American drama, once banished from the Soviet stage as dangerous, decadent and dirty, is packing them in across the U.S.S.R. Eight different plays by Tennessee Williams are currently running in six different theatres in Moscow—more than in New York. Thousands of miles east of Moscow, smack in the middle of Siberia, the Omsk State Drama Theatre of the Red Banner of Labor staged a wonderfully sensitive and lusty new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this year. Across the steppe to the south, in Tashkent, capital of the central Asian republic of Uzbekhistan, the Gorky State Drama Theatre will stage Same Time, Next Year and a dramatization of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest next season. Over in the Ukraine, West Side Story (“Vestsaidskaya istoriya”) is playing in the provincial city of Kirovograd.
These are only a few of the many, and surprisingly diverse, American plays that have found their way into the Soviet repertoire in recent years. Besides Williams (who is now the most popular of all American playwrights in the U.S.S.R.) and Edward Albee, Soviet theatres have been staging plays by Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, William Gibson, Eugene O’Neill, Neil Simon, Frank Gilroy, Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, William Saroyan, Richard Nash, Joseph Heller, D.L. Coburn, Paul Zindel, Irwin Shaw and others. American musicals—Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, Hello, Dolly, My Fair Lady, Where’s Charley?—are also popular. As one writer admitted, not entirely happily, in Leningrad Pravda: “The ‘Western’ play of today is primarily American.”
Even more surprising than the mere presence of all these plays on the Soviet stage is the variety of approaches directors employ in interpreting them. Gone, it seems, are the days when a director was allowed to produce an American work only if he presented it as indictment of capitalist society, evidence of the inevitable victory of Communism. Last year Pravda, voice of the Party line, even complained that the Westernization of the repertoire—originally encouraged by Party organs—had gone too far. Among the plays from “capitalist countries” being produced in Soviet theatres, it scolded, were too many which “far from deploring the vices of bourgeois society, almost admire them.”
Most productions I saw during a recent seven-week visit did, in fact, avoid simplistic nationalistic interpretations of character and conflict. The characters’ problems were not always presented as stemming from the American’s original sin: being born in the U.S.A., instead of the more perfect U.S.S.R. Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (translated into Russian more optimistically as I’m Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf) are not alienated alcoholics only because capitalist society has brutalized them. Rather, the Omsk production (on tour in Leningrad) stresses that there are universally human causes as well. As the unmistakably Slavic actress who played Martha remarked backstage, “This is a play about love, not just about American life.”
Over the last 25 years, the range of subject matter, and, more important, techniques judged “suitable” for a Soviet audience, has, ever so slowly, been expanding. The introduction of American plays into the Soviet repertoire, which began tentatively in the heady days of cultural liberalization in the late 1950s, has played a significant role in the process. Explicit sexuality and profanity, social alienation, introspection, hedonism, alcoholism—taboo for Soviet playwrights—were, to a certain extent, acceptable in American drama. There, they possessed propaganda value demonstrating the decay of capitalist civilization. Weak characters could not exist in Socialist Realist drama (unless they were foreign enemies or counter-revolutionaries); Soviet literature had to provide strong and healthy role models. In American drama, however, weak characters were to be expected—American society bred such losers.
Weak characters could not exist in Socialist Realist drama. Soviet literature had to provide strong and healthy role models. In American drama, however, weak characters were to be expected—American society bred such losers.
As time passed, some of these productions lost their polemical edge. The weak characters and their indecision began receiving more and more sympathetic treatment at the hands of Soviet directors. America began to look almost appealing—certainly not disgusting—to Soviet audiences. Staging American plays also let directors, actors and designers experiment in ways they could not with Soviet or Russian classical drama; they were less constricted by convention.
