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What Theatre Can Tell Us about the Past

What do we remember about Soviet theatre, what can historical documents tell us about it, and how do Soviet narratives impact life in contemporary theatres and beyond? At the Theatre and Time Conference, hosted by HSE University, participants discussed these questions and more.

The conference was organized by the HSE School of General and Applied Philology and the Project Laboratory for Studies of Yury Lyubimov’s Work and Director’s Theatre of the XX-XXI centuries, together with the Central Research Library of the Russian Union of Theatre Professionals. Over the course of two days, theatre and literature historians, playwrights, and directors discussed how performances of past years are viewed today, and how the Soviet era re-manifests itself in contemporary theatre.

The concluding discussion of the conference focused on how to work with topics related to the Soviet era, why it has become interesting to viewers and producers, and what role documentary performances play in theatrical interpretations of Soviet narratives. An interesting thing about this discussion was that it has become part of the ‘Theatre from Scratch’ minor, and it was attended by students from various departments of HSE University.

From Myth to Human Story

Playwright Nina Belenitskaya, author of the play, Pavlik is My God (published in 2007), was one of the discussion participants. Her reasons to address Pavlik Morozov’s story were deeply personal, but she had never planned to work with the Soviet period specifically. ‘Today Soviet themes are very popular, but back then, they seemed rather uninteresting or out of place,’ Belenitskaya said.

The idea  of taking on a highly mythologized story was viewed as odd and even condemned by many of her colleagues: what can a young playwright know about that era? What right does she have to write about it?

‘I wanted to prove that I have the right,’ Belenitskaya said. ‘I understood that the Pavlik Morozov myth has something bigger behind it, a real story, and that all the rest is idealized lore that appeared later, only after his death’.

When Belenitskaya worked on the play, and later, the performance, she saw a lot of links to our current times. ‘At first, we had to do a lot of explaining as to why we were doing this performance, but then, more and more people appeared to be really interested in it,’ she said.

When you tell an old story in the language of the present, you bring the two eras together

According to Belenitskaya, the present time can be better understood through the lens of the past—particularly, if you cannot talk about the present directly. And in the case of Pavlik Morozov, the personal story—a story about a son’s relationship with his father—is really important as well. But this dimension of Morozov has become totally lost in Pavlik’s post-Soviet mythologization. The Soviet Era that is Always Here

At the conference, Anastasia Pauker, theatre critic and invited lecturer of the HSE Faculty of Humanities, noted that an interest in the Soviet era is one of the most characteristic traits of the contemporary Russian theatre. Performances about the Soviet times, for example, comprised a substantial share of the Russian Case programme, which is organized for international viewers as part of the Golden Mask Festival.

On the other hand, theatre historian and critic Evgeny Sokolinsky suggests that Soviet themes have never gone out of style in Russian theatre. ‘Soviet life continues, at least in the non-capital regions,’ he said. ‘Everything has remained the same there: everyday life, views, and ideals. And Soviet drama continues in the theatres. Volodin, Arbuzov, and Gorin are almost always on theatre bills, both progressive and less progressive ones.’

Sokolinsky believes that the reason behind the popularity of Soviet theatre is that it is related to the sensibility and experiences of private life, which is comprehensible to ‘non-elite’ audiences, who crave something real, rather than pretentious acting. ‘Meanwhile, some contemporary directors never focus on ordinary life; they and simply ‘entertain themselves’ and seek to demonstrate their directing proficiency,’ Sokolinksy said.

A director can have whatever attitude to the past he or she wants, but it should at least be sincere 

Producers of a new performance of Yury Dombrovsky’s play, Faculty of Useless Knowledge, managed to preserve such sincerity, believes his widow, Klara Turumova-Dombrovskaya. Some people had told her that director Mikhail Levitin loves reworking the literary bases of his plays to ‘beyond recognition.’ ‘But I said I would be happy to see any interpretation,’ Turumova-Dombrovskaya said.

On the other hand, documentary drama is a completely different way to interpret Soviet narratives. Gennady Kuzovkin from the Memorial Society discussed a new history & philology project, which studies the poetry boom during the Khrushchev Thaw, and particularly, poetry readings on Mayakovsky Square. This will be a story for a documentary play. It is co-authored by ordinary people— ‘memory keepers’—who saw it with their own eyes. The play is based upon their firsthand accounts, and it will be further developed in conjunction with eyewitness feedback.

See also:

To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture

In March, the International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences at HSE welcomed Eleonor Gilburd, Assistant Professor of the History and the College at the University of Chicago. Professor Gilburd presented her book 'To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture' which deals with the history of translation, cultural diplomacy and exchange and the interpretation of Western texts by Soviet audiences in the mid-20th century. She spoke to HSE News Service about her research.