In recent years, the literature dedicated to the cultural exchanges taking place during the Cold War has abandoned the bipolar paradigm (USSR versus USA) expanding its scope to also include the contribution of the countries from the former Socialist Bloc. The years that followed Stalin’s death brought massive changes in Eastern Europe, generating significant developments, especially after 1956. By 1969, when the symposium dedicated to the training of the young theatre director was held in Bucharest, theatre practitioners in Romania had already been exposed to the international scene, either via several theatre companies touring the country such as Théâtre de l’Atelier (1956), The Royal Shakespeare Company (1964) or Odéon—Théâtre de France (1965), or through participations in various projects such as those organised by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), an organisation whose primary goal was to overcome ideological divides through the performing arts. Such transnational exchanges were carefully controlled by the ideological officers in charge, a fact which nevertheless, does not render them any less relevant to the local context. These external influences left their mark on the Romanian theatre culture and are testimonies of the cultural circulation between the East and the West, calling into question previous notions on the permeability of the Iron Curtain. In fact, historian György Péteri put forward the term “nylon curtain” in order to theorise the reality of the trans-ideological exchanges that characterised cultural production during the Cold War.
Consequently, the history of Romanian theatre during this period cannot be written only in national context, requiring a constant regional comparison along the East-West axis (to which the interactions between the former socialist states and those from the Global South could be added) especially after 1956, when the national theatre opened up to the international scene, with the goal of being recognised by the latter as a relevant theatrical culture. The process in question was not confined to merely showcasing local productions beyond the borders of the Socialist Bloc or to the enthusiastic reception of those coming from outside it. It also had a considerable impact on theatre practices within the country. In order to prove the relevance of these connections, I shall take as a case study and at the same time as a vehicle for their analysis in the broader context of the détente in Europe (), the symposium for the training of the young theatre director, organised by ITI in Bucharest in June 1969.
The international meeting dedicated to the professional development of the young theatre director was not the first Romanian participation in an ITI event, nor was it the only one marked by the tensions inherent to such a meeting. In fact, the history of the internationalisation of Romanian theatre began with an initiative sponsored by this institution and was defined (at least until the end of the 1960s) by activities and projects such as the Theatre of Nations Festival, the Theatre of Nations University or the various international study committees including, among others, those dedicated to the training of young actors and of young theatre directors. In terms of East-West – theatre exchanges, 1969 was possibly one of the most effervescent years in the history of Romanian cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. The Comedy Theatre brought on the Finish stage Alexandru Mirodan’s and Eugen Ionescu’s plays; Dinu Cernescu participated at the Nancy Festival with Viziuni Flamande [Flemish Visions]. The most widely covered events in the national and foreign media, however, were the participation of the Bulandra Theatre at the Theatre of Nations Festival, the Romanian representatives’ attendance at the 13th ITI Congress held in Budapest and the organisation of the seminar dedicated to the training of young theatre directors. In Bucharest, the enthusiastic statements made by foreign participants were reproduced in extenso in various local newspapers and magazines, proving the regime’s attempt to fix a narrative that could illustrate the superiority of the Romanian school and the advantages of the socialist culture as a whole. Although it was closely monitored, the event managed nevertheless to expose the new generation of directors to ideas and contexts that they would not have had access to otherwise , giving them the opportunity to advocate their ideas and approaches within an international debate on the theatre director’s role and duties. The discussions held at the event, and the way it played out emphasised the regime’s readiness to accommodate the ITI symposium precisely because of the significant benefits it could generate for Romania in the sphere of cultural diplomacy.
Organised by the Romanian National ITI Centre and the Association for Theatre Practitioners from Theatre and Music Institutions (ATM) between 15 and 22 June, the symposium dedicated to the training of the young theatre director brought together delegates from 28 countries from Europe, North America, Central America and Asia. The event, which had been discussed in depth with the representatives of ITI and approved by high officials in Bucharest, followed the structure of previous events. Between 1963 and 1967 the series of symposiums dedicated to the training of young actors had established a working methodology, which was also used for the 1969 event: discussions based on performances by various theatre schools in order to ensure multiple illustrations of the theme of the meeting. On the occasion of all the events mentioned above, the participants visited the local specialised education institutions and were invited to see productions of the ongoing season or premieres prepared specifically for the meeting. Several schools were invited to Bucharest to present case-study performances alongside the hosts: the North-American school (a group of seven students from the Kansas University led by Frederik Litto), the Soviet school (14 actors of the Sovremennik Theatre led by Oleg Yefremov) and the Czechoslovak school, represented by the Dramatic Theatre of Ostrava, with an ensemble of 25 performers led by director Pavel Hradil. The first two days of the symposium were dedicated to the young theatre director. Fragments from The Tempest, directed by Constantin Marinescu, and Cătălina Buzoianu’s The Bacchantes, were discussed in the context of an extensive talk delivered by Radu Penciulescu on the first day. The performance The American Dream, staged by the American student Bruce Levitt, was discussed the second day. Andrei Șerban’s and Anca Ovanez’s approaches and statements, just like those of Yefremov, Hradil or Cernescu, triggered passionate contradictory debates in the following days. In their comments, theatre practitioners such as Ellen Stewart, Arnold Wesker or Harold Clurman placed directorial approaches presented at the symposium into the broader context of the discussions held during the ITI congress in Budapest and of the new tendencies in contemporary theatre. Innovative approaches were forcefully and brilliantly illustrated during the meeting by representatives of the Western theatre such as Charles Marowitz.
