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Langer, František

(1888–1965), dramatist, author, and essayist. František Langer was one of the most significant and internationally famous Czech dramatists of the twentieth century. He studied at the medical faculty of Charles University, specializing in psychiatry, and was awarded a doctorate in 1914. While a student, he was active in a group of anarchist writers, and in 1911 was a cofounder (with Jaroslav Hašek) of the Skupina Výtvarných Umělců (Artists’ Group [i.e., Club]), which became the political party Strana Mírného Pokroku v Mezích Zákona (Party of Moderate Progress within the Confines of the Law; SMPVMZ).

Langer was a volunteer medic in the First Balkan War, was posted to Bucovina in 1914, and was captured at the Russian front in 1916. In 1917, he joined the Czechoslovak Legion, becoming chief physician of the first regiment, with whom he went to Siberia and returned to Prague in February 1920. Employed as medical superintendent of the Prague garrison hospital, he was promoted to the rank of colonel in 1931.

Langer immigrated to France in July 1939 and worked as head of the health service of the Czechoslovak army abroad, continuing in this capacity after its evacuation to Britain in 1940. Upon his return to Prague in June 1945, he was given the rank of general. From 1946 to 1948, he headed the army medical corps, retiring in 1949 and withdrawing from public life.

Langer had entered the literary scene in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1930, he was appointed literary adviser—and, in 1935, artistic adviser—of the municipal theater in the Královske Vinohrady area of Prague. He also served for many years as chair of the Czechoslovak PEN club. In 1947, he was named a national artist for his literary work.

Langer’s plays explore conflicts within the individual psyche. Among his main concerns are the search for justice; the questions of crime, punishment, and guilt; and the tension between good and evil. In Svatý Václav (St. Wenceslas; 1912), he explores the issue of justified violence. The social drama Miliony (Millions; 1914) explores how wealth destroys an individual’s humanity. Langer achieved fame and popularity with Periferie (Periphery; 1925), a play that sets the motifs of murder and conscience against a realistically rendered background of suburban life. Langer’s interest in the lives of people on the fringes of society is another core motif. Andělé mezi námi (Angels among Us; 1931) concerns human compassion around the issue of euthanasia.

Langer received the state prize for Jízdní hlídka (Patrol; 1935), in which he drew on his experience in the Czechoslovak Legion to examine the relationship of the individual to the group; the play exalts common human values over ideological principles. Guilt and punishment are the subjects of Dvaasedmdesátka (The Seventy-Two; 1937), which reconstructs a crime using the technique of a play within a play. Noc (Night; 1922) is a lyrically dramatic celebration of love and its ability to rejuvenate people. Langer’s comedies explore a wide range of themes, occasionally drawing on folk humor and sometimes employing satire.

Langer’s prose is distinguished by its focus on conflict and an economy of composition. His collection of short stories Zlatá Venuše (Golden Venus; 1910), which employs a stylized form of secessionist eroticism to celebrate the most diverse forms of love, was awarded the prize of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences. His subsequent collections are characterized by the shared idea that a single exceptional moment in a life determines one’s subsequent fate. The stories constitute a counterpart in prose to his dramas and comedies; his books are titled Snílci a vrahové (Dreamers and Murderers; 1921); Předměstské povídky (Suburban Stories; 1926); and Kratší a delší (The Shorter and the Longer; 1927).

Langer’s account of the meeting between children of a village near the town of Kladno and the Gestapo, Děti a dýka (The Children and the Dagger; 1946), first appeared in London in 1943. His postwar efforts produced the thematically linked anthologies Filatelistické povídky (Stories of Philately; 1964) and the posthumously issued Malířské povídky (Stories of Painting; 1966). Jewish themes are most obvious in Langer’s later works: Pražské legendy (Prague Legends; 1956) and above all in his memoir of Czech cultural life between the wars, Byli a bylo (They Were and It Was; 1963), which includes a touching portrait of his brother, the writer Jiří (Mordechai Georgo) Langer.

Suggested Reading

Avigdor Dagan, “The Jewish Identity of František Langer,” Review of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews 2 (1988–1989): 25–32; Avigdor Dagan, “The Czech-German-Jewish Symbiosis of Prague: The Langer Brothers,” Cross Currents 10 (1991): 181–194; Oskar Donath, Židé a židovství v české literatuře 19. století, vol. 2, pp. 260–270 (Brno, Czech., 1930); Vladimír Just, “František Langer: Prozaik, dramatik—svědek,” in Českožidovští spisovatelé v literatuře 20. století, ed. Leo Pavlát, pp. 57–69 (Prague, 2000); Edmund Konrád, Národní umělec František Langer (Prague, 1949); Alexej Mikulášek, Viera Glosíková, and Antonín B. Schulz, Literatura s hvězdou Davidovou, vol. 1, pp. 216–220 (Prague, 1998).



Translated from Czech by Martin Ward