Closing the Book on an Era in Russian Theater History (2014)

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Here’s another stray piece that I wrote at the request of an editor, this time the editor of the AATSEEL newsletter. (For those who need it, that stands for American Association of Teacher of Slavic and East European Languages – and, yes, I did teach Russian a million years ago.) My anthology of contemporary Russian plays had just been published and so I did a piece putting those plays, and the era whence they came, into context with the Russian world as it stood, in my estimation, in 2014. The issue of the newsletter (Vol. 57, issue 3) is still available online. Go ahead and give the current editors some click-love by going there directly. And, while I’m at it, I might as well provide you an electronic path to the book, about which I write – Real and Phantom Pains: An Anthology of New Russian Drama.

“Closing the Book on an Era in Russian Theater History”
AATSEEL Newsletter
October 2014 (Vol. 57, issue 3)
By John Freedman

I was once asked in an interview about my career and my career moves. I said, meaning it absolutely, that I have no career and have never done anything to have one. I do have a life and, for the most part, I live it in Moscow. Borrowing from Vladimir Korolenko, I could say it another way – my homeland is Russian drama and theater.

On one hand this is a difficult place to be as 2014 draws towards a conclusion. This surely has been the hardest year to live in Russia, and I have been in Moscow since September 1988. None of the shortages, coups, upheavals or economic crashes of that 26-year period come close to the legal, social, media and political crackdowns that have beset us in connection with the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Well, the Russia-Ukraine war. Let’s be honest, as bizarre and impossible as it sounds, Russia and Ukraine are at war.

On the other hand, what a place to be! In the midst of Russian drama and theater as this great, compelling, enigmatic, always fertile culture seeks, in fits and starts, to find its way forward into the future! Like many who are reading this piece, I am sure, I was drawn into the Russian sphere by the Golden Age of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev and more. I publicly and officially consummated my love affair with Russian culture by writing a Ph.D. dissertation about one aspect of a remarkable period in theater history, the days of Meyerhold and Stanislavsky and Tairov and Mayakovsky and Erdman and Bulgakov, again just to name the cream of the crop.

I point to these eras of extraordinary collective achievement for a very specific reason: because I believe I have lived through a similar exceptional period. The depth, the breadth and the quality of the theater and drama that Russia put forth between, say, 1995 and the present may have known no equal in the nation’s past. An alphabet soup of names is a short-cut to making my point: Lev Dodin, Kama Ginkas, Pyotr Fomenko, Yury Butusov, Dmitry Volkostrelov, Kirill Serebrennikov, Maksym Kurochkin, Mikhail Ugarov, Yelena Gremina, Yury Klavdiev, Olga Mukhina, Pavel Pryazhko. This is just a starter list of the names that, before long, will be recognized as proof of a new Golden Age.

I just put out a book with New Academia Publishing. It is called Real and Phantom Pains: An Anthology of New Russian Drama. It contains twelve contemporary Russian plays by ten authors, translated by David M. White, Graham Schmidt, Stephen Nunns, Yury Urnov and myself. I dotted the last “i” in February and it came out in July. And when my friend and colleague Philip Arnoult received his copy, he perceptively wrote, “Am I right in thinking the ink was still drying on the intro when the Crimean invasion took place? And here we are, six months later, talking about ‘Banned in Moscow/Russia.’”

I replied to Philip and admitted that, yes, I have the feeling we have turned a sharp, historical corner. The impulses that gave rise to the dramatic texts in Real and Phantom Pains have quickly changed and faded into the past. More about that important observation in a moment. But as for the plays themselves, I hasten to affirm that they maintain all their timeliness, all their importance as textual witnesses to the social, political and historical developments that led us to the crisis we now live with. Naturally, all of them retain the literary and artistic value that encouraged me to include them in the book in the first place.

Maksym Kurochkin’s masterpiece, Kitchen, the oldest play in the collection, written in 2000, is a devastating expose of what made the Russia-Ukraine war possible. Its bitter, tongue-in-cheek tale of fascism arising among modern food service workers, and of what happens when a society first forgets and then remembers its past, peers right through the years at what is happening today.

Olga Mukhina’s Flying (2005), with its seditious story of what Russians call “golden youth,” reveals sources of current Russian hubris no less than Yelena Gremina’s vastly different docudrama One Hour and Eighteen Minutes (2010), which recounts the chilling events surrounding the murder of muckraking attorney Sergei Magnitsky in prison. Two plays by Pavel Pryazhko – Panties (2007) and Angry Girl (2012) – demonstrate beautifully the rapid development of both a single writer, a general style of writing, and, perhaps, a society-wide behavioral pattern that adopted a cooler, slicker outer sheen, while leaving the same basic worries and insecurities lurking beneath the surface.

Yaroslava Pulinovich’s two monologues – Natasha’s Dream and I Won (both 2009) – split open the overripe fruit of very different, but strikingly similar, experiences of young women smashing up against the brick wall of contemporary life and its myths. In Exhibits (2010) Vyacheslav Durnenkov drew a withering portrait of a town that can neither die nor be revived, while in Trash (2009) his brother Mikhail Durnenkov explored a constellation of characters whose lives keep getting away from them no matter what they do.

Vasily Sigarev’s fast-paced Phantom Pains (2001?) highlights an intelligent young man bogging down in sordid behavior before he knows what has hit him, while Yury Klavdiev’s even faster-paced Martial Arts (2010) typically, for this author, paints a compelling story of violence and (maybe) redemption centered around children.

All of these writers have been a part of the Russian new drama movement to varying degrees. Hence my use of that phrase in the book’s title. But new drama is a controversial and slippery term that is an important marker of, but incomplete definition for, an era. As such I purposefully close out the collection with a play by Maxim Osipov, Scapegoats, that has nothing to do with the new drama brand. While toying with the same elements that any new drama play might – corruption, murder and subterfuge – it does so in a way that draws its strength from the deepest core of classical Russian literature.

So there we have it, the multifaceted portrait of Russia that Real and Phantom Pains provides. It’s powerful, it’s provocative, it’s insightful and it’s timely. But what Philip Arnoult hinted at, and what I want to declare here, is that, by no planning or prescience on my part, this anthology wraps up and closes the book on an era of Russian theater history.

The war against Ukraine, the war against anyone who opposes that war, the war against gays, against obscenities in art, against so-called “foreign agents,” against adoptive American parents, against what is sometimes called “EuroSodom,” against anyone carrying a protest sign of any kind, against everything and everyone who do not sing the praises of Vladimir Putin and his retinue of faithful knights – all of this means that the next important Russian plays we encounter will, by necessity, have to be different. They will have to be written in a different language (and not only because Russian federal law now bans the use of x-rated words). We’re not talking about changes in nuances, we’re talking about change in essences. These new plays will be written amidst a new sociopolitical reality, one of war, repression, media-fanned hatred, suspicion, bellicose patriotism, prevarication and mendacity. If they are to be good plays, they will have to reflect this new state of affairs, one that has been ripening for three to four years, but has now, in 2014, splattered open like a stinking, filthy puss-filled abscess.

The plays that went into Real and Phantom Pains, each in their own way, warned of a coming crisis, perhaps a collapse. The next plays to come along, those which I or someone else will collect into a follow-up volume, will be those that bear witness to the act and aftermath of the cataclysm, the failure of Russia to live up to the hope and opportunities of the last 25 years. Like Sisyphus, Russia is down again. Next step is the journey back up. That will be a whole new story.

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