Miracle at the Black House
MIRACLE IN THE DARK HOUSE (ZÁZRAK V ČERNÉM DOMĚ)
4 men, 4 women
The "dark house" was built as a grandiose family residence by a young and successful lawyer, with the help of her parents. Her intention was to put pressure on her colleague, Dr. Pompe, who had avoided marriage for some years. His hesitation had been caused by a family tendency to mental instability. Eventually they do marry, and stay married. However, the house - a sinful attempt to buy love - leaves its mark on the whole family. Dr. Pompe's attachment to the house led him, before the outbreak of World War II, to refuse to take his Jewish wife and her parents abroad. Later, he similarly refused to sell the house to pay for his wife's brother's flight across the frontier, thus sealing the fate of his brother-in-law. Still clinging to the house, Dr. Pompe talked his wife into denying her Jewish origins and, in a paternity case, present counterfeit evidence that she was not her parents' daughter and did not have Jewish blood. His wife still suffers guilt over this. Fear of losing the house meant that thirty years later Dr. Pompe disinherited his son Dušan after he (Dušan) had fallen foul of the Communist authorities. Even today this morbid fear of losing the house is the reason why Dr. Pompe tries to prevent his daughter Šárka from being taken into a psychiatric clinic. Šárka and her husband have a daughter, and Dr. Pompe knows that if Šárka's husband divorces her, no court would give a mentally ill wife custody of the child. In this way his granddaughter's share of the house would pass to an "alien" family.
That, at least, is how the lawyer Dušan Pompe, a fanatic for truth, sees the family history. Dušan is the elder son of the owners of the "dark house". One Sunday in June 1992 he arrives with his wife Viťka for a family gathering. His mother promises that it will lead to a reconciliation and the restoration of Dušan's rights of inheritance. However, his father theatrically avoids the meeting, pretending he has to make some urgent repairs to a faulty stopcock. Dušan's wife Viťka is the good angel of the play, the creator of the miracles which take place that day in the "dark house". Unlike her husband she respects her parents-in-law and their suffering. She saves Šárka from an attempted suicide attempt. She manages things so that under the new inheritance arrangements the entire house will pass to her sick sister-in-law and be a source of betterment for her; and she indirectly contributes towards her father-in-law - when his amateur bungling has caused the water main to burst - giving up his former terrorisation of the family and calling for a plumber. However, he takes Dušan's closing apology comically, continuing to pretend he has confused him with his younger son. Dušan's mother hopes that the family reconciliation will be confirmed on their next visit.
Milan Uhde begins by presenting us with a truly grotesque portrait of one quarrelsome family, full of stored-up illusions and grievances, and then leads us step by step into the tragic historical roots of their problems.
Milan Uhde: Miracle in the Dark House. Prague, Theatre Na zábradlí. Opened on March 9, 2007, as a part of the Czechoslovak Spring project.
One would have expected a political theme rather than a dark comedy about an unhinged family from Milan Uhde, a playwright who is a former dissident and also a former Culture Minister from the post-Velvet Revolution period. The Miracle in the Dark House that opened at Prague’s Na zábradlí theatre doesn’t leave out the political connections, though it gets to them inconspicuously through a story about family inheritance. (…) Uhde’s play is set in the nineties, just after the takeover, but its protagonists are going back to their past almost obsessively. Two brothers and their wives gather in a thirties’ family villa where their old parents and their unstable sister live. There is a strong tension between the father, a stubborn DIY enthusiast clinging to the house almost pathologically, and his wife. One of the sons is a former dissident, the other a nomenclature police informer: their contrasting positions in the past lead to them hating each other. Their mad sister (played convincingly by Magdalena Sidonová) is just one single step away from the suicide but her parents refuse to put her into an institution. Out of the banal squabbles and violent confrontations, a ghost of a family mystery emerges that goes back to the Nazi occupation.
The tragicomedy reflects “the bigger history” through the history of a small family from the end of the 1930s all the way to the 1990s, so there is no shortage of important themes, including the holocaust trauma.
(…) Uhde’s grotesque play presents an effective image of the Czech society, unbalanced by a series of political tragedies and reversals. At the same time, it poses a question about a link between the past and the present. The production of Miracle in the Dark House is a success.
Saša Hrbotický: Milan Uhde surprises with a family grotesque, Hospodářské noviny 20. 3. 2007
Uhde never made any secret of the fact that his play has autobiographical motives (it’s not the first time he’s done that – the playwright already used his extraordinary family in his play A very quite Ave Maria). That’s why we can see in the Thomas Bernhard-like unsupportable family a sort of image of Uhde himself. One of the sons, the eternally critical Dušan (played by Igor Chmela), also a former government minister, does not give anybody – including himself – a break. The play is set on a Summer Sunday evening when all the family members gather in a family house to find out – what exactly? The solution to all the traumas, problems and misunderstandings that have been going on for many years is still far away. The squabbles go on – who’s going to get the house, will the daughter called Šárka finally get the necessary psychiatric treatment for her illness, will the two brothers find a way to talk to each other.
The director, Juraj Nvota, uses discreet means to create a highly conflictual environment with an almost tangible tension flowing through it. Then he lets in well timed elements of absurd probes and grotesque comedy. We have the impression that each word on stage demands at least some kind of reaction. This keeps happening, and it’s best done by the charactor of the father, Eduard, performed by Jiří Ornest. He enjoys playing a marasmatic and despotic old man who terrorizes his wife, ignores one of the sons and openly dislikes his wife. The family keeps trying not to antagonize him, but small rebellions soon start to flare up.
Jana Machalická, An insupportable family after Uhde, Lidové noviny, March 22, 2007.
Is it a bourgeois morality about mending the damaged family relations? Of course it is, but that’s not all. It’s also a message saying that a real remedy cannot be achieved by technical means only, and a parable going far beyond a framework of one family’s oppressive atmosphere. The playwright brings his own problems to the stage not only figuratively but also literally: his play is made up from his own life’s tissue.
(…) Reconciliation, mending not at some misty and non-committal future, but now and here. It would be futile to examine the question, whether Uhde’s play has a more Jewish or more Christian ethos. Admitting to the guilt, forgiveness, change of mind – the playwright knows what’s behind these words and what they actually mean, and so do his characters.
And thanks to the outstanding acting by Marie Spurná and Jiří Ornest we get the message of the Miracle in the Dark House unabridged and not impoverished.
Josef Mlejnek: Milan Uhde rattles a successful skeleton, iDnes.cz, March 27, 2007)