Page last updated at 07:56 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The theatre behind the Velvet Revolution

By John Murphy
Producer, 1989: Simpson Returns

A little-known theatre company took centre-stage in the Czechoslovak revolution of 1989.

Marie Sucha and Petr Eckl of the Magic Lantern Theatre
Marie Sucha and Petr Eckl were based at the Theatre Without a Balustrade

"Marie remembers it better than me but, apparently, I came from stage right," says Petr Eckl, the stage manager of the Magic Lantern Theatre Company. "I had a bottle of champagne in my hand but I don't remember opening it."

"Yes, yes, you opened the bottle. I remember it really clearly," Marie Sucha, the theatre company's head of costumes confirms excitedly. "And we gave you two glasses from the costume department."

It was the first time in years that they had returned to Prague's Theatre Without a Balustrade, where the Magic Lantern was based in those heady days of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Theatre becomes headquarters

The Berlin Wall had already fallen but there was little outward sign that Czechoslovakia's old Communist guard was going to be shifted.

Opposition leaders celebrate the ruling party's resignation

That was until 17 November, when the police violently broke up a student march, which the authorities had previously approved.

Within a couple of days, hundreds of thousands of people joined huge demonstrations in Prague's Wenceslas Square.

The dissident movement and others quickly formed Civic Forum, with the playwright Vaclav Havel as moral leader.

They realised they needed a base, and a lighting technician suggested they use the Magic Lantern's home, the Theatre Without a Balustrade.

Then on 28 November 1989 Petr Eckl's famous bottle of champagne was cracked open. The nightly Civic Forum press conference had just been interrupted with the news that the Communist leadership was resigning en masse.

In effect, it was Czechoslovakia's Berlin Wall moment. Sharing in the celebrations on stage that night was not just Vaclav Havel, but also the hero of the Prague Spring of 1968, Alexander Dubcek.

Special phone

"I was just astonished to be part of something so incredible," Petr recalls. "I was no dissident and no revolutionary, but I can say that 90% of the people in the theatre supported what was going on.

Yiri Dienstbier
Jiri Dienstbier went from boilerman to Foreign Minister in four days

"We were a bit naive in some ways," he admits. "We just rushed about, dreaming up things to do. We buttered bread, we collected money, handed out leaflets. The ballet girls acted as runners between different theatres, since there was an actors' strike, and some people did security."

Marie explains that for her "in some ways it was that feeling of things coming to fruition."

"I had taken part in a lot of the demonstrations earlier in the year, and suddenly the regime was actually undergoing change," she says.

As Petr and Marie wander through the underground corridors behind the stage, memories come flickering back.

Petr remembers they set up a special phone "just in case the whole thing went lopsided and the secret police stormed the place."

The idea, they say, was to "lock Vaclav Havel in a room and he could make a last call to Radio Free Europe or the BBC".

No time to think

Marie remembers how Petr, knowing that all the theatre phones would be bugged, got a long extension line from the flower shop above.

"The phone was on a washing machine," she says.

Once things did get moving in Czechoslovakia, the speed of change was breathtaking.

"On Tuesday I was a boilerman, shoveling coal into the central heating systems of communal blocks, on Saturday I was foreign minister," says one leading dissident at the time, Jiri Dienstbier.

1989: Simpson Returns is on Radio 4 on Tuesday 17 November at 0900 GMT and 2130 GMT
Or listen via the BBC iPlayer

He had lost his job as one of Czechoslovakia's chief foreign correspondents after the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring.

Like other dissidents, he had had to endure spells in prison until he became the country's first post-Velvet Revolution foreign minister. He is now a senator.

"When the change came, we didn't have time for feelings," he says. "We just had to work hard to make sure things didn't go back. We didn't know we would be ministers or president in a few days."

"Sometimes it was funny," he remembers. "We were negotiating with the Communists and they would ask us to propose candidates to be justice minister - by seven o'clock.

"So we would rush to the phones and call our lawyers who had just been defending dissidents. Eventually we got one and asked her to come to the Magic Lantern immediately. Then we said 'You should be Justice Minister,' and she replied, 'Well, I'll have to think about that for a week or so.' We told her that she only had until that evening to decide. So she had to say yes and that's how she became minister of justice."

Twenty years on from those idealistic days, Petr Eckl is pretty clear about the revolution's significance.

"I can say unequivocally it was a change for the better. I'm not talking about the economy or anything like that, but the freedom, that's something incredible."

Marie is a little more circumspect. Yes, she agrees about the freedom and says that cannot be replaced. But, like many Czechs, she has become disillusioned with politics.

"Once the dissidents left the political sphere, to a large extent people started going into politics not to serve the people but to serve their own ends, to make a better life for themselves. That doesn't make me feel good."

As for the Magic Lantern Theatre Company, now based in different premises, it too has seen happier days. It made a financial loss last year and, as a result, the Ministry of Culture has cut its funding by a third.

Jiri Dienstbier puts it this way: "I sometimes say if my life had ended after the Velvet Revolution, that would have been success enough. Now we have totally different problems."

1989: Simpson Returns is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 17 November at 0900 GMT and again at 2130 GMT. Or listen via the BBC iPlayer.

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