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  • Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama
  • Vitaly Chernetsky
Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama. By Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2009; pp. 316. $25.00 paper.

This volume is a comprehensive introduction to innovative Russian drama emerging over the past decade. The book is lucidly written yet makes bold and constructive use of a wide range of theoretical concepts, from anthropology to Lacanian psychoanalysis. To date, drama has been fairly marginalized within the study of Russian literature; thus this volume fills a very important lacuna. While the book's principal focus is on "New Drama" as a specific movement within Russian literature and theatre that emerged around 1999, Beumers and Lipovetsky also provide extensive historical and cultural context for this phenomenon. [End Page 478]

Performing Violence opens with two prefatory essays, one by Kirill Serebrennikov, the theatre director most closely associated with the movement, and the other by Sasha Dugdale, the leading English translator of the plays by New Drama authors. The latter provides an eyewitness account of the birth of the movement, an unforeseen result of a series of seminars sponsored by the British Council in Moscow involving several writers, directors, and other members of London's Royal Court Theatre. These talks, and in particular the introduction of verbatim drama (documentary drama) spurred a surge of interest in the form among young Russian playwrights. Within a few years, what once seemed like tentative experiments of younger authors eager to break the dominance of plays by classic and foreign authors on the contemporary Russian stage coalesced into a heterogeneous though clearly identifiable movement. For the first time in many years, drama, rather than poetry or prose, appeared to be at the forefront of innovation within Russian literature. As Serebrennikov notes in his foreword, the principal accomplishment of New Drama is "the recording of a new linguistic reality"; it "forced the actor to speak the language of today" as heard on the streets of Russia (11). While the phenomenon of New Drama did not spread widely beyond the core group of playwrights and experimental theatre stages, this is the first school of playwriting in Russia to receive international recognition in our time, particularly in Britain, where many of these plays have been staged in recent years.

A dominant feature of New Drama is its neo-naturalist aesthetic, with unprecedented prominence given to representations of violence. New Drama's main thematic preoccupation is the deep crisis of identity that has characterized post-Soviet society. New Drama playwrights' strategies of tackling this problem range from appeals to shared existential experiences and memories, to bold interrogations of the place of the Self vis-à-vis the Other and a return to the in-your-face performance characteristic of the 1920s Soviet avant-garde theatre. Although many of these playwrights reject what they believe to be the dominant features of postmodernism, especially in its consumerist incarnation, Beumers and Lipovetsky disagree, arguing that the hyper-naturalism of the Russian New Drama builds on the foundations of a wide range of postmodernist cultural strategies—and this is particularly pertinent to the carnival of cruelty observable in these plays, and in the eroticized charge manifested in them through such violence.

In their theoretical model, Beumers and Lipovetsky emphasize the ritual aspects of play and the sacralization of theatrical language and space, linking New Drama experiments with the tradition begun by Chekhov and radicalized by Artaud and Genet. Russian New Drama does not seek to represent or reflect life, they assert; instead, it aspires to create a magic/ritual space of performative existence and a special type of communication with the audience. The ubiquitous violence in these works has several functions: first, it demonstrates the disintegration of Soviet social order and the ensuing chaos; second, it reflects a new social reality linked to the redistribution of both symbolic and economic capital; and finally, it points to the sacred by performing the ritual of transgression.

Beumers and Lipovetsky deftly trace the place and logic of violence within Russian culture from the early post-revolutionary days to the years after the collapse of the USSR. In particular, they point...


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