My books in English:
The Fools' Pilgrimage
The Kabbalah: a timeless philosophy of life
Intrusion - a stage play, takes place in north
An Introduction to the Tarot by P. F. Case
by V. Koreis
( & The Robber
/ translated from the
Czech, edited and introduced
I grew up in the Giant Mountains
Living in Prague was too expansive for Mother, so she wondered how she was going to make do, with her thin pension and myself, growing up, needing new clothes all the time, eating like a horse, etc. For a time we moved to Zbraslav and aunt Jiřina, who was that rock that the family always found a refuge with, even her worldly and successful brother, but that was always going to be a temporary solution. We stayed for about six months; I went to the end of 4th grade and beginning of the 5th grade there, by which time I was happy to leave. The new techer I didn§t like at all, unlike the previous one, who was the sister of a well known writer, poet, dramatist and painter Adolf Hoffmeister. The way this lady went through the rich history of the Zbraslav town, she had, in the course of a few months, managed to make me become interested in the subject of history. And in the school work with it.
Move from Prague to Zbraslav had been a major change, but we still lived quite near Prague. The move that was to come next was a bigger one, and Mother was a bit scared of it. Even though she came originally from a small township, she got to be used to living in metropolitan cities, such as London, Berlin, Prague or Belgrade. But it had to happen; it was the only logical thing to do. It was made possible by my father having made one wise investment while he had the chance. After the war there was the controvesial forced exit of large part of the German population from the so-called Sudettenland. The Sudetenland became a major source of contention between Germany and Czechoslovakia before the war, and in 1938 participants at the Munich Conference, yielding to Adolf Hitler, transferred it to Germany, tryingto avoid, or at least postpone the war. After the defeat many of the Germans were forced to leave, which left a number of dwellings unoccupied and for sale. Father bought one, very cheaply, and he had it registered in the name of his sister Jiřina, intending to have it gradually renovated, to be ready for his retirement, which had never happened. Aunt now felt obliged to have the title transferred to Mother.
The prospect of not having to pay any rent was too tempting, so one day she asked me:
"How would you like it, if we moved out of Prague?"
"You mean to live somewhere else?"
"How far out?"
"Oh, pretty far, more than hundred kilometres."
"In some rustic village, teeming with boorish peasants?"
"Don't make fun of me, I'm being serious."
"So am I."
"I said fine. Let's move."
"Just like that?"
"Why not? Let me enjoy my young age as a country boy!"
Mother often repeated this utterance of mine, as a proof of my early wisdom. Many years later, when I was sorting out the pile of documents that were left after my mother‘s death, I came across plans for the renovations that my father had made by some architect. It bore the rambling title: „Dwelling house belonging to Mr Dalibor Koreis, Consul General“. What had really hit me was the date of completion that was stated on the plans. It had really made me think hard about the human destinies, where the chance ends and the faith begins (the Jungian term „synchronicity“ was known to me by then). And the date? 7th August 1950. The day of Father’s death!
The house in Rokytnice, in its present state. The snowy top of Kotel (1435 metres) in the background.
The renovations never took place until at least ten years later, when the local medical practitioner had bought the house from us. At the time we had moved in it was liveable, even though there were some problems. The only major thing Mother had to do was having the shingle roof covered with paper coated with tar, to stop some leaks that were there, particularly when the snow on the roof would start melting. The back part of the house, which some good soul had done in bricks fairly recently, was never plastered as intended, so that the red bricks remained shining throughout our entire stay in the house. The house was a cottage typical for the area, perhaps about a hundred years old. The front part was made of roughly hewn timbers, which one would probably find underneath the surface even now. The ceilings were low, a tallish person could have easily touch them. Downstairs was the kitchen and two rooms divided by a narrow hall, steep angled staircase lead upstairs, to a large landing and two more rooms, a leather took you to the attic. It was full of strange things, including rolled-up canvas with what looked like backgrounds to some stage decorations. Behind the house there used to be a water stream, but that was blocked, because the wooden pipes had collapsed in places. For a time we had to go to the pump next to the neighbours’ house, until a dowser discovered the original stream, which was renewed. We were awarded with the water, full of minerals, very tasty. Because I was drinking this water for about ten years when my body was building up, my teeth even now are particularly strong and healthy. Visitors that we often had from Prague always went home with bottles filled with our water, to put off at least for a day or two drinking the stuff that dribbled from their water mains. There was no bathroom, other than the one of Father’s plans, so we bathed in a tin tub filled with water warmed on the stove. A very basic latrine completed the list of facilities, the accumulated dung had to be removed from time to time with the help of a peripatetic and labour intensive device, known in the sonorous Czech jargon as "hovnotzutz" or shit-sucker.
