Five Russian Playwrights in Ruska Drama

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This is another text that has never been published in the form you find below. It was written at the request of Romana Maliti, who was instrumental in putting together Ruska Drama, the first Slovakian collection of new Russian drama. Thus it was translated and published in Slovakian, marking the first time I ever appeared in print in the language spoken by my maternal grandfather and grandmother. This piece almost never happened, actually. Romana had commissioned the afterword for the anthology from a prominent Russian critic. But after he promised to write it, he never again answered Romana’s emails. Thus I received a note from her one day in which she asked me if I could write the piece, but equally as important, could I do it on short notice – like five days or a week. The book was ready to go to print. “Sure,” I said. “For you I’ll do anything.” And so we have what we have here.
For the record 1: My concern, expressed below, that Ivan Vyrypaev might abandon the theatre for cinema was unfounded. Although he works regularly in film, he continues to work regularly in theatre too, only now mostly in Poland where he lives with his latest wife Karolina Gruszka, a Polish actress.
For the record 2: Maksym Kurochkin, who returned to his native Kiev after Russia instigated its war against Ukraine, would no longer be happy to be included in a collection of “Russian drama.” At the time it was entirely natural. He was, indeed, a member of the Russian theater community. Times change. They change people and they change the situations in which people live. So whether Max likes it now or not, here is a blast from the past when the world was different.
Footnote: the translation here of Kurochkin’s
Kitchen by Romana’s fabulous mother Eva Maliti-Franova had a huge impact on me. I had been spending the better part of a decade declaring that Kitchen was the greatest play of its generation but that it was not translatable. I couldn’t imagine anyone wrestling that woolly beast to the ground. And then I was invited to a new drama festival in Bratislava and there I saw a reading of parts of Maliti-Franova’s translation of the play. It blew me away. And, before long, I found myself going after it myself. The results of that act of hubris have long been available in my own English-language collection Real and Phantom Pains: An Anthology of New Russian Drama. In short: Many thanks to the Maliti women!

Five Russian Playwrights of the 21st Century
By John Freedman
In Ruska Drama (Bratislava, Divadelny Ustav, 2008): 293-301.

We are now accustomed to the fact that Russian drama is in the middle of an extraordinary period of growth and innovation. Virtually everyone who is interested in contemporary drama in Europe knows the work of Nikolai Kolyada, Mikhail Ugarov, the Presnyakov brothers, Vasily Sigarev, Maksym Kurochkin, Olga Mukhina, Yevgeny Grishkovets, Yelena Isaeva and Ivan Vyrypaev, to name just a few whose plays have been presented at festivals, translated into most of the European languages and staged throughout the world. The variety that is suggested in these names alone is staggering, extending all the way from Grishkovets and his self-proclaimed “new sentimentalism” to the wild and woolly mythological constructs of Maksym Kurochkin. Hard as it may be to believe, however, it was just a brief while back that contemporary Russian drama was said not to exist at all.

Throughout much of the 1990s, Russian playwrights were ignored by an establishment that continued to function as it had in the 1970s and 1980s. Playwrights were condemned by everyone from critics and directors to journalists and even bureaucrats as a collective entity that lacked talent; lacked craft; was out of step with the contemporary world; was a prostitute to fashion; was too old-fashioned; was too negative; was too alienated; was too commercial; was too asocial; was too obscure; was too old to be relevant; was too young to be trusted; was too much like Chekhov; or had failed to learn the lessons of Chekhov.

Something had to be done and it fell to the playwrights themselves to do it. In Yekaterinburg Nikolai Kolyada began teaching a playwriting course at the theater institute in 1992. By 1997 his first major protégé, Oleg Bogaev, had made his debut. In the late 1990s in Togliatti, Vadim Levanov organized an annual May Readings festival to showcase his own plays and those of other local writers such as Vyacheslav Durnenkov, Mikhail Durnenkov and Yury Klavdiev. Alexei Kazantsev, with the help of Mikhail Roshchin, founded the influential Playwright and Director Center in Moscow in 1998 and Ugarov, Yelena Gremina and Yelena Mikhailova founded Teatr.doc in 2002. Both of these theaters were devoted to the development of new writers, as well as of new directors and actors who would be interested in contemporary plays. By May of 2002 the so-called “new drama” movement was codified when the first Moscow festival of that name was conducted.

