“Czech can boast a wide range of words of abuse in all shades of intensity,” writes translator Sir Cecil Parrott in his introduction to Jaroslav Hasek’s unfinished comic epic The Good Soldier Svejk. “Czech words of abuse generally involve domestic animals, excrement or the parts of the body connected with it. The English relate mainly to sexual functions and perversions, although there is in this respect a narrow area of common ground between the languages.”
Svejk, Colin Teevan’s stage adaptation (produced by Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke), finds that common ground and plows it for all it’s worth. Insults hurled at our titular hero (Stephen Spinella) include “malingering snotrag,” “fuckwit,” “swine,” “bastard,” “shitbucket,” “utter and complete bastard of a bastard’s idiot,” and—the pièce de résistance—”poxy whore’s cunt.” The target of all this billingsgate cheerfully admits throughout that he’s “an official idiot,” and his hilariously distended anecdotes, sixth sense for creating snafus, and extravagant yet sincere optimism ultimately endorse the perception of him as a holy fool. Spinella resembles a spit-shined Tom Waits and sounds a lot like Rudy the errand boy from Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner. Incandescent amid the madness of war, taking joy in serving (though unwittingly subverting) his master, Lieutenant Lukas (Ryan Shively), Svejk is so reliably upbeat that he becomes a bit monotonous over the course of two and a half hours. The play relates a great, even cosmic joke, but the punchline is more repeated than deepened.
“I have no complaints!” Svejk declares, even in the worst of circumstances. “I am completely satisfied.” In his loyal servitude despite all absurdities, Hasek’s hero is a dimmer descendant of Sancho Panza; looking forward into 20th-century war lit, he’s also the original of Heller’s Yossarian (or Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim), a cipher of sorts around which to wrap military-bureaucratic conundrums. Separated from his master, Svejk undertakes a solo journey to join him at the front. When the long-suffering Lukas informs him, “I’ll place you under regimental arrest for desertion,” Svejk explains, “I only deserted to get back to my regiment.” Thrown into and kicked out of a mental asylum, given up as collateral in a poker game, forced to endure mechanical sex with his master’s insatiable mistress (Juliana Francis), Svejk seems to be pure pawn, trapped in a “vicious circle.” Even his obituary is written out beforehand (by Footnote, the doomed company’s historian)—he can’t even die on his own terms.
In theory I love this stuff. But though the play has built-in wartime resonance and several spirited set pieces (not to mention scatological free rein), the connection with the audience is intermittent. The stage design, drawn from Dalí (tilting surfaces, giant clockhands), is impressive but distracting—there’s nothing surreal about Svejk. The assorted songs—some martial, others mood-setting—are indifferently sung and written in translationese. And the eardrum-rattling alarms and a grim little timekeeper dude who pops up to intone “Tick tock” draw more attention to the passage of real rather than dramatic time.