Cooking was a problem, particularly in the beginning. There were several stoves, either of them could be used for cooking, but all of them very slow. To get water to boil one had to be very patient, which was a problem for Mother, particularly when her ever hungry son kept asking when the food is going to be ready? Two of the stoves, one downstairs , one upstairs, were covered with ceramic tiles, and had ovens capable of producing wonderful bakery products, if only one had the patience, which neither of us had. Later, most of the cooking mum did on the electric appliances, which had become available in shops by the late 50’s. By then Mother had a reasonably well paid office job in the largest local factory, a spinning mill that had several hundred works, whose wages she was looking after. So we could have afforded to pay higher electricity bills.
How I became a poacher of trout.
a city grown child, the place was an absolute paradise. Waters of the
creek, or perhaps a rivulet, which formed the boundary of the half acre
sized block of land, came from high in the mountains and, except in
heavy rains or rapid thawing of snow, which occurred in the early
crystal clear. Trout lived there in abundance. It was against the law
without a licence, and Mother stressed this to me many times. However,
soon discovered that the enterprising locals scarcely observed this
prohibition. Moreover, a boy who would not fish for and catch some
never quite make it amongst his peers. I had armed myself with a couple
of fish-hooks, a nylon line and a short stick to wind it on. No fishing
would have been far too conspicuous. The stick with the wound up
could be easily hidden under the shirt, which in those days were worn
that nothing betrayed the intending poacher. Under the stones, I had
good supply of earthworms and was thus ready to embark upon the steep
curve as an illegal angler.
Trout is a
smart fish. Trout is constantly on alert. It can swim in a
very fast current, moving its fins and its tail almost imperceptibly,
enough to remain in one particular spot, as if hanging on by an
thread. But move closer to it, and it suddenly darts away and
a bolder or in a hole between the roots of tall trees lining the bank.
have to be vigilant and carefully note the exact spot where the fish
disappeared. Drop the line with the hooked fat worm into the water, in
the hole. Be patient. The trout will need some time to settle down
flight. Eventually it would come out to nibble at the worm. Let it
don't scare it off with any sudden movements. Be even prepared to put
another worm, if the first one is partially eaten. When the fish
to throw away all caution and take the morsel in one bite, this is when
have to jerk the line and pull it towards you, all in one movement. The
lands on the bank and you have to tackle it decisively, put your thumb
mouth and force its head back. You feel and sometimes even hear a tiny
"click", and the fish goes limp in your hands.
I had learnt this fishing method quickly. The most important trick was to get the wriggling worm onto the hook properly. It is not a job for the faint-hearted. The thing in your hand is very much alive, you have to make the sharp tip of the hook prick its skin and then push it on, so that the entire length of the bent steel runs through the body of the hapless creature. You must be prepared for the revolting sight of some spilled guts and bodily fluids. Within a year of moving into the town, I had become the acknowledged master of the line fishing method. The mark that separated the masters of the illicit fishing from the also-runs was the ability to make more than three catches in one session. I could beat it consistently. I was proud of my achievements, but not entirely satisfied. The rumours had reached me, hinting that there existed an infinitely more efficient though esoteric method of catching the trout. No details were available. No one in my immediate circle knew anything more than that the catching was supposed to be done by the bare hands! Apparently, the few adepts who practised this method had kept it strictly to themselves, as it was not in their interest to initiate others into this arcane knowledge. If more competent unlawful fishermen prowled the rivulet and its several tributaries, there would soon be little fish left to catch. This I had instinctively understood. Thus, when I decided that I was going to crack the secret, I went about it entirely on my own, without telling anyone.
