Additional Notes About The Last Cyclist and its History

Bořivoj Abeles

Karel Švenk chose to name his schleppy, schlemiel of an anti-hero Bořivoj Abeles. The name is itself a logical absurdity, joining the mythic ancestor of the Czech people to a Jewish-sounding, biblically-based surname (Abel, son of Adam and Eve and brother of Cain).

The Rokoko Theater

In 1961, Jana Šedová, who had been a member of the original Cyclist cast in the concentration camp, reconstructed the play from memory with her collaborator, Darek Vostřel, for a production at the avant-garde Rokoko Theater in Prague. This experimental theater had been opened in 1957 in a converted basement in the center of Prague. Vostřel (1929-1992) was a writer, comic actor and the first director of Rokoko. He and his closest collaborator, Jiří Šašek, who was a member of the Rokoko troupe, established a kind of satire loosely following the humor of the most famous vaudeville duo in interwar Czechoslovakia, Jiři Voskovec and Jan Werich , which they performed in radio and television shows. (Years earlier, this duo had inspired Karel Švenk.)

With the onset of “normalization,” the repressive atmosphere following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR in 1968 and continuing on, Vostřel was blacklisted. In the following years he continued to write scripts and radio shows using as pseudonyms the names of a number of willing friends. The Rokoko Theater itself declined. In 1975, it was became one of the Municipal Theatres of Prague.

The Significance of a Play about the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia under Communism

The Šedová-Vostřel script for The Last Cyclist was written 17 years after the original script was written, rehearsed and lost forever. Their version was created for a production in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party. It is based on Šedová’s memories and the need to adapt the second act to appeal to a Czech communist audience. In her introduction to the 1961 version, Jana Šedová wrote, “Based on the outline of thoughts and actions of the original cabaret we tried to write a new play that would – as far as possible – just as thoroughly recall the senselessness and danger of all kinds of racism to people of the year 1961 as Karel Švenk achieved with his group of prisoners in 1944 there – in the Terezín attic.” 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.

Professor Lisa Peschel speculates that “in the early 1960s, Czech Jews were searching for a way to bring the ghetto back into the realm of public discussion. During the 1950s, because of official ‘anti-Zionism’ and political purges that targeted Jews prominent in the Czech Communist party (eight of the eleven party members executed for treason following the notorious Slansky trials in 1952 were Jewish), topics that might portray Jews in a sympathetic light were taboo. With her revisions, Šedová may have been trying to create a place for this topic within larger Czech society by fitting the play inside the framework of acceptable Communist rhetoric about race and class (which, with Švenk’s work, may not have been a great distortion, since he himself was a committed leftist): mildly criticizing fellow Czechs for wartime collaboration, but also criticizing the Jews themselves for not being more politically engaged (for ‘firing into their own ranks,’ as a critic who reviewed the production at the Rokoko Theater put it). And to some extent it seemed to work: One reviewer claimed the Terezín prisoners as ‘our people.’ The critics interpretation and description of Bořivoj Abeles as an apolitical petit-bourgeoisie who didn’t do anything about the fascists until they came to get him seems startlingly brutal to us, yet the same reviewer continues, Abeles is ‘in the end a person who recognizes, understands, knows and sounds the alarm even today.’ In 1961, a lot of Czechs, including Jews, who had been young and idealistic leftists during the war, were still ‘true believers,’ so not all of this Communist rhetoric is empty ideology. Šedová herself might have felt the same way.”

It is hard now to comprehend, but true, that many Jews continued to believe wholeheartedly in the Communist ideology even after the Slansky trials.

Some of the Ways in which the 1961 Adaptation Differs from Švenk’s Original Cabaret

My adaptation of the script is performed without intermission, unlike the 1961 version. My later scenes are a rewrite of the second act of the 1961 version to accord with what I believe is both the sense and the spirit of Švenk’s original play. I based my script on Šedová’s own summary of Švenk’s plot in her 1965 essay on theater in Terezín in the volume Terezín published by the Jewish Communities of Czechoslovakia, and on set and costume designs made by Frantisek Zelenka in the concentration camp. As all of the survivor testimony and scholarly mentions of The Last Cyclist cite Šedová as their source, there were no other independent references to consult.