Thanks largely to the efforts of these people, the situation surrounding Russian drama changed rapidly and drastically in the first decade of the 21st century. At present, most of the “new” names connected with “new drama” are established writers with international reputations. Each is a universe unto himself and each cultivates his own style and vision. This volume collects plays by five of those writers who have helped write the history of Russian drama in a new age.

Yury Klavdiev, born November 30, 1974, is one of those people who would have to be invented if he didn’t exist. Having run with a crowd of skinheads in his younger days, he also had an inclination to write poetry and prose. With almost no acting experience, he debuted on stage because a friend who was directing a play needed someone who could fence and Klavdiev is an accomplished fencer. Believing that drama was of no interest as a genre, he attended a touring performance of Ivan Vyrypaev’s “Oxygen” in 2002 and found a profession. After that, Klavdiev sat down and wrote one play after another. A playwright was born.

He hails from the industrial city of Togliatti, a mid-size metropolis in Southern Russia made up primarily of drab cement block and panel buildings. After attending Middle School No. 3 he did not pursue formal education any farther. Over the next few years he worked as a journalist, a store cashier and a worker in an auto factory. Seeing as how there wasn’t much to do in Togliatti when he was a kid, he became involved in a rowdy crowd of soccer fans whose activities, he once said, led 70 percent of them “to alcoholism and then nationalism.”

This reality is reflected in his plays. And it means he is bound to be compared to some other top playwrights of his time. Like the Presnyakov brothers, Klavdiev portrays a world cauterized by killing indifference. Like Vasily Sigarev, he stirs up the sour aromas of society’s underbelly. But Klavdiev emerges from such comparisons with his individuality intact. He is darker, less ornate and packs more shock value.

The language that Klavdiev’s characters speak is blunt and littered with obscenities like the reality their words portray. He creates universes filled with aimlessness, frustration and oppression. In “I Am a Machine Gunner” he created a cutting monologue in which a young man caught up in urban street violence compares his own “battle” experience to that of his grandfather, who lived through World War II. In “Let’s Go, a Car is Waiting” he pits two despairing young women against a violent gang of men. But after they have been raped and beaten — and fought their way out of the men’s clutches — the women emerge with a tough but renewed view of their own lives. In “The Bullet Collector” an angry teenager seeks to find his place in a world that is cruel, stupid and manipulative. “The Slow Sword,” perhaps in homage to Asian martial arts films, is unstintingly violent, unapologetically uncouth and unabashedly graphic in its sexuality. And yet in the language of the play itself, and in his manner of presenting it, Klavdiev transformed this tale of a marauding seeker of truth and justice into a moving and powerful collective portrait of an age. “The Polar Truth” takes an unusual look at the lives outcasts live in modern society. A small group of young people infected with HIV come together to find protection, solace and hope in each other’s company amidst the violence, prejudice and hatred of society.

Klavdiev is obviously fascinated with cinema and that informs the way he constructs his dynamic plays with short scenes jumping from place to place. “Our consciousness perceives things in short, video-like snippets,” Klavdiev told me one late spring afternoon in Togliatti. “Everything in a person’s head comes from what he sees. So we are more inclined to accept what we see in film than what we read on the printed page.” In “Let’s Go, a Car is Waiting,” he even sneaks in a bit of sarcastic film theory by way of his two heroines discussing the particulars of the Japanese director Takeshi Kitano.

But what truly sets Klavdiev apart from most of his peers is the poetry he brings to his harsh tales of woe. For all the brutality that Masha and Yulya encounter and engender in “Let’s Go, a Car is Waiting,” they somehow remain unsullied by it. Their essences remain pure and the world around them never entirely loses its beauty and meaning. This is very much a characteristic of Klavdiev’s writing. He is a master of exploring the worlds of volatile loners and outsiders who precariously, though nimbly, maneuver on tight wires stretched between the poles of violence and tenderness.

