29 May 1965[1]

[2] At the 12th season of the Theatre of Nations in Paris, the Bucharest-based Comedy Theatre was a revelation, especially owing to director David Esrig’s participation. Whatever our reservations may be in connection with his vision of Troilus and Cressida, the performance revealed a world-class theatre director. He is the first to be seen here and, apparently, not the only one, if we are to believe the rumours circulating in Bucharest about the emergence of a new generation of theatre directors capable of facing up to international competition.

So, as soon as the straitjacket of socialist realism was shed, talent re-emerged in Romania.

It is the entire Comedy Theatre, therefore, and not only David Esrig, that has caught up with things. First there was Eugène Ionesco’s The Rhinoceroses. The play was staged by Lucian Giurchescu with sufficient cautiousness to cover all meanings, as well as, concurrently, the aesthetic form. The text sounds much less anti-conformist in Romanian because the directorial vision has stopped halfway. However, it is not something we are reproaching Lucian Giurchescu with. In a city like Bucharest, where the Rhinoceroses are still prevailing, we can only assume that the staging of the play has posed all sorts of challenges, of another kind than an aesthetic one. Radu Beligan’s acting is subject to the same nuances, be they a matter of circumstance or not. In opposition to Jean-Luis Barrault’s frightened and overly emphatic gestures (but Barrault’s acting has been nothing if not rhetorical for a long time now) or to Karl Heinz Stroux’s heroic dramatic postures, Radu Beligan showcases the attitude of the common man, neither hero, nor poet, whose resistance to the rhinoceritis epidemic stays clear of excessive stances and even assumes the appearance of resignation. This vision may be convincing and, at any rate, agrees with the temperament of this actor, himself afflicted by rhinoceritis for a long time. Is it an irony or a paradox that it was him that happened to play Béranger? Anyhow, the acting, if not the conscience as well, is remarkable.

Comedy Theatre, Bucharest. Eugène Ionesco: The Rhinoceroses. Director: Lucian Giurchescu, 1964. First, on the right side, the actor Radu Beligan. Courtesy of the Comedy Theatre, the online archive (www.comedie.ro)

The echoes that some lines had in Bucharest might account for the muteness that stroke us. Let us take one single example, namely, the two stagings quoted above. Béranger fights fiercely with the rhinoceroses and throws insults at them with his face turned towards the auditorium, as if it was from there that the danger came. The Bucharest version is the only one in which Béranger, alias Radu Beligan, turns his back to the auditorium and addresses his insults to the back of the stage. If we consider that, on the opening night, all the high party officials, former or current rhinoceroses, were in attendance, we suddenly comprehend that Radu Beligan’s acting had a precise reason.

Comedy Theatre, Bucharest. Evgheny Schwartz: The Shadow. Directed by: David Esrig, 1963. Courtesy of the Comedy Theatre, the online archive (www.comedie.ro)

On the other hand, in Evgheny Schwarz’s The Shadow, the sets and the costumes employed by Ion Popescu-Udriște do not shy away from taking on precise political meanings, and the fable becomes truly unsettling, like all phantasms springing from the imagination of someone who suffered a great deal under the communist rule.

Still, the most significant, as well as the most difficult, confrontation was heralded to be the performance of Troilus and Cressida. Last year in Paris we saw two major performances of this Shakespearean play. Making use of a remarkable set design conceived by René Allio, French director Roger Planchon used his coloured boards so successfully that he managed to turn the war into the main character, thus making up for the extremely modest acting of his ungifted and untrained actors. On the other hand, German director Hans Schalla embraced a more static vision, of which the war continued, nevertheless, to be a part, by means of Schoenbach’s electronic music. Ion Popescu-Udriște’s set design, as well as David Esrig’s staging, stand up to the comparison successfully; however, despite the aesthetic accomplishment, the concept of the staging remains questionable. Clearly, David Esrig has read Jan Kott and has placed the buffoon and buffoonery at the forefront. Thersites is the buffoon. Through his eyes, we can see the city of Troy as a world from which all meanings vanished a long time ago. But clowns, just like madmen, cannot laugh for real. They are not meant, in this play, possibly Shakespeare’s most despairing, to cheer us, but only to sneer. When Thersites spits on the world, he does so because the world is absurd, not because he is in a bad mood, as it were. Or, in Esrig’s case, everything becomes a farce, deprived of the bitter taste of derision.

