April 23, 2012

Shakespeare’s plays as Soviet samizdat

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:58

An interesting bit of Soviet history in the BBC’s post on Shakespeare in the former Soviet Union:

In Soviet-era Lithuania, there were productions of Shakespeare for which people queued through the night for tickets. Shakespeare was culture with official approval, but as one of the few alternatives to tales about earnest Soviet heroes, it was also a way for theatre directors to symbolically address forbidden issues. Going to the theatre had an excitement it perhaps lacks nowadays, says Mamontovas.

“I miss those secret messages… there were always little secret messages from the artist to the audience. But there’s no need for that now because you can say what you want openly — it’s more entertainment now.”

[. . .]

Then there is the history of Hamlet in the Soviet Union. An early landmark of Lithuania’s professional theatre was a production of Hamlet by Mikhail Chekhov, nephew of the playwright Anton.

But Hamlet then fell out of favour. Stalin, it was understood, had turned against the indecisive Prince of Denmark. The uncomfortable comparisons between the setting of Hamlet, the dark world of Elsinore and the Kremlin, was perhaps too close.

Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, had usurped the throne, depriving the young Hamlet himself, and there were parallels — for those who wished to see them — in Stalin’s seizure of Lenin’s leading role and his demolition of rivals such as Trotsky.

There was also another layer of symbolism. Stalin, a keen theatregoer, took against the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold and had him arrested and tortured, and executed.

Meyerhold dreamed all his life of staging Hamlet, his favourite play, but somehow never managed it. He was renowned for having said, with bitter irony, that he wanted his tombstone to read: “Here lies a man who never played or directed Hamlet“. From the day he was killed in 1940, Hamlet and the death of Meyerhold became intertwined in the public imagination.

Stalin’s death in 1953 prompted a series of new Hamlet productions that tested the boundaries of how far the post-Stalin thaw had gone, and so the play gained a symbolic status of freedom of expression.

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