Olga Mukhina was born in Moscow December 1, 1970, to two geologists. In 1976 their jobs took them to the distant and frozen regions of Ukhta in the far north where Olga spent the next eleven years of her life. Upon returning to Moscow in the late 1980s, she began entertaining hopes of entering the screenwriting department of the cinema institute. But the trial scripts she submitted over a period of years during the institute’s entrance exams were repeatedly rejected as unsatisfactory and incomprehensible. Frustrated, she tried writing a simple dialogue between a “he” and a “she” and her first play took shape. Before long, she had written several plays: “The Sorrowful Dances of Ksaveria Kalutsky” (1991), “Alexander August” (1991), “The Love of Karlovna” (1992), “Tanya-Tanya” (1994) and “YoU” (1996).

“Tanya-Tanya” was a watershed in Russian theater history, appearing when almost everyone claimed no one was writing any plays of interest. A now-famous production at the Pyotr Fomenko Workshop in 1996 completely changed that, however, setting in motion the revival of Russian drama which has produced the riches and variety we now see in the first decade of the 21st century. “Tanya-Tanya” marked the arrival of a major new voice, the first female writer since Lyudmila Petrushevskaya to have such powerful impact and influence. Mukhina’s manner of understatement, her gentle irony and her velvety lyricism in no way overshadow her withering, even harsh, honesty. And though her plays may be clothed in carefree atmospheres, gorgeous phrasing and lilting stage directions, Mukhina is never sentimental. Her characters are always staring into an abyss, struggling to avoid annihilation in a hostile world.

After “YoU,” an extraordinary play about several generations of Muscovites trying to go on about their lives as a war quietly rages around them, Mukhina-the-writer took a seven-year sabbatical, giving birth to two sons, but not writing a single play. “Flying,” which Olga directed herself in 2005, was her comeback play. It was a reunion with many of the same kinds of characters who inhabited “The Love of Karlovna,” “Tanya-Tanya” and “YoU,” but it observed them in a completely new era from an entirely new viewpoint. The men and women of this play are slick professionals in a world of glamour. They are well-dressed, their jobs are prestigious, their salaries enviable and their manners hip. Their brainstorming sessions at the office, a cafe, a night club and during evening drives around town are punctuated with talk about sex and loneliness and are fueled by a generous dose of recreational drugs. These are the people who will inherit money, power and status in Russia in the second and third decades of the 21st century. They represent what will be the mainstream of post-Putin Russia. That is, if they survive.

Mukhina’s text in “Flying” sounds like it is composed of scattered phrases floating on the wind, heartfelt confessions and deep-seated fears emanating from nowhere. She has said that, following the style of verbatim drama, she culled the dialogues from real-life conversations with friends, although every word bears the mark of the author’s distinctive velvety, jocular style. It is as though people often aren’t actually talking to each other but are thinking aloud. In these characters’ speech one hears echoes of a generation that takes success, beauty, status and affluence for granted, but which is poised to be devoured by ignorance, indifference and a lazy-minded willingness to mistake chaff for wheat.

Maksym Kurochkin, born in Kiev on February 7, 1970, studied pre-Christian Slavic monuments at Kiev University. However, it is as a playwright that he developed his interest in culture, mythology and history. Amidst conflicting voices this writer invariably hears a common message. Across vast breaches of time he espies timeless customs and rituals. Among differing cultural traditions he discerns shared values. In “Kitchen” (2000) he conjoined characters from the ancient Nibelung myth with modern Russians while wrestling with one of the most painful subjects of our time – to avenge or not to avenge the sins of the past. Being a poet, Kurochkin left the answers to the spectators, inspiring them and baffling the critics. The production of this play evoked fanatic responses among audiences and quickly developed into Russian theater’s first genuine cult hit of the 21st century.

