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volume 27, no.

1
Winter 2007
SEEP (ISSN # 1047-0019) is a publication of the Institute for Contemporary
East European Drama and Theatre under the auspices of the Martin E. Segal
Theatre Center. The Institute is at The City University of New York
Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016-4309. All
subscription requests and submissions should be addressed to Slavic and East
European Performance: Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The City University of
New York Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016-4309.
EDITOR
Daniel Gerould
MANAGING EDITOR
Margaret Araneo
EDITORIAL ASSISTANT CIRCULATION MANAGER
Cady Smith George Panaghi
Marvin Carlson
Stuart Liebman
ADVISORY BOARD
Edwin Wilson, Chair
Allen ]. Kuharski
Leo Hecht
Dasha Krijanskaia
Martha W Coigney
Laurence Senelick
SEEP has a liberal reprinting policy. Publications that desi re to reproduce
materials that have appeared in SEEP may do so with the following
provisions: a.) permission to reprint the article must be requested from
SEEP in writing before the fact; b.) credit to SEEP must be given in the
reprint; c.) rwo copies of the publication in which the reprinted material
has appeared must be furnished to SEEP immediately upon publication.
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Daniel Gerould
DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS
Frank Hentschker
DIRECTOR OF ADMINISTRATION
Jan Stenzel
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center publications are supported by generous grants
from the Lucille Lortel Chair in Theatre and the Sidney E. Cohn Chair in
Theatre of the Ph.D. Program in Theatre at The City University of New York
Copyright 2007. Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
2 Slavic and East European Performance VoL 27, No. 1
Editorial Policy
From the Editor
Events
Books Received
ARTICLES
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Mikhail Butkevich's Theatre of Players:
Theatre and the Art of the Game"
Maxim Krivosheyev
"Toward a Theatre of Players"
Mikhail Butkevich
"The Grotowski Centre in Wrodaw:
Performances at the Headquarters of Paratheatre!?"
Seth Baumrim
PAGES FROM THE PAST
"Before Stoppard: Merezhkovsky's Bakunin Play"
Laurence Senelick
REVIEWS
"The Varna Summer Festival 2006"
Dasha Krij anskaia
5
6
7
16
17
24
31
41
55
3
"Milena MarkoviC's Tracks: Mtg God Look Upon Us
at The Utopian Theatre Asylum" 60
Cheryl Black
"Belarus Theatre Is Free (When It's Not in Belarus):
A Night of Free Theater, Culture Project's IMPACT Festival2006" 69
Evelina Mendelevich"
"Lyubimov's Souj(f)le:
Life and Death at the Taganka" 76
Nicholas Rzhevsky
"Rimas Tuminas's Three Sisters in Moscow" 82
Maria Ignatieva
"Two New York Productions of Uncle Vcurya:
Should They Laugh in the Fourth Act?" 90
Olga Muratova
"The Gospels of Childhood at Brzezinka" 97
Marvin Carlson
Contributors 100
4
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
EDITORIAL POLICY
Manuscripts in the following categories are solicited: articles of no
more than 2,500 words, performance and fum reviews, and bibliographies.
Please bear in mind that all submissions must concern themselves with
contemporary materials on Slavic and East European theatre, drama, and
film; with new approaches to older materials in recently published works; or
with new performances of older plays. In other words, we welcome
submissions reviewing innovative performances of Gogo!, but we cannot
use original articles discussing Gogo! as a playwright.
Although we welcome translations of articles and reviews from
foreign publications, we do require copyright release statements. We will also
gladly publish announcements of special events and anything else that may
be of interest to our discipline. All submissions are refereed.
All submissions must be typed double-spaced and carefully
proofread. The Chicago Manual of Style should be followed. Transliterations
should follow the Library of Congress system. Articles should be submitted
on computer disk, as Word Documents for Windows and a hard copy of the
article should be included. Photographs are recommended for all reviews.
All articles should be sent to the attention of Slavic and East European
Peiformance, c/o Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The City University of New
York Graduate Center, 365 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10016-4309.
Submissions will be evaluated, and authors will be notified after
approximately four weeks.
You may obtain more information about Slavic and East European
Performance by visiting our website at http/ /web.gc.cuny.edu/metsc. E-mail
inquiries may be addressed to SEEP@gc.cuny.edu.
All Journals are available from ProQuest Information and Learning as
abstracts online via ProQuest information service and the
International Index to the Performing Arts.
All Journals are indexed in the MLA International Bibliography and are
members of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals.
5
FROM THE EDITOR
Volume 27, No. 1 of SEEP is a full issue starting with articles dealing
with two of the major twentieth-century theorists of directing and acting.
Maxim Krivosheyev writes about Mikhail Butkevich, legendary teacher at
Moscow's GITIS (Russian Academy of Theatre Arts), and provides an excerpt
from his master work, K igrovomu teatru: liricheskii traktat (Toward a Theatre of
Players: A Lyrical Tractate). Seth Baumrin tells about his visits to the
Grotowski Centre that has now evolved into an Institute fostering the
Grotowski legacy through various programs and performances. Under our
rubric PAGES FROM THE PAST, Laurence Senelick explores a litde known
episode in Russian theatre history, revealing that Dmitri Merezhkovsky in his
play The Romantics made the anarchist Bakunin a hero a century before The
Coast of Utopia. The rest of the issue consists of a series of reviews. Dasha
Krijanskaia discusses the Summer Festival 2006 in Varna, Bulgaria; Cheryl
Black analyzes a play about the Balkan war by Serbian playwright MiJena
Markovic given by The Utopian Theatre Asylum in Washington; Evelina
Mendelevich visits a performance by the Free Belarus Theater in New York;
Nicholas Rzhevsky explores a recent postmodern production by Yury
Lyubimov at his Taganka Theatre in Moscow; Maria Ignatieva considers Rimas
Tuminas's Moscow production of Three Sisters; Olga Muratova contrasts two
Uncle Vcuryas in New York and measures them against a fum; and Marvin
Carlson takes a look at The Gospels of Childhood (also viewed in a different
setting by Seth Baumrin), performed at the Grotowski Workcenter in
Brzezinka.
6 Slavic and E ast European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
STAGE PRODUCTIONS
New York City
EVENTS
The Play Company presented ROMANIA. Kiss Me!, featuring the
following six short plays from Romania's New Wave at 59E59 Theaters from
November 17 to December 3:
Bus by Cristian Panaite, directed by Liesl Tommy.
Red Bull by Vera Ion, directed by Marcy Arlin.
Diagnosis by Ioana Moldovan, directed by Tom Caruso.
Romania. KISS ME! by Bogdan Georgescu, directed by Kaipo
Schwab.
FUCK YOU, Eu.ro.Pa! by Nicoleta Esinencu, directed by Jackson
Gay.
Our Children by Christian Panaite, directed by Iiesl Tommy.
The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's new trilogy based on the lives of
nineteenth-century Russian writers and political thinkers and activists, opened
at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center on November 27.
The Magical Forest of Baba Yaga by Evgeny Shvarts, directed by Aleksey
Burago, translated by Stanton Wood, and with original music by Gregg Adair
and Colm Clark, was presented at Urban Stages from December 14 to
January 7.
Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre presented Once There
Was a Village, an "ethno-rock opera" chronicling four hundred years of the
East Village, written and directed by Vit Horejs, based on a book by Yuri
Kapralov, at La MaMa from January 25 to February 11.
7
Absolute Clarity by Sophia Romma, based on the play by Edvard
Radzinsky, directed by Yuri Joffee, was presented at Players Theater from
January 31 to February 25.
My Country, a new interactive installation by Andrea Dezso and Miwa
Koizumi, is being presented at the Hungarian Cultural Center from February
15 to April 13.
The Jewish Theater of New York is presenting Last Jew in Europe, a
new play by Tuvia Tenenbom about a Jewish man in love with a Christian
woman in L6dz, Poland, directed by Andreas Robertz and the playwright, at
the Triad Theater opening on March 4.
Double Edge Theatre in association with the Polish Cultural Institute
presented the New York premiere of Republic of Dreams, inspired by the life
and works of Bruno Schulz, at La MaMa from March 8 to 18.
STAGE PRODUCTIONS
U.S. Regional
Lacfybird, by Vassily Sigarev, directed by Yasen Penyakov, received its
U.S. premiere at the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles from February 16 to
March 17.
Princeton University and the Russian State Archive of Literature and
Art will present the world premiere of Vsevolod Meyerhold's censored
production of Pushkin's Boris Godunov, with original music by Prokofiev,
directed by Tim Vasen. The project, managed by Simon Morrison, will also
include an international symposium on Pushkin, Prokofiev, and Russian
theatre; an exhibition devoted to the project, opening April 1 in Princeton's
Firestone Library; and spring courses for undergraduates, graduate students,
and alumni focusing on aspects of the production. The play and symposium
will be presented at the Berlind Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, from April
12to14.
8
Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
STAGE PRODUCTIONS
International
The Festival of Central and East European Arts was held at Riverside
Studios in London, U.K., from November 10 to December 3 and included the
following performances:
Soul-etude, a site-specific installation by Petr Nikl with the music of the
Balanescu Quartet, at the Old Abattoir (site-specific building),
November 16 to 19.
The Mona Lisas by Brigitte Louveaux, in its London premiere,
presented by Romania's Ariel Theatre, produced by Theatre Melange,
November 21 and 22.
The School of Dramatic Art (Moscow) presented the U.K. premieres
of two short plays written and directed by Dmitry Krymov, Sir Vantes
Donkey Khot and Not a Fairy Tale, November 24 and 25.
Farm in the Cave Theatre (Czech Republic) presented the U.K.
premiere of SCLAVI/The Songof an Emigrant, based on field research
undertaken by the ensemble in villages of eastern Slovakia, old
Ruthenian and Ukrainian songs, letters of Slovak emigrants, and the
Capek brothers' novel Hordubal, November 29 to December 2.
The National Arts Centre (NAC) theatre presented the exclusive
North American engagement of Ivan Viripaev's O:rygene, directed by Galin
Stoev, at NAC in Ottawa, Canada, from January 31 to February 3.
The Polish Cultural Institute presented Teatr Provisorium's
production of Fert!Jdurke by Witold Gombrowicz at the Bloomsbury Theatre
in London, U.K., from February 13 to 17.
Chekhov ~ s Good-Bye to Tofstqy, by Miro Gavran, directed by
Marie-France Lahore, translated and adapted by Andrea Pucnik, will be
presented at Theatre Silvia Monfort in Paris, France, from March 7 to April29.
9
FILM
New York City
A retrospective entitled Czech Modernism: The 1920s to the 1940s
was presented at BAM from November 30 to December 10. Films screened
included:
The Kreutzer Sonata, directed by Gustav Machacy, presented with
spoken English titles and live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin,
November 30.
On the Sun'!Y Side, directed by Vladislav Vancura, December 1.
Tonka of the Gallows, directed by Karel Anton, December 3.
Such Is Life, directed by Karl Junghans, presented with spoken
English titles and live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin on
December 7.
Crisis, directed by Herbert Kline with Alexander Hackenschrnied
(a.k.a. Sasha Hamrnid), December 8.
Virgini(y, directed by Otakar Vavra, December 9.
The Distant Journry, directed by Alfred Radok, December 10.
The festival The New Wave in Romanian Cinema: Talking About a
Revolution was held at Tribeca Cinemas from December 1 to 3 and featured
the following films :
10
The Wqy I Spent the End of the World, clirected by Catalin Mirulescu,
December 2.
Marifena from Pl, directed by Cristian Nemescu, December 2.
Humanitarian Aid, directed by Hanno Hofer, December 2.
Slavic and East European Performance VoL 27, No. 1
Cigarettes and Coffee, directed by Crisci Puiu, December 2.
The Apartment, directed by Constantin Popescu, December 2.
Love Sick, directed by Tudor Giurgiu, December 2 and 3.
Liviu's Dream, directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, December 3.
C Block Story, directed by Cristian Nemescu, December 3.
Traffic, directed by Catalin Mitulescu, December 3.
A Linema's Cabin, directed by Constantin Popescu, December 3.
The Paper Will Be Blue, directed by Radu Muntean, December 3.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, directed by Crisci Puiu, December 3.
Voices of the Children was presented with a post-screening talkback
with director Zuzana Justman at Czech Center New York on December 5.
Lury Is in the BedAireac!J, directed by Jitka Rudolfova, and Bubble Bath
Is Best, directed by Jan Prusinovsky, were screened as part of the Student Films
from Prague Film Academy (FAMU) series at Czech Center New York on
January 9.
The Italian, directed by Andrei Kravchuk, written by Andrei Romanov,
received its U.S. premiere at Brooklyn Heights Cinema on January 17.
Still Living, directed by Pavel Gobi, was presented at Czech Center
New York on January 25.
The Rafters, directed by Karel Janak, was presented at Czech Center
New York on February 15.
11
Grbavica: Land of A{y Dreams, directed by Jasmila Zbanic, was screened
at the Film Forum from February 16 to 27.
The Hungarian Cultural Center presented the Bela Tarr Trilogy in
which the following ftlms were screened at BAMcinematek:
Damnation, February 23.
Sdtdntango, February 24.
Werckmeister Harmonies, February 25.
Village B, directed by Filip Remunda, and Jazz War, directed by
Vit Klus:ik, were screened together at Czech Center New York on
February 27.
Czech Center New York presented Marian, directed by Petr V:iclav, at
Bohemian National Hall on March 15.
Czech Center New York presented t he films Small Russian Clouds
of Smoke, directed by Jan Sikl, and Intruder, directed by Sarka Slez:ikov:i, as
part of the series Heritage of Communism, at Bohemian National Hall on
March 27.
The Romanian Cultural Institute in New York (RCINY) presented a
Q&A with director Corneliu Porumboiu along with a screening of his short
Liviu's Dream at RCINY on February 27.
FILM
U.S. Regional
The Way I Spent the End of the World, directed by Catalin Mitulescu,
was screened at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles on January 8.
12 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
FILM
International
The Polish Cultural Institute presented Korczak, directed by Andrzej
Wajda, at the Spiro Arc in London, U.K., on December 10.
Andrei Konchalovsky's 1979 Russian epic Siberiade was released in a
new DVD format by Kino International in January 2007.
LECTURES, CONFERENCES, and WORK5HOPS
New York City
The Hungarian Cultural Center presented Hidden Child, an evening
with Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivor and author Evi Blaikie,
interviewed by Kaci Ruh Paquette, at the Hungarian Cultural Center on
January 25.
RCINY presented the panel discussion Romania, Moving In,
moderated by Mary Ann DeVlieg, Secretary General of International
Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM), and featuring Saviana
Stanescu, playwright and artistic director of the New Drama Support
Program, and Randy Genet, Senior Editor of American Theatre magazine, at
RCINY on February 22.
An Afternoon and Evening with Double Edge Theatre, featuring the
work of Polish-Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz, a one-day film series, an
excerpt of DET's Republic of Dreams, and a symposium, was presented at the
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Graduate Center on February
26. The discussion was moderated by Daniel Gerould with panelists David
Goldfarb, Stacy Klein, Rolando Perez, Krystyna IHakowicz, and Victoria
Nelson. Excerpts from the following films were presented: Tadeusz Kantor's
The Dead Class, The Brothers Quay's Street of Crocodiles, Zbigniew Rudzinski's
Mannequins, and Wojciech Has's The Sanatorium Under the Hourglass. Video
excerpts from Complicite's Street of Crocodiles, and Hand 2 Mouth and Stacja
Szamocin's From a Dream to a Dream were also presented.
13
Columbia University presented a conference entitled A Leap from the
Temple of Culture into the Abyss: Decadence in Central and Eastern Europe,
featuring papers on Leopold Staff, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy),
Stanislaw Przybyszewski, and Polish decadent music, from March 15 to 17.
The Czech Center New York, in conjunction with the Institute for
the Research and Study of Authorial Acting and the Theatre Faculty of the
Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU), is presenting ''Acting with
the Inner Partner," a free workshop introduction to "dialogicki jedndni," one of
the Czech Republic's most significant acting training and research disciplines,
headed by its creator, Ivan Vyskocil, at Bohemian National Hall (and other
locations T.B.A.) from March 20 to April 7.
The Rhodopi International Theater Collective will offer its annual
International Theater Program on the theme of "the Epic of Gilgamesh and
its mythic, historical, and religious counterparts" in Bulgaria's Rhodopi
Mountains from July 12 to August 13. More details regarding the program can
be found at theatercollective.org.
OTHER EVENTS
Vaclav Havel won Village Voice OBIE Awards for Distinguished
Playwriting in 1968, 1970, and 1984. After years of house arrest in the former
Czechoslovakia, he was finally able to accept all three awards at an evening in
his honor entitled "Theater and Citizenship," featuring panelists Michael
Feingold, Wallace Shawn, Edward Albee, Israel Horowitz, and Anna Deavere
Smith, at the Public Theatre in New York on December 4.
The American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European
Languages' (AATSEEL) annual conference, featuring a wide variety of panels
on Russian and East Eurpean ftlm, theatre, and music, was held in Philadelphia
from December 28 to 30.
On December 21,2006, a Moscow museum dedicated to novelist and
playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was vandalized by Alexander Morozov.
Morozov, who denounced Bulgakov's work as "satanic," locked himself inside
14 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
the museum, demanded that it be shut down, and threw various objects out
the window, including several original illustrations of Bulgakov's works.
Approximately half of the museum's contents were destroyed. Morozov had
previously lead a successful protest against a local monument to Bulgakov.
Contemporary Posters, the Polish Cultural Institute, and the
Consulate General of Poland in Los Angeles are presenting the L.A.-Wide
Polish Poster Festival between February 17 and May 27. Exhibitions include:
Cyrk Posters at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, from February 17
to March 10.
Jazz Posters at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, from February 24 to
April27.
Jewish Culture Posters at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, from
February 25 to May 27.
Film, Theatre, and Opera Posters at Weidman Gallery in West
Hollywood, from March 15 to May 26.
Film Posters at Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theatre in West Hollywood, from
April21 to May 3.
Exhibition Posters at Voila! Gallery in Los Angeles, from April 26 to
May 17.
15
BOOKS RECEIVED
Jestrovic, Silvija. Theatre of Estrangement: Theory, Practice, Ideology. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 2006. 181 pages. Deals extensively with Russian
theorists and theatre artists such as Eisenstein, Evreinov, Kandinsky,
Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, Shklovsky, Stanislavsky, Tairov, Tynjanov, Xlebnik.ov.
Includes Notes, Select Bibliography, and Index.
Konarska-Pabiniak, Barbara. Teatry pr01vincjonalne w Krolestwie Pofskim
(1863- 1914). Plock: Ksi:t:i:nica Plocka, 2006. 267 pages. Includes an index of
names and a list of the many photographs and illustrations.
Kubikowski, Tomasz. Regula Nibelunga: teatr w fwietle noiJ!Ych badmi fwiadomofci.
Warsaw: Akadernia Teatralna im. Aleksandra Zelwerowicza w Warszawie,
2004. 371 pages. Includes a bibliography and many diagrams.
Ostashevsky, Eugene, ed. Oberiu. An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006. 257 pages. Includes poetry, prose,
and drama by Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and
Nikolai Oleinikov, an Editor's Introduction, Editor's Notes, and Works Cited.
Johnson, Jeff. The New Theatre of the Baftics: From Soviet to Western Influence in
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007. 222
pages. Consists of four chapters: The Crisis of Relevance; Lithuania: Catholic
Spectacle-Directors' Theatre; Estonia: The Lutheran Narrative-Writers'
Theatre; Latvia: Focus on Process-Actors' Theatre. Includes a Forward by
Daniel Gerould, a Preface, Notes, Works Cited, Index, and many photos.
Bryond the Jltfethod DVD. Discussions with three Russian directors: Herman
Sidakov, Rosa Tolskaya, and Igor Lisov, with demonstrations by student actors.
In Russian with English subtitles. Copies can be obtained through the
American Soviet Theatre Initiative at astiusa.camp7.org
16 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
MIIG-IAIL BUTKEVICH'S THEATRE OF PLAYERS:
THEATRE AND THE ART OF THE GAME
Maxim Krivosheyev
In 2003, my American friends from the Michael Chekhov Association
introduced me to Rosa Tolskaya, one of the leading Russian experts on the
Michael Chekhov technique, a director with a unique style, a student and
colleague of Mikhail Butkevich and Anatoly Vasiliev, and one of the very few
teachers of a method known as the Theatre of Players-an approach with
which, until that point, I had been completely unfamil iar. In addition to leading
international workshops on Michael Chekhov technique, Rosa has presented
elements of the Theatre of Players method in the United States, Denmark,
Germany, Italy, and Latvia.
It was one of Rosa's mentors, Mikhail Butkevich (1926-1995)-
director, legendary teacher at GITIS (Russian Academy of Theatre Arts), and
theatre philosopher-who originated the Theatre of Players method. Rosa
told me about his book K igrovomu teatru: firicheskii traktat (Toward a Theatre of
Players: A Lyrical Tractate)
1
that she thought would provide a strong basis for
an understanding of the system. The more she spoke, the more I wanted a
copy.
