Blesok no. 15, June-July, 2000
The Post-Soviet Politician As Clown
Notes on Joseph Brodsky’s "Democracy"
Portrait of Lenin drinking Classic Coke
Russian bear (stuffed)
Grouse in caviar gravy
Handcuffs made in U.S.A.
These properties grace the stage of Joseph Brodsky’s play, Demoracy, which opens with lesders of an unnamed Eastern Europian country seated in the office of their Communist Party’s General Secretary-the man they call “gensec.” Comfortably enjoying the privileges of their high positions, which entitle them to imported melon, grouse, Cuban cigars, jazz, and (when needed) American handcuffs, they savor their repast until one more, nemely democracy, arrives rather unexpectedly.
A telephone call from Moscow informs the Gensec, Basil Modestovich, that his small Soviet satellite has been declared a democracy. Panic erupts. The Gensec and his ministers know about French perfume, they appreciate handcuffs manifactured in Pitsburgh and jazz by Sidney Bechet, but they have no understanding of the democratic process. How could they, when their democracy is initiated from above, by another government, without the governed? The ministers have one choice: comply before Russian tanks force democracy upon them.
The situation is a comic variation on independence declarations and the bizarre politics that accompainied them across Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, when Joseph Brodsky wrote his satiric play. The late poet’s comic portrait of a collapsing empire has proven all too accurate, even prophetic, as Russian itself now rivals that satellite invented in the play, and the folly of post-Communist govements across Eastern Europe imitates (or lives up to) his satire. It is unfortunate that the play has yet to be published in book form. (It was serialized in several journals before Brodsky’s death-and remains reatively unavailable to readers and stage directors.) I co-directed a production of the play with Chris Hampton at San Francisco State University in 1995 and now offer a few observaions on Demoracy in that its superb humor and poetry will be more widely appreciated in the future.
The huge stuffed bear that hovers near the ministers of state in Demoracy suggests their offices are never far from the watchful gaze (not to mention the brute force) of the Kremlin, which this creature represents. But the animal is also a comic representative of Moscow-it could be a former circus performer-a fitting attribute, since the room is filled with clowns.
Basil Modestovich and the ministers of justice, finance, and culture who dine with him display characteristics of clowns, as they comically debate whether they comically debate whether their unexpected democracy is Athenian, Socialist, People’s, or a “new kond”. The patter of their conversation recalls Abbott and Costello’s vandevillian discussion of who’s on first, or the absurd circus dialogues of the Russian of the clowns Bim and Bom.
Brodsky never refers to his characters as clowns. And yet, besides their comic verbal exchanges, the text sets up a sequence of slaptick acts that deserve the masterful timing and comic body language of clowns like Geoff Hoyle and Bill Irwing (American), or Yuri Nikulin and Leonid Yendgebarov (Russian). Lazzi about gourmet food fill the play, along with opportunites for song and dance; in San Francisko our actors performed these gags in the manner of circus clowns.
Despite all their fancy footwork on new forms of government, Basil and the ministers are prepared to continue with more or less the same power and privileges for as the new democratic system they devise will permit. When the four vote on the “transfer to a democratic form of rule and economic reform, “twenty-two other ministers are missing; but that is much better, according to Basil, who must have studied American poll returns to know how often the right to vote is ultimately exercised by a minority of those eligble to a cast a ballot.
In the second act of Brodsky’s play, the ministers and President Basil discuss the prospects for computerized governance of the state. (Their computer programs are all provided by the West, naturally.) They look forward to a new administration freed from the failings of human error. Their greatest fear is that Luddites will destroy their central computer. To prevent this, Basil and his associates order a new atomic bomb, set to go off and destroy Luddites (and everyone else nearby) who try to dismantle the coveted computer.
In the face of these prospects for a mechanized post-Soviet future, where Western tecnology transforms past Communist control into an even more centralized and inhuman government, Brodsky’s satire itself is a sort of Luddite protest. The physical and verbal comedy with which he undermines an even more centralized and inhuman government, Brodsky’s satire itself is a sort of Luddite protest. The physical and verbal comedy with which he undermines an imaginary government’s authority is an early advance against the predicated technocracy. His weapons-mainly words-are to be launched by gifted actors against the increasingly inhuman state machinery.