“Kitchen” is typical of Kurochkin’s drama in its obliteration of conventional unities. His “Stalowa Wola” (1998), or “Steel Will,” mixed the Polish Middle Ages with the Space Age and used both Russian and Polish languages. His “Fighter Class ‘Medea’” (1994) observed an outlandish, futuristic war of the sexes being fought on the edge of the last city standing by Ukrainian, Russian and American soldiers speaking a stew of languages. These plays, however, reflect only one aspect of Kurochkin’s talent. I know of no other Russian-language playwright who strives so to reinvent his art with each new play he writes. Following “Kitchen,” Kurochkin delivered the ambitious “Imago” (2002), a radical reinterpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” This piece mounted a defense of everything unsophisticated in the eternal battle between the unwashed and the respectable. “Vodka, Fucking, and Television” (written 2003, staged 2006) was a Janus-faced piece that can be read as a personal confession or a portrait of a generation. The main hero’s declaration that he must prove he “can speak the truth” is a clear-cut and identifiable challenge for any modern individual or society as a whole. Different in style and scope not only from “Kitchen” but from each other, all of these plays shared Kurochkin’s endless flair for the eccentric and the paradoxical.

Kurochkin has the endearing habit of referring to himself as a simple Ukrainian peasant but he is the ideal writer for our age of globalization. His purview is global, his vision is international, his manner is cosmopolitan and his belief in the universal is absolute. And yet, what is most important of all, he knows perfectly that the fuel of life is diversity. A few insignificant details in “Kitchen” have the power of turning the play upside down. Consider the Hot Cook, whose protection of the secret of his personal tragedy has become his whole reason for being. Or consider the Cold Cook, who fears death because he will miss his moto-roller. Their worlds, their sadness or their happiness, are unrepeatable and irreplaceable. They are highly specific and they are universal.

“Kitchen” was a phenomenon in Moscow because audiences sensed the truth of the play, the freedom it embodied and the opportunity it provided for renewal. They laughed in recognition when Tatyana Rudolfovna explained she had been lying on her sofa “reading a photo album” and they howled again when Beavis and Butthead reported the siege of Gunther’s castle in a telecast – there was the truth in brilliant color: cartoon characters had replaced live journalists! Spectators were seduced by the sublime poetry spoken by Kriemhilde, Medyankina the Younger and Gunther. But most of all, they experienced catharsis.

“Kitchen” is structured around one of the great, unsolvable paradoxes of our age: the symbiotic relationship between memory and violence. If we fail to remember our past, we are destined to repeat our sins. But when we remember our past, we are likely to become obsessed with the desire to avenge the sins that have been committed against us. This is the most dangerous and most common trap that the modern world knows. It is the trap into which the characters of the castle kitchen fall; it is the trap into which every one of us falls every time we are faced with taking stock of our own lives and actions.

Ivan Vyrypaev, born in Irkutsk on August 3, 1974, began as an actor and studied directing but made his first significant mark as a writer. His first play, “Dreams” (1999), attracted attention in Moscow, but it was his fourth play, “Oxygen” (2002), a piece based loosely on the Ten Commandments, that established his reputation in Russia and in Europe. Both plays, like the subsequent “Genesis-2” (2004) and “July” (2006), showed the writer experimenting with a style that is monologic in spirit if not in actual form. A text with a generally unified and single point of view might be delivered by two characters (“Oxygen”) or more (“Genesis-2”). “July” reversed that equation, offering several points of view filtered through a single voice. The characters in all of these plays are intelligent, if sometimes deviant, and they eagerly engage in the traditional Russian pastime of fevered introspection.

In “July” Vyrypayev explores the shattered psyche of a mass murderer, a man named Pyotr who has passed the age of 60 and has drawn a whole series of conclusions about life that wreak havoc on everything we tend to consider “normal.” The author, meanwhile, draws no conclusions and makes no value judgments. This has confused, irritated or infuriated some who have come into contact with this play. But it would appear that Vyrypayev’s main task was to achieve a sort of dramatic poetry. Certainly, as in poetry, this text skips over the types of logical connections and explanations that might accompany a traditional play. It delivers emotional and imagistic bursts that affect us less by what they say than for how they sound and how they are said.