I discovered that I couldn't buy the book in a store. In fact, I couldn't
buy it anywhere. The number of copies of the first edition was limited. I could
only buy it by special request at the library of the Schepkin Theatre School at
the Maly Theatre-the library acting as a kind of under-the-radar distributor.
In addition, I couldn't simply ask for the book. I needed a password to even
look at it. Rosa told me I could use her name as the password. I did as
instructed, walked into the library of the Schepkin Theatre School, and told
the librarian I wanted to buy Butkevich's book. Then I gave her Rosa's name.
Without words, the librarian retreated to a storage area and after a short while
reappeared with the book in hand. I gave her the money, and she turned the
book over to me- never speaking a word. I left with a six-hundred-page text
written by a legendary Russian theatre maker. The whole series of events
replete with hard-to-find copies of limited editions, secret hiding places, and
passwords was eerily reminiscent of the Soviet era.
17
Mikhail Butkevich
The book was nicely bound and obviously quite selectively
distributed. I felt privileged to possess it. I discovered in talking to various
people that many in the Russian theatre community knew Butkevich's work.
Several used some of his discoveries and insights in their teaching but, for
some reason, rarely discussed his influence on them. My question was why?
Perhaps Butkevich's work questions many assumptions held by more
orthodox theatre practitioners and scholars who today are still quite influential
in Russian theatre. The work lends itself to rich individual expression in what
1 consider a highly sophisticated way. While I may never fully understand the
reasons for Butkevich's absence from many contemporary conversations
about Russian theatre, I felt compelled, upon discovering his work, to spread
the word about this unique and exciting method.
Mikhail Butkevich based his system on a belief in the art of
18 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
improvisation and theories of game playing. He held that improvisation is the
main ingredient of any game. Games, as many of us know, even in their
playfulness often have very strict rules. For the Theatre of Players, there is a
belief that the stricter the rules the more interesting the improvisation. For
Butkevich and his system, a play text is just a premise, a framework, within
which a "game" is played on stage. The greatest tool of the game is
improvisation. The action that develops on stage is about the connection and
interaction of the game's players. The players don't play characters within a
situation; they play with the situation. The game quality moves the
players/actors far from the actions of everyday life. What replaces the every
day is the living, present-tense action of the game itsel What begins to occur
through this onstage game playing is the players move further from the
expression of daily life, the more sincere, the more natural, the more "true"
their actions become. The game becomes its own reality through which the
players live.
Butkevich explains quite clearly in his writing the important role the
game plays within cultures and then extends that importance into the realm of
theatre. He writes:
Our world today is preoccupied with games. No joke. Simple people
live for entertainment and die to watch a game in a giant stadium.
Researchers holed up in their labs are busily developing scientific
theories for games. Some theories argue the usefulness of games (the
means through which the male attracts the female, how a child learns
to live and work, games as social outlets that release built-up tensions
of the masses, etc.). Conversely, other researchers study the
uselessness of games. It is unbelievable what theories of "the game"
have attempted to show! The game is a combination of conforming
behavior with nonconformist thinking; it is a school of social
ambiguity: it teaches pretension and manipulates the moment of
truth; it creates strict rules for the players, thereby instigating a desire
to circumvent these rules; the nature and luring power of chance and
luck within the construct of game creates an excitement and will for
victory; it is simultaneously a mystery and a known factor. The game
is breathtaking, competitive, provoking, intimidating and exciting,
improvising and calculating, ecstatic and rational.
2
19
For Butkevich, the concept of the game penetrates almost every aspect of
Western culture, particularly since the mid-twentieth century. He flnds its
presence in engineering, mathematics, sociology, education, politics. He even
laments its presence in military action. The only arena where Butkevich feels
that the game has not effectively taken hold is in the theatre. He sees this fact
as a paradox since actors, who explore the art of role-pltrying have not shown
themselves to be "interested in game approaches to their craft."
To fully understand how Butkevich integrates the game with the
theatre, it is essential to understand the complex way he defines the notion of
pltry. Pltry and the game are always working together since the game is executed
through the act of play. For Butkevich, there are three essential interpretations
of play. They run from the most "trivial," what he understands as "playing a
role," to the moderately trivial, known as "playing by the role," to the most
serious form, which is described as "playing with the role." The flrst form of
play relates to the traditional notion of role-playing performed by the actor.
Here one assumes a role or character and represents it to someone else. As
Butkevich explains, this form of role-playing represents the minimum quality
of the game. It is only in the second form of play that we lose some of the
triviality. When one no longer "plays the role" but starts to "play by the role,"
one begins to see the role itself as a "toy" to manipulate and challenge. For
Butkevich, this type of play requires the player "to twist [the role) and turn it
with its different facets, even break [it)." In this new relationship to the role,
meaning becomes "less usual and less clear, but there is much more of the
game." It is only in the fmal defmition of play that Butkevich's locates the
greatest amount of game and finds, therefore, the least amount of triviality.
Here playing involves connecting to the role as one relates to a chess partner.
There is much that is unknown. Risk is high. Everything takes place within a
framework of "victory and defeat."
The philosophy of the Theatre of Players, grounded in the idea of
the game and of play, is fascinating, but I was, from my first encounter with it,
unclear about how it would be applied in practice? Only when I saw the work
in action was I able to have a deeper understanding of it as a useful system in
the theatre.
After reading Butkevich's book, I asked Rosa Tolskaya if I could see
some of her work that employed the Theatre of Players ideas. In 2005, she
invited me to see one of the performances of her production of Edward
20
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No.3
Rosa Tolskaya
Albee's Three Tall Women at the House of the Actor Theatre on Old Arbat
Street in Moscow. The project was created using Butkevich's approach. I came
to the theatre without having read the play and, therefore, free from my own
interpretation of it. Rosa warned me that the approach might seem at first
quite confusing, but everything would eventually fall into place during the
second act.
As soon as the play began, I did not connect with the text and felt
immediately disappointed. The plot centers on the life of one woman as told
by three actresses representing the character at three different stages of her
life-in youth, middle age, and approaching death. Upon reflection, I see that
21
this structure provides a lot of opportunity for improvisation, something
which Rosa, using Butkevich's system, made full use of.
The women were positioned sitting in chairs in a semicircle. Each
held the script that was split into three different parts. When the audience
settled down, the actresses threw the pages of the script all over the stage and
then started the play. They performed the narrative for a period of time, and
then one of them stopped the action, picked up a page from the floor, and
started her next line from the top of the page. After beginning the text from
this new point in the story, she moved upstage to the backdrop and clipped the
page from the script onto it. Since the page was chosen at random and the first
line could belong to any of the three characters, the actress would, in a
moment, have to assume a completely new role. Where once she embodied the
woman at the end of her life, she could suddenly have to transform herself
and assume the version of the same woman fifty years younger. As the
performance continued, each of the actresses at various times picked up pages
from the floor until all the pages were attached to the backdrop. This ended
the first act.
The work proved to be as confusing as Rosa promised. I felt as
though I was witnessing a kind of death of the play. Everything was turned
upside down, twisted, and unbolted. Yes, it was confusing, but it was also
interesting. Extremely interesting. It was so fascinating that I completely
abandoned all my concerns about the language and everything that had
disturbed me at the start. In the second act, the actresses played their roles as
originally written, but the freedom and intensity of the first act created by the
game gave the performance a different quality, allowing the audience to
perceive the situation instantly rather than trying to get the idea of the play
through the text. In fact, the words became merely insignificant. The story was
so clear by itself.
What did this theatre event do to me as an audience member?
Despite my confusion, in the end, I allowed myself to be taken in. Something
beyond the play popped up for me and the "true" emotions of the characters
seemed to be unmasked, revealing the actresses' mastery of performance.
After my powerful experience as an audience member at Rosa's
production, l started looking for more artists in Russia who practice similar
principles. Through Rosa, I met with Igor Lisov and Herman Sidakov who
work with the concept of the theatrical game and use some elements of the
22 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No.1
Theatre of Players method in their art. Those who are familiar with the work
of Anatoly Vasiliev and his theatre may know that he also has practiced the
Theatre of Players for a long time, directing Cerceau by Victor Slavkin at the
Taganka (1985), and the Dialogues of Plato (1988), and Pirandello's Six Characters
in Search of an Author (1987) at the School of Dramatic Art using the Players
method.
As I discovered the potential of the Theatre of Players system and
the influence it has already had on Russian theatre, I knew that it needed to be
made more accessible to artists outside Russia. In 2005 and 2006, my
colleagues and I began to organize workshops with Rosa Tolskaya and
Herman Sidakov in New York City. Our project, in its early stages, was a very
modest undertaking, but we believe that a deep and valuable exchange was in
the process of being forged. Russia and the United States have had a very
particular and successful theatrical relationship, at least since the 1923 tour of
the Moscow Art Theatre to the States. The United States embraced
Stanislavsky's Method and gave it new life. It was in the United States that two
branches of the same root grew.
I believe a similar phenomenon can result from introducing
Butkevich's approach to theatre to U.S. audiences and practitioners. Partnering
with the ASTI USA Foundation, I have compiled a DVD of interviews with
leading Russian theatre artists who employ the Theatre of Players system in
hopes that interest may be sparked in the United States. The DVD will be
available for distribution in March 2007.
3
If actor training centers in the
United States, particularly at the university level, find Butkevich's approach
valuable enough, artists like Rosa Tolskaya, Igor Lisov, and Herman Sidakov
can bring their aesthetic theories and praxis here more often and offer a
broader view of the riches of Russian theatre to the West.
NOTES
I M. M. Butkevich, K igrovomu teatru: /iricheskii traktat (Moscow: GITIS, 2002). An
English translation of the book has not yet been published. All translation from the
text, including the tide, are mine.
2 Butkevich, K igrovomu teatru, 128.
3 For more information regarding obtaining the DVD, please visit: astiusa.camp7.org.
23
TOWARD A THEATRE OF PLAYERSl
Mikhail Butkevich
The Signs of the GameZ
What, exacdy, is the game? Don your thick glasses and snuggle up to
a pile of dictionaries. Let's be scientists about it for a minute.
There are many definitions of game, but none of them will work for
us due to their extreme abstraction and non-organic nature. They are
inconvenient and hard .... Conventional definitions of game have petrified it
into the corpse of the "true" game or, in the best-case scenario, a mausoleum-
ready plaster cast of a bad idea: the bright colors of life are fading, the flesh of
the game is shrinking, the pulse of the game-the drive-is getting thready.
First the definition of game limits its freedom; then the more
insistendy one attempts to corner it, the more one hunts it to death.
The entity we call the game is as multifaceted as life itself, so the task
of squeezing it into one compact formula turns out to be an extremely difficult
and complicated business. Of course, if you have the sort of mind that can be
satisfied with the definition of life as the ways and existences of endoplasmic
bodies, then we have no problem, then we could get away with defining the
game as a useless activity, which has a purpose only in itself.
I, too, have tried to come up with a universally encompassing formula
of the game. For two and a half years, I lived as an alchemist looking for the
philosophical stone, but with no result. Finally, I had a productive thought:
perhaps we don't need all of these definitions! After all, game-playing is
familiar to everyone who has ever been a child; maybe, we would be better off
spending time and effort on simply describing the distinguishing
characteristics of game-playing, selecting those key characteristics that make a
game, a game.
At the risk of sounding like an old-school empiricist, I have chosen
the tried and true descriptive method of studying game-playing. Instead of
formulating and defining the subject of study from the inside, I will try to
select six fundamental characteristics of the subject and describe it from its
externals.
24 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
The first characteristic of the game is DRIVE, i.e., the necessary
enjoyment that all participants in the game experience. This feeling is similar
to the satisfactions of a sound sleep, a good meal, or a fulfilling love. The
"drive" is rooted in the very depth of human nature. Namely, Homo Luden.f3
owes his existence to it. The game can't go on without this feeling: without the
motor of the "drive," players will simply leave the game and grow apart. "I feel
bored," a little girl whines, before throwing away her doll. "What the hell do I
need this game for?" says a young football player, spitting on the ground. "I
will see these bastards in their coffins," an old hockey fan grumbles as he
throws his beer bottle in the trash.
The second characteristic of the game is COMPETITION, i.e. ,
an opportunity to test each other's strength and dexterity, skills and talent,
inventiveness and foresight. And, of course, the indispensable urge to win. (A
game in which the rivals give in is as useless as a game with no reward.) There
are three factors that clearly indicate the possibility of real game-playing-
division into two teams, a challenge, and high stakes. The division must be
balanced and intriguing, the challenge must be irresistible, and the stakes must
be as mouthwatering as possible.
The energy of rivalry is a great engine. As it grows, it acquires the
characteristics of an element. Of course, the game can threaten to morph into
open confrontation with unpredictable consequences-simply speaking, it can
turn into a vulgar fight. A game turning into a fight is a common, even typical
situation. Primitive conflict destroys the game. First it is interrupted; then it is
stopped. Wishing to save their baby from self-destruction, the players introduce
a certain list of prohibitions and permissions to the rules of the game. The
mechanism is specific to each particular game. And as the rules evolve through
the centuries, the game acquires a structure.
The presence of STRUCTURE is the third characteristic of
any game. A system of strict rules that regulate and define the competition
cements the identity of the game. The rulebook becomes the game's core,
prolonging its presence in the world. There are some solid attributes that
clearly support the structural nature of games: a chess board, a set of chess
figures, a field divided in two parts with a net (as in volleyball and tennis); the
soccer field bounded by netted gates and penalty spots. A pack of cards.
A chalk drawing on the asphalt for the classical game of klassiki.4 . .. The
25
26 Slavic and East European Peiformance VoL 27, No. 1
Bosch-like transparent ball with people inside it, created by a jump rope turned
by two players whom you can see through your window. And so on and so
forth. But these are external structures, so to speak. There must also be
internal structures the impossibility of leaving the game before it is over, the
ensemble of the team and the hierarchy of its players, the quantum behavior
of the game; the queue of moves and preparation of tactical blocks. It may
seem that in its historical development the game became more and more
formalized, ossifying and losing a degree of freedom. But it is not quite so.
Here is the great paradox of the game: the stricter and more numerous the
rules, the more improvisational freedom it allows participants inside the rules.
Structure gives the gift of freedom to a player.
The fourth characteristic of the game is RISK. The element of
risk gives an incomparable poignancy to the game. Flipping a coin, you are
never sure what will turn out-heads or tails. Fortune can abandon a famous
team of champions to total defeat at the hands of amateurs ....
Risk and chance constantly renew the game. They make a game dynamic,
unexpected ... anything but simple.
The fifth characteristic of the game is the PRINCIPAL OF
ESCAPISM. Yes, three "runaways" and three "exits" always and necessarily
characterize any game.
1. Exit from a real time to "timeless reality" (game time).
One hour and a half of a soccer game, Christmas nights, whole weeks
of Olympic Games-all these times, rounds, sets, and periods are
excluded from the historical flow of time and are given the
timelessness of the game only;
2. Exit to its own space. They occupy and confine a bigger
or a smaller part of a real space in order to make it an autonomous
space of a future game (game space). Circles of Round Dances, ovals
of stadiums, squares of boxing rings, rectangular shapes of tennis
courts, crocket playgrounds, children playgrounds and sand
boxes-all these are examples of spaces occupied by the game and
fenced off by it from the rest of the universe;
3. Exclusion from the social framework (from social
relations, from social classes, from the hierarchy), liberation
(temporarily) from all social obligations and creation of a new game
team with its own social autonomous relationships. The game
27
becomes a total air vent (no mother, no father, no mentor, no
everyday subordination, no chiefs, no limits, no slavery). But if the
chiefs (parents) are accepted to the game, they are always humiliated
and subjugated. Notice how very important the relations of the game
are highlighted; games are a moderate carnival. The game is disguised
to be common. It is an "underground" carnival. And another
important addition. It is a special escape. I t is not just an exit. It is exit
and entrance; it is not just a retreat. It is retreat and approach. A child
while playing a game sort of leaves, fences himself off from the
world of adults, but also in a way comes closer to it, imitating the
offcast world in his game. The participants of the adult game appear
to leave the surrounding environment for a certain period of time.
They leave usual and tedious limits, but they dive into an even more
strict system of the game. What lures and attracts them here? Just the
same old democracy of the game: game's freedom, game's equality,
game's fraternity.
Getting down to the sixth characteristic of the game
[SENSATION], to the last one on the list, and as it's usually said, it is far
from being the least important one. I am hesitating and feel doubts. I have
doubts for my ability to describe this characteristic. Moreover I have doubts
that it is possible to describe it at all. However (putting it in brackets), it is the
most precise and simplest out of all the characteristics of the game.
Many intangible and hardly explainable things can be discovered in
the complex element of the game, if you look at it closely. They are in some
way there but at the same time they are not. It does not matter how hard and
precisely you will try to detect and define them. You will never succeed. But
your confidence in their existence gets only stronger during the process of
unsuccessful attempts ....
One of such intangibilities is the thing that allows you to differentiate
a good game from a bad game, i.e., a real, exciting, provocative, captivating one
from a fake, cold, unexciting, and appalling one. How does one differentiate a
game from a non-game?
It happens that a usual, ordinary game is going to be more precisely
a ritual of introduction. All rules and recommendations are followed. Familiar
players in familiar uniforms are running around the familiar field and create
one familiar combination after another . ... But all of a sudden, something
28 Slavic and East European Perjomtance Vol. 27, No. 1
invisibly changes and we can immediately predict: it will be an outstanding
game. No, it will not be-it already is. What we all feel, both players and the
audience, is the unexplainable starting. The soccer goalkeeper begins to catch
goals that were impossible tO catch. The hockey forward throws incredible
goals. The happy audience gets to the point of unity ....
And again I have to make a note. Here we are not trying to evaluate
a finished game. We are not analyzing it based on its results. I am talking about
a completely different thing. I am talking about the sensation of the game as
it is felt by its participants while the game is unfolding, as if from inside. It is
not post factum. It is a self-evaluation of the game.
It is quite easy to evaluate a game when it is over. The finished game
is unchangeable and constant. It can be described as many times as you want.
It is subject to analysis with no resistance. It is ready for any classifications,
comparisons, and oppositions. But I don't want to describe a butterfly by
poking it with the needle and putting it under the glass of a pretty box. I want
to understand it while it is flying in its capricious and fantastical soaring over
the warm thicket of green nettle.
It is much more complicated.
We have the initial question again. What makes a game real? Maybe it
is true and there is some mystical spirit of the game-the presence of which
vivifies the game and the absence of which makes it die. Apparently there is
something like this, something that invisibly appears and is easily destroyed,
something that is fragile and ephemeraL A mood of the game? An
atmosphere? If so, then what is this atmosphere? Is it the soul of game. Why
does it appear or not appear?
I used to think that this characteristic being searched for is somehow
connected to these strange and scientifically inappropriate words-fragile,
ephemeral, intangible- because despite the commonly accepted prejudice, the
game is rough, colorful, and cruel only externally. Inside it is truly gentle and
defenseless. It is built on the principle of a turtle: externally it is a hard and
rough shell, but inside it is tender and vulnerable flesh. I like this great
metaphor very much: "the tender flesh of the game."
29
NOTES
1 From M. M. Butkevich, K igrovomu teatru: liricheskii traktat (Moscow: GITIS, 2002).
This excerpt was translated by Maxim Krivosheyev, with Helen Shaw.
2 The first two sections of Butkevich's work have been skipped: Section 1, "Children's
Games of Directors" and Section 2, "Adult Games of Directors."- Trans.
3 Homo Ludens (Latin)-man as player. While Butkevich does not specifically reference
Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens in the text, there are definite parallels between both
men's work.-Trans.
4 A Russian children's game similar to hopscotch.-Trans.
30 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
THE GROTOWSKI CENTRE IN WROCLAW:
PERFORMANCES AT THE HEADQUARTERS
OF PARATHEATRE!?
Seth Baumrin
In July 2006, I visited the Centre for Study of Jerzy Grotowski's Work
and for Cultural and Theatrical Research, located in the Rynek, Wrodaw's
center.
1
No longer the shell-shocked post-War Wrodaw of November 1964,
when Grotowski moved from Opole, this bit of prime real estate retains a
medieval appearance while also standing as a consumerist spectacle of
contemporary capitalism. One example of this is a banner advertising Piast
beer that hangs from the fourteenth-century town hall.
Wrodaw, the capital of Lower Silesia, is a booming city. Renovation
and public works are carried out rapidly according to strict timetables
associated with municipal grants. Within this atmosphere, the intense work of
Grotowski's extended artistic family continues. The Centre's administration
(the fourth since 1989) pursues serious work at a high level against a backdrop
of urban frivolity where narcissistic nightlife in second-story discos pulsates
until dawn. The Centre, served by three entrances off Przejscie Zela:inicze, an
alley bisecting the Rynek's center, buzzes energetically with the work of a
young generation of artists.
The Centre's directors, Jaroslaw Fret and Grzegorz Ziolkowski, have
run the institution over the last three years and will continue for three more.
