1970 – Fantom Operety: Part 1

1970 – Fantom Operety: Part 1

1970 - Podskalský TV version

The Czechs, a small nation forever suffering from status anxiety, like to bemoan their brain drain, or ‘emigration of cultural élites’ (the word ‘élite’ in Czech being nowhere as loaded as it is in English), which tends to occur following momentous political change. Three such waves of emigration occurred during the twentieth century: 1938-1939, following the gradual engulfing of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany; in 1948, following the Communist takeover of power by a combination of legal and extra-legal means; and after 1968, when the Czechs’ attempt to reform their socialism during the ‘Prague Spring’—to give it a ‘human face’, in the term of the time—was brutally crushed in an invasion of Warsaw Pact armies led by their best (big) brother forever, the Soviet Union.

Those who did not emigrate had to show their support for the new regime of ‘normalisation’, which, by 1970, when Fantom Operety (The Phantom of the Operetta) was made, was in full swing. Many Communist Party members were expelled. The party document, Lessons from the crisis period within the party and society, first published in 1971 (it was republished many times, with the total print run well exceeding a million copies), signalled a restoration of orthodoxy. Those cultural workers who had been enthusiastic about the Prague Spring were sacked, and those who wanted to keep their jobs had to sign a declaration condemning the ‘aberrations’ of 1968. This was a substantial purge and the jobs of the sacked went to the politically reliable, though not always perhaps the most competent.

‘Normalisation’ meant that Czechoslovakia’s regime was no longer totalitarian, but post-totalitarian (see the work of Juan J. Linz or, for a more succinct argument, arguably more insightful with respect to the Czech situation, Václav Havel’s essay The power of the powerless, available in English.) In short, the Communists sought to de-politicise society; more importantly they sought never again to be seen losing control (the reason for the invasion). The power of television was well understood by the party (for an excellent book on Czechoslovak TV policy, see Paulina Bren’s The Greengrocer and His TV), which needed to display that it was firmly in charge. Party bosses also doubtless welcomed a show that would be very hard to read as a political allegory. This was therefore a time when silly dancing and singing abounded on the small screen.

Štěpán Kaňa

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