14 December 2005

Tribute to a Czech Puppet Master

My first meeting with Jan Dvorak was in 1981, when I was privileged enough to be one of twenty international students that participated in the very first puppetry workshop, dedicated to the “marionnette á fils”, at the Institute International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France. Dvorak at that time was the artistic director of the renowned Drak Theatre, based in Hradec-Králové in Czechoslovakia.
I was a South African puppeteer, who, until then had been quite isolated in a country cut off from the rest of the world by a right-wing Apartheid government. I had always been fascinated by the stories emanating from Europe about their creative and sophisticated puppet theatre, especially those in the eastern European countries. So of course, when I was informed that I was accepted for the course in France and that I would have three puppet masters from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Rumania, I was overwhelmed.

Dvorak or Honza, as he called himself was a large, smiling individual who immediately made a great impression upon me. I remember our first exercise of performing with old wine bottles attached with a single string. The life in animating just about anything soon woke me up to the endless possibilities of the puppet.

Soon we were building string puppets, out of a piece of foam and a rubber ball for the head. Using a traditional Czech marionette vertical control, gave us a great performance technique that was quite simple to use, even for puppeteers such as I, who had mostly never used marionettes before!

It wasn’t until 1999, that I decided, after almost twenty years since that first Charleville experience, to go back to the Czech Republic and visit my old puppet master, Honza Dvorak. From Poland, I caught the train to the Czech Republic to visit a friend in Hradec-Králové. From there we drove to Smidary, a tiny village in the country, in search for Honza. To my absolute delight, we found Honza and his wife Jana in their country cottage and were welcomed with home made cakes, coffee and then ‘piwo’ (Czech beer – a necessary part of Czech hospitality). We reminisced about the ‘old days’ played with the puppets and explored his huge garden with a river running through it. Honza told us we must visit the puppetry museum in Chudrim, although another few hours in the car, it was worth it. This old four-storey building in the tiny Czech town of Chudrim, houses one of the largest collection of antique puppets in the world.
I never realised the impact that visit would have upon my life that day. Before I left Honza, he presented me with a little gift. It was an old puppet head he said that came from Czechoslovakia during the war years. The head had a fascinating quality. It was papier-mache, covered with old leather and painted. But it wasn’t until a few months later that I became a little obsessed by it and the need to discover where it actually came from.

In Jerusalem, earlier that year, I accidentally found a puppet play, written by a thirteen-year old poet in 1943, while a prisoner in the Czech concentration camp of Terezin. The writer of the play, Hanus Hachenburg tragically perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau in July 1944, two days before his fifteenth birthday. I managed to get a copy of the boy’s play, translated into English and only a few months later did the possibility enter my mind that the old head that Honza had given me, might well have been the head of one of Hanus’ puppets!

This event started me on an almost six-year journey to re-trace the life of Hanus Hachenburg and his brilliant puppet play, written in Terezin in a great hurry before his eminent deportation to the East.

To summarise an immensely long journey into a few paragraphs, I actually got to perform Hanus’ play “We are looking for a monster” in Cape Town, South Africa in late 2001. This had been the first performance of the allegory, written by a young boy that saw right through the Nazi cover-up operation which fooled the whole world, including the International Red Cross. The world was lead to believe that Terezin was a Paradise Ghetto for the Jewish population that were imprisoned there. It wasn’t revealed until many years later, that this was in fact only a holding camp, before the prisoners were shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau. And this is partly what Hanus alludes to in his play!

But back to Honsa, when I visited him again in Smidary, some two years later. I had recently performed the piece and even included Honza as one of its characters, who gives over the elixir or puppet head to the returning puppeteer. Honsa was delighted at hearing how the story unfolded and in seeing himself as a character on the stage handing over the head. But it wasn’t until another few years later, in 2004 that we actually returned to visit Honsa once again. We were filming the visit this time, for a television documentary on the life of Hanus, when many more pieces in this enormous jigsaw puzzle became clear. I finally managed to locate actual survivors in Prague, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Toronto, New Jersey, West Palm Beach Florida and Poland who knew young Hanus sixty-five years earlier and remembered his genius and incredible writing talent. Honza’s role in truly being my Jedi Master in many ways fell into place. It was largely through his generosity and encouragement, already back in 1981, to take the necessary risks in theatre to make the adventure happen, that it did!

Honza celebrated his eightieth birthday this August 14th. On behalf of myself and my fellow puppeteers of the world, may I wish Honza only health and a good life for many years to come! (edited)