The Master and Margarita: Staging for a Post-Cold War Generation
Mikhail "Bulgakov is the most … lovely novelist, so to speak," argued Paata Tsikurishvili, founder and Artistic Director, Synetic Theater, at a 22 November 2010 Kennan Institute event, at which he expounded on his inspiration and strategy for adapting Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita for a recent series of performances at the Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C. Tsikurishvili was joined by Roland L. Reed, Playwright and Writer-in-Residence, Synetic Theater.
"I love Bulgakov," Tsikurishvili noted, "Why?" When justifying his adaptation of The Master and Margarita, he explained that the medium of theater and the genre of the novel "really mesh." Particularly, the incorporation of "fantastic realism, or ‘absurdist approach,'" in Bulgakov's book complements the overall style of the Synetic Theater. Notwithstanding these positive attributes, Tsikurishvili admitted that adapting The Master and Margarita to a "form other than a novel, especially theater," was difficult: the complexity of the novel's storyline made using the standard approach to adapting the book into a theater script "almost impossible to do." However, the Synetic Theater's incorporation of alternative artistic techniques allowed Tsikurishvili and Reed to tell Bulgakov's story "not just through words, but through visuals, through movement, through archetypes."
Reed adapted The Master and Margarita for the Synetic stage; he characterized the book as "an extraordinary, complex novel that involves surrealistic elements." Although the book has a "fairly straightforward, biblical story" at its core, Reed noted that, in fact, "what happens in the story is not traditional at all." Regarding his approach to adapting Bulgakov's novel, Reed could only select major components from the novel for the script; as he said in jest, "it would take twelve years to read the book aloud"—significantly more time than a theatrical performance would allow. In light of the required selectivity, Reed emphasized the importance of delineating between the literary and theatrical forms: "a novel is forever, for individual readers … the theater is something else—the theater is for now."
The contemporaneousness of the theatrical form served as a lens through which Reed crafted the adaptation of The Master and Margarita; in order to craft the script with the present-day audience in mind, Reed explained that he needed to "find from the novel the things that touch us now, as well as the things that touched [Bulgakov] …" However, writing an adaptation with consideration of today's audience, but without compromising the integrity of the original story, posed a challenge to the scriptwriting process. In light of that issue, Reed "tried to find what is current for us; what it is as truthful as possible to Bulgakov; but really … truth rather than accuracy, which is what the arts do."
Further, Tsikurishvili and Reed extrapolated on the demographics of the theatergoers who generally patronize Synetic Theater. As Reed adapted the script for The Master and Margarita with the viewers in mind, it was critical that he acknowledge the diversity of the audience in his writing. Reed noted that Bulgakov's story is "for this generation from a generation that's very different in many ways, but not entirely." As there was a significant gap between the generation that lived during the time The Master and Margarita was written and the patrons of Synetic Theater's performances, Tsikurishvili and Reed incorporated various art forms into the play to address generation-specific nuances in the story. The combination of styles, the speakers noted, also served to communicate Bulgakov's story to the variety of age groups within the audience at Synetic. "The next generation won't see this production," Reed emphasized, "… [T]he theater reflects what's happening today, for us, now. And so more than that, we only expect to live in their hearts, for the people who will see it."
This adaptation of The Master and Margarita was not the first for Synetic Theater; indeed, the company's first rendition of the play was performed in 2004. In considering the differences between his first and second adaptations of the novel, Tsikurishvili concluded that he preferred the newer adaptation over the first version. The 2004 adaptation was a longer version of the story, according to Tsikurishvili, and "had extra information in it for American audiences to explain cultural [differences]." The Soviet-era setting of Bulgakov's novel presented myriad contextual details that Tsikurishvili and Reed needed to address, particularly for a multicultural audience on an American stage. As he was born in the former Soviet Union, Tsikurishvili noted that effectively communicating the cultural nuances of the pre-Cold War period was of personal importance to him. "I experienced dark times," he explained, "and I wanted to put it up on the stage and remind once more … that we are so happy to live in a society that has real freedom."
Consequently, Reed and Tsikurishvili adapted The Master and Margarita for an audience comprised of people who may not have experienced Soviet culture firsthand. "… [I]t's always difficult when something comes from a different culture," noted Tsikurishvili, "and you are not connected with [it]. And I wanted to make sure whatever I put on the stage it flows for everybody." They understood that the varied backgrounds of their audience members could potentially render the story unintelligible if their adaptation was too culturally-specific. Instead, Tsikurishvili opted to incorporate universally-understood ideas: "when you're talking about pain, blood, tragedy—it's all the same; every country is unified." In combining multiple art forms and universal concepts—specifically, dark humor—Tsikurishvili and Reed's adaptation of The Master and Margarita evolved into what Reed described as "a powerful artistic experience for an audience."
By Amy Shannon Liedy
Blair A. Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute