Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.
I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.
One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.
You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!
Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)
But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.
But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.
My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.
The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.
Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.
Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!
Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)
Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.
I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.
But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.
On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne