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Jiří Mahen

(12th December 1882 Čáslav 22nd May 1939 Brno)

A poet, prose-writer, playwright and dramaturge, journalist, publisher and librarian, significant organizer of cultural life in Brno in the period between the two world wars.

Jiří Mahen, whose real name was Antonín Vančura, was born in traditional protestant and writing family as a third of thirteen children. His father was an owner of a small bakery in the town of Čáslav. According to the family tradition Vančura family were the descendants of the old yeoman Vančura family from Řehnice.

Jiří Mahen attended a primary school at his birthplace and entered Prima class of a local grammar school in 1893. At that time it was seven years since his mother had passed away and his father was married for the second time. In 1894 fathers bakery business came to the bankruptcy.

His father was vainly searching for an appropriate job in Čáslav and its neighbourhood and finally accepted the offer from a parson of fraternal church Eugen Schmidt from Dubá at Česká Lípa and money as a colporteur of devotional literature and a parson’s helper. In 1895 the family moved to Dubá. But the grammar school pupil Mahen stayed in Čáslav. He stayed there at his relatives’ place and was visiting Dubá only on holidays. He spent the whole school year in Dubá as a pupil of a German town school after finishing the fourth year of the grammar school. He attended Kvinta and Sexta class in Čáslav and Septima and Octava class in Mladá Boleslav where he also graduated in 1902. His first literature attempts fall into his grammar school years.

In the following five years Mahen studied Czech and German languages at Prague Faculty of Arts. He joined a group of people around Neumann’s magazine “Nový kult” along with his contemporary Těsnohlídek who was born in Čáslav, and Gellner who he was going to school with in Boleslav. He cooperated with other magazines focused on anarchy and socialism – “Nový život” or, at that time newly established magazine, “Práce”. In “Nový klut” he published for the first time under the pen-name Mahen, inspired by a novel by Zola. In his later novel “Kamarádi svobody” (1907), he was dealing with the poverty and the spiritual atmosphere of his student life. In 1905 he also debuted in the field which later became the basis for his literary work – as an author of an one-act play ”Juanův konec”. One year later he published his first feature-length play “Prorok” in the magazine “Květy”.

Mahen’s departure to Moravia was a decisive step in his life. After his studies, which he left right before the final examinations, he worked as a substitute teacher at a grammar school in Hodnonín and two following years at a Bussiness Academy in Přerov. He felt in love with the Moravia’s neighbourhood.

His effort to become as close to people of Moravia as possible led him to a holiday stay at a protestant school in Javorník at Velká in 1909. Here he wrote his most successful play “Jánošík” which was inspired by a cycle “Zbojníci” written by his friend Miloš Jiránek. The first night of the play took place in the National Theatre with Eduard Vojan, in the star part.

He was writing poems since his academic years. His early production dates back to the period of anarchism and was connected with the feeling of life and the attitude towards the life of the generation of 19th and 20th centuries (“Plamínky”, “Balady”, “Duha”, “Tiché srdce”). He tried to write prose at the same time. In 1907 he published impressionistic short stories about romantic dreamers and social outcasts, about their sentimental dreams, disappointments, and failures.

Mahen was enchanted by South Moravia but he did not find any satisfaction in teaching. That is why he did not hesitated and accepted the job of an editor of Brno’s Lidové noviny offered to him by editor-in-chief Arnošt Heinrich. In 1910 Mahen came to Brno and signed it up for life. In the editor’s office of Lidové noviny he met his friends from school – Gellner and Těsnohlídek. In 1919 he came to Svoboda’s redaction where he led a foreign section for two years.

The work in the office did not stand in the way of his literal production. František Halas found a hundred of different smaller pieces of prose collected in the book Díže (1911) as the most excellent impressionistic book in our literature. Young literary generation saw an adumbration of their program of poetism in Měsíc (1921), a collection of fantastic forms. The range of topics of Mahen’s work was getting bigger. In 1914 he published “Její pohádky” for children (in the second edition in 1922 the book got a new title “Co mi liška vyprávěla”). Mahen introduces himself as a trenchant epigrammatist in the book “Kozí bobky z Parnasu”. In the novel “Nejlepší dobrodružství” (1929), he captured poetic atmosphere of Brno developing from the “suburb of Wien” into a Czech city.

He put emotional pictures of nature and his experiences from fishing in the book “Rybářské knížky” (1921), which has reminded his most popular prosaic piece of work until today. As a fisherman, Mahen was also active both organizationally and theoretically. He was in the lead of the first Czech angler's club in Brno and he published ichthyologic articles.

