Now 72 years old, Yuri Lyubimov is one of the grand masters and prime creators of international theater practice. He founded The Taganka Theater in 1964 as an experimental theater, building on the theories and practice of Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and Brecht. For most of its 26 years, the Taganka has been the boldest, most outspoken and avant-garde ensemble in Russia. Vladimir Vysotsky, Lyubimov’s Hamlet and a leading Taganka actor, became a national hero (partly through bootlegged tapes of his songs that were more powerful in the Soviet Union than the combined effect of Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman, The Beatles, and Edward R. Murrow in America).
A fierce stylistic innovator with montage, lighting, verse, song, set, text, and acting technique, Lyubimov is probably best known for his daring theatrical adaptations of poetry and novels and his successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) run-ins with Soviet Premiers and Ministers of Culture over forbidden material. Some of his best known productions over the years have been: John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Listen! (based on Mayakovsky), Hamlet (including banned Pasternak material), The Master and Margarita (adapted from the Bulgakov novel and a great hit for many years while the novel itself was still banned), Gorky’s Mother, Yevtushenko’s Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty, Voznesensky’s Antiworlds, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, and Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. Since The Taganka, like other Soviet theaters, is a cumulative repertory company, most of these shows (and many more) are still running in Moscow. (This season the Taganka has 23 shows running in repertory in two theaters.)
Lyubimov went into exile in the West in 1984 when the authorities forbade his production of Boris Godunov. Now he is back at The Taganka, Boris Godunov is in repertory, and the actor playing Boris (Nikolai Gubienko) has become, under Gorbachev, the Soviet Minister of Culture. This interview took place last spring in Lyubimov’s office at the Taganka.
Lyubimov translation by Steve Nielson.
Leonardo Shapiro How did you get the idea for the moving door in your production of Crime and Punishment?
Yuri Lyubimov At first the idea was to leave the stage completely bare. In as much as the concept was such that it was essential that the audience know that Raskolnikov is a murderer, it was necessary that there be a corner where the old woman whom he killed for the object he had pawned lived; thus attention had to be focused on the scene of the murder and the rest of the stage left completely empty. The idea came about because 90 percent of the school children who study this novel in Soviet schools, write in their compositions and exams that Raskolnikov is a revolutionary, a positive figure, and that it was capitalism that led him to do what he did, all of which is, of course, false vulgar “socialization.” So in school compositions students write that Raskolnikov was right to kill the old woman and the only problem is that he was caught. And if one of the students in class were to say, “What do you mean, he’s a murderer,” the rest of the class would condemn him as a retrograde who was out of sync with the modern world. And if he were to say that the novel was the author’s soul crying out against murder in general, not only the class but also the teacher would condemn him. This alarmed me and compelled me to portray the novel differently from the way it always is staged. And that is when the idea of empty space and the door was born, in an effort to effect a very strong interaction with the audience, as with opponents. The door is a symbol of the threshold to a new life. Raskolnikov is always saying that one has to overstep the bounds, overstep . . . So this, it seems to me, is a very cynical, very appropriate image. A symbol of his nightmares, of his dreams. I had to imagine his dreams. No such dreams are described in Dostoevsky, so these are imagined dreams. There are no such dreams per se in Dostoevsky.
LS Did you have this idea before or during rehearsals?
YL Before. Before. When I approach the actors I already have some ideas. I have a general concept of the play before I meet with the actors. Perhaps not everything is thought out entirely or laid out in scenes as in cinematography. There are things that I come upon in the process of rehearsing the play, but in general I can always demonstrate the basic shape of the play for the actors, the manner, the style, and how it will sound musically. I work with the composers a lot before rehearsals.
LS Did you work this out analytically the way you’re explaining to me, logically? Or was it just, maybe, one night you had a dream and then there was a door?
YL No, one always comes across such things unexpectedly. The door had to move, to fly out of this space into his dreams, in his first dream, in his first nightmare. This was very difficult to accomplish technically and was rehearsed very carefully.