Fret is the director of governance and administration; Ziolkowski is the
program director, responsible for research, publications, and the archives.
Duties connected to program activities, workshops, and collaborations are
shared between the two men. Fret, a stage director in his prime, and
Ziolkowski, a consummate scholar and theatre practitioner, are hard men to
find, even in Wrodaw. When Fret is not working with his group, Teatr ZAR,
he is giving workshops in Rome, Wales, or Brazil. And Ziolkowski-equally
busy- is teaching at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan or giving
workshops in South Korea and in Wrodaw. When in their shared office, both
work intensely with the staff, mostly graduate students in philology or cultural
studies at Wrodaw University. Clearly the energy of Grotowski's Theatre
Laboratorium inspires the younger generations at the Centre.
31
Founded initially to protect Grotowski's archives, the Centre like
Grotowski's theatre receives support from the Wrodaw municipal
government. Effective administrators, Fret and Ziolkowski, successfully
maintain strong ties with Kazimierz Grotowski Oerzy Grotowski's older
brother) as well as with the Centre's board, which consists of Stanislaw
Krotoski and Professors Janusz Degler, Jozef Kelera, Leszek Kolanlciewicz,
and Zbigniew Osinski.
The idea for the Centre was a matter of necessity for its first directors
in 1989. The Theatre Laboratorium ceased its activities in 1982 with
Grotowski's emigration; its dissolution became final in 1984. Wrodaw
authorities were unsure what to do with Grotowski's documents. They asked
Tadeusz Burzynski (a local journalist who died in 1998) and Professors Degler
and K.elera of Wrodaw for advice. They suggested keeping the documents
together in an archive to prevent them from being consigned to various
university libraries. The archive was the modest beginning of the Centre. From
1985 until January 1987, when he died in a car crash, Theatre Laboratorium
actor Zbigniew Cynkutis directed the Drugie Studio Wrodawskie (Second
Wrodaw Studio), established on the former site of the Laboratorium.
Miroslaw Kocur, (now professor of cultural studies at Wrodaw University and
author of books on Greek and Roman theatre) assumed leadership for the
next two years. The Centre itself was formally established in 1989-1990 under
the leadership of Zbigniew Osinski and Alina Obidniak, who directed the
theatre at Jelenia Gora and was later replaced by Stanislaw K.rotoski. When
Krotoski and Osinski retired in 2004, Fret and Ziolkowski took over. Despite
their relative youth-thirty-three and thirty-four-they were well prepared for
the job. Fret had already been connected with the Centre for nine years, and
he chose Ziolkowski who had previously undertaken projects at the Centre.
The new directors have organized many events, such as the first
Eastern European meeting of ISTA, Eugenio Barba's International School of
Theatre Anthropology. Their Polish translation of Barba's Dictionary of Theatre
Anthropology has led ultimately to the development of a publishing house. But
the Centre works on many levels. Primary concerns have been reorganization,
the building of staff, and the promotion of a new public profJ..Ie to speak to a
younger generation. Ziolkowski and Fret are focused on the generation born
in the 1990s, after the communist regime. Ziolkowski says:
32 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
They have different experiences behind them than we did. In 1988,
when I began my theatre education in Warsaw, I remember the
Orange Alternative's happenings, student strikes, and our great hopes
for political transformations. Now the younger generation faces
unemployment problems and the opportunities offered by the EU. In
a new Poland, a place like the Centre-in-between theatre and the
academy-had to emerge. In rigid communist Poland, it was hard to
imagine (though Grotowski with the Laboratorium paved the way for
combining an institute for research with theatre) a place where
practice goes hand in glove with theory-this is what the young
generation needed and still needs.2
Fret and Ziolkowski have worked hard to transform the Centre. As part of
this transformation, the Centre has established a relationship with the
Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera that will
commit the group, led by Richards and Mario Biagini who are Grotowski's
legal heirs, to giving demonstrations and workshops in Wrodaw.
Completion of building renovations within the time frames imposed
by the local Wrodaw government is essential to assure future support. The
Centre's transformation of Brzezinka (the eighteenth-century stable converted
into the rural home of paratheatre in the 1970s) into a viable workcenter
proves their commitment to renovation and has emboldened them to keep
working) "We are renovating a new space: Grobla. Jarek's Big Baby," says
Zi6l kowski, referring to the project as Fret's special province.4 Grobla, a
behemoth on Na Grobli (as the street is called), is a four-story, dilapidated
boating club on the banks of the Odra River, remaining from German
occupation. Its enormous ballrooms and meeting halls are viable for
conversion into theatrical space perfect for actor training, workshops, group
housing, and performances. The transformed institute will incorporate three
sites: Przejscie Zelaznicze in the Rynek; Brzezinka in the forest; and Grobla,
which is in-between- in the city, but outside its center. Each of these locations
will help facilitate three important areas of the Centre's development.
The first is higher education. Grobla will develop into a degree-
granting school by 2009-2010, primarily in the field of actor training.s The
second is artistic production. Grobla will offer an umbrella structure of
support for three groups- providing spaces, administrative support, and help
33
in securing grants. The goal is to assist independent, non-commercial
ensembles (including university groups) from rapidly changing Central and
Eastern Europe, unknown in the West because they lack contacts and money
to tour, as is often the case with Ukrainian, Serbian, and Russian contemporary
groups. The Centre plans to house and promote such companies and
co-produce some of the outstanding results.
The third is publication. The school will promote further research
and sponsor translation of scholarly writing on Grotowski into Polish and
bring out Grotowski's writings in a critical edition including Towards a Poor
Theatre. Zi6lkowski also proposes publishing Polish translations of the works
of modern masters, such as Julian Beck and Tadashi Suzuki, and, pursuing
collaborative ventures with Italian and English publishers, to give modern
Polish theatre texts greater international exposure. Zi6lkowski contends, for
example, that Juliusz Osterwa and Mieczyslaw Lirnanowski, founders of the
Reduta Theatre, are little known in the West. Mickiewicz, Slowacki,
Wyspianski have achieved some recognition, but deserve further, more
extensive studies.
Zi6lkowski argues that the Polish tradition of transformational
theatre, as found in Mickiewicz, Wyspianski, and Grotowski, should be known
in greater depth throughout the world. What the Institute can provide, he
maintains, is a coherent program of Polish studies. In 2008, the Centre will
establish an acting atelier for approximately eighteen to twenty people (from
Poland and abroad). Students will immerse themselves in the Polish tradition.6
Fret's own Teatr ZAR serves as the model of a Polish theatre group dedicated
to study while it also pursues performance research.
Fret's administrative role is to report and make monetary appeals to
the municipality of Wrodaw as well as to central governmental authorities.
Fret must also go to the Centre's board for approval, not only with regard to
programs, but also renovation projects. But his most exciting and challenging
innovation has been to establish a role for performances at the Centre, since it
was the founders' position that the Centre ought not present its own public
performances but instead function eternally as a custodial headquarters and
vault for activities associated with Grotowski's legacy.
The current administration is committed to effecting change. The
subtle changes already underway are probably best captured in a simple open
window in the third floor workroom that faces Przejscie Zelaznicze. Przejscie
34 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No.1
Zelainicze was the home of the famous performances of the sixties and the
1975 University of Research of a Theatre of Nations where now Fret's ZAR
performs The Gospels of Childhood The piece takes as its point of departure
Grotowski's Apoca!Jpsis cum Figuris. This window had remained closed since the
founding of the archive, preserving, as it were, the status quo. Now open, it
announces a shift from museum to living cultural organism. This new attitude
is a significant departure from the founders' opposition to performance. In
1989 Osinski averred, "The Centre will not ... [o]rganize its own theatrical or
paratheatrical practices."7
Fret calls ZAR "an undertaking, a program," which has been
exploring the same issues for four years. 8 Whether it can be called a
performance or not, ZAR marks a new beginning. By absorbing Grotowski's
teachings and using them as a foundation for new work, a young generation of
theatre artists invigorates his legacy: "ZAR was created as a permanent
program of The Grotowski Centre. We are not a group like a little theatre or
a company, and they are not employed like actors. It's a program all the same,
Jerzy Grotowski's Apoca!Jpsis cum Figuris
35
even if we keep the people with us. It's part of the research."9
On July 11, I attended Teatr ZAR's Gospels of Childhood at the
Grotowski Centre, a work presented on occasion with no particular regularity.
Ten actors (six men, four women) perform; the men sing Georgian religious
music, while Martha and Mary (both in red) tell their biblical story in images
through movement as well as song. Two women in black fill other roles. Gospels
is lit by candles on three swinging chandeliers. A mound of black earth sits
under a table. Many stories intersect; Martha and Mary visiting Christ's grave
and Lazarus's resurrection are enacted in Slavonic ritual-sacred and profane.
Never docs one central action dominate. Instead simultaneous actions unfold
before the spectators.
In one fragment, Martha and Mary on their way to the sepulcher
re-enact the ritual washing of feet in a bucket that can be seen in filmed
rehearsals of Apoca!Jpsis cum Figuris. Fret acknowledges this:
It is a quotation from Apoca!Jpsis. In Apoca!Jpsis you will see a different
variation of this but the exact text of the sequence is a quotation
from [Grotowski's] The Gospels, which never premiered openly; there
was only one showing for invited guests. We as a generation know this
only from a short film. It's Rena Mirecka and Maja Komorowska; and
we understood, it is about Mary going to the grave; so it's very
connected with our theme. And also I was very impressed by how the
sequence is composed. So we decided to use this as a free quotation.
Of course, we changed the climax of the sequence. tO
The stories of Christ's resurrection and Lazarus's rising are told, as they were
in Apoca!Jpsis, through a combination of sacred and profane imagery. Some of
the most compelling images in Gospels arc a woman lying down on a cross
drawn in chalk on the floor, feigning an epileptic fit, only to break out in
derisive laughter when she draws the pity of Mary; Mary in childbirth; Martha
raped; and a wedding procession in which the groom violates his bride. These
images and others point to ZAR's frustration with the influence the Christian
story plays in daily life. This is best expressed when Mary berates Martha, who
is washing herself after the rape, for not helping at home but instead seeking
out Christ on the road. His absence from their home, the sisters believe,
caused their brother Lazarus's death. Immediately after Lazarus dies, Mary and
36 Slavic and East European Perjom1ance Vol. 27, No.1
The Gospels of Childhood, directed by Jaroslaw Fret, Teatr ZAR
37
Martha read from John 11:32, "If thou hadst been here, my brother had not
died." This serves to capture a palpable frustration with Christian resurrection
myths that resurfaces throughout the performance. At the end, a quotation
from the Mount Athos Easter Song Christos aniesti intensifies this frustration:
"Let them be born for one childhood. For everyone will be salted with fire."ll
The production ultimately proposes that humans are not redeemed; lives are
not restored-forgiven yes, but never reborn.
The songs and singers' constant presence enable the audience to
focus easily on the entire performance, not merely one specific action but
many. Near the end, the work continues over five minutes in perfect blackout,
accompanied by powerful singing. In darkness the earth is dug up, as though
Lazarus were rising. The audience hears singing and digging and smells earth
in complete darkness.
Fret asks timeless questions about human suffering. Whether Lazarus
was saved or punished twice to suffer life's indignities again is important to
ZAR's confrontation with death. Fret says:
People have often asked me to do it much more clearly, "Do it as it
was." But I am making theatre, not a confession. It's not about
interpretation; it's my understanding of things. I'm using this
fragment (from Apocafypsis] to say something more important than
the death of Lazarus. It's about the death of my child ... my small
child. It's not to tell the story of Jesus resurrected as it should be told,
but what the story means to me after 2000 years of that story, after
the second death of Lazarus.12
Fret contends that Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus was a second punishment
causing him to be dead twice without imparting any special knowledge for
humanity.13 To make the mystery of death's permanence and the tragic,
incongruous hope for rebirth (and therefore second death) tangible for the
audience, Fret shut down the lights for quite some time, taking all visual
imagery away from spectators' eyes, thus creating internal images strictly
through song. "My image is that I'm standing on the edge of a grave, leaning
and looking, simply as a child; it's not death but listening to the cantor singing
the funeral song."14
38 Slavic and East European Peifomtance Vol. 27, No. 1
The conjunction of spirituality and blasphemy in Gospels of Childhood
is part of Grotowski's legacy of "apotheosis and derision" of ritual and
myth.
1
5 But Fret's focus on the human spirit evokes another, slightly older
legacy: that of Juliusz Osterwa. "Osterwa used to say in some of his essays that
God created the theatre for people for whom the church is not enough. If you
are not fully engaged then your life will be empty. Your church cannot help
you. You can find it in theatre."15 When I asked him whether he is part of any
avant-garde, Fret says, "It is better, more interesting, to work with strong
ancient structure, not to invent tools, but to see how this generation, in
completely different circumstances-in Georgia, in Thessalonica-will work
with it, live with it, survive with it."
16
Fret and Ziolkowski have shown that
they have learned to live and survive with Grotowski's opus and legacy. As
administrators, scholars, and artists they have made Grotowski our
contemporary.
NOTES
1 The Centre, since this article was written, has been renamed the Institute for Study
of Jerzy Grotowski's Work and for Cultural and Theatrical Research in order to better
reflect its commitment to education under the leadership of Jaroslaw Fret and
Grzegorz Ziolkowski. The change officially took place at a ceremony on December 28,
2006.
2 Grzegorz Ziolkowski, interview with the author, July 11, 2006, Wrodaw.
3 According to administrator Magda M ~ d r a this transformation has aroused concern
among the previous generation of para theatre practitioners, who scoff at the presence
of electricity and running water, some saying it is now more like a hostel than the rough
outpost in the forest it was for them.
4 Grzegorz Ziolkowski, interview with the author, July 11, 2006, Wrodaw.
5 The 2009-2010 plan for a school that collaborates with universities from the U.K.,
Italy, and Poland to establish a graduate program with guest professors for masters
degrees in acting is unique because it is not in the Polish university tradition to offer
degrees for practical work.
6 "Mickiewicz is studied, but there are not many-apart from Daniel Gerould and
Halina Filipowicz-who read his Lecture 16 at the College de France as a cornerstone of
the Polish theatre tradition." Grzegorz Ziolkowski, interview with the author, July 1 1,
2006, Wrodaw.
7 Oirodek Badati Tworczoici Jerzego Grotowskiego i Poszukiwati Teatralno-Kulturou;ych,
1990-1999: The Centre for Stut!J of fe'"?J Grotowski's Work and for Cultural and Theatrical
39
Research, ed. Zbigniew Osinski, brochure (Wrodaw: The Center for Study of Jerzy
Grotowski's Work, 2000), 24.
8 Jaroslaw Fret, interview with the author, July 12, 2006, Wroclaw.
9 Ibid.
1
0 Ibid.
11 ZAR program, Wroclaw, July 2006.
12 Jaroslaw Fret, interview with the author, July 12, 2006, Wrodaw.
13 Ibid.
1
4
Ibid.
15 In 1961, critic Tadeusz Kudl.i.ri.ski claimed that in Dzia4:; (Forefathers' Eve) Grotowski
had imposed a dialectic of "apotheosis and derision" on the original text. Grotowski
adopted Kudlinski's formula as a dramaturgical modus operandi for productions to come.
Eugenio Barba, The Land of Ashes and Diamonds: ll{y Apprenticeship in Poland
(Abcrystwyth: Black Mountain Press, 1999), 20.
16 Jaroslaw Fret, interview with the author, July 12,2006, Wroclaw.
17
Ibid.
40
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
BEFORE STOPPARD: MEREZHKOVSKY'S BAKUNIN PLAY
Laurence Senelick
With an expanding waistline and a weathercock mind, indolent,
contradictory, and importunate, Mikhail Bakunin, the father of anarchism, is
an unlikely hero for a play about revolutionaries. Tom Stoppard's The Coast of
Utopia, which traces the vicissitudes of the liberal Russian intelligentsia from
1833 to 1868, in fact makes the more reasonable Aleksandr Herzen its
protagonist. But it is Bakunin and the life on his family estate that provides the
lively center of attention in Vqyage, the first of Stoppard's three three-hour
dramas. I n their absence, attention flags. When the trilogy opened at London's
Royal National Theatre in 2002, critics found Herzen to be dull and static in
comparison, and his irrational collocutor Bakunin more dynamic and
engagmg.
The Moscow Art Theatre commissioned a translation from the
brothers Neksey and Sergey Ostrovsky, assisted by Aleksandr Popov, and
sought out a Russian director. No one showed special interest. The translation
by three hands was found to require significant modification, and as time went
on, the theatre's artistic director Oleg Tabakov lost patience. Expense aside, it
was acknowledged that contemporary Russian audiences may have lost their
interest in the history of left-wing thought. Despite Stoppard's desire to see his
trilogy produced in Russia, the Art Theatre let its option lapse. I t was not until
early 2007 that The Coast if Utopia opened at Moscow's National Youth
Theatre.
This was not the first time the Moscow Art Theatre had considered
and rejected a play about Bakunin. Not long before the October Revolution, it
had seriously entertained the notion of a production of The Romantics by
Drnitry Merezhkovsky.
Literary reputations are as inconstant as stocks: they rise and fall at
the least shift in the cultural climate. Merezhkovsky's reputation, if presented
on a flow chart, would look like an Npine range. In the so-called Silver Age of
Russian literature, he was regarded as a pundit and a prophet, although there
were those who enjoyed pointing out his feet of clay. Acclaimed as a worthy
successor to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he poured out a stream of essays,
poems, and novels, which were widely read and discussed. His historical
41
fiction, The Romance of Leonardo da 1/lnci, even became a book-club selection in
North America and could be found on the shelves of any suburbanite with
pretensions to culture.
After the Revolution, however, and his move to France,
Merezhkovsky's pronouncements became more oracular and his prestige more
tarnished. The verdicts of Prince Dmitry Mirsky in his English-language
surveys of Russian literature tend to be aphoristic and terse; in the case of
Merezhkovsky, they are lethal as well. "Judged by religious standards, his
writings are mere literature. Judged by literary standards, they are bad
literature." After summing up like a hanging judge, Mirsky pronounces
sentence: "If he had never tried to have any ideas, he might have developed
into a good novelist for boys."
1
Less mordant but just as deadly was the
opinion repeated by the Christian philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev in The Russian
Idea; there Merezhkovsky is allowed "great literary talent," but his novels are "a
mixture of ideology and archaeology."
2
If Merezhkovsky's importance to fiction could be dismissed so curtly,
his relevance to the drama was barely acknowledged. His name does not even
appear in the recent Cambridge History of Russian Theatre. Once again, it is
Mirsky who weighs in with a damning judgment, calling Merezhkovsky's plays
"formless masses of raw (sometimes badly understood, always wrongly
interpreted) material, written from beginning to end in an intolerable,
hysterical falsetto, and saturated ad nauseam with his artificial, homuncular
'religious' ideas."3 Before taking Mirsky's appraisal at face value, it is worth
bearing in mind that he deeply disliked Chekhov's plays as well.
Like many of his contemporaries, and definitely in the Russian
tradition, Merezhkovsky regarded the theatre as a forum in which ideas could
be disseminated to a large number of persons in a persuasive and graphic
manner. Plays were to be vehicles for ideological positions, employing
emotional devices to prepare the spectator for the message. Consequently, his
dramatic efforts, which date mainly from the critical years of World War I and
the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, are millennia! reflections on the end of
autocracy and the approach of a new age. Merezhkovsky's politics, however,
are subordinate to his religious and messianic strain, and there is a vagueness
in his approach, which dismayed contemporaries who preferred a more
tendentious treatment.
42 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
The essence and fate of the Russian intelligentsia was an abiding
topic of interest for Merezhkovsky. Pursuing this theme and, in particular, the
concept of the instinctual religiosity of the Russian intelligentsia, as a
journalist and critic, he was to insert it into his article "The Boor to Come,"
the novel December 14, 1825 (The Decembrists), and the play Let There Be )I!Y
(1916). His most explicit statement came in 1914 with his article, "The
Testament of Belinsky. Religiosity and Social Conscience of the Russian
Intelligentsia." He simultaneously began to plan a play about Mikhail Bakunin.
Besides monographs on Belinsky, the play's chief historical source was
Aleksandr Kornilov's The Ear!J Years of Mikhail Bakunin, from the History of
Russian Romanticism, which had originally appeared as articles between 1909
and 1915.
4
Consequently, the title of Merezhkovsky's play became The
Romantics.
