Theatre and Censorship in the Pandemic

Patricia Nikolova*


Due to the coronavirus pandemic, theatre faces an unprecedented and global challenge to its existence. Throughout the world, live drama is having to partially “mutate” to survive. The theatre is not alone, of course. All social contacts are in a state of flux, with every aspect of our lives now subject to new, extraordinary rules and public health measures. In parallel with these drastic changes, various forms of dictatorship and censorship have already appeared or intensified in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere. The new processes have inevitably impacted upon contemporary theatre and drama. Recognizing this trend, the following analysis focuses on the upcoming real dangers of control (both direct and indirect) to the world’s most vibrant art form as it faces the challenge of basic survival amidst global isolation. Under the new, stressful circumstances of a pandemic, in some parts of our anxious world, the term “Orwellian” is becoming more current, affecting the ontology of theatre as an extraordinary and free communal form of art.
Keywords: dystopia, dictatorship, control, manipulation, disinformation, documentary theatre, postmodern theatre, political theatre, crisis

Theatre and Self-censorship

Today among the biggest challenges facing political and documentary theatre is the return of dialogue between the stage and the audience. How can we ensure the return of spontaneous communication between spectators and theatre practitioners which has been lost?

At the same time, the problems of censorship in the theatre have been exacerbated during the pandemic in certain pseudo-democratic societies (for instance, in Russia, Turkey, Hungary etc.). The pressing question now is what kind of political theatre can exist in countries that have traditionally punished innovative theatre and literary creators (Meyerhold, Kharms, Bulgakov) and now continue to punish some of them (Serebrennikov)? Old habits die hard. In some post-totalitarian societies, which freed themselves from communist dictates three decades ago, the spectre of ideological censorship continues to lurk. It is there that self-censorship appears most clearly on the stage and in theatre literature.

Self-censorship is one means of manipulation whereby political theatre fails to function as such and tries to enter lavish visionary theatrical territories which would appeal to spectators, but which are far from the message of the political works presented. For example, in 2012, one of the Russian audience’s favourite Bulgarian directors, Alexander Morfov,[1] staged the black comedy Life is Beautiful (inspired by Nikolai Erdman’s famous play The Suicide) on the stage of the National Theatre of Bulgaria. The play, which was written in 1928, was repeatedly banned for political reasons and was first published in 1969, but not in the USSR (there, the first performance was in 1982).

The poster celebrating the 100th performance of Life is Beautiful.
Photo: Alexander Morfov’s “New Archive

In Morfov’s version, almost a decade before the pandemic, it was precisely the political message of the play that went missing. However, audiences cannot understand (and therefore react to) the sharp message of this political play if they are unfamiliar with the original content, which has, historically, been obscured by the standard means of manipulation: disinformation, self-censorship and control. The irony is that Erdman’s play criticizes just that.

Nowadays, during the COVID crisis, there are no performances in the Bulgarian National Theatre that criticize the current government in Sofia. This even though there have been, in the summer and autumn of 2020, large scale social protests that were reminiscent of the rallies in Bulgaria following the fall of the Berlin Wall and so-called Perestroika.

Looking further back, the Soviet play The Suicide, banned by the censors, was originally intended to be staged by the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, before he was arrested and tortured to death by the NKVD. Stalin himself intervened to ban this performance. It was not until the Khrushchev Thaw that attempts were made to revive this work, but the next production planned in the Soviet Union was, again, banned. Famous companies known for their (relative) political independence, such as the remarkable Taganka Theatre in Moscow,  headed by legendary director Yuri Lyubimov, have tried to stage the play, but without success.

Does the pandemic affect this situation in the theatre? The question is particularly relevant now that the message of political theatre is entering into a tense duel with the big scissors of self-censorship in this part of Europe. Obviously, this phenomenon is more pronounced in societies whose fundamental values ​​are shaken by perfidious attacks of disinformation, demagoguery, manipulation and control. It is also no coincidence that, in the turbulent autumn of 2020, the Russian intelligentsia responded in collective silence to the open letter of Nobel Laureate in Literature Svetlana Aleksievich[2] (whose documentaries were an inspiration for some sharp political productions) on the occasion of political and social upheavals in Belarus (which is often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship”). The lack of response from Russian writers, theatre-makers and filmmakers, artists and intellectuals is part of the history of fear and submission to control.  

