Nancy Bishop: “Dancing in the Castle: The Dissident Lover”

Nancy Bishop, PSP participant circa 2011

Nancy Bishop came to Prague in the 1990s on the heels of the Velvet Revolution. She came to direct a play for Black Box Theatre and never went back home to America. She is now a citizen of the Czech Republic, and works as a casting director. She splits her time between Prague and London. 

Dancing in the Castle: The Dissident Lover

His blue eyes sparkle with the honesty of someone who has claimed integrity, but his strong hands are rough from shoveling coal. Maťej is standing alone, while the Plastic People of the Universe play their scratchy, dissonant beat. Gritty psychedelic sound clashes with the golden glory of the Spanish Hall.Ivan Havel eyes me from the dance floor where he is dancing with his wife. I’m swaying to the thumping beat and grab Maťej’s hand, leading him to the dance floor.

It is like a dream. The hippies who protested Communism are now dancing in the Prague Castle with the band whose music had catapulted them all to prison. It is my birthday January 6th, 1997 and we were celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Charter 77, a human rights petition, signed by a select group of Czech dissidents, initially sparked by the state’s oppression of the band. The official government indictment denounced The Plastic Peoples lyrics as “extreme vulgarity with an anti-socialist and an anti-social impact.” The Castle punished the charter’s signatories, forbidding actors to play, imprisoning artists and firing academics, like Maťej, forcing them into grueling physical labor.

This very same castle — the once ominous symbol of red tape and the Soviet puppet regime– is now the dissidents’ playground and the Plastic People are playing their awkward rhythm, under chandeliers that the Rolling Stones have gifted to the Czech President. Maťej’s curly disheveled hair falls over his forehead and I want to kiss him. He was among Charter 77’s signatories. 

I contemplate all of the petitions I signed and entreated others while canvassing for Greenpeace and doing politically motivated theatre as a young American. Our treatises meant nothing, because there was no price to be paid for signing your name. Most petitions were ineffective, and forgotten once signed. 

Theatre artists in the Czech lands, however, were repeatedly asked to surrender their honor. In 1942 after Hitler marched the streets of Prague, the occupying government assembled all theatrical workers under the golden roof of the National Theatre where they demanded allegiance to the “Protectorate.” History repeated in 1978 when the communist government gathered thespians and directors in the same auditorium and demanded that they sign a Counter Charter, to avoid expulsion from artistic work. Would I have signed Charter 77and taken up a life of cleaning toilets or accepting prison sentence, I wonder? Or would I have signed the counter-charter to continue to produce theatre full of vapid socialist aphorisms? 

The music stops and the deep sound of Vaclav Havel’s voice resonates from the loud speakers as photos flash of him on a large screen. The President apologizes for his absence as he is in Switzerland recovering from lung cancer.

“Why didn’t he come?” I ask Maťej, disappointed. 

“It would be embarrassing for Dáša.” Maťej smiles.

President Havel had disappointed us all after his first wife’s death by marrying Dáša Veskernova, the sexy actress considered by many to be a blond bimbo. Unlike Olga, also a chartist, Dáša had signed the counter-charter. So while Vaclav rotted in jail, she launched a successful film and stage career, and she was rumored to be the mistress of  an apparatchik. 

I can’t stop looking at Maťej, who is like a Czech Warren Beatty for me. Maťej did everything I would have wished to do. He partook in the Parallel Polis, the parallel structure that provided alternative content to the officially sanctioned state culture. He wrote samizdatphilosophy on carbon paper that was furtively passed underground and smuggled out of the country. He attended secret meetings and salons. Once he even got to jump out of a bathroom window, escaping Into the woods to hide from the police. He had been spied on, and bugged. These were thing that we 80s hippies only dreamed of in the West. Most of all, he had participated in a revolution, brought down the government, and contributed to creating a new one. I never got to do that. 

The band takes a break, and we spot Pavel Landovský, his long characterful nose at once identifiable in the crowd. I know Ladovsky as the legendary actor who performed 

Vaclav Havel’s banned plays in private living rooms. 

“This is Nancy Bishop,” Maťej tells Pavel. “She runs Black Box theatre company that produces Vašek’s plays in English,” he refers to the President familiarly. I beam at the introduction. Maťej takes a long slurp from his beer mug as his gaze lands on my chest. 

“Were you a chartist?” I ask him.

His face smiles of humor and pain like a theatrical mask, as he kisses my hand.

Maťej explains that he is not just a signatory. He was thechartist who drove Vašek to post boxes all over Prague to disseminate the charter to the West! The chartists had copied the charter many times and posted it out from several different locations hoping that some of the manuscripts would make it out of the country and into the Western press. 