Hoping to uncover the origins of the radical Russian intelligentsia,
Merezhkovsky decided to concentrate on the domestic situation that
prompted Mikhail Bakunin's rebelliousness, that is, his attempt to extricate his
sister Varvara from her marriage. This view of young Bakunin came directly
from Kornilov, who had written:
In rhis stuggle (to liberate Varvara) Varin'ka herself, devoting herself
to it with all the passion of her forceful nature, grew weak at times-
partly out of pity for her basically guiltless husband, partly reluctantly
succumbing to the entreaties and wrath of her parents. And then with
special passion Mikhail would come to her aid, expending a mass of
energy, strength and time on this struggle, unstintingly, obviously
considering that the achievement of total victory in this fight was
indispensable not only for Varen'ka's happiness, but also for the
triumph of those absolute principles of morality, which he
considered at the time to be genuine. This entire struggle represents
a remarkably clear and characteristic episode in the history of Russian
Romanticism- a romanticism which even in Russia at the time
engaged the minds of the progressive representatives of the younger
generation of the 1830s and was an indubitable pretext for that
struggle for complete emancipation of the human being, that
"struggle for individuality," which began among us in the 1860s.5
43
Kornilov's book thus provided not only the kernel of the plot of
Merezhkovsky's play, but also the manifold details, the characteristic domestic
atmosphere, the relationship between parents and children, the method of
spiritual self-improvement practiced by Mikhail and his sisters. Kornilov had
made available for the first time materials preserved in the family archive,
which enabled Merezhkovsky to insert specific biographical information into
the play.
The structure of the play is conventional: four acts, set in the Russian
provinces in 1838. It opens in the library at Pryamukhino, the estate of the
K.ubanins (i.e., Bakunins) where the dysfunctional family is introduced to us:
Varen'ka has left her husband, the former uhlan, Dyakov, taking her son with
her. She is deeply under the influence of her brother lVfikhail, and regards her
marriage as an impediment to personal freedom. Mikhail swears his three
sisters to a Masonic pact, a plot element which is not followed up. He is also
shown in conflict with his father, an autocratic serf owner who has no
compunction at having his slaves flogged and who blames Mikhail for the
earlier death of yet another sister.
In Act Two, we move to a birch grove, where the youngest sister,
eleven-year-old K.seniya, proclaims her wish to be a man and never to marry.
(She still believes children are engendered by husband and wife chewing grass
together.) A long tete-a-tete between Mikhail and Varen'ka suggests a mildly
incestuous bond, although, again, Merezhkovsky does not follow up on this
theme; she agrees to accompany him abroad. An interview with her husband
Dyakov shows him to be a reasonable individual, willing to let his wife pursue
her own fate. However, his father-in-law demands that Dyakov reclaim his son
and thereby force Varen'ka to return to the conjugal hearth.
Act Three takes place in an entrance hall of the estate, on a moonlit
night, with the sisters singing and playing the harp. The elegaic mood is broken
when Varen'ka discovers that her son has been abducted. There is a
tempestuous scene between Mikhail and his parents, in which the father
virtually announces, "Leave this house and never darken my door again." In
the last act, we shift to a "large, uncomfortable room" in Dyakov's manor
house. Mikhail arrives and insists on a duel, even though he has never held a
gun before. When Varen'ka confronts her husband, she finds she loves him so
much for his tolerant understanding that she is eager to stay, but he insists that
she take their son to Germany with Mikhail to find her independence.
44 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
It should be clear that much of these fraught family jars might have a
comic effect, especially since Varen'ka seems to change her mind at the drop
of a tirade. Merezhkovsky seems unaware that his portrayal of Bakunin, prone
to temper tantrums and speechifying at inappropriate moments, comes across
as romantic only in his excess. The playwright even quotes Belinsky's famous
insulting letter in Act Four, which makes the subsequent challenge to a duel
more ridiculous. The play is episodic, largely composed of two-person scenes.
Themes are raised and then dropped, matters such as the death of sister
Lyubinka or the suicide of the flogged serf are left nebulous, while, conversely,
the particulars of the Varen'ka-Mikhail-Dyakov relationship become repetitive
and tedious.
What's worse, the audience is expected to be familiar with the anterior
and posterior circumstances of the Bakunins. Oblique reference is made to
Mikhail's mother's family, the Muravyovs, and we are supposed to know about
their secret society. We are also expected to know that Varen'ka would later be
responsible for the death of her brother-in-law Nikolay Stankevich and that
Kseniya would be loved by Belinsky. None of this is mentioned in the play,
leaving the characters somewhat flimsy and unmotivated.
All plays in the Russian Empire had to be submitted to a double
censorship, one for publication and another for performance. The author of
the dramatic censor's report, the urbane theatre historian Baron Nikolay
Drizen, licensed the play's performance:
But only after compliance with the standard stipulation regarding the
general appearance on stage of such characters as famous nihilists
and other political opponents of the government as were earlier
banned by the Chief Council and their exclusion. in addition, in the
opinion of M. A. Tolstoy, Merezhkovsky's attitude to Bakunin is
expressed with insufficient clarity. While indicating in some scenes
Bakunin's comical zeal, the choice of words in his sermons, the
insignificance and improbability of his actions, and even quoting
Belinsky's Jetter defining him in a remarkably negative light-at the
same time from the lips of Miten'ka, a drunken yet intelligent friend
of the family, [the author] also seems to promote his efforts at
rebellion and glorify his ability in the struggle for liberty, fraternity,
equality. By deleting the relevant passages one might be somewhat
45
able to neutralize a production's ability to profit by this ambiguity to
stage the play with an undesirable interpretation.6
Consequently, Merezhkovsky was required to delete Miten'ka lines in the final
scene, which "underline a particular significance and the role of Bakunin."
Once the censorship had provided its imprimatur, the Art Theatre of
Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky seriously
contemplated sponsoring its premiere. Their relations with Merezhkovsky
were somewhat uneasy. They had sat on his earlier play, Let There Be Jqy, for
nearly a year, dubious of its stageworthiness, before Nemirovich-Danchenko
agreed to supervise a production directed by two others. A remarkably
complacent author, Merezhkovsky did not interfere in the staging and gave
Nemirovich carte blanche to edit Let There Be jqy as necessary. In his letters, he
explained that awareness of the censorship had prevented him from fully
revealing the revolutionary aspect of the coed Katya, whose prototype was
"the late fiancee of Egor Sazonov, the assassin of Plehve."
7
The author did not bother to attend the premiere of Let There Be Jqy,
but when he saw it, on its twenty-third performance in May 1916 (the
production played thirty-eight times in all), he excitedly "lavished praise and
thanks." He seemed to miss the fact that Nemirovich had put the accent not
on the coed Katya's turning to revolution, "although not the old one, but a sort
of new one-under the sign of religion," but instead emphasized her "great,
complete, pure, virginal love" for the medical student Fyodor. The actors
themselves were well aware that Nemirovich had "perverted the author," and
that the performers, "indulging their own simplicity," failed to find "the
standard nerve, which leads people sometimes to drama, maybe even to
tragedy."8
By the time Merezhkovsky did see Let There Be joy, Nemirovich was in
the Crimea, being treated for bronchitis, so that all of the author's gratitude fell
upon Stanislavsky, who had taken no part in the production. Merezhkovsky
was treated like a king at the Art Theatre, driven about in a motor car and fed
tea and tarts in the intermissions, entertained at the homes of members of the
board, given a backstage tour of the electrical system. As a result, the author
became infatuated with the Art Theatre and naively wrote, "How dear
Konst[antin] Serg[eevich] is. I fell in love with him after our brief meeting. It
46 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
is rare that brilliant people are so dear."9 Merezhkovsky's unconditional praise
of Stanislavsky could only annoy the jealous Nernirovich.
The Art Theatre had known about the project for the Bakunin play
since 1915; in a letter of March 3, 1916, the author laid out a plan for a new
recension of it, "Russian Romantics against the background of serfdom."
When Merezhkovsky read the play to senior members of the Art Theatre, it
fell flat, not only because he made no attempt at acting or explaining his
concept, but also because Nemirovich was not there to give his usual pep talk.
The actors showed little interest. Nevertheless, the play was formally presented
to the theatre on May 17, 1916.
Nernirovich had a personal agenda when he decided to direct The
Romantics. He hoped that it would provide a "new link" in his collaboration
with his partner-not that they would stage it collaboratively but, rather, that
their methods might become closer and that discussions of Merezhkovsky's
play might help to overcome "the picayune naturalism of Stanislavsky's
experiments." The sincerity and simplicity of perezhivanie (living through, re-
experience) would be directed "toward a heightening of feeling and ideas."10
These hopes would soon be blighted. Returning to Petrograd,
Merezhkovsky set to work on an article about Let There Be Jqy. In June, he came
to Kislovodsk where Nemirovich was vacationing to read him the article and
receive his blessing for its publication. No fewer than five meetings over tea
took place between Nernirovich and Merezhkovsky, his wife the poet Zinaida
Gippius, and the critic Dmitry Filosofov. At the first tea Merezhkovsky read
his article. ~ n d then came the arguments!" recorded Nemirovich. After a
sleepless night when he "explained to himself" that the article was offensive,
Nemirovich promised that the next night Merezhkovsky would be the one to
sleep badly.
At their next meeting, Nernirovich explained that it was impossible to
publish the article because "it is full of all sort of untruths" and that he did
not even want to reread it. Entitled "What Kind of Joy Will There Be," the
article began with an unwelcome compliment to "Stanislavsky with the wise
eyes of genius," who had had no association with the production of Let There
Be jqy, and no mention of Nemirovich who had been in charge of it. However,
Nernirovich's objections were not so much personal as ideological.
While granting that Merezhkovsky's article had "great significance,"
he demurred that the author and the Art Theatre had dialectically opposite
47
views of the task of art. For all his gratitude to the Art Theatre, Merezhkovsky
had written that after the events of 1905, which had undermined the
ideological stance of the progressive ranks of Russian society, the theatre
could not remain what it had been but had to "make a choice." What sort of
choice? Why, between Anton Chekhov and the latest religio-philosophic
trends, which offered a new program for the aims of Russian life, history, and
the revolutionary movement. "In Chekhov's 'positivism' the intelligentsia's
consciousness is incarnated to its artistic limits," the article stated. "But just
here, in its lack of religiosity, Chekhov runs counter to all of great Russian
literature from Lermontov and Gogo! to L. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, insofar
as it reflects national Russian elements, shot through with religiosity, 'in
contact with the world to come.' To unite heaven and earth, man and God,
time and eternity-such is the seal of Russian national religion for the most
part."ll
Merezhkovsky then asks: what if the Art Theatre is nothing but the
theatre of Chekhov? Or is it capable of overcoming the Chekhov in itself and
moving in step with the times. " It is either/or: either art is religion or art serves
religion," writes Merezhkovsky, rejecting the former option and extolling the
latter.
Merezhkovsky, Gippius, and their circle had long deplored Chekhov
as an agent of pessimism and anti-spirituality.
12
Nemirovich, Stanislavsky, and
the whole Art Theatre, on the other hand, were staunch Chekhovians, reading
Chekhov by their own lights. Art was indeed religion for them. The theatre
that they had created was their religion. They might refer to the dangers of
Chekhovian stereotypes in their performances, about the failure in attempting
to stage dramatists of another stripe in a Chekhovian way, but they never
rejected the Chekhovian world view and its ideals. How could they possibly
accept Merezhkovsky and his creed into their "artistic monastery," where one
had to "serve their god"?
Nemirovich granted that even a defective script such as The Romantics
could provide the occasion for productive work and be turned into a success
for a season or two; but he was troubled by what he called "speculation in high-
minded ideals." There was a troubling clisjunction between Merezhkovsky's
lofty tenets and the working out of the play.
48 Slavic and East European Perjorfllance Vol. 27, No. 1
He indulges in a special kind of speculation, not downright
fraudulent, not crass, but attractive, ingenious. The author does have
ideas, in fact there are lots of ideas about God, the necessity for Him,
the "joy of destruction," but he does not find it necessary to
experience them himself or suffer through them, but demands that
the actors have experienced and suffered through them. He does not
consider himself obliged to "infect" the actors. From his extensive
reading, from his own religio-philosophic debates, he wants to
demonstrate by means of the theatre his own current views and
wants cosily, comfortably from his armchair, to issue commands:
Actors, suffer! Actors, belieYe in God!13
Nemirovich admitted the sincerity of Merezhkovsky's views and the talent
evident in certain scenes, but pointed out that given Merezhkovsky's
embroiled situation with both the religious establishment and the
revolutionary movement, the author was not content to be a mere artist but
had to be a prophet, eager to exploit art for "his own social ends."
A pedagogue at heart, Nemirovich hoped to demonstrate that the
theatre was not a place for preachments and prophecies but for the joy of art.
A serious theatre could rise "above the level of philistine entertainment" not
by following tendentious ideologies, but by a simple appeal "to the best" in life.
Just as Merezhkovsky had confronted the Art Theatre with a choice,
Nernirovich intended to pose him a question: would he "tread the natural path
of art" and start "to write good plays" or would he move to another theatre?
Nemirovich's plan was to invite the author to
two or three discussions of his play and all those questions
fundamental to our concerns, which are attached. And then to invite
him to start talking in a general way about his plays and his demands.
This bit excites us, but that bit leaves us cold, and cold not because
we are vulgarians, but because you yourself don't believe in what you
preach. We wouldn't remain cold, even if you preached a lie, but you
have to be passionately convinced of that lie, then we would believe
in it and follow you. This kind of talk would force him as an artist,
however eminent, to do some rewriting.
1
4
49
Stanislavsky took a simpler approach; he hoped to steer
Merezhkovsky toward his experimental studio, where the play could be
reworked by young actors in rehearsal. Meanwhile, Nemirovich recommended
a potential cast. The central role of Mikhail Bakunin would be entrusted to
Leonid Leonidov, an actor of Jewish antecedents, who had created the parts of
Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard and Mitya Karamazov in the Art Theatre's
dramatization of Dostoevsky's novel. In the event, Leonidov begged off the
role since he was ill, alcoholic, and considering retirement from the stage.
Bakunin's wavering sister Varen'ka was to be assigned to Nemirovich's
favorite, Mariya Germanova, a beautiful young actress of tragic potential. For
the part of the uhlan, he wanted the leading man Vasily Kachalov because the
character is "the most intelligent and most sensitive person in the play. And the
role is effective. And important in relation to the stage because his big scene
ends the play."
1
5
The question as to whether the play would be staged at all was to be
decided on August 27, when it would be read aloud to the company, and their
opinions solicited. After the read-through and a discussion that lasted until
12:30 A.M., Nemirovich wrote to his wife:
Opinions differed. The majority, with Konst[antin] Serg[eevich] at
their head, denigrated the play, calling it phoney, insignificant,
irrelevant. The minority, with Vishnevsky, asserted that the play will
have an enormous success and we should think twice, says he, before
turning it down. The question remained open, although, since
everyone admits that the leading role is badly written (Bakunin
himself), obviously the question will be decided in the negative. I'm
not sorry.
16
Nemirovich was fed up, in his words, with making silk purses out of sow's ears.
That sentiment he did not express to Merezhkovsky, confining
himself to the excuse that there was no actor suitable for the role of Mikhail
Bakunin. Consequently, when The Romantics did open two months later
(October 21, 1916), it was at the state-supported Imperial Alexandrinsky
Theatre in Petrograd, in a production directed by the Art Theatre's inveterate
antagonist Vsevolod Meyerhold. Merezhkovsky had particularly requested this
director, who had just launched yet another of his periodic attacks on the Art
50
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
Theatre's penchant for naturalism. In a published interview, he had twitted the
Moscow company for its failure with Merezhkovsky's Let There Be Jqy.
According to Meyerhold, "a whole circle of Russian theatrical workers,
subscribing to ideas of a new theatre devoutly to be wished, despise this
nauseating naturalism."17 As if in reaction, Meyerhold, with the aid of his
collaborator, the designer Aleksandr Golovin, drenched The Romantics in an
appropriately lyrical evocation of the 1830s: elegant costumes, period hair
styles, songs sung to harp accompaniment, bright blue moonlight streaming
through windows.
Meyerhold was well aware that the play was imperfect, marred chiefly
by Merezhkovsky's characteristic fondness for antithesis. In the words of the
play's most astute reviewer, Lyubov' Gurevich:
Mikhail Bakunin is the all-destroying flame of thought with a dearth
of spontaneous feeling, the highest exaltation of a powerful mind,
incarnate rebellion, and action; modest Dyakov is a noble heart
unawakened to consciousness, a man capable of the greatest sacrifice
but incapable of catching fire from destructively creative ideas.
1
8
To modulate this blatant polarity, Meyerhold had recourse to one of
Stanislavsky's techniques, to play against type and to point up the
contradictions in a character. The Alexandrinsky's leading man, Yury Yur'ev,
imbued the intellectual Bakunin with a player's passion, all the white-hot fervor
of Ferdinand in Schiller's Love and Intrigue. In contrast, the sensitive but
unintellectual Dyakov was assigned to Pavel Leshkov, an actor of cooler
demeanor, who often played raisonneurs.
1
9 The casting thus obscured, indeed,
reversed Merezhkovsky's careful ideological scheme, vitiating the play's basic
conflict. As often happens, a clever director, eager to win over an audience and
conceal a play's faults, had betrayed his author.
Despite Meyerhold's best efforts, the play received a drubbing from
the critics. The influential Aleksandr Kugel', editor of Theatre and Art, who
wrote under the name "Homo Novus," damned it as "exceptionally boring and
insipid." Kugel', a no-nonsense critic scornful of new-fangled literary and
artistic movements, complained, ''What burned with a clear flame in Tolstoy,
in Merezhkovsky takes on the character of a tangled, meandering, so to speak,
circuitous path. . . . The salvation of the world in a certain special,
51
Merezhkovskian, sense" is supposed to lie "in mysticism, love, etc."20
Significantly, these remarks appeared in an article which asked "When Will
There Be a Play about the War?," condemning Merezhkovsky's choice of
subject, as well as its treatment, as irrelevant to the times.
Another critic, writing in the aesthetic journal Apollon, having hoped
that Merezhkovsky would have brought a deeply national and intelligent play
of subtle dialogue to the Alexandrinsky stage, was disappointed to find "no
more than an attempt at a domestic chronicle of the Bakunins .... This led to
the absence of the charm of theatrical characterizations and the obscuring of
even the legend of Russian social. movements."
21
In the same issue, the
theatrical historian Dolgov declared that Merezhkovsky had chosen the wrong
incident for his play, presenting "pale shadows" of the poetic Bakunins
preserved in the memories of their contemporaries.22
Surprisingly enough, one of the few positive reviews appeared in The
Stock-exchange News, at the hands of Nikolay Slonimsky, who bought into
Merezhkovsky's message that the Romantics will ultimately prevail. "Their
dream will flourish, for their will is strong and undivided. Here on earth they
shall create ... a better land." It is not the Dyakovs with their "religious
idleness, eternal impotence of spirit, passivity in love," people of "dead
ripples, faith without deeds" who "make history," but "the Romantics," whose
active will will "manifest itself."23
It is always dangerous for theatre historians to evaluate productions
from reviews alone. The public was less ready than the literary world to fault
Merezhkovsky's schematic construction and responded favorably to the
material aspects of the production and the strong acting. Vladimir
Telyakovsky, the administrator of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg,
noted in his diary that the box office remained strong, the house packed with
audiences who "listened attentively and there were lots of curtain calls for the
actors who, one must admit, acquitted themselves with distinction and all
played well. . . .There isn't much sense to the play, of course, and what the
author intended is hard to understand, but the play is entertaining.2
4
Telyakovsky's private evaluation, although offhand, was, nevertheless,
accurate. Merezhkovsky had miscalculated by offering a historically precise
time and setting, familiar to his audiences from the plays and novels of
Turgenev and Goncharov. He had hoped thereby to use a typical landed estate
and domestic situation to expand to a more metaphysical portrayal of an
52
Slavic and E ast European Performance Vol. 27, No.1
exceptional case. He wanted to show how the Anarchist movement and its
philosophy had grown out of a banal domestic squabble in a nest of gentry.
Whereas Tom Stoppard, in The Coast of Utopia, was to provide a wider cultural
context by using an epic structure, interweaving private and public affairs,
Merezhkovsky allowed his concept to be hemmed in the conventions of a
family drama. Merezhkovsky was no Chekhov, however, and his audiences
could not see beyond the superficial aspects of the play. Furthermore, again
unlike Chekhov, Merezhkovsky could not resist making his characters the
spokesmen for his own reflections. He liberaJJy strewed the text with allusions
tO his own articles, put in their mouths some of his own statements, and wove
into the fabric of the work ideas which did not so much characterize his heroes
as express their author's intentions. Prince Mirsky may have been right, after
all.
NOTES
1
Prince D. S. Mirsky, Contunporary Russian Literature, 1881-1925 (London: George
Routledge & Sons, 1 926), 162.
2
Nicolas Berdiaev, L'idee nme. Problemes essmtiels de Ia pemee russe au X!xe et debut du-Xxe
siecle, trans. H. Arjakovsky (Paris: Maison Marne, 1969), 232.
3 Mirsky, Contemporary Russian Literature, 162.
4
Kornilov's publication of materials from the copious Bakunin family archive was a
treasure trove for the intelligentsia. See John Randolph, "'That Historical Family': the
Bakunin Archive and the Intimate Theater of History of Imperial Russia, 1780- 1925,"
Russian Review 63 (October 2004): 574-593. See: 583, 588, 591-592.
5
A. A. Kornilov, Molotfye gotfy Mikhaila Bakunina. Iz istorii russkogo romantizma (Moscow:
M. and S. Shabashnikov, 1915), 325- 336.
6 Quoted in Drnitrij Merezhkovskij, Dramaturgija, ed. E. A. Andrushchenko (fomsk:
Volodej, 2000), 706-707.
