A STRUGGLE OVER THE GENERAL The Aréna Chamber Theatre in Ostrava has opened a new, even smaller stage in the neighbouring building and the first to premiere there was a production of a new play by the award-winning playwright Tomáš Vůjtek. Vůjtek adapted an incredible story of General Jan Šejna, a communist careerist who became famous for embezzling clover seeds. The story about bizarre opportunism and chicanery reflects the history of the twentieth century – in a sharply condensed form and almost cabaret-like stylisation. During the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Šejna – a grammar school washout – spends a month in prison for using a forged price control officer’s badge to extort food stamps from a businesswoman. He joins the Communist Party after the war and in the 1950s, he begins to pursue his career as a political officer in the army. After the death of Klement Gottwald, communist Czechoslovakia’s first president, he harshly denounces his son-in-law, Defence Minister Alexej Čepička, thus contributing to his downfall. He becomes a protégé of Gottwald’s successor Antonín Novotný, to whom he reports on the situation in the army, and he also befriends his son. In his forties, he is the youngest general in the country, but his expensive lifestyle forces him to steal from the government whenever possible. He becomes famous for embezzling scarce clover seed, which earns him a nickname ‘the seed general’. When his ally Novotný loses to Dubček in an internal struggle within the Communist Party, he realises that no one else will save him from criminal investigation and so he defects to Italy, where he applies for political asylum at the American embassy. Novotný tries in vain to disassociate himself from Šejna, but ultimately loses ground under his feet and the presidency. The whole affair is widely reported by the press and essentially leads to the abolition of censorship, which is one of the most important achievements of the Prague Spring. The Czechoslovak National Assembly even has to pass a special ad hoc law – ‘lex Šejna’ – to strip the fugitive member of parliament of his mandate. However, Šejna is a valuable defector in the eyes of the CIA due to his detailed insider knowledge of the Czechoslovak military and top-secret documents. His allegations regarding the participation of Czech doctors in experiments on American POWs in Korea and Vietnam, which he also repeated before a US Senate committee shortly before his death, are very controversial to this day.
Marek Cisovský portrays Šejna 1 with ironic detachment and courage, trying to convince the audience of his truth, but his courage gradually becomes clouded by fear, where he dreads the idea of being thrown in prison or committing suicide. Most of all, there is the uncertain future, old age and death: ‘I hear the voices that are growing inside me. These are my voices. I know that the time is coming when they will fall silent forever.’ (...) A Struggle over the General is a stylised concerto for two voices with accompaniment, in which the grotesque rise and fall of the ‘seed general’ Šejna takes place, narrated by his own conscience. Only a dim memory remains of the dramatic story that shaped Czech history and ushered in the Prague Spring reform movement culminating in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Thanks to Tomáš Vůjtek’s ingenious text, Ivan Krejčí’s firm direction and excellent actors’ performances, a work has been created that illuminates and presents the whole affair in a convincing and engaging way.
– Milan Líčka, i-divadlo.cz
IVAN KREJČÍ (*1966) After graduating from the Secondary Industrial School of Construction and completing his mandatory military service, Krejčí worked as an editor for TV 19 Pilsen. He studied theatre directing at DAMU in Prague from 1992 to 1997, and then worked as a director for the Slovácko Theatre in Uherské Hradiště during the 1997–1998 season. He later left for the Karlovy Vary City Theatre where he served as its stage director and artistic head (1999–2001) before wisely choosing to return to Ostrava, where he had grown up in the same block of flats as dramaturge Tomáš Vůjtek, with whom he used to share his insights on art and poetry. Krejčí’s first work at the Aréna was directing Ladislav Klíma’s Human Tragicomedy in 2003. Thirteen years later, as the company’s artistic director, he successfuly staged the play in the Aréna once again. In 2004 he directed Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the production was moved to the new spaces of the Aréna at Sýkora’s Bridge and enjoyed a long-lasting run until 2011. In 2013, Krejčí won the Mark Ravenhill Award for his staging of With or Without Hope and, in 2015, he succeeded in the Theatre Critics’ Survey with his staging of The Hearing. Under his direction, the Aréna has won the Theatre of the Year Award four times (in 2013, and then consecutively in 2015, 2016 and 2017). He has served as the artistic head of the Aréna Chamber Theatre since 2005.
ARÉNA CHAMBER THEATRE During its almost thirty years of existence, the Aréna Chamber Theatre gradually worked its way up to the top of the Czech theatre scene, as shown by its entirely exceptional successes on a nationwide scale. It has won the Theatre of the Year Award four times (2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017). It focuses on ‘actor’s theatre’ with charismatic figures and presents interesting social themes, shown in a modern chamber theatre for approximately a hundred audience members. Its basic dramaturgical approach is based on a critical reflection on the world we live in today, which is accomplished through both classical and contemporary plays, but always with a certain degree of ironic detachment and cynical humour. For a number of years the company, whose productions are regularly shown on Czech television, has been invited to prestigious Czech and foreign theatre festivals. At the end of the 2021–2022 season, Aréna opened a new and even smaller space for a 50-person audience called ‘Small Chamber’, where it will present one or two new, less demanding productions a year. A Struggle over the General was the first-ever production staged there.