CHICAGO — An actor stands up on a podium and holds a paintbrush stained with black pigment to his nose, approximating Hitler’s moustache.
“My fellow citizens, our country is in crisis. We must rid ourselves of the monstrous perversion that is destroying society. Who is to blame for all our troubles? The Jews!” declares “Hitler,” in the play within a play.
Rather than finding a beer hall packed with yes men, however, “Hitler” is surprised to hear a resounding “And the cyclists!” (bicycle riders) every time he tries to incite violence against the Jews. Finally exasperated — as the script describes him — “Hitler” asks his assailant, “Why the cyclists?” The young man responds unfazed, “Why the Jews?”
The question why the Jews were singled out and fitted with targets takes on added significance for the roles played by the nine actors in “The Last Cyclist,” performed through September 1 at the National Pastime Theater in the Preston Bradley Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
The absurdist play, which was composed by Czech playwright Karel Švenk and rehearsed in Terezín in 1944, was deemed too inflammatory and likely to offend the SS by the Council of Jewish Elders and squashed following its dress rehearsal.
“Cyclist” tells the story of Bořivoj Abeles as his world is overrun by escaped inmates of an asylum, who track down and murder all of the world’s cyclists. Švenk’s depictions of irrational and evil tyrants are very thinly veiled references to Nazis.
But several months after the play was banned, Švenk was sent to Auschwitz, where he died — and with him, the script. One of the members of the cast, Jana Šedová, reconstructed the script from memory in 1961, and the new version — which was adapted a good deal and tweaked to accommodate Czech Communist censors — was performed at Prague’s Rokoko Theater. Four years later, Šedová wrote about Švenk’s original play in a manner that suggested that she had significantly altered the play’s second act.
So when playwright Naomi Patz first read about the play in Šedová’s essay on theater in Terezín in 1995, she had her work cut out for her. Šedová’s chapter in the 1965 book called “Cyclist” the actors’ “most courageous production,” and it outlined the plot, which Patz used to compose a short script for a regional youth group that focused on the arts. But when she later was able, with help from friends in Prague, to secure a copy of the typescript, unbound script in the Theater Institute in Prague’s library and to get that script translated, she realized that there was a discrepancy in the second acts.
“This came as a great shock to me and I was first tempted to abandon whatever project I might have in mind — which, at first, was leaning toward being a graphic novel,” Patz said in an interview. “But after I read it a couple of times, I decided that the story and its message were still very powerful and that it was worth my while to attempt to make the script ‘work.’”
She then set about correcting her Czech translator’s imperfect English — “stilted and British rather than American in orientation,” she said — and to “radically revise much of the language to make it flow.” But that, she said, was the easy part.
Acting as a forensic playwright, Patz then tried to strip away all of the layers that were placed on Švenk’s original text, particularly the additions that were meant to appease Czech censors.
“It’s important to remember that it was rather daring for a production to be talking about Jews and, by implication, about the Holocaust, in Czechoslovakia in those years,” she said of the 1961 adaptations. “And a production in honor of an anniversary of the Party clearly had to speak in Party language and to Party goals.”
Additionally, she — slowly — removed “bits of dialogue and in-jokes that may have been hilarious in the Terezín Ghetto but made no sense to me — and I have a reasonably good understanding of life in Terezín during the Holocaust — and, therefore, wouldn’t make sense to most audiences today,” Patz said.
She also added a frame to the beginning and end of the play to blatantly underscore the Holocaust context to the play, as the original script didn’t literally address the Holocaust or Terezín.
The finished product, Patz hopes, will convey “a sense of the extraordinary courage of the Jews in Terezín, who used spiritual resistance as a way of maintaining their morale, their resolve to remain human and humane despite the degrading conditions in which they were forced to live.”
She also hopes that viewers will realize that the Jews of Terezín didn’t know what fate awaited them. “That’s why they didn’t attempt to escape or rebel, why more people didn’t commit suicide,” she said. “Most of them expected that they would soon be going home, that they would laugh ‘on the ruins of the ghetto,’ as in the words of Švenk’s song.”
‘Most of them expected that they would soon be going home, that they would laugh “on the ruins of the ghetto,” as in the words of Švenk’s song’
But in Chicago, the play takes on even more contemporary significance where there is an anti-cycling movement — although not nearly as violent as the one in “Cyclist.” Bicycling magazine ranked Chicago the fifth most bicycle-friendly city in 2012, but a recent Chicago Sun-Times article referred to “anti-bicycle sentiment” surfacing at a public meeting, and a 2012 Chicago Tribune column referred to “elitist politically coddled bicyclists” and proposed that cyclists be subjected to tolls throughout the city, as motorists are on highways.
The urban “warfare” between motorist and cyclists is child’s play compared to the Holocaust victims for whom Švenk’s cyclists are stand-ins. But the play is all the more sobering not only for what was occurring at the time of its composition in Terezín, but also for the ways that Chicago informs it.