Like most of Vyrypaev’s plays (the main exception being the traditionally structured “Valentina’s Day,” 2001), “July” has no action to speak of. Like some of the people Pyotr encounters, the text is chopped into pieces and scattered about loosely. In effect, “July” gives us snapshots of the inner workings of Pyotr’s fevered mind. We are privy to the images he sees; we hear the thoughts he has; with him we make the same leaps in time, space and logic. In cinema the equivalent might be the shaky, hand-held, “subjective” camera stumbling down dark streets and alleys, panning abruptly from side to side as it imitates the vision of someone racing headlong into the unknown. It is worth noting that this text was performed in Moscow by an actress, Vyrypaev’s wife Polina Agureeva. That should prevent anyone from seeking to interpret this work in an overly realistic way.

“July” does not seek to present the “human side” of a monster. It is a necessarily fragmentary snapshot of a fractured mind. There is humor in it and tenderness. There is that which might be considered repugnant and there is poetry. It reflects the world we live in, enticing and compelling us to see where we fit in that reflection.

It so happens that “July” may mark the last of Vyrypaev’s works for the theater, at least in the near future. He began writing scripts for television and film in 2006 and debuted as a film director that same year with “Euphoria.” The film’s international success has meant that Vyrypaev is now devoting his time to developing further film projects.

Vasily Sigarev, born in Verkhnyaya Salda in the Ural Mountains region on January 11, 1977, is the youngest and, arguably, the most commercially successful playwright included in this volume. His play “Plasticine” (produced by the Playwright and Director Center in Moscow in 2001) is generally considered to be the work that kicked off the “new drama” movement in Russia. It and other plays such as “Black Milk” and “Phantom Pains” were written at the end of the 1990s or in the early 2000s, but were staged a few years later.

Sigarev studied playwriting with the Yekaterinburg guru Nikolai Kolyada and, like most of Kolyada’s students, he exhibits a strong command of the traditional arts of story-telling and character-building. Also like his teacher, he tends to favor melodramatic plots that are tied closely in one way or another to sensitive social issues. In “Plasticine,” for instance, Sigarev wrote a disturbing work about an alienated teenage boy drawn into a dark world of cynicism and violence. His confusion about his sexual orientation, his clashes with a school-teacher, his lack of contact with his grandmother and his complex relationship with his best friend all lead him down the path of disaster. “Black Milk” observes two young people struggling to survive by selling defective electrical appliances to unsuspecting customers in the Russian countryside. However, these characters’ biggest conflicts arise not with the people they cheat, but in their relationships to one another and to their own conscience. A Sigarev play, no matter how course and uncouth it may be, always pursues the task of putting forth a moral lesson. This and the boldness of the author’s vision, his ability to paint a canvas of interweaving characters united by comedy and tragedy alike, are what have made these plays so accessible all over the world.

“Volchok” is Sigarev’s most recent play and, as this book goes to press, the author is preparing to film it as a movie. It can be said to belong to a category of play that has been prominent in Russian drama in the 2000s – a story involving very young characters. “Plasticine” set the standard for this kind of work, but it has been developed by many other authors as well – Natalya Vorozhbit’s “Galka Motalka” examined school girls attending a sports lyceum; Klavdiev’s “Martial Arts” observes a ten year-old boy and eight year-old girl hiding from bandits and policemen breaking into their home; Anna Bogachyova’s “Learn, Learn, Learn” and Danila Privalov’s “5-25” depicted teenagers struggling with growing up. In “Volchok” Sigarev pushes this trend even further, starting his grisly story of a girl abused and abandoned by her mother when the young heroine is just three years old. She is only 14 by the time of her death, when she has already known a full, if brutal, life. It is, perhaps, a miracle that even under the horrible circumstances of her life, this wild, “little wolf” is able to find the resources in herself to experience true, selfless love.

This fascination with young, as-yet unformed young people forced into a cruel and incomprehensible adulthood is surely a natural, even inevitable, result of the historical changes that have taken place in Russia over the last 20 years. Not only does it describe the real experiences of two generations of young people, it tells the parallel story of an entire nation, which has tried, successfully or not, to give birth to itself anew. In any case, one thing is certain: the genre of drama has emerged as one of the most lively, most expressive and most honest of all the art forms in Russia today. That is no mean feat.

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