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Once Upon a Time

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The universal language of fairytales

Like most young children mine, at ages two and four-and-a-half, are entranced in the world of fairytales and make-believe. In this regard, the Czech Republic is an ideal setting in which to grow up. With castles and chateaux dotting the landscape and a culture steeped in folklore, mystique and tradition, the Czech Republic offers a rich array of ancient legends, modern myths and fairytale experiences for both children and adults.

One popular Czech legend dating from the 16th century tells of Golem (an inanimate sculpture created and brought to life by Rabbi Löw during Rudolf II’s reign) whose body, according to some, may still be locked in the Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. Another popular Czech mythical creature vodník (water goblin) was written about by the 19th century poet Karel Jaromir Erben. In Erben’s poem, vodník is believed to haunt lakes and ponds with the intent of luring a young girl to the underworld to be his wife. In a more modern day version of Czech mystique, the Czech-born American author Peter Sis’s “The Three Golden Keys” (1994) focuses on the mystical character of his birth city of Prague.

During my time in Prague, I’ve been exposed to these and other myths and superstitions. Although traditional Czech fairytales differ in their particulars from their counterparts in other languages, the themes of family, friendship, love and betrayal cross linguistic and cultural boundaries. Watching a fairytale in any other language can seem less foreign than watching a traditionally structured play.

Since the fairytale culture is an integral part of Czech theater, adults as well as children spend Christmas holidays watching television renditions of fairytales like “Zlatovláska” (Princess with Golden Hair), “Pyšná Princezna” (Proud Princess), and “Tri Orisky pro Popelku” (Three Nuts for Cinderella). In fact, the 1950s version of Pyšná Princezna is the most visited Czech film in Czech and Slovak cinemas, with over 8 million viewers. I’m already looking forward to Christmas in the Czech Republic this year, in part, just to experience the family viewing fairytale tradition.

In order to balance the exposure to drama and the arts that the children have in Prague, during our recent visit to America, I took the children to several performances in English. Afterward Anna Lee memorized the theater manager’s opening lines, and she in turn, played manager, director and star princess. Although Anna enjoyed acting out the storylines, she actually had the best time introducing her own stories, and she laughed with delight when she repeated the manager’s joke: “Kids, take your parents out of the theater and bring them back when they stop crying.”

I was surprised by how literally Anna absorbed everything. It seemed that she was finally beginning to separate the on stage “fairytale” from the actors who created it. After each show, we got to meet the actors and take a picture, and Anna spent most of the drive home talking about how the actor pretending to be the naughty witch wasn’t really naughty and the scarecrow actor didn’t really lose his leg.

Once we returned to Prague we headed for the annual end-of-summer Letní Letná festival for a few of the children’s performances. The first show we tried was the morning performance of Žabák Valentýn by the Buchty a loutky marionette troupe. I didn’t know the story, but I was curious to see if the children would be as captivated by the marionettes as they had been by real actors in the performances they’d seen back in America.

Along with other expectant parents and children, we mulled around outside the tent until an attendant took our tickets. After the initial wave of children had rushed past, we found seats mid-theater. There were several rows between us and the stage, and I realized that Anna wouldn’t be able to see much if she didn’t sit on my lap. Initially, neither Anna nor I realized that the performance would be a marionette show since the first portion of the play involved the actors. It was a 30C day, and the air in the tent was stifling. I got impatient when the troop members made small talk with the audience, wishing instead they’d get on with the show. Anna also seemed confused that the actors were initially acting and then switched over to controlling the marionettes, but her attention never waned.

Finally, the marionette performance began. It was a story about a young žabák (frog) named Valentýn who believed he was truly a prince. Throughout the tale, Valentýn suffers teasing from his friends because he refuses to share his toy car and he doesn’t want to act like a frog, only like a prince. Finally, he meets a baby čáp (stork) named Isabelka who doesn’t know that she’s really a stork, a sworn predator for the frog. Isabelka and Valentýn embark on a series of adventures that leads to a surprising self-realization for both main characters culminating in a dramatic near-death experience for Valentýn that tests Isabelka’s mettle and the strength of their friendship.

Although I tried to pay close attention to the story, the day was hot and I soon drifted off. We were sitting too far back to really appreciate the detail of the marionette performance, and I was surprised that the show continued to hold Anna’s attention even after I started to daydream. Despite squiggling a bit in the heat, she sat steadfast until the end. Afterward, she rushed off with her friends to explore the crafts and games that were set up in the festival’s children corner. It wasn’t until a few days later that I thought to ask her opinion of the show.

She told me that her favorite part of the show was the fact that the frog Valentýn thought he was a prince when he was really a frog and that the Isabelka didn’t think she was a stork when she really was. She told me so matter-of-factly, that a moral: don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, hit me for the first time. Originally, I focused on the importance of friendship and loyalty, and kept thinking that Valentýn would actually turn into a prince or that Isabelka would become something other than a stork. However, in this case, the happy ending came when both animals laid their fantasy aside and acknowledged reality. In the end, I realized that I’d probably learned more from listening to Anna’s reaction to the play than I’d learned while watching it.

Tomorrow, we’re headed back to Letní Letná to catch the morning performance of Šípková Růženka (Sleeping Beauty) and to hear the band Kašpárek v rohlíku in the afternoon. I’m looking forward to another day of Czech theater culture, and I’m hoping that Anna will be prepared to help me again appreciate the universal language of fairytales.

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