“Horo” by Strashimirov at the National Theatre


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I find it particularly important to comment on the production of Anton Strashimirov’s novel “Horo” at the National Theatre for several reasons. First, on the one hand, this text has seen realization on the theatre stage only twice in the last 30 years. Second, the complexity of the matter implies commenting on the challenge faced by both actors and the staging team. The obstacle is huge – they have to work in a field that is complicated not only by the specific nature of the historical events that are the reason for writing the novel (the September Uprising of 1923), but also by the difficulty of presenting them to new audiences without detailed explanations. Last but not least, I would like to point out that the ideological layers that surround the novel would create additional difficulties for those theatrical authors/interpreters who want to present it on stage in any form.

I allow myself to write these words as the author of a dramatization of the novel, but also as a director who has also staged the work quite recently; and consciously (and adventurously) I have ignored some of the above warnings that I am giving myself. This is my starting point, realizing that commenting on someone else’s work through my own prism is difficult and responsible work. That is why I am starting with this clarification. Despite these warnings, it seems to me that Vasilena Radeva’s effort deserves attention, at least in order not to pass away the performance with the thought that the novel “Horo” no longer has a current dimension and it is difficult to find connections with our times.

On the one hand, the motifs that inevitably stand out at every reading are also visible in her performance – the original connection between death and marriage in folklore culture, translated into the novel as a family tragedy, the attraction to the chthonic, the hidden eroticism of violence, political demagogy and the inability to deal democratically with crises. Last but not least, the existential and political question of reproduction. (“For the people, I say… Let the people reproduce, because…”). However, the specifics are yet to unfold, but let’s set aside a few lines about the place of the novel in our culture.

It is obvious that Anton Strashimirov’s novel “Horo” occupies a polemical and traumatic place in Bulgarian culture. From a literary point of view, it offers many focal points and perspectives for research – starting from the creative background, through genre features, to linguistic and stylistic techniques. All of them have attracted the attention of more than one researcher. It is the interest in the novel on the scientific side that confirms its artistic value and testifies to the borderline place it occupies. At the same time, viewed through the optics of a more general cultural view, the writing of the novel reflects both important and tragic moments of Bulgarian cultural memory. The events in the text are in fact an echo of the traumatic narrative of the centrifugal disintegration of the family consciousness against the backdrop of the September uprisings of 1923; within the still not unconsolidated national identity, which in turn faced modern social movements, on the one hand, penetrating from Europe, and on the other – the foreign policy influences in Bulgaria after World War I, which tried to destabilize it (under pressure from the Comintern[1]).

The bloody conflict between farmers, workers, anarchists, and the official government of Bulgaria, then in the face of the regime of the Democratic Alliance of 1923, led to numerous pogroms and the creation of paramilitary formations that carried out massacres, with which political and personal revenge took place. Violence crosses the boundaries of the possibility of being assimilated at all, and events are harshly criticized throughout Europe. This allows the novel to be read again today beyond its specific historical dimensions, but in the context of all-encompassing violence, opposition and division, political demagogy, the “incarnation” of man and his becoming an animal fighting for his survival, but also as a testimony to the social conflicts in our society through the prism of literature. It is no coincidence that in his in-depth study “In the Artistic World of the Novel Horo” Radosvet Kolarov draws a parallel between the aesthetic suggestion of Picasso’s Guernica and a literary work, such as the Strashimirov’s novel, bringing to the forefront precisely the insurmountable morbidity that both works suggest.

Writing the novel is too personal for its author. On the one hand, Strashimirov witnessed the brutal suppression of the riots, the subsequent so-called White Terror[2], survived the murder of his brother Todor Strashimirov, who was shot dead on Serdika Street in Sofia as a member of parliament by the Narrow Socialists in 1925. Political violence is definitely a topic that extends to many areas, but the novel “Horo” concentrates its aesthetic apparatus precisely on violence as a materialization of evil.

Just like in an ancient Greek drama, Strashimirov does not violate the unity of place, time and action. Therefore, the expression that the text carries as images and linguistic charge can be defined as highly theatrical.

First published in 1926, the novel was quickly banned, and after 1944 it easily fell under the ideological imprints of the new regime, seeing an opportunity in it for an easy critique of power before the coup. It is precisely the years after 1944 that the text enjoys different stage interpretations by several directors (N. Polyakov, V. Tsankov, Yu. Ognyanova). After 1989, the work enjoyed only two stage adaptations – in the Ruse Theatre (2020), under my direction, and in the National Theatre (2023), under the direction of Vasilena Radeva.

