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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 511-513
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Eastern European Theater after the Iron Curtain
Eastern European Theater after the Iron Curtain. Edited by Kalina Stefanova. Contemporary Theatre Studies, Vol. 30. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000; pp. 267. $54.00 cloth, $27.00 paper.
From Tadeusz Kantor to Václav Havel some of the most imaginative and subversive theatre work was created behind the Iron Curtain of communism. In order to circumvent Soviet-controlled censorship these theatre artists spoke in an Aesopian language. The populations of many Eastern European countries flocked to the theatre as one of the few places where dissident voices could be heard and heretical bodies seen. Without romanticizing [End Page 511] the theatrical situation in communist Europe, critics often note that, paradoxically, oppression can act as a catalyst for artistic inspiration. Eastern European Theater After the Iron Curtain clearly illustrates how the difficult transition from communism to a free economy can both hinder and nurture creative freedom. The purpose of Stefanova's collection of essays is to give an overview of the theatrical activity in Eastern Europe since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Twelve countries are profiled: Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and the Ukraine. For each country one essay, written circa 1995, is accompanied by one or two short forewords. For the most part, the forewords are written by theatre artists: writers, composers, actors, and designers, and the essays are written by leading theatre historians and critics. Accompanying the text are a number of production photographs.
After reading a few of the chapters, the reader will notice similar characteristics of theatre life occurring from Albania to the Ukraine. Most significantly, as the political situation becomes diffuse, there is no clear focus at which to direct a voice of opposition. With the restored freedom of print and video communication the theatre no longer remains the most important form of expression, and so ticket prices rise while attendance is down. In addition, the sudden availability of Western entertainment draws crowds to Broadway and West End musicals. Many previously state-supported theatres have lost the assurance of government sponsorship and are beset by economic woes. To add to the difficulties, tax laws do not yet favor those who patronize artistic endeavors.
In the first essay, "Introducing Albanian Theater to The World," Kudret Velca asserts that in the face of harsh censorship imposed on Albanian theatre by communism, "[t]he creation and nurturing of a professional theater was the greatest legacy of the forty-five year totalitarian regime" (11). This is a potent announcement and reminds us of the strong theatrical tradition that exists in Albania despite the fact that "[t]he world knows next to nothing about Albanian theater" (9). In Albania, as well as other countries, artists, even with limited access to provocative scripts, were able to concentrate on developing work of high artistic value because of government financial support. As a result, Albanian theatre entered the 1990s with a strong foundation on which to build a new theatrical community.
Unfortunately, many of the Eastern European countries experienced a lack of quality indigenous drama immediately following the end of communism. Stefanova's own essay "Economic Downfall and Artistic Boom: the Paradox of Bulgarian Theater" provides a good example of the situation. Compelled by the communist state to write social realist plays, playwrights "became experts at getting past the censors rather than at writing plays" (34). As a result, few quality Bulgarian plays now exist in the repertory; ninety percent of the plays produced in Bulgaria after 1989 are foreign. Leonid Chemortan describes a similar situation in Moldova, one of the most isolated countries during the Communist years. Both Chemortan and Stefanova point out, however, that despite these difficulties, there exist an immense talent and creativity in a new crop of young directors.
In countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, where Russian culture was imposed on the native population, the sudden freedom from censorship resulted in a boom patriotic theatre. Les Tanyuk's essay "Ukrainian Theatre: On...