Bucharest As An Alternative Space

It may be said about some cities that they are theatrical; that – in other words – they look like a stage set. Take, for instance, Venice or Naples. It may be only an illusion, however, given a host of plays by Goldoni or Eduardo de Filippo whose plots revolve around the streets and plazas of these cities, whence the notion that the respective plazas and streets resemble stage sets. If anything is true about the aforementioned remark, it would be as fair to say that some cities, such as Paris, Rome or small western towns in the US, are cinematographic for the same scenographic reasons, which might be just another illusion to be sure. Bucharest, on the other hand, with its amalgam of styles, periods and successive or concurrent influences, with centuries-old palaces coexisting with drab apartment buildings, postmodernist buildings and humble cottages or mere shacks, appears to be neither theatrical nor cinematographic – or both (should we stretch this comparison), but by turns. For example, the view of laundry hanging between balconies in the streets of southern Italy calls forth a neo-realist foreshortening, whereas the view of clothes hung to dry in Bucharest balconies does not elicit anything; to wit, it is neither cinematographic nor theatrical.This holds true as long as we look upon the city as a setting. Looking from a dramatic rather than from the preeminently scenographic angle, however, one discovers that theater in Bucharest is perceived as a sort of crossroad, a focus of conflict, a symbolic center of gravity. Thus in 1945, after the Romanian army joined the Allied forces, one of the few buildings obliterated by the Luftwaffe was the Bucharest National Theater; it was never rebuilt on the same spot. In 1989, on the night of December 21-22, when the people of Bucharest rebelled against Nicolae Ceauşescu's dictatorship, barricades were set up in the square in front of the National Theater, where the first victims of repression in the capital fell. The same plaza, shared by the National Theater and the University, was the scene of major anticommunist rallies and sit-ins in the summer of 1990, a movement known as "University Square"; the demonstration was crushed between 13-15 June by miners from Valea Jiului called in to "restore order".As in ancient Athens, theater in Bucharest was invested as the political space of the City, a space where passions intersect and catharsis is born. This happened before 1989, over more than four decades of totalitarian regime, when one of the few means of protest, and resistance to dictatorship – however shy, oblique and parable-like it may have been, not to mention its being constantly under surveillance and suspected by the political and ideological authorities of the state and of the "single party" – subsisted in theaters. Performances that crossed over a certain, unseen boundary and seemed dangerous not so much to the political stability of the regime, which considered itself infallible and eternal, but to the "good education" of the public, were outright forbidden – not by anonymous censors, but by the political leaders themselves. Fools Under the Moonlight, by Teodor Mazilu, and The Inspector-General, by Gogol, staged at Lucia Sturdza Bulandra Theater by director Lucian Pintilie, who later became famous in European theater and filmmaking, were removed from the repertory after the premiere – one by future dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, the other by government decree. Along with the ban on The Inspector-General, the great stage director Liviu Ciulei was dismissed from the theater directorship. Following the Ceauşescus' official visit to China and North Korea in 1971, theater repertories underwent further ideological purges, operated by Dumitru Popescu, the dictator's cultural aide. In spite of the persecution against Bucharest theaters, perpetually at the center of relentless attention of political censorship, their houses were always full, with audiences expecting ever new expressions, be it allegorical, of nonconformity. In (literally) frozen theaters, spectators wearing overcoats and hats were receiving with a murmur of satisfaction innuendoes, or simply any similarity to the oppressive reality they had to put up with. I remember the rumor roused among spectators in the eighties by the famous Hamlet line "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Every person in the audience associated the words in the play with the plight of Romania. Certainly, there were not productions with a critical substratum and banned performances alone. Bucharest theaters staged quite a few shows made to fit the so-called "social command" (another word for political command), but it was the national television that reigned supreme in this respect.With