The play at the National Theatre tries to escape from ideological readings and declares the ambition to master and transform linguistic expression into a specific stage expression. One of the positive qualities of the performance is the captured expressionist atmosphere of the dream, which occupies a structural place in the suggestion of both the novel and the performance. The visual environment is also considered in a similar direction. In the novel, as well as in the searches of the play, the spirit (Geist) is alienated from the earthly social life of the characters, they are not in control of their own destiny, they are even beyond the possibility of understanding the existential dimensions of the moral catastrophe in which they are immersed. Here this is mainly expressed in the overall mood, visual, and musical environment.

The complexity of the practical achievement of the staged intentions is that they should not be interpreted by today’s (double or triple) complicated understanding of national and social clashes. I find that this challenge is further complicated by the rise of nationalism over the last decade in Europe, as well as its transfer to the specific Bulgarian political context. That is why the transformation of linguistic expression into an adequate stage expression which should not sound archaic, and should also resonate with some new extremism around us, has obviously proved difficult for the actors.

It seems to me that there is also a purely practical circumstance that presents difficulties for them in the context of the performance: the simultaneous pronunciation of prosaic pieces and active dialogue, which pushes them to interpret their characters in a common key of alienation without substantial individualization. The approach sounds as if they are quoting themselves and commenting on their own actions, instead of acting on behalf of the seriousness and desperate nature of their morally deformed motives. In some moments, however, there are clear markers of the social nature of certain characters (such as the Kapanovi cobblers – father and son), but the viewer is generally left to the plot orientation rather than contextualization and problematization through a specific theatrical language and this can be considered a disadvantage. It is important to say that the performance tries to build such a language, but succeeds only partially.

The main aspiration to achieve specific theatrical alienation in the overall acting presence sits as an adequate intention, but it remains only at the level of intention, and is not individualized and identified as a means under development that also undergoes its transformations. Alienation is a dangerous means when the context is not fully empowered in the stage narrative. I could point out two examples: the first is the split character that Snezhina Petrova interprets – between the narrator and Kapankata, without playing a meaningful role, except to technically introduce the viewer to the atmosphere of the novel, and then to justify the presence of the character in the duration of the stage time. The second example is the dying elderly Karabelyova to be presented as a doll and voiced by the actress who plays the maid Marga (Vyara Tabakova). The decision can be read as a special quote to the performance of Julia Ognyanova at the Plovdiv Puppet Theatre (1974), but here the emotional explosion of death and the curse spills over into the commentary nature and the overall feeling that the actors are “playing a make-believe” performance. In this way, a key point for the plot is also missed – reproduction is cursed, i.e., the continuum of life, which (according to the play) must echo in the other characters.

The question of how to translate into contemporary stage language conflicts and problems from social contexts that are far from us is becoming increasingly difficult to answer with the increasing digitalization and cognitive changes that occur due to the broken hierarchy of information; but along with the growing technological anxiety about artificial intelligence, it is vital to return to the conversation about how to talk about the human (collective and individual) collisions in the field of the social. Theatre as a social phenomenon has the brightest means of realizing this task. In this sense, it could be argued that in our context a fundamental return to its polemical nature is needed.

Theatrical language today is no longer faced with the questions of literary emancipation, but how to maintain its fictional integrity in its complete alienation from drama, but also to translate its attractiveness for those whom postmodernism has struck with the disintegration of the consolidated notions of the integrity of the work, but also of personal sensory perceptions. So, the more we ask ourselves: who we are, where we come from and where we are going, the more it will take works like “Horo” to confront us with the fundamental (and extreme) questions of life and death.


by Anton Strashimirov

Stage adaptation and direction: Vasilena Radeva Playwright: Maya Pramatarova

Set design and costumes: Boris Dalchev Video picture: Mihaela Dobreva

Composer and vocal pedagogue: Dragomir Yosifov Choreographer: Marion Darova

Assistant Scenographer: Darena Doneva

Cast: Snezhina Petrova, Stelian Radev, Valentin Tanev, Nencho Kostov, Elena Ivanova, Tsvetan Aleksiev, Pavlin Petrunov, Vyara Tabakova, Denitsa Darinova, Yavor Valkanov

Ivan Vazov National Theatre – Sofia Photographs: Stefan Shterev

[1] Abbreviation of Communist International, also known as the Third International. In practice, this was a union of communist parties around the world that recognize the Leninist version of Marxism as their ideological engine. The utopian horizon they set in the 1920s was a world proletarian revolution. The events of the so-called September Uprising in Bulgaria since 1923 were prompted by the actions of the Comintern.

[2] White terror usually denotes state repressive actions against communist and socialist movements. The origin of the term comes from the counter-revolutionary attempts of the royalists in France after 1794. In Bulgaria, the term was first used by Petko D. Petkov compared to the mass arrests and murders after the September Uprising of 1923.

“Horo” by Strashimirov at the National Theatre

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