“The Insect Comedy”

Jan Hus Playhouse

351 East 74th Street

New York, New York

May 8-10, 1960

The Jan Hus Playhouse is located on the upper East Side of Manhattan, part of the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church. The theater is a 150-seat space described as a ballroom with a stage at one end. In the 1960s, the venue not only hosted Czech- and Slovak-themed plays, but weddings and parties.

Jan Hus church

The Insect Comedy was satirical play by Josef Capek and Karel Capek whose plot was described by the theater bookseller Samuel French like this:

“A wanderer who is something of a philosopher falls asleep after drinking in a forest. In his dream he observes the comedy and tragedy in the lives of the insects, whose problems and affairs are like those of humankind. The butterflies make violent love. The beetles hoard money and live selfishly. The ichneumon flies murder crickets and stuff their larders with food, and parasites greedily devour what others work to save. Finally the red and yellow ants wage war to see which shall have the right to travel a particular sunlit path between two blades of grass.”
Photo by Barry Dennen

Barbra was cast in mutiple roles: Apatura Clythia (one of two butterflies in Act One); the messanger in Act Three; and the second moth in the Epilogue.

Barbra's friend at the time, Barry Dennen, said the production of the play was “threadbare” — it was being mounted by a group called “The Actor's Co-op,” half of whom were Czech-speaking. Its director was named Vasek Simek.

In his 1997 book, My Life with Barbra: A Love Story, Dennen recalled that “you didn't have to be a genius to figure out that The Insect Comedy wasn't very good and probably wasn't going to get much better ... Throughout the whole hideous adventure Barbara and I clung closer and closer to each other, worked on our own scenes, and just tried to get through it.”

Dennen wrote that he joined the cast after two weeks of rehearsal had already occured. "The first time I saw Barbara Streisand, she was madly running around an empty theater stage, desperately and ditzily flapping a pair of cloth butterfly wings stuck to her shoulders."

During the rehearsals of this show, Barbra's friend, Terry Leong — a young costume designer and illustrator — created Barbra's costumes. The sketch below is of Barbra's butterfly costume in printed silk—a paisley wing-sleeved top.

Sketch by Terry Leong

Below are two more costume sketches by Leong for The Insect Comedy. Left is another butterfly costume in china silk with a multi-color printed silk skirt; Right is Barbra's moth costume in layers of grey chiffon, with a Japanese kimono sleeve top.

Leong costume sketches

“The Insect Comedy” played only a handful of performances at the Jan Hus Playhouse in May of 1960. Only New York World Telegram and Sun critic Frank Aston reviewed the show, stating, “no one in it claimed to be anything like a pro.” He also mentioned Barbra in the review, clarifying that she was one of the creatures in “Butterflyland, where the girls assail men but get nowhere because everyone dies too soon.”

(Below: A page from the Capek script for “The World We Live In [The Insect Comedy].” Streisand played Clythia and other roles at the Jan Hus.)

pages from the script of INSECT COMEDY


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