It was a logical next step for Soviet playwrights to begin absorbing what they were seeing into their own writing, which is exactly what has happened in the work of some of the dramatists of the younger generation, like Vampilov and Gelman. Their plays deal much more with problems of individuals at odds with, or even ruined by, society, than earlier communal-minded Soviet drama. Socialist realism, once the undisputed tyrant of Soviet literary and theatrical life, is not yet dethroned—as evidenced in a speech by Party chief Chernenko to the Writer’s Union this fall (see story below)—but the doctrine is now so watered down and senile as to allow for many possibilities and variations.
Styles of direction, acting and design span a surprisingly broad range. In productions of American plays–and of Soviet and Russian drama—directors are turning almost as often for inspiration to the once-reviled Meyerhold as to the canonized Stanislavsky. To artists long forced to represent everything with photographic (and optimistic) realism, the abstract, the anti-psychological, the elliptical and “formalistic” are as irresistible as ice cream to a dieter.
So sick are Soviet directors and actors of realism and subtle Chekhovian “atmosphere” that they are sometimes given to violent overreaction. They force overly abstract and highly stylized interpretations even onto those plays—like The Glass Menagerie or The Rose Tattoo—which work better in basically realistic and psychological settings.
However strange these Soviet interpretations of American plays might be, they tell us a great deal. They show how Soviet theatre people—and, by extension, Soviet people in general—understand (and misunderstand) American life and culture. They also illuminate the politics of the repertoire in Soviet theatres. It is important to remember that all Soviet theatres are state-owned and state-financed. All directors, actors, technicians and managers receive their training and salaries exclusively from the state—which is in turn run by the Communist Party. In America, financial considerations largely control the repertoire; in the U.S.S.R., ideological ones do.
Any American who travels to the Soviet Union (particularly to European Russia) is struck by the intense curiosity Soviet citizens have about life in the U.S.A. Soviet newspapers rage daily against the decadence and violence of American life, smugly displaying graphic photos of bag ladies and subway stabbings. Radio and television announcers warn Soviet youth of the dangers of American civilization, the temptations of rock music and drugs. But despite this unceasing tirade of anti-American propaganda—which has intensified during the last year—Ivan Doe remains stubbornly fascinated with American culture—music, literature, films, fashions.
On the black market, bluejeans and pirated cassette recordings of American rock groups cost one half of an average monthly salary. When Tootsie played in a Leningrad movie theatre this summer, the lines stretched for blocks. Translations of novels by Updike or Vonnegut disappear minutes after they go on sale. In theory, the Soviet people are opposed to everything America stands for; in reality, they are as curious about the capitalist Other as a teenage girl—well-warned by her mother—is about boys.
Much of what Soviets know about America they have learned from American fiction—Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dreiser, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Vonnegut, Updike. Dog-eared translations of their books circulate among acquaintances until the pages fall tattered from their bindings. As Lev Dodin, artistic director of the Maly Drama Theatre in Leningrad, remarks: “We learned first about your country from American prose. And you know, American and Russian literature have a lot in common. They share a basically tragic vision of the world, a similar breadth and expansiveness.” Many other Soviet theatres, including Dodin’s, stage dramatic versions of American novels, particularly by Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men). Hemingway is so popular that the Russians call him, affectionately, “Khem.”
From prose, the Soviet hunger for things American eventually led to our plays and playwrights. Many American plays had been produced in Russia during the chaotic and exciting decade after the 1917 Revolution; Eugene O’Neill was especially popular. But Stalin’s intense xenophobia and chauvinistic Russian nationalism put an end to all that. During the 1930s and ’40s, hardly a single American work appeared on the Soviet stage. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953, and Kruschchev’s establishment of a more liberal cultural-intellectual environment, did the situation begin to change.
It was a celebrated production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Pushkin Theatre in Leningrad in the late 1950s that led to a strong resurgence of interest in American drama and a marked increase in the number of productions of American plays. Even so, Soviet directors had to go slowly. They had to be careful in their choices. Death of a Salesman was a logical starting point: in the mainstream of the psychological-realistic (Stanislavsky) tradition, it deals with the “little guy” broken by the competitive American system, and tells his story in an accessible style. “Miller writes simply, concretely and direcily, so it was easier to begin with him,” says Lev Dodin. Miller could even exemplify the Socialist Realist tradition. Much of the greats success of this early production also had to do with Yuri Tolubeev, one of the foremost Soviet actors, whose portrayal of Willy Loman is a legend in theatrical circles.