I used logic to deduce how to catch the trout in a bare hand. Obviously, one could not stand on the bank, it was necessary to get wet in the creek, and it was equally evident that it could not be done in the open water, only in the holes under the banks or boulders. The first time I went into the creek only in my shorts and a pair of old tennis shoes. The water, rarely reaching above the knee level, even in the peak of summer was almost freezing. It did not take me too long to discover the fundamental law number one: Always move upstream! The fish must have been able to discern some unusual sounds or smells when I was approaching it down the stream, and it always managed to disappear without a trace. Moving upstream, I could usually get close enough to see where it went. Once I had marked the exact spot I had to get to it and put my hand into the hole. The rest required some practice and fine-tuning.
Contrary to what one would perhaps expect, the trout in its hiding spot, when touched by a human hand, would generally not shoot off. Instead, it would try to retreat as far back as it can into the hole. If the hole turns out to be deeper than the length of your fully stretched arm, you have lost it! Remember the exact spot and when the same situation arises, just move on, this hole is too deep, you can save yourself a lot of frustration. After a time I knew all the holes that were too deep, and did not waste may time with the trout that went into them. Many holes are not too deep and when that is the case, you and the fish have approximately equal chances of winning. If your fish hides in the hole that is of a reachable depth, very slowly bring your hand to it until you can touch it. The fish will tolerate this, so long as you do not make any harsh movements. Slowly and gently, begin to tickle it with your fingers. At this point the trout appears almost as if hypnotised. Maybe it is, what do we know about its psyche? As you tickle the trout feel its head with your fingers and move slowly behind it, finding the flaps covering the gills. This is the only spot where you can get a good grip on your intended catch. Should you try to hold it in any other way, the trout would almost certainly squirm out of your hand. Having found the right spot, moving very cautiously, close the arch of your thumb and the forefinger around the flaps and then tighten the grip. You have caught your trout! All you need to do now is pull it out of the water and put it out of its misery. As a young boy, I was still able to do this quite easily. Children can sometimes be cruel. Subsequently, I had lost this capacity. Australia is an angler’s or a fisherman’s paradise, but I had not harmed a single fish since I arrived to its shores.
Left, Ondřej Sekora, just as I remember him. Right, his drawing of myself, about 9 years old. The paper from the 1950’s was not of a good quality, and it had yellowed a lot, the pen drawing had also faded. I had the drawing mounted and put behind glass, but that happened too late to avoid damage.
Skiing in winter, football in summer.
originally a glass-making
settlement founded about the middle of 16th
century. Soon, some
silver was found and mined, also lead. Eventually, textile industry had
developed, which had still dominated when we moved it, but now it has
entirely. In around the middle of the 19th
century, there were over
ten thousand inhabitants, which made it a fairly large town for the
the following years the numbers had dwindled, to about three and a half
thousand at the time of our arrival. Presently, the population remains
the same, but the demographics have changed entirely. The town is now
towards the tourism industry, skiing in winter, trekking in summer.
prominent Prague residents had their holiday
houses there even then. One of
them Ondřej Sekora, a painter and writer of children’s books about the
were immensely popular and remain so even now. Sekora had his cottage
house, and he used to come quite regularly. He seemed to have rather
and he even made my portrait. We used to go to nature walks ─ he was
knowledgeable of the insect life, which after all, was his bread and
also played football with us, soon after practising with him I had made
the school team. However, he never tried to raise our interest in
only some years later I had learnt that Sekora had virtually single
this code in his country in the 1930’s, after he learnt it while
the Sorbonne in Paris. Despite his efforts, the game of rugby remains a
Cinderella in the Czech country, where the game my present countrymen
Australians call “soccer” remains the favourite!