Before the pandemic, the Russian state’s suspicion of theatrical expression led to a young performer (a child, in fact) being arrested in central Moscow for an extremely serious theatrical “crime”—namely, reciting Shakespeare. It all started one fine spring day in 2017, in one of the busiest places at the heart of Moscow, the Arbat promenade, where, incidentally, some famous theatres are located. An artistic 10-year-old boy started to recite a passage from Hamlet.  His guardian sat nearby on a bench, reading a book. No one bothered anyone. If this had happened in Manhattan’s Central Park, it would have been a lively, harmless event, possibly with participation by the public. But in Moscow the story took on the character of dramatic action: suddenly, uniformed individuals ran up, the screaming child was brutally grabbed by three cops, who shoved him into a police car, as if he was a fierce, criminal offender, and taken to the precinct station. The accusation? The child was disturbing the peace. The obvious facts, that the child was not begging and was accompanied by a responsible adult, held no significance for the upholders of authority. The story of the little Russian performer arrested in the center of the capital was not even connected with an onstage political production. This is a completely authentic story, albeit with an absurd ending.[3]

This ludicrous incident helps to explain why censorship and self-censorship in political theatre today have re-emerged as serious problems. In the time of pandemic, some of the known tools for influencing the public, such as disinformation, censorship and control, are employed, under the guise of protecting public health, against political theatre. The very real danger, when self-censorship (for fear of direct state intervention) prevails, is that of political theatre losing a clear context, a strong message and its social power. Eventually, it transforms into something else.

Theatre and Censorship Masked by Altruism  

The historic turning point of 1989 is not so long ago. That great moment confronted the theatre in eastern Europe with a dilemma: how can theatre-makers gain the attention of the public, who are attracted more by spontaneous social riots and protests on the street than by the current message of the postmodern political theatre?

How can live drama bring back to the closed space of the theatre those euphoric people who were chanting in unison against governments? The people did not want to play the role of individual spectators but, rather, to have a collective role, writing their history together.

Something similar has happened during the COVID crisis. Social protests have rocked many parts of the world, and the basic questions are back on the agenda:

  • How will the public, excited by protests against government and state policy, chanting political messages (without any social distance), decide to enter the theatre, disguised with masks against infection and respecting social distance?
  • How will people, eager for social change, have the patience to watch and listen to performances by actors who risk their health to play live in front of those whose reactions now have little to do with what they were before the pandemic era?

These are not hypothetical questions but real concerns about the dramatic changes in reality, which has been distorted by social restrictions and stifled by the “theatrical” gestures of power, ostensibly in the name of public health. The new reality facing theatres around the world is too fragile.

There is also another aspect that is not yet being actively discussed: namely, the brutal activity of political censorship of the theatre in isolation. In some societies, this is an extremely acute problem.

It is no secret that the social temperature can be measured by the nature of political productions. For example, the Bulgarian theatre, which in the period 1944–89 operated under a socialist regime and suffered political censorship, is no exception to the general rule of dictatorially controlled societies.

The situation in the last thirty years is not encouraging especially if one bears into mind  that the process of post-communist political cleansing, which, in other societies of the former Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union, was carried out in the first years after the end of the Cold War, has not yet been completed in Bulgaria. For too long, the D.S. (Security Service)[4] archives have not been opened and much has already been destroyed (or hidden). In this problematic and traumatic context, the appearance of postmodern political performances such as The Bright Future of Bazaar, at the politically independent Sfumato Theatre, is a breath of fresh air in a poisoned atmosphere.

Documentary performance, The Bright Future of Bazaar, SFUMATO Theatrе, 2017.  Directed by Ivan Dobchev, co-founder and artistic director of SFUMATO Theatrе Laboratory. Photo: SFUMATO Theatrе archive

“We are making a theatrical experiment based on the book Secondhand Time by Svetlana Aleksievich. Documentary prose, heart-rending monologues, confessions of survivors of socialism, representations of victims who lived alongside their executioners.” These words, by the Bulgarian director Ivan Dobchev, are, first and foremost, of a man born soon after the Second World War, who has memories of both the global context and the details of the traumas of the time (which, as he says, are the subject of his stage experiment). Secondly, they are the words of a director as destroyer of various institutionalized taboos, whose productions have been repeatedly forbidden by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (whose leading priests turned out to be agents of the Communist secret service), because they are uncomfortable with the critical tone of the stage works.

