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August 23, 2004

Bulgakov's Master and Margarita at the Chichester Festival

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

The Master and Margarita
Chichester Festival Theatre
23rd July - 24th September 2004

You might think that Bulgakov's sprawling comic novel would defy translation into theatrical terms, but in fact there have been at least a dozen takes on it since the novel emerged in the 1960s, the first time it's publication was possible after Bulgakov's death in 1940. Adapting it for the stage is a high-wire act, but every director's dream, and the Chicester version is one of the great theatrical experiences of the decade.

Several stories intersect with each other, but the central event is the eruption into the monotonous mid-morning glare of Stalin's Russia of the devil himself. Communism had created a world of complete disenchantment: nothing magical, supernatural, spiritual or even merely nuanced survived, merely the grinding banalities of a bureaucracy at work. Our hero has written a play about Yeshua and Pontius Pilate but the literary committee, entirely on Marxist message, doesn't even believe Jesus existed. The devil turns up in Soviet society as a vaudeville prankster with a team of colourful thugs and seducers (including a talking cat) who take over the Soviet stage for a magical performance, promising to debunk the secrets of magic. The bureaucrats are nervous, but love the thought of letting daylight in, even on magic. At Chicester, the devil's sinister teasing of us, the audience, brought the house down. Evil as vaudeville is a brilliant image of the terrifying disorder and unpredictability of a Stalinist world in which nothing makes sense. The party hack who survives this encounter ends up in a lunatic asylum, still jabbering materialist dogmas. 'What?' says the hero, referring to the devil, 'you're here in the asylum and you don't believe in his existence!'

The romantic plot has our playwright hero, the Master of the title, suffering the ennui of trial by committee as his play is being rehearsed. His Margarita is a heroine of intrepid and unconditional love who, in a nice take on the Faust legend, sells her soul to the devil and at last finds peace for them both. 'He has not earned light', the devil remarks, 'but he has earned rest'. The Master has talent, and a nervous kind of integrity, and he knows the crucial moral fact that cowardice is the worst sin, from which all the others flow, but he lets Margarita, the archetype of tough Russian women, do his courage for him. Not, indeed, that in the purges of the thirties, courage or cowardice made any difference at all to the way things panned out.

Never quite forgotten, and a moral touchstone for the whole enterprise, are the events in Caesarea two thousand years ago, in which a tormented Pontius Pilate encounters the young Yesua who believes all people are good, and regrets that Matthew the Levite is getting everything wrong. The Soviet world is bleak and pointless, that of the devil is vacuously vivacious, but for Bulgakov (who came from an orthodox family) there is a spiritual elsewhere to which real people can occasionally have recourse in preserving their humanity. And on the moral plane, nothing is more striking than the devil's descent from the vaudeville liveliness of the first act to the orgy in the second, in which famous villains from the past Lucretia Borgia, Sade, Jack the Ripper and so on cavort geriatrically in a joyless caricature of pleasure. But the devil has his own tunes. 'Where would your good be', he demands of Matthew the Levite, 'if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadows?'

One would commend Michael Feast's devil particularly, were it not that the whole cast is a matchless ensemble. The Master and Margarita is a dazzling creation in various modes from satire to moral critique. It contains more than can be grasped from one reading or one performance, but our temptation is to see it as a response to Stalin's despotism, the most purely irrational event of the twentieth century. Its actual range is much wider: it is the artist crying out against the deadliness of modern doing, an invitation to the dance.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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