The “hungry” night in the Shakesperean tragedy does not fall over the Bucharest performance. However, whatever his vision, David Esrig can be credited with having carried it through with genuine artistic seriousness.

Comedy Theatre, Bucharest. Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida. Director: David Esrig, 1965. In the foreground, the actor Gheorghe Dinică as Thersites. Courtesy of the Comedy Theatre, the online archive (www.comedie.ro)

22 May 1969[3]

There is nothing paradoxical in the claim that the greatest homage one can pay to a classic author is to show one’s disrespect towards him/her. This statement becomes even less paradoxical if we immediately add that the disrespect is directed not against the text itself, but against the tradition that froze it in an inherited form. The overlapping of the gazes of several generations drives the text away from us, covers it with dust, drowns it in the myriad everyday details of an era which is not, which can no longer be, ours. It takes it out of literature in order to introduce it in literary history. It pertains to the generosity of any major work to put up with, even to demand, its being stripped of all this superstructure which amounts, above all, to a lazy unwillingness to think without the prosthesis of all the criticisms crystallised over time, between the birth of the work and the point in time when we came into contact with it.

This disrespect is an asset that the current critique in modern Western theatre has actually earned. There are, on the one hand, temples of tradition, museums by means of which this superstructure continues to subsist, enabling us to distance ourselves from it; and there are, on the other hand, the living critique and the living theatre, which solely survive on this fertile disrespect. This matter would not be worth mentioning, hadn’t we realised that in Romania, where traditions are of a more recent date, shaking them comes up against increased difficulties. We have been able to note this on two occasions. The first was the publication of Ion Negoițescu’s exciting study on Eminescu, which was regarded as sacrilege by many. The second was the Paris performance of Caragiale’s play D’ale Carnavalului [Carnival Scenes], directed by Lucian Pintilie, in the context of the Theatre of Nations. Another critic, Matei Călinescu, summed up the gist of this particular performance when he wrote: “I do believe that the most complex form of critique of playwrighting remains the performance, and that a director, by using his specific means of communication, his special system of symbols, is, essentially, an essayist. Consequently, Lucian Pintilie has written an essay on D’ale Carnavalului.

Lucian Pintilie’s “essay” corresponds to a new reading of Caragiale. The text of the play is effectively doubled by a second text, of objects and gestures, possibly denser than the first. We are not referring to Caragiale’s talent here, but to the vaudeville structure of the play, which allowed its being used for a long time as a pretext for showing off great acting skills. But the second text, written by Lucian Pintilie, endows the play with its human qualities. It is not a doubling or an overloading, but, on the contrary, a stripping. These puppets, completely engulfed in language clichés, lost in the sharp baseness of the slums, acquire their silver lining of suffering. The void is, therefore, able to conceal genuine pain, and laughter little by little becomes guilty. It is as if a mockery of mockery was meant to open our eyes. Nothing shines any more on the inclined, dusty plane of the slum’s café: human foolishness, everyday chatter play a carnival hora with authenticity. There is no question of a drama here, not for a moment. Lucian Pintilie refrains from dramatising; on the contrary, he modernises. Also, to that end, he does not resort to shallow means, which, at the beginning of the century consisted in dressing the characters in a modern outfit to update them. In Lucian Pintilie’s case, only the gaze is modern, and so poignant that, we must confess, it will be hard for us for a long time from now on to read D’ale Carnavalului without living that obsession of the water constantly being spilled on the floor, without hearing the score accompanying the text (the voices are dealt with musically, and so are the lines), without seeing the film of all the gestures transforming quasi-non-existent spectres in real characters. Inventiveness is continuous and constantly necessary, which is a rare occurrence. The same view governs character building. All the actors are excellent; but then, we were used to the Romanian acting school being an exceptional one. What we had not witnessed so far and what we have the fortune of witnessing now, thanks to the younger generation, is a director with a vision, and not just a director guiding actors. David Esrig was the first that we were able to see in the West with Troilus and Cressida. His reading of Shakespeare was modern, but difficult to separate from that of Jan Kott (which does not diminish in any way the value of the performance). Lucian Pintilie, on the other hand, was supported by no one in his—successful—attempt at not shaking the dust off Caragiale. Ever since his first film, Duminică la ora 6 [Sunday at Six O’Clock], we were able to see that, despite a frequently embarrassing script, the camera “was gazing,” along with him, for the first time in Romania.

