Eastern Promise


by Sian Evans and Cheryl Robson

This is the third in a series of plays by women from different regions within Europe. Mediterranean Plays by women covered countries that were geographically close but politically divided. It brought together a wide spectrum of female voices, tackling personal and political issues such as partition, fundamentalism and cultural identity. A Touch of the Dutch focused on a small country at the heart of Europe - the Netherlands, where the influences of French, German and English theatre could be keenly felt. The subjects explored reflected the modern concerns of a western nation – eating disorders, AIDS and sexual abuse. This was matched by the innovation of the playwrights in terms of form and content, demonstrating their sophisticated understanding of contemporary theatre.

In this collection: Eastern Promise we bring together seven women writers who have all experienced living at a time when their countries were part of a larger political entity. For Gabriela Preissova, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for the others, the soviet bloc. Some of the moral and political dilemmas their characters face range from the killing of a child, to the betrayal of a comrade, to reinventing oneself as a way of living in exile.

When we began to research this collection in 1993, we were told repeatedly by dramaturgs, directors and cultural advisors that women playwrights did not exist in the former soviet bloc countries – why not look at plays by men? In countries with emerging democracies, the roles women carry out are an important indicator of the degree of equality and the openness of a society to new ideas. We wanted a different perspective on central and eastern Europe to the one commonly presented by the media – refugees, food queues and starving orphans. Women's lives in these countries remained a mystery, overshadowed by the images of tanks, land mines and rebel forces. After a good deal of research we began to unearth some names – Daniela Fisherova (Czech), Aspazija (Latvia), Ludmilla Razumovskya, (Russia). By travelling to European theatre conferences we were able to speak to theatre practitioners themselvesand we discovered many women playwrights struggling to make their voices heard, encountering hostility and prejudice but still managing, against the odds, to have their plays staged. By publishing these plays and bringing them to a wider audience, our understanding of these events and people can be enlarged. While we enjoy the passion and intelligence displayed within the range of work included, we hope the playwrights will benefit from further productions of their work in other countries across the English-speaking world.

The plays have been arranged in such a way that the perspective changes from the stability of a village community united by values of church and state, typical of life at the end of the last century, through worlds in which notions of morality, humanity and community are severely tested or abandoned altogether. In this way, the collection reflects the enormous changes which have occurred across Europe during the last century and the repercussions of war, revolution and the repeated shifting of boundaries.

Where these contemporary plays differ from those written in the West over the same period, is the continuing use of absurdity, of events turning full circle, of an intense atmosphere of living on the edge, of madness prevailing, of language being both a weapon and a gift, of allegiances shifting, of identity crumbling. While playwrights in the West have tended to move away from tackling wider social and political issues in the '90s, for playwrights in central and eastern Europe, the personal and the political remain irrevocably intertwined.

The Plays – Jenufa, Her Stepdaughter

Produced for the first time on November 9th, 1890, at the National Theatre in Prague, the play fuelled a fierce controversy between the advocates of realism and their opponents. It was slated by the critics, who wrote: 'Everything in it is covered by the frost of baseness, vulgarity, foolishness and contemptibility…' but it was defended by the director of the theatre, who wrote to the newspaper: '…it would be a fatal error, if the National Theatre were to close its doors to new movements…' which ensured the debate went on and paved the way for the style of realism in Czech drama to become established.Unfortunately, the controversy led Gabriela Preissova, the 28-year-old author to give up playwriting altogether.

Based on two real but separate crimes, Preissova set out to portray 'a barren woman haunted by the longing for a child'. The Kostelnicka character provides a fascinating female role, a woman full of pride in her achievements as a widowed working parent, who has devotedly brought up her step-daughter. She is also a highly respected member of the church, who is entrusted to lead processions, cure the sick and oversee burials. Jenufa, her step-daughter who has an illegitimate child and is abandoned by the father, Steva, tests the Kostelnicka's strict moral principles in the play. The Kostelnicka's efforts to avoid the ensuing scandal lead her into deceit, humiliation and ultimately, murder.

Janacek saw the play as a tragic love story and was attracted to the Slovak setting and folkloric elements. His adaptation of the play into an opera libretto, involved editing out details of characterisation and plot. Preissova's play offers us a more psychologically complex Kostelnicka as the central character in a community whose moral attitudes are implicitly questioned.

The Umbilical Cord

With echoes of Witkiewicz' play The Mother (written in 1924), Krystyna Kofta creates the stifling scenario of a sick and bedridden mother requiring those around her to repeatedly enact her memories of hunger and imprisonment. An intense three-way relationship between the mother, her son and the nurse is skilfully developed in which co-dependency precludes the possibility of any of them breaking out of the cycle of ritually re-playing the past. This is a play, which asks the question: how can we break free from the past? It examines how an individual's sense of guilt and experience of suffering can paralyse those around her.

'It is written almost with tenderness. It is an epitaph of …an entire generation, the members of which suffered 'moral defeat' when they had to steal a bicycle to save life… and in their torment dreamt to 'live long and safe like animals' though they knew that 'their life amounted to just a moment of relief before massacre'.

(Tomasz Kubikowski, Dialog.)

Tulip Doctor

Set within a revolving kaleidoscope comprising several rooms, this experimental play demonstrates the extraordinary imagination of the young Vera Filo. She attempts to deconstruct and parody the form and content of the modern play, with a cast involving several Salvador Dalis, a dragon and an angel. A bizarre murder mystery unravels, in which the dead discuss their own deaths and reflect on their past lives. There are many reflections – scenes repeated with dialogue modified; the opening three scenes are repeated in reverse order at the end. We are asked to make our own connections and our own meanings as the absurd and the surreal collide in a sequence of fragmented scenes. There is a war going on outside but none of the characters in the play shows any interest in this or in the cyber soldiers in their sequinned uniforms who frequently pass by. It would require a talented design and production team to realise the diverse technical and visual elements of the play.

The Tender Mercies

War is very much at the heart of Sladjana Vujovic's powerful and award-winning drama in which a female captor undertakes the brutal re-education of two prisoners. In the first part language is used by one prisoner as a weapon to dehumanise and humiliate another. In the next part we see psychological abuse in action and in the final part, the female captor takes on the role of passive-aggressive, encouraging one of the prisoners to beat and finally kill his former friend on the promise of release. A critic in The Scotsman wrote:

'The roles of tormentor and victim are thus infinitely interchangeable, as are their tribal ideologies of national superiority… …her dazzling play upon the savagery of war approaches a universal statement.'

The play has been compared to Pinter's One for the Road in its economic use of language to convey a world of brutality. It transferred from Edinburgh in 1993, where it won a Fringe First, to be produced elsewhere in the UK and Europe.


Alina Nelega's play deploys the world of the maternity hospital as a metaphor for a nation in the act of rebirth. Set on the eve of the revolution, we are in a world of women, where class and ethnic divisions create conflict and anxiety about the future runs deep.When the outside world enters in the form of a wounded young man, both the women and the hospital staff are suspicious of the intruder, leaving him to die, rather than nursing him back to health.

The play offers the opportunity for ensemble playing, a range of roles for women and implicit social criticism of a society divided against itself.

The Chosen Ones

Elena Popova won the first European Play competition with this atmospheric end-of-century piece about three generations of a family – father, daughter, grand-daughter and their respective relationships. Set within the confines of a decaying grand apartment, allocated to the father for services to the previous regime, the various occupants squabble over the apartment and its contents in a humorous reminder of the wider territorial conflicts. The laid-back central character, Irina provides us with insight into a woman coming to terms with her loss of status and money, thrown out of her job, unable to commit to a relationship, uncertain about the future. Both sad and funny, with subtle characterisation, the Bonner Biennale programme described the play as: 'a poignant portrayal of post-communist society.'

Belgrade Trilogy

Sharp and darkly humorous, Biljana Srbljanovic's exploration of life in exile provides a thoroughly contemporary work of modern angst. Contrasting various groups of Yugoslavians in Prague, Los Angeles, Sydney and Belgrade over the course of one New Year's Eve, she deftly raises questions about the meaning and value of freedom when it comes with a loss of cultural identity. The difficulties for each of the characters in coming to terms with their new situation provide the tension and dramatic conflict within each of the worlds we see. Although there is a buried sense of longing to return home, the final scene in Belgrade in which a pregnant woman sits alone in the dark as people off-stage count down to the New Year, leaves us with a feeling of dread as to exactly what the new year might promise.

Theatre in central and eastern Europe

During the communist period, theatres acted as a focus of dissent and defiance in much of central and eastern Europe. Although play texts were censored, it was impossible to control the way an actor spoke his or her lines. The use of irony, a subtle gesture or expression couldconvey one meaning while the words conveyed another. With Party members on the boards of theatres, controlling programming, employment and budgets, performers and directors found ingenious methods of subverting the mainly classical repertoire.

Alongside these large, state-subsidised theatres, sometimes known as stone theatres, smaller spaces with flexible companies grew up, particularly in Prague where the development of 'small form theatre' soon attracted audiences. In contrast to the worthy and well-paid ensembles of actors and directors in the mainstream theatres, those who worked in the smaller theatres set about deconstructing texts, playing with genre, merging sketches, songs and cabaret in an attempt to keep the theatrical event both alive and capable of expressing the complex reality of life under communist rule. Following purges against playwrights, performers developed verbally minimal pieces using mime, dance and physicality. In this way, the smaller theatres helped to raise the political consciousness of the people in Czechoslovakia and contributed to the events, which led to the collapse of the political system in 1989.

After 1989, many of the mainstream theatres throughout central and eastern Europe seemed to lose their way. Now there were no restrictions on their programming, what were they to do? They were no longer needed to act as communal meeting places to express anti-communist sentiments and many theatres consequently experienced a loss of audience. They also suffered from cuts to their state subsidies – a financial crisis, which led some theatres to programme populist musicals and comedy, raising ticket prices to increase box office revenue. Others rented out their spaces for conferences or to independent touring companies. The reciprocal arrangement between theatres, for companies to tour within the communist bloc, no longer applies so that touring productions are generally limited to visiting national festivals. The situation for smaller independent groups, lacking any subsidy, is more difficult with the scrabble for funding desperate. The number of freelance artists is growing while ageing and underemployed actors in the mainstream theatres do little but wait for retirement.

Within the mainstream theatres there are too many large spaces and very few studio spaces where small companies can try out new work. This encourages the programming of classics and literary adaptations and discourages the innovative and risky, as the need to increase boxoffice revenue to make up for lost subsidy prevails. So far, very few of the larger theatres have closed but their dominance is threatened by the growth of smaller venues, especially in countries like Russia where dozens of studio spaces are opening up and the competition is fierce.

At a recent conference in Prague, hosted by the Open Society Institute, theatre practitioners were asked: 'Who is the key agent of change in the performing arts?'

'…Some felt that the individual artist's vision must have primacy and carry enough clout to provoke change. Others believed that the new entrepreneurs' managerial talent can create sufficient conditions for artists to develop and implement their vision. Others put more faith in sophisticated politicians, especially on the local level, who may be eager to enhance their city's image by supporting the development of the arts. The dictates of a mass audience, the whim of sponsors looking for popular and safe products and the corroding influence of the market were seen as potentially endangering factors, pushing the dynamics of change in a negative direction, away from commitment to quality and unique artistic identity.'

(Reform or Transition: the future of Repertory Theatre in Central and Eastern Europe.' ed. Dragan Klaic)

New writing in the theatre

Many of the playwrights working in central and eastern Europe find themselves at a disadvantage. Whereas playwrights in the UK have access to theatres such as the Royal Court and the Bush Theatre and companies such as Paines Plough and Soho Theatre Company which are focused on developing and premiering new work, the situation in the former soviet bloc countries is hardly encouraging of new writing. There are few dramaturgs or Literary Managers employed to work with new writers in the theatres and very few literary agents who can promote and market the work either nationally or internationally. In addition, if a new play is written in a minority language there is the added cost of translation. Playwrights often see their local repertory theatre as their only option for having their work staged and these large theatres often see new writing in terms of fashionable imports from the West such as Yasmina Reza's play Art. In Moscow, groups of theatre students get together to stage new work in smaller studio spaces or within the framework of a theatre festival. This is atleast offering playwrights the chance to see their work produced and to develop skills, although the life of such spaces is generally limited.

In Romania, there are two important new initiatives:

'New writing in Romania has been mostly dealt with (since 1990) by means of a national play contest called Best Play of the Year. The winning plays have been published by Unitext, a small Romanian theatre publisher. The other new initiative by Alina Nelega, author and editor, is Dramafest, an annual festival in Targa Mures dedicated to new plays.

Major difficulties arise whenever a new play is presented to subsidised theatres because managers, directors and critics don't have enough appreciation of them to include them in the repertoires. For many years directors have turned to classic works as the stimulus for 'freshening up' the reps. It's only since 1989 that many new ideas have forged ahead in Romanian theatre which is still dominated by the former system.

The dramaturg is not yet present in the theatre community and there are no university courses to open up minds to this valuable function in the theatre. It's only occasionally that directors such as Victor Ioan Frunza and Mihai Maniutiu have worked with dramaturgs. Usually, plays are treated in the same way as literary texts, which have been adapted for the stage, which are not really 'plays' but prose.

For women playwrights, it's not a question of facing more difficulties than a man. It's just that there's not yet a culture nurturing the new plays. What's different is the situation for women directors. Many of the graduates of Universities or Faculties of Theatre in Romania are women.

In 1997/98, for instance, the number of productions created by women in professional theatres (not the puppet theatres) is some 20% of the total. Usually, they face almost the same difficulties as their male colleagues of the same age, but there are also some more due to their being women. A current opinion I've often heard is that: 'Theatre directing is not for women'. It's something which comes from a deeper sense of an archaic male structured way of living. The question has been dealt with by the communist regime too, when the Party would claim by way of a percentage quota the level up towhich women could be 'visible' from a socio-professional point of view. The same with youth etc.

Among the few women playwrights in Romania, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is now a well-known author. Her winning play The Evangelists (1992) led to a furious reaction in the religious milieu and was subject to many polemics. No theatre has so far dared to put it on. Alina Nelega began to make a name for herself with Nascendo and the production succeeded in demonstrating the quality of the subject she chose. Already published or in rehearsals are plays by Nina Tântar and Ioana Craciun. When I edited the first collection of new Romanian plays in 1991, I included one of Ioana Craciun's plays, titled Fair River. Nina Tântar 's Ubu and Milena was shortlisted for the 1997 Best Play of the Year competition.'

(Marian Popescu: Theatre critic, Lecturer at The University of Theatre and Film Bucharest and The University in Sibiu, Director of Unitext.)

A new generation of playwrights in central and eastern Europe is coming to prominence, tackling new subjects in new ways. What they need is a theatre community willing and able to stage their work, valuing the new voices within their own borders who can truly represent the lives and experiences of their own people at a time of rapid change. One of the selected playwrights, the Belorussian Elena Popova found that post- perestroika, after years of struggling against the censors, there was a new and receptive audience for her work:

'For me, political theatre, the theatre as an ideological platform, is a thing of the past. Demonstration and Revolution were powerless to change the human soul in any way. The salvation of the world lies in the individual's striving after perfection…

The path of logic and reason do not always lead to the Truth. But what can be more precious than the living Word or the Breath of Life, or the quivering of existence?'

(Elena Popova, Minsk.)

Appendix: Short-listed writers: Helena Albertova (Czech), Keva Apostolova (Bulgaria) Marketa Blahova (Czech), Anna Bojarska (Poland), Lada Kastelan (Croatia), Blaga Dimitrova (Bulgaria), Olga Dioszegi (Hungary), Slavenka Drakulic (Yugoslavia), Madeja Dragova (Bulgaria), Ksenia Dragunskaya (Russia), Daniela Fischerova (Czech), Eva Lachnit (Poland), Teresa Lubkiewicz (Poland), Olga Mukhina (Russia) Vida Ognjenovic (Montenegro), Ludmilla Razumovskaya (Russia) Nina Sadur (Russia) Tsveta Sofronieva (Bulgaria) Lelde Stumbre (Latvia)

: see Appendix.
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