Rokytnice was originally a glass-making settlement founded about the middle of 16th century. Soon, some silver was found and mined, also lead. Eventually, textile industry had developed, which had still dominated when we moved it, but now it has gone entirely. In around the middle of the 19th century, there were over ten thousand inhabitants, which made it a fairly large town for the period. In the following years the numbers had dwindled, to about three and a half thousand at the time of our arrival. Presently, the population remains about the same, but the demographics have changed entirely. The town is now geared towards the tourism industry, skiing in winter, trekking in summer. Some prominent Prague residents had their holiday houses there even then. One of them Ondřej Sekora, a painter and writer of children’s books about the ant Ferda were immensely popular and remain so even now. Sekora had his cottage near our house, and he used to come quite regularly. He seemed to have rather liked me, and he even made my portrait. We used to go to nature walks ─ he was incredibly knowledgeable of the insect life, which after all, was his bread and butter. He also played football with us, soon after practising with him I had made it into the school team. However, he never tried to raise our interest in rugby, and only some years later I had learnt that Sekora had virtually single handily introduced this code in his country in the 1930’s, after he learnt it while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. Despite his efforts, the game of rugby remains a Cinderella in the Czech country, where the game my present countrymen the Australians call “soccer” remains the favourite!
Jumpers used the style above in my days, inset above left is today’s style. The old one seems to me much more elegant, wouldn’ty you say?
Rokytnice had lost its ski jumping hill, but it had gained something else, which in my youth was only in a very basic state of development. It now has a proper downhill ski run, reputably the best in the country, with the proper ski tow, the works. Contrary to the appearances, downhill racing is far more dangerous than jumping, mainly because there usually isn’t much that one can hit. Unless you land awkwardly, there isn’t a lot of damage that you could do yourself, other than breaking a leg, twisting an ankle, or similar, mainly because you have not lost the skis in time. When a fall looks inevitable, you just pray that the safety binding lets go. I know however of one case that happened in Jilemnice, where I went to the high school. There is a relatively small hill, with a tower (I had also been jumping there), allowing about 30 metre jumps. One young man had lost his life there. It turned out nevertheless, that he was an undiagnosed epileptic, and he had happened to suffer a seizure right in the middle of a jump. He flew with no control whatever and broke his neck.
I had had a fairly serious accident myself, at the Old Place, where I had been practising the most often. It was a freak one, and the fault was entirely mine. I went out practising on a day when the temperature was relatively high and the snow was wet and heavy. Consequently, I had to make the run-up much longer, moving it some twenty metres up, and above another road, which did not normally come into play. And I was alone. On that day the road interfered rather badly, when it threw me to the side, where I had hit first a branch of a cherry tree, broke it, and became a kind of impaled on the sharp splinter it had left. I remembered only the sound of the braking of branch; next I woke up on the sled some good Samaritans had used to take me to doctor|s surgery. Apparently, they had found me half standing and half hanging by my chin on the splinter of the branch that I had broken. My chin was torn open, and I had a serious concussion. To hide the scar that I have in the place, eventually I had begun to grow the beard that is in the title of this book! I stayed for about a week in the hospital, but it had not stopped me from ski jumping, only for about a month or two...
As soon as the snows had
disappeared, usually about March/April, the football season had begun.
Not far away from our house, there was a small football field, which
was built for the Hitlerjungen, the youth
organisation that the Germans had ran, usually very efficiently. In the
hilly surroundings it was not easy finding a level ground that would
not already be built-in, so they had cut it into the slope, which must
have been rather labour intensive in the age before machinery we are
used to nowadays came into use. On another level there was a narrower
strip containing a volleyball court, facility for long jump, etc. Up to
the high school age, we had been spending most of our free time there,
sometimes playing for many hours. I became a reasonably player, with
the ability to score some important goals, which came handy later on,
when I had been playing regularly for the junior team. Once or twice I
had been selected for the local senior team, when I reached the
required age of 18, but soon after that I had gone into the Army and
eventually moved out of the town. By then, I was far more interested in
things around the theatre, music, etc. Some years later I had a couple
of appearances for the actor's team against the musicians of the
symphony orchestra, and behold! I had scored the winning goal.
I was about an average with my school results, except for my German, which once i must have been quite good at when in company of Frau Keller. However, I wanted to learn English, which was not possible, as there weren't enough of us enrolled; we would have needed a couple more. I don§t know why I hated the German language so much, maybe because my father had died in Germany, in any case I struggled through the three years of hell.
