YSD First Thesis Show Opens . . . The first Yale School of Drama thesis show of 2014-15 goes up this week. Third-year director Sara Holdren presents Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a mercurial and elusive play, metaphysical, satirical, and challenging, involving the Devil’s visit to Moscow under Stalin, the travails of a writer—called simply “the Master”—under a police state, and his love affair with his muse, Margarita, as well as the Master’s ongoing concerns in attempting to stage, without censorship, his theatrical treatment of Yeshua before Pilate—for a society “officially” atheist.
While “common in Russia,” Holdren says, productions of the play—which was written as a novel by Bulgakov and subsequently adapted for stage—are not easy to come by in the U.S. In part, that has to do with the vexed history of the text itself: having begun the work in 1928, Bulgakov burned the first version in despair of its seeing the light of day, then painstakingly rewrote it beginning in 1931, finishing it, essentially, in 1936, though he was still working on it at his death in 1940. A censored version of the novel was published in 1966-67. A complete version appeared in 1973, and the most authoritative version not until 1989. Stage adaptations have been ongoing since 1971. The YSD production uses the adaptation by Edward Kemp, dating from 2004, for a theatrical festival in the UK.
Directing students in YSD propose two possible thesis shows, then one is selected by the committee. Holdren’s other proposal was a better-known Russian classic, Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Why Russians? I asked. After a second, Holdren gave a ready reply: “because of the combination of humor with the fearlessness of their emotional scale.” Holdren values the combined darkness and absurdist humor in their works, which she likened to Beckett. M&M, she points out, “isn’t afraid of unwieldy ideas and unabashed spectacle.” Bulgakov’s masterpiece references another masterpiece—and a very unwieldy “theatrical” work in itself—Goethe’s Faust, and Holdren found inspiration for her project in Goethe’s “Prologue” to his monumental story of a scholar’s pact with the devil for the sake of unfettered experience and knowledge. In the Prologue, a director, a playwright and a comedian (or actor) debate how best to stage such a work, with the director favoring spectacle, the playwright ideas, and the actor, as mediator, insisting on both. That, for Holdren, is what a production of M&M should strive for as well.
The show does involve spectacle: there is the devil and his uncanny retinue—including a giant, talking cat called Behemoth—as well as segments in an unworldly space, and segments set in the Jerusalem of the Master’s play, and segments occurring in the social and political reality of Bulgakov’s time. Holdren feels her production is blessed in its cast, and combines, in her crew and collaborators, “adventurous talents willing to go anywhere,” able to translate all these worlds, ingeniously present in Kemp’s adaptation, to the stage at the Iseman. Holdren says her collaborators are “all I could ask for” and allow her “to work the way I love to work.” I got a peek at the set—which includes a runway up into the stadium seating—and it involves a rotating “turntable” portion, a spiral staircase, and a very modernistic design—recalling the Russian art movement of the Twenties, Constructivism—that may well be the most striking set I’ve seen at the Iseman.
Holdren finds the themes of the play very relevant to our times, in which ideological differences and faith-based differences, as well as racial and historical divides, continue to bedevil mankind. Bulgakov wrote under fear, without the freedom to give his ideas fullest expression in public. His novel is a brave statement in favor of, in Holdren’s view, “compassion and forgiveness,” and of love, not only as the very real love story between the Master and Margarita (who trades her soul to Satan to save the Master’s life), but of “love as a world-saving force.” For Holdren, the play has a “sad happy ending,” and she admits “every time at the end I cry.” The tears, we might say, are not those of mourning or loss, but of commitment to the vision of human possibility, and to our chances for salvation. Like most great world-spanning works in the Western canon, Bulgakov’s play—along with Dante’s Commedia and Goethe’s Faust and Milton’s Paradise Lost—renders the human condition not as tragedy but as a spectacular comedy of ideas and of love.
The Master and Margarita By Mikhail Bulgakov Adapted by Edward Kemp Directed by Sara Holdren
Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Set Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Sound Designer: Sinan Zafar
Yale School of Drama Iseman Theater October 21-25, 2014