Lucian Pintilie’s second film, Reconstituirea [The Reenactment], to be presented in the context of the same Theatre of Nations and included in the poster of the Theatre of the Cité Universitaire in Paris, was not meant to be seen by us, simply because it did not arrive or, according to the information communicated by the Theatre secretariat by telephone, it had been forbidden. However, we are not discussing the censorship in Bucharest now, but the fact that, in both cinema and theatre, Lucian Pintilie breaks all established rules.

Parisian critics have not praised D’ale Carnavalului as much as they should have, for a very simple reason. Since they were not acquainted with how Caragiale was staged before Lucian Pintilie, they failed to grasp the revolution in stage design that he carried out in respect of Caragiale’s plays. What the critics the from Seine’s waterfront were, however, able to discern was a certain “kinship” to Strehler and Piccolo Teatro di Milano; but this was not even the greatest quality of his direction. In fact, the young Romanian theatre directors first came into contact with the Western experience beginning with Strehler and Peter Brook. Since then—we are living at a time when history is speeding up; the artistic avant-garde, at any rate, definitely is—these references themselves have become “classics.” What the young generation of Romanian directors is putting together now, the Western theatre direction is striving to undo, by resorting to the more or less successful format of the happening or, at least, by reconsidering the scenic space or the relationship between spectator and performance. It remains to be seen how the even younger generation of Romanian directors will react to this wave of denial. Until then, after seeing Lucian Pintilie’s performance, we can rest assured of one thing: theatre directing, in Romania, has reached the stage of full maturity, or, as Matei Călinescu put it, the essay stage.

12 October 1972

When Virgil Cândea stated, during the round table organised by the French radio station along with the Bucharest one, that censorship did not exist in Romania, I imagined that such a response, voided by its very absurdity, could only be reserved for external use, as in Romania it risked provoking a universal laugh. But I was destined to have once more the revelation that ridicule does not kill, in Bucharest. Indeed, the Council of Culture and Socialist Education, in its endeavour to suppress Lucian Pintilie’s staging of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, invoked certain “reactions of the public” which were just as imaginary as Virgil Cândea’s typographers, in charge of supervising the socialist order.

Let us leave ridicule aside, although it does reach the exact proportions of that depicted in The Government Inspector (which are not comic, but terrifying), to note that banning Lucian Pintilie’s performance transgresses the limits—already harmful—implied by the suspension of any act whatsoever. It is clear (and another interdiction from the past comes to prove this, i.e. that concerning Lucian Pintilie’s film, Reconstituirea), that the authorities are systematically trying to repress one of the greatest talents in Romanian theatre.

Naturally, I didn’t see The Government Inspector, but I did see D’ale Carnavalului. I read the first reactions to The Government Inspector and I was able to realise, even from a distance, that the show must surpass, in its tense lucidity and vast critical vision, any other plays staged by Lucian Pintilie, amounting to a qualitative leap of the Romanian stage. This is what Liviu Ciulei tells us in România literară, seeing The Government Inspector as “the milestone marking the moment of full maturity of Romanian theatre,” and adding: “This performance might be building the most perfect spiritual dome ever to be encountered in a Romanian act until now.” At least Ana Blandiana told us so, aware that she found in Lucian Pintilie not only a theatre or film director, but one of those creators who are capable of spiritually enriching a culture. Ana Blandiana mentions the public’s ovations on the opening night. If the performance was greeted with ovations, how come it was banned on account of the public’s outrage? Or is outrage, in Bucharest, expressed through endless applauses? According to Ana Blandiana, “One can write piles of books reviewing every sequence of this performance, staged by one of the greatest artists in the history of our spirituality; a great artist in full creative maturity, who is only enriched by the passing years and compelled, by them, to express himself. I remained in the stalls unwilling to leave, to tear myself away from that place, after the last ovations celebrating this show died away, pondering how unfairly the tools of the trade were distributed, upon the creation of this world: while the writer only needs a pencil and paper to write his masterpiece, the director needs trust, the immense trust which is called, in the less pathetic language of everyday life, a theatre stage or a film set.”

