Staging Postcommunism: Alternative Theatre in Eastern and Central Europe After 1989

Edited by Vessela S. Warner and Diana Manole
268 pp.  University of Iowa Press

Reviewed by Don Rubin*

Alternative theatre.

Or Pocket Theatre. Or Free Theatre. How about Café Theatre? Or Off-Theatre. Or even Off-Off Theatre.

Whatever one calls it, all these terms—coined by experimental and/or confrontational theatre artists world-wide over the last half century or so—represented (and still represent) artistic, political and social challenges to the theatrical mainstream. These terms began to emerge as far back as the 1950s. Before that, scholars, critics and artists themselves were satisfied with the simpler and more generic term avant-garde, out in front. But whatever these developments were called, they were absolutely fascinating to observe, none more fascinating than those evolved in the communist/socialist world, especially during the so-called Cold War years.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, I particularly looked forward to going to Poland and Russia for their theatre festivals and their theatre conferences, not so much for the official events in these two important theatre centres, but because of their hidden samizdat work. Invariably, someone would whisper to me during these visits about a secret performance going on at midnight or tell me about a clandestine reading of some new theatrical manifesto or other. Once, someone slipped me what was described as an unpublished letter written by Stanislavski that had been buried in the state archives that I should keep hidden for the moment and then get translated and published when I got home. Turned out to be nothing of the sort, but I sweated as I left Moscow with it hidden in a theatre program. Going behind the “Iron Curtain” back then was always a theatrical adventure and knowing that my responses could actually put the safety of colleagues there at risk made it an adventure that would never be taken lightly.

It was Russia and Poland as well which oddly pioneered the idea of having “official” confronters—artists who were “allowed” to do their experimental and/or confrontational work right out in the open without apparent state approval, and sometimes even with state support. I am thinking here of the late poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in the Soviet Union, whose daring and often critical writings were permitted publication and performance in and especially outside of the USSR, all the better to show how officially “open” the country was even to dissidents. I actually visited him once at his beautiful dacha outside of Moscow, where he read excerpts to me from a play he was hoping to have staged there. He also showed me some of the “dissident” art he proudly owned.

I recall as well my many visits to Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, a company which consistently challenged ideas of Socialist Realism on its stages—and more—especially when it was under the direction of the great Yuri Lyubimov. Yes, he was finally stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980, and yes, he did become a non-person while living outside of the USSR for the next decade of his life. But it took the authorities many years to get him out, and they certainly offered him a lot of creative rope before things reached that tipping point.

In Poland too—one of the world’s truly great theatre cultures—historical precedents for dissident theatre writings go back into the nineteenth century (their works produced in the socialist twentieth) by giants such as Adam Mickiewicz, Stanislaw Wyspianski, and even the expressionistic and often outrageous Witkacy. More recently, one could only admire the state’s public toleration for the theatre work of a visionary such as Jerzy Grotowski and the stage experiments of Tadeusz Kantor, and even the daring anthropological work of the Gardzienice collective.

All this came back to me when I learned of a new book claiming to study exactly this kind of work in eastern and central Europe’s socialist countries since 1989, the “post-communism” period. New secrets to be revealed, new light to shine on dark corners and new understandings to be gained from the new revolutionary work. I looked forward to digging into the absolutely required historical background essay making the links between the years prior to 1989—the period I knew best—and this post-communist theatrical era.

Sadly, I found no such historical essay in this new volume looking at alternative theatre post-communism. Nor did I find a single essay about Polish alternative theatre. And the two short essays included on Russia lacked any historical context whatever. What I found was a bloodless and disparate collection of short case studies about specific companies and specific creative experiences from some ten countries—Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Serbia, Slovenia, Belarus and the Czech Republic. As case studies, virtually all were missing context. And without context, without historical connections, the centre of the volume simply did not hold for me. Its worlds and its reports—for the most part—simply spun themselves out in some oddly neutral space.

