A dark joke that made the rounds in Europe between the First and Second World Wars was the inspiration for a bitter absurdist cabaret written in 1944 in the Terezín Concentration Camp by the young Czech playwright, Karel Švenk, who was murdered by the Nazis a year later:
The first person says:
“The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all of our misfortunes!”
The second asks: “Why the cyclists?”
To which a third counters: “Why the Jews?”
The Last Cyclist (Poslední Cyklista) is a daring, gallows-humor, absurdist allegory that expands on the “Jews and the cyclists” theme, making cyclists the victims of the inmates of a mental asylum who escape and take over the outside world. They hound, oppress, exile or kill everyone who rides a bicycle and anyone who has ever had anything to do with cyclists for many generations back.
In the original cabaret, Švenk played the Chaplinesque anti-hero named Bořivoj Abeles who, after a series of ridiculous misadventures, defeats the lunatics by accidentally shooting them off to the moon on the rocket ship they themselves had built to finally get rid of him, the last remaining cyclist. Bořivoj tells the audience, “Go home! You are free!” but his girlfriend, Manicka, objects: “Only on the stage is there a happy ending. Out there, where you are, our troubles continue.”
The play was seen by many Terezín Ghetto inmates during rehearsals but it was banned bythe ghetto’s Council of Jewish Elders after its dress rehearsal. They were afraid of SS reprisals because the explicitness of the satire and its references to the irrational behavior of dictators and their followers were so blatantly and transparently anti-Nazi. Švenk was sent to Auschwitz a few months later and his script was lost forever.
In 1961, Jana Šedová, who had been a member of the Cyclist cast, reconstructed the play from memory for a production at the avant-garde Rokoko Theater in Prague. Šedová is the only participant in the 1944 Terezín production that I know for certain survived the Holocaust. In 1965, she described the original production of The Last Cyclist in an essay on theater in Terezín. Her plot summary describes a second act that is very different from the version she) and her collaborator, Darek Vostřel) wrote four years earlier. Although a number of survivors mention The Last Cyclist in their memoirs, Šedova’s is the only description of the plot; other references in Holocaust-related texts all cite her as the source of their information about the play. It is impossible at this point to know how closely the Šedová-Vostřel script accords with Švenk’s original, not only because it was reconstructed from memory some 20 years later but also because the new version was written for a production in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party and the ending adapted to appeal to that audience. The 1961 production needed to speak in ideologically acceptable language in a totalitarian society as much as to invoke memories of Terezín and the Holocaust, the latter in itself very daring in Communist Czechoslovakia.
As far as I can determine, that production was the only time the Šedová-Vostřel play was performed.
I first encountered The Last Cyclist in 1995, at which time I wrote a playlet for a regional high school youth group event based on the description of The Last Cyclist in Šedova’s essay, “Theater and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín.” I couldn’t get the story out of my head. Moved and intrigued by Šedova’s description of the impact of The Last Cyclist on the Jews who saw it during rehearsals in Terezín – she called it “undoubtedly our most courageous production” – I attempted to track down the original script.
In 1999, a Czech friend, Dr. Jiřina Šedinová, found for me a typescript of Šedova’s 1961 version of the play, which was never published, in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague. She also found a Czech translator, Zdenka Marečková, who – extraordinarily and unexpectedly – volunteered her time to make a rough translation of the play because she was so moved by what she read and excited by the possibility of it reaching an English-speaking audience. Not until I read this translation did I discover that the second act of Šedová‘s 1961 adaptation was markedly different from her description of the original play. I have edited, reconstructed and reimagined my version of The Last Cyclist from this translation of the 1961 adaptation of the 1944 cabaret, from the description of the original script, from illustrations made in Terezín for costumes and sets for the original production and from hints and allusions in memoirs by survivors.
However, for the play to make sense to American audiences today, it was necessary to express the hopes, fears and coping mechanisms employed by the prisoners in the camp to maintain their self respect and their humanity despite hunger and disease, the indignities they were forced to suffer and the constant uncertainties with which they lived.
