Author of famous and enduringly popular comedy White Dew and the play The Privates writes sequel to famous Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol — The Executor — with premiere at National Academic Drama Theatre named after Maxim Gorky
Alexey Dudarev believes himself to be in a ‘great creative form’. From his summer home near Logoisk, not far from Minsk, he tells us about his new play and shares his thoughts on the meaning of life and his creative path.
Gogol’s works are known for showing us the nature of the world, although modern language has changed a great deal. The universal messages of his plays retain their relevance, exploring our identity and making us ponder our role in life. In reinterpreting the old plot, you’ve given us another theatrical masterpiece. In one interview, you called it ‘a play about the good in people’. Why?
Had anyone told me a year or two ago that I’d be writing the sequel to Gogol’s play, I’d have laughed, as I’m actually laughing now. I’d have thought them joking but, unexpectedly, here we are! I usually don`t plan; I just see how things happen. If something ‘hatches’ then it’s great. The Executor is a sequel to Inspector General, which we staged at the Belarusian Army Theatre when I was the artistic director. I always find it painful for me to part with my heroes: from classic plays such as those by Gogol and from my own works. The play is about humanity, since we all have traits good and bad: not only Tryapichkin but the city inspector and Maria Andreevna and all the officials. They are just people, like you and me. In my school days, we were taught to laugh at them and judge them and to avoid behaving as they do. However, people remain essentially the same through the centuries: neither good nor bad, nor kind, nor evil. As Bulgakov’s Yeshua says: ‘There are no evil people’.
After the opening night, my husband and colleague commented that Gogol would surely have shaken your hand had he seen your play. Another colleague asserted that even Gogol could hardly have done better. Your Executor gives us insight into the lives of educated and successful people, while building on the artistic heritage of the classic. Do you feel contented with it?
Not at all. When a close friend of mine learnt that I was continuing Inspector General, he told me that he was surprised at my arrogance to dare to match Gogol’s writing. I’m really not arrogant and have never aimed to ‘outdo’ anyone. I love Chekhov as much as Gogol, viewing them as the best writers — of international renown. I venerate them. I am different. While respecting and preserving Gogol’s characters and style, I’ve used my own voice as seemed possible and necessary. I don’t know if Gogol would have shaken my hand — this wasn’t my goal. Maybe he would have said: ‘What have you done, my friend?’ No one can say. Is it allowed to continue the story? Why not? If you’ve merged details from the original classic and you have something to contribute, then why not? It’s not an uncommon practice in drama or in other arts. I haven’t written ‘like Gogol’; it’s a sequel.
Gogol could also have continued his Inspector General?
Of course. Indeed, he wrote a second volume of ‘Dead Souls’, which I’ve read. It cannot be compared to the first volume, which is why he wanted to burn it. Sometimes, even the author himself can fail in his attempt to continue his works.
Are you happy with your work?
I’m not ashamed of what I written. I’m very fond of Gogol but, trust me, I wasn’t interested in stealing the laurels of this brilliant writer. I’m interested in the man himself. I was curious to compare events of two hundred years ago with today and with what may come in the future. After the premiere, director Sergey Kovalchuk’s father, Mikhail, asked me to encourage his son to end the staging with another final caller, but Sergey is against the plan, thinking it will be excessive. I can’t help thinking it’s possible though.
Many people may want to reread Gogol after watching the play…
I often do this myself, as well as returning to Chekhov, Bulgakov and Ilf-Petrov. Their books are always on my desk, within reach. For those who haven’t seen Inspector General, I’ll tell you that Marina Dudareva, the director, kept the staging strictly to the original text — as did Sergey Kovalchuk, although he denies it. I think admirers of Gorky like my play, for which I’m grateful. The play is not as simple as it seems at first sight. I believe it shows that people cannot be viewed in black and white: each is different — strong and weak…
How did the play reach the Russian Theatre?
There is a Russian Theatre site where plays can be submitted and I sent mine under a pen-name: Denis Shvabsky. Kovalchuk read the play and decided to add it to the repertoire. As always happens, he asked to meet the writer… and, of course, was surprised to hear my voice. He asked why I’d hidden behind the name of Shvabsky but I explained that I simply wanted him to read it with an open, unbiased mind, without comparison to my White Dew or The Privates. Denis Shvabsky is, quite simply, myself, 30-35 years ago.
Would you have staged the play any differently or have used modern costumes?
I would have based it purely on Gogol, forgetting about Alexey Dudarev. Nothing in man has changed, regardless of 2000 years passing. We cry and smile in the same way, we slander, we envy and we experience pain. We still don’t love enough and are afraid to die. Modern costumes are irrelevant, since the human soul is naked.
The play has many layers and is filled with the eternal themes of human problems. We could call it a ‘social play’ on man’s weaknesses, which seems to be the path that the Theatre has taken. It’s like a fantasy in which the protagonists are tested through games. They lose their temper, forgetting their intention of flattering Tryapichkin, making us view them as children. We see them as they really are, behind their provincial masks. The Russian Theatre actors play their parts well I think.
As one master playwright wrote: ‘All the world is a stage’. We are simply players, taking our roles in life. In fact, I’d say that we prefer to play roles rather than be true to ourselves. What difference is there between a lady-in-waiting and a lady? None. Yesterday, you were a baron and today you become a count; yesterday, you were a lieutenant and today you are a colonel. You haven’t changed in essence. Fools remain so, as do those with wits.
