Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Silent Plasticity: Reenchanting Soviet Stagnation

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Silent Plasticity: Reenchanting Soviet Stagnation

Article excerpt

On December 28, 1972, the speechless pantomime Enchanted Island debuted at the deaf Theater of Mimicry and Gesture in Moscow. Directed by the gay actor and author Evgenii Kharitonov ( 1 94 1-1981) and staged a total of sixty-six times before its closing night on March 31, 1980, the play has never been performed anywhere else or ever again. In the loose terms of its plot, Enchanted Island floats "philosophically" (Nadezhda Ivankovskaia, personal interview, May 27, 2010) between Ovid's Metamorphosis and Shakespeare's Tempest (whose eighteenth-century adaptation shares a title with the Soviet play). It is broken up into three acts, in which a jealous Prosperian sorcerer magically shape-shifts a pair of shipwrecked lovers into all manners of being; all the while the lovers remain resolute in their insatiable search for one another's touch. Some of the fantastic aspects assumed by the actors include a touching trio of palm trees; an invisible man and a married couple; a military commander, his cross-dressed maid, and a lovelorn cavalryman; and a cave- dwelling Cyclops, his companion monkey, and their marooned human captive.

The spectacle was strange by late-Soviet standards and was met with mixed reviews, if the theater guestbook and the actors' recollections are a good indication among the scant archival traces. Many audience members punningly applauded the play's ability to enchant, as in the following typical if uninspired inscription by a boarding school collective in March 1973: "Thank you for the enchanting play of the actors, the marvelous plasticity, the bewitchment." Others bristled at the brazenness of nearly naked bodies moving in such unexpected ways and to no apparent end. One actress recounted how "a babushka comes in, looks around, says, 'Shameful! Naked people!' and walks out. 'What's the use?'" (Tat'iana Koval'skaia, personal interview, May 31, 2010). Another entry in the same vein reads, "Twelve of us came to watch your pantomime, eight left during the intermission. What is it? What's it about? What's the use? The actors exhibit movement with their bodies very well, but what's the use, what's it about? To whom are you addressing such a spectacle? Maybe this sort of thing is fashionable in Moscow but no one where I'm from would like it. I consider this show harmful and the evening lost. With indignation, Orlov, Trainer [and] Severskii, Economist."

In this essay, I take up the gauntlet thrown down by the scandalized babushka, physical trainer, and socialist economist to answer their common indignant query: What's the use of Enchanted Island and, extrapolating, what's the use of enchantment? I ask after the inexplicable link between enchantment and plasticity that Orlov and Severskii sense but cannot name. This last query is provoked as much by the play as it is by Max Weber's famous pronouncement in 1918 that "the increasing intellectualization and rationalization" of the West, and the growth of the modern state, had induced the "disenchantment of the world" with the more intimate side-effect of "disenchant [ing] and denud[ing man's bearing of its] mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity" ([1918] 1954, 139, 155).

Weber's words prove pertinent to the present analysis not least of all as they anticipate the operative terms of the Soviet pantomime, but also, on a metatextual level, because they continue to define the terms of debate about modernity's disenchantment to this day, and, most important, because the enchanted event I offer for consideration now transpired in a culture so supremely "'scientifized,'" it might be said to bring Weber's bleak forecast to its fullest fruition. I am referring to the epoch of Soviet history retroactively known as "stagnation," which corresponds to Leonid Brezhnev's conservative tenure as Communist Party secretary from 19651985. This was a time of utter disillusionment with communism's Utopian dream, cold war historians concur, when the arteries of the Soviet state had gelled into an immoveable gerontocracy, making inward plasticity of the personal and social orders unthinkable. …

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