7
Vyacheslav Plehve, the reactionary Minister of the Interior, who promoted anti-
Semitic, anti-Armenian, and anti-labor policies, had been assassinated in 1904 by the
Socialist Revolutionary Sazonov.
8 Quoted in 0. A. Radishcheva, Stanislavskij i Nemirovich-Danchenko: Istorija teatrai''!Jkh
otnoshenij, 1909- 1917 (Moscow: Artist. Rezhisser. Teatr, 1999), 263.
9 Ibid., 263- 264.
10 Ibid., 262.
11
Ibid.
53
12 See Laurence Senelick, "Chekhov's Drama, Maeterlinck, and the Russian
Symbolists," in Chelehov's Great Plays, ed. J.P. Barricelli (New York University Press,
1981), 161-180.
13 Letter to Stanislavsky, August 8, 1916, Vl. I. Nernirovich-Danchenko, Tvorcheskoe
nasledie. Tom vtorof Pis'ma 1908-1922 (Moscow: Moskovskij Khudozhestvennyj
Teatr, 2003), 493.
14 Ibid., 493-494.
15
Ibid.
16 Letter to E. M. Nernirovich-Danchenko, August 28, 1916, in ibid., 501.
17 P. A., "V E. Mejerkhol'd," Teatr (1 March 1916).
18 L. Ja. Gurevich, teatr. 'Romantiki' Merezhkovskogo,"' Rech'
(October 23, 1916), reprinted in full in Mqerkhol'd v russkoj teatral'noj kritike 1892-1918,
ed. N. V Pesochinskij et al. (Moscow: Artist. Rezhisser. Teatr, 1999), 330-333.
19 Meyerhold reported that in rehearsal the actors found joy in "living on stage" in this
play. To V V Safonov, November 5, 1916, in V E. Meierkhol'd, Perepiska 1896-1939
(Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1976), 185
20 A. R. Kugel', "Kogda budet p'esa o vojne?", Teatr i lskusstvo 44 (1916): 889-890
21 Vl. S. (Vladimir Nikolaevich Solov'ev), "Perrogradskie teatry," Apollon 9-10 (1916):
89-93.
22N. Dolgov, "'Romantiki' v Aleksandrinskom teatr," Apollon 9-10 (1916): 93-94
23 N. Slonimskij, "Svjatoj bunt. 'Romantiki' D. S. Merezhkovskogo," Birzhevskie
vedomosti (November 28, 1916) .
24 "Iz dnevnikov V A. Teljakovskogo" (October 19, 23, 28, 1916), in Mqerkhol'd i
drugie. Dokumen!J i materialy, ed. 0. M. Fel'dman (Moscow: 0. G. I., 2000), 108.
54 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
THE VARNA SUMMER FESTIVAL 2006
Dasha Krijanskaia
The annual Varna Summer Festival was held between May 31 and
June 11, 2006. With a population of 350,000, Varna is Bulgaria's third largest
city and the biggest resort town on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Despite its
still developing tourist infrastructure, Varna's population significantly increases
during the summer period, and its growth is expected to boost ticket sales
during the festival.
Considered the country's biggest international theatre festival, Varna
Summer grew out of a national festival that gradually integrated a number of
foreign shows over the years. According to the festival booklet, the 2006
program consisted of thirty works that included seven foreign pieces, a couple
of stage readings, and two discussions on play translation and stage
interpretations of the classics. The program looked quite serious at first
glance. Yet, despite the enormous efforts of Nikolay Yordanov, the festival
executive director, and his team, 100,000 Euro proved hardly sufficient to
make a respectable festival nowadays. The nicely printed booklet reached me
only two days after the festival started; the foreign guests were lodged outside
the city. More importantly, the festival provided no meeting space for informal
communication, and such spaces prove tO be crucial for the success of any
festival. Out of forty-one festival guests (of whom eleven were international)
I was able to meet only three, one in particular, a traveling professor from
Izmir University, Turkey, appeared to be as dazed and confused as I was. Only
a festival newspaper published regularly in English helped us out with some
information and commentary-a publication for which the festival team
certainly deserves credit.
Minor discomforts aside, the program presented a far bigger
problem. It followed a familiar festival trend in its attempt to cover most of
the performing arts, including drama, dance, site-specific performance, and
puppet theatre. It even offered a "concert happening" by the popular actor
Hristo Mutafchiev together with musicians from the rock group BTR.
Regrettably, a meager budget resulted in the lack of coherence; diversity
became transformed into compromised selection and weak artistic credo.
While the financial support coming from the two major sponsors-the
55
Ministry of Culture and the Varna Municipal Council-is definitely
insufficient, international business in Bulgaria, according to Yordanov, is
interested in supporting mass culture rather than artistic projects. These are
the realities of global capitalism. Furthermore, the actual budget is not
finalized until February, a date so late that the organizational process becomes
a disaster.
As a result, the international section seemed to be put together by
various gatekeepers of official culture, such as the British Council of Bulgaria,
the Japan Foundation, and the French Community Wallonie-Bruxelles, and
presented a safe, small-scal.e, uncontroversial selection, X-Time Dress (by the
Irene K. Company, Belgium, choreography by Irene Kalbush) turned out to be
a middle-of-the-road piece of site-specific theatre full of dance cliches. The
internationally acclaimed Seagull (from Kretakor Theatre, Hungary), a highlight
of the festival, was too old to be a novelty.
Kamelia Nikolova, Chair of the Theatre Studies Department at the
Bulgarian National Academy for Theatre and Film, pronounced this year's
international part of the festival to be "very good, ambitious, and adequate to
what is presently shown in European theatre." I wonder whether it is possible
to present adequately contemporary European theatre without the works of
such artists as Luc Perceval, Alan Plate!, Frank Castorf, Thomas Ostermeier,
Luc Bondi, Sasha Walz, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Simon McBurney,
Garcia Rodrigues, Pippo Delbono, Lev Dodin, and Anatoly Vasiliev being
included. The statement perhaps points to the absence of university travel
grants and to other financial hardships in Bulgaria that make professional trips
impossible and result in Bulgaria's cultural isolation. For the same reason, the
exceptionally friendly Bulgarian spectators responded enthusiastically to each
and every presentation of Western European art, and kept saying that they
have never seen anything like it before.
As for the Bulgarian shows, I found Bulgarian theatre to be quite
conventional. After World War II, when Bulgaria became a political and
ideological satellite of the USSR, Stanislavskian realism in its Soviet mode was
imposed on Bulgarian theatre for ideological reasons. More than fifty percent
of the mandatory Bulgarian repertory had to consist of Russian and Soviet
plays, and the training system worked to reproduce the stale Soviet version of
Stanislavsky's method. When the Soviet theatre slipped into stagnation in the
mid-eighties, Bulgarian theatre shared the fate of its "big brother."
56 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
To increase the Soviet influence even further, quite a few Bulgarian
directors and actors were trained in the theatre schools in Moscow and Kiev
in the seventies and eighties. Among them, Mladen Kissilov, formerly a
directing student of Anatoly Efros in Moscow and currently a professor of
acting and directing at Carnegie Mellon, presents an exceptional case. His
latest work, Raspluev's Merry Dqys, based on Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin's
trilogy, won this year's annual Bulgarian national awards for Best Director, Best
Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, but regrettably it suffered a last minute
cancellation during the festival.
Contemporary Bulgarian theatre seems to replicate the style of an
average Russian production-with the addition of Balkan vivacity and
emotional openness. Whether it is a piece staged by the highly successful
Alexander Morfov, currently an artistic director at the National Ivan Vazov
Theatre, or the established Marius Kourkinsky, a former actor at the same
theatre, or the well-known Bina Haralampieva, the results share certain
common characteristics. The aesthetic of these productions is heavily text-
based; its major task is to bring forward a problem or an idea that could be
verbalized; and it recognizes no rift between language and text, between word
and meaning. Character is conceived as a fixed entity, although there is
differentiation between what are thought to be romantic, comic, and
commedia dell'arte acting styles. The performances are customarily actor-
oriented, and the acting styles feature dated antics or melodramatically
exaggerated movements and line delivery. Except in the hands of a few
directors such as Lev Dodin, Anatoly Vasiliev, Pyotr Fomenko, and Kama
Ginkas, the Russian style has the same basic features. Due to this artistic
kinship, Morfov works successfully in Moscow and Saint Petersburg where he
elicits from the Petersburg actor Vladimir Bogdanov (in Moliere's Don Juan)
and the Moscow star Alexander Kalyagin (in Jarry's Ubu Roz) the same kind of
performance he does from his Bulgarian actors.
Staged by Kourkinsky at the National Ivan Vazov Theatre, No Trifling
with Love was meant to be a major asset of the festival. Celebrated by the
Bulgarian critics, the production ran in Varna's main city theatre to full houses
with audiences obviously enjoying the show. I found it an unwarranted attempt
to turn Musset's ironic comedy into a full -scale overacted melodrama with
some buffoonish elements. The acting was for the most part routine and the
gestures exaggerated, the mise-en-scene was unimaginative, and the director's
57
artistic choices conventional. Musset's reflections on the dangers of overly
sophisticated human game playing became transformed into a story of
betrayed and unreciprocated feelings, with several clownish figures
underscoring the major narrative. The endless power games played between
men and women, the gap between signifier and signified, and the tyranny of
language in the construction of reality were postmodern issues that did not
even enter into the old-fashioned mindset in which the production was
conceived. In the program, the director observed that today a human being
hangs "in the middle of nothingness and loves only in his dreams. And for a
second he is really capable of loving and this is the last hope alive. Do not trifle
with this last hope." This focus on human emotions to be directly funneled
from actors to audiences at all costs seems to me the source of what I would
describe as a major shortcoming of Bulgarian theatre, and this emotive
ostentation is apparently what Bulgarian audiences expect to experience at the
National Theatre. Alexandra Vassileva, the winner of the 2006 Best Actress
Award for her role as Camille in No Trifling with Love, displayed such a no-
holds-barred temperament that it was embarrassing for me to watch.
The production poster by Pavel Chervenkov was the best part of the
show, while stage designer Nikola Toromanov didn't live up to his previously
high standards. In earlier shows, such as the outstanding Three Sisters by Stoyan
Kambarev (1998) and the Russian-Bulgarian Dr. Chekhov staged by Petersburg
director Grigory Kozlov (2002), Toromanov designed spaces full of planes
and parallels capable of rotating and relocating. Like 3D dynamic abstract
paintings, these monochrome planes were entities in themselves; their moves
indicated shifts in rhythms rather than changes in location. They were
examples of what Una Chaudhuri and Elinor Fuchs in their book call
"landscape theatre," which is preoccupied with the spatial-temporal relations
between light, bodies, objects, and ideas rather than with the exclusive
privileging of the human condition.
In No Trifling with Love, Toromanov created a space in which a painted
backdrop reproducing Da Vinci's Last Supper became the dominant element
hanging over a long, empty dinner table. Given the prospect of a nunnery for
Camille, and the themes of betrayal and quest for Absolute Love, the stage
space provided allusions and allegorical motifs (including an ironic reference
to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code) in a descriptive manner instead of having an
independent life that allowed for multiple interpretations.
58 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
In sum, if the plays selected for the festival were in fact representative
enough, the current Bulgarian theatre does not live up to its own recent high
achievement: The Three Sisters staged in 1998 by the late Stoyan Kambarev,
1
whose untimely death shortly thereafter was a great loss for contemporary
Bulgarian theatre.
Given the financial and artistic circumstances under which he has had
to work, I can only applaud Nikolay Yordanov and his team for their zeal and
commitment. The introduction of some changes in the format may, however,
be worth considering. As of now, national performances enter the program in
three categories: the selected Bulgarian performances, specially invited
Bulgarian performances, and a parallel program. The parallel program is
basically a fringe section, but the other two categories are strictly limited to
drama theatre and are quite confusing. Selected Bulgarian performances
section is inherited from the times of the best national performance festival
and is put together by a special programmer who is not a permanent member
of the festival team. At the same time, the specially invited Bulgarian
performances are selected by the festival team. Why not combine these two
categories into one? Furthermore, why not make the international program
focus on the performing arts of the geographical region instead of trying to
fill the bill with something only randomly "international"? Capitalizing on the
regional would provide Varna with a distinctive artistic mission while at the
same time increasing the awareness of Bulgarian audiences. And finally, why
not strengthen the international program with the works of Bulgarian emigre
directors, such as Dirniter Gotscheff? A resident of Germany since his
twenties, he was named Director of the Year in 2005 by Theater Heute and
received the 2006 Berliner Theatertreffen award for his production of
Chekhov's Ivanov at the Volksbiihne. To present his work to Bulgarian
audiences could be a matter of pride for the next edition of the Varna Summer
Festival.
NOTES
1 For a discussion of the show, sec Dasha K.rijanskaia, "Dialog: Problemy dialoga,"
Toronto Slavic Quarter!J 9 (Summer 2004).
59
MILENA MARKOVIC:'S
TRACKS: MAY GOD LOOK UPON US
AT THE UTOPIAN THEATRE ASYLUMl
Cheryl Black
Four lost wars, international isolation and gangster economics have
combined to make Belgrade especially cruel to the young people who
have come of age during the 12 year reign of Miloscvic.2
Founded in Washington D.C. by Serbian emigres Zeljko and Natasha
Djukic in 1995 and transplanted to Chicago in 1999, The Utopian Theatre
Asylum (TUTA) has produced a diverse repertory of Eastern and Western
European plays in its rwelve-year existence. TUTA attracts a small but
passionately devoted audience and has garnered a critical reputation for
productions that combine the highest caliber of artistic achievement with
cogent social and cultural critique.3 In October 2006, TUTA presented the U.S.
premiere of Tracks: Mqy God Look Upon Us, by award-winning playwright
:Milena Markovic, who was recently identified as "one of the leading and
certainly most interesting personalities in Serbian dramatic literature."4 Tracks,
written during a summer residency at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2002,
and subsequently produced in Serbia, Poland, and Germany, depicts in eleven
brief vignettes a fragmented vision of coming of age in a war zone.
Perceptively translated into contemporary American idiom by Duca
Kne:levic,s unerringly directed by Zeljko Djukic, and sensitively and fearlessly
performed by a young American cast, TUTA's Tracks illuminated a particular
historical moment even as it transcended that particularity to comment
profoundly on a broader human condition.6
The text is unmistakably grounded in the thirty-rwo-year-old
playwright's personal experience as part of the posrwar, post-Milosevic
generation-a generation that spent its youth in the midst of political and
cultural chaos and now, in early adulthood, faces the task of rebuilding
national and personal identities. Specific cultural allusions are infrequent but
distinctive: plum brandy, the Sava River, the exchange of a rapidly devaluing
Serbian currency for German Deutschmarks, and the presence of a "Muslim
bitch" as a hostage of war. Such references fix our attention on recent Balkan
60 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
Tracks: May God Look Upon Us, directed by Zeljko Djukic,
The Utopian Theatre Asylum
history, and several moments have the graphic authenticity of newsreel
footage, but abstract qualities present in the text and production, as well as
significant omissions, serve to displace the action, transforming raw
experience into poetry and moving this work closer to fable than fact.
Among the most abstract elements of the text are the composite,
archetypal characters that are not necessarily bound by conventions of
psychological realism. A single actress (Alice Wedoff) portrays a variety of
female characters (a girl who commits suicide, a school psychologist, a
prostitute, a hostage, and a nurse). This female persona is identified in the text
as Buttonhole. (The Serbo-Croatian rupica literally translates as "little hole," i.e.,
a metonym identifying woman as, exclusively, her sex.) The character is never
actually called Buttonhole in performance but is referred to as a bitch fourteen
times. (Women in general are referred to as bitches an additional five times.) The
word slut is used five times, bal?Jdoll or doff four times,Jatso twice, cunt twice, and
61
kid and stupid goose once. Buttonhole's first appearance, as a schoolgirl wearing
a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt identifies her with the world's most famous icon of
feminine sexuality, foreshadowing her perpetual objectification during the play.
Sexual assault, or the threat of sexual assault, confronts Buttonhole in almost
every scene.
The treatment of male characters is a similarly pointed critique of
gender and identity. Male characters are identified in the script as Idiot, Nasty,
Hero, Cheery, Greasy, Natives, and Fishermen. Only Nasty and Cheery are,
however, ever called by these names in performance. Male characters are also,
at various times, referred to as sissie, dickhead, prick, motherfucker, jarhead,
chicken brain, Neanderthals, and peasants. In a parallel to Buttonhole's evocation of
an icon of pop culture femininity, an especially abusive male character sports
a Marlboro jacket, an emblem of idealized (American) masculinity.
7
62
A through line of sorts exists-Idiot, Nasty, Hero, and Buttonhole
Tracks: Mqy God Look Upon Us, directed by Zeljko Djukic,
The Utopian Theatre Asylum
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
are characters whose personalities and relationships are established in the first
scene (when they are school kids) and are picked up in later scenes. The
through line is frequently broken, however, as characters exhibit personalities
inconsistent with previous appearances. In this way, the play offers a range of
possible life paths, futures, or "tracks" for these characters, given the
circumstances in which fate has placed them. Within these fragmented
storylines, Buttonhole's consistent desire for love and happiness emerges as a
significant unifying thread through the piece, and the female archetype serves
as the central character. Most of the male characters, by contrast, seem driven
by competitive possessiveness, which the play offers as an elemental
motivation for violence and war. Men kill each other because other men have
taken "our bitch, our promenade, our gelato, our houses." Omitted from the
text is any specific political reference or discussion of any particular, concrete
circumstances leading to the Balkan war(s).
The abstract, almost monochromatic scenic design (by Martin
Andrew) is dominated by three towering, angled wall units, providing deep
alleys for entrances and exits. Two set pieces with angled surfaces are located
stage left and stage center. Everything is painted shades of gray; the bottom
edges of the wall units look grungy, and the overall effect is of a rather grim
urban cityscape. This environment served, with minimal alteration, as all
locales required: a schoolyard, restaurant, school psychologist's office
(suggested through traditional school desks), basketball court, bridge, bunker,
lakeshore, and "Paradise" (indicated iconically through the addition of a
swing). Simplicity of form as well as the grand scale of the wall units provided
a vaguely classical atmosphere, and if one were so inclined, one might see the
center set piece as an altar of sorts, introducing at least the possibility of God
in this bleak universe.
Violence of all types is ubiquitous here-ten of the eleven scenes
include physical cruelty, from the brutal bullying of childhood to the wholesale
rape, maiming, and murder of war. These snapshots of brutality are
interrupted by musical interludes and other narrative interventions. (On
several occasions, Djukic's cast breaks character and the fourth wall to play a
quick game of basketball or "actor's tag.") Rather than lessening the emotional
impact of what they interrupt, however, these interventions prevent our
becoming inured and therefore desensitized to the violent imagery. In effect,
they clear the emotional palate, allowing for maximum visceral impact for each
63
succeeding image. The production avoids wallowing in pathos; however, the
scenes move so swiftly from moment to moment, and mood to mood, that we
are forced to let go of one sensation to allow for the next. Moreover, an
unmistakable sense of life's absurdity pervades the most horrific moments,
enabling us to laugh, for example, at a man who will kill another because he is
sitting by "his bush"-the one he squats behind to relieve himself. In this
context, and in keeping with the play's themes, his possessive feelings toward
"his bush" have sexual, as well as geopolitical, connotations.
MarkoviC's text frequently suggests songs to introduce scenes,
identifying Serbian as well as American options. Djukic and his multi-talented
cast, that also constituted a band of five instruments (trumpet, bass, guitar,
saxophone, and drums), created more fully imagined, live musical numbers
that introduced, interrupted, or became integral parts of the action.
Sometimes they served as expressionistic devices. Djukic begins the action
with familiar childhood games of tag and keep-away, which segue into a song.
MarkoviC's text suggests the Serbian children's song A Wo!f and a Sheep or an
English approximation, W h o ~ Afraid of the Big Bad Wo!f, but Djukic's cast
delivers an edgy No More o n ~ s Jumpin' on the Bed, as if it were a primeval,
protest song, beginning quietly but building to a confrontational in-your-face
shout. Several musical numbers provide interesting counterpoints to the
action. In a scene between Hero as teen hoodlum and Buttonhole as school
therapist, his verbal assault-"go fuck yourself, you cunt" and Buttonhole's
anguished scream are immediately followed by their rollicking duet of Let the
Good Times RolL
Come on baby let the good times roll.
Come on baby let me thrill your soul.
Come on baby let the good times roll.
Roll all night long ....
Djukic prefaces a later scene of humiliation of Buttonhole with a pop
culture anthem of female assertiveness, delivered by Wedoff in a punk roar:
64
You keep saying you've got something for me,
something you call love,
But confess, you've been messin'
Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
Where you shouldn't have been a messin'
And now someone else is gettin' all your best.
These boots are made for walking,
And that's just what they'll do.
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you!
