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Cimrman - The Conquest of the North Pole

26. 4. 2019

Smoljak/ Svěrák
The Conquest of the North Pole

by the Czech Karel Němec on 5 April 1909
translated by Craig Cravens
Cimrman’s northern drama will be introduced by the following lectures:
(The performance should begin exactly on time so that the disruption caused by
latecomers can be used for the following situation.)
Svěrák: Good Evening. Dear friends, today we will introduce our performance with a
recitation of Cimrman’s recently discovered poem, “My School Satchel.” If you would,
Mr. Brukner.
Brukner: Jára Cimrman: “My School Satchel”
My school satchel
With a wooden pencil case …
Svěrák: Shhh!!! (Makes an apologetic signal to Brukner for interrupting him.)
Brukner: Jára Cimrman: “My School Satchel”
My school satchel
With a wooden pencil case,
To school with you I used to hurry,
Through green fields of maize.
Inside of you I used to carry
Svěrák: Excuse me, please be quiet, there in the back. You’re really interfering with the
recitation. Excuse me, Mr. Brukner.
Brukner: Jára Cimrman: “My School Satchel”
My school satchel
With a wooden pencil case,
To school with you I used to hurry,
Through green fields of maize.
Inside of you I used to carry
Mostly As and Bs.
Svěrák: Friends, please don’t be angry, but this is quite disrespectful both to the author
and to the audience members who arrived on time.
Brukner: My father was quite overjoyed
And mother, too, was pleased...
Svěrák: And finally to my colleague, as well, who cannot concentrate on his recitation.
Excuse me, Mr. Brukner.
Brukner: Our teacher, Mr. Voříšek,
Long beneath the ground
Is huddled in a little grave
Svěrák: No! It makes absolutely no sense like this. Mr. Kalina, please turn on the lights.
Thank you. And the audience members who came in late, please take your seats. We’ll
(The lights are lit in the auditorium, and the latecomers find their seats. Everyone finally
settles down.)
Yes, thank you. We can turn off the lights now. Mr. Brukner…
Brukner: Is huddled in a little grave
Within his tattered dressing gown.
Svěrák: Mr. Brukner, this doesn’t really make any sense. Please start from the beginning.
Brukner: Jára Cimrman: “My School Satchel”
My school satchel
With a wooden pencil case,
To school with you I used to hurry,
Through green fields of maize.
Svěrák: You see how nicely it sounds.
Brukner: Inside of you I used to carry
Mostly As and Bs
Svěrák: This is how it should have gone from the start.
Brukner: My father was quite overjoyed
And mother, too, was pleased...
Our teacher, Mr. Voříšek,
Long beneath the ground
Is huddled in a little grave
Within his tattered dressing gown.
My school satchel
With a wooden pencil case ...
Svěrák: You’re starting from the beginning again?
Brukner: This is the 4th verse. It starts just like the first.
Svěrák: Oh, excuse me.
Brukner: My school satchel
With a wooden pencil case
How can I, Mr. Voříšek,
How can I repay you.
(Svěrák begins to applaud, which surprises his colleagues on stage as well as, perhaps,
the audience.)
Brukner (doesn’t bow, merely stares reproachfully at Svěrák): That’s not the end.
There’s still one more verse.
Svěrák: Oh, I’m very sorry.
Brukner: Everything you taught me, sir,
I’ll give to Czechs of every station.
And from the seeds of my school satchel
Will blossom forth a new Czech Nation.
(Finishes reciting and sits down annoyed.)
Svěrák: Now can we applaud?
(Brukner waves his hand dismissively.)
Svěrák (applauds): Thank you, Mr. Brukner for an outstanding recitation.
Svěrák: And now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to ask for a moment of your
patience. As you all know, a theater cannot get along without workers who ensure the
operation of the theater behind the scenes. Currently we are in need of a new engineer,
and we have placed an ad in the newspaper. Seven people applied, and we’d like to
interview all of them one after the other. Perhaps you’re wondering why we would
interrupt our show for this and not test them at some other time. The problem is that in
an empty hall, the applicant might pass the test handily, but when you, the audience,
arrives the mental strain might fluster him so much that suddenly he can no longer
manage what he once was able to do so easily.
For example at the beginning of the theater season we hired a quite capable and
clever engineer, but he was exceedingly shy. I won’t embarrass him by giving you his
name, but in vain we would shout to him: Mr. Novotný, don’t be afraid … He literally
ruined our performance. When he was supposed to turn on the lights, he turned them off
and visa versa. He would also mix up the tape recordings. During the fairy tale Long,
Wide and Shortsighted, for example, he suddenly played a recording of a machine gun.
The children in the audience recognized that this did not belong in a fairy tale, and my
colleague Professor Vondruška wanted to save the situation and called out, “That’s a
woodpecker, children!” But today children don’t know what a woodpecker is, but they
certainly know what a machine gun is.