LS And the moving light? The actor moving the light instruments? That was also clear before rehearsals?
YL Yes, I had all of that prepared from the start. It was important that the play be a play of shadows and mirages, so I laid bare the device. It is like theater on a public square.
LS Was it a surprise to you to find out that the students approved of Raskolnikov?
YL It was, how can I put it…A friend of mine, Koryagin, a teacher who worked with me on the adaptation brought me those compositions and they were the thing that moved me to do the play. I was horrified and felt a need to…I realized that people really grow up thinking like that. Now they have grown up, and you can see what’s happening. They wrote this while they were still in school, that Raskolnikov was right to kill her. And now people are being killed, here, in Tbilisi, in Armenia, and everywhere.
LS Is it very different now? I understand you’re working on The Suicide now.
YL Yes, but it will be…It will be Erdman’s play, but the play will be surrounded by his fate, a very difficult fate, and therefore the play will be called Erdman—The Suicide.
LS And you started work on this once before.
YL Yes, twice, twice, but the censors…Once while Erdman was still alive. Here’s a picture of him not long before his death, the one in the middle, the others are Paradzhanov and Vysotsky. Have you heard of Erdman before?
LS Yes. How far did you get on the production before…
YL No, they put a stop to it right away.
LS But when you were working on it before, how far did you get?
YL Only 10 rehearsals.
LS Is your idea now very different?
YL It’s a completely different idea. Then I thought together with Erdman simply of how to do the play so that they (the censors) would somehow pass it. We were busy together thinking of a way to deceive the censors so that they couldn’t protest. And now I don’t have those worries at all. I would even be glad if they would try to prohibit the play now.
LS Do you think that’s possible?
YL It’s possible.
LS Is it difficult having too much freedom?
YL You see, I’ve been doing this for 25 years, this theater is 26 years old. I’ve always worked freely and always said to my actors, don’t concern yourself with other people’s matters, the censors will come and do their work. That’s what they get paid for. You do what you think you should. For myself, I worked without censorship. And then I entered into battle with them, sort of surrendered. I conceded on the play Alive five, six times. But I have to finish it. It was banned, closed for 21 years, like cognac.
LS And now?
YL It’s running now, successfully.
LS Why do you think that The Suicide may be prohibited?
YL It has a strong ring to it right now and it could give rise to objections. They could start something. Though it was written over 60 years ago, it sounds as though it could have been written today.
LS Do you really think that it would be forbidden by the current Minister of Culture? (one of Lyubimov’s best friends and a leading actor of the company.)
YL No, what I’m saying is that the situation is unstable today and who knows what turn it could take. Before you came here, there were some young people who came up to me and wanted to meet with me. They were forbidden to meet with me.
LS By whom?
YL Their boss. When I was host of the program “Outlook,” a lot of material was cut from the program. So the censors still exist. It’s not true that they no longer exist. They still don’t invite Solzhenitsyn back or offer him his citizenship back. It’s completely illogical. They proclaim one thing and do another entirely.
LS So you don’t think things have changed as much as people say?
YL For the nonce, it’s mainly talk. To put it really roughly, if you used to be able to say five thousand words, now you can say nine thousand words.
LS Do you think that your role has changed as an artist now that you’re not the only one saying forbidden things, now that the audience has other possibilities? There was a time when they could only come to the Taganka to see a certain kind of truth.