To achieve that, I have made the language and references accessible to contemporary American audiences. Then, using the description of The Last Cyclist in Šedová’s 1965 essay as my guide, I rewrote the second act to accord with what I believe is both the sense and the spirit of Švenk’s original play. Finally, because there is nothing in the original that mentions Terezín or the appalling conditions there – the context in which both the humor and the implicit horror of the play become understandable to us – I created new beginning and ending scenes in which Jana Šedová “remembers” back to the night of the dress rehearsal, and Švenk’s cabaret becomes a play-within-a-play. In my adaptation, the open dress rehearsal ends abruptly with the announcement of an impending deportation.
The play is performed without intermission in 20 very short scenes. Running time is about 80 minutes. The script calls for a bare minimum of 9 actors and a maximum of 20+ in the cast. No change of set is necessary and costuming can be very simple.
My adaptation includes “The Terezín March,” written by Švenk for his first production, The Lost Food Card. This song was so energizing and electrifying, it so captured the hopes of people living with a sense of numbing despair, that it became the unofficial “anthem” of the camp. It was reprised again and again to conclude Švenk’s cabarets, was sung spontaneously by the audience at the end of other camp productions, and is cited repeatedly and even reproduced word for word in memoirs and other descriptions of the camp written by survivors. The version in my play is the chorus, modified to omit a reference that would not be easily understood by an audience today and incorporating instead some of the text from one of the verses. The music for the stanzas, in minor key, is referenced in Stephen Feigenbaum’s edgy, exciting original new score for the play, which also includes a never-before heard fragment of Švenk’s music to which I have added lyrics. Feigenbaum’s score is in two forms: full orchestration for six instruments (violin, viola, cello, clarinet, piano and percussion), and a reduction for piano only. CDs of both versions are available for performance use.
The Last Cyclist opens a window onto a little known aspect of “spiritual resistance” to the Nazis during the Holocaust. Despite the harrowing conditions under which they were forced to live and work, Jews in Terezín created a remarkable wealth of cultural offerings, including theatrical performances, concerts, recitals, paintings and drawings, and thousands of lectures that gave solace and a boost in morale to this humiliated and disheartened group of highly educated, civilized and cultured urban people who, despite dire rumors, still hoped that they would soon be going home, and who certainly had no idea of the mass murder that awaited them.
For many years after the Holocaust, there was a sense that the Jews of Europe who were rounded up, put into transit camps and then deported to death camps went “like sheep to the slaughter.” People saw the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and isolated acts of resistance such as that of the Bielski brothers (Defiance) as anomalies, remarkable exceptions that proved the rule. Now we know better. Memoirs, historical accounts, novels and films delineate myriad instances of bravery, of physical and spiritual resistance to the Nazis.
The Last Cyclist is an example of the extraordinary resilience displayed by concentration camp inmates. Incredibly, Švenk’s play is funny and was meant to be funny. The audiences at Terezín that attended the open rehearsals of The Last Cyclist laughed and today’s audiences are meant to laugh too. But ours is uncomfortable laughter: first because we realize that the play is not a joke but a brave protest against totalitarianism; and, second, because we know the fate of the cast and the rest of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The play, in a non- confrontational way, makes clear to today’s audiences that it is the personal responsibility of every human being to fight intolerance, prejudice, bullying and racism.
Naomi Patz’s adaptation of The Last Cyclist was first presented in short, experimental form in 1995 at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. An early version of the current script premiered in St. Paul, MN in June, 2009 in 10 performances by the Lex-Ham Players. It was then performed as a staged reading by the Ad Hoc Players at Temple Sholom in two performances in May, 2010, and in a shorter form at New Milford High School, NJ in May 2011.This shortened version of the play has since been performed by drama students at Columbia High School in Maplewood-South Orange and at Cedar Grove High School under the auspices of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in spring 2012 and a production is scheduled for June 2013 at Cherry Hill West High School (NJ). The play is also being studied in settings as varied as Bogota, Colombia; Manchester, England; Strassbourg, France; Berlin, Germany; and London, Ontario. Translated into Spanish by Isaac Slomianski, El Último Ciclista was performed in Mexico City in January-February, 2012 to rave reviews. A staged reading of the play was performed at the Bohemian National Hall in New York City in April 2012 at the invitation of the Czech Consul General. A fully staged production of the play will premiere at theWest End Theater in New York City at the end of May 2013.