The Insect Play

Karel and Josef Čapek The Insect PlayWritten in 1921 by the Karel and Josef Čapek, The Insect Play (Ze života hmyzu) Is a masterful fantastic farce in which an inebriated drifter, disgusted with humanity, wanders into the forest, and observes the lives of the insects around him. He looks upon, and occasionally interacts with, militaristic ants, philosophizing moths, slick parasites, and obsessed beetles. If this sounds a tad familiar, it should be no surprise then to find that the play was in fact the inspiration for Viktor Pelevin’s The Life Of Insects.

Indeed the insects in Čapek’s play exhibit the same combination of human and invertebrate, sometimes acting as one of the other, but more often a delightfully satiric combination of the two. And like Pelevin’s short stories, The Insect Play (also known as The World We Live In) doesn’t just point at laugh at insects any more than it points and laughs at humanity. In combining the two, The Insect Play is really concerned about the greater questions of how to live in this world,  once life is given to us. A lovely summary of the play and its history is found here.

1922 performance of The Insect Play

The play is apparently well known by costume designers, as it is often a joy to sink creative teeth into inspired combinations of insects and humans, some almost entirely entomological:

Larva Costume from Czech Theatrical Archives

To the more human, with hints of their insectile nature:

The Insect Play

Catalina Foothills High School production of The Insect Play

Though the play is concerned chiefly with familiar allegorical insects such as butterflies, dung beetles, crickets, ants, and moths, there is one notable exception. Possibly the only parasitic wasp to have a starring role in a theatrical play, an enterprising Ichneumon Wasp (described as an “ichneumon fly” in the play) gleefully hunts and kills crickets for his bored and whiny larvae.

Last Sunday I attended an inspired reading of the play at Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, part of their forgotten works series. Even though I was already a fan of many of the actors in the ensemble, the entire cast was superbly energized.  The enjoyment and humor they brought to their roles was aided by the translation of the play the director Bennet Fisher had unearthed, which dispenses with the annoying singsong rhyme that is more popular.  Instead of sounding like an old Merrie Melodies cartoon, the dialogue is witty, hilarious, and relevant. I certainly hope that this reading metamorphoses into a full production, wings and all!

Coincidentally, a 1960 BBC television production of The Insect Play was recently rebroadcast at the same time last week-

Scene from The Insect Play, 1960

Scene from unloved 1960 BBC production of The Insect Play

Sadly, this version was as unloved today as it was then. I do hope to see it via the BFI National Archive, if only to hear the work by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, in which “each insect type is accorded its own electronic leitmotif”!

In any case, I am pleased as pupae to add a “theater” category to my endless swarm blog. Soon this play will be joined by another verminous event: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which opened in Berkeley’s Aurora Theater this month! Hooray for bugs on stage!

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