I was recently fortunate to attend a performance of Rustem Galitch of The Demon at Theater on St. Mark's, directed by Igor Konyukhov with set and costumes by Olga Maslova and featuring the Georgian dance troupe Pesvebi.
And that's just it -- I had expected an evening of dramatic declamation of poetry where I'd struggle to keep up (although I'm fluent in Russian) -- but I got way more than I bargained for. It turns out that Rustem's idea of a poetry reading is in fact a play, or rather a musical -- actually dramatic action with swordplay, even -- and majestic Caucasian dancing by the Pesvebi Georgian Dance Ensemble. It's quite amazing!
Those of you who know Russians and more so if you know the Russian language, you will know that unlike Americans, Russians can recite reams of poetry -- they learn to memorize it in school, but also they just know and like poetry and memorize it on their own. It's quite extraordinary to Americans who are lucky if they can struggle through even one stanza of William Allingham's The Fairies ("Up the airy mountain/down the rushy glen/We dare not go a'hunting/for fear of little men") let alone Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" ("Half a league, half a league/half a league onward/All in the valley of death/rode the six hundred.")
So Galitch has not only memorized The Demon, but memorized it to enact it as a shaped, vibrant thing together with dancers who bring it to life as an exotic force.
A strong memory for me of Joseph Brodsky in New York City is him reciting a poem in a Soho art gallery in that dramatic Russian style, proclaiming mournfully, "Proplyvayut oblaka, proplyvayut oblyka" while a throng of Brighton Beach types stood outside the gallery, gabbing and smoking. You couldn't even get in, so it meant standing outside and hearing that sad drama. ("The clouds are sailing, the clouds are sailing" which is actually translated better as "Drifting Cloud" although that happens to be an illiterate translation as a whole).
We had read Lermontov in 2nd year Russian in university, in both Russian and English, but it was Hero of Our Time and The Tale, not the Demon so I was not very familiar with it. In fact The Demon was banned in the tsar's day, and hasn't been published until recently in Russian and translated into other languages. I'm not sure what the Soviet attitude to this work was per se (A Hero of Our Time wasn't banned) but maybe it wasn't "life-affirming").
But every Russian knows this story and knows and loves Lermontov, even the Caucasians who might not appreciate Russian imperialism very much. Recently, as I wrote, a group of Russian and foreign journalists covering the outrages in Kadyrov's Chechnya were attacked by a group of Chechen thugs on the border of Chechnya and Ingushetia. Ingush police in fact came to rescue them, and as the journalists, some of them badly wounded, gave their accounts at the precinct, the policemen, apparently finding resonance in the journalists' tale with Lermontov's work, recited stanzas from The Novice (Mtsyri), finishing each other's lines (it's a tale about a young Georgian boy attacked in the mountains and captured by a Russian general, who then turns him over to monks to be raised in isolation. He tries to escape and then resigns himself to his fate; there is that same theme of embracing evil to transform it to good.
The Demon is also set in the Caucasus and involves a character who might appear in Faust, Satan himself, who broods over the craggy mountains to which he is drawn for their beauty and who is jealous of the happiness of mortals, until his eye falls on the Georgian Princess Tamara dwelling in a mountain village.
Tamara is joyfully awaiting her wedding day, oblivious to impending doom but the Demon, envious, decides to ruin it. He instigates an attack on her bridegroom who is galloping through the mountain towards his beloved and their wedding, and he kills him. The groom's horse arrives in the village with his master's lifeless body in the saddle.
Tamara, grieving and harassed by the Demon, seeks refuge in a convent. Yet the Demon convinces her to feel sorry for him, continues to seduce her and ultimately she dies in his embrace. This is a theme that has inspired a number of famous Russian paintings, such as that of Konstantin Makovsky (1889)
Theater on St. Mark's is not a huge theater although larger than La Mama it is not as large as the Public. When you first see the darkened stage and just drapes and a few boxes, you think it's going to be stark, minimalist, even.
And truly, it is like a sudden cold shower to realize instantly you are witness -- participant -- in a real human performance, where in fact mere boxes can evoke the majestic Caucasus mountains and where you come to believe you are in a real Georgian village. You realize what a mediated existence you live -- "the Society of the Spectacle" -- where you spend so many hours at the computer screen all day, only to switch to the phone screen and at best, slip a Google cardboard over the end of your phone to feel as if you are "there" in a virtual-reality film.
