Wild Life Theatre Company
at the International Performance Studio
I recently argued with a friend about the thorny issue of federal support for artists. He insisted that any government aid carries unacceptable conditions, and refused to make any distinction between paying soldiers to kill and writers to create--both, he said, were forms of diktat that led to physical or mental death. Yet no government support for the arts is as inimical as complete control. Master Class, by British playwright David Pownall, offers a timely, vigorous historical example of the ultimate in state "support" for the arts, putting our NEA crisis into perspective.
Set in a Kremlin anteroom in January of 1948, Master Class hypothesizes a confrontation between the mass murderer Stalin and the Soviet Union's most illustrious composers, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. In Patrick O'Gara's absorbing staging, a Chicago premiere by Wild Life Theatre Company, Master Class offers a nightmare look at a megalomaniac and the geniuses he endangers.
The occasion is the notorious 1948 conference of the Soviet Musicians' Union (a guild made up of court composers fearful for their lives and freedom). Stage-managed by Stalin with sadistic zeal, the conference was marked by organized vilification and disorganized fear, evolving into a sort of musical purge, its target 20th-century composition. (Only a decade before, Hitler had reviled 20th-century art, declaring it entartet: degenerate.)
The kangaroo convention culminated with an attack on Shostakovich, a modernist who'd committed "errors" against the state and music (in that order). His works and Prokofiev's were declared unpatriotic, "marked by formalist perversions, anti-democratic tendencies which are alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes." The indictment went on: "Typical of this music is . . . the preaching of atonalism, dissonance, and disharmony . . . the rejection of so important a thing as melody, and a striving after chaotic and neuropathic discords and accumulations of sounds." Except for the big words, it sounds just like Dan Quayle.
Pownall's cat-and-mouse confrontation erupts over a single long winter night, as Stalin attempts to impose his people's policy for Soviet arts on the internationally acclaimed composers. Backed up by ex-general Zhdanov, now his slimy Commissioner for Culture, Stalin dictates his credo: the composer belongs to the state, and his music is good only when it reflects the will of the people. Of course the people don't really get to decide--that would require marketplace choices.
One of the play's most intriguing revelations is its picture of Stalin: immune to his own contradictions, self-pityingly complaining of the sacrifices he makes when in reality it's always others who sacrifice their all. (His pretense of being a selfless tool of the state is easily the most arrogant manifestation of the cult of personality.) To inspire the hoped-for new Soviet music, he intends to write, with Prokofiev and Shostakovich's enforced collaboration, a Georgian folk cantata based on a short story by the republic's hero, the wretched poet Rustaveli. Delighting in the composers' discomfiture, Stalin hits the vodka bottle while Prokofiev and Shostakovich gamely struggle to provide the "correct" treatment for the crackbrained cantata.
Living arguments against state interference with artistic freedom, these great composers resemble elderly children about to be birched. The frail Prokofiev, recovering from a stroke, endures the sight of Stalin and Zhdanov smashing recordings of his works. Shostakovich, who's younger, suffers the more intense vilification, presumably because he'll influence the future. Ironically Stalin reviles them both as "dictators" of music; at one point the artists are even threatened with instant execution in the Lubyanka prison.
It's scary how well Pownall conveys the atmosphere of menace that pervaded Stalin's all-night drinking parties. (People would regularly write out their wills beforehand, as they did for Chiang Kai-shek's dinner parties.) Pownall also captures, particularly in the rambling second act, the evening's aimlessness--it simply peters out when Stalin falls asleep. Unfortunately, much of the meandering talk seems as much the fault of the playwright as of the setting.
A more interesting problem in Master Class is the unavoidable one-sidedness of the exchanges. Of necessity Prokofiev and Shostakovich don't defend their music or artistic freedom much; the pit bull Zhdanov is ready to assault them if they do. The play forces us to think of what they can't say for themselves, a shrewd means of making the experience all the more vivid. The sight of these great men cowed by an ignorant thug goes beyond words anyway.
All the fine cast effectively employ Russian accents. Troy West as Stalin executes a vivid portrait in paranoid mood swings, which range from seductive manipulation to ear-busting tirades. West's volatile, often demented tyrant can sentimentally describe "scientific communism" as a "garden of delights" without ever connecting it to the gulags he's scattered throughout the state; he can cry over his wretched cantata and contemptuously dismiss a mining disaster in the Urals.
Depicted with brittle dignity by Dean J. Leitzen, Prokofiev is a pitiful object lesson, the near-crippled composer seeking to accommodate the dictator and instead getting knocked to the ground. As this broken man desperately tries to guess Stalin's next schizoid move, Leitzen makes us feel Prokofiev's fever of fear. Ian Barford's pale, wary, neurasthenically delicate Shostakovich fairly seethes with frustration--probably the best way to deliver a role where what the character wants to say is more important than what he does say. When Shostakovich summons the courage for a rare outburst (as when he pleads the diversity of Slavic music over the uniformity of the Soviet ideal), it arrives with the force of revelation.
In one of the most relentless performances I've seen, Tim Kough as the bully Zhdanov explodes with a psychopathic abandon, effectively conveying the brutality of the world Stalin has created.
Musical director John Woodhouse reminds us what the furor was all about, playing selections from the disgraced composers. Inevitably this music triggered the wrath of the commissars, and just as inevitably it excites our admiration--for all the creations that could not be stifled.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.