Resurrection of the “Last Cyclist” by Alexander Sirotin. In Chayka (“Seagull” in English), published: August 10, 2022
“Have you seen the film-play called “The Last Cyclist” yet? Its uniqueness is that it has risen from the dead. The play was written in 1944 by a prisoner of the Nazi concentration camp “Theresientstadt” Karel Schwenk. He also staged a play with actors – prisoners, but the performance was banned after a dress rehearsal. Moreover, it was not the Germans who banned it, but the Judenrat, that is, the Jewish Administrative Council of the camp. Members of the Judenrat watched the dress rehearsal and were frightened by the reaction of the camp authorities. The fact that the Nazis did not see the performance managed to extend the life of the artists and members of the Judenrat for a few more weeks.
“Terezin, a garrison town outside the fortress wall, 65 km from Prague, was turned into a ghetto during the German occupation, then into a labor camp. From here, prisoners were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps. Theresientstadt served as a demonstration camp in which, according to Nazi propaganda, the prisoners were isolated for their own good and lived a full creative life. Jewish intellectuals, freelancers, artists, musicians, and actors gathered there. The Nazis allowed inspectors of the International Red Cross into this camp and documentary propaganda films were filmed here. In one of these films, Schwenk also flashed. According to those who knew Karel Schwenk as a comedian, director, playwright and songwriter, he was a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Bester Keaton.
“From Theresienstadt, the Germans sent Schwenk to Buchenwald, and when the Red Army was on the outskirts of the camp, the remaining prisoners were driven to the West. On the way, 28-year-old Karel Schwenk died. This happened just a few weeks before the surrender of Germany.
“The text of the play is gone. The 28-year-old playwright and almost all the artists perished. Miraculously, only one participant in the performance, Yana Sedova, survived, who after the war became an actress in Czech cinema and theater. She wrote an article about the camp play. Almost two decades after the war, Yana Sedova restored the text, scenery, costumes from memory and staged the play at the avant-garde Rococo Theater in Prague. But since in the then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the similarities between the absurdity of Nazism and the absurdity of communism were striking, the play had to be greatly changed to please the communist leadership.…
“More than 50 years have passed, and the American writer, playwright and producer Naomi Patz took up the work of restoring the original text of the play. She not only reconstructed the satire on the regime embedded in the play, which blamed some ethnic, religious and national minorities for all the problems of society but showed the tenacity of this kind of absurd accusations in our time.
“In August 2017, the play was performed by artists from the New York off-Broadway West End Theater on the stage of the La MaMa Experimental Theater and filmed as a film play. Moreover, this film reproduces the atmosphere of the general run of the performance in public, as it was in 1944 in the Theresienstadt ghetto, when the artists played in front of the prisoners.
“While watching the film-performance, I found myself breathless from the multi-layered perception: I followed the development of the action and at the same time thought about the suicidal courage of the author and the artists who, while in the Nazi concentration camp, although they resorted to allegory, but clearly ridiculed the ideology of the Third Reich, which declared its purpose is the extermination of the Jews. At the same time, I could not forget for a moment the tragic death of the playwright and the actors. And finally, I imagined how this performance would be perceived today by viewers living in countries ruled by dictators who are always looking for “enemies”, both internal and external. I won’t point fingers, but as Bertolt Brecht said, a play can take place at any time and in any country. By the way, the influence of Brecht is felt in Karel Schwenk’s play The Last Cyclist. For example, Reminds me of The Career of Arturo Ui. Parable, caricature, farce, some sketchiness of scenes in the style of a cabaret… Not without reason, before the war, Karel Schwenk was an artist, author and director of a cabaret theater in Prague.
“I would define the genre of “The Last Cyclist”as a political tragedy. But it is also possible in the way that Brecht defined the genres of some of his works: pamphlet play, parabolic play.
“The film-play “The Last Cyclist” is an absurd comedy, at the beginning of which the characters, in search of the guilty, focus on cyclists and decide that they should all be arrested, sent to the Island of Terror and doomed to starvation. “Why cyclists? someone asks. – “Because why the Jews,” – answers another. It immediately becomes clear that cyclists are playing the role of Jews in this performance. And then the action revolves around a young merchant who decides to win the heart of his girlfriend by buying, at his misfortune, a bicycle. He could not foresee that at that time its inhabitants would run away from the lunatic asylum and declare a general struggle against the rootless cyclists.
“The performance features 11 actors, each playing several roles. The film features the Terezín March written by Karel Schwenk, which became a real anthem for the prisoners of Theresienstadt. The new lyrics were written by Naomi Patz, and the melody of the march was finalized and arranged by composer Stephen Feigenbaum.
“The Last Cyclist” is also an example of the fortitude of Jewish actors who fought against Nazism through art. They fought with the weapons they had at their disposal: irony, satire, allegory, fables, that is, those artistic means that artists use today in countries with dictatorial regimes of government. The play is surprisingly modern, directed against new genocides, new theories of the superiority of some peoples over others.
“Why are the works of other Czech authors, such as Franz Kafka, Karel Capek and Vaclav Havel, or such masters of allegory as Aesop, Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift, Mikhail Bulgakov, Bertolt Brecht, Evgeny Schwartz, the Strugatsky brothers, relevant today?
“Why is the play of Karel Schwenk, written in 1944 in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt still relevant today? We don’t live in a camp, do we?
“And not in a madhouse, right? Or does it just seem to us?
“The action can take place at any time and in any country.”