Aleksandr Solodovnikoy, writing of Tolubeev’s performance in 1966, said the actor interpreted the role “not as a tragedy of old age, but as a tragedy of social injustice, the tragedy of a man who has experienced all the consequences of the indifference of big business, to which he has ceased to be useful.” Salesman played at the Pushkin Theatre with undiminished success until only a few years ago, when it was finally retired from the repertoire. All My Sons, A View from the Bridge, A Memory of Two Mondays, The Price and The Crucible have also been produced in various Soviet theatres.
From Miller, Soviet directors passed to other American playwrights. No one, however, has captured and held the hearts of Russian audiences and theatre people as has Tennessee Williams. Since 1961, when Williams was first produced—Orpheus Descending at the Mossovet Theatre in Moscow—his plays, produced all over the country, have enjoyed unflagging popularity. His death occasioned an outpouring of affectionate articles and new productions. “If Tennessee Williams could have lived on what he could have earned in Russia,” says Aleksandr Getman, literary manager of the Maly Drama Theatre in Leningrad, “he would have been a millionaire!” (Until recently, American playwrights received no royalties from performances of their works in the U.S.S.R.) So popular is Williams that when the Leningrad theatres presented their plans for the 1984-85 season to the All-Union Association for Author’s Rights, they were told that there was too much Williams in their schedules, and reminded that there were other foreign playwrights worth staging, too.
What seems to appeal to Russians is Williams’ search—not always successful—for purity and beauty in the midst of an ugly world.
How is it that the plays of an avowed homosexual, a writer whose works are saturated with eroticism and escapism, have become a fixture of the theatrical repertoire in one of the most homophobic and prudish societies in the world? The answer is complicated and illustrates some of the sharp contradictions in the Russian self-image.
First of all, Williams is a “psychological realist,” which makes him officially acceptable. His characters are outcasts, unfortunate victims of the brutaiity and inhumanity of American life. On a less official emotional level, what seems to appeal to Russians is Williams’ search—not always successful—for purity and beauty in the midst of an ugly world. The horrible contrast between the real and ideal that motivates the evasive behavior of characters like Amanda in Menagerie and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire is immediately recognizable to the Russians, whose everyday reality has rarely been a source of aesthetic enjoyment. Many of Russia’s greatest artists—Turgenev, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov—have been similarly tortured by the difficult task of creating beauty and still facing the harsh, crude realities of Russian life.
As Russian critics also like to point out, Chekhov was one of Williams’ favorite playwrights (“The Seagull is, I think, the greatest of modern plays,” he wrote in his Memoirs). A similarly fragile, poetic atmosphere suffuses their plays, a similar use of central symbols. And most of Williams’ heroes—like Chekhov’s—are passive characters, to some extent paralyzed by their own sensitivity. Both Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Vanya in Uncle Vanya know what they should do to emerge from their miserable inertia, but they do not, because, in Aleksandr Getman’s words, “They cannot betray their sense of beauty. Williams is a great fatalist, like Chekhov. They both view man as a weak creature, and accept him that way. Williams’ characters are always searching, restless—this is very characteristic of Russians, too.”
Williams’ softness and sensitivity, his compassion and fragility, lie at one extreme of the Russian character. At the other extreme lie strength and crudeness, brutality and raw masculinity. Enter Ernest Hemingway. That Hemingway and Williams are the two most widely read and loved American authors in the U.S.S.R. is a paradox that has intrigued even Soviet critics. In a lengthy article on Williams in the April 1984 issue of the Soviet publication Theater, M. Turovskaya writes: “In his ‘anti-Hemingway’ personal life, Williams nonetheless represents the same classic ‘American tragedy’ of success. Like Hemingway, once he has achieved recognition, he immediately falls prey to the most dangerous trap of all: to be bought off. Like Hemingway, he enters into a struggle with the monster success that has killed off so many talents. Each one plays out his own variation of escapism: Hemingway—an escape into heroism, Williams—an escape into la vie bohème.” (Read: homosexuality.)
