Jan Werich’s acting and literary career highlighted in Werich's villa

The Werich Villa features an intriguing exhibition about the life and work of Jan Werich, a Czech film and theatre actor as well as a prolific writer. Werich lived in the villa from 1945 to his death in 1980, and the exhibition allows visitors to familiarize themselves with Czech culture from the interwar period through the 1970s.

Jan Werich
PHOTOGRAPH BY Werich Villa Museum

Summaries in Czech and English explain the avant-garde plays of the dynamic duo, Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec, whose creations focused on parodies of Dadaistic absurdity. They were inspired by Charlie Chaplin and created pictorial poems with musical accompaniment by Jaroslav Ježek. The two clownish characters combined dialogue, dance and music. In the 1930s their plays took on a political antifascist tone, responding to Hitler’s rise to power.

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy Burns

Their first play, the Vest Pocket Revue, made Voskovec, Werich and their Liberated Theatre famous. The plot involves a hunt for a writer and his secretary and features an adventurous journey from Prague to Paris to the North Pole as well as to Africa. After its premiere, the play was performed 208 times.

Another play, Golem, took audience members back to 1600 when Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II resided in Prague. It depicted the emperor as a crazy ruler who stole from a synagogue the legendary, artificial man called Golem.

Golem
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy Burns

The duo’s first political satire, Caesar, focused on the last two days before Julius Caesar’s assassination. Julius Caesar is portrayed as a Benito Mussolini character obsessed with going to war. The play criticizes the economic problems of interwar Czechoslovakia as well as fascism. Another significant work, The Donkey and the Shadow, reflects on politics during the first third of the 1930s and includes a donkey with Hitler’s voice and gestures.

Visitors will also peruse plenty of photos from Werich’s films. The movie The Emperor’s Baker – the Baker’s Emperor, released in 1951, was inspired by the play Golem. A baker named Matěj winds up being mistaken for Rudolf II after the emperor takes a magic potion to regain his youthful appearance. The Golem figures prominently in the film; he winds up destroying the palace, but Matěj saves the day. A life-size figure of the Golem is displayed in the cellar while on the first floor still images from the film show the huge Golem with a fiery orange, glowing face.

Jan Werich in one of his films
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy Burns

The display informs visitors about the peak of Werich’s career after his return to Czechoslovakia from forced exile during World War II; he became artistic director of the ABC Theatre in the 1950s. Because Voskovec had gone back to the USA in 1948, Werich had to find a new partner for the performances that would bring the Liberated Theatre’s repertoire back to life. Miroslav Horníček, a stellar actor, writer and director, fulfilled this role superbly. While these revived plays outwardly criticized fascism, the audience understood that the criticism was also allegorically focused on Communism. Enthusiastic theatregoers flocked to the ABC.

After the Soviet invasion that put a stop to the liberal reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring, Werich found himself banned from acting. He and his wife escaped to Vienna, but they came back in early 1969 as Czechoslovakia was home, although he had few opportunities to act after his return. He died in 1980 at the age of 75.

Visitors will read about Finfárum, Werich’s famous children’s tale about a magic cane that can be hidden inside a boot. Ježek’s piano is also on display. He had very weak eyesight and eventually became blind; however, he remains one of the most significant composers of the interwar era. His works were greatly inspired by jazz music.

To honor Werich’s love of good food, recipes for his favorite meals are featured. One of these is cholent, as cooked by his wife Zdena. This Christmas time delicacy was made for family and guests from at least two geese.

Two rooms are furnished as they were when Werich lived there. A bottle of his beloved Ballantine’s is on display among abstract paintings related to the theatre. An old-fashioned TV shows Werich in action.

The exhibition is enriched by interactive displays. Children can make a Golem out of clay in the cellar. Adults can write poetry on a board. Those very familiar with Werich’s films can even take a quiz.

Werich was not the first influential Czech to live in this building. A room of the exhibition is dedicated to Vladimír Holan, who resided in the villa with the Werichs from 1948 to 1968. He was one of the most significant Czech poets and translators of the 20th century. Although suffering from hypochondria and manic depression, he managed to create some of the most important works in Czech literature.

In front of the villa, there is a monument celebrating Josef Dobrovský, a priest and historian who made masterful contributions to Czech language and literature during the 19th century. He played a leading role in the Czech National Revival, when the Czechs tried to promote its language, culture and history during a period of Germanization in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dobrovský led the way in the fields of Czech history and histography, too, wrote the first volume of a German-Czech dictionary and founded scientific Bohemian and Slavic studies. Perhaps it is fitting that Werich lived in the villa once owned by Dobrovský because the masterful use of the Czech language was a major feature in Werich’s creations. Holan also used the Czech language exquisitely.

The exhibition welcomes English speakers. Exhibits are labeled in Czech and English. At the box office, everyone receives laminated papers that describe the displays. The entrance to the museum is the door behind the ground floor café, which offers some of the best desserts in Prague. Sometimes there are readings or performances in the attic space or in the garden. It is operated by the Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation that owns nearby Kampa Museum.

Werich Villa

U Sovových mlýnů 501/7, Malá strana, Kampa Island, near Malostranská Metro station

Open Monday through Sunday from 10 to 6 pm

Adults: 100 CZK

Students/Seniors: 60 CZK

Child (3 – 15 years old): 50 CZK

Family (two adults and three children): 240 CZK

Guided tours are available in English, Italian and German for 900 CZK plus the price of admission on weekdays and 1000 CZK plus the price of admission on weekends.

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Tracy A. Burns

Tracy A. Burns is a writer who has lived in Prague for more than 25 years. She has written about travel for her blog Tracy’s Travels at www.taburns25.com, Private Prague Guide Prague Blog and The Washington Post, among others. She has also published theatre, film and art reviews. Her book reviews and essays on Czech and Slovak literature have appeared in Kosmas, a Czechoslovak academic journal. Her articles in Czech and Slovak have appeared in numerous publications, such as Listy, Literární noviny and Reflex.