Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

Northwestern University Press'  Eight Twentieth-Century Plays traces the evolution of Russian drama from 1901 to the end of the last century.  Timothy Langen and Justin Weir's introduction to the book provides readers with a framework for seeing connections between these widely divergent literary works.  Although the form and content of the plays diverge, Langen and Weir remind us that almost the whole of the twentieth century involved revolution.  Twentieth-Russians were, after all, almost always plotting revolution, actively overthrowing governments, consolidating revolutionary gains, or overturning revolutionary traditions.  The first play in the collection is Zinaida Gippius' 1901 Sacred Blood, an odd but strangely compelling piece of symbolist drama.  As might expected from the symbolist theater, Sacred Blood revolves around fantastical creatures--mermaids and witches--and a dark religious theme related to sacrifice and immortality.  The play doesn't seem particularly modern, but it's vague eschatology seems rooted in some profound if metaphorical truth about humankind and the universe in general.  Another symbolist play, Alexander Blok's The Unknown Woman, seems ever more remote from modern aesthetic concerns.  Almost intentionally unintelligible, Blok, one of the century's greatest poets, seems intent on wrapping his theme of beauty in a coat of poetic abstruseness.  Mayakovsky's short, 1913 play, Mayakovsky:  A Tragedy, is the first play in the collection with unmistakably modern overtones.  Like Blok's play, Mayakovsky lacks a clear plot, or even clear meaning.  However, the play's tone is clear enough:  alternately sardonic, playful, grandiloquent, and self-mocking, Mayakovsky doesn't seem all that far removed from Allen Ginsburg's Howl, or any number other works of late twentieth century poetry or prose. Victor Ardov's 1929 play, The Case of the Entry Room, isn't as stylistically innovative as any of the other previous plays.  However, the editors wisely included it to illustrate the extent to which the relatively new Russian revolutionary society still debated the meaning of 1917, or sometimes poked fun at its results.  In this short play, members of an overcrowded communal apartment fight for space, and in the process a judge realizes that almost every participant in the drama is guilt of some offense against order and decorum.  Some residents file fictitious divorces, some keep livestock in hallways--but all are willing to bend the rules of the new revolutionary society when it suits them.  In The Case of the Entry Room, the growing pains of revolutionary society cannot be hidden.   People are learning new words, participating in unfamiliar forms of social organization, and applying to new governmental institutions. The Collection also includes Valentine Kataev's vaudevillian comedy, Squaring the Circle.  This 1928 play is premised on the lightly satirical themes related to half-digested Soviet phraseology, NEP acquisitiveness, the conflation of Soviet political economy and personal ethics, and the general Soviet housing shortage that fully ended. However, the mechanics of Kataev's plot aren't strikingly new:  two men marry, trick their new wives into moving into the space cramped apartment, and soon swap partners to find real happiness.  The play collection is rounded out by Vladimir Kirshon's 1930 drama about Stalinist grain requisition, a theme too susceptible to historical analysis to be included in this post, and Leonid Zorin's The Guests, a piece of Thaw drama which also deserves extended commentary.

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