New York — Can a tragicomic Russian satire of the 1920s -- banned in the Soviet Union since Stalin's day -- find success on Broadway in the 1980s? Final returns are not in on Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide" at the ANTA Theater. British star Derek Jacobi has been hailed for his brilliant performance as a Russian Everyman who decides to end it all rather than go on enduring his oppressive life. Critical reaction to the play itself has been generally favorable. Without doubt, "The Suicide" is a work of theatrical, historical, and social significance.
The saga of "The Suicide" begins more than 50 years ago. Erdman, then in his 20s, had scored a huge hit with his initial play, "The Mandate." The then commissar for culture called the comedy "the first truly Soviet play," and Maxim Gorky dubbed Erdman "our new Gogol." When "The Suicide" came along, three leading Moscow theaters competed to do it.
Before launching a production at the Moscow Art Theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky took the precaution of sending a script to Stalin. That Kremlin critic responded: "I do not have a very high opinion of the play . . . My closest comrades consider it empty and even harmful." Nevertheless, the play was not immediately banned. In 1932, however, after 18 months of rehearsal under Vsevolod Meyerhold, the central licensing board refused permission to open "The Suicide."
Erdman apparently was not arrested or sent to a labor camp, but (according to some notes in the ANTA Playbill) he suffered unmistakable disfavor, including periods of internal exile. Although "the new Gogol" lived until 1970, he never wrote another play.
Here are some of the quips and jibes the Kremlin rulers have found continuingly offensive for nearly half a century.
When the hero Senya's upstairs neighbor assures the would-be suicide that "life is beautiful," Senya replies: "I've read that in Pravda too, but I hear there's going to be a retraction."
Aristarkh (a forlorn but florid intellectual) exhorts the guests assembled for Senya's going away party: "Remember how it was in the old days, comrades? In the old days people with ideas were willing to die for them. But now people with ideas want to live. How should we deal with this dilemma? What we need is a committedm corpse."
When Aristarkh solemnly reminds the company that they are gathered to send off Senya to "a better world," another character pipes up: "You mean he's going to Paris?" Later, a rigorously doctrinaire member of the group informs his comrades: "As soon as I feel the attraction of Paris . . . I look at it from the Marxist viewpoint and the attraction disappears."
Near the end of the play, Senya decides to telephone the Kremlin. Connected, he asks to speak to "somebody at the top." And: "Nobody there? Well then, take a message, tell them that I've read Marx and I don't like him." When the Kremlin hangs up on him, Senya concludes: "They're scared. Frightened to death of me."
As the fantasy nears its climax, Erdman strikes a more impassioned and heartfelt tone when Senya cries out:
"Dear God! We've never done anything against the Revolution. Our biggest sin is to talk among ourselves about how hard it is to live. Just saying it's hard makes it easier. In God's name, don't deprive us of our last means of survival. Allow us to say it's hard for us to live.Even if it's just in a whisper . . . Consider, I ask you in the name of millions of people, 'Give us the right to whisper.' You won't even hear it drowning all your construction of socialism. We will live our whole lives in a whisper."
"The Suicide" has opened here at a time of particular cultural and social ferment in the communist world. Trade unionism independent of the state has been won by Polish workers.In the Soviet Union the halting rehabilitation of Boris Pasternak, one of his nation's great poets and author of "Doctor Zhivago," has moved another step forward.
By coincidence, last month's Novy Mir tribute to Pasternak appeared not long after the publication here of "The Nobel Prize," by Russian emigre novelist Yuri Krotkov. This absorbing novel deals with the ruthless measures taken by the Khrushchev regime to force Pasternak to refuse the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. Krotkov is one of the long and growing list of Soviet writers who have been expelled or have chosen exile in the West.
Which brings us back to Broadway and "The Suicide." In an ironic footnote to the drama of the times, director Jonas Jurasas (along with his wife, a literary editor, and their son) was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. The expulsion followed two years of unemployment which began when Jurasas protested to the Ministry of Culture over the banning of his production of "Macbeth."
When may Moscow audiences expect to see the delayed premiere of "The Suicide?" Only when all the Senyas of the great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics can claim the human right to shout out loud instead of living their whole lives in a whisper.