By scene four, the boys have reached draft age, and Nasty appears in army
uniform at a seaside town with Buttonhole as a prostitute. Eventually the
Natives notice and resent the presence of the soldier, equating his possession
of one of "their" women with territorial invasion: "You came here to walk our
bitch on our promenade, to buy her our gelato, tomorrow you'll want more,
and after that you'll move into our houses, motherfucker, we won't let you."
Yelling at the "bitch" to go home, the Natives approach the soldier with a
knife, and the scene ends with his scream of pain.
The next scene takes us directly to a battlefront shelter, where Hero
lies on the floor, severely wounded. Nasty, wearing an eye patch (now we know
how scene four ended), hauls in a "Muslim bitch," her hands tied behind her.
Cheery, he explains, has rescued her from gang rape, ordering Nasty to take
her to safety. When Nasty leaves, the wounded soldier and female hostage
establish a kind of rapport, sharing common memories of volleyball, the Sava
River, and a rock concert they both attended some years previously.
Interestingly, the concert was by The Stranglers, a British punk group noted
for violent and sexist material and anti-war themes. Buttonhole remembers,
with pleasure, meeting a guy there and going home with him, but for Hero, this
event too was marked by violence: "Some skinheads beat the crap out of me."
Hero offers to kill her, sparing her a more brutal fate, but Buttonhole hangs
onto a hope that "Maybe my guys will come!" When Hero questions her about
Cheery, the light shifts, and Buttonhole moves upstage to join Cheery in a
memory from her past, or a dream of the future, as Cheery promises, ''You call
me, and I'll come ... and I'll protect you .... " In an expressionistic moment,
the band begins to play Sea of Love, and from the floor, the soldier begins to
sing "Come with me I My love I To the sea ... " An explosion shatters this
hauntingly beautiful and painful vision, and Nasty runs back in with the news
that he has accidentally killed Cheery. He then beats Hero into
unconsciousness (or death?) by slamming his head repeatedly on the floor and
turns to the girl with the ominous threat, "Now it's just you and me."
65
Tracks: Mqy God Look Upon Us, directed by Zeljko Djukic,
The Utopian Theatre Asylum
The first postwar scene is a poignant metaphor for rebuilding and
rehabilitation. Primary colors appear on stage for the fust time as Idiot and
Nasty construct and paint a small house in bright shades of red, blue, and
green for Nasty's daughter's pet cat. (fhe daughter is five and described as
"almost a bitch.") This business is accompanied by the remaining cast singing
the Stones' Paint It Black, which changes to REM's Losing MY Religion as Hero,
alive but drug-addicted, enters. The men begin to bicker over the construction
details, and in the confusion, Nasty spills brandy over the house. A devastated
Idiot suddenly produces a hand grenade from his pocket, hugs Nasty to him,
and pulls out the pin. The three men freeze. Instead of hearing the
"explosion," we hear the last verse of Paint It Black:
66 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and I want it painted black
Maybe then I'll fade away and not have to face the facts
It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black
That lawlessness and violence that characterize even postwar life is
reinforced in the next scene, in which two fishermen use dynamite to catch
fish, carry guns "for ducks" without hunting licenses, and plan to break into
an old man's houseboat to steal a kettle. Here Kne:ZeviC's translation moves
beyond the literal "Why do we need a key?" to make a pop culture allusion with
"We don't need no stinking key."8 Hero (recovering from grenade-inflicted
wounds) and Buttonhole (now a nurse) are picnicking on the lake. In a rare
gentle moment, Hero speaks hopefully of the future: "May God look upon us,
both of us," and kisses her. But like the locals in the earlier scene with the
soldier and the prostitute, the fishermen resent the presence of an outsider.
They begin to harass the couple, exchanging insults until finally they pull out
their weapons and move toward Hero. A gunshot is heard, and the girl turns
toward the audience in a silent scream, an embodiment of Munch's painting.
In the ftnal scene, Buttonhole, in a gauzy white dress, sits in a swing
with Cheery, still in military fatigues, beside her. They are trapped in a
Beckettian afterlife-inane grins frozen on their faces. After all the pain of
living, heaven seems similarly disappointing. As they swing, the cast joins them
for an aggressive version of Coin' to the Chapel. In this context, their defiant
delivery of "we'll love until the end of time and we'll never be lonely any
more," reveals the awesome ability of human beings to hope against hope, to
keep struggling against whatever it is, including our own violent impulses that
threaten to destroy our chances for love, happiness, and peace.
Six months before the September 2000 elections that ousted
Slobodan Milosevic from power, a student activist spoke to a London
journalist of the toll taken by a decade of war, crime, sanctions, poverty, and
fear: "We are all afraid of what is coming. But we are determined to fight. Now
the only thing that is left in Pandora's box is hope."9 Perhaps, as Tracks
suggests, that is all the human race has ever had, and perhaps, if God is
merciful, that will be enough.
67
NOTES
lThis analysis is based on my attendance at performances of Tracks on October 27 and
28, 2006, the Viaduct Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, the production text, photographs, and
a DVD of the performance provided by Zeljko Djukic, and a telephone interview with
Alice Wedoff, December 18, 2006.
2 Blaine Harden, "The l\lilosevic Generation," Ne1v York Times, August 30, 1999.
3 For more information on TUTA, see tutato.com.
4 Vladimir Stamenkovic, N!N, June 16, 2006, jdp.co.yu/plays/boatfordolls.html
5 I am grateful to Duca Kndevic for supplying me with excerpts from the
Serbo-Croatian text, and for translations of any Serbian terms used in this essay.
6 The ensemble cast included Alice Wedoff, Keith D. Gallagher, Andy Hager, David
Merritt, Adam Kalesperis, Kevin Viol, and Shaun Whirley.
7 Costumes for this production were designed by Natasha Djukic.
8 The allusion is to the oft misquoted exchange from the 1948 film The Treasure of the
Sierra Madre: "Badges!? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have
to show you any stinking badges!!"
9 Maggie O'Kane, "They Have Lost Everything Except Hope," London Guardian,
March 14,2000. Accessed from LEXIS NEXIS, December 8, 2006.
68
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
BELARUS THEATRE IS FREE (WHEN IT'S NOT IN BELARUS):
A NIGHT OF FREE THEATER, CULTURE PROJECT'S
IMPACT FESTIVAL 2006
Evelina Mendelevich
As I was settling down in my seat at Baruch Performing Arts Center's
Nagelberg Theater on October 16, 2006, I was startled by a very clear, only
slightly trembling voice, saying very slowly, as if repeating a lesson, "My name
is Irina Krasovskaya. My husband was kidnapped and killed in 1999." l turned
back and saw a fragile woman addressing her neighbor. "There will be a play
about me today," she added.
There could hardly be a more apposite introduction to New York-
Belarus: A Night of Free Theater, the first-ever U.S. reading of plays by a
young Belarusian playwright, Andrei Kureichik, and the dramatists of the
underground Belarusian Free Theater: Pavel Priazhko, Konstantin Steshik,
Pavel Rassolko, Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada. The event was attended by
nearly two hundred people, mostly American rather than emigre (Oleg
Shafranov, Yury Koliada, and Dina Kupchanka translated the works from
Russian, in which the plays were written, for this event), and was co-produced
by a New York-based playwright, director, and actor Aaron Landsman, who
became interested in the Free Theater after reading an article about it in New
York Times earlier that year. As the handout distributed at the entrance
explained, the Free Theater's focus is "theatre that reacts to today's events"
and "speaks the language of our time." And just as Irina K.rasovskaya shared
her story with her neighbor-the same story she delivered in the White House
and at the United Nations and probably hundreds of other times throughout
the world- Belarusian playwrights reacted to events by bringing these stories
to life: stories of political arrests and kidnappings, of individual clashes with
the system, of everyday infringements of human rights. While they speak a
language of dissent, a language that echoes Irina's loud and unambiguous
message, it is not political language, it is human language- the language one
may hear in stores, on college campuses, in nightclubs, or at work.
Belarus has a notorious reputation as Europe's last dictatorship. Since
the country's president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, won the presidential
elections in 1994, he has been accused not only of trampling on democracy
69
and human rights but also of authorizing and organizing the arrests,
kidnappings, and murders of political dissidents. His oppressive regime
spreads well beyond politics: even if theatre and literature are not used as tools
of propaganda, writers, playwrights, and directors are not allowed to challenge
the idealized picture of a happy, united, healthy, and secure nation that
successfully resists the constant threat of anarchy coming from the West-a
picture Belarusian citizens are well familiar with from the government-
controlled media. As a result, writers, actors, and companies seeking freedom
of artistic expression-as opposed to following state-authorized standards-
are forced underground, performing to carefully filtered audiences in bars,
nightclubs, and private apartments without stage, decor, or advertisement, save
for selective word of mouth, risking their jobs, their places in universities, and
often their freedom. It was to promote work of such dramatists and actors
that Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin started their project, Free Theater,
in March of 2005.
Tom Stoppard, one of the best-known supporters of the Free
Theater (another is the former Czech president Vaclav Havel), opened the
evening with his brief yet eloquent speech on the importance of freedom for
art, as well as for people in general. He noted the ironic nature of the
Belarusian Free Theater, as its members are "people who are free in their
minds," but, unfortunately, not free to present their work to a larger Belarusian
audience. Stoppard stated that he was proud to support these "young, gifted,
brave people," who remind him of the struggling artists of Czechoslovakia,
his country of origin, under the Soviet regime in the 1970s.
The first reading presented was a series of excerpts from We.
Belliwood, a play by Pavel Priazhko, Konstantin Steshik, and Pavel Rassolko,
read by members of LAByrinth Theater Company and directed by Michelle
Chivu. The play is comprised of a series of episodes from several plays and
addresses, among other things, the search for identity and the difficulties
accompanying it, given the disparity between reality and its representation in
the Belarusian media. Characteristically for the Free Theater, one of the
episodes presented this evening dealt with the issue of freedom through an
ironical, almost absurd monologue on the master-slave relationship in the
contemporary-shall we add Belarusian?- world. One of the play's most
rebellious elements (which, however, American audiences are likely to miss) is
its rich use of obscene expressions, unofficially banned from the official
70 Slavic and East E uropean Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
Belarusian stage with its familiar, inoffensive repertory, devoted mainly to
canonical works.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of underground theatre is
that one is not expected to dress up for these performances. In fact, jeans
appear to be the most common and welcome form of attire. At least that was
my impression following the reading of the next play, Generation Jeans: Ode of
the New Generation by Nikolai Khalezin, presented at the festival by the Naked
Angles Theatre Company. The play is an extended autobiographical
monologue on jeans-an "Ode to Western Jeans," really-presented by the
Hero. It contains elements of Soviet stand-up comedy as the Hero recalls the
hardships one had to go through and tricks one had to resort to in order to
obtain real American jeans back in Soviet times. From the very beginning,
jeans appear as a symbol of freedom-freedom from parental control,
financial freedom, freedom from the old shibboleths. Humorous at the
beginning, the play gradually shifts to a more serious and somber mood as the
Hero gives an account of his arrests and mistreatment, followed by more
stories of infamous arrests and less known assaults. The play is blatantly
political and anti-Lukashenko: should Belarus ever have a revolution, it will be
not red, not orange, not even velvet-it would most likely be called the denim
(jeans) revolution after a famous incident when following the confiscation of
the forbidden white-and-red national flag by the police, one of the protesters
made an improvised flag from his denim shirt.
Like Generation Jeans, Natalia Koliada's play Thry Saw Dreams, adapted
and directed by Paul Willis, is also based on real events. Irina K.rasovskaya, the
actual prototype of one of the six heroines of the play, introduced the play
dedicated to her. Thry Saw Dreams is about six women, four of whom are wives
of "disappeared" oppositionists. In this play, the women prepare themselves
to articulate their stories before foreign journalists and officials as part of their
current political struggle. Koliada's goal, however, is to present the struggle
from a more intimate angle, voicing the troubled thoughts, shattered dreams,
and inner pain of wives and mothers-personal concerns that had to be
omitted from their public speeches which do not allow for intimate, emotional
digressions. It is easy to forget, Koliada seems to remind us, that behind
indefatigable public activists-a role these women are compelled to take of
necessity-stand wives and mothers whose families have been crushed, who
long for their lost husbands as they struggle to learn to live without their love
71
The Saw Dreams, adapted and directed by Paul Willis,
Culture Project's IMPACf Festival 2006
and support, and without a sense of security for themselves, for their children,
for their friends, and for their people.
Andrei Kureichik's Sk;y/Nikita Mitskevich, directed by Cynthia Croot
and translated by Dina Kupchanka, was the final play presented at the festival.
Excerpts from the play were read by members of the Tinderbox Theater.
Kureichik is a well-known contemporary Belarusian playwright and is the
recipient of a number of prestigious awards, including Russia's Best
Contemporary Play of 2002 Award for his play Piedmont Beast. The central
character, Nikita Mitzkevich, also acts as its narrator. The action of the play is
occasionally interrupted by his remarks, during which the rest of the actors
freeze, forming a living picture. In the short opening monologue, Nikita
addresses the audience directly, expressing, ironically, his disdain for "open
theatre" in which actors interact with audience directly. But then, he remarks,
it is a special peculiarity of the Belarusian mentality that one often does
precisely the opposite of what one wants to do. The same trait is found in the
other plays presented at the festival: the heroines of Koliada's play don't want
72 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
to become public activists yet have no choice; the Hero of Khalezin's play
hates politics yet finds himself involved in it-a conflict, it seems,
characteristic of underground Belarusian theatre, which doesn't necessarily
want to be political, but can't avoid it under the present circumstances.
Kureichik's play, however, offers much more than a political message. It is
lively, often funny, and always engaging. Its language ranges from street
obscenities and modern slang to lofty poetry declaimed with pathos by the
tragicomical romantic Oleg. The play's dialogical structure makes it easier to
digest the bitter truth of cotemporary Belarusian reality. In arguing against
today's oppressive regime, Kureichik employs reductio ad absurdum as his
dramaturgical method. In the opening of the play, Nikita earnestly believes
that one's freedom is entirely in one's own hands and sets out to prove this by
establishing his own free-art club, which, after a lively, entertaining debate, the
group agrees to name Sky. While he is finally able to overcome bureaucratic
obstacles with the help of his friend's bigwig parents, Nikita is too principled
to survive in the corrupt Belarusian system. He is by no means an idealized
young hero-he drinks, smokes marijuana, curses, and eventually opens the
doors of his club to drug dealers; however his shortcomings only strengthen
the play's major theme-the absurdity of the system-for at the end of the
play Nikita is arrested and jailed not for "all the unlawful activities, for which
(he] definitely should have gone to jail" but for "honest entrepreneurship," as
he refused to succumb to semi-official racketeering. The play is dissident not
only because it is anti-dictatorship, but also because it presents a picture of
Belarusian youth that the government carefully conceals-youths drinking,
throwing up, cursing, having sex in public places, doing drugs, and committing
suicide.
It was rather interesting to see Kureichik's play and work by Free
Theater as parts of one event. Initially working together with the Free Theater,
Kureichik is no longer associated with this company, apparently scorning its
preoccupation with political art. By focusing not on political activists, but on
ordinary young people with ordinary dreams, desires, virtues, and foibles, who
nevertheless become political refugees and political prisoners, Sli;y/Nikita
Mitskevich only confirms the harsh reality of Lukashenko's regime: no matter
how hard one tries to remain above politics, no matter how much one detests
and despises it, one cannot escape it if one wishes to be free-free in a very
basic, human sense.
73
S/::;y/ Nikita Mitskevich, directed by Cynthia Croot,
Culture Project's IMPACT Festival 2006
The Night of Free Theater in New York (and it was free in every
sense of the word!) was a very successful event. Free things always come as a
pleasant surprise, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying the readings of
the play as much as I enjoy good fully staged performances. A number of
factors have contributed to bringing this reading close to the level of a full
production, not the least of which has to do with the special circumstances
surrounding the staging of such plays in Belarus. Since private apartments,
bars, and other nontraditional locations do not allow for elaborate stage
decorations, the plays rely entirely on the actors for their ultimate effect.
Hence, it seems, a framework of storytelling is characteristic of these
underground plays. It creates, among other things, an alternative to other
stories-the ones told by different actors and on a different- political-stage.
And I am happy to note that the actors of LAByrinth, Naked Angels, and
Tinderbox Theater Companies presented these stories as if they were their
own, feeling (it seemed) and living every word of them-so much so that one
74 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
forgot that the original voices spoke in a different language. But then, perhaps,
freedom has its own language--one that is not lost in translation.
As I left the auditorium and made my way to the subway through the
large, fetid garbage bags aligned along the narrow Manhattan street, I felt a
pang inside: I miss Minsk with its clean streets, the fairytale-like facades of the
old city, the marble walls of the metro, and most of all, the beautiful people
who live there. I know these people well. For them, I know, it is not about
revolution, not even so much about democracy or human rights, really. It is
about basic human needs and desires-to have loved ones near, to earn an
honest living without the feeling of committing a crime, to know who you are,
and to be able to tell your own story.
75
LYUBIMOV'S SOUF(F)LE:
LIFE AND DEATH AT THE TAGANKA
Nicholas Rzhevsky
Death marks Yury Lyubimov's recent productions at the Taganka
Theatre, including most notably the trilogy starting with Before and After and Go
and Stop the Progress and concluding with Souf(f)le.
1
The title, Souf(f)le, takes
advantage of the French meanings of souffle, souffle, and souffleur in various
Russian denotations. Souffle as omelet, incorporates a familiar reference among
Russian stage professionals to the "theatrical kitchen" that cooks up the tricks
and recipes that make up stage practice, as well as marking the many and varied
ingredients that are combined in the adaptation. A recipe for one omelet noted
in the program, in which the prime ingredient is brains, suggests the painful
contribution to the socialist diet of the theatre's own political past and is taken
out of a cookbook published the year of Stalin's death. The sense of hard
breathing defines the young cast's response to the sometimes impossible pace
set by Lyubimov, but also suggests the momentary breath of life that theatre
gives to words, dead space, and inanimate objects. Beckett's Malone suggests
this brief span of theatrical existence: "Decidedly it will never have been given
to me to finish anything, except perhaps breathing. One must not be greedy."
Finally, sufler, the Russian borrowing from the French for "prompter,"
reinforced by Lyubimov's recorded voice-overs beginning and ending the
evening, alerts the audience to the controlling imagination that reminds the
actors with texts.
As in the two preceding productions, Lyubimov, aided by the
uncredited choreographer, Andrei Melanin, created a precise score of
movements for his cast that would have done justice to a good small ballet
company. Although there were solo numbers, the overall impression was
choral, reinforced by the program designation of the actors, listed in
alphabetical order without attribution of roles, as "The Team." The cast
members alternated suits and street clothes with white hospital gowns,
reminiscent of shrouds. Their uniform movement to Vladimir Martynov's
musical score allowed no emotional or interpersonal development beyond the
texts they spoke, chanted, or sang. The individuality of the production was
concentrated in the director's shaping imagination, and the cast's sacrifice of
76 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
Souf(j)le, directed by Yury Lyubimov, at the Taganka Theatre
personal identity went hand in hand with the themes of dehumanization
Lyubimov found in the texts of Nietzsche, Beckett, and Kafka. Vladimir
Kovalchuk's stage design (qualified as the director's idea in the program)
consisted entirely of three large stands that could be taken for bus stops with
walls that were decorated by a motley assortment of signs, notices, and
advertisements. These were the written detritus of commercial popular
culture, but without referents and marking the absence of human
conjunctions.
In the course of the evening, the walls would be transformed from
the bus stop, to a bureaucratic labyrinth, to a hospital ward, and to doors and
windows open to all possibilities. Unexpectedly, the ads and signs also included
snatches of philosophical texts taken up and read by Lyubimov's actors. They
introduced the major texts developed later: Kafka's The Trial, Beckett's Malone
Dies, Nietzsche's Gqy Science, and bits and pieces of James Joyce. The main
ingredients of the production were taken from Kafka and Beckett, while
Nietzsche and Joyce provided intellectual garnish. The authors were honored,
in typical Taganka fashion, through their portraits, which appeared and
77
disappeared on the stage sides throughout the evening.
Kafka's novel struck the note of contemporary import for which the
old Taganka was famous; critics reacted with glee to the possibilities of
interpreting Joseph K's arrest and legal nightmare as a commentary on the
incarceration of the Yukos executive, Mikhail K.hodorovsky.2 Ultimately,
however, political interpretations of the adaptation were as short-sighted as
political interpretations of Kafka himself. For Lyubimov, the theatrical
transformation of Joseph K. touched on Khodorovsky's fate only as a casual
reference to contemporary oppression but, at the core, dealt with the themes
of fate and death themselves, noted somewhere at the middle of the
performance by the aphorism: "Old age steps into the last battle with God and
always loses." The quote applied equally to Joseph K, as played by Vladimir
Cherniaev, as to Lyubimov. The Trial's pathos, as the Taganka took care to
indicate through the actor's skillful performance of helplessness and the gleam
of futility in his eyes and movement, lay not merely in the absurdities of social
repression or of excessive bureaucracy, but evoked the doomed human
condition in its inevitable confrontation with mortality.3
Malone Dies continued the aesthetic game with death at its most
personal level. Feliks Antipov played Beckett's definitive modernist creation of
alienated individualism, attempting to find meaning through withdrawal into
the self. His performance consisted of an extended internal monologue,
provided by a marionette temporarily coming to life and threatening to
withdraw into non-being at any moment. In a stream of consciousness tour de
force, Malone/ Antipov, as Man Alone, rebelled against the inevitable by
turning inward to chance snatches of memory, rage before death, and
frustrated impotence.
