Russian Director Lev Dodin. Wikimedia Commons

If the soul is not deaf

“What can people do by themselves? Are people capable of conserving their humanity?” Russian director LEV DODIN, among the Rimini Meeting 2013 guests this August, will speak about himself, his theater, and the theme of the Meeting.
Fabrizio Sinisi

Lev Dodin is one of those master artists who create during the process of preparing a performance. His bond with the internationally renowned actor and theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky, though the latter died in 1938, is living and visible in his work. One of Russia’s most important directors, Dodin has guided the Maly Drama Theatre, Saint Petersburg’s most important venue, since 1973. His work is a conversation with its source of nourishment: the experience of the human person and the life of “his” people. He has toured the theaters of rural Russia with his memorable version of Vasily Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate, and has brought to the stage some of the best adaptations from Dostoyevsky, such as the unforgettable 1992 production of The Demons. Particularly stunning is the scene in which the terrorist Verchovensky goes to visit Kirillov before the latter commits suicide. He wants to ask Kirillov to exonerate him by leaving a suicide note that claims all responsibility for future attacks. After the brief dialogue, there is a ten-minute scene in silence while the terrorist devours a roast chicken at one end of the table, and Kirillov at the other end rehearses his suicide with a revolver. The only sound is the chewing. True theater. The spectator has the terrible physical sensation of how the dramatic urgency of life can emerge in the most complete indifference, of how “the state of emergency of the human person” is a fact that can no longer be avoided. Lev Dodin will be a guest at the upcoming Rimini Meeting, where he will speak about himself, his theater, and this year’s title.

Mr. Dodin, do you believe that the human person is in a state of emergency?

The human person is always in danger. From up above, we have been given free will, and this is not only a great good, but also a great responsibility that people, unfortunately, are not always capable of using in the right way. The history of bad choices began with original sin and continues ad infinitum. Today, though there is talk of the victory of civilization and the human being is conceived as an individual personality, as an exceptional creature in its spiritual being, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to preserve humanity.

What is the danger?
These days, for example, with the North Korean threats, we talk about the possibility of nuclear war as if it were something taken for granted. In substance, there is the possibility of exterminating the human race as a species, and our imagination by now refuses to imagine such an event. If the imagination cannot understand the possible horror, nobody even tries to produce the vaccine. The soul becomes deaf, unfeeling.

How can this state be overcome?

It is necessary to tell the truth, to find the way to make people hear the truth, to appeal not only to logic and reason, but first of all to the senses. And here art can, and does, play a great role.

The most important function of art, especially in our century, so cold and fast-paced, is to give people the opportunity to wonder at and feel compassion for their own neighbor, and thus for themselves, in this moment of art, identifying with another person. It is always difficult, but it is always beautiful. This is the meaning of catharsis. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “hell is other people.” No. “Hell is me,” and this is what art must make people understand.

How does theater promote wonder and compassion?
In preparing for my Grossman production, I brought my students to see the partially destroyed barracks of the gulags and the tram that brought people to Auschwitz and its gas chambers. One girl’s legs were literally paralyzed, and she couldn’t remain standing. She had to sit on the tracks for some time. She perceived not only psychologically but also physically that that tramcar was also for her.

What does this mean?
If somewhere in the world there is a gulag, I am there, inside. If in some part of the world Auschwitz exists, I am there in Auschwitz. If a spectator reaches this perception, it is a true miracle. Unfortunately, in daily life it seems to us that cars always hit someone else, that the airplanes that crash are only those that carry other travellers, that others are guilty because they tolerate injustice. Actually, we are all silent witnesses to this injustice; we are its authors.

Does this miracle ever happen?
During the Grossman play, it sometimes happens that young people break into tears. Maybe they have never heard about the Holocaust or know almost nothing of the terror of Stalin. They see the naked actors accompanied by the music of Schubert going toward a terrifying uncertainty. They are moved. When they go home they go on the Internet to understand the history of their country. When this happens, theater has fulfilled its mission.

“Life” and “fate”: what do these two elements of the title of Grossman’s novel mean for you? What is the relationship between them?
The meanings of Grossman’s novel are obscure and varied. But slowly I have come to a fairly clear idea: life is given to people down here, but people construct their fate, their own and that of others. Perhaps the most meaningful and modern questions of the great literature of Grossman are: What can people do by themselves? Are people capable of conserving their humanity?

Can theater become knowledge?
Theater is first of all a method for knowing myself. Knowing myself, I can understand relationships with reality, with the environment, with other people, whom I discover as a part of the world, as a part of myself.

Can you give us an example?

When we first began working on Dostoyevsky’s The Demons, in the beginning it seemed to me that we needed to concentrate on the reasons for the birth of totalitarianism. I wanted to hammer one more nail in the coffin of Soviet power. Soon we understood that this aroused no interest in us, and that the book was much richer. So then we noted that the point was the story of Russian thought and its relationship with European thought. But the more deeply we submerged ourselves in the reflections of the author, the more our own reflections were not about politics, philosophy, or history: we found ourselves dealing with the very essence of the human being. The Great Books are bottomless. For this reason, in my productions I don’t want to affirm anything I already knew before beginning the rehearsals. What I really enjoy is the discovery during rehearsals.

If you were to say in a nutshell why you do theater, what would you say?
The goal of every art is perfection, that is, to understand the world and the nature of the human person, down to the last drop of being. This is not possible, just as it is impossible to attain perfection. In this desire, however, art, if not in its answers, at least in its questions and presentiments is capable of surpassing the more precise sciences. Artistic discoveries are made by people who have an intelligent and very reasonable heart, and a passionate and very sensitive mind. In fact, in science, as in art, asking a question is often much more important than finding an answer.

Chekhov was faulted many times because he didn’t give answers. However, he asked questions as a great master, and to date we still cannot find answers to these interrogatives. Perfection is unattainable. It is not possible to know the world. We can only try to reach both perfection and knowledge of the world approximately. This is why, in our life, the questions are often much more important than the answers. Human knowledge is also made up of the questions posed by art. I will add that, from my point of view, the power of art has biological and physical grounding.

Biological grounding?
Why does a young person want to become an actor? Because a desire is born to avoid death, to live a greater number of lives, to be a saint, a sinner, a lover, a believer, a traitor, a hero. She or he wants to experience the full infiniteness of power and failure without limit. Acting on the stage is a physiological act, and like every physiological act, it has its own laws, which cannot be broken and which one follows even unconsciously. In this sense, every artist commits sacrilege. It is not by chance that in ancient times the Christian authorities, and also the Jewish and Muslim ones, cursed theater. Today, we are once again able to understand that true faith does not nullify science, but stimulates it. In the same way, true faith requires art, nourishes it. It nourishes the explosions and rebellions against God, because a person who does not rebel is an incomplete person.

Why does faith nourish art?

The stronger a person’s faith in the divine origin of life, the more dramatically one sees the importance of the human fall. Faith must not calm, but gives the right to approach and help others approach the edge of the abyss of the human spirit. Theater, by its nature, like art in general, is an incarnate pain. Because art believes in the greatness of the human person, it speaks of our affliction. Thus, the great liturgy of true theater is achieved. This is why, for me, the concept of the “temple of art,” formulated by Russian actors like Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold, is so important. We enter during our childhood and remain children in it until a great old age, and up to our death, we never stop asking: “How?”, “Why?”, “To what end?”