I’d advise everyone to re-read Inspector General carefully. You’ll see that the city inspector and his officials arouse sympathy, as does the hapless poet Khlestakov. His dream is for the ministers to respect him, just as he wants a servant to treat him as an important person. It is an impossible fantasy. I love these characters; all are kind in their way.
As a famous playwright, you don’t need to prove yourself anymore. In creating each play are you hoping to reveal something new in your search for the meaning of life?
I always start from scratch and, like Socrates, try to act as if I know nothing. That which needs to be written will be written. I’m not writing anything at present but I will when the time comes. It’s how The Executor arrived. I had no grand intentions. I simply felt that Gogol’s play must be continued and wanted to explore the character arriving at the end of the play. Khlestakov leaves and the deception is revealed. The policeman announces that an official from St. Petersburg is summoning everyone to his hotel…. and that is where my play begins. There are some revelations and my own feelings have flavoured the work of course.
In The Executor, you speak of repentance, inferring that we are all destined to do wrong, performing actions almost beyond our control. Does this mean your protagonists have no shame or conscience?
Of course, we all feel these things. Even the most inveterate feel shame, and desire to be ‘better’. I take less of a moral stand these days, believing that what will be, will be. We cannot release ourselves of all evil but nor can we drive out the good, however hard we try.
Society’s moral illness — dishonesty, ambition, corruption and cynicism — has existed forever. People’s motives are invariably selfish and, today, image and status seem more important than ever. Only a rare few cultivate spiritual values and are often perceived as being weak. Have you ever thought that God was at fault in the way he designed us?
It is a very hard question: why are people as they are, repeatedly behaving badly? In The Executor, I do condemn this, but a priest once told me that God knew whom He was creating. There was no failure. We need to tread this Earthly path to gain self-knowledge and, in repenting, we find our true essence. God doesn’t need slaves but independent beings. Are we made in his image? Perhaps, eventually, we’ll become so.
Undoubtedly, we will evolve — or we’ll die out. Can we learn to love unconditionally, as God does? All our love seems to have selfish motives, being demanding and with conditions, which inspires misunderstanding between us — especially those closest to us …
Alas, it’s true. It’s a wonderful idea to think that someone loves us unconditionally — man or God.
You view the imperfections in others and in yourself as opportunities for turning into good I think.
I think it was Eldar Ryazanov who said that there is no bad weather…
Do you ever regret retiring from your own acting career?
People shouldn’t speculate or interfere. I am a playwright, as The Executor has proven, once more. I’m at an age where I don’t care about approval any more: only my own! I am my own greatest editor, critic and analyst. My ‘well-wishers’ should remain calm. In our village, people used to say: ‘May you eat whatever you’re dreaming of!’ I eat things you can’t imagine! If people are hoping to make me feel discontented, they’ll be disappointed.
People do say: ‘once an actor always an actor’. If you did act in your latest play, which part would you choose?
I’d play the city inspector — as he’s a reasonable man. In every script I write, I always feel as if I could play one of the parts: Dugin in The Privates and Mikhasev in Don’t Leave Me. I did play the colonel, Multik, in Evening, Andrey Buslov in Threshold and Krynkin in Choice. I wrote that play when I was at university, for our acting department, and chose my part.
Your granddaughter, Yana, has a role in a film based on Don’t Leave Me — your play. Are you happy about that?
The role wasn’t written for her. It just turned out that way. I wouldn’t want her or anyone from my family to be connected with the theatre; its enough that I am!
As a playwright, you have your own style, taste and preferences. What tends to move you?
Everything — just like anyone else. While the sun is shining and the birds are singing, I think only of summer, not winter or autumn, although I know the seasons are inevitable. I live in the present.
Would you like to write a book or a play about an artistic person who, tired of his life, finds a new recipe for living?
I think not; I prefer dialogue between characters, which seems to take on a life of its own.
What is your own recipe for life?
There is none. I’ve always worked hard — probably too much.
Do you think our illnesses are brought on by our state of mind or behaviour?
Of course; it’s hardly a surprise that smokers become unwell more often than those who don’t smoke. I do think it’s best to put aside anger and treat others as you’d like to be treated. You won’t have regrets if you behave in a manner of which you aren’t ashamed. I wish we all understood this…
Does this aspect of human nature intrigue you?
I accept all that Fate brings: joys and sorrows. What else can we do? It’s fruitless to ponder how you could have behaved differently in the past. Of course, deep inside, I’d like to understand why people treat each other as they do. As Pasternak said: ‘I want to come to the essence’. In honesty, it’s too difficult a task.
By Valentina Zhdanovich
Alexey Dudarev: ‘I’m not ashamed of what I’ve written’
[b]Author of famous and enduringly popular comedy White Dew and the play The Privates writes sequel to famous Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol — The Executor — with premiere at National Academic Drama Theatre named after Maxim Gorky[/b] Alexey Dudarev believes himself to be in a ‘great creative form’. From his summer home near Logoisk, not far from Minsk, he tells us about his new play and shares his thoughts on the meaning of life and his creative path.