Oh, they were all reasonable and generally well-written studies—reading like a series of academic papers from some generic academic conference, some focusing on specific plays or directors or creators; others focusing on style or content (of course, usually political). But all seemed badly in need of a compass, a coherent editorial GPS to help us through this vast post-communist territory. For me, that compass would obviously have been an historical one. But only generalized hints are offered by the two editors.

Some companies, we are told, are still doing Grotowski-style work—or variations on it—and the term “Poor Theatre” is tossed around regularly here without anyone really defining it. Are these groups simply eschewing significant “rich theatre” production values (surely too obvious), or are they trying to connect on a deeper sociological or anthropological level with the later ideas of this Polish visionary? We all know he had numerous variations on his themes. My kingdom for some clearer hints.

Names such as Vakhtangov and Meyerhold are also mentioned as forerunners at several points, though no one really shares what exactly was taken and what left out from these earlier masters of experiment and form. I noted that many of the groups discussed were described as taking an Artaudian approach in their work, but that description says little, is far too general. In the 1970s, several of those Polish theatre festivals I attended— especially those run for years by the iconoclastic student group Kalambur—also spoke of Artaud and, in some instances, gave us examples, showing that a little real blood was truly necessary—Squat, for example, and Terayama. Is that what today’s Artaudians mean?

To be fair, both editors—Vessela Warner, a professor at the University of Alabama and dramaturg for the Overground Physical Theatre in New York City, and Diana Manole, a Romanian-Canadian interdisciplinary artist and scholar teaching at Trent University—do take a stab at creating such a roadmap in their separate introductions to the volume. But neither one looks back in time.

Manole’s introduction is called “Restoring Theatre Activism,” a title suggesting that theatre activism had somehow disappeared from the socialist world during this period, but this is looking with blinkers. Perhaps, the blinkers are really her Romanian background. Romania was one of the few socialist theatre cultures that arguably never really developed a significant alternative theatre during this time. Arguable, of course. Manole speaks in a generalized way about how “Freedom of speech was reinstated” after 1989 (xi), noting that today alternative theatre artists across the socialist board are still struggling with “consumerism and the commodification of art” (xii). She argues for “the necessity . . . and the effectiveness of alternative theatre as an agent of sociopolitical change” (xiv). Her conclusion is that some of the case studies included “have not yet been discussed in-depth in English-language scholarship” (xiv).

And that may well be the real virtue of the collection. I was certainly not familiar with all of them—Bulgaria’s Theatre Laboratory Sfumato and the studio theatre Alma Alter (a Grotowski-inspired company); the Helikon Opera from Moscow (kitsch mixed with Meyerhold); Prague’s Studio Ypsilon (devised theatre and clowning) and Cirk La Putyka (non-verbal French New Circus meets the pub); Slovenia’s NSK and Janez Janska, whose large-scale experiments “subvert state control” in the tradition of the Mexican Guillermo Gomez-Peña; Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen; and Germany’s Christoph Schlingensief. That said, a lot has been written about the Belarus Free Theatre, also included here.

Manole admits early on that the editors were “not aiming at a comprehensive view of postcommunist Eastern and Central European companies and artists” but were rather simply attesting to “the ongoing struggle and personal sacrifices of alternative artists, who restore and resignify the legacy of theatre activism” after 1989. (xvi). Again, my argument here is that with greater context the collection might have given that resignification of legacy much more meaning.

As for Warner’s introduction—“Alternative Theatre in the Postcolonies of Communism” —this Bulgarian-American scholar takes a political-sociological approach to the whole thing and suggests that theoretical studies of the socialist states in Europe indicate that the “autocratic practices of cultural and ideological imposition” created “a bizarre eclecticism of modernity and postmodernism” (xvii–xviii). She suggests that the volume attempts “to locate the alternative theatre of the former Eastern Europe at the junctions of postcommunist histories as well as local and global cultural exchanges. . . . From a historical perspective, a study of their work illuminates the diversity of transnational societies. . . .” (xx). Her conclusion is that “These forms . . . are part of various theoretical paradigms—postcolonial, feminist, intercultural, and so on” (xxii). That is essentially saying that such theatre practices fit neatly into theoretical constructs. So? Ergo what?