Since we’re on the subject of this engineer Bedřich Novotný … Once an error of
his resulted in a rather serious personal injury, a head injury. At the end of the show, he
was supposed to close the curtain using a hand crank, but he was so unnerved he just held
the crank tightly in his hand and shook and convulsed fitfully all over. Finally we had to
hit him over the head with a pole. Today we have our fourth applicant, Mr. Roman
(Svěrák turns to the wings and speaks to the applicant who remains hidden.)
So, Mr. Měcháček, you would like to work in our theater, is that correct?
Měcháček (almost inaudibly): Yes.
Svěrák: Fine. And what compelled you to apply for this job?
Měcháček: I like to go to the theater …
Svěrák: Could you speak a little louder, please?
Měcháček: No.
Svěrák: Aha. Then I’ll act as interpreter. Mr. Měcháček says he likes to go to the
But you’re not satisfied with just going there as a spectator, is that right?
Měcháček: Yes.
Svěrák: You wanted to take an active part in the show.
Měcháček: Yes.
Svěrák: And you never wanted to be an actor?
Měcháček: No.
Svěrák: No. That’s fine. And what would you like to do in the theater?
Měcháček (barely audible): I’d like to work in the theater so that nobody sees me.
Svěrák: Aha. That’s an unusual desire. (to the audience) Isn’t it? Did you all hear that?
No? He wants to work in the theater so that nobody sees him. But so that your work is
seen, right?
(Měcháček nods.)
Svěrák: Where did you work before?
Měcháček (inaudibly): On the fright train.
Svěrák: On a train? I’m not sure I understand. Did you say … on a freight train?
Měcháček: The fright train.
Svěrák: Aha. That doesn’t belong to Czech Railways, does it … for the time being. And
what did you do there? What was your position?
Měcháček: I took hats.
Svěrák: Aha. You took people’s hats. Yes. (to the audience) You see, he would take
people’s hats on the train as they traveled. But you would return them, wouldn’t you?
Měcháček: Yes.
Svěrák: Yes, he would return them. So you were actually part of the entertainment
program. And also hidden, so they wouldn’t see you.
Měcháček: Yes. Because if they saw me, it wouldn’t be so frightening.
Svěrák: Yes. If they could see you, it wouldn’t be so frightening. Now let us proceed to
the practical test. You have selected the question “beginning of the show.” So,
demonstrate for us what you’re going to do. Bring the theater into the state it was before
the beginning of the show, which means: the lights are on in the auditorium, only the
work lights are illuminated on the stage, and the curtain is closed.
(All of the aforementioned is carried out. All of the performers fall behind the closed
curtain. The lights go off in the auditorium and then—by mistake—come on again. Then
they immediately go out, and the floodlights appear on the curtain. The curtain begins to
jiggle, but it doesn’t open.)
Svěrák: Open the curtain!
(The curtain once again jiggles.)
Open the curtain!
(Further failed attempts. Svěrák goes behind the curtain to see what the problem is.
After a moment he comes back to the forestage.)
Svěrák: Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a slight problem. We can’t get the
curtain to open, and we request a moment of your patience while our people attend to it.
(pause) You see, one might call this a trifle, but in the operation of a theater there is no
such thing as a trifle. In any other workplace, if the curtain doesn’t open, work can
proceed anyway. In a factory, for instance. But not in the theater. How many times has
it been necessary to cancel a show because of something like this. And this is by no
means pleasant. The show has barely begun, and the leader of the troupe comes on stage,
apologizes, and the audience goes home. In this case, tickets are not returned. This is
what is so unfortunate in such a situation. Because part of the show has already been
performed … In any case, it’s problematic. Of course we cannot return the entire
entrance fee, make no mistake. And if you wanted to take it to court, you’d most likely
lose because the actors can claim that they did in fact perform the play, but you couldn’t
see it. And it’s not their fault.
(A tall ladder makes its way through the curtain carried by a technician who places it on
the forestage. Then he climbs up and fusses with something on the curtain cable.)
Well, this looks promising. They’re already working on it. This is not the fellow we’re
testing; this is one of our most experienced technicians. How long have you been with
us, Mr. Kotek?
Kotek: 13 years.
Svěrák: Would you like me to hold the ladder for you?
Kotek: Okay.
Svěrák: Because if you were to fall, not only might you harm yourself, you might kill
several people here in the front rows.
Perhaps the viewers might be interested in where you worked before?
Kotek: In public lighting maintenance.
Svěrák: And why did you leave?
Kotek: Vertigo. I can’t stand heights.
Svěrák: Aha. Ladies and gentlemen, before Mr. Kotek finishes his repairs, I have a brief
announcement. In the event we are able to present The Conquest of the North Pole,
during the intermission we will sell ice-cream bars—the only theater in the Republic to
do so … Of course, we won’t be selling them …
(The technician drops his pliers.)
Kotek: Could you hand me those pliers?