But you aren't there, and you are only there in the theater in the round, with the real human voice and authentic human presence and the vibrancy of human gestures and even dance. This is real.
The Georgian dance troupe Pesvebi comes in at all the right moments as if Lermontov cued them -- at first I felt puzzled by their lezginka dance as if it were "off" but I realized that's because I am most familiar with the Chechen lezginka, which is a different style that Georgians' lezginka and other dances. The costumes are gorgeous and you feel as if the choreographer must have been the Left-handed Craftsman working with this relatively small space, fitting these exotic dances and swordfights on a dime. They do not land in your laps; they might. If you have been lulled to sleep by Galitch's mellifluous poetry recitation, they will ensure that you wake up and follow the plot.
I should explain that the performance is musical although not a musical per se, quite -- on stage were two men who seemed to fit right in as village elders who happened to play the accordion and the pan-pipes, and happened to pipe up at the right emotional and dramatic moments. They are seated in the dark a bit off stage and organically blend in. Sometimes they play by themselves; sometimes they play as accompaniment to the recited poetry.
The only bit that is jarring is when other, taped music inserts into the action, at times sounding like the soundtrack to an American horror movie (well, this is a horror show!) or worse, lounge music from Atlantic City; obviously the live little band at stage right is more authentic. But here's the thing. Once you've made a decision to have a musical performance, you have to "go the whole hog and pay the postage," as Gurdjieff's Beezlebub once said to his grandson (he must have read The Demon). You can't have mournful folk tunes when Tamara is weeping in the graveyard but then have no music at all for other dramatic scenes when the folk instruments don't quite fit. So that accounts for a music track -- and well, it is what it is. Mostly the music doesn't call attention to itself and is the tone for the poem -- but occasionally it does.
Alex Condie Stephen, a 19th century translator of Lermontov writes of the "quaint complication and musical flow" of Lermontov's language -- and that is exactly what Rustem Galitch is so talented at capturing and why the decision to put it to music and dance fits. Here's a video of him performing a section from The Demon in 2010:
You will feel as if Russian is almost turning into Italian in its cadences -- the extraordinary breadth of Galitch to perform the span of the Demon's emotions is quite something to see.
Lermontov's poem fits into a book of some 50 pages of single-spacing with spaces in between sections; Galitch performs his recitation -- his embodiment, I should say -- in 90 minutes without an intermission. You couldn't possibly have one, as it is too gripping.
It's an odd concept in Western culture -- sympathy for the devil, the subject of a famous Rolling Stones song but of course there was Faust and Mephistophles before that which are cautionary tales, not macabre love stories -- but you won't end up sympathizing too much with this soul-destroyer in the end, don't worry.
As the 19th-century translator Stephen explains in a very helpful preface to his translation available at Internet Archive, the story is like Faust but unlike, in that it provides for the possibility of evil to be softened through love; the devil seems "only too human" but then of course unleashes his satanic destruction. But...How could Tamara go with him?! How could she! to understand this is perhaps to understand the souls of the people of the former Soviet Union who went along with the Georgian Stalin. Perhaps it happens when there is no hope.
The theater was packed with Russians, and I think there were few Americans there - the play had a number of performances at two venues in February and May but I didn't see any reviews. To be sure, there was a translation into English during the play which was also cleverly woven into the scene. Instead of headphones -- which are ghastly in a playhouse and really ruin a show because they create cricket-like noise of the still-audible sound of the translation coming out of a hundreds of earphones -- there were wispy white words superimposed over the top of the curtain, as if they were clouds. Sitting in the back row, I couldn't make them out so well but likely it would be useful. I thought of getting a crib off the Internet from my phone while watching, but really, that would break the immersiveness.
My children, who are half-Russian, were attentive but their Russian is more fluent even than mine as they grew up bilingual. To be sure, they aren't attuned to 19th-century poetry. In fact, my daughter chanced to make the acquaintance of Rustem through an emigre theater director she knows. He then happened to press my son, who is an actor, into one of his other shows as a pinch-hitter due to another actor's absence. So I was hoping that some of the "Tsar's Russian" as I suppose you could call the equivalent of "the King's English", that Rustem speaks so elegantly, would rub off on my children, who speak a mixture of the Krivy Rog Ukrainian Russian dialect of their father and the Brighton Beach Russian with its awful Anglicisms of their grandmother and nanny. Indeed, thanks to Rustem, they began to learn some lines and new words: zvyozdy yarkiye kak ochi/"stars as bright as eyes".