In the San Francisco State production of Demoracy, scenary despicting the comic side of post-Communist government was inspired by Melamid. (The two artists portrayed Brodsky himself in one of their pop art canvases. His face appears as that of the poet Cicero in the 1984-85 collage, Eggs, Coitus, and Cicero.) As founders of the SOTS art (Soviet pop art) movements, Komar and Melamid frequently parodied Soviet socialist realism by adding surreal, erotic, and anachronistic details to official-looking portraits of Communists leaders. Their New Yorker magazine cover featured Lenin hailing a yellow cab in Manhattan, with one arm streched out as it was in many orations; the red banner behind him displayed not the hammer and sickle, but the yellow “M” of the McDonald’s hamburger logo. Since Brodsky’s stage directions call for portraits of the “founding fathers” to be displayed in the office of the leader of the small socialist state, on our stage large circus-like canvas portraits of Stalin, Lenin and Castro covered the back wall. Initially Lennin’s outstreched arm held a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka; later, after the official change to a democratic form of government, the vodka was replaced by a large can can of Classic Coke, and (with apologies to Komar and melamid) the red banner behined Lenin acquired the yellow logo of McDonald’s. A little later, the portrait of Castro playing a quiatar was replaced by one of Elvis playing quitar, and Stalin (blonde-haired in our grotesque canvas) was replaced by Marylin Monroe. Basil’s secretary changed clothes to look like a cross between Marylin and Madonna, complete with motorcycle jacket, blonde wig, and a life-size cardboard motorcycle. The transition to Western democracy– and to popular images associated with it-was nearly complete.
But it would be inaccurate to say that a complete transition to Western forms takes place in Demoracy. The play carries its Eastern Europian characters into situations so bizarre that they rival the outrageous reality of post-Soviet life in Russian and its former satelites. The bear which behaves like a stuffed animal in Act I “emerges with a handgun in his paw” in Act II and prevents the Minister of Justice from absconding with a briefcase full of money. “Simply a higly-trained bear”, but also a “multipurpose robot”, the animal embodies the best of Russian and gypsy circus life as well as technology. In fact, an actor in a bear suit is needed to portry the animal, in all probabylity, so even here some human element retards the tehnocracy predicted within the play.
The rescued briefcase contains two-million marks in loans that the Minister of Finance secured abroad to finance a new industry: bottled soda water-to replace the failed eel canning industry of the past. But Basil and his ministers would rather spend the funds on personal needs. “Best to buy some land, or a house. Real estate, in word”, counsels President Basil. The plot verges on parody of Humphrey Bogart film in which the bandits feud over stolen loot. Is this the feature of post-Soviet governments?
Brodsky offers no answers, only comic takes on the new coruption and nuclear terrors that may arise under the next generation of Eastern Europian leaders, as their freedom from Communism leads to self-serving ekections and self-destryction under primitive capitalism leads to self-destruction under primitive capitalism. Basil Modestovich and his ministers accept foreign loans, knowing their country is inviting a new, post -Soviet form of foreign occupation by banks and the countries that uphold banking interests. “To drive a nation into debt is a far more secure uphold of occupation that invasion”, notes one of the ministers. From this perspective, democracy and elections are merly part of the banking process– a theatrical exercise that qualifies the country for Western loans. Gustav, the Finance Minister, knows that “without free elections, no foreign investment.”
The most cheerful and most optimistic moment in the san Francisco production of Demoracy arose when the actirs, cued by the Minister of Culture, cecilia, began to sign and dance to Sidney Bechet’s jazz tune, Petit fleur. Their new national anthem included the lyrics, “Dear land, I’ll never part from you”. Brodsky introduced it as a parody of nationalism, but the tune became a joyous and comic, it slightly sentimental, moment, as the actors waltzed througt the theatre aisles and turned the moment, entire space into their ballroom. (This scene is far more of celebration that their cynical signing of the transfer of power requires.) The dance, followed by the smoking of rare Cuban cigars, represented a movement toward art and friendship, before the desent into the atomic-bomb computerized governance of Act II.
So far, no eastern Europian nation has adapted Sidney beachet’s jazz for its anthem. In the former Soviet Union, the feuds over national identity and power mimicked by Brodsky have counterparts that are far from comic. The clowning, song, dance, and feast within Demoracy contain elements of a utopian future which will not be found in Eastern Europian governments-outside their representation in the theatre-for some time to come.
Quations from Brodsky’s Demoracy are taken from Alan Myer’s translation, which was published serially in Performing Arts Journal ( 37), Granta (Winter,1990), and Partisan Review (2, 1993). Brodsky assigned no specific lines of dialogue to his characters, leaving the collaboration with my co-director, Chris Hampton, and the cast of the play, which was parformed at San Francisko State University’s Studio Theatre in March, 1995. Although written in Russian, the play has yet to published or staged in Russian, as far as I know.