Svěrák: Certainly. (Picks up the pliers and climbs up the ladder with them.)
Other employees will be selling them. We’re the actors, and we can’t be doing
everything here. (He is high enough to hand the pliers to the technician.)
Kotek: Could you please hold this right here for me.
Svěrák climbs all the way to the top and holds the cable.)
Svěrák: You see! Now if we fell, we’d kill twice as many people as before.
Kotek: Okay. Let’s climb down.
(They climb down.)
Svěrák: Okay, ladies and gentlemen, it’s fixed. Now we can continue.
Kotek: Unfortunately it can’t be fixed. (Exits with the ladder.)
Svěrák: Aha, a change of plans. It can’t be fixed. Perhaps we should take the
intermission and try …
(Hraběta comes out and whispers something to Svěrák.)
Yes, that’s a good idea! My colleagues suggest that we could move in front of the curtain
and continue with our program, so that actually the only thing you’ll miss is the play.
(Meanwhile all the “scholars” have moved their chairs in front of the curtain. As soon
as the last one takes his seat, the curtain opens smoothly.)
Oh please! You said it wouldn’t work. What was the problem?
Kotek (comes from the wings): A chewed up korybut.
Svěrák: Aha. Ladies and gentlemen, it was a chewed up korybut. Is the new technician
still there?
Měcháček: Yes.
Svěrák: Well, I think my colleagues will agree with me that you did well. You’re not
responsible for the curtain even though it’s under your supervision.
(All nod in agreement. Suddenly all the lights go out.)
Svěrák: Mr. Kotek, if you’re looking for the pole, it’s right next to the hand crank.
(A hollow thud is heard, and the lights come on.)
And now, ladies and gentlemen, let us turn our attention to this evening’s main topic, that
is, the circumstances in which arose
Ing. Jan Hraběta:
One evening in the Prague restaurant Pod Vyšehradem, where Cimrman used to go to
dine on their fish specialties, the owner of the pub sat down at Cimrman’s table and asked
him if for the next meeting of the Branický Brewery Ice-Cutters, he would create a still
life entitled “The Czechs at the North Pole.” Cimrman accepted the offer and decided to
study the polar subject on site. Only a few fragments of information have been preserved
concerning Cimrman’s Arctic expedition. In an article published in National Politics
from March 1908, Cimrman writes of the invaluable service this paper provided him in
the harsh north, when he stuffed his coat and trouser-legs with it.
Cimrman made another interesting remark in his ethnographic study “Nations and
Filiations.” On his Greenland trip, he learned of an interesting primitive tribe of
Eskimos, in which the wife had the final word in the household. It was an extremely
primitive tribe. He learned that the women of this tribe are very hospitable. In the family
he stayed with, they gave him a bearskin pelt immediately upon his arrival. Then they
selected the most well-fed seal they had, and organized a celebratory feast. That evening,
the lady of the house, an extremely beautiful female Eskimo, by the way, personally
made up his bed, and as a demonstration of the highest respect, brought her husband to
him for the night. Luckily Cimrman had a pack of cards with him. He taught the clever
Eskimo Crazy Eights, and the night passed quite pleasantly.
The most valuable contribution Cimrman’s Arctic expedition made to science was
the discovery of the Snow Person. Cimrman himself personally met this creature and
describes it as a solitary shy mammal, distinguishing itself by its upright gait on the rear
extremities. Only when observing fish in the cracks between the ice-floes does he lean
on his right front extremity, while his left is fixed on his hip.
In comparison with the Snow Man seen several years ago in the Himalayas,
Cimrman lists several characteristics distinguishing it from his Snow Person. The Arctic
version has a discernable bald spot on his left hip from constantly leaning his left arm on
it while fishing. There are also differences in the hair covering of the two creatures.
Whereas the hair of the Himalayan type sticks straight up from the ears, (the so-called
punk style), the hair of the Polar variety flows down across the ears and is parted in the
middle of the skull. The explanation for this is the differing wind conditions. The punk
is caused by the fact that the Himalayan Snow Man faces winds blowing upwards from
below, from the foot of the mountains to the peaks. The Polar Snow Person braves winds
blowing horizontally against his inclined shoulders.
The size difference between the two is also quite noticeable. Himalayan experts
estimate their Snow Man to be the height of a 10-year-old boy. Cimrman claims his
Snow Person is the height of an 11-year-old boy.
Cimrman’s description of the sex life of this creature literally shocked biologists
of his time. It was commonly referred to as the sex bomb of the century. The more
conservative Sigmund Freud coined the term: “Sexuelhandgranat.”
According to Cimrman, the Artic Snow Man is self-conjugal. It does not need a
partner for reproduction. That’s why in his case it is especially important to translate
correctly the original English term “snowman” as “snow person,” and not as has become
customary among us, as “snowman.” The snow person is a man and a woman at the
same time.