Throughout the event, a press office operated, an informative bulletin was printed daily, summaries of the Romanian plays being performed were translated and a brochure on the evolution of contemporary Romanian theatre directing was published in French as supplement of the Teatrul journal. Beside the productions illustrating different approaches, the attendees were also able to see Manole the Master Builder (Giuleşti Theatre), directed by Dinu Cernescu, The Good Person of Szechwan (Youth Theatre, Piatra Neamţ), directed by Andrei Șerban, The Seasons (Matei Millo Theatre, Timişoara), directed by Aurel Manea, The Cherry Orchard (Bulandra Theatre), directed by Lucian Pintilie, Danton’s Death (Bulandra Theatre), directed by Liviu Ciulei, Rameau’s Nephew (Bulandra Theatre), directed by David Esrig, Victims of Duty (Bulandra Theatre), directed by Crin Teodorescu, The Caretaker (The Little Theatre), directed by Ivan Helmer.
At first glance, this context seems highly implausible, especially when considering the institutional history of the Bucharest directing department over the preceding decade. A document in the archive of the Ministry of Culture made a passing reference to this state of affairs, arguing that the choice of plays and of symposium speakers was conditioned by it. The reopening of the department in 1963, after almost a decade of inactivity, placed the hosts in a difficult position. In the good socialist tradition of refashioning a challenging narrative, the ups and downs of this institutional history were elegantly bypassed in official statements.. Furthermore, the presentation delivered by theatre critic Valentin Silvestru at the symposium focused on the argument of continuity of the Romanian directing school, seamlessly connecting the interwar period to the most recent directorial ventures. Naturally, all these assertions were comfortably upheld by the effervescent international activity of directors such as Liviu Ciulei, David Esrig, Lucian Giurchescu or Dinu Cernescu. In 1964, when the Romanian theatre institutions showed themselves for the first time to Western eyes, on the occasion of the second symposium dedicated to the training of the young theatre actor, the West enthusiastically discovered David Esrig as well as actors Gheorghe Dinică and Radu Beligan. That first interaction preceded the success of the Comedy Theatre at the Theatre of Nations Festival in 1965 and should be mentioned for the role it played in making that success a reality.
Between 1964 and 1969 the representatives of the Romanian theatre avant-garde became well-known internationally thanks to ITI projects, and the 1969 symposium organised in Bucharest followed the same pattern. In an article published in Theater Heute, the author described in detail the “revolution sneaking in” [sic] on the Romanian stage, proposing Beligan and Ciulei as the forerunners of the young avant-garde on the international scene. The author introduced Ciulei’s “architectural theatre” by also resorting to the example of the performance Danton’s Death, which had been staged by the Romanian director at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin a year before. The article underlined the director’s affinity to the German cultural space and commended his managerial vision, illustrated by his decision to surround himself with young innovators like Esrig and Pintilie. Esrig’s theatre conveyed, to the German author, cautious ideological engagement; Pintilie’s theatre suggested a new and uncompromising realism.