the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, the first signs of cultural solidarity with the inhabitants of Bucharest coming from the West were in the theater area. In the spring of 1990, at the initiative of prominent critic George Banu, a Romanian established in Paris, Bucharest hosted a great tour of French companies under the generic title Printemps de la liberté, including famous actors and directors such as Antoine Vitez, Gérard Desarthes and Patrice Chéreau. Later, under the patronage of The British Council and The Ministry of Culture, a series of tours by English companies followed, and a well-known British author, Caryl Churchill, wrote a play about the Romanian revolution, Mad Forest, performed by a group of students on one of the stages of the Bucharest National Theater with significant success.In the first years after dictatorship, Bucharest theaters throve. New executives were appointed, among which Andrei Şerban, a Romanian stage director who became famous in the US and, as Director of the National Theater, reshuffled the company and staged major performances (An Ancient Trilogy, Who Needs Theater? by Canadian Timberlake Wertenbaker, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard), meant not only to change the way of making theater, but also the way of understanding it in Romania. Other Romanian directors who had emigrated now returned home: Liviu Ciulei, Vlad Mugur, Lucian Giurchescu, Alexandru Tocilescu, Alexandru Colpacci, Petre Bokor, Alexander Hausvater, Adrian Lupu, Iulian Vişa, who brought along their experience acquired in various theaters around the world, whose echoes could now be heard on Bucharest stages – especially with Liviu Ciulei's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bulandra Theater), Vlad Mugur's The Liar by Goldoni (Odeon Theater), …They Handcuffed the Flowers by Arrabal and Gypsy Women, after Mircea Eliade, directed by Alexander Hausvater (Odeon Theater), or Alexandru Tocilescu's Antigona by Sophocles (Bulandra Theater). Some of these shows met with strong criticism (The Cherry Orchard, …They Handcuffed the Flowers, Antigona), as the shock which had interrupted a long tradition was still deeply felt. To these performances we may add those by excellent directors who had continued to work in Romania (Silviu Purcărete, Valeriu Moisescu, Cătălina Buzoianu, Ion Cojar, Horea Popescu, Alexandru Darie, Alexandru Dabija, Victor Ioan Frunză, Mihai Măniuţiu, Mircea Cornişteanu, Dinu Cernescu, Alexa Visarion, Tompa Gabor, Nicolae Scarlat, Dan Micu), as well as very young directors who graduated from drama schools after 1989.The need for another kind of dramaturgy could be sensed, which would no longer resort to indirect representations of reality (fable, allusion, allegory), to the metaphoric style entailed, to a certain extent, by the necessity to sneak through the Caudine forks of censorship. In this respect, it was a piecemeal change, the audience itself being wont to (and enjoying) a "slanted" outlook, roundabouts, the "snake's crawl", as the complicity between the stage and the auditorium will stir "strong sensations" in both. And yet a change had to occur. After a brief period of confusion which took the show into the streets (rallies, strikes, repeated brutal miners' raids on Bucharest), spectators went back to the playhouses, only somewhat younger – in the past 5 or 6 years, 80% of the audience consisted of people in their twenties and early thirties. Theater houses are no longer booked to capacity as before 1990 (excepting foreign companies' tours and performances by prestigious actors or directors), but Bucharesters proved again, step by step, their love for theater. What is actually evolving at an unbelievably slow pace is the institutional reform of theaters (both in Bucharest and the rest of the country), the change in old managerial relations, the substitution of the egalitarian principle of "seniority" with that of factual work and value. It is true, a few independent companies emerged in Bucharest (Levant Theater – which, unfortunately, after a few vigorous seasons was left with fewer and fewer financial resources and, consequently, less elan; or, Act Theater, whose presence in the artistic life of Bucharest is being felt more and more), as well as several unconventional spaces (located in former culture houses, bars or public parks), which constitutes a budding de-institutionalization, more bent on seeking alternative financing. Just another reason for me to believe that, even if Bucharest may not be a markedly theatrical space such as Venice or Naples, it tends to become an alternative space filled with talented actors, directors, set designers and spectators, as well as substantial theatricality, be it (for the time being) a dormant one.

by Dumitru Solomon (1932-2003)