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  • Fairy Tale or Subversion?Evgeny Shvarts’s The Dragon as Anti-Stalinist Theatre for Youth
  • Seth Wilson (bio)

Theatre during the Stalin era in the USSR was subject to extreme censorship to meet state standards that created a highly restrictive climate for playwrights. Into this atmosphere, Evgeny Shvarts introduced The Dragon, a children’s play that details the adventures of the knight Lancelot as he battles an evil dragon. In an odd twist, however, after he kills the title villain, Lancelot disappears and a wicked impostor takes over the village he has freed. First published and performed during World War II, the original production diligently attempted to avoid governmental regulation by making all of the promotional material and design elements suggest that the titular dragon was Hitler. Unfortunately, the parallels between the German and Russian dictators were too strong and the show ran afoul of the censors. Stalin was an extremely paranoid person, and he used Soviet bureaucracy to zealously enforce a rigid set of artistic dictates known as socialist realism. Violating the guidelines could result in punishments ranging from repression of artistic material to execution. A decade after Stalin’s death, however, the play would be produced across the country and become extremely popular with audiences. This essay explores The Dragon as a case of political theatre aimed directly at young audiences. The play is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Shvarts never suffered governmental sanction for the play’s barely concealed attacks on Stalin’s management of the country. Shvarts maps his fable about the dangers of totalitarianism onto a familiar fabled story to temper the political undertones of the work. In spite of the cloaked message, the play hints at parallels to three recent national Soviet traumas to criticize Stalin himself as a capricious, abusive leader and Stalinism as a perversion of Marxist thought. Additionally, since the fairy-tale form appeals to young audiences, Shvarts makes [End Page 52] a space for the country’s youth to engage with the political world that surrounds them.

Children’s Theatre, Shvarts, and the Fairy Tale

Children’s culture—and especially theatre—was of central importance to Soviet Russia. At the beginning of the Soviet project, Lenin realized the importance of teaching Russia’s youth about the benefits of the socialist government and offered his full support to nascent children’s theatres across the country. These theatres received huge government subsidies so that they could offer lower ticket prices to enable greater numbers of citizens to attend while still attracting skilled artists. In fact, across Eastern Europe in the Soviet bloc countries, children’s theatre was often more financially lucrative than its adult counterpart. Additionally, theatres that provided primarily children’s entertainment had access to facilities rent-free and received low-cost housing for actors from the government. Any theatres that produced shows primarily for adults were required by law to offer performances for children. In 1937, the state donated space to the Central Children’s Theatre in Theatre Square in Moscow, next to the Bolshoi and Maly Theatres. Giving a children’s theatre a building next to two such impressive icons of Russian theatrical culture doubtless improved the cultural position of the children’s theatre. Indeed, theatre was a key component of the “total education exposure” the state employed to produce loyal, young communists. Because the Soviets believed in the educational value of art and culture, both were heavily regulated by the government. The extensive rules governing artistic production explain the fairy-tale debate in which Evgeny Shvarts participated.1 Cultural production was so central to the Soviet project that literary scholars actively debated the best method for disseminating socialist values. In fact, Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaia introduced the term “vrednost skazki,” meaning “the harmfulness of the fairy tale,” in order to advocate against fantastical elements in cultural products.2 According to the socialist literary theorists, fairy tales were a “remnant of bourgeois ideology and of idealism.”3 Additionally, critics feared that the fantasy elements would overpower the socialist messages in literature for children. The most virulent opponent of fantasy in art, the critic Sofia Lunacharskaia, claimed that fairy tales...


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