That said, three of the essays do stand out for me in terms of clarity and context—one by Hungarian critic and scholar Andrea Tompa (an overview of alternative theatre before and after 1989 in Hungary, which should have been a model for the collection); another by American Dennis C. Beck, which effectively links two Prague groups (Cirk La Putyka and Farma v jeskyni) back to Vaclav Havel’s work and forward to the post-dramatic theories of Hans-Thies Lehmann; and a third, Steve Wilmer’s study of two Slovenian companies—NSK and Janez Janska—which have challenged not only issues connected to migration (Wilmer’s core subject), but also to notions challenging the very idea of the state, citizenship and even personal identity.

One other essay that fascinated me comes from a writer in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, an independent country today that not so many theatre people in the wider world are particularly familiar with. A personal story here.

When I was editing Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre (WECT) back in 1989 and 1990, Moldova was simply one of 15 states within the USSR, and material about it was simply part of the 25,000-word USSR essay being written for us by a team of scholars in Moscow, and which was scheduled to appear in the Europe volume in 1992. 

But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the USSR collapsed two years later, the WECT Europe volume had a major crisis on its hands. Because the encyclopedia was based on notions of nationhood put forth by the UN (it began life with the financial support of UNESCO), we, the editors, suddenly went from having to create one national entry for the USSR to having to create 15 new separate national entries. Never mind the complications of turning two German essays into one (another major issue) or the splitting up of two national essays for Yugoslavia and Czechslovakia into eight. The USSR issue would have been enough—with five Soviet Republics having to be moved into the Asia volume and essays on the other ten republics then having to be split into separate national essays.

For me, the most challenging essay turned out to be Moldova’s. It seemed that not so much had been specifically included about Moldova in the original Soviet overview. And once separated from the USSR-mother ship, the editorial gaps for Moldova’s essay were enormous. I thought for a moment of simply ignoring Moldova entirely. Because it hadn’t yet applied for national status at the UN maybe it wouldn’t be missed. I remember phoning the UN office in New York almost weekly asking them if Moldova was yet an official country. And when they told me in 1990 that it was, I knew we knew we had to find a Moldovan writer. We did in the end find one, but without the financial support of the Soviet government (who would pay for the material?) and because of time pressures, the national essay wound up pretty skimpy at less than 2,000 words. I can say right here that I have always felt guilty about not being able to go further editorially with Moldova than that.

Which is to say, in the context of this new volume, that I for one genuinely appreciate the difficulties involved in undertaking any collection or study that includes Moldova. Included here is a rich treasure of material that scholar Angelina Rosca—chair of the Theatre Studies Department at the Academy of Music, Theatre and Visual Arts in Chisinau—produced here. Her contribution is both a valuable overview of Moldovan theatre and an introduction (certainly for me) to a female Moldovan dramatist named Nicoleta Esinencu. Esinescu has apparently been making some real alternative waves not only in Moldova but also in Romania, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Japan, France and Austria in recent years with two shockingly titled plays—Mothers Without Cunts and Fuck You,

I wish, however, that I could be more positive about the whole collection. I absolutely applaud the editors’ hard work and perseverance in simply gathering these essays together for the edification of old theatre scholars like me and for a generation of newer ones. I also applaud the University of Iowa’s willingness to reach out into areas beyond its normal comfort zone to publish material like this. It is, in the end, a contribution to knowledge. But it could have been so much more had it looked back just a bit and sought some of the period’s larger theatrical connections. 

*Don Rubin is Managing Editor of Critical Stages and editor of its Book Review section. He is the series editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and founding Editor of the national quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review. He is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar in the Department of Theatre at Toronto’s York University.

Copyright © 2020 Don Rubin
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