I had the great fortune to write a regular column for Plays International for about 25 years. I don’t even remember now how it came about. Did I reach out to editor Peter Roberts or did he reach out to me? I think I probably wrote to him, but I’m not sure at this point. In any case we found each other and I provided him with reports about the developments in Russian theater for nearly a quarter of a century. It came to an end with a fitting coincidence in 2015. I sent Peter – whom I never met in person, but who became a very good friend over the years – a note saying I was no longer going to be writing criticism and that the piece I was sending him would be my last. He replied (not a true quote), “How interesting. I have finally decided to sell the magazine and the next issue will be my last.” So we both bowed out together. Almost, that is. I did write one more piece for the new editor Dana Rufolo, but that was a memory piece, not strictly coverage of current events. The Plays International that Peter built up (and that Dana has continued) offered fabulous coverage of international theater. I don’t know of another publication that went as far and wide as PI did/does. And it did so while keeping very close tabs on what was happening in London (where it was based) and other cities in the UK. It really did provide a global picture of theater in each issue.
The piece I offer below was one of the features that Peter asked me to write. He was publishing a translation of a Russian play in the issue and he asked me to do an introductory feature. I always enjoyed commissions like this because they gave me an opportunity to stretch out and write about topics that would not fit either in The Moscow Times or in PI. This one was about the Yekaterinburg playwright Oleg Bogayev.
For the heck of it, I include at the end a few graphs that I cut in the editing process, either because they were taking me in a wrong direction, or because I’d hit my word limit. They contain useful information, however, so let’s let them see the light of day.
“LENDING AN EAR TO RUSSIAN TRADITION”
Plays International (London).
Vol. 21 (Nos. 9 & 10, 2006): 18-19.
By John Freedman
It was an early summer day in an almost holy place for any committed person of the theatre – Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Lyubimovka estate north-east of Moscow. When ducking out from behind a sky full of rich, fluffy white clouds, the sun beat down, forcing everyone to pull off their sweaters and jackets and hang them over their arms. Perhaps eighty people mulled around in the flickering shade of century-old trees not far from a lazy creek marking off one of the property’s boundaries. They were talking up a storm and, indeed, a storm was brewing. Even then you could feel it: Something in Russian drama had changed.
A polite, if not to say shy, man in his late 20s stood and chatted calmly with well-wishers. If he seemed uncomfortable with the attention, he was perfectly at ease with himself. ‘There were once great people here’, he said to me quietly that day. ‘Chekhov, Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko. That means a lot. Chekhov once caught a fish by a poplar tree here that’s still standing’. It was 1997. 21 June. The speaker was Oleg Bogayev. His play Russian National Mail had been presented at the Lyubimovka playwriting seminar two days earlier and he was already a star among the seminar participants. Viktor Slavkin, a veteran writer and godfather to younger generations of Russian playwrights, said this of Russian National Mail: ‘It is a splendid play. I don’t understand why it isn’t in repertory at the Moscow Art Theatre’.
Slavkin’s irony was painfully obvious to everyone present although it may require explanation now. The 1990s in Russia were a time when it was the fashion to proclaim everything theatrical dead. There were, the pundits said, no new directors, no new actors, no theatres worth attending and certainly no new writers worth staging. A contemporary play at the Moscow Art Theatre? Preposterous! What a joke!
The punch line, however, is effective. A play by Olga Mukhina called YoU, read shortly after Russian National Mail at that seminar in 1997 and causing the same kind of buzz, was, indeed, staged at the Art Theatre in 2001. Many more contemporary writers have followed – at the Art Theatre and at other houses that previously considered it beneath their dignity to stage a play by anyone who wasn’t dead. That sea change in attitudes can be traced back largely, if not wholly, to those summer days in Lyubimovka. Bogayev still hasn’t made it into the House that Stanislavsky Built, but he has done quite well, thank you. As he told me recently in his hometown of Yekaterinburg, ‘Since that time I have had a fairly flourishing life as a writer’. Then, with the caution and modesty that characterize him, he added, ‘Although, a writer’s life is always uncertain’.
Russian Mail was directed by the great Kama Ginkas at the Tabakov Theatre in Moscow in 1998 and it since has been translated into English, French, Polish, Serbian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Swedish and Japanese. It was performed on Radio France in 2003 and, as The Russian National Postal Service, it had its English-language premiere in 2004 at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. It premiered in England in a production by Noah Birksted-Breen at the Old Red Lion Theatre in 2005 and transferred to the Battersea Arts Centre in 2006.
Russian National Mail resurrected the venerable Russian archetype of the so-called ‘little man’, exploring the life of a lonely pensioner who has been abandoned by his friends, his government and history itself. The play is ironic and bitter, poignant and abrasive all at once. It is a profoundly non-realistic work that freely cuts back and forth across boundaries of time, space and the limits of physical possibility. The poverty-stricken old man of the play commiserates in correspondence with the Queen of England, Vladimir Lenin, a dead Soviet movie star, cosmonauts in space and some feisty cockroaches. Many of Bogayev’s subsequent plays have exhibited a similar proclivity for fantasy, fairy tale and social conscience blended with a heartfelt attachment to the enduring aspects of culture. They include Marya’s Field, a tale about three 100 year-old women braving encounters with the ghosts of Stalin, Hitler and others to meet their dead husbands coming home 60 years after their deaths; Thirty-Three Fortunes, an ironic New Year’s Eve fairy tale about an old couple encountering a magic fish who grants their wishes; and Deaf Souls, in which a gaggle of late, great Russian writers return to the living from the land of the dead.
Bogayev’s attachment to culture and tradition is crucial, for in this he differs from many of his contemporaries who either ignore Russia’s past or draw on western myths and models. ‘We have a notion these days called “new drama”’, says Bogayev. ‘The language generally used there is not mine. It’s a naïve kind of art that exists outside the Russian tradition. Maybe it’s because people have grown tired of high culture. This kind of thing may be happening everywhere now. I saw an interview recently with an English playwright who said something to the effect that “theatre is shit”. I think that’s a game. It’s not one I tend to play’.
As if illustrating that notion, Bogayev fashioned his title of Deaf Souls as a pun on Nikolai Gogol’s seminal Russian novel, Dead Souls. Indeed, Bogayev’s affection for Gogol’s distinctively Russian style of quirky humor is confirmed again in his comedy Bashmachkin, a sequel of sorts to Gogol’s famous short story ‘The Overocoat’. Like Russian Mail, Deaf Souls is an ‘impossible’ meditation on the state of contemporary Russian society in light of the past. All the classics have been removed to the library basement because no one reads them. But it gets worse: Ivan Turgenev’s books are being used as toilet-paper. To ward off this ignominious fate, the eternal souls of Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin and Gogol visit a woman named Era, the cleverest person in town. Maybe she will sign up at the local library and save their books by giving them a read? Or maybe she won’t. She seems more adept at arm wrestling than at reading books, the last of which she read was something called Buxom Beauty. After Russian National Mail, Deaf Souls has been Bogayev’s most successful play, enjoying productions in Germany, Serbia, Poland and Lithuania, as well as in several Russian cities. Bogayev is currently riding a wave of success in Moscow, where Marya’s Field and his new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra recently opened at two major theatres, the Pushkin and the Sovremennik, respectively.
Born in 1970 in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg – the place where the last Russian tsar was executed together with his entire family – Bogayev began his life in theatre as a lighting technician. In 1992, he joined an informal writing class run by the local playwright Nikolai Kolyada. ‘People in Moscow thought we were crazy’, Bogayev explains. ‘The Minister of Culture said, “Whoever heard of a playwriting seminar in Yekaterinburg?”’ However, thanks in large part to the success of Russian National Mail, Kolyada’s school quickly gained an admirable reputation and then was officially incorporated into the curriculum at the Yekaterinburg State Theatre Institute. Kolyada since has turned out dozens of writers, Vasily Sigarev among them, whose plays have been produced all over the world. Bogayev himself now teaches in Kolyada’s course at the institute and he leaves no doubt as to what he thinks of Kolyada’s influence. ‘There are numerous important playwrights who have had an appreciable impact on Russian drama in the last two decades,’ Bogayev says of his mentor. ‘But Kolyada stands alone.’
Bogayev’s loyalty to Kolyada is in itself a nod to a rich Russian custom – the veneration shown to teachers. It is a declaration of faith in the human element of history, in progress being passed on from one individual to another and in the importance of local conventions in the creation of a national myth. This is not to say, however, that Bogayev has no bones to pick with history or his heritage.
‘The whole 20th century was a time of insanity’, he says. ‘The people who ran Russia – Lenin, Stalin – they were insane. It only seems to us that they were normal. In fact, they were demonic. My ancestors lived in that horror. And we now are at a crossroads. Our daily lives, as reflected in our material status, are bad. We are busy worrying about that all the time. Consequently, we devote less time to thinking about our inner lives. But people are so created that the problems of the soul are much more complex than the problems of the body’.
Through such plays as Deaf Souls, Marya’s Field and Russian National Mail, Bogayev constantly violates the laws of ‘the body’ and pushes on towards explorations of what may or may not be eternal in the human soul. His point of view could only be Russian although, very much in the rich Russian tradition, the conclusions he draws are universally accessible.
But if anyone thinks Bogayev is ridiculing his ‘clever Era’, they have another thing coming. As the author notes in the introductory stage directions: ‘As I see it, she’s a person, not a joke.’ This is a clear sign of the sensibility Bogayev exhibits in all his works, his unwavering respect and affection for his characters, especially those who have it the hardest. Bogayev doesn’t hang outside of his plays indifferently; he is right there inside them, struggling with the same problems he is putting his imaginary people through.
There is little doubt that Bogayev is deeply indebted to Kolyada for his guidance and patronage and he will be the first to say so.
However, it is also true that Bogayev was the one who first focused national attention on Kolyada’s efforts. ‘I wrote my fifth play in 1994 – Russian National Mail,’ Bogayev explains. ‘It was a kind of miracle. For some reason, people took notice of me, a kid from the provinces. And that is the moment when the reputation of Kolyada and his school suddenly took an upward turn.’