Yuri Sokhar: ‘I believe I’ve achieved something vital’
[b]Mogilev Regional Drama and Comedy Theatre (named after Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz) in Bobruisk is to stage a play about the forefather of Belarusian theatre — the first of its kind[/b]Professor of Art Yuri Sokhar, a writer and playwright, has been involved in the theatre for several decades, often creating plays about those who have significantly influenced Belarusian and world culture.
Professor of Art Yuri Sokhar, a writer and playwright, has been involved in the theatre for several decades, often creating plays about those who have significantly influenced Belarusian and world culture. One such is poet and playwright Dunin-Marcinkiewicz, a classical figure of Belarusian literature and a founder of new Belarusian literary drama. Belarus is celebrating the 205th anniversary of the birth of the great man in 2013.
Mr. Sokhar likes to challenge commonly held beliefs regarding major personalities, offering new viewpoints. In one interview with our magazine (#5/2010) he told us about his play exploring the life of Albert Einstein, performed by the Yakub Kolas National Academic Drama Theatre: Don’t be Sad, Albert! Having thoroughly studied sources on the amazing life of Dunin-Marcinkiewicz, he wrote a play about the man who Belarusian poet Vladimir Syrokomlya called a ‘prophet’.
There’s no doubt that the man’s true talents may not be fully appreciated, notes Mr. Sokhar. Despite having spent so much time writing his play, he admits that he still has the capacity to speak and dream of Dunin-Marcinkiewicz endlessly. He admits, “He impresses me greatly. Besides being talented, he was also a very kind man, being warm-hearted. We may yet learn more new facts about his life.”
I won’t critique the play closely but would like to say that it is certainly not dull, being full of action, intrigue and conflict — as you’d hope. Moreover, it has believable characters. What impressed me most is that it shows the human spirit of each protagonist and it’s easy to see the author’s love for his creations. The play also evokes the past vividly, via flamboyant and expressive language, full of proverbs, sayings and poetry.
I recall Mr. Sokhar telling me that raising children is perhaps the ultimate expression of creativity, so I begin my interview with the following question:
I understand that truly creative people never retire, continuing always in their favourite occupation. I know that you are no exception but wouldn’t you like to devote yourself entirely to your grandchildren, garden and home, forsaking the difficult task of writing plays? You could help your son raise his three children.
I’d love to but this never goes further than desire. I sometimes say to myself, when working until 4a.m., that it’s time to stop and devote myself completely to my grandchildren. I also need more time to sleep… However, I can’t fall asleep, as my headaches when there is too much silence — from tiredness and from the ticking of the clock which I never hear at other times of the day. It’s hard to escape the virtual world you create, as it holds you tenaciously. I’m always thinking of something else that needs to be written, deciding that one character needs to say more while another should say less — to avoid drowning in verbiage. It’s also necessary to create tension between characters.
Just before falling asleep, when I’m overcome with exhaustion, I smile blissfully and say to myself that this will be my last play. Needless to say, in the morning, when I wake, everything begins again. I have my breakfast and sit again at my writing desk. Remarkably, I forget my night speculations as the throes of creation overtake me beautifully. This is my way of life and I can’t change it or give it up. I enjoy its torments, juxtapositions, delights and sorrows.
Who is your foremost critic and reader?
My wife Olga, who is a good philologist and friend; there’s nothing to add.
What pushed you to write Wincenty?
Of course, the personality of Dunin-Marcinkiewicz attracted me. I’ve read many interpretations by various authors about this tireless propagandist of Belarusian folklore and the founder of the national theatre of musical comedy. I knew enough to speculate. A while back, on working jointly with other theatre experts and historians on ‘The History of Belarusian Theatre’, which has a whole section dedicated to Dunin-Marcinkiewicz, I was impressed by his personality.
Unfortunately, much of his legacy has been lost. However, evidence indicates that, during his lifetime, Dunin-Marcinkiewicz had to earn his living, being poor. His letters written to friends, publishers and governors prove this. Just imagine how many works might have been written by Dunin-Marcinkiewicz if he hadn’t been required to spend time earning his daily bread. It’s a tragic fact.
Which sources did you use and where did you work? Which facts from Dunin-Marcinkiewicz’s life impressed you most?
As I’ve already said, not too much is known about him. I learnt something from the archives in Vilnius and St. Petersburg but there’s very little in Belarus — although I do appreciate researchers’ work on his life and creativity. Remarkably, I made a range of discoveries which have given me a deep understanding of the personality of Dunin-Marcinkiewicz; this became the essence of the play’s character.
Foremost, I realised his great power of spirit, which guided his path through suffering and terrific poverty with dignity. He helped shape Belarusian culture with ‘Idyll’, ‘Pinsk Gentry’ and ‘Zalety’; these have been staged many times by professional and amateur theatres. It fills me with pride as a theatre expert and playwright. I’m also happy that all his known works are published as separate editions while his poetry and plays have also been published in both the original Russian and Belarusian.
I’m convinced that, from birth, we all have a set destiny which is impossible to alter. I think that Dunin-Marcinkiewicz’s life was no exception. Of course, it’s regrettable that fire and war destroyed much of his legacy but the episodes in my play which are speculative could well have occurred in Marcinkiewicz’s life. As an author, I have license to change the chronology of events and to conjecture.
What do you think about Dunin-Marcinkiewicz’s participation in Kastus Kalinovsky’s rebellion?