Whatever the precise reasons, Williams’ appeal to Soviet directors and audiences is clear. This does not mean, of course, that Soviet theatres stage plays the way American theatres do. The first big problem for Soviet directors, actors and designers is understanding the special “southern” atmosphere. Of the three productions (by three different directors) of Williams’ plays I saw—The Rose Tattoo, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—only the production of Cat strove to faithfully reproduce a southern setting. Rose Tattoo and Menagerie both received abstract, geographically non-specific treatments.
An audience unfamiliar with The Rose Tattoo would, in fact, have little sense of where it took place after seeing the production directed by Lev Dodin at the Maly Drama Theatre. Williams’ production notes—calling for romantic lighting, an “almost tropical” environment and Sicilian folk music—are completely disregarded. The numerous Italian phrases are translated into Russian; the heavily Catholic atmosphere is missing except for a few inconspicuous relics.
The abstract quality of the design also marks the performances. The lyrical and tender spirit of Williams’ dialogue is submerged under an excessively slapstick and raucous approach. Serafina’s daughter Rosa spits out her lines at machine-gun velocity, reflecting little of the character’s fragility. Entrances and exits, many down the center aisles, are preceded by an incongruous Chaplinesque strobe light sequence. The production is strangely over-directed at excessively high volume: all the technical gimmickry (obtrusive lighting and sound effects) distracts from the development of relationships between the actors and their characters.
Similar problems afflict a production of Menagerie, also at the Maly Theatre, but directed by a woman, Genrietta Yanovskaya, who takes extraordinary liberties with the play. Most notably, Yanovskaya adds Amanda’s husband—calling him Father—to the onstage characters. He appears throughout, most often silent, though he even exchanges some words with Amanda and Tom, who do not see him. Dressed in the first half in black, and in the second in white, he intrudes prominently into the action. At one point Amanda throws water at him; at another she dances with him.
Yanovskaya tends toward excessive literalness; when Laura tells her mother about her infatuation with Jim in high school, Jim and the Father appear at the back of the apartment set to do a dance routine. When Tom tells his mother there will be a gentleman caller, we hear “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” (which sounds throughout as a kind of leitmotif) as Tom and the Father dance a joyful little jig.
Tom is sick and abnormal throughout the play, incoherent, almost delirious. He delivers his lines in spurts, reeling around the stage, his hands to his eyes and forehead. Histrionic and heavy, the performance reveals little of the humor or sarcasm of his relationship with his mother, and even less of his wistful self-knowledge or artistic energy. Amanda, too, possesses little charm or grace. Like Tom, she is desperate and doomed from the start. Only Laura emphasizes the sad sweetness and lyricism of her role, strangely out of sync with the other actors and the production.
Dry and overly stylized, this Menagerie is a zoo, as far from Williams’ intentions as an Uncle Vanya performed by the Rockettes would be from Chekhov’s. Unsure of the atmosphere of faded southern elegance, and determined to avoid sentimental cliches, the director squashes and deforms the subtle emotional content. It is a Menagerie without a soul, a good example of stylization for its own sake.
Not all Soviet productions of Williams are so brittle and abstract, however. The Lensovet Theatre in Leningrad stages a creditable Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, for example. Here the director remains much truer to Williams’ specifications and atmosphere. A realistic set depicts the upper floor bedroom, with a ceiling of sloping wooden beams. The acting style is psychological and realistic. Music sounds, but sparingly and appropriately—especially a “scat jazz” fragment from time to time.
