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The Schmooze

‘Making Stalin Laugh’ Finds Humor in Tragedy

Photo: Simon Annand/JW3

The second act of David Schneider’s new play, “Making Stalin Laugh,” opens in 1935, the year the Moscow State Yiddish Theater decided to mount a production of “King Lear” with its legendary director Solomon Mikhoels as the lead. Lear, Mikhoels tells the cast as the party apparatchiki watch over his rehearsal, is a “tragedy about the slow disintegration of a man’s illusions. Illusions don’t shatter overnight,” Mikhoels states, “they wither.”

A comedy within a tragedy, “Making Stalin Laugh” — premiering this month at London’s JW3 — is also about the slow withering of illusion: in this case, the notion held onto by Mikhoels that Jewish culture could survive in a state that saw Yiddish and Judaism as anachronisms, antithetical to revolution and progress.

“Making Stalin Laugh” follows the fate of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater from around the time of its production of “The Travels of Benjamin III” in 1927 until the assassination of Mikhoels by the Ministry for State Security in Minsk in 1948, the closure of the theatre company in 1949, and the Night of the Murdered Poets on August 12, 1952. Having been arrested on charges of espionage and treason, the Soviet Union’s most prominent Yiddish writers were executed as part of Stalin’s wider campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”

“As part of my research for my doctorate in Yiddish at Oxford, I kept coming across this incredible theatre company who influenced and were respected throughout the world by the greats of the time,” said Schneider, whose screen credits include British television comedies “The Day Today” and “I’m Alan Partridge.” “I was fascinated by this company trying to make theater in the most difficult of conditions.”

“It’s as if getting a bad review in the Times could actually lead to your imprisonment or death,” he continued. “And yet the more I read about them, the more they were just actors, getting annoyed about other actors stealing their laughs, having affairs, mucking about, being funny. I loved that idea: the humanity and humour that shines out in the most difficult of circumstances, and I’ve tried to write a play which is really funny as well as moving.”

Taking place for the most part behind-the-scenes in dressing rooms, living rooms, and committee rooms that require a minimum of staging, the engine of “Making Stalin Laugh” is this humanity and humour, the love and conflict between the members of the troupe. The tension in the beginning is over the question of whether it would be best to get out, to defect to the West, while the Yiddish Theater is touring in Berlin.

But Mikhoels — whose vigour, intensity, and sincerity are captured in a commanding performance by Darrell D’Silva — resists and dismisses the notion, and for the rest of the play the difficulty becomes what is or what can be done within the confines of the state’s strictures on the production of art and expression of national or religious identity. “There are different forms of imprisonment,” Esther says. “This country — it’s one big prison,” Nina adds.

“We have to carry on,” Mikhoels implores. “It’s the work — that’s all that counts.” Yet Mikhoels is caught between a desire to propel the Yiddish Theater forward and bring Jewish culture to the people, and the demands of the party to express contemporary ideas that minimise the place of nationality and difference and instruct audiences about revolutionary principles. Mikhoels, for example, shoehorns in a final, ideologically tinged monologue for the protagonist in his production of Dovid Bergelson’s “The Deaf Man,” even though he’s supposed to be deaf and mute. It is a disaster.

This tension between art and state is best highlighted after 1934, when passportization categorises the Jews of the Soviet Union as a nationality and Soviet culture is reoriented to become “national in form and socialist in content.” Mikhoels takes the policy and the revival of national poets and playwrights as a green light to tell Jewish stories set in the Land of Israel, and mounts a production of “Bar Kokhba.” The censor threatens to close it on opening night.

“So random, so arbitrary. The world’s just a barroom brawl,” Mikhoels complains. “All you can do is stand still and hope you don’t get hit.”

After the Great Purge and the Second World War, the position of the Yiddish Theater become all the more precarious. “It’ll pass. We’ve been here before. You feel the noose tighten and then it loosens again,” Mikhoels tells Nina. “Russia is one of the least anti-Semitic countries in the world. Here, everyone gets rounded up and jailed.”

But the noose does tighten: Zhdanovism means the definite end of “national in form, socialist in content,” as all Soviet culture must conform to the party line, while an anti-Semitic terror sweeps the Soviet Union. “Life is so fragile — Jewish life is so fragile — that I have to make things better,” Mikhoels implores. “We have to do this play — it’s what history demands.” But the company can no longer tolerate Mikhoels pushing them. “You still believe in history?” Nina asks. “You might as well believe in God.”

As the slow strangulation of a people and a culture, the fate of the Yiddish Theater as told by Schneider resembles another tragedy borne by European Jewry at the same time. With its emphasis on gradual deterioration, the debate of whether to stay or go, and the persistence of Mikhoels to remain and to live even as catastrophe stares him in the eye, Matthew Lloyd’s production — the sound of a train whistle echoes throughout the second act — cannot help but recall the fate of German Jewry in the years prior to the Second World War.

In his attempt to convey the grand span of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, Schneider’s play curtails certain chapters in its history, and while some characters gain prominence, others become marginalised and weak. The role of Eda — the ingénue and brief love interest of both Mikhoels and Zuskin — is a whiff of a actual person when compared to the fuller female characters in the piece like Nina, with Sandy McDade clearly capturing the various facets of her complex personality.

But it is a brave attempt nonetheless, one that does not come across as didactic, but is both warm and serious, sure in its subject and its intent.

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