My novelette “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” has just appeared in Samovar in both the Czech original and the English translation. It’s a more personal story for me than usual, revolving around a world I’ve loved for years… all because of a book.
It started out very innocently. I was writing a mystery set in Prague in 1912, and I needed the characters to go to the opera. What performance would they have seen in early December? I started digging in the archives, and the search brought me to a nonfiction book named Až k hořkému konci (To the bitter end) by musicologist Jitka Ludvová. There I found a comprehensive list of performances in the Neue deutsche Theater – and much, much more.
The book tells the history of German theatre in Prague throughout a century: from 1845 to 1945. From the uncertain beginnings all the way to the bitter end. I fell in love with it. I have always loved opera and theatre, but its history as I learned it at school felt dead to me. There were no stories in it, just a dry list of dates and titles. But here, everything was a story. The arrival of the flamboyant Angelo Neumann, the man who’d traveled Europe with a train full of Wagner’s operas. Heinrich Teweles’ way from the theatre to the editor’s chair of Prager Tagblatt and back to the theatre up until shortly after the end of WWI and foundation of Czechoslovakia. Leopold Kramer’s long legal battles to get back Estates Theatre, taken over (read: stolen) by Czech nationalists. Robert Volkner’s attempts to overcome the years of crisis. Paul Eger’s desperate effort to hold the ensemble together when darkness shrouded Europe.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember when it occurred to me to write a ghost story set in the Neue deutsche Theater, nor when I decided to make Gustav Meyrink the protagonist. But that’s how “The Wagner Trouble” (GigaNotoSaurus, April 2017) began, set in late 1887 – just before the official opening of the opera house.
Rewind to before I delved through the looking glass into the land of Prague German theatre. I was already fascinated by the world Prague of late 19th and early 20th century. Or should I say worlds? One Czech; one German. Increasingly separated. Riddled by more and more nationalist feuds up until WWI, and then coexisting again in the schizophrenic ethnic conditions of Czechoslovakia between the wars. The bipolar nature of the relationship fascinated me – including the more or less friendly feud of the Czech National Theatre and the Neue deutsche Theater. Together with Lucie Lukačovičová, we have written three stories set in between “The Wagner Trouble” and “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End”, where this duality of worlds in the city is more prominent – hopefully, you’ll see them published in the foreseeable future.
But the current story, set in 1938, concludes the cycle. It’s set shortly before the Munich Agreement… and you probably know how that went. Still, read the rest only after reading the story, even though you may realize how the course of history went for the opera house.
On September 15, Hitler’s Germany demanded that Czechoslovakia hands over areas with more than 50% of German-speaking citizens. On the same day, people from these areas who feared persecution started fleeing, many of them to Prague. On September 19, France and Britain urged Czechoslovakia to surrender the areas. On September 23, general mobilization in the country effectively brought all cultural events to a stop. The company of the Neue Deutsche Theater was definitively falling apart. On September 29, the Munich Agreement permitted Germany’s annexation of the “Sudetenland”. That day, the theatre’s director Paul Eger, fearing for his life, left Prague and embarked on a journey to Switzerland. Other members of the ensemble started fleeing as well. In October, the company was formally dissolved, and Eger in his letters urged his secretary to thoroughly destroy any materials that could be used against members of the theatre by the Nazis. On November 2, the end of the theatre was officially announced in the press.
Later, during Czechoslovakia’s occupation by Nazi Germany, guest ensembles from Germany revived the theatre. But it had little in common with its previous run. Now it spewed propaganda and permitted no diversity of opinion. It was a theatre none of the previous directors would bear to see.
After the war and reinstatement of the Czechoslovakia state, the Beneš decrees led to the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. Germans were forced to leave the country and leave everything behind, no matter if they supported the previous regime or fought against it; their nationality was reason enough. The era of Neumann, Teweles, Eger and others was cut sharply, never to return.
Irrevocably, the German culture in Bohemia, having existed there for centuries, arrived to a bitter end. The theatre was gone; the fascinating Paul Leppin, whom I’ve made the protagonist of the novelette, was dead; many others were killed or had fled the Nazi regime while they still could; most of those who’d remained were expelled from the country.
The German theatre in Prague may have arrived to an end. But that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. Jitka Ludvová brought the history to life in her nonfiction book, which reads with more thrill than many works of fiction, and became a wonderful inspiration in reviving the epoch and its protagonists again. It had its heroes and villains, mysteries and dramatic conflicts… and in many ways, it was more operatic than any opera. I dare to think that Angelo Neumann and all those who came after him would appreciate that.