Illustration by Mark Podwal
It has been nearly 20 years since I first encountered The Last Cyclist, an absurdist cabaret written by the young Czech playwright Karel Švenk in 1944. My long journey in reconstructing and reimagining it for the modern stage is made all the more improbable by the incredible circumstances of the play’s remarkable history. It was created in the Nazi concentration camp Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), 40 miles from Prague, but it was banned after its dress rehearsal by the camp’s Jewish elders, who feared the thinly veiled mocking of the Third Reich would cause trouble. Švenk was sent to Auschwitz a few weeks later, at age 28, just before the war ended. Though a modified version remains, the original script no longer exists.
Terezín was not a death camp, but 33,000 Jews died there of starvation and disease. It was a transit point for nearly 144,000 Jews, including 15,000 children. Over four years, some 88,000 Jews were sent from Terezín to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the other death camps. Only 17,247 people who came through Terezín—including fewer than 200 children—survived the war.
It is an unlikely setting for a rich creative life, but that is exactly what the Jews in Terezín—highly educated, cultured, and incapable of imagining the horrors awaiting them—created. There was a remarkable wealth of theatrical performances, concerts, recitals, and more than 2,000 lectures to boost their morale. The Nazis exploited this, making Terezín a “show” camp and even fooling a Red Cross commission. It was in these circumstances that Švenk wrote The Last Cyclist, a comedy that imagines cyclists as the victims of lunatics who escape a mental asylum and exile or kill everyone who rides a bicycle. The hero triumphs when he accidentally shoots the lunatics to the moon on a rocket they had built to get rid of him, the last remaining cyclist.
I have been in Terezín many times and studied what happened there, and I am awed by this demonstration of human resilience and spiritual resistance. It has motivated my deep commitment to bring The Last Cyclist to the stage, and renew its life.
I first encountered the play in 1995 when the congregation, which my husband, Norman, serves as rabbi, hosted an arts weekend on the Czechoslovakian Jews. At his request, I wrote a play based on the description of The Last Cyclist in an essay by Terezín survivor Jana Šedová, published in 1965 by the Jewish Communities of Czechoslovakia.
In 1999, a Czech friend located a typescript of the play, which had never been published, in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague; I had it translated from Czech into English. When I read it, I was shocked to discover that the second act was markedly different from Šedová’s 1965 précis of Švenk’s cabaret. Exploring further, I learned that the script now in my hands was not Švenk’s original, lost forever when he was sent to Auschwitz, but rather, a version of the play written in 1961 by Šedová herself, possibly the only member of the original Cyclist cast to survive the Holocaust, for a production in Prague honoring the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist party. She had not only recreated the play from memory some 17 years later but also changed the ending to speak in ideologically acceptable language of a totalitarian society.
I’ve rewritten the second act to restore what I believe are the plot and spirit of Švenk’s original. And because there was no mention of Terezín in either Šedová’s play or in Švenk’s, and the concentration camp is the context in which both the humor and implicit horror of the plot become understandable to us, I have created opening and closing scenes that set The Last Cyclist on the night of its dress rehearsal.
The Last Cyclist powerfully demonstrates the evil of intolerance and makes clear, in a non-confrontational way, that each of us is obligated to stand against intolerance and hatred. The message is timeless and universal. As survivors of the Holocaust die out, it’s even more critical that their testimony is heard.
The Last Cyclist will run from May 25–June 9 at the West End Theater in Manhattan. For ticket information, visit thelastcyclist.com.