The Last Cyclist
by City Theatre Company
May. 05 - May. 21
THE LAST CYCLIST by Naomi Patz, after Karel Svenk
In the darkest of times, arts sustains life...and hope. Written in 1944 by Terezin prisoner Karel Svenk and reconstructed by Naomi Patz, it is a unique theatrical performance as we attend a fateful dress rehearsal of inmates - immediately banned when it was shown – and bear witness to this new historical record of atrocities, as well as this fascinating work of Jewish defiance. Banned. Lost. Never Forgotten.
Through a remarkable process of cultural anthropology that began in 1995, Naomi Patz was able to reconstruct the play based primarily on two sources, first in a 1965 essay about theater in Terezín by Jana Šedová, a well-known post-war Czech theater and film actress who was probably the only survivor of the original Cyclist cast. In that essay, Šedová called the play “our most courageous production.” That description motivated Patz to search for what turned out to be the very elusive original. Some years later, a Czech friend finally found a typescript copy of The Last Cyclist in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague. When Patz had the Czech script translated into English, she was shocked to discover that the second act of the play was very different from the description in Šedová’s 1965 essay. It turned out that, in 1961, Šedová had recreated the original Cyclist from memory. Her adaptation was staged at the avant-garde Rokoko Theater in Prague in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech communist party, and the changes were necessary to speak to the communist ideology of that era. The 1965 description of Švenk’s original, augmented by Šedová’s 1961 script, guided Patz in her quest to faithfully salvage Švenk’s original.(More about the Czech Script)
A searing critique of Holocaust lunacy, “The Last Cyclist” offers powerful, poignant evidence of the resistance to the Nazis by Jewish inmates under horrific circumstances.
Švenk almost certainly was inspired to use as the basis for his plot a cynical joke that was very popular in the Jewish communities of Western and Central Europe between the First and Second World Wars. The joke is referenced by Bertolt Brecht in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and is cited by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Survivors have told Patz that their parents used to say “… and the cyclists” as a shoulder-shrugging response to troubles that were being blamed on the Jews.
It went something like this: Three men are having a discussion about the political situation. The first exclaims:
“The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all our misfortunes!”
The second asks, “Why the cyclists?”
And the third, “Why the Jews?”
Naomi Patz uses the joke to set the tone for the play the prisoners are rehearsing.
Švenk’s sense of humor is also evident in a quirky in-joke that needs explanation for non-Czech audiences. Švenk named his schleppy schlemiel of an anti-hero Bořivoj Abeles. The name is a logical absurdity, joining the mythic ancestor of the Czech people to a Jewish-sounding, biblically-based surname (Abel, son of Adam and Eve and brother of Cain). Czechs who hear this composite name spontaneously burst into laughter. It is a delicious example of Švenk’s exquisitely refined, sly Czech sense of humor.
Švenk wrote many songs for his theatrical productions in Prague before the war and for the cabarets he created at Terezín. Only thirteen songs have survived.
Although the original Cyclist script and all of the other songs for that cabaret composed in Terezín have been lost forever, a love song – “Farewell” – is extant. Patz chose not to use it in the play, although she was very tempted to do so since it is a true “relic” of the original, for two reasons: “I felt it would be jarring and perhaps distracting to suddenly introduce a single song, however poignant, into the climactic scene of the play, especially since the play is no longer a cabaret. Perhaps someday I will still find a way to appropriately adapt the lyrics and include the melody, but omitting it still feels ‘right’ to me.”
Patz’s script includes Švenk’s most famous and memorable song, known as the “Terezín March.” This song was so energizing and electrifying, it so captured the hopes of people living with a sense of numbing despair, that it became the unofficial “anthem” of the prisoners in Terezín. It was reprised again and again to conclude Švenk’s cabarets, sung spontaneously by the audience at the end of other camp productions, and is cited repeatedly and even reproduced word for word in memoirs and other descriptions of the camp written by survivors. The version Patz wrote for her adaptation is the chorus, modified to omit a reference to the number of words the prisoners were allowed to write on the heavily censored, optimistic postcards they were compelled to send to friends and neighbors back home; it would have had no meaning for audiences today and including it would have required too much explanation. Instead, she incorporated into the chorus some of the text from one of the verses.
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
We’ll survive another day,
And together, hand in hand,
We’ll laugh at hardship.
Don’t despair, still believe
That the sun will shine again
And we’ll live to turn our backs on Terezín.
Soon we will be homeward bound,
Our lives will start again.
And tomorrow we will pack our bags,
Free women and free men.
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
We will live to see that day.
On the ruins of the ghetto
We will laugh!
In Švenk’s song, the chorus is in a major key and the stanzas in a minor key. Švenk’s melody is strongly referenced in the edgy, exciting original music for the play that Stephen Feigenbaum composed in 2011. Feigenbaum’s score is in two formats: full orchestration for six instruments (violin, viola, cello, clarinet, piano and percussion), and a reduction for solo piano. A recording of the score for “The Last Cyclist,” composed by Stephen Feigenbaum, and including portions of two unpublished songs by Karel Švenk, is part of the rights package for the production. A piano version for student productions is recorded by Allison Brewster Franzetti. The music for each and CDs of both can be accessed by contacting Naomi Patz (firstname.lastname@example.org)d.
May 05 - May 21, 2023
1507 Wilshire Blvd.
Austin, TX, 78722
April 28 - May 14, 2023
Genesis Performance Hall, Austin
More forthcoming from CIty Theatre, Austin. (February 10, 2023)