The term “hermaphrodite,” however, is not sufficient. The snow person’s dual
sexual nature goes much further. This is clear from its method of reproduction.
Cimrman had the good fortune to observe the snow person during the mating season. He
summed up his observations with the term: “Polar Onanism.”
Still more surprising is the fact that not only does the snow person reproduce like
a biological pair, it behaves like one too. Cimrman clearly both heard and saw this
creature gesticulating and speaking with itself. “Of course I didn’t understand his
speech,” Cimrman writes, “but from his intonations and expressions, I realized I was not
witnessing a monologue but rather an actual dialogue, which sometimes turned into an
argument. First he would berate and accuse in a high, squeaky falsetto, and then assume
a defensive and apologetic position, using deeper vocal tones. Were I to translate
according to intonation and gesture, it would go something like this”:
What time was it when you came home?
I don’t know; it was still light out.
It’s always light. We’ve got the Polar Day, now.
I was celebrating your birthday.
Don’t lie! Who knows where you’ve been flitting about, and now my legs hurt
because of it!
It is precisely the duality of this speech, this combination of the 1st-person pronoun já
with the second person ty, which led Cimrman to coin the term “játy” for this creature,
which the English later corrupted into “yeti.”
The solitary and shy nature of the snow person contrasts somewhat with the way
in which behaves toward humans. Cimrman and later experts noticed that when the
“játy” caught sight of a polar expedition, it would keep a respectful distance, but clap its
hands joyfully. Sometimes it would even jump up and down and fling its right paw into
the air. Amundsen compared this gesture to that of a soccer player who had just scored a
goal. How can one explain this behavior? Cimrman reached the conclusion that the
snow person does not see the polar explorers as enemies, but as creatures who bring him
food and freeze to death.
Thank you for your attention.
Dr. Bořivoj Penc“
My colleague Dr. Hraběta mentioned in his lecture that the impetus for
Cimrman’s Arctic trip was an order for a still life for the Výšehrad restaurant. The very
fact that the well-known restaurateur asked Cimrman himself is itself significant.
Cimrman was actually among the recognized masters of this now-forgotten genre.
Currently this type of art survives only in the form of parade floats. Of course, these are
not genuine still lifes because they move. On the one hand, they bounce around due to
the unevenness of the pavement, and on the other, the inside of the work itself moves—
the farmer sharpens his scythe, the capitalist shakes his money-bag, George Bush trips
over weapons of mass destruction, and so on.
A genuine still life differs from one on canvas only in that the material used is
living people and real objects. In Cimrman’s time, still lifes formed an inseparable part
of the Czech National Revival. They were de rigeur for any dance or Sokol masked ball.
Their popularity was doubtlessly due to the fact that even people with no artistic talent
whatsoever could take part in them. Moreover, they were usually done on a mass scale,
so that as many people as possible could take part in them. Sometimes the number of
participants was so great that there was no one left to view the still life. This happened,
for instance, at the Malostranská Beseda in 1904 with the scene, “Sokol Members
Accompany Jan Amos Komenský into Exile.” If it were not for the police patrols that
entered the hall, who were attracted by the suspicious silence, there would have been no
one to give testimony about the work.
Mention must be made of Cimrman’s historical triptych “The Battle of Lipany,”
“The Battle of White Mountain,” and “The Peasant Revolt at Chlumec,” which bear the
collective name “Our Glorious Defeats.” First of all, however, we will concentrate on
Cimrman’s chamber still lifes. They were composed for households as something to
occupy family members during the long winter evenings. We must keep in mind how
people lived back then. They would come home from work, have a bite to eat, and then
sit down and stare all evening at the wall. The television had not been invented yet.
Cimrman’s domestic still lifes were its precursor.
Cimrman thought up countless numbers of them—sometimes for two people, but
usually for one. Perhaps your grandmothers remember such famous works as “Alois
Jirásek Looks into the Past,” “Libuše Looks into the Future,” or “Jan Kollár look for a
way to pronounce the Czech Ř.” For more numerous families, Cimrman created works
such as “Jan Hus before the Council at Constance,” and for more numerous families with
a fireplace, “Jan Hus After the Council at Constance.”
Cimrman also created serial works, for instance, the 3-part Palacký series: the
first work is called “We were here before Austria,” the second, “We will be here After
Austria,” and the third, “Who the Hell Knows?”
Now we’d like to demonstrate for you a few of these chamber scenes. But first
must explain how one is to view these still lifes. When it first appears, we allow it to
work its effect on us fully. As soon as we understand its meaning, we applaud. This will
be the signal for us to conclude the picture. But if no one claps, there is the danger that
the picture might, as we say, “seize up.” Please turn out the lights.
(Within a large frame, a the figure of a man in a leather cap is illuminated looking into
the distance.)
“Jan Žižka Shortly Before His Left Eye is Shot Out.”

Yes, we’ll wait for the applause, and now we can turn off the lights.
