Art & Culture
The Greatest Czech Who Never Lived
BY HANNAH BURNS
In late 1966, in the small northern Czech town of Liptákov, a mysterious chest was discovered after being buried in the countryside for nearly a century. And by an incredible stroke of luck, this monumentally important moment in Czech history was captured and broadcast on live radio to Czechs across the country.
As listeners sat fixated to their radios, researchers at the scene narrated a seemingly endless discovery of manuscripts, documents and other artifacts in the found chest detailing the incredible and almost unbelievable life and work of a man that history seemed to have forgotten: Jára Cimrman.
Cimrman, it appeared, was a universal genius of any and all disciplines. He invented puppet shows in Paraguay, established schools of criminology, music and ballet in Vienna, assisted Marie Curie with studies that won her two Nobel Prizes, wired Thomas Edison’s first lightbulb and accommodated Gustave Eiffel in Paris. He invented the telephone long before Alexander Graham Bell, who found he had three missed calls from Cimrman upon his first connection. Traveling Switzerland, Cimrman came only seven meters away from the North Pole, almost becoming the first human being to ever reach the top of planet Earth. It would be one of the tens of dozens of “near misses” that plagued Cimrman’s life of genius.
It’s somewhat hard to believe that until that fateful day in Liptákov, the world had forgotten Jára Cimrman—especially considering that Cimrman had even chronicled many of his accomplishments through hundreds of plays he authored over his lifetime.
But of course it should be hard to believe—none of it is true. Any of it. Not Jára Cimrman, his accomplishments, nor the town of Liptákov itself. Nonetheless, the moments that played out through the radio on that cool winter evening in 1966 would launch the life of Jára Cimrman, and the career of its creators.
As many stories of conception begin, Cimrman was born one late night over a bottle of vodka. Writers Zdeněk Svěrák and the late Ladislav Smoljak were imagining “the perfect Czech,” one-upping each other with potential virtues, accomplishments and endeavors if such a man existed. By the end of the night, he did. Over the years that followed, the two writers would dream up many mystical and far-fetched tales of the unsung genius. From the beginning, Cimrman was a lighthearted poke at Czech’s ever-present struggle into world-relevance and extreme national pride. Now, what started as a parody has become one of the most prominent facets of Czech culture and humor.
Following the success of Cimrman on the original radio show (“Nealkoholická Vinárna U Pavouka,” or “The Non-Alcoholic Wine Bar at the Spider”), Svěrák and Smoljak assembled the first Cimrman performance troupe in 1967, deeming themselves experts in the field of Cimrman—or “Cimrmanologists”, as they would become known. The motley cast of mostly backstage hands, lighting and curtain operators had little to no acting experience, which Svěrák and Smoljak found endearing.
Alongside Svěrák and Smoljak , Jiří Šebánek, Miloň Čepelka and Karel Velebný, put on the first Cimrman show, “Akt,” at Malostranská Beseda in October 1967. It wasn’t long before the troupe established a company solely dedicated to the study and staging of Cimrman’s “newly discovered” plays, promptly named the Theatre of Jára Cimrman, located in Žižkov.
The shows gained a mass of popularity and interest among Czechs that is in full force today—the company has put on nearly 260 shows per year since 1967. And while there have been a few changes in the cast (including the death of Smoljak in 2010), the shows normally sell out months in advance.
For Svěrák and Smoljak, their professional passions were split neatly into two disciplines: film and theater. One never trumped the other, considering the success of the Cimrman Theatre and projects like the Academy Award winning 1996 film Kolja, in which the duo starred, and Svěrák wrote the screenplay.
And just how big has Cimrman become? Cimrman’s significance was officially recognized in 2005, when he was voted “The Greatest Czech” in history through a program inspired by the BBC’s “100 Greatest Britons.” Ultimately, Cimrman was disqualified for the minor technicality of his lack of physical existence.
That hasn’t weakened proof of Cimrman’s existence, though. A permanent exhibition in the basement of Petřín Lookout Tower showcases some of Cimrman’s greatest inventions, including a broom meant for sweeping corners, a bicycle designed for firefighters and a necktie brush. The more adventurous can head to the Cimrman Museum in the North, located at a lighthouse in Příchovice, south of the Jizera Mountains (that’s not a typo.. it’s really a lighthouse in the mountains).
Curious to experience the comedic genius of Cimrman but unable to speak Czech? The Cimrman shows were considered virtually untranslatable until English playwright and actor Brian Stewart tackled the idea, alongside Emilia Machalová and Svěrák’s daughter, Hanka Jelínková. Thus, the Cimrman English Theater was born. Stewart isn’t a comedy newcomer, having starred in the original British “The Office” with Ricky Gervais and penned the award-winning play “Castro’s Beard.”
As some of the original cast members enter their eighties, the Cimrman phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down. In the words of the great Jara Cimrman, “Life is the best school of life.”