Although the assertion concerning Ciulei does not take one by surprise, that concerning Beligan requires contextualisation. Since 1961, Radu Beligan had been a constant attendee at ITI meetings, taking part in the most recent international theatre debates. Consequently, Beligan was acutely aware of the path Romanian theatre had to take in order to readjust itself after the Stalinist experience. His international career cannot be separated from the status he pursued and subsequently gained in the country during those years (in 1959 he submitted his application for party membership, and in 1964 he was already the director of the Comedy Theatre and the president of the Romanian ITI Centre). In parallel, during the 1960s, his acting prowess managed to convince the international community. In 1964, when he played Béranger in The Rhinoceroses on the stage of the Comedy Theatre, the first play by Ionescu to be performed on the Romanian stage, Beligan gained the unanimous admiration of the ITI members attending the symposium. This acme of his career was preceded by worldwide recognition in other contexts, such as the tours of the National Theatre in Paris and Venice. Also, the official decision to set up the Comedy Theatre under Beligan’s direction was to be relevant for the international acclaim this actor would receive. The artistic programme developed during the first decade of the institution proves that Beligan was committed to i innovation in the theatre. In 1964, in the context of the debates held in Bucharest on the role of improvisation in the actor’s training, Radu Beligan clearly stated that the emphasis in the curriculum should be shifted towards training the body, thus placing the Romanian school on the Western side of the debates. Beligan’s statement puts in perspective the invitation he extended to stage movement teacher Paule Sibille to embark on a constant collaboration with the team of the Comedy Theatre, pointing thus to a new direction in the local theatre. The success enjoyed by the performance The Shadow, directed by David Esrig, the first production for which Paule Sibille worked with this theatre’s actors, preceded the invitation.
The influence of the ITI events on Romanian theatre practitioners may be noticed in other cases as well. Ștefan Tapalagă, an actor of the Comedy Theatre, attended the stage movement courses at the school run by Jacques Lecocq, one of the participants at the 1964 ITI colloquium. Upon returning to Romania, he used that experience to teach a course attended by his colleagues at ATM and thereafter at the Nottara Theatre and in some other theatres across the country. The context in 1964 was not very different from that existing in 1969, on the contrary, it paved the way for the latter, establishing a genealogy of local innovation through the international circulation of ideas. In 1964 and 1965, Esrig gained international recognition via ITI with the Comedy Theatre productions such as The Shadow (1963) and Troilus and Cressida (1965) triggering comparisons with Peter Brook in the foreign press. This recognition led to a number of tours that would bring him absolute visibility in the European theatre before 1969. The same can be said about Rameau’s Nephew (1968) at Bulandra, possibly the most frequently mentioned adaptation throughout the duration of the 1969 symposium. West German critic Joakim Preuss thought that Esrig’s play deserved a foreign tour. American critic Henry Popkin also referred to his first encounter with “this genius” director in 1965, as well as to his activity at Bulandra Theatre, which in 1969 had become the first stage of the country. Andrei Șerban’s productions Iona (1969) and The Good Person of Szechwuan (1968) also drew attention. Iona was a surprise also because the foreign guests saw in Marin Sorescu’s text certain similarities to Samuel Beckett, an author not yet staged in Bucharest. The enthusiastic reactions to this play triggered promises for future adaptations in France and Italy and a possible publication of the play in Germany. The same Preuss called The Cherry Orchard a theatre event and drew attention to Crin Teodorescu’s, Victims of Duty. During the symposium Ellen Stewart informed on Ecaterina Oproiu’s play, I Am Not the Eiffel Tower, being staged at La MaMa (New York). This is also the context that helps us better understand the circumstances that led to Andrei Șerban being invited to work at this American theatre, where he was to embark on a well-known international career.
The discussions held after the performances and throughout the symposium revealed the specificity of the Romanian theatre. Its pointed difference from the Soviet, as well as from the Western model, proposed in 1969, a style that was instantly recognisable. In his article in The Times Saturday Review, Henry Popkin stated that Bucharest was not one of the capitals of world theatre on account of the contemporary plays being staged—Budapest had overtaken it in that respect—but on account of its stunning way of staging old ones. Even though the Romanian approach was not unanimously appreciated during the symposium, with several guests, like the Canadian Jean Louis Roux, underlining that the plethora of visual techniques could also generate standardized performances, the Romanian theatre avant-garde did have a relevant impact. As a consequence, Romanian stage directors asserted themselves worldwide in the coming decade despite the ideological changes which would result in the regime’s return to hard-line cultural policies.
This brief contextualisation of the symposium dedicated to the training of the young theatre director operates as a case in point for a historiographical approach, bringing concise arguments in favour of a reinterpretation that should emphasise both the relevance of the internationalisation of the Romanian theatre culture during the Cold War and the impact it had on the local community of experts. Thus, looking at the neo-avant-garde theatre entails not only the recuperation of an interwar tradition during post-Stalinism out of a desire to liberate oneself from the constraints of naturalism, but also a reaction to debates and trends coming from within as well as from outside the Socialist Bloc. The originality of the representatives of this wave of theatre directors in the cultural landscape of the Cold War resides in a set of influences that they appropriated and tested tirelessly while being subjected to constant ideological pressure. The symposium organised in Bucharest in 1969 captured the climax of a history that disclosed not only the entire process whereby the director ended up becoming the central figure in Romanian theatre, but also the international framework which had enabled such a transformation.
Viviana Iacob is postdoctoral fellow at the Center of Advanced Studies in Sofia.