(Darkness, then light. A different actor in the same frame. He’s dressed in normal,
civilian trousers but with a “wife-beater” shirt. He stands with feet apart and hands
joined on top of his head.)
“The Founder of Sokol, Miroslav Tyrš, discovers the position Feet apart, hands on Head.”
(Darkness, then light. Two actors stand in the frame sticking out there front teeth like
“The Inventors of the Spike-Tooth Harrow, the Squirrel Brothers.”
Now we will display the so-called dual pictures—one picture following another,
in which the second arises from the first with a minor change, often with only a change of
(Darkness, then light. A man with a mustache wearing a vest is illuminated. He sits on a
chair and stares fixedly at a human-sized skeleton.)
“Karel Havlíček Borovský looks Death in the Eye.”
(Darkness, then light. The same scene with no change.)
“Doctor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen at Work.”
Dr. Zdeněk Svěrák:
To conclude this overview of Cimrman’s still lifes, we will attempt to display one
of his larger images, one Cimrman created for the Mutual Insurance Bank Slavie, which
he called “Harm Does Not Come to Those Who Are Insured.” The bank clerks would
perform this picture every other hour in the hall of the bank as an advertising campaign.
(Svěrák looks at a sketch.)
In the center of the picture stands an insurance agent.
(An actor assumes a position in the center of the scene, wearing a bowler hat and holding
a briefcase.)
In the back to the right are three uninsured people.
(3 actors stand in the designated spot.)
To the left stands an insured farmer.
(A farmer with a pitchfork takes his place.)
It seems we’re out of actors, so we’re going to need help from the audience. We need 3
men. Don’t be afraid, all you have to do is sit here on the bench. We just need to balance
out the picture.
(Volunteers are found in the audience.)
The farmer’s wife is standing by his side. Thus I would ask one of the ladies. The age is
not specified…
(A volunteer comes on stage.)
And now let us perform the picture. The representatives of the uninsured differ from one
another in their dispositions. The first uninsured has already firmly decided to insure
himself. Therefore he raises his hand, asking for the appropriate brochures. The second
is hesitating whether or not to sign a full policy or only a partial one. He expresses this
by looking thoughtfully out into the audience. Finally, the third would like to be insured,
but just to make sure, he checks the amount of cash he has on hand. Please remain in
these positions.
And now for the men on the bench. The first represents a stubborn opponent of
the entire insurance mindset. And he has paid for it. He was not insured, and his house
burned down. But this has taught him nothing, and he appears arrogant. He refuses to
insure himself. This is a quite unsympathetic and negative character. Perhaps it would be
better if you sat there next to this gentleman. You seem better suited to the role.
The house of the second also burned down. He was insured against fire, but he
didn’t pay his premium on time.
The third is unhappy. His house also burned down. He was insured, but against
Now let us move to the left side of the picture. The insurance agent points out a
happily insured family to the hesitating uninsured and the grief-stricken insured. Their
house burned down, but they were insured and paid their premiums on time. Thus they
can be happy after the fire. We’ll give this young lady a scarf to give her a more rustic
look, and your husband will be so kind as to make you a mother.
(A stagehand brings the volunteer a doll.)
And now we just need one more central figure to complete the picture. We have a
pedestal prepared for you. This is Slavie, the symbol of the Slavie Bank. It should be a
girl or a young woman, who is holding this model house on a tray and offering it to those
whose house burned down. So I would like to ask for one more volunteer. It’s a very
simple role … Except … as I see here, there’s one minor detail, the girl must be naked.
Not completely naked. She has a sash in the Czech national colors over, or
between, her breasts.
So, who would like to volunteer? Are you volunteering? No? But you thought
about it … There’s really nothing to be afraid of. This scene is always a great success.
But before you change your mind. Not long ago we received a letter from
Pardubice in which a married couple told us how they met each other 2 years ago thanks
to this picture. Apparently, the gentleman bought a ticket in the very back row and saw
his future wife for the first time, and as the Slavie Bank, no less. Apparently he recalls
the event quite often. His wife writes: “My husband often regrets that he didn’t get a
seat up front so that he could see better.”
So, no one would like to volunteer? No? Then we’ll have to resort to an
emergency solution. Take off Dr. Penc’s clothes!
(Dr. Penc enters in swimming trunks with a sash across his chest. He receives a tray
bearing a model of a house and with one foot forward holds it out to the family with the
And now we will allow Cimrman’s still life to work its effect until the end of the
scene. I’ll also point out an interesting feature. The figure of the hesitating uninsured
person. This one here. (Goes to the figure mentioned.) Has a certain peculiarity. From
whichever side you look at it, it’s always looking back at you. This is one of the
mysteries of the old masters. Such a picture resides in Hluboká. Even today we still
have no idea how Cimrman created this effect.
Let us try it. First, we’ll try the left side of the audience… (the actor obviously
turns his eyes in the designated direction). There! Did you see that?! And now the right
side. (The gesture is repeated). Let us now reward Cimrman’s still life with our applause
and begin the play.