With many of my schoolmates of those three short years I am in contact even now. When the Czech site Seznam had started the school reunion programme, I had opened a page there, and about half of my old schoolmates, around twenty, have joined over the last few years. When the 50th anniversary of our graduation came, those who gathered on the Jilemnice square had put up a sign for me to see on the web camera.
I was in the last year of high school when I discovered that I could sing. Mother had always said that there was some kind of an entertainer hidden in me, and it scared her. According to her, it had come through even when we still lived in Stratford (where else?). I did not quite kick-start my career by proclaiming a Shakespearean monologue, but sang a part of an aria from the Czech classic opera The Bartered Bride. Mother, while engaged in some domestic task, was humming to herself the aria of Kecal. She said that I suddenly stood up and sang the same tune, quite recognisable, inventing my own words, of course. I was about two at the time, maybe even a bit less.
A fifteen or so years after that first performance, I had begun to attend the various events in my home town, mostly dance parties. Once, on a cold winter night, the revelry was not up to expected height, at least not according to the leader of the dance band, so to raise the cold temperature a bit, he asked if anyone present would want to sing a song. I had not hesitated a second, before going to the podium. The waltz about the tulips in Amsterdam was popular at the time, so we had agreed on that, and I sang. I had earned a reasonable applause. The band leader was happy too, so I had sung several more times that evening. I was elated with my success.
The schoolmaster at my old primary school Jaroslav Hejral had a musician of sorts hidden in him. I don't think that he played any instrument particularly well, perhaps a bit of trumpet, but he got it into his head that he was going to found a big band that he would be conducting. It was the era of big bands, after all, well, the tile end of it, but none of us knew that yet that within a few short years four boys with longish hair will crop up in Liverpool. There always used to be a decent brass band in the town, the winner of several competitions, so there was some potential there. The schoolmaster managed to put together some sort of a band, but only the core of it had a few good musicians in it, the rest were there so that the band could call itself "big". When it got smaller as a combo, it caught on, and soon it needed no conductor either. That's when they came to me, if I would sing with them regularly, as well as acting as a presenter. I jumped at the chance! Soon I got a female singing companion, the "little teacher", as we used to call Eva Fišarová, a cute freckled girl several years older than I, who would also play Mimi in the infamous stage play that I will tell you about later. We all appeared in front of the relevant commission that set the level of fees we could charge, and did surprisingly well. From then on, at about 18, I'd begun to make some decent money from singing, which didn't take a lot of getting used to. The drawback was that while my pears were kicking their heels on the dancing floor, I couldn't join them; not that I would particularly want to. From where I was, on the podium, I had a perfect view of their silly movements and I even got paid for it!
Singing with the dance orchestra
Personally, I had little doubts about what I wanted to do. I wanted to sing or act, maybe both, if I could. But here my plans were in sharp conflict with the views of Mother, who desperately wanted me to have a "respectable position" in life. That, in her mind, meant studying to have the "ing" or "dr" in front of my name, like some of my cousins. Even though she had spend several years in the western countries, the fact that unless one happens to a be a medical doctor, in which case it is practical, such prefixes are not normal there. It's mainly the Germans and the Czechs who must brag in such a way ─ look, there it is, I have s degree! So it was Mother who made the decision that I would apply for the place in the university, even though I had shown no inclinations whatever towards electrical engineering, where she wanted me to go. And she made the decision on my behalf:
"I'd made an arrangement with the relatives in Pardubice, regarding your accommodation. For a year you will go to Tesla in Přelouč, so that you'll learn a bit about the radios. The next year we'll try to get you to the University!"
And that was that, all I could do was take the train to Pardubice. I was still a bit too young to oppose mother. But her decision came back to haunt her ─ in that factory all I was doing was unqualified and badly paid work. It took several months before I learnt what a transistor ─ the wonder of wonders of the modern technology, looks like. The flame of desire to make radio prototypes had not been lit in me at all. Of course, I had no idea that one day in distant future I would spend many hours in the studio broadcasting radio programs. But that had nothing to do with technology. At least, Pardubice turned out to be quite an interesting place. I played football with a good team. I had made a few friends, went to the ice hockey matches, heard some good music (once even the hosting Edmund Hall, one of the best clarinet players of all time, who used to play with Louis Armstrong orchestra). I sang with the local band on occasions, and above all, I made sure that Mother knew about these things, to put some pressure on her psychologically.