Antipov also led the chorus in establishing the strong rhythm of the
production, punctuated by Mart:ynov's quotations of Wagner and Mahler. The
chorus's major props were folding chairs, used as large castanets to bang out
the march of inevitability when opened and closed, and to create various
structures, including the shape of a cross to mark Malone's passing. With a
slight shift of the angle at which the chairs were held, the chairs were
transformed from the image of a cross to a clock, as the actors oscillated in an
inevitable tick-tock rhythm. Although not included in the program
acknowledgements, Ionesco undoubtedly figured in this particular reference to
the theatre of the absurd.
78 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No.1
Souf(f)le, directed by Yury Lyubimov, at the Taganka Theatre,
with FeW<s Antipov as Beckett's Malone
The play concluded with a balancing act-metaphor and fulfillment
of the theatrical process but also more. It was performed by a young actress
playing a violin and signaling the play and life of art in the face of death. Her
journey began from behind Nietzsche's portrait. It opened and she carefully
stepped out onto a narrow beam, which she crossed to the sound of music
that she created, but also accompanied by Lyubimov's recorded voice: "The
will was opened. Nothing-to no one." Once again, the director confronted
God's mortality along with his own, and in the face of cynicism and disbelief
asserted the agency of art and its capacity to create in the face of the void.
In flouting death as he approached his ninth decade, Lyubimov's
work at the Taganka also refused to accept the preeminence of the historical
moment. Obvious targets for theatrical response-the continued sway of
79
criminals in the economy and government, the inability of the Putin
government to deal with terrorism in Chechnya and other regions of the
country, the ominous notes of authoritarian rule that began to sound again-
were neglected or downplayed in favor of basic issues the theatre found in the
writers of the two earlier parts of the trilogy. The seeming breakdown in form,
in favor of an apparent postmodern fragmentation and collage without
obvious patterns, did not so much reflect a sense of the present historical
disorder as assert the right of theatre to make its own choices and to shape
history in its own forms.
The strong urge to proclaim this commitment to art originated in
Lyubimov's long-standing sense of authorship. The author-director responded
to his reality in terms of the great literary interpretations of modernity-as
disjointed, irrational, dehumanizing, and rich in meaning beyond ordinary
perspectives and reductive definitions. Lyubimov's use of the texts in the
unabashed immediacy with which they entered his conscience and prodded his
imagination ultimately asserted the shaping power of individual aesthetic
vision-thus also the portraits that the Taganka honored-even in its greatest
confrontations with chaos and death. In the respect he paid authors neglected
by or entirely unknown to Russians, Lyubimov insisted on the rights of his
own views and art. Through this highly personal sense of literature, the
director attempted nothing less and nothing more than changing the course of
Russian culture, by bringing to life the texts that are missing in its retarded
development under communism.
The Taganka thumbed its nose at historical contingency and the
postmodern sensibility that imagined art without due recognition of the
central role played by the aesthetic self in our perception of things.
Approaching mortality, Lyubimov withdrew inward in the way he best knew
how, through the public space of stage performance which he used to assert
the particular, aesthetic meaning of his life. The act of introversion in the
proximity of death made moot all considerations of audience or critical
response, of his actors' own realities, of proper form and decorum, or of his
country's sad social-political state. Yet Lyubimov knew his confrontation with
mortality ultimately to be the product-honed by him and transfigured into a
personal reality, but nevertheless very much the product-of the wonderfully
fecund theatrical tradition of which he was part. In Before and After, the
performers jumped out of Malevich's Black Square (that served as the setting)
80 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
as the Harlequins and Columbines of t he commedia dell'arte, and then at the
finale they passed back into it as Russia's poets. With them, the Taganka
returned to the starting point of the century with the first important literary-
theatrical collaboration in Blok and Meyerhold's Balaganchik (The Fairground
Booth). There was no irony or representational distance in these performative
acts; there was only the stage's immediate assertion of literature as theatrical
reality.
NOTES
1
The official premiere of the first part of the trilogy, Before and After, a collage of texts
by twenty-three Russian writers, mainly of the Silver Age, was October 2003, although
the adaptation was performed in preview in April of that year. The second, Co and Stop
the Progresr (Oberiu), based on the works of Vvedensky Kharms, Zabolotsky,
Kruchonykh, and Oleinikov, premiered April 23, 2004. A Free FanltJ!] on the
Theme of Works !ry F. Niefi!che, F Kafka, S. Beckett, j jqyce, premiered April 23, 2005.
2 Among the most vocal: Valeria Novodvorskaya, "Taganskii nabat," Novqye vremia, No.
22 (2005).
3 To the question given to him by a correspondent of Argumenry i Jakry, on whether
he was optimistic about Russia's future, Lyubimov answered: ''At my age that's not
what one should be thinking. I wiU be eighty-eight years old, and you speak of
optimism. . . . I am preparing myself for the other world. If I was thinking o f
something else, I would be a complete fool." Arg11menry i Jakry, 24 (1285), June 15,
2005.
81
RIMAS TUMINAS'S THREE SIS7BRS IN MOSCOW
Maria Ignatieva
Rimas Tuminas comes to Moscow quite often. He does not feel that
working with Russians compromises his dignity as a Lithuanian director, an
attitude unfortunately characteristic of some other theatre practitioners from
the former Soviet republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the
liberation of their countries. Tuminas does not regard all Russians as Soviets,
nor does he blame his colleagues for having been part of the U.S.S.R.; neither
he nor they had a choice. He knows that the great theatre culture of Russia has
survived the political turmoil and that Russian theatergoers are eager to see his
productions-both old and new. In the summer of 2006, when many people
were on vacation abroad or at their dachas, Tuminas brought to Moscow for a
ten-day tour the State Small Theatre of Vilnius, of which he is the artistic
director. They performed at the Mayakovsky Theatre, playing in Lithuanian
with simultaneous Russian translation through car phones, and the tickets,
although very expensive for Russians (twelve to fifteen dollars for the galleries
and up to sixty dollars for the parterre), were sold out in a day.
Turninas's repertory in Moscow included Lermontov's Masquerade,
Chekhov's Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, Becket's Waitingfor Godot, and the
contemporary comic drama Madagascar by Marius Ivaskevicius. Although all
the abovementioned productions bear Tuminas's unique artistic signature, I
chose to write about his Three Sisters as the most original and fresh
interpretation of the play that Moscow has seen in years.
In 1978 at the age of twenty-six, Rimas Tuminas graduated from
GITIS (the Russian Academy of Dramatic Arts) as a director. Since
Stanislavsky, the profession of director has been the most respected in Russian
theatre; since Meyerhold and Vakhtangov, the director has acquired the right
to express his/her personal vision and supremacy over dramatic texts. This
concept of the director has had great influence on Tuminas.
In the late seventies and early eighties, GITIS was the center and the
citadel of Russian theatre. Tuminas's youth and coming of age coincided with
the times of the last giants of twentieth-century Russian Theatre. The best
directors, actors, theatre historians, and critics of the time taught at GITIS,
among them were Maria Knebel, Pavel Markov, Boris Alpers, Anatoly Efros,
82 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
Three Sisters, directed by Rim as Tuminas
and Andrey Goncharov. Thus such names as Stanislavsky, Meyerhold,
Vakhtangov, and Tairov were still remembered as once-living elder
contemporaries and not merely as legends from books. These great teachers
surrounded the students, teaching them as much in the corridors of GITIS as
during lectures, in the Moscow theatres as well as at late-night gatherings over
a cup of coffee or a bottle of vodka. Although Soviet rhetoric was used in
GITIS, it was not believed in, and the great theatre fraternity above and
beyond official ideology was fir mly established there once and for all.
Nostalgia for that time would forever touch everyone who lived through those
days when poverty coexisted with the richness of cultural discoveries, and the
invisible presence of the KGB with unlimited freedom of ideas. That was the
atmosphere in which Tuminas came of age, as a director and as a man, an
atmosphere akin to that described by Milan Kundera as "the unbearable
lightness of being."
Having come to Moscow from Vilnius, which was always
acknowledged by the Russian inteUigentsia as a European city, Tuminas found
83
himself at the center of international theatre culture, a center located behind
the Iron Curtain. Since the fifties, Bertolt Brecht, Peter Brook, Ingmar
Bergman, and Andrzjei Wajda used to "drop by" in Moscow with their shows
and seminars presented at the VTO (All-Russia Theatre Society). Now, in turn,
at the age of fifty-four, Tuminas comes to Moscow as a renowned European
director.
Three Sisters has a symbolic meaning for the State Small Drama
Theatre of Vilnius. The company just moved into a new theatre building; the
younger actors, Tuminas' former and current students, have become part of
the troupe. In these very happy times of his final acquisition of a home for his
theatre, which also coincides with the peak of his career and international
fame, Tuminas directs a show about the loss of a home and about lost souls. At
the end of his Three Sisters, with its three young, beautiful, and desperate
heroines on stage, only the most composed spectators do not cry. The show,
which at no point is ever the least bit sentimental, moves one to the depths of
one's soul, and appeals to the most secret passages of one's memories.
Tuminas wrote:
I have a feeling that Chekhov throughout his life was guided by his
childhood, by the light of that childhood. Childhood has a glow
because it holds a feeling of safety. You feel safe because you are
surrounded by your own people, by relatives. As the family
diminishes, you start losing that safety. I am fascinated with the
vanished.l
Is this true of Chekhov? We know that Chekhov had a very troubled and
unhappy childhood and that he was beaten by his father and finally abandoned
by his whole family in Taganrog. Sentiment is not a characteristic of Chekhov's
portrayals of babies and children in his stories and plays, and he was not
nostalgic for his childhood. In Three Sisters, for example, Natasha uses her two
babies Bobik and Sofochka in her campaign to drive the sisters out of their
house. So it was not his childhood that Chekhov missed, but rather his lost
youth. Chekhov, perhaps like the director himself, was nostalgic for the days
when he was young and lived in Moscow surrounded by friends, drinking
champagne when free from writing and studying medicine, and breathing life
to the full capacity of his lungs, not yet damaged by tuberculosis. I think that
84 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
this nostalgia was the inspiration for Tuminas, who recreates with incredible
exactitude lost youth, when one drinks in life and enjoys it to the fullest,
together with the heartaches and pains that it brings.
Tuminas rarely employs furnished spaces in his productions. His use
of space is free and subjective; instead of furniture, he prefers one central
device, a functional and important piece of scenery that can be easily
transformed into various places. Thus the raised platform on the stage in Three
Sisters becomes a bed, a table, a room, Irina's nursery, and a cemetery of
dreams. Draped in white at the beginning, it is covered by black fabric at the
end. In the air, high above the characters' heads, Turninas hangs the cemetery
fence, which is never lowered onto the stage, but nevertheless creates an aura
of doomed life.
Usually, in staging Three Sisters, the director chooses one sister and her
story to accentuate, and then groups the others around her. For the original
Moscow Art Theatre, it was Masha (Olga Knipper) and Vershinin (played by
Stanislavsky) and their great love, which stood out and produced the romantic
and tragic overtones. In the late thirties, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko
chose Irina (Angelina Stepanova); although she lost all hope, yet final
illumination came to the three sisters at the end. For Anatoly Efros in the
1960s, as described by Pavel Markov, the play was a story about four sisters,
and the director blamed the sisters harshly for not resisting the evil in Narasha.
For Sergei Artsybashev in the 1990s, it was a story about Masha and her love
for Vershinin, which blossomed in a world that knew no mercy. Tuminas
centers the story on Irina, casting Elzbieta Latenaite as the charismatic catalyst
of the whole play. In a top hat, like a conjurer, Irina swings her riding crop, as
if it were a conductor's baton. Only Chebutykin (Gedirninas Gerdvinis), the
old doctor, guesses the sad ending of the story from the start, but he keeps it
a secret. By spinning a top, she brings a thrill into everyone's life. She is
impulsive and naive, tactless and full of life, and thus the one who is crushed
at the end. A true magician, Irina calls for the most important component of
the game, without which the fun, the laughter, and all the delightful jokes are
impossible: the army. Turninas's directorial discovery was to show that it was
the military who brought joy into the lives the three sisters. When the army
leaves at the end, they take away with them the spirit of life itself. Tuminas, a
Lithuanian, portrayed the Russian Army with warmth and high esteem; he
showed its spirit, its dignity, and its stylishness. The military ignited the
85
Three Sisters, directed by Rim as T uminas
creativity of the locals and sparked the town. In many productions of Three
Sisters, we see the intelligent and cultural sisters inspiring the officers; here, on
the contrary, it is the army that inspires them. Could Irina, the daughter of a
military man, love someone who does not wear a uniform? Not in this
interpretation. Short and prosaic, Tuzenbakh Oocubas Bareikis) shrinks even
further when he retires from the army and is out of his military uniform.
All Tuminas's productions feature pantomime. Both the Russian and
Lithuanian directorial theatre traditions have made the use of visual metaphors
part of their established tradition, and Tuminas masterfully layers nonverbal
images within the text of Three Sisters. Whether the soldiers are having snowball
fights, or are making a snowman (snow woman in Russian, snezhnaia baba), or
whether it is Irina, tired of words, suddenly using sign language, or the three
sisters entwining themselves around Vershinin at the end, the nonverbal
devices create a powerful imagery beyond the text.
All three sisters admire Vershinin (Arunas Sakalauskas) and wrap
themselves around him. Each sister wants a part of him; their longing for
Moscow merges with their search for a true man. Irina, in a spontaneous
86 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
gesture, shows him her legs by lifting her skirt, which he discretely pulls down.
Masha (Valda Bichkute), a woman who seems to have stepped out a turn-of-
the-century fashion poster, slithers like a serpent in front of him; and even
Olga, a reserved and composed teacher, flirts with him. Not only does
Vershinin personify their dreams about Moscow, but he also awakens the
sisters' femininity. That is why the scene of Masha's farewell with Vershinin
becomes the heart-breaking climax of the story. However, Vershinin is no
romantic hero. He is an elegant, good-looking military man who has suddenly
been pulled into the world of the sisters' dreams, and he wholeheartedly
responds to their fantasies. However, his leaving the town will not be the end
of Vershinin's life, but it certainly seems like the end of theirs.
Massenet's Elegy, which everyone sings as an improvised chorus-for
a fundraiser on behalf of those who suffered in the fire-is full of tragic
premonitions. Tuzenbakh sings it as a solo. Although he does not have much
of a voice, he pours his soul out, telling us about the forthcoming catastrophe.
He has just realized that the best times of their lives are over; the fullness of
feelings, the freshness of sorrow, and even the power of self-deception will all
be things of the past. In Act rv, after the army has left and Tuzenbakh is dead,
the lightness of their being is truly unbearable. Olga and Masha try to console
their younger sister, once an innocent magician at the beginning and now a
Three Sisters, directed by Rimas Tuminas
87
woman on the verge of insanity.
The sisters' attempt to nurture a man within their own household
fails. Andrey, their brother, is given a revealing new interpretation by Tuminas
and the actor (Audrus Bruzhas). It is hard to believe that this man could have
become a professor: only in his sisters' eyes, blinded by love for him, is Andrey
a learned scholar. He is a grown-up baby, almost retarded, with a short
attention span, and living in the nursery of his own mind. In his mid-twenties,
he is still cuddled and kissed by his sisters. He has a small violin, perhaps the
same one on which he practiced as a child. On the eve of his marriage, he
proudly shows Vershinin a wooden toy that he has made himsel While
Vershinin is embarrassed by Andrey's display of his "exceptional" abilities as a
carpenter, the sisters hug their brother passionately with an outpouring of
their inexhaustible motherhood.
The most amazing aspect of the production is its acting. The
complicated mise-en-scenes, rich in suggested meanings, seem improvisational.
The deliberate lack of "predictability" of any kind highlights the true mastery
of the director and his actors, some of whom are very young, and still his
students. The suddenness of their reactions, their behavior, conditioned by the
moment-to-moment circumstances of the play, is absolutely authentic,
genuine, and unrepeatable. This is not "psychological theatre" in the
conventional sense, but it is true to the very essence of Stanislavsky in the
immediate, here-and-now responses of the actors to one another.
Ludvika Apinyte Popenhagen, writing in Nekrofius and the Lithuanian
Theatre about another of the director's productions, Smile Upon Us, Lord, says
that Tuminas creates
an oneiric ambiance with recurring stage images, characters who
repeat complex movement patterns. The narrative and the stage
action end in suspension-without a resolution; as the play draws to
a close, the protagonists' journey is ongoing.2
This applies just as aptly to Three Sisters.
The power of Tuminas's productions lies is in his ability to ignite the
audience's imagination. He establishes direct communication with his
spectators through sudden images and associations that tap the wellsprings of
88 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No.1
human experience. Tuminas defined his preferred genre as a theatre of
reminiscence. Three Sisters can awaken our most personal memories and
illumine the hidden aspects of our own lives.
* Special thanks to Ramune BaleviCiute, the dramaturg of the State Small
Theatre of Vilnuis.
NOTES
1 The State Small Theatre of Vilnuis. www.vmt.lt.
2
Ludvika Apinyte Popenhagen, Nekrofius and Lithuanian Theatre, Vol. 8 of Artists and
Issues in the Theatre (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 152.
89
TWO NEW YORK PRODUCTIONS OF UNaE VANYA
SHOULD THEY LAUGH IN THE FOURTH ACT?
Olga Muratova
The conflict that arose between Stanislavsky and Chekhov at the
beginning of the twentieth century over the interpretation of his plays persists
until the present. Are Chekhov's plays emotion-laden dramas or mirthful
comedies? Chekhov maintained that his plays were essentially comic, while
Stanislavsky staged them as somberly tragic with resounding success.
The usual Russian tradition of staging Chekhov typically follows
Stanislavsky's interpretation.
1
Emotions are bottled up and tension mounts
until the fourth act. To this day, comic elements are scarce or non-existent in
most Russian productions, and in the last act, when the dam breaks and the
feelings pour out, many spectators are welling up.
Chekhov's export abroad started in the 1920s. After the Revolution,
Russian emigre actors and directors brought Chekhov to the stages of France,
England, Poland, and Germany. Chekhov's triumphant march abroad began
with Stanislavsky's vision, but little by little moved further and further away
from it. As a result, in the twenty-first century, there is somewhat of a gap
between Russian and non-Russian practice in staging Chekhov. To illustrate my
point, I wish to compare two New York productions of Uncle Vcurya, one by
an American director with an all-American cast, the other by a Russian emigre
director with a mixed cast of Russian and American actors.
Both productions of Uncle Va!!Ja were greatly influenced by Georgy
Tovstonogov's Russian TV flim, released in 1986. The film is actually a stage
production of Uncle Vai!Ja, liberated from the restrictions of theatrical space
and given cinematographic freedom of location. It is a hybrid of theatre and
cinema that uses Tovstonogov's cast from the Bolshoi Drama Theatre in St.
Petersburg, where he had worked as the artistic director from 1956 until his
death in 1989 and which was given his name in 1992. Although the American
and the Russian versions of Chekhov's play had the same point of origin in
Tovstonogov's interpretation of Chekhov's text, they are distinctly different.
The American Uncle Vai!Ja, directed by Eve Adamson, was staged at
the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre in 2003 and ran successfully for two
months, a typical lifespan for any production there. The Russian Uncle Vatrya,
90 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
created by Arnold Shvetsov, had the status of an off-off-Broadway play with a
limited run of sixteen performances at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in 2005.
Adamson was a founder of Jean Cocteau Repertory in 1971 and its
first artistic director for eighteen years. There she directed over one hundred
classical and modern plays, including Euripides' Medea, Ibsen's The Wild Duck,
and Kafka's The Tnai Adamson's interest in Russian theatre has been long-
lasting: she traveled extensively in the former U.S.S.R., directed in Russia, and
hosted residencies of Russian theatre actors in the United States. This director
clearly knows and respects Russian theatre.
Arnold Shvetsov is a graduate of Moscow's renowned GITIS (the
Russian Academy of Theatre Arts), who has been living in New York for
eleven years. In 1995, the Moscow Gogol Drama Theatre invited Edward
Hastings, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theatre in San
Francisco, to come to Moscow as Shvetsov's co-director of William Inge's
Come Back, Little Sheba. Later that year, Hastings invited Shvetsov to study stage
practices in his theatre in the United States. Shvetsov's work in Russia include
Goldoni's The Quarrels in Chioggia, an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers' Frau
Holle, and O'Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief, which ran for fifteen years at the
Moscow Gogol Drama Theatre. Shvetsov's credits in New York include Two
Poodles by Simon Zlotnikov at the Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street
Settlement and Stravinsky's opera Mavra at Merkin Hall. Shvetsov also
presented a production of Susanna Nazarenko's Isadora and Sergei, which played
at Wondering Stars, a Russian-American musical theatre in New York.