Publicism was Mahen’s second sphere of his prosaic production. It included different genre types from fiction to essays which were dedicated to the theatre life (“Před oponou”, 1920, “Režisérův zápisník”, 1923), to contemporary writers (“Kapitola o předválečné genereci“, 1934), and also to general social and philosophical problems (“Kniha o čekém charakteru“, 1924). Mahen wrote poetry only occasionally after the war. His amazement with Yugoslavia resulted in collections of poems “Scirocco“ (1923) and “Rozloučení s jihem” (1934). On the other hand, his drama production was evolving greatly. He achieved success was big with “Mrtvé moře“ (1918), a historical drama about a conflict between the conscience and power. In “Ulička odvahy“ (1917), an anecdote story about young people he tried to find a relief from the war sufferings. Three plays with strong antimilitary and socially critical aspect followed – “Nebe, peklo, ráj“ (1919), “Desertér“ (1923), and “Generace“ (1921). Elements of poetism got into Mahen’s drama in the half of the 1920s as it is proved in six “scenarios” “Husa na provázku” (1925). Even the book of fantasy tales motivated by well-known oriental stories “Nasreddin” or “Nedokonalá pomsta” (1930) was stigmatized by the poetism. In comedies “Praha-Brno-Bratislava” (1927) and “Rodina” (1934), Mahen made use of current topics. He finished his drama production with the play “Mezi dvěma bouřkami” in 1938.

Mahen’s prose writing was only a part of his broad and various cultural activities which stimulatingly affected different spheres of the interwar cultural life in Moravia. Between 1918 and 1922, as a dramaturge of the National Theatre in Brno, he laid the foundations of the artistic tradition of the theatre in Brno and supported important plays and stage experiments and introduces good-class repertoire in the cycle of so-called chamber-plays. Between 1920 and 1924 he was teaching a class of dramaturgy, direction, and study of world’s drama in, at that time newly established, department. In the 1930s he organized a Playwright Association in Brno. Also a foundation of a magazine, of “a leaflet of cultural information“ Index in 1929 is connected with his name.

Mahen contributed to the rise of cultural life in Brno but he took the biggest credit for building the Municipal Library of the city of Brno where he was appointed a librarian on the basis of a competition on 29th November 1929.

Mahen took his work in the library seriously. He had a clear vision, which he was going to give the same effort and honesty as he had given to all of his other activities. He wanted the library to become a dynamic cultural institution which would lead readers to the developing of their own creative energy and further education.

As he wanted to give librariabs a proposal of how to organize libraries and give the readers some instructions how to educate themselves, he published a book “Knížka o čtení praktickém“ (1924) whose fourth version was published before the end of the year. He introduced his ideas of further development of librarianship in the publication “Nutnosti a možnosti veřejných knihoven” (1925).

The results of the public inquiry he organized among the librarians came up under the title “Knihovna jako instituce národní“ in 1928. He was also dealing with problems of readers in newspaper and magazines. He used satirical form in twenty “library fairytales”, published from 1926 to 1927 under the “Zelená maska” pen-name in the magazine “Rozpravy Aventina”.

Unkind social conditions of public municipal libraries led Mahen to establish Association of public municipal librarians in 1927. However, Mahen was not only a plan deviser and organizer. Solving practical problems regarding running of the library and small librarian work belonged to his daily work. There are hundreds of catalogue cards where he recorded many details and interesting things as he was attentive. Mahen’s activity was a breakthrough, especially in the field of topical cataloguing in which he anticipated, to a certain extent, principals of today’s electronic “proration”.

Mahen was in the centre of cultural activities for twenty nine years he spent in our city and gave it a number of impulses. His love for Brno was based both on his knowledge of history and current problems of the city and by the effort to detect its face in cultural and structural uncertainty.

As time went on Mahen changed his accommodation in Brno several times. After his wedding in 1919 he shortly lived at 13 Česká Street in the lodgings of a bookseller Novotný, and then he lived at 14 Bednářská (today’s Jugoslávská) Street for ten years. In 1931 he and his wife moved into a larger flat of the District Health Insurance Company at 6 Zahradníkova Street and after another four years they moved in a house with garden at 8 Gomperzova (today’s Mahenova) Street. There he lived happily near the nature which he loved until the he got mentally ill and died in the spring of 1939.

Demonstrative attendance at Mahen’s funeral proved people’s respect for him. Even later, Brno has not forgotten “its” Mahen. A municipal library of Brno and also one of the buildings of the National Theatre carry his name today. The name of “Husa na provázku” theatre was inspired by his book of experimental texts. In Mahen Street, in a villa which was his last home, a memorial with a well preserved study room, and exposition of the writer’s life and work together with a room for literary programmes, has been opened since 1992 (following the last will of Mrs Karla Mahen). In 1993 the Company of Jiří Mahen was established with the aim of supporting cultural life and developing Mahen’s traditions in the field of literature, theatre, library and care about the environment.

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