Printer Friendly

Silence's Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman.

For banned or denounced figures of the Soviet theatre, the process of "rehabilitation" is complex. Documents are released; manuscripts which may have circulated for decades via underground samizdat publication now are published officially; but, perhaps most importantly, legacies are acknowledged and traditions rekindled. So many Russian artists of the 1920s and 1930s either emigrated, were arrested or exiled, were executed or committed suicide, that at the time of the inevitable thaws (in the 1950s and the 1980s) few survivors remained to bear witness to their own changing status. Nikolai Erdman's fate was perhaps less dramatic than that of his fellow writer Mayakovsky or of the master director Meyerhold; his rebirth had scarcely begun at the time of his death in 1970. But herein lies the fascination: the quiet survival of a playwright who experienced an initial flurry of success in the theatre, lived through a Siberian exile in the 1930s, and maintained a solid career in screenwriting before his death in Moscow at the age of 70. He died never having seen his most legendary play performed on his native soil. John Freedman, an American scholar and Moscow resident, has aptly tapped into the image of silence in his critical biography of Erdman. Stalinism was the silencing of millions of unspoken thoughts, of unwritten lines, and - in the case of the very public art of theatre - of dialogue which was to remain unvoiced.

Erdman is best known as the author of the satirical masterpiece The Suicide. In 1931 both the Moscow Art Theatre and the Meyerhold Theatre were vying for the chance to produce it, despite the fact that the Central Repertory Committee had placed a ban on the play. Although several companies took it into rehearsals in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, permission to perform was denied in every case. Finally in 1969 The Suicide made its world premiere in Sweden, and was first produced in the USSR in 1982 at the Moscow Theatre of Satire.

Despite Erdman's fame as a major Soviet playwright, his collected works were only published in Russian as recently as 1990, and Freedman's is the first book-length biography in English or Russian. Freedman draws on published resources, archival materials, and also on personal interviews with living sources such as director Yuri Liubimov and Anna Mass, daughter of Erdman's collaborator Vladmir Mass. Freedman directs his writing to both Slavists and to readers with a general interest in theatre and drama of this period, with an eye toward making the book accessible to the latter. Textual quotations are given in English, and only rarely in the original Russian. Freedman's richly textured prose does, however, assume a ready knowledge of the major works of Russian literature and drama, with frequent offhand references to the drama of Sukhovo-Kobylin and Fonvizin or to characters like Khlestakov or Chatsky.

Silence's Roar takes a fairly standard biographical approach. The book is most intriguing, however, when Freedman allows himself to deviate from his chronological format - as when he vamps on the theme of suicide in the early postevolutionary culture, discussing the suicides of Esenin and Mayakovsky as influential intersections of literature and "real life." Another fascinating section details Erdman's numerous contacts with Stalin. The playwright never met the leader in person, but his plays were well known in the Kremlin; alleged jokes at Stalin's expense were a contributing factor of Erdman's arrest. In the realm of the ironic - Erdman's domain - Freedman wryly notes that when exiled to the Siberian town of Eniseisk in 1933, Erdman found himself lodged on Stalin Street, and that in 1951 he won the Stalin Prize for the filmscript of Courageous People.

Interspersed among the details of Erdman's life are large sections devoted to Freedman's analyses of The Warrant (Erdman's first major play) and The Suicide. Freedman's critical thesis is that the plays are not merely topical satires but reach beyond the particular atmosphere of the Soviet twenties. Freedman explicitly connects the plays to the theatre of the absurd, citing larger themes such as the denigration of the individual and the impossibility of linguistic communication. This approach is undoubtedly valid - in the 1960s, when Martin Esslin developed a critical construct to link the dramatic texts of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Adamov, he emphasized their universal, existential themes rather than possible political readings of these plays within their national contexts. But three decades later, as a new generation of theatre theorists emerges to challenge Esslin's "universals," Freedman's emphasis on Erdman's general themes of humanity denies the potential interest of seeing Erdman as a writer of and for his time. But Freedman does interest us in Erdman as a supreme technician-playwright; those who have read Erdman only in English translation will appreciate Freedman's keen ear for the magic of the Russian original. He draws close attention to Erdman's manipulation of language through puns, wordplays, repetitions, and spiralling associations. Freedman's adept analyses of the rhythmic structure of Erdman's plays illuminate Meyerhold's fascination with them as starting places for performance.

The book also explores other lesser-known details of Erdman's career, such as his work as a sketch writer with Vladimir Mass. It is particularly wonderful to get the flavor of these smaller sketches, such as the self-reflexive "A Meeting about Laughter," in which a censorship board must determine what can and cannot be laughed at. Freedman also discusses Erdman's continued output as a screen-writer, and his connection, late in life, with Liubimov's Taganka Theatre. One episode seems worthy of one of Erdman's comic sketches: his recruitment in 1941 as a writer for the NKVD Song and Dance Ensemble.

Although the book, by providing a complete overview of Erdman's life and work, is an important contribution to the field of Russian theatre studies, it unfortunately bears the mark of a small press. The type is small, the notes and bibliographical references are poorly formatted, and - least forgivable in a scholarly book of this magnitude - there is no index. But Freedman's style is witty and readable. Although he vows to separate legend from fact, he doesn't withhold the apocryphal from us, acknowledging that myth can have its own truth. At times he can overdramatize, or lapse into pop psychology, as when he connects Erdman's death in 1970 to the long-awaited premiere of The Suicide. But in general, by treating Erdman's life itself as a drama, Freedman gains. He closes with a moving assertion - that Erdman's "final great creative work was the last forty years of the life he lived" (200). That was one text which Stalin could not touch.

LURANA DONNELS O'MALLEY University of Hawaii at Manoa
COPYRIGHT 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Gay & Lesbian Queeries
Author:O'Malley, Lurana Donnels
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1995
Previous Article:Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett's Later Drama.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters