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'Stalin': the play that shook the audience

  • Published at 06:05 pm October 12th, 2019
A scene from the play | Photo: Saif Shumon

Theater review

Kamaluddin Nilu, an accomplished theater director in Bangladesh, added over the years many feathers in his cap. At present he is a dramaturge at large, teaching at universities in Norway, Nigeria and India, directing plays in Oslo, Lagos or Hyderabad. Kamaluddin operates on the global theater arena but never left the stage of Bangladesh where he once made indelible mark with his youthful productions ingrained in the collective memory of our audience. He and his colleagues, a cluster of young talents trained at the National School of Drama in Delhi under the great mentors of Indian theater, have redefined the practice of theater art in Bangladesh in the 1980s with productions that were indeed dazzling. Kamaluddin Nilu has since traveled down the road of theater with his productions gradually earning a distinct color and style of his own. At the same time, he’s never failed to surprise his audience with every new production not being a repetition of what he has done before. Recently he has electrified the Dhaka audience with his new play Stalin, a production that raised more questions than admiration.

The production of Stalin made a dramatic impact on the audience, which by itself requires deeper analysis before one attempts to review the play. Nilu called himself a "dramaturge", a German term that highlights the role of a person in the production of a play with position over and above the playwright or the director of the play. A dramaturge selects the play, edits the text, chooses the repertoire and arranges for its presentation. When the play has not been translated or adapted from a significant or acclaimed text, as in the case of Stalin that draws heavily on archival research, one should understand that we are confronting theater of a different kind. Stalin is a play conceived and produced in the post-socialist era, almost three decades after the crumbling of the socialist USSR. The unwanted and unthinkable collapse can be viewed from various perspectives but while examining the 70 years of the great experiment of humankind to build a just and equal society,  one should note that there were other realities that happened out of public eyes within the confinement of the ruling elite. In that milieu only a few individuals exercised great power to take momentous decisions on behalf of the working class. In the absence of any agreed or prescribed structure to choose the leadership and ensure their accountability, the people in power gradually succumbed to the myth of their superiority, purportedly acclaimed holder of supreme wisdom.  

Now, while looking back at the power center from long historical distance, those once powerful leaders seem to be more comical than men of wisdom. But the situation, back in the day, was not funny as they wielded great power playing havoc in the life of millions.  

Rosa Luxemburg could identify the phenomenon long before others did and gave an early warning. She cautioned that the dictatorship of the proletariat might turn into a dictatorship of the Communist Party, which might result in dictatorship of the Politburo culminating into the dictatorship of the supreme leader. She gave her warning in Lenin's own time that one-party rule could degenerate into rule by one man. Unfortunately, there was no one to pay attention to the observations made by a female revolutionary and even now she does not seem to have got a place in the galaxy of Marxist thinkers and revolutionaries, which has remained a male dominated sphere.

The apparent success of the great socialist experiment and the propaganda machine that accompanied the achievement has blinded many honest thinking socialist activists. But another kind of signal emanated from the artists and citizens living under real socialism. They included many, from Maxim Gorky to Anna Akhmatova to Boris Pasternak to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Due note had not been taken of such artistic rendering of suffering of artists, intellectuals and common people in the USSR.

Dramatic crumbling of the Soviet Empire in 1991 and subsequent demise of the East European Socialist block came as a huge shock to a large number of people struggling for meaningful changes in their life. The oppressed people, especially those in the Third World, looked at the Soviet Union and other socialist states as the savior of mankind. What happened within the savior community was a different story, which they were not interested to read or acknowledge/recognize.

Director Kamaluddin Nilu | Photo: Courtesy 

The dramatic rendering of socialist reality in the play Stalin, as designed by Kamaluddin Nilu, should be judged from a broad historical perspective, discarding the age-old values and dogmas. Most importantly, the fall of Soviet empire has opened new opportunities to study and understand what went wrong in socialism and how that happened. Such a study became imperative with the opening of hitherto unknown and inaccessible archival documents including those of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, its Politburo, the KGB, the court/trial documents, police reports etc. To judge the Soviet reality of one-party state, it is important to take into account the documented history as engraved in the archives. This is precisely what Nilu has aspired to do and the play is intertwined with archival documents. Face to face with the brutalities unbound, Nilu has juxtaposed the character of Stalin and his Politburo colleagues as comical, which does not mean they were buffoons but the contrast was the way the dramaturge has chosen to unveil the deeper layers of reality the archival documents exposed. The archival papers, secret and sacred, now in public domain, has laid bare many events that happened inside the Kremlin including discussions, notes, personal papers of leaders of the revolution. We base our understanding of Soviet life and their leaders from what we learned till 1991, but post-socialist era opened a new chapter into the past that we do not know much about. The documents and papers tell us a different story which we must accommodate to understand the truth about the realities of Soviet state and the life of its leaders. 

In fact, the play Stalin opens with the projection of footage from the work of great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. The film is not Battleship Potemkin, or October, but Ivan the Terrible, which, in Eisenstein’s style, was allegorical of the power concentrated at the center but referred not to Russia's Czarist past, as desired by the state, rather it hinted at the prevailing structure of Soviet rule, the nature of absolute power, an attempt that caused much discomfort for Stalin and his Politburo colleagues. The scene from the Czar's court bears close resemblance to the inner circle of party/state leadership and sets the tune of the play. The great exponent of revolutionary cinema was admonished for the film; he was about to be sent to the extermination camp but was spared because of his international fame. Arrest for apparently no reason and the victims’ march to death was the opening scene of the play.Photo: Saif Shumon

The archival documents were projected again in the scene depicting the ultimate fate of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the great exponent of revolutionary theater, not as lucky as Eisenstein though. Meyerhold, a party member since 1918, was one of the first theater artists to embrace the revolution. He continued his experimentation with theater art and gave revolutionary theater a new form and vigor. Meyerhold's method of acting and production was very different from the “naturalistic” trend that found patronage of increasingly conservative party leadership. But in the interregnum the Meyerhold theater electrified the audience with its formalistic production and biomechanical style of acting. Mayakovsky was a close friend of Meyerhold and wrote the play Bedbug, especially for Meyerhold. Eisenstein was his student for a short time but revered him all through his life. The Meyerhold School of Acting was different from the American school, also at odds with the Stanislavski method. His use of body and physical gestures expressing the essence of a character was a treat for the audience. He was arrested, tortured and killed during the height of Stalinist purge. The special court of KGB sentenced him to death and he was executed in no time. He gave a vivid description of his torture in the court and hoped that when the times changed the text of his last words would be shown to his children. On February 2, 1940, the great exponent of new and revolutionary theater was executed by the firing squad. His last note was discovered from KGB archives and made public only in 1995, after the fall of the Soviet empire. We do not know if his children were alive to see the text, but in the play Stalin, the handwritten text of Vsevolod Meyerhold was projected on the screen with accompanying English translation. Meyerhold wrote:

"The investigators began to use force on me, a 65-year-old sick man, I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap ... For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal hemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain."

This was one of thousand of documents retrieved from various USSR archives after the end of the socialist era and the documents call for a re-evaluation of history, which the play Stalin also does, going deeper not only into the individual's fate but also into the whole structure of the socialist state with the Communist Party ruling in the name of the toiling masses, a rule which ultimately turned out to be consisted of a few people at the top echelon with one great leader above all of them. Individually, the leaders had their human strength, dreams and aspirations but collectively they seemed to be comical, cynical and paranoid. They were victims of their own doing. Another fact presented in the play highlights a grotesque reality: out of 1,966 delegates to the 1934 party congress only 958 survived, 70 percent of the Central Committee members were also eliminated. The power concentrated in the hands of Stalin, supported by his cronies in the Politburo, was grotesque and Nilu chooses to portray the characters in that way. Their faces have turned into masks, or in other words, instead of face they all have heavily painted appearance where the unreal becomes  the real. 

The stage had a riot of one color, red, which dominated over all other props, the color of revolution and also color of blood. The costumes were aptly designed. Stalin wore the tunic that added to his personality, as it was in reality, but there was no other attempt to portray the actor as Stalin himself. It reminds one of the portrait done by Picasso and published in the French Communist Party daily L'Humanite immediately after the demise of Stalin. Picasso did the portrait upon request from his friend poet Paul Eluard. As he had no photo of Stalin in front of him, he rather sketched the image of Stalin he had in his mind, a robust person with a heavy mustache. That portrayal created a lot of controversy as it had little resemblance to Stalin in real life. Picasso's reply to the critics was that he tried to bring out the essence of the person, rather than his appearance. The same can be told about Stalin portrayed by Nilu, the dramaturge and the actor. 

There are other real-life characters like Yezhov, the secret police chief; Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Brezhnev and Stalin's daughter Svetlana. These leaders, the cronies of Stalin, had heavily painted face, almost like zombies, and their movement and body language was greatly influenced by Meyerhold's bio-mechanics. This in itself is a historical lesson. Stalin signed the death warrant of Vsevolod Meyerhold, but his artistic legacy could not be erased. On the other hand, there are many defenders of Stalin but no legacy of the great leader remains.

The play Stalin is too long, and at one point, it seems to be more of the same. In the latter part, the public image of Stalin becomes a private one when the great dictator stands face to face with his daughter Svetlana. This has given the play a certain depth, events of great historical importance boiling down to the portrayal of the inner worlds of a person, altogether bringing out the complexities of human existence, the contradiction between outer and inner realities. 

The play Stalin has many layers, making it difficult to interpret. The intention of the dramaturge was also not to come up with a simple statement. He believes in the language of performance, which is beyond the written text and creates a meaning by the interaction between the audience and the performance. Kamaluddin Nilu is more akin to Meyerhold than Stanislavski; like his mentor he is also an evergreen experimentalist, who presented a clever play to the audience. The audience reaction is also interesting to follow. It is through such interaction that the play will move forward, becoming a living organism as the show goes on. Stalin is a landmark production which should draw larger audience because it is a play that has the power to shake the audience.

Mofidul Hoque is a co-founder and one of the eight Trustees of the Liberation War Museum. He is a writer, researcher and publisher based in Dhaka. His book, Deshbhag, Sampradayikata Ebong Sampreetir Sadhana was published by the University Press Limited in 2012.