The theatre got hold of me.
At last, mother had succumbed! She wouldn't have an electrical engineer out of me. In summer 1961 I arrived back to Rokytnice, found myself a job in the factory as a technical controller, resumed my singing with the band, and added another great hobby. This is how it developed: Our class teacher Mach in the final year was a rather formidable character, a man of about fifty, whom we all greatly feared and who reigned in his classes with an iron fist. He taught the maths, chemistry and physics, but also literature. Besides being a dedicated educator, he was much into the local amateur theatrics. We had an occasional glimpse of this softer side of him when he directed the school plays, but most of the time we anticipated in trepidation being pulled out of the bench to the blackboard, there to be subjected to a humiliating routine of writing with a piece of chalk mathematical or chemical formulas we knew little about, and accordingly being treated like congenital idiots. I was much relieved when at fourteen I moved on to the high school, and from there on lived in a safe distance from this imperious personality. Or at least I imagined that I was safe.
The very next day after my arrival home, I heard a rather timid knock on the front door of our wooden cottage. I went to open it and, to my bewilderment, accompanied by an elderly man, whom I knew to be an accomplished actor who had even spent some years on the professional stage, there stood my former teacher. It turned out that the two men came to convince me of the necessity, or the way they had put it to me, the noble duty, of my becoming a star performer and the saviour of the local amateur theatrical society. A brand new summer theatre arena was recently completed in an old abandoned quarry, and for its inauguration, Karel Čapek’s play The Robber (Loupežník) was selected. The rehearsals had been going on for a few months, and only a week remained to the first night, when a great disaster befell the town’s enthusiastic amateurs. The actor who was to play the main character found himself in hospital after a serious accident, with no prospect of a speedy recovery. In the time of crises my former teacher, who directed the play, remembered that several years earlier I appeared quite successfully in some school plays he had also directed, and he believed that I could step in, even on such short notice. I was flattered by his faith in me, besides one doesn't turn down such proposals, so without much hesitation I said yes.
Only seven full days remained to the premiere, and while I was assured that there would be full rehearsals held every night, the mission that stretched ahead was a fearsome one. The Robber, whom I was to play, is on the stage for the best part of three hours, and I realised that learning the lines properly was not going to be easy, even for my young and flexible brain. After the two men left, leaving the script in my hand, I walked to the nearby forest, and laying on the grass in a nice little glade where no one could hear me, till the late afternoon I worked seriously on memorising the role. By the evening I was already on the first name terms with my one time foe, and we were rehearsing enthusiastically, full of optimism.
There isn’t a great deal the author of this play provides in the way of instructions, but it is obvious that the Robber is meant to be quite a young man, perhaps not much more than twenty, possibly a student. When I appeared in the same play about three years later in one of the minor roles, this time however on the professional stage, the character was played by an actor who must have been in his mid-forties. Some of his efforts, like the attempts at scaling and falling off the wall, which are an important part of the production, looked laborious and perhaps even slightly ridiculous. I could not help feeling rather jumpy while watching him from the wings, but I knew my place in the pecking order. Now, at eighteen I was young and supple; so climbing up a wall that was about eight feet high presented no great problem. I had to rehearse the scene well enough though, as when in the first act he finds himself on the top of the wall, the Robber is shot at, and wounded, by his rival in love, the Forester. The jealous Forester is provoked into shooting at the Robber by his daring leap onto the top of the wall and by his sardonic exclamation “Adieu, imperishable marksman!”
The hero’s fall off the wall should be spectacular enough for the audience to gasp loudly. When during the dress rehearsal we had ran through the shooting scene it soon became obvious that the traditional method of providing sound to the riffle being shot on stage, by hitting a plank against the wooden floor, brought about a whimper that was quite useless in the open-air theatre. For the full effect we not only needed the gunshot to be loud and impressive, but also its echo to mightily reverberate in the surrounding woods. An expert from the forestry department was called in, who at speed arranged for two proper hunting guns to be lent to us, an empty one to be carried on the stage by the Forester and the other, loaded with a dummy cartridge, to be shot from behind the scene. This proved satisfactory.