The Conquest of the North Pole
by the Czech Karel Němec on 5 April 1909
/a northern drama/
Chief Karel Němec1
Teaching Assistant Václav Poustka
Pharmacist Vojtěch Šofr
Richard Schwarzenneger2
American Czech
Scene I
(Empty stage. The sound of a halting train and slamming doors. Schwarzenegger enters
with suitcase, places it on the ground, reaches out to the wings at the height of the
window of a train car where someone hands him more luggage. Then the remaining
members of the expedition enter: the teacher, pharmacist, and the chief, who help with
the arrangement of the luggage and equipment. Then a sled and 4 sets of skis and ski
poles is added to the pile of luggage. From the wings we hear the locomotive begin to
depart. The members of the expedition shout farewell to and converse with the
passengers in the train.)
Teacher: Have a nice trip and thank you for everything.
1 Němec, of course, means German, and there is a play on this name near the end of the
drama. It could conceivably be changed to another name that designated a nationality in
English. Karel Dutch, for example.
2 The original has Varel Frištenský, who is the cousin of the famous 19th-century Czech
wrestler Gustav Frištenský. Varel is not a Czech name, but in the vocative case, Varle, it
is the Czech word for testicle. I changed the name to Richard Schwarzenegger, who is
known to English speakers, and his nickname is Dick, which is, of course, not as funny as
the original testicle.
Pharmacist: Good-bye, gentlemen. Pardon? Yes, to the North Pole. Yes. By foot.
We’ve got skis. Yes. Pardon? Yes, our chief here.
Teacher: Sobaky? [Russian for „dogs“] No, we don’t have any. Instead of dogs, we’ve
got him. He’s a strongman. (Points to Schwarzenegger) He’s like 10 dogs.
Chief: From Prague. Österreich, Austria. But we’re also Slavs. Czechs.
Pharmacist: Yes, we’ve got food. 3 geese, bacon, bread. Everything. Sell it? We can’t.
We need it. We have a long way to go.
(The train departs.)
Chief: So, my friends, that might be the last people we ever see. Do we have
Teacher: Yes, it’s all here. Skis, food, compass, first-aid kit, cook stove, extra underwear

Pharmacist: The ball! I left the ball on the train!
Chief: The what?
Pharmacist: The inflatable ball! That’s really annoying. But maybe we can get along
without it.
Chief: What a wonderful start.
Pharmacist: That really bugs me, Chief.
Schwarzenegger: To hell with the ball. The main thing is we’ve got something to eat.
Chief: You’ll see. We’re going to miss that damn ball. Do you know how long the polar
night lasts?
Pharmacist: 100 days.
Chief: That’s right! 100 days of darkness, freezing weather, and solitude. You think
melancholia is a joke? How many times have we read about what happens to people?
Out of 36 polar expeditions, 8 died of starvation, 6 of exposure, 4 of exhaustion, and 17
of melancholia. 17!
Pharmacist: Excuse me, Chief, but that’s 35. You’re missing one expedition.
Chief: What do you mean? 8 starvation, 6, 4, 17, that makes …
Pharmacist: 35.
Teacher: The chief is right. He was right not to include the American expedition of
Professor MacDonald which disappeared for reasons unknown.
Chief: I’m not kidding, this is no joke! No ball!
Teacher: Chief, I wanted this to be a surprise, but since the ball is gone,
I’ll come right out with it. While you all were sleeping in the train, I composed a song to
cheer us up in times of woe. And I think it came out pretty good. Besides that, I’ve
prepared a funny costume, but I’m not going to show you yet. I don’t think we’re going
to have to worry about melancholia at all.
Chief: This I’ve got to see. Amundsen, a man of steel, and he cried like a little boy. But
we’ve been standing around long enough because of a stupid ball. Into your skis!
(Everyone attaches their skis and grabs their poles.)
(With their poles and skis interfering with one another, they place a dog collar on
Schwarzenegger, the other end of which is attached to the sled. The skis and points of the
poles make a racket as they bang on the floor of the stage.)
Pharmacist (softly to the teacher): I don’t want to criticize the chief, but first I would
have given the order “harness,” and only then “Into your skis!” That’s the way I see it.
(Finally everyone is stationary and preparing to head out stage left.)
Chief: Let me establish north. ... Direction north (looks at his compass)...
Unfortunately... counter clockwise, 180 degrees, about FACE!
(The confusion with the skis and poles repeats.)
Pharmacist: I don’t want to sound like a grumbler, but I would have established north
first of all.
Chief: Polar expedition! In the following order: Chief Karel Němec...
Teacher: Chief! A point of order. May I? Is it going to be a problem that there’s an
embankment and railroad tracks over there?
Chief: Yes, yes, I see them. Unfasten, SKIS!
