Laughter in the Dark: Afinogenov’s “Fear” and the Rhetoric of Stalinist Theater

Boris Wolfson, University of California, Berkeley

In a January 1932 issue of Vechernjaja Moskva Jurij Oleša offered a brief, striking assessment of Aleksandr Afinogenov’s play Fear (Strax) which had recently opened at the Moscow Art Theater. “While I was watching Fear and observing the spectators’ reactions,” Oleša wrote, “I came to realize that there indeed exists a Soviet audience (sovetskaja publika), and that its tastes, sympathies and traditions are now being established. Fear has revealed to us the Soviet audience in a broad sense. That is an enviable accomplishment.”

The tension between observing and sharing the experience of the Soviet spectator, implicit in Oleša’s account, points to a broader question: how did the theatrical productions of the 1930s “reveal the Soviet audience”? How was the idea (the “sense”) of the Soviet spectator staged and shaped by the dramatic spectacle? This paper examines the measures taken by the many authors of a stage production (the playwright, directors, designers, actors) to “legitimate a certain kind of experience for the audience as significant” (W.B. Worthen, 1992). My inquiry into the making of Afinogenov’s Fear, one of the great successes of the early 1930s drama, seeks to unfold the rhetoric implicit in the practices of Stalinist theater – the set of often contradictory strategies for framing the interpretive activity of the Soviet audience.

A recent study (Lars T. Lih, 2002) has persuasively argued that the new plays of the 1930s dramatized a fundamentally melodramatic sensibility. Whether the subject was class struggle in the village or the feats of Civil War commissars, the underlying narrative focused on a waverer forced to recognize the flaws of his worldview and ultimately welcomed into the virtuous community. Elided in this reading are the ways in which the play scripts were made legible to the Soviet spectators in performance. A play constructed around a melodramatic premise need not be, and in the Soviet case often was not, produced as melodrama. I am especially interested in tracing the relationship between a (melo)dramatic text and the practice of “stage realism,” an interpretive mode that became particularly important as the Moscow Art Theater ascended to its position at the center of Soviet theatrical life.

By claiming verisimilitude of setting and authenticity of feeling, on the one hand, and, on the other, relying upon theatrical devices (such as subtext) that resist and remake the meanings developed in the script, stage realism offered theater practitioners a fruitful yet potentially problematic paradigm for enacting the “new Soviet reality” thematized in the plays of the 1930s. My reading of Fear and its two most important productions - at the former Aleksandrinskij Theater in Leningrad and at the Moscow Art Theater – illuminates the artistic and ideological anxieties about the interpretive authority of performance cultivated by the script, explored on stage and reflected in the ambivalent experience of the audience reforged by Afinogenov’s play.