While the Russian translations of the names—“Bolshoi Pa” for Big Daddy, “Bolshaya Ma” for Big Mama—are disarming, the actors’ performances are generally accomplished. The director does not attempt to portray Big Daddy as a capitalist exploiter. A plumpish, but appealing, blonde is Maggie; she conveys more patience and naiveté than sexual yearning. Brick—dark-haired and not as trim as he might be—also comes across less as a sexual animal than a moody loser. The strong homosexual overtones in his relationship with Skipper are so muted that they almost disappear.
The homosexual aspects of Williams’ plays—his glorification of the male animal, the special “friendships” between males both on and offstage—still make Soviet directors and actors uncomfortable. Such a stance is not surprising, perhaps, when you remember that Tchaikovsky’s well-known homosexuality is a subject that has still never been openly discussed in the countless Soviet books on his life and career.
Williams’ preoccupation with the erotic is foreign to Soviet literature. Sex is for procreation, not recreation. Accordingly, Soviet productions tend to play down the steamily explicit sexuality. Maggie undresses to bra and panties on stage, and spends most of the evening in a skimpy slip. But she doesn’t play it sexy: she is an earth-mother figure, like the patiently enduring Sonya in Uncle Vanya. She is not a seductive siren. Lacking a sense of decadence, Soviet productions of Williams can be strangely chaste. Similarly, because Russians so love and cherish children, it is difficult for them to comprehend the anti-children sentiments expressed in Gooper and Mae’s bratty offspring. That is, at least, certainly the case with this production. The audience loves the kids.
By now, nearly all of Williams’ plays have been staged somewhere in the U.S.S.R.: The Bluebird of Happiness, Streetcar (many times in many theatres), Heaven on Earth, Summer and Smoke, Orpheus Descending. Next year, the Maly Theatre will stage The Two Character Play. For Soviet theatres—whether they completely understand him or not—Williams is already a classic.
Edward Albee has been somewhat slower to attract a following in Russia. His fondness for black humor, the absurd, vicious satire and profanity has made it more difficult for Soviet bureaucrats to approve him and for Soviet directors—unaccustomed to dealing with such elements—to understand and embrace him. The realistic base—still strong in Tennessee Williams—is less stable in Albee: this was an obstacle. When theatres did begin to stage his plays, they were presented in the media as social criticism of the American system. “In Albee,” stated an article in Leningrad Pravda in connection with a production of Everything in the Garden, “the root of evil is not in individuals, but in the social system which leaves its mark on all people.” The first plays to reach the Soviet stage were Zoo Story, All Over and Everything in the Garden. Now, several theatres across the country are turning to the more daunting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Omsk State Drama Theatre, on tour in Leningrad for a month last summer, showed that even provincial theatres can present Albee (and American drama in general) convincingly. What is most remarkable about its new (first staged in fall, 1983) production of Virginia Woolf is the universality of interpretation. The program notes dutifully state that “Albee’s works are plays of reforming intent, of social protest, which rip open—violently—the ulcers of American society, a society defeated by its social problems,” but the production does not prove that. If anything, its message is that we are all like Martha and George. Look what we will do for love, and to protect our illusions about ourselves and our lovers. Not: look what horrible monsters Americans are.
Albee’s profanity and bitchiness were well-served in the translation. Martha tosses off sexual insults with particular pleasure, leading the plump Russian lady sitting to my left to giggle excitedly into her hand. By the end of the long evening, the small audience had become even smaller.
But those who remained applauded long and enthusiastically. They, too, as several told me, were struck by the play’s emotional impact, its penetration to the big human issues—despite its foul language and American setting (here faithfully reproduced). Virginia Woolf is, in one sense, easier for Soviet directors than Williams’ plays, for it relies less on specific local atmosphere for its success. Several other theatres, including Moscow’s Sovremennik, are currently preparing productions of the play.
