`Master Class' pits composers against authorities
Master Class Play by David Pownall. Directed by Frank Corsaro. Starring Philip Bosco, Len Cariou, Werner Klemperer, Austin Pendleton. The horrific alternates and collides with the comic in David Pownall's ``Master Class,'' at the Roundabout Theatre. British playwright David Pownall imagines a chilling 1948 encounter in which composers Sergei Prokofiev (Werner Klemperer) and Dmitri Shostakovich (Austin Pendleton) are subjected to the rant and bullying of Josef Stalin (Len Cariou) and Andrei Zhdanov (Philip Bosco), Stalin's self-important cultural commissar.Skip to next paragraph
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The Pownall drama recalls an era of purges and liquidations in terms of a long night's ordeal for two of the eminent composers who fell afoul of Soviet artistic ideology. In the actual musicians' union meeting that provides the background for ``Master Class,'' Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Aram Khachaturian were among the six composers chosen for harsh rebuke. They were accused of ``formalist perversions and many undemocratic tendencies. These include atonalism, dissonance, contempt for melody and the use of chaotic and neuropathic discords -- all alien to the artistic tastes of the Soviet people.''
Like others of their contemporaries, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were brought -- at least temporarily -- to heel. But Pownall's primary concern is supposing how these individuals would have acquitted themselves, had a face-to-face meeting with Stalin taken place. In the last analysis, the composers are totally outmatched, if not completely outmanuevered. Meanwhile, they bear poignant witness to the effects of the communist police state's suppression of artistic creativity.
``Master Class'' is a play more of provocative speculations than of deep insights. When Shostakovich reluctantly complies with Stalin's order to ``play me the best thing you have ever written,'' the dictator greets the composer's effort with a Bronx cheer. Prokofiev is scarcely more successful in attempting to prove that the wolf theme in ``Peter and the Wolf'' is genuinely wolflike. Zhdanov and Stalin illustrate their own tastes by breaking out into a folk song followed by a clumsy dance. At one of his more pontifical moments, Stalin opines that music is as important as heavy industry or agriculture.
In a prolonged and sometimes hilarious sequence, Stalin forces Prokofiev and Shostakovich to ``collaborate'' with him and Zhdanov in creating a cantata from a ludicrous poem the dictator admires. By contrast, the play's most devastating scene has Stalin and Zhdanov compete in smashing the discs for which a stunned Prokofiev has been ordered to choose a representative sample of his recorded work.
The impressive performance staged by Frank Corsaro exploits the tensions of the situation. Whatever the surface mood, the undercurrent is one of terror. Threats and insults flow with the vodka.