The "Clever Stupid" Rom's fairytale ending - and deeper meaning|
Theatre director Pavla Dombrovska has long been fascinated by Romany
culture; inspired by the vigorous, joyful and often tragic tone of Gypsy
music, and enthralled by this people's storytelling tradition. So she set
out to adapt for the theatre a collection of Romany folktales: they were
compiled - or rather, lovingly transcribed - by the noted scholar Dr
Milena Hubschmannova, in the '60s and early '70s. But the play got off to
a difficult start: Dombrovska was shocked to find how little she really
understood of these "naïve" fairytales, and how opposed Dr
Hubschmannova was to the project.
"I really appreciate Roma culture I love their energy and I wanted
to do a play with a Roma theme or based on a Roma story, as we also often
play for children in orphanages, where there are a lot of Roma kids. A lot
of these children, I noticed, think that being a Rom is a bad thing; it
seemed like nobody was encouraging them to be proud of their origin,"
said Pavla Dombrovska.
"Later, I also read a book a collection of Roma folk tales compiled
by Milena Hubschmannova a book full of authentic stories told by Roma
storytellers; they're amazing - they're not edited as literature, the
people who were recounting them had been telling these stories for years,
and had been passed down for generations. And this inspired me to show it
The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 brought an end to the
Prague Spring, reforms led by communist party secretary Alexander Dubcek
he hoped with introduce "socialism with a human face." With the
hard-line Communists putting aside their attempts to assimilate the Roma
to focus on crushing the dissident movement, this tragic and difficult
time saw the first-ever publication of literature written in Romani.
It was around that time that Dr Hubschmannova, who died in a traffic
accident last autumn while at a conference abroad, began preparing the
Romany stories she'd collected for publication. Romske pohadky (Romany
fairytales) came out in in 1973. In an interview with Radio Prague, she
recalled that flowering of Romany literature in the Czech lands.
"Well, Romany literature is very young. It really started to be
created about thirty years ago in 1969/1970 when the first Union of Roma
was founded. They published a journal, 'Romano L'il', and I would say that
for the first time in history the Roma started to write in Romani, and also
their things were published in this journal. And then again this
"normalizace" ["normalization" - the period that
followed the Soviet-led invasion of 1968] came back and a policy of
assimilation. Again Romani was not allowed to be publicly spoken,
published, used, and so again it stopped," Dr Hubschmannova told
She had studied Hindi, Urdu and Bengali in Prague and in the early 1950s
became increasingly interested in the Romany language, which also has its
roots in India. She had great difficulties with the regime in the
hard-line 1970s as she strongly opposed official attempts to force Roma to
But Milena Hubschmannova played a huge role in reviving and recording the
Romany language in Czechoslovakia, and in encouraging Roma people to
publish their stories. As such, she was fiercely protective of the
Theatre director Pavla Dombrovska again.
"I met with Milena Hubschmannova before I started to work on the
play, and I was surprised by her reaction because I expected she'd be very
happy that we wanted to do something like that. But she was actually
horrified and tried to discourage me. After a while, she admitted that she
didn't believe that we, as 'Gadze,' non-Roma, were capable of fully
understanding the stories."
Dr Hubschmannova refused, at first, to give her blessing to the adaptation
or collaborate on it in any way, as previous experience had shown that the
majority white Czech population had completely misinterpreted the stories
as naïve fairytales. But Romany tales are seldom straightforward tales of
good versus evil, "paramisa," as they are called in Romani, are
often fantastic, heroic tales told by masters of the art more for the
entertainment of adults than children and the passing on of collective
history, wisdom, and advice. Unlike in Czech fairytales, there are seldom
picture-perfect happy endings.
"So she [ Dr Hubschmannova] sat in on some readings of her book
[Romske pohadky] and explained how what a Gadze considers funny, very
entertaining, well, a Rom might sense something deeper in the episode in
the context of the Romany experience. And coming from her, that was a real
hard kick for me, but at the same time very useful, and I started looking
at the tales differently."
"At that moment, I decided to involve more Roma so that such
misinterpretations wouldn't happen. And really there are many aspects to
the stories that may at first glance seem like pure mischief or a simple
joke, yet contain deeper meanings. So I tried to get below the surface of
the jokes and get across the serious undercurrent that might be in the
The result, after over a year of more serious study, and working with
Romany musicians, dancers, singers and first-time actors and with Dr
Hubschmannova's blessing was "Chytry hloupy Rom," or the
"The Clever Stupid Rom." Pavla Dombrovska's play, which is based
on two tales ("How a Rom Went for the Apple of Youth" and
"How the Rom Got the Witch's Girl") and borrows from others in
the compilation, was first performed in September and had its premiere in
Prague this past weekend.
It's the story of a Romany boy who turned out badly, so "there was
nothing to be done but to put him to school." Once there, he excels,
was in love with a princess, encounters witches and dragons, outfoxes them
all with the help of a magic horse, but is killed when rescuing a damsel in
Zoltan Tolvaj, who is all of fifteen, played the starring role:
"I was dancing with the [Roma organisation] Drom, in the ensemble
?erche?a, Pavla [Dombrovska] came there to the group and asked us if we'd
like to play with them. I thought: Why not give it a try? So I did, and
enjoyed it, and I'm really very happy that I'm here...."
"As long as I live, I would like to act."
Without giving away too much of the plot, the "clever stupid
Rom" is revived by another witch, and beds her daughter, whom he
eventually marries, once the king gives him a construction permit to build
a house of his own. A simple tale well told and sung whose deeper
meaning for the Roma audience can not be explained in the time we now have
together, but which clearly also struck a chord with the cast.
Singer (and nurse) Ivana Vilhemova, aged 22, was the leading lady. She
learned of the production from a friend with whom she has sung with at
memorial events for Romany victims of the Holocaust.
"This is the first time I learned about traditional Roma tales. In
our home, we don't speak in Romanes, [the Romani language], so I don't
remember my grandma telling me any Roma stories I knew only the
traditional Czech or Moravian ones. So I'm glad I can get to know some now
thanks to Milena Hubschmannova, who spent a big part of her life
visiting Roma families and collecting these beautiful stories."
"The play inspired me, but I don't read fairytales in my free time,
for one, and if I did, I'd want to read them in the traditional Romani
language, as they should be told. That doesn't mean I don't what to learn
Romanes [Romani] I do! I need to, also for singing."
Vilhemova (singing, especially for Radio Prague):
"Wait, my wild little mare,
wait, sweet girl, wait;
You're still veryyoung,
and haven't been loved.
But I'll teach you to love,
and teach you to dance,
and to sleep beneath the open sky.
A poor Gypsy, I am - don't want money, nor a home.
A poor Gypsy, I am - don't want money, nor a home."
"And so on!" [laughs]