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From Russia with Love

Review of:
The Russian Theatre After Stalin, by Anatoly Smeliansky.

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in American Theatre, Dec. 1999, Vol. 16, Issue 10, p. 77.

Anatoly Smeliansky’s portrait of Russian theatre since 1953 describes how various directors survived, or didn’t survive, the decay and end of an empire. The story closes, of course, on a note of uncertainty about the future–a lack of clarity stemming from the deterioration of the more clearly defined role in which the Soviet Union cast the theatre arts. “In a situation of freedom and spiritual vacuum, the Russian theatre lost its special significance,” Smeliansky writes of the altered landscape in the ’90s.

His Russian Theatre After Stalin, which contains a variety of telling anecdotes making this point, also offers countless vivid descriptions of Russian productions important either because they were typical of the culture or because they were not. That Smeliansky, associate head of the Moscow Art Theatre, was or is on personal terms with most of the artists he discusses gives him an obvious advantage over other people writing on the same topic, of which, in English, there are few. The breadth of his knowledge and his intimacy with the material manifests itself throughout the book.

Smeliansky is the kind of teacher who communicates better over a drink than at a lectern. In that sense, Russian Theatre After Stalin should be read in a cafe rather than a library. The meandering way in which Smeliansky’s thoughts billow forth is part of the charm but also, not infrequently, makes the book a bit frustrating. The structure of its exposition partly undermines the book’s usefulness as a reference tool.

Although he occasionally attempts a broader look at Russian society, for the most part Smeliansky’s discussion focuses on four directors: Yury Lyubimov, Oleg Yefremov, Georgy Tovstonogov and Anatoly Efros. The book, however, is not structured around persons but rather time periods: “the Thaw” describes the Khrushchev era, during which artists estimated (sometimes incorrectly) the environment to be more open to dissent than it had been under Stalin; “the Frosts,” usually referred to as the time of stagnation, is the title for the years from Brezhnev to Chernenko; for the years from 1985 to 1997, Smeliansky abandons the thermal metaphors and takes the heading “the Black Box,” a reference to the flight recorder at the back end of an airplane–in other words, theatre artists are the “abstract and brief chronicles of the time.”

Breaking up post-Stalin Russia into these three epochs has validity, but it doesn’t help Smeliansky’s storytelling. No thread goes unbroken. We learn about Yefremov up to 1968, then we go back and hear about Lyubimov up to 1968, then we go back and hear about Tovstonogov, and so forth. In part two, we return to Lyubimov (remember him?) and follow him up to 1985, and so on with the other three. By the time we get to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Efros and Tovstonogov are dead, and suddenly we’re introduced to several new directors–Mark Zakharov, Kama Ginkas, Lev Dodin, Anatoly Vasilyev and Pyotr Fomenko. These artists became more prominent after 1985 but, of course, they did not simply materialize out of nowhere, so Smeliansky winds back in time to tell us what they had been doing during the Thaw and the Frosts. We have neither a linear historical narrative nor consistency based on subject–which, if you’re new to the material, makes the names, places and events far more difficult to keep track of than need be. Still, the reader is left with an engaging and useful account of Russia’s most important directors for the last half-century.

IMPLICIT IN RUSSIAN THEATRE AFTER Stalin is a questioning of what conditions cause art and artists to thrive or stagnate. American arts advocates tend to reduce the issue to one of free speech and adequate, unconditional funding by government and corporate institutions. The European and Russian experiences draw a more complicated picture. Smeliansky doesn’t long for the days when the government banned productions, and yet it’s hard not to notice some nostalgia for the elevated status that “spiritual activity” once had in Soviet Russia and for the sense that artists were playing a role vital to society.

Smeliansky reiterates the conventional wisdom that theatre under Soviet rule occupied a privileged place as one of the few spheres where public gatherings were permitted; the government tolerated a degree of dissent and criticism in the theatre so long as it confined itself within given parameters and employed an “Aesopian” technique of suggesting veiled parallels between contemporary society and the allegedly discrete world depicted on stage. When the constraints on dissent collapsed with the Soviet regime, theatre forfeited its monopoly on public critique. Its aura of distinction lost its sheen.

The problem was not confined to Russia. Before he died, Heiner Muller, whose status under the East German government fluctuated dramatically over the years, expressed skepticism regarding the outlook for culture under capitalism, and, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, numerous people throughout the East Bloc noted with alarm the drop-off in theatre attendance. Theatre’s dilemma goes beyond box-office success and touches more deeply on its sense of purpose. If you reject ticket sales as a gauge of quality, add to that the attack that some intellectuals have made on the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, and strip the artist of his or her role as relevant cultural critic, what exactly is left?

After ideology’s end, art’s mission might be described in a way that is, at once, specific and vague: to seek meaning in a balance of material and immaterial concerns; to do so as part of a search for truth predicated on the rejection of dogma; and to dress this searching in an artistic form compellingly and imaginatively apposite to the questions the work poses. It seems to me, however, that the rarity with which this mission is embarked upon in Western society is on par with the paucity of social critique brooked by Soviet society.

TO ARGUE THAT THEATRE PRODUCED IN the absence of censorship has too much competition from other sources offering astute social criticism–journalism, literature, media–is not entirely accurate. Rather, in the face of more and more superficial distractions, many people-in the West and the East, be they artists or audiences–have simply lost interest in social comment altogether. It is telling that Mark Zakharov, artistic director of the Lenkom Theatre, saw fit after the Soviet Union’s collapse to open a foreign currency exchange and a nightclub under the same roof as his performances. As Smeliansky describes it, one watches the curtain fall on The Seagull and then observes security men as they set up checkpoints where people can deposit their weapons before going into the part of the theatre with “real” action. The juxtaposition is perverse but emblematic of the resourcefulness required in a free market, where the majority needs to be cajoled, admonished and tricked into supporting the artist’s liberty to produce heterodox, i.e., commercially nonviable work. The Russians have in effect traded one set of constraints for another, and now they are discovering new manipulations for a new system.

Ah, progress.

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