We just saw a filmed version of a play called “Collaborators,” by John Hodge, produced by the National Theater of London. Like the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the National Theater has several stages: “Collaborators” was produced in its most intimate, with the “stage” winding among banks of viewers.
This is a play about Stalin and a playwright named Bulgakov who actually lived during the Stalin era. In essence the play circles around a device of producing a play within a play: Stalin’s henchmen, wanting to surprise him on his birthday with a play about himself, “hire” Bulgakov to write it.
But of course Bulgakov not only finds this distasteful, though necessary to accept the assignment, but challenging because he must produce a script within a month. Enter Stalin himself, wonderfully lumbering and sly, humorous and engaging. Who would have thought one of the great dictators of all time could virtually steal the show from the artsy resister?
The first half of the play moves from despair–the playwright and his wife, wedged into a tiny apartment with another couple, and the surprise of a student who’s been billeted in their cupboard. The regime is not happy with free-thinkers and imaginists, though we soon learn that Stalin admires the work of Bulgakov and has seen one of his plays fifteen times. Bulgakov’s newest play disrupts the Bulgahov menage with long-nosed masked bandits leading the great French playwright Moliere forward to his death. Cause of death: Moliere’s hatred of the repressive French monarchy.
With the threat of his play being shut down after one performance, Bulgakov struggles to write and cannot. Enter Joseph Stalin, who of course knows all about the commissioned play, and has even begun to sketch out scenes from his life. Before the end of Act One, Stalin and Bulgakov have swapped roles: Stalin is writing the play and he’s suggested it would be only fair if B.tried running the country. Within minutes the playwright encounters a difficult conundrum: with wheat harvests low, should he require all the wheat from the peasants to feed the cities or starve the cities and leave some for peasant bread and planting next year’s harvest?
Intermission, and we’re amazed at how this is working out. “Just wait,” says my husband. By the second act, Bulgakov not only mouths the rationale of the regime but his menage is being feted with coffee, hot water, then upping the ante, a dinner party with wine and flowers, and to top it off, he’s acquired a car and driver, depriving the secret policeman who initially contacted him. When he invites the secret police and his wife to the party, and the policeman and wife worry about making a good impression on the artistes–clods that they are–we can’t help laughing.
Of course the co-optation increases until the end when Joseph requires the ultimate of his collaborator: “Sign the death notices!” The playwright refuses and that’s the end of the play: terror reigns and the playwright collapses. Hmmm. Something is wrong here. From what I’ve read of Soviet terror–Solzinitsen’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch–the Gulag, with Senor Stalin as the major clown, really wasn’t so lively, so amusing, and the flip from resister to collaborator not so neat
As my husband and I drive home, we discuss this. It occurs to me that what’s missing in the play, what the British may not be capable of portraying, is the sado-masochistic delight in torture, in elaborating torture for millions, that fuels large-scale, and probably small-scale, systematic cruelty. This play convincingly shows a playwright selling out for food and bourgeois delights–that descent we all are quite familiar with. But to show him on the edge of enjoying torturing another, to portray Stalin as not a buffoon, but a looming menace, enough to create fear and dread–well it simply doesn’t happen, in my opinion.
Time to read Solzinitsen again.