At the same time, the secret police intensified the pressure on selected persons in this period in relation to publication of the document Charter 77, which was also signed by both Chramosta spouses.  Signs under the document contributed to a hysterical reaction from the regime that led to organization of signing signature sheets in the National Theatre, in which publicly active artists were signing a declaration denouncing Charter 77, which content they weren't allowed to get publicly any information about, apart of arrests or defamatory articles in the newspapers (including the article Pretenders and Castaways that is a cultural reference even 35 years later).


Theatre activities continued with a collage Appellplatz II (1977) from texts of other Czech banned authors as Kohout, Klíma, Trefulka, Kliment, Sidon, Vaculík and also Bertold Brecht, Edmond Rostand, based on the story Apel from a concentration camp by Jerzy Andrzejewski.  The third title of the home theatre was a Shakespearian dramatization Playing Macbeth (1978) by Pavel Kohout, written specifically for this theatre, with  Pavel   Landovský as the main character and Vlasta Chramostová as Lady Macbeth .  The premier took place on 13th June of 1978 and was repeated 18 times.  Solely the mere existence of this private activity irritated the regime. Intensity of interrogations at the department of the State Security increased and the staging of this play was terminated after police raid in the flat of Ivan Havel.  Subsequently in 1979, three of five key figures emigrated:  Pavel Kohout (author), Vlasta Třešňák (musician), Pavel Landovský (actor).  The last title was the mono drama Long, long since that or the Report about burying in Bohemia  (1979), written by  František Pavlíček (direction L. Pistorius), dramatizing the life of Božena Němcová as a sort of an allegory of the Normalization society of that time.   It carried a symbolical parallel in itself with resistance of Božena Němcová to Austrian censorship so it was an analogical situation, in which characters and audience of this theatre found themselves.


Already the first performance was recorded on gramophone and made public in Uppsala,  Sweden. Thanks to their cultural capital and connections to supporters in the capitalistic countries, two performances were recorded and film recordings were transported through London to Austrian television and through it to a circle of spectators in South Bohemia and Moravia.   So available media and connections were successfully used to overcome the censorship so that performances were made accessible to a broader audience.   This publicity contributed to a harsher response of the regime.   Subsequently, several visitors of the theatre were transported by the State Security and dropped into snow somewhere near Jičín and were recommended to think about theatre.  Several other participants faced other different troubles. Vlasta Chramostová stopped staging other performances in 1980 because of these dangers.   The theatre produced roughly 70 individual performances during the short time of its existence, not only in the flat of Vlasta Chramostová but also several ones in other flats in Prague, Brno, Olomouc and at Václav Havel's Hrádeček.


The flat theatre of Vlasta Chramostová was composed of two rooms of her flat that constituted a specific theatre space, in which the opening of double doors formed a sort of a proscenium arch and that could accommodate between 20 - 30 persons in its auditorium.   There, the spectators faced the possibility that they would be interrogated by the State Security for being present at this cultural event.   The phenomenon of the flat theatre is formed not only the character of the space, in which it takes place but by the circumstances, in which it is performed as well.   So the outer world is a component of the staging: whereas in the classical proscenium theatre, the curtain opens into another world, in the case of the flat theatre, the real world is a possibility that could break into the different world of the flat theatre in the form of a member of the Secret Police.  In a certain sense, the flat theatre of Vlasta Chramostová ignored the constriction of power and thus oppose it.   When the grip of feverish building of Socialism and dogmatism of Marxism-Leninism was released in the 1960s, the theatres of small form flourish apart of the culture in general.   The movement in the European culture also tended towards pushing through the Second Theatre Reform, which brought new experiments and wiped out the distance between actor and spectator.  This aspect was deepened in the theatre of Vlasta Chramostová in a considerable way thanks to the circumstances: not only that the actor is closer to the audience but he's connected to his here with a deep existential bond of jointly facing the threat from the regime.  


Before the Velvet Revolution, theatre in flats was an activity of intellectual minority that shared the ethos of civic resistance to established power.  As such it was unknown to the vast majority of citizens.   Soon after the revolution, a sort of heroization of dissident culture and underground took place - in the eyes of many, it became a fight against the evil.  Small victories, in which the dissident culture succeeded in maintaining its dignity, became cornerstones of the narrative, at which end the repressive regime is dissolved.   The feeling of dignity that was provided by this theatre to dissidents was then a source of their further civic resistance to the regime.


The theatre of Vlasta Chramostová is one of the most famous example of flat theatres apart of Theatre on the Move, to which a lot of attention was paid.  In it, the fight of dissidents' groups for their independent culture is represented and so it crystallizes to its second life as a historic event providing a new meaning in the symbolic level to the listener of the story.  The story of this theatre should represent the character of the epoch, in which it took place.  This story doesn't need to be a mere storytelling about the past, but its moral connotations could be grasped as binding to deeds and attitudes in the present.  It became a place of the memory (lieux de memoire) of the discourse in the new democratic regime.



Author: Jan Purkert

Translator: Jan Purkert

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