After comparing the Šedová- Vostřel 1961 text with Šedová‘s description of the 1944 original, I believe that the following are innovations to the plot of the later version of the play:

In Act 2, after Abeles has been arrested, tried and condemned to Horror Island, he is accidentally dropped from an airplane onto a mountaintop (the very site, in fact, where legends place the roots of Czech nationalism). There, he encounters a lion and is found by Manicka. (There is no airplane in my version; Abeles and Manicka do meet “in the middle of nowhere” ; but the lion doesn’t appear until the first of the two zoo scenes in my text.) They return to the city, where he is captured and put in a cage in the zoo (next to the lion, who has also been captured).

Meanwhile, Ma’am is having a crisis of confidence. The lunatics are beginning to see her and Rat as the cause of severe food shortages, unemployment and other troubles. (Here, too, I have followed the general plotline but my script has nothing of what follows here!) Rat defends himself and “explains” the problem by saying that although the cyclists (with the exception of the captured Abeles) are all gone, the hated and abhorrent circles represented by the bicycles are still present in the form of the sun and the vowel “o” in the alphabet. In what is virtually a throwaway line, not followed up on, Ma’am suggests putting Abeles into a rocket that will at one and the same time get rid of him and shoot down the sun. There then ensues considerable silly dialogue in the form of o-less gibberish. (I have made the rocket ship central to the climax of the play.)

In the final scene (absent from my version), Rat, Mr. Opportunist and all of the lunatics begin to fight with one another. There is an explosion, the entire lunatic asylum and everyone in it are gone (in my version, blasted off in the rocket ship), and Abeles is saved. He says, “I’m not accustomed to such happy endings. This isn’t the end, mark my words,” after which he is hit by a shard from Ma’am’s mirror that shattered during the explosion. “… So many shards. And they are everywhere.” A voice-over says, “The Jews are to blame!” Other voices follow with prejudiced remarks about Chinese, “Negroes” [negří], and Mongolians. The play ends with Abeles addressing the audience: “Do you also have a shard in your eye? Say what you may, but I was imprisoned for four years. So why have I told you all this? Because I don’t want anyone to have to go through it again.” The play ends with the cast mouthing the words of the Communist “Internationale” while the melody is played on a piano.

Missing Scenes

At least two scenes, now lost forever, are neither in Šedova’s 1961 play nor in the plot summary in her 1965 essay. But they are clearly the subject of sets and costumes that František Zelenka designed for The Last Cyclist, the artist’s drawings for which have survived. I think it is important to suggest that these elaborate designs were more likely artistic wishful thinking than reality; they are what Zelenka would have created had he had the time and materials to do so.

One scene apparently took place on the last ship to Horror Island, the ship from which Abeles accidentally falls overboard. The other seems to have involved a scientist who is trying to invent a formula that will turn cyclists into pedestrians; there is a Zelenka design that must have been for this scene. In an interview with Švenk scholar Elena Makarova, Šedova mentions this as an “excellent scene” in the original cabaret, but since she does not describe it further or include it either in her 1961 script or in the later plot summary, there is no way to reconstruct it with any faithfulness to the original; my script references it as a wistful pipedream.

The Terezín March

My adaptation includes Stephen Feigenbaum’s homage to “The Terezín March” written by Švenk for his first production, The Lost Food Card. This song was so energizing and electrifying, and 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 Terezín written by survivors. My version of the march is the chorus, modified to omit a reference to the number of words prisoners were allowed to use on the postcards they were permitted (or obliged) to write to people back home, a reference that would not be easily understood by today’s audience, and incorporating in its place more comprehensible and poignant text from one of the verses. The music for the stanzas, in minor key, and other Švenk melodies, are referenced in Stephen Feigenbaum’s original new score for the play, which is an homage to the m usic of Karel Švenk.

Spiritual Resistance and Resilience

The Last Cyclist opens a window onto a little known aspect of what Miriam Novitch first termed “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 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.