Pharmacist: It may seem as if I keep criticizing, but first of all I would have ...
Teacher: I know.
Chief: Polar expedition! In the following order: Chief Karel Němec. Here! Sled puller
Richard Schwarzenegger...
Schwarzenegger: Here! (lines up behind the chief)
Chief: Pharmacist Vojtěch Šofr...
Pharmacist: Here! (lines up.)
Chief: Teaching Assistant Václav Poustka...
Teacher: Here! (lines up.)
Chief: Direction—the North Pole … Double-time, forward, MARCH!
Before the Curtain I
Teacher: Naturally, as a teacher, it was left to me to keep a diary of our polar expedition.
I’ll read you the first 37 pages:
Chapter One: The Birth of the Great Project.
Last Tuesday the pharmacist Šofr came up with the idea to conquer the North
Pole. And when he announced it at the meeting of The Hardy Fellows Association of
Podolí, everyone was excited about the idea, but no one wanted to participate in the
expedition. Primarily due to family reasons. Finally, however, three brave souls were
found: the head of the association, Karel Němec, the ice-cutter from the Branický
Brewery, Richard Schwarzenegger, and myself, the teacher Václav Poustka, all of us old
bachelors without the excuse of a family.
The date of departure was set for 9 December 1908. In the morning, we were still
doing a little training on the Vltava ice floes by the National Theater, and at 13:00 a train
was spiriting us northward from platform number 2 of František Josef Train Station.
A shadow, however, fell upon the celebratory mood of our departure. The day of
departure just also happened to be the day of the funeral of Brother Janouch, and thus
Prague bid us farewell without music, for the music that was to be played at our departure
had to be played at the funeral.
The only person to see us off was Schwarzenegger’s cousin, Arnold. This famous
Hollywood actor who terminated many a runaway robot, terminated a pig for us at home
and brought us a wonderful snack to the train station.
While we’re on the topic of Schwarzenegger, I cannot refrain from voicing one
reservation. While it is true that this member of our expedition, Richard Schwarzenegger,
can pull as much as 8 to 10 sled-dogs, I’m not sure whether his mental capacity is
sufficient for the demanding work of a polar explorer. So far he’s been acting as if we
were on an afternoon excursion to Průhonice. And since Náchod, he’s been constantly
asking when we’re going to get there and keeps saying that what he’s most looking
forward to, once we get to the land of eternal snows, is the snowball fights. Often when
I’m listening to him, I think we should have taken dogs instead.
On the way from the northernmost Siberian railway station to the shore of the
Arctic Ocean, nothing out of the ordinary happened, so I’ll just read you the names of the
Chapter 5: Celebratory crossing of the 70th parallel.
Chapter 6: Both of Schwarzenegger’s legs freeze
Chapter 7: Will we Return?
Chapter 8: The Malingerer is Taught a Lesson
Chapter 9: We Lost the Compass
Chapter 10: Wolves
Chapter 11: Wandering in the Fog
Chapter 12: A Tour of the Petersburg Hermitage
Chapter 13: Another Crossing of the 70th parallel
Chapter 14: Schwarzenegger Fakes Appendicitis
Chapter 15: A Successful Operation
Chapter 16: Schwarzenegger Fakes Post-operative Weakness
Chapter 17: Pull and Heal!
Chapter 18: Finally the Sea
Scene II
(The members of the polar expedition are standing on stage looking into the wings. The
teacher is standing reading a newspaper entitled Teachers’ Weekly, the chief is leaning
on his skis, which are bound together, the pharmacist is sitting on the sled. The group
gives the impression of riding on a city streetcar. For a long time nobody says anything.)
Schwarzenneger: Listen, Chief, are you sure about this?
Chief: Yes, it’s been proven.
(Schwarzenegger grimaces in disbelief.)
Pharmacist: What time is it?
Chief (looks at the sky): 2:20.
(Another moment of silence.)
Teacher: Listen to this. It says here that all schools in Austria must have baths... I can’t
imagine. Are they going to have showers or bathtubs?
(He shakes his head and once again immerses himself in his reading.)
Pharmacist: This is nice, just drifting along. But it’s beginning to drag on a bit.
Teacher: It’s some inspector Hruška who’s writing this. People have some crazy ideas.
Pharmacist: But why not? Hygiene is important in schools too.
Teacher: Wait a minute! I must be blind! Math! Every school has to have math! I read
it as bath. So that’s why. Math. Of course. He didn’t even have to say that. Everyone
knows that.
Schwarzenegger: Look, I still don’t believe it. If we were moving, we’d be bouncing or
rattling around. Or we’d feel the wind as we cut through the air. And the countryside
would be rushing by. Don’t tell me we’re moving!
Chief: That Richard is like a 7-year-old child. (to the teacher) Václav please, maybe you
can explain it to him since you’re a teacher’s assistant.
Teacher: Chief, I don’t think that here in the north we have to address each other by our
full titles. It would be enough just to call me teacher.
