In Russian Plays, Don’t Mention the War
Since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, cultural institutions in Europe and the United States have contemplated what to do with Russian art. Tchaikovsky’s militaristic “1812 Overture?” Potentially offensive, and dropped from many concerts. Dostoyevsky? One of President Vladimir V. Putin’s favorite authors, cross-examined, in Ukraine and elsewhere, for his expansionist views.
Chekhov’s plays, on the other hand? So far, nobody is pulling them from the stage.
The Russian dramatic repertoire, more widely, has flown under the radar. In Paris, no fewer than four Russian plays were on at prominent playhouses in late January and early February, including Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya,” as well as lesser-known works, such as pieces by Turgenev (“A Month in the Country”) and by Ostrovsky (“The Storm”).
And the artists involved appear to be staying away from mentioning the war. While the Ukrainian flag was unfurled regularly on French stages in 2022, it made an appearance just once at the performances I saw of those four plays: At the end of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country,” at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet, an actor brought it out and held it during the curtain calls. Only one playbill, for “The Seagull” at the Théâtre des Abbesses, mentioned Ukraine.
In a country like France, where support for Ukraine is steadfast, this is hardly for lack of sympathy. It probably has more to do with Russian theater’s reputation for universalism — the belief that a playwright like Chekhov revealed profound truths about the human condition that went far beyond Russia’s borders. As the performer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from Soviet Russia in 1974 and has spoken against the war, told The New York Times last year: “The miracle of Chekhov’s writing is that, no matter where it’s performed, it feels local to the culture.”
The directors of these four Russian plays presumably didn’t select them in connection to geopolitical events. The sets for all the productions I saw were tastefully vague, and the costumes mostly modern. Since theater productions in France are typically planned at least two years before they reach the stage, all would most likely have been scheduled before the invasion of Ukraine last February.
Still, watching 19th-century plays by Chekhov, Turgenev and Ostrovsky in short succession offers a fascinating window onto Russian culture, which has long prized the performing arts. After a few nights in a row, the characters started to feel connected. The unhappily married Natalya Petrovna, in “A Month in the Country,” had a kinship with Helena in “Uncle Vanya” and Katerina in “The Storm.” All three suffer from ennui and neglect in the countryside; all three seek solace in affairs that end badly.
The State of the War
- In the East: Amid what Ukrainian officials say is the beginning of a new Russian offensive, Kyiv’s troops are under increasing pressure across the eastern front, with fighting particularly fierce around the city of Bakhmut.
- Leadership Shake-Up: President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political party will replace Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. The expected move comes amid a widening corruption scandal, although Mr. Reznikov was not implicated in wrongdoing.
- E.U. Visit to Kyiv: European Union leaders met with Mr. Zelensky and vowed to continue supporting his country. But they withheld a prize the Ukrainian president dearly wants: accelerated E.U. membership.
- Nuclear Fears Abate: U.S. policymakers and intelligence analysts are less worried about Russia using nuclear weapons in the war. But the threat could re-emerge, they say.
It’s no coincidence, of course. Ostrovsky and Turgenev were acquainted, and Chekhov, who came of age later in the 19th century, knew his predecessors’ work and name-checks both in “Uncle Vanya.”
The themes they explored speak to social rifts that manifest across cultures. Class struggles, such as landowners’ power over regular workers or the disdain of urban professors and artists for country life, underpin the characters’ relationships, as does this patriarchal society’s hold over women. (Bad weather and alcohol also feature prominently.) Patriotic wars don’t come calling for local men, unlike in many Russian novels.
Brigitte Jaques-Wajeman’s “The Seagull” makes the most impassioned case for Chekhov as a vessel for the world’s feelings rather than for any specific sense of Russian-ness. She has opted for a very spare production at the Théâtre des Abbesses, the second stage of the Théâtre de la Ville: Beyond a painted backdrop evoking the lake mentioned in the play, the cast only has a small elevated stage made of wooden blocks and a few tables and chairs to work with.
Yet every element is used beautifully. One of Jaques-Wajeman’s great strengths lies in the precision of her work with actors, and here, she brings individual color out of each. As Nina, the country girl who dreams of becoming an actress, Pauline Bolcatto starts off as a ball of innocent enthusiasm, while Hélène Bressiant brings a touch of goth nihilism to the resigned Masha. As Arkadina, the successful and snobbish actress visiting her country home, Raphaèle Bouchard rocks improbable turbans and fuchsia pants.
This “Seagull” brought out a constant from Russian play to Russian play: Practically everyone in them, no matter how rich or successful, feels emotionally stunted.
It is true, too, of “A Month in the Country” and “The Storm,” two plays that are seen much less often in the West. The plot of Ostrovsky’s “The Storm,” which had its premiere in 1859, is perhaps better known outside Russia through “Kat’a Kabanova,” the 1921 Janacek opera named after the play’s central character. Kat’a, or Katerina, is saddled with a husband she doesn’t love and an overbearing mother-in-law. She starts a covert relationship with Boris, who has recently arrived in her small town, only to become overwhelmed by the moral implications.
Denis Podalydès brought a sensitive, visually elegant production of “The Storm” to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, led by the arresting Mélodie Richard as Katerina. A photograph showing the Volga River is reproduced in the background on wooden panels, which are later turned over to create a simple, two-tiered structure for Katerina and Boris’s nighttime escapades in the bushes.
“The Storm” and “A Month in the Country” both show humans chafing against curtailed horizons. In “A Month in the Country,” Natalya Petrovna, a woman who falls for her son’s young tutor, isn’t the only one to suffer. Like Masha in “The Seagull,” the young Vera, an orphan who lives with Natalya’s family, sees her options in life for what they are and resigns herself to a joyless marriage.
Juliette Léger conveys Vera’s arc with admirable ease in Clément Hervieu-Léger’s captivating production of “A Month in the Country.” The entire cast, in fact, struck a bittersweet, realistic balance between comedy and tragedy, from Clémence Boué (Natalya) to Stéphane Facco (wondrous in the role of Rakitin, Natalya’s platonic companion).
Yet for all the emotional truth in these characters, from Turgenev and Ostrovsky to Chekhov, the sentence for those who stray is harsh. They all fail. At best, they return to a dull life; sometimes, suicide is their preferred option.
It is a bleak outlook for domestic dramas. Nobody is calling for these plays to be canceled, but to call them “universal” is a little too easy. In Russian theater, if you rebel against social norms, you will be crushed.
That, in itself, is a message.