December 2011: people gather atMoscow's Bolotnaya Square to protest election falsifications. CC BY-NC-ND misha maslennikov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Moscow’s Teatr.doc, a theatre company that creates and stages documentary theatre, has just premiered “Young and Angry”, a Russian version of John Osborne’s iconic 1956 work “Look back in Anger” set in present day Russia.
This production focuses on issues that are still relevant today: what happened to the young people who stormed the squares of Moscow four years ago? Where did their energy go? Is it still alive? Is it just waiting for the right moment? Has it found another, better direction? Or has it been frittered away to no purpose? In other words, do these young and angry people still exist?
I have a good friend whose name is Marina Razbezhkina. We run a documentary theatre and film school together in Moscow. She has a favourite story that she always tells her students: a woman lived with her husband for 20 years. One morning she realised that her husband was a messy eater. In the end he left for work one day and she left him. End of story. So tell me, hadn’t she noticed how he ate before? She’d seen it thousands of times. Just one day, it got to her.
In 1968, there were mass strikes and student unrest all over Europe. Educated young people with excellent university degrees took to the streets because they couldn’t find work. They were of no use to anyone, and the work they were offered was an insult to their dignity. This had also been going on before 1968, but it suddenly got to them.
These demonstrators became known as the “angry young men”, a phrase first used in a review of Osborne’s play, and they were indeed the subject of Look Back in Anger. It wasn’t Osborne’s first work, but it was the one that sparked a revolution in European theatre and the birth of a new theatre movement — New Drama. Theatricality, historical authenticity, showy acting — all these were gone. Theatre began to function as a social institution, and journalists and politicians quickly latched onto the idea of the “angry young men”, which became the catchphrase of an era.
Sixty years on
Exactly 60 years have gone by. But thanks to our government, I have the impression that I am living not in 2016, but at some time in the past. Here in Russia time is always repeating itself. You are tossed from one decade to another, but always in the past. You sit, spooling through Facebook posts and you have no idea what year you are in. Are you back in the Soviet Union, or what? In that sense, Russia is a state of victorious postmodernism.
The hallmark of postmodernism is an eclectic mixture of styles. And here we have a total confusion of eras. I was even surprised when a few years ago the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill began to denounce postmodernism. Why, for god’s sake? Postmodernism is pretty much a central component of government policies.
For example, the end of the world took place here a long time ago. We just didn’t notice it. The end of the world is simply the moment when time stops, when forward motion is suspended — in scientific progress, in social development, in the humanisation of society. It’s like when the metro stops. One minute a train is rumbling through a tunnel, the next it comes to a halt without reaching its station. A pretty girl is sitting in the carriage with you, but you start to get irritated. You keep thinking her nose reminds you of a duck’s beak, although in fact it’s a perfectly normal nose. You are getting irritated – about nothing, it seems, but because time has stopped.
You are getting irritated — about nothing, it seems, but because time has stopped
I have a deep hatred of the Soviet regime, but there was nothing like this in the USSR. There was on the surface, but not underneath. There were no promises except communism, and even children didn’t believe in that. On the surface there was the certainty that nothing was happening — time had stopped for real. It was enshrined in law, almost an official position. But that was just on the surface. Real life took place underneath. A Soviet person’s personal life was very different from that of a Russian person today. It was three times as intense — new wives, new escapades, affairs, adventures. Those idiotic nature hikes you couldn’t avoid. The endless sitting around in kitchens. And friendships were more intense.
But now, in contrast to the Soviet Years, time has stopped not only on the surface, but underneath as well. And that produces the kind of frustration that Osborne’s characters felt. Where does this frustration come from? I’m 60 years old. But it hasn’t yet hit home to me that I’m 60. I can’t believe that it’s 2016, so consequently I can’t believe that I’m 60. So how old am I then? This makes me uncomfortable; I want to know how strong I am, both physically and psychologically. Should I take on some heavy work or just mess around with small stuff where the money’s the same but comes in dribs and drabs?
The new generation
This is not just my own personal crisis. I feel it in my students as well. How they behave, how they speak, how they dress – all this belies their years. Take one young man of 29. He laughs, jokes, talks and thinks like a 17 year old; he’s dressed like a 17 year old. He has tattoos and piercings, and he comes to classes on a skateboard.
Beside him is a young woman of 18, but sorry, when I talk to her it feels as though I’m conversing with a middle-aged woman who has been lecturing in theatre studies for 30 years. The things she says sound antiquated even to me. But she and the young guy are sitting side by side. Those are just two examples, but there are a lot more, and I come to the conclusion that I’m not the only one confused about my age.
Is this good or bad? It’s bad, of course. People are happy when they are in equilibrium, in harmony. If there’s no harmony, you once again get Osborne’s feeling of frustration and irritation.
People like things to happen, but nothing is happening. And that breeds frustration. The philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin coined a brilliant phrase, “fabulous joy” — joy at something happening. I stand up. The sun is shining. It starts to rain. This is joy because life is moving on. Nobody consciously thinks, “Hey, I’m happy!” They just feel it.
Bakhtin also wrote that this “fabulous joy” was common in healthy people, specifically psychologically healthy people. They experience joy at the fact that life is moving on, whereas a person who has experienced a psychological trauma is merely irritated.
People like things to happen, but nothing is happening
People like things to happen, but nothing is happening. There is a very heavy atmosphere weighing us down, a constant feeling of irritation.
Did we ever feel this “fabulous joy”? The collapse of the Soviet Union – that was a ‘fabulous joy’. I remember taking part in it. The stupid barricades, the defence of the White House, the Russian Parliament, during the attempted coup of August 1991. What had ever happened to us before? Gagarin went into space. Gagarin crashed. That was it. And people talked about it for years. But people were also starving. And 1991 shocked everybody: not the actual coup attempt — screw that! It was just the first time anything actually happened, you see. But now…
Now there is a very heavy atmosphere constantly weighing us down. It is a pretty stable feeling, an even level of irritation. Irritation because time has stopped and there are no prospects for the future. I’m fine. But we have 8000 out of work actors who have no hope of getting any work at all. Fine. You got a part in a crap TV show. You got a load of work. What do you do? You buy a flat. You can consider yourself at the peak of your career.
Is buying a flat really the peak of an actor’s career? Of course not. He’ll just sit in his flat getting drunk
But is buying a flat really the peak of an actor’s career? Of course not. He’ll just sit in his flat getting drunk. The peak of an actor’s career is having constant work, 24/7. The more work he has, the more he collapses from exhaustion, the happier he is.
I have young actors acting in a production for me at the moment. Three of them arrive at the theatre. The guys spent the night driving taxis, and the young woman worked in a bar. And that’s the backdrop to their lives, that which they have to surmount. I see their tiredness, their frustration building up.
What can you expect from someone who has been doing airport runs all night – from Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo; from Domodedovo to Sheremetyevo? I sense his exhaustion; I get irritated with the actor, and he with me. Partner with partner. There are so many kinds of irritability — you could write a book about them. You know those field guides to plants? You could write a field guide to types of irritability and frustration.
This frustration will gradually build up and grow into something bigger. And the government has a big part to play in all this.
Our current government provokes this irritability. OK, so they’re afraid of a possible “colour revolution” or some other kind of bullshit that people talk about. But instead of backing down, creating a welfare state, they’ll provoke another 6 May, another Bolotnaya Square protest.
So fine, we’ll have more 6 Mays, 16 Mays, 36 Mays! We’ll have a new 1968. But we’re not talking about Osborne’s angry young men of 1956; they won’t just be angry, but furious. Do you get the difference?