In the footsteps of Gogol’s spirit


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Joanna Spassova-Dikova[i]

The Spirit of Gogol after Nikolay V. Gogol, directed by Bilyana Petrova; scenography and costumes by Isabela Manolova; music by Georgi Georgiev, vocals: Kiril Hadzhiev – Tino and Isabela Manolova; choreography by Stefania Georgieva; stage fight: Evgeni Enchev; cast: Damyan Tenev, Georgi Grozev, Petko Venelinov, Iva Kirova, Boryana Bobanova, Pavel Emilov. The Drama theatre of Lovech with the special participation of MINOAR, SUPANYO, TEODOR, Kris Fashion, WELGA, Izabela Manolova Photography

Well, great miracles are happening here…’ from Little Russian Comedy

Decent in the face, or so – so, but in the back – a true devil’ from A simple folktale

Go away, go away, you magic of a Satan’ from Little Russian Comedy

These lines from Little Russian (Ukrainian) comedies and folktales, quoted by Gogol in his short story ‘The Fair of Sorochyntsi’ from his first collection of stories titled ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ (1831–1832), to a greater extent contain all the sensations that the performance The Spirit of Gogol by the Drama Theatre of Lovech create. The audience is enticed into a typical magical world of Gogol, on the crossroad between the world and the underworld, amongst miracles, Satan creatures, demons, witches, wood nymphs, beasts, ghosts, spirits, light, smoke, sounds, melodies, voices.

To my question: why Gogol?, the director of the performance Bilyana Petrova, who is also the director of the Drama Theatre and a PhD student at the Institute of Art Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, shared: ‘Nikolay Vasilievich is one of the most mystical Russian and world writers. My first encounters with his work was at my first school (133 A. S. Pushkin Secondary School). They were exciting times for my imagination to feel the difference in the characters of both writing titans – Gogol and the patron of my school – Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. We started reading Pushkin’s fairy tales in first grade, but then, when Gogol appeared, we saw a completely different nature of the folktale, namely, the mystical one. Gogol is also one of the great playwrights with whose plays I started my acting course of study at the National Academy for Film and Theatre Arts. To create a dramaturgical narrative, which could bring the writer’s past to life and at the same time to search for links between biography and artistic work, was the aim of our performance. We looked for the limitless spirituality and subtlety he gave humanity’.

The dramaturgical basis of the performance is a composition of the early works of Gogol, primarily from ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ (1831–1832), and in particular from ‘May Night, or the Drowned Maiden’ and ‘Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his aunt’, documental texts, memories of the writer, and letters of Gogol. Run by Bilyana Petrova, who is the initiator of the project, the whole team of young art practitioners takes part collaboratively in the creation of the performance with their own ideas in the dramaturgy, the creation of the vision, the sounds and the search for the actor’s expression. In this particular case, it is untypical for our theatre and other recent productions, but obviously it took them a long way to prepare, study in depth the word of the great writer and other archival documents, memories, epistolary evidence. The theatre troupe worked also with a psychologist. Additionally, they met school students, who were potential audience members and discussed with them Gogol. It became evident that as a writer, Gogol was barely mentioned in the school literary programme and few were familiar with his life and writing, which fueled their ambition to realize such a project even for the sole merit of education.  

This multi-layerness, embedded into the performance, inspires respect, moreover so, because it is tangible, readable, and recognizable. According to the director, in this process it was extremely important to look for the nature of the stage narrative: ‘It was clear to the team,’ she says, ‘that we were moving towards eclectics, because of the different weights of the documental and literary layer. And it was impossible to let Gogol’s bright expression to lose weight, whereas the biographical quotes to weigh heavily like a lead. The separate storylines needed to be intertwined organically, so that the narrative won’t fall apart’.

The plot storyline follows the obstacles of a student (played by Damyan Tenev), who searches for the spirit of Gogol.

The performance brings us back to the childhood and adolescence of Gogol in Ukraine before he left for Saint Petersburg when he was 19 with the ambition to become a writer. Petrova shares that the aim was to ‘tailor’ a dramaturgical narrative from pieces of memories from the earliest prose of Gogol, interlaced with biographical notes, analyzing his death. ‘We’ve tailored a weird piece of clothing,’ she says, ‘like the one of the Devil, which gets lost in the Fair in the story’.  

In the beginning of his career, Gogol starts with stories about his favourite warm and bright, in his perceptions, birth place in Little Russia – a complete contrast to the dark and cold Saint Petersburg, in which he is forced to live and work. Through a romantic and mystical immersion into the well known ancient, wild archaic culture, Gogol opposes to the pressurizing, foreign, europeanizing civilization. 

In the preliminary stage of the project, the merry nature of ‘the little Russian singing and dancing tribe’ was sought, as Pushkin defines it and as it has been described in the early stories by Gogol.  The creative team, led by their artistic imagination, sets the task to find the inner sensations of the writer about his genealogical and family roots, which have left such bright imprints onto the child’s consciousness of the writer.

