Художественный журнал
digest 1993 – 2005

Mikhoels – King Lear

Dmitri Gutov
King Lear, 1991, 21x13cm, cardboard, distemper.
King Lear, 1991, 21x13cm, cardboard, distemper.
We tend to treat everything fashionable in a somewhat haughty manner, and this makes sense. There is no use in trying to chase after something that is so fickle and treacherous. But even fashion has a right to existence. For an instance, it can express the vital necessities of its time, resonating the voice of conditions that deserve to be heard. When, for an instance, the great actor Solomon Mikhoels began to play "King Lear" at the State Jewish Theater in the 1930s, everybody was interested in Shakespeare. Tairov's Chamber Theater, the New Theater, the Theater of the Revolution, and even the Vakhtangov Theater on the Arbat were rehearsing and premiering "The Merchant of Venice", "Romeo and Juliet", and "Hamlet".

There is also a truth of sorts in continuing to meditate on "Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl". The 1930s were far too important for the entire century to leave them uncommented. Today, it has already been established that culture that the communists created then was far more monstrous than surrealism and more avantgarde than Malevitch, which is why its value rises from day to day.

Marx once said that the cloudy apparitions in people's brains are the evaporations of the material processes of their lives, but slowly but surely the life-process of the last decades has been turning into a grandiose historical movement in reverse. It is moving back into the old barnyard, where the struggle of uncontrolled egoistic forces unfolds as the best application of creative force.

It comes as no surprise that of all the heritage of the 1930s, only its weakest sides enjoy success today, that people revel in its vulgar smearing and its pseudo-monumental sculptures, filled to the brim with rhetoric and hackneyed ideological stereotypes. Today, one tends to see these correspondences with the imagery of fascism as watersheds for the concentrated spirit of the epoch, as examples of its energy and singularity, as well as a manifestation of the collective unconscious' pathologies, whose anatomic dissection has been the most popular intellectual endeavor for the last 70 years at least.

There were enough examples of monstrosity and vulgarity at that time, but in this sense, the 1930s were hardly unique. Affected pathos, sentimentality, verbosity, grandiloquence, and propagandistic intent, like all manifestations of fakeness in art, are generally drab and monotonous in appearance. They correspond in terms of form at every step of the way, which is actually what comprises the mystical riddle of totalitarian art, which so many rather thick books have attempted to solve, alas, in vain.

The ideology of Nazism has left us with nothing but such examples, while Soviet art does not boil down to this kind of art at all. There are many reasons more than weighty for why this has often rarely been noticed to date. One of them is that contemporary notions of culture are still too closely connected to the surviving attitudes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was missing from the 1930s? What did they not know then that we know now? Suprematism? That we have to surrender to novelty, simply because it is new? Ruminations on the sacred and the profane? That art is a special way of encoding different world-views? On the fact that "objective reality", the "object", or the "subject" are nothing but signs that point toward the exotic world of first-level abstractions? The idea that any image is little more than a complex of signifiers? That we cannot even begin to speak of any "truth" whatsoever? That Duchamp's provocations dealt the criterion of taste a mortal blow? The realization that "secondary reality" has become the central object of aesthetic reflection? Or that any artwork is an attempt at describing the world, and that all systems of description enjoy equal rights in terms of value, that none of them actually describe the world in adequate terms? The nature of an interpretation's decoding? Or that there are, in fact, no objective criteria that can be applied in evaluating a work of art? That there is, in the end, no such thing as negative or positive? That art's absolute beauty and eternal values are no more tenable than the very notion of absolute truth? All of this has been clear and called into question long before Viktor Misiano even dreamt of publishing his "Moscow Art Magazine".

According to popular opinion, people of the 1930s were incapable of reflecting upon the mechanisms of the culture that they were creating. This is rather naive. In comparison to Mikhoels' texts on his work with Shakespeare, even the best examples of contemporary reflection look like piddling puddles. And of course, Mikhoels is hardly the only source on the real inner life of those years.

In 1934, Mikhoels sets out in search of a justification for Lear's actions, attempting to come to terms with his idea of dividing up his state. "It was difficult for me to imagine", he writes, "that Lear could have so short-sighted as to be blind to what is obvious to the spectator or reader of the play from its very outset. After all, you can tell that Goneril or Regan are full of lies and deceit as soon as they open their mouths, and that Cordelia is the purest and most honest of the entire bunch. I would tend to think that Lear knew full well what exactly Goneril and Regan actually were and in how far Cordelia was superior and more formidable that all the others."

Mikhoels explain the king's abdication from his throne in an unexpected and somewhat strange manner. "The ease with which he refuses his great power has led me to the conclusion that many universally recognized values have lost their meaning to Lear, and that he has gained some kind of new philosophical understanding of life". According to Mikhoels, Lear – having reached the peak of scholastic wisdom in his old age – believes that there is no difference between flattery and truth. In other words, he has addressed the question of reality's problematic nature to reality itself, to speak with the Moscow art critic Evgeny Barabanov, and soon discovers that the speeches made by his daughters are no more than signs in the process of communication, that they do not reflect the relationships of things as they really are, so that their professions of love can be set at naught from the very get-go. Lear has decided that in a world of total relativity, it is only will that counts, a will which he opposes to reality. Thus, Lear embarks upon a great experiment whose consequences he simply cannot foresee, since in the end, he become its own subject. "The final meaning of this experiment lies in the 'recognition' traditional to tragedy, only that here, the object of recognition is reality itself, life as it actually is", as one of the reviews of Mikhoels' rendition of Lear aptly notes.

This profound review demonstrates that Mikhoels' staging of Lear reflect the most dramatic events of the 1930s, when each and every human being found himself extirpated from the husk of his private existence in the face of the transformations affecting his own country and the rampant advance of fascism.

This, in fact, is the art of that epoch. Paradoxically, Mikhoels had prepared for the role of Lear by playing in the shtetls for so many years, for an audience of Jews who had been forced to live far off from history's main lines. They grew up in a closed, parochial environment (does this remind you of anything?), devoting themselves to the imaginary mode of thinking (nothing again?). In short, the Jews of the shtetl were much like contemporary artists, for whom the territory of no value begins directly beyond the boundaries of culture or their subjective views. In one way or another, they all stage experiments in the spirit of Lear, only that they risk nothing at all. There is something petty and highly doubtful in this pursuit. Even if today, this pursuit finds itself right on history's main line.

At the same time that Mikhoels was working on his image of Lear, an integral Marxist conception of art was being developed. In fact, it spoke of the same things, of the same provincial shtetls. In it, artistic creativity was understood as a liberation from the backwoods in which we all live, thinking that we are actually the center of the world. According to one excellent definition, the human being is little more than a colony of biological cells, agitated by its role in a spectacle so unusual to the rest of nature. This spectacle is the history of society. And art douses the excessive expressiveness of this colony, allowing it to becoming a screen or a mirror for the infinite world.

Everything written on this subject has not simply been firmly forgotten, but is simply unknown. Besides, not very much written at all. A-a-a-a, very little... But how much do you really need to notice the labor of thought?

One of the very best philosophical works written in our time is called "A Man of the Thirties". Its hero knew full well what we know now, but his experience still belongs to tomorrow. The conditions of his time were simply too brutal and self-contradictory. They cleared the best minds for a full understanding of Marx's paradoxical dialectics, but at the same time, they drowned the results of their efforts in a nebulous flood.

Translated by David Riff

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