A Feast of Eastern European Drama Plays at the Edinburgh Festival Provided a Watermark against Which to Measure Political Change in These Volatile Countries

By Christopher Andreae, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1991 | Go to article overview

A Feast of Eastern European Drama Plays at the Edinburgh Festival Provided a Watermark against Which to Measure Political Change in These Volatile Countries


Christopher Andreae, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WITH fortuitous timing, the Edinburgh Festival's director Frank Dunlop chose this year to emphasize Soviet and Eastern European drama in the theater portion of the festival that ended Sept. 1.

Against a backdrop that included the Soviet coup attempt, the independence of the Baltic republics, and the struggles of Yugoslavia, the drama of decades of repressive governments was being playing out.

"Today," according to Czechoslovakian director Roman Polak, "the cultural control is the audience."

Times have changed indeed. In common with theater directors in other East European countries, Mr. Polak has been familiar with other forms of "cultural control." He adds, however, that the state control in the provincial town of Martin - whose National Theatre of Martin is a workshop for young and aspiring actors - had never been as rigorous as it was in Bratislava, the center of Czechoslovakian government.

But the fall of communist regimes and moves toward democracy are not always as good for the arts as might be imagined. One form of censorship may have gone. But audience popularity may not be the best alternative quality control. And lack of money is often a big problem.

As Polak puts it, "The theater is free now, but poor. The President (Vaclav Havel) has power - but no money."

Pols two impressive productions, "Baal" (Bertolt Brecht's first play) and "The Dispute" (by 18th-century French writer Pierre Marivaux) have both been in the repertoire of this notable theater for a number of years. If the festival in Edinburgh strives to show what is actually happening in drama in a given country, these two plays were not the most representative choice. They were productions coming out of conditions under the old regime.

Both plays have a dark aspect; "Baal" is a diametric revolt against the status quo (and ordinary decencies) of society, the other (though more light-heartedly) is concerned with a kind of guinea pig experiment. Each play describes the effects of a powerful control of individual lives, and, given a contemporary directorial twist, would have served as protest in communist Czechoslovakia. The plays then would have become a form of "metaphorical theater" to use Pols own phrase.

WHAT is popular in his country at the moment, says Polak (who went through "a very dark period" directing a lot of Kafka a few years back) is "funny, humorous theater clearly not to his taste. But, he says philosophically, "It's a known fact that the period immediately after a revolution is a dead one for theater."

His two festival plays are distinctly alive, however, and they are in fact historic. Polak had wondered if his rendering of "Baal" would "still be good for audiences after the revolution." (It was.) This raises the problem of writers and directors no longer being able to point barbs at, or subtly undermine, an "opposition." Which means, Polak says, that "now theater needs to be more about private emotion, feeling, relationships." Judging from the evidence of "Baal" and "The Dispute," that was his way even under the communist regime. "I never made head-on political points in my productions," he says.

Polak, and most of those associated with these two productions, are no longer part of the Theatre of Martin. They have changed, for this period in history, from theater on stage to the theater of real life. President Havel (whose own play has been toured by the company in the past) has made it clear that money is needed for reconstruction, and cannot be made available for theaters.

Matej Landl, who plays Baal, Brecht's anti-hero, muses that it's a "bad time now" for theater in his country. Young people are not going to see plays in Czechoslovakia they can't afford the tickets." But he does hope that it will only take about five years before the fortunes of the theater revive.

Mr. Dunlop, the festival director, made it a theme of this festival to concentrate on these works from Eastern European countries - in addition to Czechoslovakia, there were productions from Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia - not to mention drama and music from the cities of Berlin, Leningrad, and Moscow.

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