On the first night the house, roofed with the starry canopy offering a perfect drop to the lyrical night love scenes that with my limited experience I had not anticipated without trepidation, was near full. In the early sixties, television was still in its infancy, and inhabitants of a small town like ours usually had little else to do on a Saturday evening but go to the cinema or, if they had the opportunity, to the theatre. After the six days spent on diligently learning my lines, and the six nights of intense rehearsing with the other actors, I was reasonably confident and comfortable in the role and except for the afore mentioned love scenes, surprisingly little nervous. But fate spared me from having to be a romantic lover and making stage love to the freckled little teacher, soon to become my singing partner as well, at least on this one night. No one will ever know how it happened that in the muddle that goes together with every first night, the two guns to be used in the shooting scene were accidentally switched, with the loaded one finding its way into the Forester’s hands. I leaped onto the top of the wall, waved my stage adversary good-bye while uttering the confrontational words after which, while standing close to the wall, he pulled the trigger. The sound was indeed thunderous, and to my surprise I could also see a flame come out of the business end of the Forester’s riffle. At the same time I felt something hot scorching my right thigh. The fall off the wall onto a piece of grassy carpet laid there for the purpose I performed well, exactly as I had rehearsed it. However, even as the echoes of the gunshot were still heard coming back from the forest, I already knew that something was not right. Lying with my left side towards the audience, unobserved I could use my right hand to feel my thigh, which had begun to hurt a great deal while swelling up alarmingly. Eventually my probing fingers reached a hole in the charred fabric of the trouser, and felt a large open wound underneath it. At this moment I knew that I was in serious trouble. Meanwhile the play continued, several extras playing the villagers crowded the scene and, in accordance to the script, attended to my imaginary head wound, finally loading me onto a barrow and wheeling me off the stage. While all this went on I continued to act as the wounded Robber, even though it was becoming clear to me that I would not be able to continue acting to the end of the play.
The performance had to be called off, and an ambulance arrived. On the operating table in the hospital, the doctor on duty extracted from my wounded leg substantial parts of the cartridge - most of the shell together with several pieces of felt plugs, cardboard, etc. which had no time to disperse as they would have done had the shot been fired from a longer distance. After the treatment I was left with a prominent scar a good ten centimetres long, which to this day reminds me of my first major stage role. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if the Forester had aimed higher (according to the script the shot is supposed to brush the side of the Robber’s head…) I stayed in the hospital for about two weeks and some days later, still limping slightly, I was able to play the role to the end. Also several times after that, always in front of large audiences, as the fame of the Robber shot on the stage grew to high proportions, almost becoming a national legend. Even those who before this event would never come near the theatre suddenly found it irresistible.
Soon after this incident I left the town to live elsewhere, eventually altogether leaving the country. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly leave out of this narrative an episode that occurred more than three decades later. I came back to visit my old hometown, after a long journey from Australia, where I had been living for many years. With a former schoolmate we went to a pub. One of our peers sits there; he casually looks me over as if I had never left the town, and declares in a dry manner:
“I’m not talking to you!”
This called for an explanation, and subsequently it turned out that the poor fellow was dating a girl that his parents did not want him to go out with, mainly because she was Jewish. Parental authority was still strong in those days and especially in these parts of the world, as was xenophobia. On the same night I was stricken with the gunshot, he was with her, stricken by love. When his parents asked him later how he had spent the night, he innocently told them that he was in the theatre with friends. Understandably he knew nothing at all about the shooting accident, which so easily could have ended my life, and of which the whole town was talking. With the deception thus revealed, naturally, his disbelieving parents were not impressed.
I bought him a drink or two and all was well again. On the next day in the town square, coincidentally I ran into the girl, also my classmate, who was the other party in the clandestine rendezvous. I questioned her about it and she confessed that she too was severely disciplined by her parents for the same transgression, that she broke up with the guy soon after this, and ended up eventually marrying another man whose parents were more broad-minded, having several children, and by then even some grandchildren. This too called for a drink. In the nearby pub where I had invited her, we drunk to our glorious though long departed youth and, naturally, to Karel Čapek, who had made such an unexpected and profound impression on our lives.
