Censorship and satire in Evgeny Shvarts’s The Dragon

Lucas Weals-

In 1930—the waxing days of Stalin’s cult of personality, the age of paranoia, in a Soviet Union haunted by ‘enemies of the people’ at their perpetual and nefarious work, spreading lies undermine the state—the playwright, poet, and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin. The state’s censors, he said, had “unanimously and with extraordinary ferocity” argued that his work could not exist in the Soviet Union: it was too satirical, not realistic, not for the working man, not a friend to the regime.

“And,” wrote Bulgakov—the genius behind The Master and Margarita, that paragon of Soviet literature so fantastically satirical that its creator would never see it published—“the Soviet press is entirely right.” With a voice so brave it could only speak from desperation, Bulgakov wrote what any non-conformist artist knew and lived daily: that the Union could not stand satire; its mythology had become so ossified, so atavistic, that it simply could not bear the friction of free thought.

This is the world into which Director Mark Sutch thrusts us with his brilliant staging of Evgeny Shvarts’s The Dragon.

The show is set during the debut performance of Shvarts’ play at the Leningrad Comedy Theater in 1944, after which the work was permanently banned. Sutch imagines the censorship as literal violence—as the show progress, cultural censors, led by Ryan Rotella ’17, interrupt the performance more and more aggressively, arresting, beating, and eventually executing actors on stage. The actors portray actors, switching costumes and roles as the cast shrinks and the atmosphere grows thick with fear.

The framing device is both terrifying and terrific; but it’s worth talking about the play itself as well. Shvarts’s text itself is superb, by turns hilarious and unnerving, and its satire is by no means directed only at the increasingly repressive government of Stalin.

The titular Dragon, the villain of the first act, has much more in common with Tsarist and capitalist oppression than with the mid-century Soviet Union’s totalitarian rule. The Dragon, played in wonderful contrast by Sam Giberga ’19, Madison Hardaway ’19, and Siri Norris ’19, has ruled for over four hundred years; the people have grown so used to the impossibility of removing him that they willingly accept his massive demands of livestock and food (a parody of capitalist accumulation and feudal tithing) and the annual sacrifice of a beautiful maiden. Indeed, Shvarts’ emphasis on dismemberment—the Dragon wants to separate Lancelot limb from limb; he talks of cannibalism at some length; he even comments on how the peoples’ souls can become amputated, disabled—echoes Marx’s critique of capital dismembering and cannibalizing the working class. In the words of Marxist theorist Mark Steven, “our bodies are wired to a vast machine that only lives by draining our life substances.”

It’s worth pointing this out precisely because of how singularly the state must have dismissed the show’s Marxist influences. There was no room for multi- or ambivalence in the Soviet art scene of the 1940s. Even dialectical art of the kind theorized by film director Sergei Eisenstein, who dreamed of making films whose “theme” was “Marx’s method” itself, had been outpaced by Soviet Realism, the only genre the state condoned.

While it’s perhaps fallen out of fashion to rehabilitate Marx, even in the arts, something in the political mood today lends a certain urgency at least to the task of separating Marxist theory, the art of the Soviet avant garde, and Stalinist state repression. The tension between these countervailing forces not only makes the period and its art more interesting in analysis: it codes the art itself at every level.

Lancelot, played by with bold hilarity by Sophie McHugh ’18, is not a hero merely for his military prowess: he actually defeats the Dragon because of artisanal labor, the small, non-industrial contributions of townspeople who have the magic gift of bestowing inanimate objects with magical power (a whimsically literal take on Marx’s theory of valorization). But he is a hero who reads: he is brought to the town by The Book of Complaints, a self-generating story of all the hardship and woe in the world, hidden safely off stage, out of the reach of dragons and totalitarians alike.

The self-writing book is the greatest fear of a capitalist, a fascist or a dictator of any kind: it represents something inevitable about powerful ideas. They can’t be erased by destroying the words (“I’ll rip out the page,” the maiden Elsa threatens of the President’s Register of Blessed Events, the cheap state parody of Lancelot’s book), nor by silencing, destroying, annihilating those who give them voice, represented by the literal murder of the actors. Powerful ideas will reproduce themselves, somehow and some way; they exist somewhere secret and impenetrable, Shvarts suggests: in the souls of the people themselves.

The state has its own language—the people come to call it “bureaucratic double-talk,” parodied magnificently by the carpet weavers, who literally speak in double; contracts, signatures, formalities that mask the brutality of the order; arranged speeches that everyone knows are false—but the language of the people writes itself, and speaks in Truth, according to Lancelot. (The Mayor, played by Theo Ebarb ‘18’s with fantastic derangement, remarks that he doesn’t even remember what truth is anymore.) Why do the prisoners of Act II’s tyrannical regime, a clear analogue for Stalin’s government, remember their savior, the slayer of the Dragon of the old order, simply by the letter L? It could mean anything sacred—love, loyalty, Lancelot, even Lenin—the meaning is left unfixed.

The Dragon thrives on this ambivalence—its critiques are against authority and structure of all kinds, grounded in a complicated thematic of writing and authority. This is what so outraged the government. In his Diector’s Note, Sutch tells us that the complaint against the play was its “uncomfortable association of ideas.” The potentially infinite meanings of words is precisely what authoritarianism hates. When words  and ideas are given free play, they have the immense power to deconstruct even the most entrenched power. Fixing meaning may be violence, here dramatized with guns and dragons, but it is necessary for rigid hierarchy to perpetuate itself. Anything else simply “wouldn’t make for good theater,” as the censor makes a point of telling us.

This is part of why the framing device works so well: the violence of disfiguring texts—which is what really happens when a play is banned or censored—is made visceral: we watch as the actors are literally shot on stage. The state has already mutilated the play. Why shouldn’t its players become the grotesque embodiment of that mutilation?

Where the framing a little bit short, at times, is in the realism imposed between the play’s scenes, when the actors have to respond to the censors directly. Soviet avant garde theater broadly eschewed attempts at Stanislovskian naturalism and realism in favor lurid performativity, which the cast here pulls off extremely well. (Grabbing a cup of coffee at intermission, I spoke with a woman who noted just how Russian everything about the play was. What she responded to was that anti-realist performance mode, unmistakable from the Soviet ballet through the avant garde theater: “you just know it when you see it,” in her apt phrasing.)

It can feel strange to weave realism into that new form without a great deal of contrast, and at a few moments it feels unfulfilled. Then again even the “realistic” scenes are declared, in the Director’s Note, as fabrications—“The premiere performance of this play was not actually interrupted by the authorities. As far as we know, none of the actors involved were ever imprisoned or otherwise harmed.” So perhaps the same embrace of disbelief is expected in those moments as well.

The end of the performance is shocking and brutal: the final actor, Zouzou Debs ‘20’s Liev, is executed on stage in front of us. The death calls out to Vsevolod Meyerhold, tortured and murdered for dissent; to  Vladimir Mayakovsky, who shot himself under the shame of state repression.

The reenactment of censorship calls, more distantly, even to Mikhail Bulgakov. Improbable though it may sound, Stalin actually wrote him back to tell him he could work in the theater directing other plays. The man of steel, it turned out, had been a fan of Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins.  “It is not the author’s fault,” wrote Stalin, “that the play is a success.”

Perhaps the text is wrong, in the totalitarian system, because it can be read—it’s no mere formal exercise, but a chance for communication, which must always be coded, multivalent, and therefore uncontrollable. Davidson’s performance of The Dragon gave subtle and elegant voice to that truth.