One of the other Omsk productions showed, however, that anti-American propaganda has not yet vanished from the Soviet stage. A dramatization of Bel Kaufman’s 1965 bestseller Up the Down Staircase—grossly violated in tone and content—presents a stinging denuncation of the American educational system, and of the hopeless problems of American young people. Set in and around an enormous framework of metal pipes built in large cubes, the action is fast and athletic. The villains are the school administrators, who are represented symbolically by an enormous papier-mâché figure which sits on the oversized jungle gym set, its head cut off by the proscenium. They cynically subvert the efforts of the sweet young new teacher, Silvia Barrett, to befriend and help her disadvantaged, but basically good-hearted, students.
Gone from the production is the sense of humor essential to Kaufman’s tongue-in-cheek narrative. In one sequence, the students of Calvin Coolidge High watch a CBS news program on which (we only hear as the students watch) an American army officer describes in graphic detail how he oversaw the torture of prisoners of war in Vietnam. By the evening’s end, Alissa Blake has become a vegetable after trying to “fly” from a window, despondent over her rejection by her callous English teacher. Silvia Barrett has been sent to a mental hospital, overwhelmed by the horrors she has witnessed. (In the considerably less tragic original, she sustains a fractured foot in an accident.) The performance I saw was sold out; the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy this bleak portrayal of American life.
Other such dramatizations are common. One, at Leningrad’s Maly Theatre, is The Incident, a reworking of a 1967 American screenplay of the same title by Nicholas E. Baehr, about a group of New York subway passengers held hostage by hoodlums. Less explicitly propagandistic, but also very popular, is an adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s disaster novel Airport at Leningrad’s Pushkin Theatre.
It appears that American drama is on the Soviet stage to stay. Or is it? Their country’s erratic cultural history has bred in Soviet theatre people an instinctive caution, and a knowledge that things can always change—with frightening speed—for the worse. There is no question that both the Soviet domestic political situation, at the moment taking a xenophobic turn, and the vicissitudes in the relationship between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., affect how much, and what, American drama Soviet theatres can present. Because theatres generally have to plan quite far ahead, however, an outmoded cultural policy can still sometimes be reflected in the repertoire several years later. The presence of relatively many American plays in the Soviet repertoire today is, in part, a reflection of the period of detente, which led to a greater volume of cultural exchange.
How the current chill, and the uncertain situation in the Kremlin, will affect the fate of American drama in the U.S.S.R. is difficult to predict. One thing is sure: it will be hard to return to the days when producing American plays in Moscow was like throwing a hamburger at Lenin’s tomb. Imagine what the Russians might do with Lanford Wilson.
Harlow Robinson made his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1970 and has returned six times since. His articles on Soviet culture have appeared in a wide range of scholarly and popular publications, and his biography of Sergei Prokofiev will be published by Viking Press next year. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the State University of New York at Albany.
In the tender arena of creative freedom in the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Konstantin U. Chernenko is changing his tune. But it’s more like a subtle modulation in party ideology than a major crescendo to new artistic outspokenness.
Addressing the Soviet Writer’s Union at its 50th anniversary meeting in September, Chernenko revised his comments to the Central Committee in 1983, when he condemned the tendency of authors and filmmakers to focus on the “unhappy destinies, the troubles of life, weak and whining characters” and called instead for “vivid accounts about the heroes of the five-year period, workers, collective farmers and technicians.”
In his recent Stalin-esque softshoe entitled “To Assert the Truth of Life, the Lofty Ideals of Socialism,” Chernenko acknowledged the problems of bringing such heroic souls to life in a work of art, while reiterating the necessity of a common artistic adherence to Socialist ideals. Chernenko went on to blast Western nations who contend that “socialism does not tolerate freedom of creative work.” In a familiar rearticulation of the concepts of socialist freedoms, Chernenko asserted that “the nation will not forgive any defection to the side of our ideological opponents in the keen struggle currently under way in the world. Freedom of creative work cannot be a privilege for a few. Nothing and no one can free a person from the compulsory demands of society, its laws that are so obligatory for all. It is naive to think that one can blacken the moral and political foundations of our system and expect simultaneously benefits and recognition from it.”
It is the classic naivete of expecting to have your blini and eat it too.
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