At a postplay discussion following a performance of Russian playwright Edvard Radzinsky’s An Old Actress in the Role of Dostoevsky’s Wife running through Nov. 13 at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York a woman in the audience wanted to know why she had never heard of the author. How, she wondered, could she be totally unfamiliar with one of Russia’s most successful playwrights, even though his plays are frequently performed in Europe? Translator Alma H. Law summed it up in the neat phrase “name recognition,” something which Radzinsky is only now starting to achieve, thanks to the success in the United States of his first book, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II.
It’s a telling commentary on the marginal status of theatre in our culture that the few Americans who have ever heard of Radzinsky know him for a bestseller and not for any of his two dozen plays. But at the Cocteau Rep, interest in Radzinsky’s work is no mere fad. An Old Actress is in fact the fourth Radzinsky play staged at the Cocteau since 1984–all directed by Eve Adamson in translations by Law. The Cocteau has proven an ideal environment to nurture this rare relationship between foreign playwright and his American collaborators.
Founded by Adamson in 1971, the theatre has always focused on classical and international repertory using a core ensemble of actors. The resident actors lent the productions significant continuity; longtime company member Craig Smith, for example, played the male leads in each of the four plays. The small size and modest means of the Cocteau’s 140-seat Bowerie Lane Theatre seem conducive to Radzinsky’s work, in contrast to the huge Soviet theatres. When Adamson saw her first Radzinsky play in the Soviet Union, she says, “They were trying very hard to make it heavy and realistic, and Radzinsky said, ‘Well, of course this really doesn’t work. This should be done in a small theatre with a lot of imagination.’ And I thought, oh gee, sounds like my kind of playwright.”
Adamson first traveled to the Soviet Union in 1984–“the year Andropov died,” she remembers–with three other American directors as guests of the Soviet copyright agency. Although the ostensible purpose of the trip was to interest Americans in Soviet playwrights, she admits that at first she found herself despairing over the state of contemporary Socialist drama and its penchant for stories revolving around “boy meets tractor.” Until she met Radzinsky, that is.
“What appealed to me about his work when I encountered it in Moscow was its universality. I had no interest in doing anything about collectivization, but here was somebody who was talking about the big stuff. It goes beyond national boundaries.” Radzinsky suggested that Adamson, who had only seen his plays in Russian, contact Law, an American Russian scholar who had translated a number of his plays. Co-editor of the journal Russian and Eastern European Performance, Law had first met Radzinsky in 1977, and kept in touch with him over the years, even when travel to the Soviet Union was restricted. “I was in Europe fairly often, and if he was somewhere we would meet and talk, or he would call me on the telephone from somewhere, and I would call him back. So over the years we carried on this kind of a dialogue, and I would always tape everything.”
In the fall of 1984, Adamson collaborated with Law on the first of the Cocteau’s Radzinsky productions, Theatre in the Time of Nero and Seneca, part of what the author calls his “historical-philosophical trilogy.” Despite intense efforts, it was impossible to bring the playwright to the U.S. to take part. However, a grant from the International Theater Institute’s Trust for Mutual Understanding enabled Adamson to bring him over in 1985 and ’86 for the other two plays in the trilogy, Lunin: Theatre of Death and Socrates: Theatre of Life.
Greeks and others
“My experience is primarily working with dead playwrights, so I’m used to taking tremendous liberties with scripts,” Adamson says–but here her partners shared the task of reshaping the plays for an American audience. Most contemporary Russian plays, in Law’s opinion, need cutting, and An Old Actress is no exception–the hour-and-a-half Cocteau version is roughly half the length of the Moscow production. “For Russian playwrights, as for Russian people, it’s part of their national character to repeat things at least three times,” Law says, “They keep recycling, recycling, recycling.” Fortunately for Adamson and Law, Radzinsky understands the need to cut his plays for American audiences. “He had no qualms at all about our cutting this play, or the other three,” Adamson recalls. “He’s a very generous playwright. If he trusts you, then he trusts you.”
Not surprisingly for works written in the late-’70s Soviet Union, the plays in the trilogy explore the role of the individual in totalitarian society. Although clearly speaking to contemporary Soviet issues, none of the plays is set in the present. Each focuses on an historical intellectual and his oppressor: the philosopher-playwright Seneca who committed suicide on the order of the emperor-playwright Nero; the Russian intellectual Lunin murdered in prison for his part in the 1825 Decembrist uprising; and the jailed Socrates, abandoned at the end by his friends and disciples.
Who are these characters?
Written in 1985 under the freer atmosphere of glasnost, An Old Actress can in no way be considered political. Radzinsky seems to be relishing the freedom to be ambiguous, pushing the idea of play-acting to its limits. The play’s two characters aren’t what they first appear. “There is the Actress who plays the role of Dostoevsky’s wife, and who at the same time exists as an an individual, as an actress who unites her life with that of Anna Grigorevna’s,” Radzinsky elaborates. “There is also the madman who presents himself as Dostoevsky. But when I finished the play and reread it, then it became clear to me that I myself wasn’t sure who these characters were.”
Perhaps the confusion of character and author mirrors the confusion of a society where the past has been rejected but the future still seems a long way off. This sense of a displaced present is captured in Radzinsky’s observation that “the Actress in this play doesn’t remember the number of the room in which she is living, but she always remembers the number of Dostoevsky’s apartment.”
Radzinsky is unique among Soviet playwrights in his ability to keep his finger on the pulse of his culture. “He was always a step ahead of everybody else,” says Law. “He always seemed to know where the society was going, where the situation was headed.” Why are his plays so popular? “They are such good acting vehicles–audiences love to go watch good actors and actresses in his plays,” Law suggests. She also credits the philosophical texture of his writing: “I would characterize him as, at the core, a European, and not a Russian, playwright. The questions he deals with are handled in a more philosophical way, which makes the material easy for audiences in other countries to identify with.”
Other than the Cocteau, only university theatres have done Radzinsky’s plays in English, and Law’s translations have yet to be published. Name recognition, though, can work wonders. “Since his novel hit the bestseller list,” Law comments, “I have had a lot of phone calls.”