Rustem has performed The Demon a number of times and seems to have some avid groupies whom I will join and try to be better prepared for the next performance.
He was born and raised in Kazan, Tatarstan, which is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation and is predominantly Muslim. To give you an idea, Tatarstan is the last republic where the leader still demands to hold on to the title "president" which other such republics have been forced to drop under Moscow's pressure. Rusten is a graduate of the Shchepkin Academy, a theater school at the Maly Theater. He emigrated to the US in 2000 and began working for Russian American Radio RTN and NTV International as a narrator and reporter and also producing concerts and other performances. He has recently been in St. Petersburg, but in Florida, not in Russia. It's not clear if he ever goes back to his homeland.
Galitch writes that he was trained at an actors' department at Shchepkin in the art of khudozhestvennoye slovo or "artistic recitation" I guess I would translate it as, and called a "chtets" or "reader" which he calls "a dying but highly interesting genre" which he believes is still alive in America but I may not understand this correctly. It seems to me it is still alive in Russia but never was a genre here in quite the same way but maybe it was once and is coming back.
Rustem is often required to explain that he is not a relative of the famous Alexander Galitch, the poet and singer; that bard's name in fact is a pseudonym that was made up from Alexander's wife's first name Galya. (I didn't know that, but Rustem explains it). Meanwhile, Rustem says, as with many immigrants, his "American name" is a short form of his honorable old Tatar last name which is Engalychev.
And now I'll give you some translations to give you a sense of Lermontov's work and Galitch's triumph. Take a look at these three translations:
Francis Storr in 1894
O'er many a loft Caucas peak
The exile's soaring pinion rose
Below him, as with gems, Kazbek
Sparkled with everlasting snows
And Darial's opposing sides
Showed black, as when a serpent hides
Its winding coils in some dark lair
Now o'er Caucasian heights with pinions slow
The outcast spirit steered his course; below,
Gleamed like a diamond facet Kasbek's snow
And, in the deep-cleft gorge, where dragons hide
He saw the Darial like a serpent glide;
Alex Condie Stephen in 1875
When downwards he his course inclining
Discerns the Caucasus below
Behold! Kazbek, like a diamond shining
Beams in its wealth of endless snow,
And far beneath, in winding banks' embrace,
As in a cleft where serpents breed their race,
The waters of the Darial flow;
I think Stephen's is the best but they are all interesting. What you see is how wildly different than English can come out of what is actually a very basic, simple and even stark poem of Lermontov's in the original Russian.
Lermontov himself was a tragically romantic figure, a Russian Byron. His mother, who had married at 16, died of tuberculosis, bitter over her husband's infidelities, at the age of 21. He was separated from his father and raised by his grandmother and was himself sickly. He seems to be a decidedly unlikeable character and wasn't liked by his peers; he criticized the court and blamed them for the great Alexander Pushkin's death in a duel - he was banished to exile for this speech crime. It was in exile in the Caucasus, where he had been before with his family, that he was inspired to The Demon and his other works set in this stunning scenery. He himself was killed in a duel at the age of 27.
So out of the cult of honour and death of the tsarist era grew this enduring tale of jealousy, love -- if you could call it that -- and treachery and tragedy enough to fill centuries.
Fortunately, the entire performance was filled and uploaded to YouTube and Galitch and company do not appear to mind the copyright issues. Enjoy!
If nothing else, watch the last part, where Rustem looms over the stage with hands upraised.
Скала угрюмого Казбека
Добычу важно сторожит.
И вечный ропот человека
Их вечный мир не возмутит.
O'er all, Kazbek with gloomy rock-hewn crest
Watches his prey and frowns -- none shall molest
That greedy tyrant's spoil, nor can
Again disturb their everlasting rest
The ever during wail of man.
Dark Kasbek guards her secret; she has peace
where slanderous whispers, tongues of malice, cease.
Kazbek's grim barrier guards for ever
The secret of its icy breast,
And busy hum of men may never
Break through their everlasting rest
Here, I think Burness is the best.