The shooting incident apparently is still remembered in those parts of the world. I write regularly as a columnist to a Czech daily, and consequently get quite a few letters from readers. Fairly recently one came, and it held a surprise for me. I quote.
"I am a daughter of the man who had shot you with the gun on the stage during the play The Robber. I remember that evening very well. When the shot was fired and you had fallen from the wall, the buzz in the audience was "Voyen's playing it well!" After a while, the news had come through however: "Hladik had shot Voyen!" Horror! Together with my sisters, we had ran to the dressing room under the stage. A pandemonium was there, you were being treated, dad was all white and didn't even take a note of us. "They're going to arrest him," went through my head. They did not arrest him, but there were consequences, nevertheless. There were five of us, girls, and as we were growing up, the boys used to say: "Be careful there, their old man's got a gun a he shoots without asking a question..."
She had added: "You had, particularly with the adolescent girls, carried an air of a Prague boy, and a handsome one, too. I think that this might, even after all those years, give you some joy."
Thank you, it did.
I got even with Karel Čapek, the author who had in a way caused me all these troubles, by translating this play into English. Čapek finished it in the same year 1920 as his world shattering R.U.R., in which he had invented the word "robot". While it remains popular in the Czech Republic, elsewhere it is almost unknown.
Here on the left, I play a soldier in a contemporary play. The young woman of the second pair was to be my partner in the Schiller classic Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe).
The summer was coming and with it, the military conscription. Mentally I was preparing myself for the inevitable. For two years I would become an army property. I would be posted to some far away village, perhaps in Slovakia, just as had my father. There would be nothing to do, but to find myself some village girl, and return with her in tow and in an advanced state of pregnancy. I've seen this happen quite a few times to those who went to the army before me. Some did not even return, my guess was that they had settled in their new home, after they had begged the whole village on their knees to be allowed to marry the local beauty. They became shepherds or makers of goat cheese.
Looming was also another, even more catastrophic scenario. I could be sent to the south-western border, where I would be patrolling along the barbed wires charged with high voltage electricity, and thus guard the Paradise of the socialism building workers from the bad and ideologically subversive West. Perhaps I even might be required to shoot at someone, who had decided to cut through the wires that were designed to keep the happy citizens in their land.
With a group of recruits, laying front left.
The day came the warlords had enlisted the whole group of about twenty of us, all from the same town. Present was also an officer of a rather high rank, a lieutenant colonel or more, who knew me a liked my singing. While I was standing naked in front of the commission he had made a couple of cryptic remarks, which I didn't understand at the time, regarding my posting a the surprise I'll get. I'd put it down to the patronising attitude some officers displayed, and didn´t pay much attention to it.
Several months later, the first call-up papers had begun to arrive. The few unfortunates who received them were bound for the "line", as the guarded border with the West Germany and Austria were known. Those who went there, for some reason received their draft cards two months earlier than the rest ─ on the 1st August, while the standard was the 1st October. I could let out a breath of release, as the worst scenario was avoided. It was beginning to look like Slovakia. Thinking that I had left another two months of freedom, and of nightly beer drinking sessions, I was much surprised when I was told that my call-up letter was waiting for me at the post office, to be picked up. Where could they be sending me to? While running most of the way to the PO, I prayed for it being at least a half decent place where I would be spending the next two years. The man at the counter was watching me, as I was opening the envelope, after signing the receipt he gave me. He was used to sharing the excitement of the newly recruited upon finding out their destiny. He was also puzzled by the unusual date of arrival of my letter.
"So, where is it you're going?"
He had to repeat the question, because I was too absorbed and did not react.
"To Prague? Lucky you! You're the first one I know of in the last few years to get called to Prague. Which troop?"
I had read it, but it looked too crazy to ever consider it seriously. I handed the conscription order to him.
"The Army Central Entertainment Unit. You've made a scoop, mate!"