YL Well, you see, it depends on whom you have in mind. It’s very abstract. We believed that we were saying something that our contemporaries were thinking about at home. That’s what we thought. But there were other contemporaries, too, who thought that we should be put in jail, or disbanded, or, basically, that something had to be done about us. They’re people, too. Therefore…And what does it mean that nowadays everybody is speaking the truth? The truth, after all…I’m not a newspaper. This is a theater, not a newspaper, or some sensational release of documents. We are artists, after all, and work with aesthetics, style, and form, and this is all independent. It’s simply become more complicated to work, that’s all. The theater was the first element in the country to enter into the free market. We had competition and had to become competitive. There’s choice. There used not to be choice. We were alone. But now there is choice. You can watch television and change the channel. There are people now, for example, who like to play at tuning in the Moscow City Council or the Supreme Soviet session. “Oh!” they cry, and get a great deal of pleasure from trying to see who is the dullest or the most orthodox. People are more alive in Moscow, and they’re interested in seeing how perestroika is proceeding. You turn on the Soviet channel—no perestroika whatsoever. You turn on the Moscow City Council channel—nobody wants perestroika. You read some Party document, say, from the Party Congress, and all the arguments are Stalinist arguments. And when you read Central Committee declarations or the Party platform, it’s all a type of raving. Everything’s very complex here. And on the other hand, there is an exodus taking place, an exodus, like the Jews from Egypt, people are leaving the country. Whoever can, does. Haven’t you seen the alarm on the one hand and apathy on the other hand?
LS Yes. Oh, yes, certainly. Is what’s important to you in the theater, has that changed since your experience of leaving the country and coming back?
YL The theater? Unfortunately, like a house without its owner, it collapsed. And everything that’s happening out in the streets, the erosion, it all penetrates the theater. The theater cannot be isolated, the actors feel it. Because it is a very difficult life, simply in the sense of getting through the day alive, where to get food for their families…It’s a very difficult life. And you can see it in the actors. They have poor concentration, they’re distracted, there’s a certain lack of precision. Maybe your actors try harder or concentrate more than here.
LS Maybe. (Joke) But for you personally, is what’s important to you in the theater any different? Your values?
YL Well, I think that, to put it roughly, I have to get the theater into shape, good athletic condition, to put it in terms of sport. And also, you understand, all of these horrible decades destroyed the people’s spiritual peace. People stopped believing and became cynical and are, therefore, empty. And that’s, perhaps, the most serious difficulty.
LS Do you see theatre as a spiritual activity?
YL I think that if an artist doesn’t have anything to say to people he should take up something else. Or it’s just searching for form for the sake of form. Mannerism. And that doesn’t interest me, I have no use for it. I love form, but only that form that the given play requires. Which you can see, for example, in Dostoevsky. But on the other hand, if I could get the actors into proper creative and spiritual shape, I would perhaps give them more leeway and I wouldn’t have to ride them so much.
LS What about the audience, can you shape them up, too?
YL No, the audience now sits rather as though it had been hit in the head with a bag of dirt. Gradually a certain spectator may come who is genuinely interested in this process. The theater is a phenomenon for the elite, and is understood only by the highest level of society. It is not mass production, like television.
LS Did you feel the audience was very different in London, in Washington, and other places where you performed?
YL Yes. Scandinavia is more prepared for the theater. They love the theater there. The Americans are more embarrassed as far as the theater is concerned. They don’t have a real understanding of the theater.
LS They see it as entertainment. They have lost the idea of theater.
YL The Germans love the theater and value the director, the performance, and value the way the play is conceived. West Germany, that is. The English, of course. Poland is a theatrical country.
LS Yes, I’ve worked in Poland. What are your plans after this production, after Erdman?
YL I am supposed to go to Germany to stage two operas. Love of Three Oranges and The Queen of Spades in Munich. That’s in the West.
LS And you have other plans for the Taganka?
YL Other plans? Maybe…Bulgakov’s Theatrical Novel and then a type of poetic production including Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and prose from Doctor Zhivago and Nadezhda Mandelstam’s first book.
LS All those at once?
YL A type of gogol-mogol (“eggnog” i.e.—mishmash). That will be a year from now. If I am alive and healthy. And if I don’t fight with anybody.
—Leonardo Shapiro is the artistic director of the Shaliko Company and directs the Trinity/La MaMa performing arts residency program.