A Feast of Eastern European Drama
Plays at the Edinburgh Festival provided a watermark against which to measure political change in these volatile countries
WITH fortuitous timing, the Edinburgh Festival's director Frank Dunlop chose this year to emphasize Soviet and Eastern European drama in the theater portion of the festival that ended Sept. 1.Against a backdrop that included the Soviet coup attempt, the independence of the Baltic republics, and the struggles of Yugoslavia, the drama of decades of repressive governments was being playing out. "Today," according to Czechoslovakian director Roman Polak, "the cultural control is the audience." Times have changed indeed. In common with theater directors in other East European countries, Mr. Polak has been familiar with other forms of "cultural control." He adds, however, that the state control in the provincial town of Martin - whose National Theatre of Martin is a workshop for young and aspiring actors - had never been as rigorous as it was in Bratislava, the center of Czechoslovakian government. But the fall of communist regimes and moves toward democracy are not always as good for the arts as might be imagined. One form of censorship may have gone. But audience popularity may not be the best alternative quality control. And lack of money is often a big problem. As Polak puts it, "The theater is free now, but poor. The President [Vaclav Havel] has power - but no money." Pols two impressive productions, "Baal" (Bertolt Brecht's first play) and "The Dispute" (by 18th-century French writer Pierre Marivaux) have both been in the repertoire of this notable theater for a number of years. If the festival in Edinburgh strives to show what is actually happening in drama in a given country, these two plays were not the most representative choice. They were productions coming out of conditions under the old regime. Both plays have a dark aspect; "Baal" is a diametric revolt against the status quo (and ordinary decencies) of society, the other (though more light-heartedly) is concerned with a kind of guinea pig experiment. Each play describes the effects of a powerful control of individual lives, and, given a contemporary directorial twist, would have served as protest in communist Czechoslovakia. The plays then would have become a form of "metaphorical theater" to use Pols own phrase. WHAT is popular in his country at the moment, says Polak (who went through "a very dark period" directing a lot of Kafka a few years back) is "funny, humorous theater clearly not to his taste. But, he says philosophically, "It's a known fact that the period immediately after a revolution is a dead one for theater." His two festival plays are distinctly alive, however, and they are in fact historic. Polak had wondered if his rendering of "Baal" would "still be good for audiences after the revolution." (It was.) This raises the problem of writers and directors no longer being able to point barbs at, or subtly undermine, an "opposition." Which means, Polak says, that "now theater needs to be more about private emotion, feeling, relationships." Judging from the evidence of "Baal" and "The Dispute," that was his way eve n under the communist regime. "I never made head-on political points in my productions," he says. Polak, and most of those associated with these two productions, are no longer part of the Theatre of Martin. They have changed, for this period in history, from theater on stage to the theater of real life. President Havel (whose own play has been toured by the company in the past) has made it clear that money is needed for reconstruction, and cannot be made available for theaters. Matej Landl, who plays Baal, Brecht's anti-hero, muses that it's a "bad time now" for theater in his country. Young people are not going to see plays in Czechoslovakia they can't afford the tickets." But he does hope that it will only take about five years before the fortunes of the theater revive. Mr. Dunlop, the festival director, made it a theme of this festival to concentrate on these works from Eastern European countries - in addition to Czechoslovakia, there were productions from Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia - not to mention drama and music from the cities of Berlin, Leningrad, and Moscow. "That these countries - I am trying to find ... another way of saying 'recently democratized' countries ... that these countries in a turmoil can come along and thrill people in Edinburgh, is terrific," Dunlop said. Remarkable, too, was the fact that the Bolshoi Opera company was aboard the only plane to get out of Moscow at the height of the coup en route for Edinburgh. They came to perform Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Christmas Eve." At a press conference given as the coup collapsed, four of the company's leading members joked sardonically about it. Someone from the press wondered if an opera might be made of the events taking place that week in the Soviet Union. "It would be better as a ca rtoon film," was the reply. The Bolshoi members made much of their friendship with Frank Dunlop: "We thought perhaps of suggesting that instead of the toppled statue of the founder of the KGB, there might be placed a statue of Frank Dunlop. But then we thought - it's not a very nice site, so perhaps a fountain would be better." The strong theater from other countries that Dunlop, who ends his eight-year tenure as festival director this year, has persistently brought to Edinburgh should be his memorial. It is clearly his first love. He mentioned enthusiastically a substantial grant from the Hamada Foundation to the National Theatre of Craiova, Romania, on the basis of their contribution to the festival. A grant of this sort is "so that they can go on working at top level," says Dunlop. He described their production "Ubu Rex With Scenes From Macbeth a fierce, imaginative counterpointing of Jarry's "Ubu Roi" and Shakespeare's Scottish Play - as "dear to my heart." It was certainly a compelling piece of theater, not least because the audience associated Pa and Ma Ubu - a cutting pair of comic tyrants played as anthropomorphic beach ball and suitably grotesque wife - with the unlamented Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. When the director Silviu Purcarete was asked if he had been thinking of the deposed Ceausescus, he said, no, but he had been thinking of Lady Macbeth. His production is spiced with that sort of wit. Perhaps years of repression, forcing criticism of the communist regime to be a thing of irony and humorous indirection, has become a habit. What was clear from this original production was that the best theater under political repression can transcend - and outlive - the conditions that prompt it. The same is true of one of the Polish contributions to the festival. This was "Today is my Birthday" by Tadeusz Kantor. The company is called Cricot2 and the circumstances which generated this short, astonishing piece of visual theater were unusual. MR. KANTOR'S company is not made up of actors and actresses at all, but artists and art historians. But they are not ciphers in some sort of performance art. This is theater all right, and Kantor without doubt knew exactly how to exploit theatrical effect, urgency, surprise, and pace, and how to command the rapt attention of an audience. Kantor's invasions of the stage, humorous, absurd, surreal, powerfully stirring, went back to his time as a Jewish artist in Poland under the Nazis. It continued under the communists. His productions were often performed secretly in cellars. When in the early 1970s Kantor first brought his plays to Edinburgh, they were appropriately part of the "underground" here too - on the Fringe. They were promoted by art-dealer entrepreneur Richard Demarco and staged in unpretentious venues with small-audience capac ities. This time, however, the play was played to packed houses at the Empire Theatre (a grand place, hurriedly rescued from recent existence as a bingo hall and planned to be transformed into the long-awaited opera house Edinburgh needs). Kantor has become part of the Main and Official Festival. The irony is that Kantor himself was absent. He died suddenly at 75 just after the final rehearsal of "Today is my Birthday" and the players - describing themselves as "the inhabitants of the Room of the Imagination of Tadeusz Kantor perform it just as he left it, his director's chair on stage, empty. "Tragedy must always be obliterated by humor" Kantor once said. Just so. His play is subversive to its bones, its despairs shot through with hope, its poignancies with laughter. So it matters not at all whether Poland is free today or not. Kantor's message, his vision has its own roots, and his protest against the absurdities of human life and the ability of the human spirit to transcend them, survives.