Dobchev’s The Bright Future of Bazaar is a painfully honest documentary project that analyzes totalitarianism and its components today through the authentic stories of victims and executioners. The effect of this type of theatre in the online space could be quite different from that of the powerful mutual exchange of energy between actors and audience which a stage production stimulates. There is a special quality to live performances of plays that relate to the themes of censorship, control, disinformation and manipulation of power over the helpless human individual. Online versions of such plays will, perhaps, be more like television documentaries or an online form of verbatim theatre.

The strength of live political theatre lies precisely in the collective chemistry of the theatrical art. The spontaneous reaction of the audience is part of the theatrical process which, in live theatre, is constantly developing and changing. By contrast, in online theatre, this kind of interaction is missing. “Likes” are pleasant, but they cannot replace the stimulating sound of applause. Specifically, in the performance of the Sfumato Theatre, although the characters are of Russian origin, the parallels with the crimes of dictatorial regimes elsewhere in the world are clear. However, such performances do not exist in Russia today. The Russian parliament recently passed a special law censoring some new and independent theatre productions, literary works, films and more.

The Bright Future of Bazaar is based on Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Belarusian Writer Svetlana Alexievich, awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” She is one of the active critics of Vladimir Putin`s censorship and of the politics of Alexander Lukashenko, widely reported by the media as “Europe’s last dictator.” Photo: SFUMATO theatre archive

Unfortunately, one of the biggest, yet most neglected, risks is that the new type of theatre after the COVID crisis is actually threatened in countries like Putin’s Russia, where Kremlin critics are either poisoned or imprisoned on trumped-up charges (like Russian theatre director Serebrennikov, the widely respected director of the Gogol Centre). The Russian government has also decided to stop (and censor) the global internet with a new law to set new, post-totalitarian boundaries and frameworks even in cyberspace.

It is easy to imagine what the “new” kind of theatre could be in such a country, and in other similar countries. Of course, the face mask, used with particular force in political theatre, could be a semiotic sign of censorship. Performers in political theatre could use the mask on the stage as part of their props, not for social distancing purposes—in order to limit the infection and to protect human life—but in order to deride political censorship and control as a specific “virus” carried by politicians. Alternatively, it could be used as a means of mocking those public figures who, as early as the beginning of the COVID crisis in the spring of 2020, hurried to ban opposition protests, ostensibly to protect protesters from the dangerous infection. This situation, a contemporary Orwellian dystopia, has occurred in several parts of the world where political regimes tried to shut the mouths of their critics with orders for social restraint: states such as Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Ironically, today, a masked theatre audience is hardly able to assimilate any semiotic sign. Indeed, they must now keep their mouth shut. Therefore, one of the most serious risks facing the new type of theatre lies not in the change of its form, but in the hidden attack of censorship (and self-censorship) on the content and the message it conveys to humanity.


[1] Alexander Morfov: renowned Bulgarian theatre director with extensive directing experience both in Bulgaria and in Russia, especially on the stage of the Et Cetera Theatre, Moscow, founded and managed by Alexander Kalyagin, and elsewhere.

[2] Svetlana Alexievich: Belarusian writer and documentarist, Nobel Prize holder (2015), independent historical researcher, active critic of the Kremlin power and of violations of human rights during the Soviet time and nowadays in Russia and Belarus.

[3] After subsequent petitions in his defence, when it became clear that the child’s recitation of Shakespeare was not directed against the ruling power, the young performer was invited to recite again, this time in the Kremlin.

[4] DS: DS, or Dŭrzhavna Sigurnost, was the Bulgarian secret service under Communism, a satellite of the KGB in the USSR, using the same methodology and psychological instruments of spying and intimidating people. 

*Patricia Nikolova graduated from the National Lyceum for Ancient Languages and Cultures Konstantin-Kiril Filosof with a certification approved by Sofia University, majoring in Bulgarian studies and Philosophy. She also has a BFA in Theatre Studies and Theatre Management and an MA in Theatre Art with emphasis on the history and theory of political theatre art from NATFA, Sofia. She is currently working on her PhD thesis. Patricia is also the author of five literary books, which have been successfully presented at several international book fairs. Her works have been published in many European languages, as well as in Hebrew and Armenian. She is a member of the International PEN Center.

Copyright © 2020 Patricia Nikolova
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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