During rehearsals they often asked the question: is it funny or scary? Isn’t Gogol frightening? With the time, they were gradually convinced that his prose, in these early short stories, is more poetic and should be performed on stage boldly as a night in May in the then Ukrainian part of Russia – Little Russia. It should sound cheerful and according to Belinsky ‘mischevious, sweet-thought and with a goodwill laugh like eternal youth’…

In his creative work, Gogol attempts at subverting the perceptions about the real value of art, which brings enlightenment. He is known as the classical satirist who denounces vices and social drawbacks and at the same time he is a bearer of the universal tradition as a religious thinker. The paradoxical in him is that although he is a firm Christian believer in orthodoxy, he turns to paganism, returns to the mystical roots, to the genus, the folklore and the archetypes linked to the fight between the good and the bad. The performance of The Spirit of Gogol aims to address all of these aspects of the complex genius of Gogol.

The characters, which the actors embody, are real and mythological: the grandmother, the grandfather, the parents, the relatives of Gogol, Cossacks, boys, girls, the Devil (Basavryuk performed brilliantly by Georgi Grozev), witches, and wood nymphs.  The performers appear in different images. Even the voice of Gogol is heard (Kiril Hadzhiev – Tino), the voice of a ghost that lingers amongst the spectators.

The scenography is completely wooden: a devil’s throne, a path with burned wood – a passage both to the past and childhood, as well as to the earthly, the known towards the unknown, and the celestial. Its turns curve similarly to the indefinite, always muddy roads of Gogol’s Russia. The warm, mahogany colours are sought, and also the blood red nuances in the scenes of childhood, which are covered in a cloud of dust and smoke and lit in incredibly beautiful light. In the costumes one can find Slavic motifs, embroidery, nymph’s attires, beastlike masks. The action moves in time – from the years spent in the birth place with family and relatives, the quiet nights, intimate love moments, holidays, customs, the meetings with the devil, the fights with demons, the roaming on the roads to the moment of death and even beyond then.

Important accents in the performance are connected with the haunting images of mythical creatures, nymphs, witches and most of the time the devil Basavryuk, a character from ‘May Night…’. The original title of the novelette was ‘In the night before Ivan Kupala’. In Ukraine, this custom, dedicated to the sun and fertility and close to our Midsummer’s Day, is celebrated on 24 June (old style) and marks the sun equinox. In the orthodox Christian tradition on this day the birth of John the Baptist is celebrated (whose folklore name is Ivan Kupala). Then curing herbs are gathered, songs are sung, soothsayers and magicians come out, and miracles take place.

Gradually, the early child’s memories step back in order to let the hidden pain and sad anxiety that are stored into the soul of Gogol to burst to the surface and during his life and creative journey turn into a crystallized scream – a horror in front of the face of death.

The evil forces of darkness meet the light. In the very storyline of Gogol, the main character is Basavryuk. Bilyana Petrova shares: ‘At a certain point it became important to explore the genius just like a human being and to stop admiring his richness of images. We started looking for facts from the life of Gogol in order to get to this exciting mysterious battle with the devil and the call to the divine. A monolithic image of the devil in the history of literature for the first time became palpable in the works of Gogol, who describes it in human form and calls him Basavryuk, i.e. a demon and human in one body’.

Actually, Basavryuk is a mythical hero from the oral Ukrainian folklore and means ‘he-devil’ or ‘the devil, Satan in human body’. His first description is given by Gogol in the already mentioned novelette ‘The night before Ivan Kupala’. The etymology of the word is unclear, it is perhaps of a Tatar origin (from ‘bastirik’ – a nightmarish vision), transferred to some European languages as ‘bosorok’, ‘bozarkoni’, etc. with the meaning of ‘a demonic creature’, ‘a witch’. It is also related to the Indian word for sunny – ‘saurya’.

In another episode, linked to the secrets about Gogol, and included in the performance, is the writer’s exhumation in 1931. Bilyana Petrova narrates about the creation of this particular scene: ‘we used various publications on the subject, yet, the main source of information was Vladimir Lidin’s study The transportation of Gogol’s dust, a fellow writer and witness of the funeral of the author in 1931’. According to him, when the grave is opened, the dead body is turned over (there is a version that the writer has fallen into a lethargic sleep and had been buried alive, which is one of Gogol’s fears while being alive). His skull is missing.  There is another version that the skull was stolen in 1909 by a colleague as a trophy to exhibit it in a museum.

The short life of the 42 year Gogol with his self-reliance, weirdness, melancholy, depression, gloominess, diseases, visions, demons, devils, witches , dead souls and at the same time irony, wittiness, and sense of humour, borders with the absurd, which continues even after his death.

How would the very Gogol describe his own crazy life story? Perhaps, the great writer would have simultaneously suffered through it and laughed at it. They say that his last words were ‘I am going to laugh in tears’. Such is his life philosophy, full of mysteries and paradoxes. Gogol does not give an answer and does not stop being simply wise and admire things with his sense of irony: ‘Only the devil knows this stuff. Once Christians start doing something, they start suffering. They suffer like hunting dogs chasing a rabbit. Yet, there is no chance. While, when the devil jumps in and just throws his little tail – straight away, it comes from nowhere, as though it has fallen from the skies’.

By walking into the steps of the spirit of Gogol, the young artists from the Drama theatre of Lovech try to unveil with the means of the theatrical art, some of the life mysteries of the great writer, to see deeper into the nature of his genius, drawing the spectators in the mysterious world of Gogol, thus, in my view, succeeding in reaching and even surpassing the set goals of the performance.    

*The author expresses her gratitude to the Drama theatre of Lovech for the provided materials.

In the footsteps of Gogol’s spirit

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