In my play, I didn’t go into details while presenting the ‘revolutionary’ layer of Wincenty’s life but believe that he wrote on behalf of Kastus Kalinovsky purely to earn money rather than from political motives; he was extremely poor with a large family to care for. Of course, this is my hypothesis. Being a playwright, I’m most interested in his deepest inner world of thoughts and feelings. If I manage to reflect these, stage managers will enjoy working with the play.
The play is full of facts from Dunin-Marcinkiewicz’s life which are explored through his monologues and in his dialogue with other characters — in particular, with his uncle: Metropolitan Sestrantsevich. Many pages are dedicated to this. Aren’t you afraid that such an abundance of biographical detail might be off-putting?
I’m not; as the author, I can write as I choose. The logic of the play guides me. Stage managers can choose their interpretation, becoming independent ‘authors’ of the performance. If necessary, I can make the text shorter, as is normal in the creative process.
Which aspects of the play may catch the interest of a stage manager?
The same things which have caught my interest: the extraordinary and tragic fate of Wincenty. Just imagine living a creative life under twenty years of police surveillance. You’d need to be extremely clever and understand psychology to find compromise with the authorities and not become angry with life. After his death, the police burnt down his house, with his manuscripts, indicating that his combative work really annoyed them.
I love the scene in the play where someone is saved by a she-wolf; the underlying message is interesting — that not everyone behaves as generously. From where does your love of wolves originate?
From my childhood; at 14, I studied at the Professional and Technical College in Dnepropetrovsk, visiting my home village at the weekend. 18km of marshland separated my village from the station and there were no roads at that time. I remember it being very dark and, having lost my way, I began to walk to the right more than usual. Suddenly, I saw a she-wolf and recall thinking that she was very beautiful. She ran alongside me, pushing me back to the left — to the well-trodden path, as I later understood. As soon as I began to abandon the path again, she would come near and steer me left. In this way, she accompanied me to the village.
Weren’t you afraid?
No, I had no fear. I’d often met wolves as a boy as there were many ravines behind our village, where wolves lived. Once, I was playing there with my friends and saw a hole; being a young devil, I put my head inside. Wolves’ dens drop vertically downwards and then sideways, at an angle. I told the boys to hold me by the legs and they agreed. Then, suddenly, I smelt a wolf inside the hole. I cried out to the boys to pull me up and we then ran away. However, our curiosity caused us to stop and look back. A she-wolf emerged from the hole with five cubs. She didn’t hurt us and the memory has always remained with me. Since then, I’ve had very tender, even mystical, feelings towards wolves. I’ve written a story about a she-wolf.
What will audiences learn from your play?
As is usual, everyone will take what applies to them personally. Of course, they’ll also learn about the history of their homeland and of the mentality of those who lived in Bobruisk District over two centuries ago. Dunin-Marcinkiewicz did all he could to awaken dignity in the souls of his countrymen. The audience will understand that, even at those remote times, Belarusians had the right to be called so, having their own language and culture. These are our roots, which enrich the soul; it would be a sin to part with them, as we’d lose something vital.
When I was writing the play, I visited the place where Wincenty was born. It was a dark December day that I found his family estate in Panyushkovichi. I imagined how beautiful it was there once, with centuries old oak trees, curly birch trees and an old garden around a small two-storied house. I imagined his happy parents, who loved each other, as well as little Wincenty Jakub Junior. His childhood was peaceful, despite his father dying at an early age. The child had a light in his soul, as I did on finishing the play. It seemed to me that I’d achieved something vital, allowing people to understand this powerful personality…
You must have your own vision for the play’s staging and, of course, will share this with the stage manager. How do you imagine the opening? Would a ‘play within a play’ be appropriate?
No, I have another vision. Dunin-Marcinkiewicz was born in December; according to ancient pagan beliefs, the Grey She-Wolf reins during this month, symbolising power, wisdom and empathy. In December, people ask wolves to pardon their misdeeds. Wolves refrain from attacking people while we refrain from killing them. Just imagine the stage in the darkness of night, with a snowstorm whistling and wolves howling — reflected in the music and lighting. Suddenly, we hear the cry of a new born baby.
That sounds impressive… You’ve mentioned that the Culture Ministry has recommended that Belarusian theatres stage this play. Which stage managers have already become acquainted with it and which theatres have an agreement with you?
The Artistic Leader of the Belarusian Drama Theatre, Alexander Gartsuev, is taking an interest, as is Valery Anisenko, of the Yakub Kolas Theatre. However, I don’t know if they’ll stage the play. Pleasingly, while in the Czech Republic in summer, I received a call from the Culture Ministry, asking for permission to place to play on the website, which I gave. The play has also been approved for staging at the Drama and Comedy Theatre named after Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz.
Your son, Maxim Sokhar, will be working on it, won’t he? He’s also Artistic Leader of the theatre which staged your Nero.
Exactly. He also staged ‘Stratim-Lebed’ (Swan Stratim) — about Maxim Bogdanovich; it was nominated for the National Award. It’s planned that ‘Wincenty’ will become the theatre’s calling card. I hope Maxim will cope well; there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, as he already has a reputation as a good stage director. Moreover, his theatrical company is strong; his actors are very good. Bobruisk is a theatrical city — home to intelligent and dignified people.
By Valentina Zhdanovich