It is Leningrad high school teacher Elena Sergeyevna’s birthday. Four of her students – three boys and a girl – arrive unexpectedly at her drab little apartment, bearing expensive gifts: a bouquet of flowers, a set of antique crystal goblets, a bottle of champagne.
The offerings of grateful young people to a beloved instructor? Not quite.
In Russian playwright Ludmila Razumovskaya’s taut psychological drama, the youths soon drop their masks of adoration and get down to ugly business. They try first to bribe, next to coerce, finally to torment their dedicated teacher into raising the low grades two of the boys have made on a crucial mathematics exam. And by the end of this drunken, brutal evening, they have forced Elena into a horrifying revelation: She has not been grooming morally responsible, humanistic young Soviets for adulthood, but a generation of ruthless, self-serving junior thugs who emulate their elders’ hypocrisy and corruption all too well.
Elena Sergeyevna premiered in 1980, the year it was written, to electric response from Leningrad audiences. Reaction came swiftly from the Brezhnev government, too. The play (Razumovskaya’s sixth work, but the first to be produced) was quickly banned. Its shocking expose of the moral decay passed from one Russian generation to the next, and the irrelevancy and impotence of socialist true believers like Elena, could not be tolerated.
But the script did find a clandestine life underground. And with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev, Dear Elena Sergeyevna resurfaced to become a widely produced staple of perestroika theatre, a dramatic reflection of the cynical and morally bankrupt Brezhnev era that rings true today. It has been filmed by director Eldar Riasanov, and was collected in a recent Russian anthology of Razumovskaya’s scripts, Garden Without Earth.
Mixing suspense and philosophy
Tim Bond caught up with the play last summer in Munich, Germany, at the experimental Stadt Theatre Im Marstall. Recently appointed artistic director at the Seattle Group Theatre, Bond declares he was “blown away by what I saw. Even with very little German I knew it was a powerful piece of theatre. I vowed to find the script and produce it.”
Back in Seattle, Bond called someone he thought could help track down the work: critic and translator Roger Downey, known for his fluid versions of German and Eastern European dramas. Just back from Russia, Czechoslovakia and Poland in search of intriguing stage literature, Downey quickly tapped his international network for information about the Razumovskaya play, and within 24 hours had the Russian script in hand – and a cotranslator, Hungarian-born director Zoltan Schmidt, who trained, like Razumovskaya, at the Leningrad Conservatory, committed to the project.
Bond is staging the new Downey-Schmidt translation, retitled Dear Miss Elena, as the Group’s 1992-93 season opener. (An earlier English translation by Cathy Porter was presented in 1991 by London’s Gate Theatre and Vancouver’s Pink Ink, and a Russian-language production toured Chicago.)
Why would the Group Theatre, a company long dedicated to a multicultural repertoire emphasizing works by African-American, Latino and Asian-American writers, tackle a Russian play? Bond cites the drama’s “rich, intellectual, high-powered language,” and the emotional intensity that arises from its admixture of suspense-melodrama and philosophical debate. But the most salient factor in Bond’s choice was the play’s relevance to the contemporary American scene. “The play deals specifically with the U.S.S.R.,” he concedes. “It shows the disillusionment of youth as they confronted the lie in the communist system, and it prophesied what would eventually happen to that system. But for me it also connects very strongly to what is going on here, and what we’ve learned from the Los Angeles riots. When enough pressure is put on people, when their hope for a better future dies, they start emulating the monstrousness of their leaders. The parallel is that the Reagan-Bush era created the same kind of pressures on our underclass that the Brezhnev era exerted on the U.S.S.R.’s youth. In both cases there’s a gap between the ideals that politicians and teachers espouse, and the systemic corruption young people see happening all around them.”
Zoltan Schmidt, who lived in Leningrad from 1977 to 1982, reiterates the link. “People like Elena had this dream of a pure, just socialism, and they lived it, they fought for it,” he observes. “But the economy never improved, except for the same few hundred Communist aristocrats who played golf and had vacation homes by the Baltic Sea. They were like mafia bosses, and everyone had to play their game to survive. This society has also gotten cynical and mercantile, and young people learn that to get ahead you must be ruthless about grabbing whatever you want, at any moral price.”
The challenge for the Group is to emphasize the cross-national parallels in Dear Miss Elena without diminishing the play’s Russian specificity. For example, Elena’s one-bedroom apartment (which she shares with her ill mother) must have the claustrophobic ambience and drab decor specific to standard-issue Soviet urban housing. To evoke that, Bond has hired a Russian emigre set designer, Yuri Degtar.
It is also critical for audiences to understand the significance of the exam grades under Elena’s control, and why her students would risk so much to try and alter them. As Schmidt points out, “If these boys don’t get into university they must go into the army, a misery and a waste of time. They might be sent to the war in Afghanistan and get killed there. The suicide rate in the Russian army at this time was very high.”
One of the students, Pasha, has won awards for his essays on Dostoevsky, but he distorts the great Russian author’s views on the nature of evil by twisting them into an apologia for immorality. Says Roger Downey, “These kids’ understanding of Dostoevsky is as shallow as young Richard’s reading of Nietzsche in O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness! And it’s just as self-serving.”
Locked in the bathroom
Where the Group’s Dear Elena will depart most from its Russian counterparts is in the complexion of the casting. The production features performers of Puerto Rican, Jewish and Mexican-American heritage. Bond insists this is actually consistent with the Lithuanian-bred Razumovskaya’s original intention. “She wanted a cast that represented all of Soviet youth,” Bond claims, “and we know that includes a lot of different ethnicities.”
Whether the play will ignite Seattle audiences the way it has Russian and German playgoers remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see what Americans make of the play’s ambiguous ending, which leaves the emotionally distraught Elena in a locked bathroom.
Does the unmasking of her students drive the teacher to suicide? “I don’t want to answer that for the audience,” says Bond. “We don’t know what will happen in the former U.S.S.R., or even in our own society. We don’t know what’s coming out of that room.”