“The secret police began to follow us, but I stepped on the gas, and those StB guys got so anxious that they crashed into each other’s shit-bag Škodas!” boasted Landovský. In Michael Žantovský’s account, when Havel and Landovský were finally surrounded, Landovský locked the doors and windows provoking the StB to pound on the windows and hood until Havel finally relented by opening his window and was hauled out of the car like a rolled up carpet. In one account of the story, an officer immediately sat in Havel’s seat and Landovský barreled down on the gas one more time threatening to kill both of them by slamming into a wall unless the officer promised to bring him cigarettes in prison. Meanwhile there was a crowd gathering, who recognized Landovský and thought they we watching a film production. This is all thanks to the fact that an StB guy was there taping it, making it look like a film shoot.

“Watch out for him. He is a womanizer,” says Maťej as he steers me away. Is he jealous?I wonder. Delighted that he seems to be shielding me from this possible seducer, I hope that Maťej will come home with me tonight. We practically slide down the icy Nerudova Street from the castle back to my Lucerna flat, where we drink home-made slivovice.

“I hope I would have signed the petition,” I ruminate, wondering what it would feel like to touch Maťej’s chest. We are facing each other on the scratchy wool coach in the Black Box office that was my living room.

“What petition?” he asks.

“Charter 77!”

He lifts me in his arms and carries me through the door to the foam mattress that I call my bed. “I’ve wanted you for such a long time,” I whisper, fumbling to remove his tie.

He collapses onto me.

“Too much slivovice,” he apologizes. 

“It’s OK I just want to hold you.”

And so my crush on Maťej is consummated, (sort of) and I continue to fall madly in love with him, but the dissident Czech men are not so easy, especially the ones who are married. 

“It reads,” whispers my friend Hana. Married, she is having an affair with another man from Maťej’s former dissident crowd. Hana possesses that typical Czech-girl beauty that is so far from my look– tall, slim-hipped, straight wasted, with heavy breasts. 

“What reads?”

“Your intimacy with Maťej. You can see it in the office by the way you interact.”  

 “Maťej was just a fleeting caress,” I lie. I can think about nothing but him. Everything I do is for him. All of my work in the theatre is for the purpose of impressing him. If he doesn’t come to a performance, I fall into depression. He is the lover I want so much in my bed every night, but I know I can never possess. 

Mate’sj writing allures me; his ruminations on human rights, Hannah Arendt and Jan Potocka. While another writer pays me to correct his English, I voluntarily struggle through Maťej’s complicated essays and endeavor to improve my Czech by translating them. It gives me an excuse to sit next to him for hours, staring into his blue eyes and debating the use of one word over another. 

One such night we knock on door 22 of Jilska Street to be admitted into a smoky subterranean club, an old secret dissident hang-out. No-frills décor– heavy wooden tables with hard benches on either side below a vaulted ceiling. Gripping thick glass handles, I slug down beer, trying to keep up with Maťej’s intake. We are finishing the translation and I pull out a letter in my bag from my mother, which contains the preposterous news headlines. 

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman says Clinton.”

 “What happens between a man and a woman behind closed doors is something to be done, not to be spoken about,” comments Maťej, laughing at the stupidity of the scandal. 

It’s difficult for me to account to Czechs about the American fascination with our president’s penis and what he was doing with it. The USA looks so colorful now from this side of the world, but so black and white in its view of morality. Prague is a city where everything is blurred with grey around the edges. 

Everyone knows that Dáša Veškrnová was President Havel’s mistress even before his wife died. “And there are many others,” confirms Maťej. Indeed, Havel is infamous for his affairs. He gave his wife Olga detailed accounts of them and even asked her to pass messages to his lovers while he was in prison since Olga was the only one who could visit him.  Reagan got credit for bringing down the Iron Curtain, but it was the slinky, saxophone playing Clinton who President Havel buddied up with. 

“Do you take it lightly to cheat on your wife?” I ask Maťej. It is the wrong question on a night when I wanted him to come home with me. 

“It is only in America that you care so much about sex. Sex can’t lose you the presidency here,” he says finishing his beer. “And not your marriage either.” 

I have to admit that it is a different way to look at it. A strong marriage is one that is about deep love, and partnership, not sex. If a marriage can survive several affairs then certainly it is a strong one. 

So I am the sex and she is the marriage,I think, but I know I have no right to be hurt. His marriage, I realize, isimportant to him, but our sex means nothing. 

Seated in the corner of the club, we are now trapped in by loud drinkers. Maťej steps upon the table walking across its thick wooden planks to make his exit. I scurry up to follow and meet him on the cobbley lane. A chalky fog envelopes the street lamps muting everything with the agony of soft edges. I reach up to kiss him but he has already disappeared. Maťej does not come home with me again. It isn’t from a puritanical sense of right and wrong. It’s because he had already conquered me. 

“Don’t take it so seriously,” says Hana. “These things always end but it is better to be the otherwoman. You are part of the team that is betraying instead of being betrayed. You have more power that way. ” 

“I don’t want power. I want love.”

 “But, relationships are always about power, darling,” laughs the Czech woman. 

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