Here we have two different directors with disparate backgrounds,
united by the same passion for Russian theatre in general and Chekhov in
particular, who were inspired
2
by the same film by Tovstonogov, and came up
with two sharply contrasting versions of Uncle Varrya. What they did have in
common was a scenic realization of the theme of the emptiness, hollowness,
and lack of essence in human existence. In the American version, the set
design included an array of frames of various sizes hanging from the ceiling.
Big frames and little frames, some more elaborate and fancy than others, were
all empty, devoid of substance, and hence pathetic and useless. In the Russian
version, Shvetsov used rows of strings with dried apple rings covering three
stage walls like bamboo curtains. The apple rings, with the core removed,
served as a metaphor for sterile has-beens, dried by time, and leaving nothing
for posterity. Professor Serebryakov's art essays are worthless. Serebryakov's
91
marriage with Yelena Andreyevna will leave no children. Sonya, his daughter
from the first marriage, is doomed to die a spinster; Astro-1., Voinitsky, his
mother, and the nanny are also over the hill and sterile. Astrov's maps of their
area show how quickly flora and fauna become senselessly destroyed by
humans who are eager to take nature's riches without giving anything in return.
Lfe without meaning is but an empty shell, a picture frame with no picture, a
withered apple ring without life-giving seeds. Such metaphors are absent from
Tovstonogov's film, which provides a very detailed naturalistic setting.
The fundamental difference between the two productions is that the
American version is definitely a comedy, while the Russian staging is a highly
charged drama that approaches tragedy. Adamson abandons the unhurried
atmosphere of Tovstonogov's film and eliminates the Chekhovian pauses and
silences. Tempo is important to Adamson, who tries to overcome Chekhovian
stasis with dynamic conversation. If nothing is happening, let the audience
focus on the rapid flow of dialogue. Shvetsov adheres to Tovstonogov's
(initially Stanislavsky's) leisurely pace. His opening scene, for example, has the
Uncle Vtl1rya, directed by Arnold Shvestov
92 Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
Uncle Va'!Ya, directed by Arnold Shvestov
entire Voinitsky household cutting, stringing, and hanging apples to dry for the
winter without uttering a sound for about three minutes. During that time, the
action is deliberately arrested so that the audience can absorb the somber
atmosphere of rural life. In this immersion in country customs, there is
nothing to provoke laughter.
Meanwhile, in Adamson's version, laughter is in abundance. All male
characters are portrayed satirically and comically. Uncle Vanya (Harris
Berlinsky) and Doctor Astrov (Craig Smith) are laughable in their ridiculous
competition for Yelena's affection. Astrov tries to make an impression as a
man of the world, but in the eyes of Yelena (Elise Stone), who has lived most
of her life in St. Petersburg, these feeble attempts at worldliness made by a
provincial doctor are nothing short of comical. The mismatched love triangles
of Astrov-Yelena-Sonya (Amanda Jones) and Yelena-Astrov-Vanya are
stripped of tragic colors and shown in a satirical light, as Chekhov had perhaps
intended.
93
The male characters are thoroughly laughable. For example, the
fidgety and awkward Telegin ("Waffles"), played by Christopher Black, who
wears complicated make-up that makes his face look believably pock-marked,
behaves like a country bumpkin. In contrast, Sonya and Yelena are perfect
copies of Tovstonogov's characters (Tatyana Bedova and Natalya Danilova
respectively). Yelena is very graceful but highly charged sexually without
realizing it. In the sunny, bright, and hot afternoon of Act I, she appears
luxuriously basking in the sun like a cat, half napping lazily in her summer
boredom. In the scene of the kiss, Yelena visibly, and very convincingly, yields
to temptation and in the short struggle allows her morals to give way to her
passions, not because Astrov is so strong, but because she is so weak and
unprepared for the real world. Tovstonogov's and Adamson's Yelenas are both
superfluous and superficial. They come to a place where life has followed an
undisturbed and perfectly structured routine for years; they stir up an entire
household, affect every one, and break all the rules. But once they leave and
are removed from the equation, life bounces back to its old ways as if they
never existed.
Sonya, in contrast with Yelena, projects an image of a capable and
strong-willed young woman. After six years of unrequited love for Astrov, she
has found consolation in working and helping others. Sonya as played by Jones
demonstrates a solid inner core that holds her together and supports her. Even
her lamentation of her own physical unattractiveness in Act III sounds like
something she has accepted and made peace with. The remark is casual, and
she brushes it off soon enough, without dwelling upon it.
In Tovstonogov's film and Adamson's staging, Sonya not only
supports herself, but she also provides a moral framework for her loved ones.
Uncle Vanya (who, incidentally, is defined primarily as an uncle, i.e., through his
relation to Sonya), grandmother Voinitskaya, Telegin, the family estate, and the
entire well being of Serebryakov's family totally depend on the strength and
energy of this young woman. Bedova and Jones play Sonya as quiet,
inconspicuous, but essential to the lives of many. In the interpretation by
Tovstonogov and Adamson, Yelena is only a passing, episodic character
whereas Sonya is intrinsic and real.
Shvetsov's vision of the characters is quite different. The only
exception is Astrov (Kirill Lavrov in the film and Aleks Shaklin in the theatre
production), who follows Tovstonogov's version. Shaklin is one of the three
94 Slavic and East European Peiformance Vol. 27, No. 1
cast members who speak Russian and have Russian roots-the other two are
Natia Dune (Sonya) and Peter Von Berg (Uncle Vanya)). To underscore his
Russianness, Shvetsov has him sing in Russian the little song that Astrov sings
in the drinking scene of Act II. Shaklin's is also the only character deliberately
calling the nanny '!}a'!}a, as Russians do. There is nothing comical in his
Astrov; Shaklin, like Lavrov, takes his life, hobby, love, and misfortunes very
seriously, but Yelena as played by Lina Cloffe in Shvetsov's staging is modern,
alive, and animated-unlike the alien figure in Tovstonogov's and Adamson's
reading of the role.
Whereas Vanya, as interpreted by Oleg Basilashvili in Tovstonogov's
film, is portrayed as a man of pride and dignity who has only temporarily
slipped by succumbing to Yelena's charms, Vanya in Shvetsov's production is
loud, neurotic, and generally dissatisfied with the world, blaming it and not
himself for his misfortunes. But the sharpest contrast with Tovstonogov's and
Adamson's visions lies in Shvetsov's Sonya. Natia Dune portrays Chekhov's
heroine as pathologically shy and anemic, obsessed by her physical
unattractiveness and suffering greatly from it. She never comes out of her shell
and wallows in her bad luck. In Act II, in the scene of Serebryakov's night
conversation with his wife, Sonya passes slowly behind a transparent curtain,
carrying a burning candle. Reduced to almost insignificance, a mere silhouette
that moves noiselessly in the flickering light of her candle, she is unnoticed by
the characters onstage.
The only comical scene in Shvetsov's version of Uncle Vaf!Ya is the
one absent from Chekhov's script, but brilliantly added by the director in the
beginning of Act III. Serebryakov, played by Richard Sterne, tries to corral the
entire household into one room to tell them about his plan of selling the
estate. It takes him a good five to seven minutes to finally bring them all
together and make them stay. Preoccupied with their own problems and
engaged in their own last-minute activities, the household members do not
keep still and scatter like sheep around the house, driving the professor to
comical frustration. The rest of Shvetsov's staging follows faithfully the
somber and tragic mood that Tovstonogov used in his fJ.l.m, including slow, sad
music that produces a feeling of melancholy in keeping with the characters'
unfulfilled, empty lives.
Shvetsov, a Russian, preserved the traditional Russian mood in
staging Chekhov. He cast three actors with Russian roots in key roles; his
95
audience was always mixed: half-Russian, half-American. Remaining faithful to
Stanislavsky's interpretation of Chekhov, Shvetsov even managed to remove
the .irony .in the shooting scene .in Act III and to justify Vo.in.itsky's second
missed shot by making the actor slip on an apple, which sent his bullet astray.
Several Russians who saw the Jean Cocteau version winced .in Act IV,
when the significance of Sonya's final resigned monologue was drowned in
audience laughter. A number of Americans were bored by the 78th Street
Theatre Lab production. As a Russian living in the United States for half my
life, I am ready to admit that both parties in the conflict are right: Chekhov and
Stanislavsky; Americans and Russians. Chekhov's works contain comedy and
tragedy, laughter and tears. The emphasis may shift, as in Adamson's and
Shvetsov's versions of Uncle Vaf!Ya, yet these shifts only reveal the richness and
variety of the Russian playwright who is one of the world's greatest dramatists.
NOTES
1 Vakhtangov's and Meyerhold's vaudeville versions of Chekhov were short-lived
exceptions rather than the rule.
2 In the case of the Jean Cocteau production, this influence was revealed on January
17, 2003, during the post-performance discussion and the Q&A session with the
director and the cast. Adamson had shown Tovstonogov's film to the cast after
perusing it herself. Shvetsov admitted that Tovstonogov's production had been a
great influence on him in the post-performance interview that he gave me on March
12, 2005.
96
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
1HE GOSPELS OF CHILDHOOD AT BRZEZINKA
Marvin Carlson
In November of 1971, Jerzy Grotowski's Laboratory Theatre
purchased an isolated farm deep in the forest near the village of Brzezinka,
forty-six kilometers from its home base in Wrodaw. Working spaces and
modest accomodation were created there, but Grotowski chose to keep it in
an remote place, without running water or electricity. It served as the home to
his company's experiments in Paratheatre and Theatre of Sources until the
announcement of martial law in Poland in December of 1981. The following
August, Grotowski left Poland and never returned to Brzezinka. The space
was abandoned and fell into disrepair until finally, in 2001, the Wrodaw.
authorities, at the urging of the Grotowski Centre, repaired the failing roof
and stabilized the building. The following year other renovations restored it to
its appearance in the 1970s, and it has since served as a study and workcenter
for theatrical experimentation.
The group primarily associated with the Brezinka Workcenter today
is the Teatr ZAR, which between 1999 and 2002 undertook four expeditions
into the remote Caucasus mountains of Georgia and Armenia, where, in the
tradition of Grotowski's Theatre of Sources, they studied the performance of
the two-thousand-year-old polyphonic singing in the world. From this
research grew their Gospels of Childhood performance, which was developed at
the Brzezinka Workcenter and first performed there in October 2003. It is still
presented from time to time at Brzezinka, where I witnessed it in December
of 2006.
The Gospels of Childhood performance was embedded in a full evening,
which began with a bus trip from Grotowski Centre in Wrodaw. The bus
could not approach the forest retreat, hidden away in the woods, so a long walk
along a primitive track was necessary, with the minimal necessary lighting
provided by torches borne by representatives from the retreat. After a
gathering and some light refreshments in a rough wooden room where simple
wood-burning fireplaces provided welcome relief from the December cold
and damp, we were escorted to a neighboring larger space where several
sections of simple wooden bleachers provided seating along one side of the
rectangular room where the action took place.
97
The Brzezinka Workcenter in Brzezinka, Poland
The Gospels of Childhood, Teatr ZAR
98
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No.1
The performance itself wove together a variety of musical and
narrative strands, the former primarily from the Georgian tradition and from
the lirurgical songs of the Orthodox Republic of Monks at Athos, the latter
from various Gnostic writings from the beginning of Christianity. These
included the claimed writings of Mary Magdelene, Philip, and Thomas,
supplemented by material from Dostoevsky and Simone Weil. The first part of
the performance was built around the apochryphal "testimony of Mary
Magdalene," the second around the story of Lazarus, evoked through the
mouths of his sisters Marta and Maria-Maria being, according to some
Gnostic writings, the same as Mary Magdalene. The exclusive use of
traditional, chanting of candles for illumination (the site possessing no
electricity), the neutral dress of the performers, and the religious text gave to
much of the performance the feeling of the celebration of some ancient
religious ritual.
Although the actors flowed in and out of a central choral group,
singing Svaneti songs and Greek and Georgian liturgical chants, individual
actors would from time to time emerge from the group to assume particular
roles, such as that of Jesus or Lazarus. Two women, set apart from the rest of
the reddish tint of their robes, represented the sisters Mary and Martha, and
accompanied each of the sections of the work with a continuously changing
pas de deux, sometimes violent, sometimes suggesting classic statuary. The
overall impression was distinctly elegiac, the mourning of the sisters of
Lazarus melding into the mourning of the Mary's over the dead Christ. Both,
however, culminate in the ecstatic celebration of resurrection. Chanting the
exultant Easter Song from the Athos Christos anesti, the actors light candles
placed in circles upon wheels suspended from the ceiling in various locations
in the room, raise them to serve as a kind of rough chandeliers, and then
depart into the darkness, leaving the audience seated in an empty hall, brighly
illuminated by the slowly turning lights, with the ancient chants still echoing in
their memory.
99
CONTRIBUTORS
SETH BAOMRIN is Assistant Professor at John Jay College of Criminal
Justice, CUNY He holds both a Ph.D. and Masters of Philosophy from the
Graduate Center, CUNY, as well as an M.F.A. from Brooklyn College and a
B.A. from Hunter College. He served as artistic director of Five Moon Theatre
from 1980 to 1996 and currently directs for Vertical Player Repertory.
CHERYL BLACK is Associate Professor of Theatre and Director of
Graduate Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, book review editor
of Theatre History Studies, and Secretary of the American Theatre and Drama
Society. She is the author of The Women of Provincetoll!n, numerous journal
articles on theatre history and criticism, and eight plays and dramatic
adaptations.
MARVIN CARLSON is the Sidney E. Cohn Distinguished Professor of
Theatre and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York. His newest book, Speaking in Tongues, was published
in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.
MARIA IGNATIEVA is Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre,
Ohio State-Lima. She has over fifty publications on contemporary Russian
theatre and the history of Russian theatre. She has taught at the Moscow Art
Theatre School Studio and the University of Helsinki, and presented papers at
conferences in Australia, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, the United
Kingdom, and Poland. A specialist in Stanislavsky, she recently completed her
book and Actresses.
DASHA KRIJANSKAIA is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Drama at
Roosevelt Academy/Utrecht University (the Netherlands). She is a member of
the European Festival Research Project and the founding chief editor of the
journal TEATR Russian Theatre Past and Present (2002-2005). Her research
interests include contemporary East European theatre, modernist theatre in
Russia and Europe, new Russian drama, twentieth-century directing, as well as
the European festival circuit. She has contributed as a freelance writer to a
number of publications in Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
100
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
MAXIM K.RlVOSHEYEV is Manager of Theatre Projects of the ASTI USA
Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from the Institute of Art
Studies (Moscow) and a Masters in Performing Arts Management from the
Moscow Art Theatre School, where he also served as Director of
International Programs and Translator from 2000 to 2004.
EVELINA MENDELEVICH teaches composition and world literature at
City College, CUNY She is a doctoral student in the Ph.D. Program in
Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY, specializing in
nineteenth-century Russian, British, and French literature. Her research
interests include the psychological novel and nineteenth-century Russian
women writers and poets.
OLGA MURATOVA teaches Russian Studies at John Jay College of Criminal
Justice, CUNY She is currently working on her doctorate in the Ph.D.
Program in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a
regular contributor to SEEP
NICHOLAS RZHEVSKY is Professor and Chair of the Department of
European Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Stony Brook University,
SUNY He is the author of the forthcoming Modern Russian Stage: A Literary and
Cultural History. On the creative side of the arts, he wrote the English language
version of Yury Lyubimov's adaptation of Crime and Punishment staged in
London (1983).
LAURENCE SENELICK is Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at
Tufts University and a recipient of the St. George Medal of the Ministry of
Culture of the Russian Federation for services to Russian art and theatre. He
has recently published his translations of The Complete Plqys of Anton Chekhov
CW. W Norton) and Gogol's The Inspector General (Broadway Play Publishing).
101
Theatre of Players
ASTI USA Foundation
Apocalypsis
Photo Credits
Andrzej Babinski, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute Archive
The Gospels qf Childhood
Tom Dombrowski, courtesy of the Teatr ZAR Archive
Tracks
The Utopian Theatre Asylum
Tho Saw Dreams
Culture Project's IMPACT Festival
Sfw/Nikita Mitskevich
Culture Project's IMPACT Festival
Souf(j)le
The Taganka Theatre
Three Sisters
State Small Theatre of Vilnius
Uncle Vanya
Arnold Shvestov and the 78th Street Theatre Lab
Brzezinka
The Brzezinka Workcenter
The Gospels of Childhood
.. s
Teatr ZAR Archive
102
Slavic and East European Performance Vol. 27, No. 1
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER PUBLICATIONS
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Comedy:
A Bibliography
Editor
Meghan Duffy
Senior Editor
Daniel Gerould
Initiated by
Stuart Baker, Michael Early,
& David Nicolson
This bibliography is intended for scholars,
teachers, students, artists, and general
readers interested in the theory and
practice of comedy. It is a concise
bibliography, focusing exclusively on
drama, theatre, and performance, and
includes only published works written
in English or appearing in English
translation.
Comedy is designed to supplement older, existing bibliographies by including new areas
of research in the theory and practice of comedy and by listing the large number of new
studies that have appeared in the past quarter of a century.
USA $10.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
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Visit our web-site at: web.gc.cuny.edu/mestc/
Contact: mestc@gc.cuny.edu or 212-817-1868
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER PUBLICATIONS
The Arab Oedipus:
THE ARAB OEDIPUS
FOUR PLAYS
Four Plays
Editor
Marvin Carlson
Translators
Marvin Carlson
Dalia Basiouny
William Maynard Hutchins
Pierre Cachia
Desmond O'Grady
Admer Gouryh
With Introductions By:
Marvin Carlson, Tawfiq Al-Hakim,
& Dalia Basiouny
This volume contains four plays based on the
Oedipus legend by four leading dramatists of the
Arab world: Tawfiq Al-Hakim's King Oedipus, Ali
Ahmad Bakathir's The Tragedy of Oedipus, Ali
Salim's The Comedy of Oedipus, and Walid
Ikhlasi's Oedipus.
The vol ume also includes Al-Hakim's preface to his Oedipus, on the subject of Arabic tragedy, a
preface on translating Bak.athir by Dalia Basiouny, and a general introduction by Marvin Carlson.
An awareness of the rich tradition of modem Arabic theatre has only recently begun to be felt by the
Western theatre community, and we hope that this collection will contribute to that awareness.
USA $20.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
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New York, NY 10016-4309
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Contact: mestc@gc.cuny.edu or 212-817-1868
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER PUBLICATIONS
Witkiewicz: Seven Plays
Translated and Edited
by Daniel Gerould
This volume contains seven of
Witkiewicz's most important
plays: The Pragmatists, Tumor
Brainiowicz, Gyubal Wahazar,
The Anonymous Work, The
Cuttlefish, Dainty Shapes and
Hairy Apes, and The Beelzebub
Sonata, as well as two of his
theoretical essays, "Theoretical
Introduction" and "A Few Words
about the Role of the Actor in the
Theatre of Pure Form."
Witkiewicz . . . takes up and
continues the vein of dream and
grotesque fantasy exemplified by
the late Strindberg or by
Wedekind; his ideas are closely paralleled by those of the surrealists and
Antonin Artaud which culminated in the masterpeices of the dramatists of the
absurd- Beckett, Jones co, Genet, Arrabal--of the late nineteen forties and the
nineteen fifties. It is high time that this major playwright should become better
known in the English-speaking world.
Martin Esslin
USA $20.00 PLUS SHIPPING $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
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Mail checks or money orders to:
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Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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New York, NY 10016-4309
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Contact: mestc@gc.cuny.edu or 212-817-1868
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER PUBLICATIONS
THE HEIRS OF
MOLIERE
fOUR fRENCH COMEDIES Of THE
17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES
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TRANSLATED AND EDITED BY
MARVIN CARLSON
The Heirs of
Moliere
Translated and Edited by:
Marvin Carlson
This volume contains four
representative French comedies of
the period from the death of Moliere
to the French Revolution: Regnard's
The Absent-Minded Lover,
Destouches's The Conceited Count,
La Chaussee's The Fashionable
Prejudice, and Laya's The Friend of
the Laws.
Translated in a poetic form that
seeks to capture the wit and spirit of
the originals, these four plays
suggest something of the range of
the Moliere inheritance, from
comedy of character through the
highly popular sentimental comedy
of the mid eighteenth century, to
comedy that employs the Moliere
tradition for more contemporary
political ends.
In addition to their humor, these comedies provide fascinating social documents that
show changing ideas about such perennial social concerns as class, gender, and
politics through the turbulent century that ended in the revolutions that gave birth to
the modern era.
USA $20.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth A venue
New York, NY 100164309
Visit our web-site at: web.gc.cuny.edu/mestc/
Contact: mestc@gc.cuny.edu or 212-817-1868