Chief: Fine. Now explain things to Richard.
Teacher: Dick! This entire glacier that we’re standing on is moving northward under the
influence of the sea current. In specialized terminology, this is called “drifting.” We
didn’t make it up. It’s described in the literature. That’s why nothing’s bouncing or
rattling and the countryside isn’t rushing by. Everything here—the pharmacist, the
luggage, the snow, the ice... everything is drifting northward.
Schwarzenegger: And me?
Teacher: You’re drifting too.
Schwarzenegger: So, according to you, I’m standing here, not doing a thing, and
drifting, right?
Teacher: Right.
Schwarzenegger: I’ve never done anything like that in my whole life, and no one’s going
to make me do it now.
Pharmacist: Václav, how much longer are we going to drift?
Chief: 10 to 12 days.
Schwarzenegger: I don’t envy you that.
Pharmacist: Yeah, this is starting to drag on. Friends, I’m not sure what’s wrong with
me, but I think I’d like to turn around and drift back. Homeward! To Prague! To the
pharmacy! To Podolí! … To hell, I’m sad!
Teacher (rejoicing): And here it is! Melancholia! (Goes to the sled and starts
rummaging around.)
Chief: See, if we had a ball, we could toss it around and cheer up right away.
Teacher: There’s nothing left to do, Chief, but for me to sing the song I composed in the
train for such occasions. Listen carefully, everyone, so you can learn the words and sing
Sings to the accompaniment of the guitar:
The Polar night
Has a special might
The sadness attacks one and all,
Christian and Muslim,
British and German,
The sadness, it makes one bawl.
Even those crafty Japanese
Are at their end and ill at ease.
Only one nation will not succumb,
The horrors of the north overcome.
There, where wolves die in packs,
There, where wolves die in packs,
And caribou breathe their last,
The Czech, he will adapt.
The Czech, he will adapt.
Okay, that’s it. Now let’s learn it. Repeat after me children … I mean, repeat after me,
friends: The polar night, has a special might …
Schwarzenegger: Hey Vašek, put something else on.
Teacher: But why? This is for the melancholia we’re experiencing.
Schwarzenegger: Give me a break. I don’t have any melancholia. Why don’t you put on
“Do you want to Know the Song of the North?” That’s a nice one. Or how about this
one, it’s nice, too, “When the Salmon Swims Upstream.”
Teacher: I’m sorry, but whoever doesn’t want to sing, doesn’t have to. But the rest of us
will sing it gladly. Okay, here are the words: The polar night.
Pharmacist and Chief: The polar night…
Teacher: Has a special might...
Pharmacist and Chief: Has a special might...
Teacher: The sadness attacks one and all…
Pharmacist and Chief: The sadness attacks one and all…
Teacher: Christian and Muslim...
Chief: Hey, Vašek, I wasn’t feeling bad at all, but after that song of yours I’m starting to
feel ill.
Pharmacist: Me too. I feel really bad, and I’ve got these gloomy thoughts. I keep
imagining that I’m going to the pharmacist Bouček’s to play chess just like every
Wednesday. I ring the bell, and his landlady answers the door. I ask if Mr. Bouček is
home, and she shakes her head like this and says, “No, he’s not.” So I say I’m going to
walk around in the park a little, and maybe he’ll come back in the meantime. I come
back in about a half hour, ring the bell again, and the landlady says he hasn’t returned yet.
So tell me, is that normal? He knows I come to play chess every Wednesday. He lets me
walk all the way from Podolí to Smíchov. In the rain, no less! I forgot to mention that.
And he’s not home. If he’d left a message at least!
Schwarzenegger: He got caught up chatting somewhere, huh.
Chief: Bouček’s not home! (waves his hand in contempt) I wouldn’t wish my gloomy
thoughts on you any day.
Teacher (softly singing): Only one nation will not succumb…
Chief: Would you kindly knock that off. This is serious. I was elected head of the
association 9 times in a row. And now, right after the New Year we have a general
meeting as usual. I’m present, nominated, but not elected. Not one of you raised your
hand for me.
Teacher: But Karel, those are just gloomy thoughts. We still haven’t had the 10th
general meeting. How could we have voted for you?
Chief: I’ll never forget. You all stared at the ground so you wouldn’t have to look me in
the eye. And I led you all the way past the Arctic Circle! That’s what I get for all my
troubles! Polar expedition! Pack up! We’re going home.
Schwarzenegger: At first I thought you were speaking off the topic, Chief, but that’s a
good idea!
(The chief, pharmacist, and Schwarzenegger begin preparing for the return trip. The
teacher grabs a rucksack off the sled and exits.)
Pharmacist: Homeward! To Prague! To Podolí! To the pharmacy! To ...
Chief: That’s enough Vojtěch! We’ve heard it already. Former polar expedition! In the
following order: Karel Němec. Here! Pharmacist Vojtěch Šofr...