Jiří Voskovec (George Voskovec) and Jan Werich, the genius playwrights, comedians, and performers of intellectual humor, are inseparable and unforgettable in the minds of the Czech people. Albeit the duo only performed together for 13 years in their homeland of Czechoslovakia, their legacy carries on to this day through films, dramas, television, and literary work. Their bond is so exceptional that they are forever known as V+W in Czech culture.
Voskovec and Werich were born in the same year - 1905. Werich’s parents soon divorced, and he lived with his mother while his father served at the front in WWI. On being an only child, Werich reflected, “It was horrible. I never had anyone to play with, no one to tussle with.” Voskovec, the third and youngest child of his parents, was born into a family with extended roots in the arts. His father served in the Czechoslovak legion in Russia in WWI. When they were eleven years old, Voskovec and Werich began attending school together in the same classroom, where they formed a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
The friends formed a duo in 1926. Voskovec had just returned from his studies in France, while Werich had been attending law school in Prague. The pair began working with the avant-garde Liberated Theater (1926–1938), where they performed their own play, the Vest Pocket Revue. It was a huge hit! The show drew inspiration from Charlie Chaplin and Dadaism, focusing on the absurd, and they performed as clowns, relying on improvisation. Jazz composer Jaroslav Ježek, whose popularity became immense in the inter-war period, also joined the theater and composed for the duo, a collaboration that lasted for ten years until his premature death. They produced 300 songs and numerous plays, filled with jazz, highbrow comedy, and political satires of contemporary political and societal problems, all while poking fun of the bourgeois. Czechoslovakia was at the peak of its cultural and intellectual revolution.
While WWII devastated Europe, Voskovec and Werich worked hard in America. After arriving with only $100 each in their pocket, they played for Czech compatriots in Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago and worked for BBC and Voice of America. They sent messages of hope back home. In 1941, they moved to NY. With their improved English, they performed in the 1943 Broadway production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, up to four plays a day on Broadway! Voskovec, who divorced his first wife, married for a second time to an American Broadway stage actress, with whom he would have two daughters, and was happy in his new life. However, Werich, who married a Czech theater costume designer back in 1929 and had one daughter with her, missed Prague and his mother. He returned to Czechoslovakia as soon as the war was over in 1945. Voskovec reunited with him in Prague in September 1946.
Beginning in 1932, the now famous pair’s work turned increasingly anti-fascist, albeit their primary goal was to evoke laughter. Their parodies highlighted stupidity and totalitarianism. They produced an enormous amount of material and were also featured in four films together, including Pudr a Benzín (Powder and Gasoline, 1931) and Svět patří nám (The World Is Ours, 1937). After the Munich agreement of 1938, the political situation became tense, leading to the closure of the Liberated Theater of V+W on November 11 due to the pair’s anti-fascist ideology. After receiving an anonymous tip urging them to flee, Voskovec and Werich fled to the United States in January 1939. They were joined by their friend Jaroslav Ježek.
Upon his return to the United States in 1950, Voskovec was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and detained at Ellis Island for eleven months. In his detainment, he looked out on the Statue of Liberty and vowed to never visit it. He became a US citizen in 1955 and a successful actor. Over a span of twenty-five years, he was popular on Broadway, playing in Hamlet next to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and won an Obie award for his title role in Uncle Vanya. His most famous American movie role, alongside Henry Fonda, was as the 11th juror in 12 Angry Men (1957), a role that allowed his immigrant character to show appreciation for democratic rights and freedoms. Other films included Butterfield 8 and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Throughout his career, Voskovec performed in 72 films. Voskovec was also a presence during the "Golden Age of Television" during the 1950s as well as in 1960s. Widowed from his second wife, Voskovec married for the third time, an actress he met in Paris years before. Despite his new life, he proudly said, "I am a born and bred Czech.”
The duo once again opened the V+W theater in the re-established democratic Czechoslovakia. However, freedom didn’t last long. This time, the communists sought power. The duo had a hard time coming up with new material for their plays as political satire fell out of favor once again. After the communist coup of 1948, Voskovec left his homeland for good and headed for Paris, where he founded the American Theater of Paris. Werich stayed in communist Czechoslovakia and had a brilliant career in film and theater, managing the V+W Theater under the new name of ABC Theater. He starred in hits such as Císařův pekař (The Caesar’s Baker, 1951) and Byl jednou jeden král (There was Once a King, 1954). He was even supposed to star in a James Bond movie as villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld; however, he wasn’t menacing enough as the producer and director thought Werich reminded them of ‘a poor, benevolent Santa Claus.’ Still, in Czechoslovakia, Werich was officially recognized in 1963 as a National Artist.
Albeit it was difficult for Werich to travel out of Czechoslovakia often, Werich and Voskovec remained great friends, writing each other smuggled letters extensively across the Iron Curtain. They met several times in Vienna in the mid-60s and lastly in 1974. In regards to the political situation, Werich once said, “The audience would like me to get on stage and say what they are afraid to think. But I do not want to be their hero... After death, I don’t want to be on stamps so they lick me from the back.” Still, Werich did fall out of favor with the totalitarian regime. During the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization in communist Czechoslovakia that began in January 1968, Werich, along with other artists and intellectuals, signed the 2,000 Words manifesto, which was seen as a call for democratization. The Soviets invaded the country in August and a period of normalization followed. Thereafter, Werich wasn’t allowed to appear on television or speak in public. He reflected, “I am a national artist, but they won’t let me pursue national art.”