It’s amusing to think of Joseph Stalin spending his precious time in a fulminating beef with one particular play. Certainly he had a beef with many plays, artists and art forms, but as Adam Gopnik noted recently in The New Yorker, he was atypically authoritarian in that he did not come to dictatorship with a comprehensive hatred for all the arts; rather, he grew into the role of censor, embracing it as it served his purposes. Gopnik’s analysis of Daniel Kalder’s The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, contains the take-away:
…Against the Trotskyite view of Stalin as a Georgian bandit chief, Kalder argues that Stalin was actually a big thinker and a good writer, capable of popularizing Marx in ways Lenin could not. He was a devoted craftsman of prose, too, as his much marked manuscripts attest. “Because Stalin’s primary means of interacting with the physical world was through paper, it is not surprising that he continued to demonstrate a superstitious awe for the power of the written word,” Kalder observes. “He was still fascinated by books, by novels and plays, and by the arts generally.” Some writers even sought out Stalin for literary advice. The amazing thing is that they got it: one prominent playwright, Alexander Afinogenov, started sending his plays directly to Stalin for a first read, and, despite the burdens of ruling a totalitarian empire, Stalin would get back to him with notes. If you want to know what a country with an editor at its head looks like, there it is.
Yet Nicolai Erdman’s The Suicide, written in 1928 before the bloodiest apogee of Stalinism, appears to have earned Uncle’s Joe’s special wrath. The playwright, who is remembered today, if at all, for his collaborations with Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was exiled to Siberia for three years and banned from Moscow for another 10. The story of Erdman’s career is terribly sad; the story of The Suicide, ironically, a bit less so; it was produced in Europe before Erdman’s death in 1970, and on Broadway in 1980, starring Derek Jacobi. In a sense, both histories come alive in a new musical called The Glorious Death of Comrade What’s-His-Name, featuring a book by David Bridel, music by Simon Gray and lyrics by Raymond Bokhour. The tuner enjoyed a one-night concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th St.) on Mon., Jan. 20, directed by Broadway veteran Don Stephenson, and another concert is slated for Mon., March 2 at 7pm. For tickets, click here.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of my recent conversation with Stephenson.
Leonard Jacobs: I love the story outline from the press materials: “Semyon, an unemployed grumbler, becomes convinced that suicide is his ticket to fame and glory. Before long, friends and neighbors are plotting to exploit his impending death for fun and profit, and while they’re at it, topple an entire regime.” Maybe that’s an amusing way to leave Trump’s America. A “grumbler” itself is funny.
Don Stephenson: The other fun thing is that it’s great comedy but, scratch the surface, and there’s a little bit of heartbeat underneath. With all the late-breaking news on a day-to-day basis in this country, someone trying to use politics and feeling helpless with something bigger than yourself is relevant and, yet, like a farce. It all happens in this show.
LJ: How did you get involved with what would have been, I’m guessing, Stalin’s least-favorite musical?
DS: I have been friends with [actor] Drew McVety since we were in Titanic together; he’s been involved in the show for multiple readings and now as a producer as well. He called me up one day and said, ‘I’ve been working on this show and we need a director and it’s perfect for you.” It’s funny in that smart way that Mel Brooks is funny. There’s something subversive about it, about getting away with something.
LJ: The plot reminds of The Visit, too — a society so irretrievably broken that a person committing suicide is normal and full of hilarious opportunism.
DS: Well, you hope that when you reflect something back to the audience, they go away still thinking and talking about it; that each person in the audience will see themselves in some way in many of the characters. What does Shakespeare say? “Hold a mirror up to nature”? People either recognize themselves or say “That’s not me.” I hate to stand on the soapbox and say we’re changing the world. But we can laugh; we can give you something to think about when you leave.
LJ: When things are bleakest, it’s as if we must ask ourselves what little thing we can each do in the world.
DS: That’s right. This show has the feeling of bigger things happening and that I can’t do much to control them; I’m just one person. You have these battles within yourself: What can I do? Other than turn the light off in the kitchen and go vote.
LJ: How closely does the creative team stick to the original material?
DS: I know they took a lot of liberties. Ray [Bokhour] said that they took out some of the overtly Soviet, Stalin-esque parts that won’t resonate with today’s crowds. I’m fascinated by somebody sent to the gulag for writing a play. All those people who dare speak truth to power — the powerful don’t want to hear it, they sure don’t want to fund it. Which is why, when you come across shows that have something to say, especially as a director, you grab it.
LJ: Can you detail more the storyline?
DS: Semyon doesn’t have a “grumbler” job and sits home all day while his wife works and he and the mother-in-law are there in the Soviet apartment. She hates his guts; he’s not crazy about her. He loves the wife, though, and ultimately it’s sort of a love story between husband and wife. The “suicide” rekindles their romance. Stalin appears as a talking statue.
LJ: I wonder if you’ll have a response to my theory. American actors, even in a lot of musicals, chase the dream of naturalism. The challenge with this musical, I’d Imagine, is that the premise is itself, as you say, farcical, absurdist. Doesn’t there have to be a spot when the audience can make the leap from naturalistic acting to fully buy into the allegory?
DS: You do have to pick the spot. You know it’s “Where’s the switch?” You need to make it clear for actors so they can make it clear for the audience. And I guess Semyon realizes that life is worth living. It’s all romantic — very Dr. Zhivago — very “Who will come to my funeral?” When the reality comes that Semyon has to do it, it’s scary. He has his light-bulb moment. It’s funny and a wacky, subversive look at people making their way through life.