I've been working on a project dealing with Socialist Revolutionary Theater in the first couple of decades of the Soviet Union and its ultimate influence on theater in the West and the research is fascinating and daunting. Over the years, I have collected quite a lot of material on Russian and Soviet theater, but unfortunately it's not cataloged and currently it's all boxed up, so I've relied more on internet resources and what faulty memories I have of projects I was involved in long ago. There is so much. So much of it is in Russian!
Well, I studied Russian briefly on my own when I was in college, never took a course, but I did become more or less familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet and could muddle through a few halting phrases. Now I have to read it, and that's proving to be something of a challenge, though not a hopeless one, and I need to understand spoken Russian much better than I ever did before in order to fathom out some of the un-subtitled film clips I've been looking at. Not too long ago, I picked up some of the language again while interviewing immigrants from the former Soviet Union and I learned a great deal about their experiences -- though of course I had a translator with me, so it wasn't like I was carrying on a conversation in their own language. I couldn't possibly.
With this project, though, I don't have a translator, so it's taking some time, but, Oh My, what I've been learning.
Although I was a theater professional for many years, my interest was always in the art form itself and the practical means of realizing the artistic vision, whatever it might be. I spent far more time analyzing the Greeks and Shakespeare trying to absorb how -- and to some extent why -- they did what they did and how to translate that analysis to the stage today, especially when the play being done wasn't ancient Greek or Shakespeare. The Greeks and Shakespeare are the foundations for contemporary English-speaking theater, even though the work itself may be based in or derived from a very different tradition. What those plays were like to the audience originally is still what we are trying to accomplish today, and part of the problem I've found with productions of the Greeks and Shakespeare is that the approach is all but backwards. All to often, the approach is to try to impose something on the work rather than draw out the depth of what's already there.
One of the most profound works I ever encountered was the "Prometheus Bound" of Aeschylus, very short, extraordinarily powerful, soaring and painful and wonder-struck in every imaginable way, and I pondered it for what seemed like half a year or more trying to fathom what it must have been like for audiences in Athens 2,500 years ago and how any of that spirit could be found or recovered today.
There is no way to deal with a play like the "Prometheus Bound" in realistic terms. It is not a realistic drama. It is a tragedy, one of the purest that's been handed down to us. It is towering mythology, both horrifying and uplifting at the same time. There is no method nor any psychological analysis you can do that will make "sense" of the play, because it isn't a play to be made sense of. It is a play to feel, to touch and experience the deepest emotions you may have -- and to survive it.
Over time, I could draw on a lot of complementary performing arts experience, not merely (oh, well!) the Theater in the conventional sense, but all kinds of street performance, circus, spectacle and pageant, movies, and so forth. And still I pondered the Greeks.
I would ponder the Greeks even when the production was Chekhov or Brecht or O'Neill or (god save me... ) Irving Berlin.
All this is a round about way of getting into the question of Socialist Revolutionary Theater in the newly hatched Soviet Union.
The forms utilized in the early Soviet attempts to create a truly Proletarian Theater weren't entirely new, nor in many cases were the creative people involved, but the way they were combined and recombined and utilized, and the frankly social and political purposes for which they were used was something new, and often the visualizations were entirely new. (On the other hand, sometimes they were recycled.)
But what is striking to me right now is that so much energy and effort was put into reaching as deeply as possible into the emotional core of the People, drawing them in and holding them "bound" if you will, bringing them into the performance, and in many cases having them create -- and live -- the performance themselves from beginning to end. The point is to create a true People's Theater, not impose an idea of Theatre upon them.
Somehow this seems very Greek -- or very Shakespearean -- to me, for at least in part, it is how they did it. The production, the performance was an organic whole from within the community, not something imposed upon it from without.
While there were trusted regulars, there were no "professionals." And so it would be -- or at least it would try to be -- in the Soviet Union.
Outside of an academic context, there's little of what they were doing -- such as their plays and their pageants -- that we are exposed to these days, but in the 1920's and 1930's the influence of Soviet experimental theater was profound in the West, and the deeper nature of what they were trying to get at is to be found in all sorts of places and performances. The Soviet experiments in Revolutionary Theater haven't gone away. They've burrowed deep.
So. This project is taking time because I'm once again trying to burrow deep into an art form I haven't practiced for fifteen years, and I'm trying to do it in a language I can barely comprehend -- sometimes. The strangest thing is that I've got this silly grin on my face so much of the time while I'm working on it.
An animated version of "Prometheus Bound":