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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism
  • Jean E. Howard
Irena R. Makaryk and Joseph Price, editors. Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism. University of Toronto Press. xii, 402. $85.00

Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism, appearing seventeen years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, offers an important [End Page 238] opportunity to reflect on the impact of a particular state-imposed social theory on Shakespearean performance and criticism. As the book makes clear, that impact was extremely varied, depending on the particular context in which the encounter with Shakespeare occurred. Honouring this diversity, the book is organized both chronologically and with an eye to geographical spread. It begins with essays on communism's early years when theatrical experimentation still flourished and then moves to the grim period following the first Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 at which Stalin institutionalized socialist realism with Shakespeare serving as a chief exemplar. The book ends with discussions of the post–Second World War decades, including of the dreary cultural uniformity imposed during the height of the Cold War and of the renewal of experimentation in the 1980s. Within this frame, individual essays focus on the Soviet Union, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, China, Cuba, and on Marxist Shakespeare criticism in the United States.

Ambitious in scope and full of new information about actual performances, Makaryk and Price's book repays careful reading and also occasionally disappoints. More than most collections, it brings much new material to light. Few readers will, for example, know anything about the important Ukrainian director Les Kurbas, whose experimental productions of plays such as Macbeth riveted the Ukrainian theatre world before he was relieved of his theatrical position in 1933, imprisoned, and ordered shot by Stalin. Repeatedly, the book addresses productions, directors, and actors little known in the West. It also, often by indirection, reveals the paradox of theatrical life under state socialism: it deadened creative energies by insisting that Shakespearean texts conform to socialist realist dicta, and it stimulated those energies as directors and actors used Shakespeare to critique and comment on particular political regimes. Although many plays, from Troilus and Cressida to Measure for Measure, could serve a director's critical ends, none surfaces more frequently in this collection than Hamlet, which, despite Stalin's distaste for its hero's 'inactivity,' was repeatedly performed and almost always in ways that indirectly commented on current politics.

Despite the new material contained in individual essays and the power of the book's sheer scope, it does not entirely escape the pitfalls of much theatre history, namely, a tendency to empirical description that eventually bleaches out the distinctiveness of individual performances and incites a desire for more theory and, in this case, for more commanding analyses of how art and politics do their entangled dance, whether under communism or American capitalism. That is why two of the book's concluding essays, by Maria Clara Versiani Galery and Robert Weimann, are so welcome. Galery's essay deals with a country, Cuba, where state socialism is very much alive, and her essay explores [End Page 239] through incisive cultural contextualization the political significance of a rewriting of The Tempest, Otra Tempestad, produced in Havana in the late 1990s. Tracing the centrality of The Tempest to writings by Mannoni, Retamar, Lamming, Cesaire, and other Latin American writers, Galery shows how Otra Tempestad extends this tradition by remaking the Shakespearean text in light of the mestizo culture of the Caribbean and in ways that make possible a critical evaluation of the political status quo in Cuba.

Robert Weimann's considered evaluation of the complexity of theatre's situation under state socialism, however, stands apart. Generously revealing the debt his own criticism owed to his work on Benno Besson's 1977 production of Hamlet, Weimann shows the productive tensions that always potentially exist between academic criticism of Shakespeare and theatrical performances of his texts, between state-imposed dicta and the unpredictable energies of actors facing popular audiences. In pursuing these contradictions, Weimann upsets easy assumptions about when and how theatre performs its life-sustaining and critical work, making clear that from the conjunction of Shakespeare...


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pp. 238-240
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