These are exactly the working tools that Lucian Pintilie is denied in Romania. Why that is so, we can infer after reading Matei Călinescu’s article. He says that, by taking this leap into the fantastic, Lucian Pintilie ceases to propose a mere unmasking of corruption, but a meditation on it; not a denunciation of the lie, but a philosophy of it. “The infinite mediocrity of the lie which is the secret of its capacity to proliferate” is mirrored in the mediocrity of the devil. When Lucian Pintilie urges us to see in Khlestakov the Devil itself, he continues a Gogolian tradition, according to Matei Călinescu, and illustrates Merezhkovsky’s thesis of evil as a fruit of mediocrity. However, we must add, when Lucian Pintilie turns the end of The Government Inspector into an apocalypse, he observes not only a concealed meaning of Gogol’s play, but also stays loyal to himself. We have also witnessed this in Reconstituirea and in D’ale Carnavalului: for Lucian Pintilie, stupidity, mediocrity, slothful thinking always result in a tragic outcome, in an apocalypse that is more or less local, according to the force of the ridicule. The grotesque also existed in Caragiale’s work; it was commensurate with our dismal, insignificant slums. It also crawled slowly and inexorably towards murder in The Reenactment. In The Government Inspector, it finally takes on the features of the fantastic. The habit of lying and mediocrity results in more severe outcomes than outright fear.

Therefore, all performances of The Government Inspector have been suspended, although the play had been granted all censorship endorsements until the opening night.

Presented in a milder tone on the occasion of the Writers’ Conference, “The July Theses” were not, however, renounced; a system of repression of the seemingly dangerous values is being enforced in their name. This is not about one separate case. Everything is bound together in a coherent system of hypocrisy. At the same time, the “Romania” Association has been set up in Bucharest, in order to bring back to the country from exile those individuals who represent cultural values. But to what country? A country where cultural values are doomed to an internal exile?

Monica Lovinescu (1923, Bucharest—2008, Paris) was a journalist and literary critic, as well as an important voice of Romanian exile. After graduating from the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Letters in 1946, she contributed with literary and theatre reviews to various publications such as Revista Fundaţiilor RegaleKalende or Vremea. She was Camil Petrescu’s assistant at the Dramatic Art Seminar. In 1947 she won a scholarship granted by the French state and left for Paris, where she applied for political asylum after king Michael I’s abdication. During her first years of exile, she translated under a pseudonym several books from Romanian into French, had a number of theatre staging attempts and, together with Eugène Ionesco, translated some of Caragiale’s plays. She authored the chapter on the Romanian theatre included in Histoire des spectacles (Paris: Gallimard, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, 1965). In 1951, Monica Lovinescu began her radio broadcasting career, first at the Radiodiffusion Française, and subsequently at Radio Free Europe, between 1962 and 1992, where she conducted the weekly radio shows Actualitatea culturală românească [Current Cultural Events in Romania] and  Teze și antiteze la Paris [Theses and Antitheses in Paris]. She was a tireless presence in the intellectual circles of the Romanian diaspora, permanently connected to what went on in the country and concerned with the fate of Romanian culture in general and Romanian literature in particular. Her radio chronicles were listened with great interest in Romania. After 1990, Humanitas Publishing House initiated the publication of Monica Lovinescu’s books. The first to be published were her radio chronicles (six volumes published under the title Unde scurte [Shortwaves]), an “indirect journal,” “kept in a loud voice,” as she used to say herself, followed by other memoirs.