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Model for MankindA Model for Mankind

Corinna Lotz talks to James Sheldon about his new play which is inspired by the growing wave of interest in the music of Dimitry Shostakovich.

The New York playwright got hooked by the composer at a summer festival of rarely-heard music at Bard College near Sheldon's home in the Hudson River Valley.

“In 2004 they played Shostakovich's wonderful 1958 operetta Cheryomushki. What intrigued me was the discussion between renowned Soviet and right-wing American scholars, who collectively knew a huge amount about the difficult times that artists like Shostakovich and many others lived through,” Sheldon explains.

In fact, he was so intrigued that his play, A Model for Mankind, which has its world premiere in London’s Cock Tavern theatre on March 27, is about those tempestuous times.

He believes that his play is not only about the conflicts faced by the composer under Stalinist rule but that it has a relevance for the burning personal and political issues in today’s world.

“A knowledge of the history of that time may help you appreciate the subtleties in this play but it will also disconcert you. There are personal romantic sides which are completely made up by me.  So if you are a Shostakovich aficionado, you could be shocked.

“I created this story because I felt there was a big gap in the biographical material that was available. Shostakovich lived in a time when many artists were persecuted, but he also stands out as one of the very few of his calibre who was not killed or did not flee. Nor did he do very heinous things to promote the regime. Most of the things we know about the other artists is that they collaborated in various ways. In the 1930s they were expected to betray their friends as enemies of the state. That part is true and I use it accurately in the beginning of the play.

“I found Shostakovich a fascinating, enigmatic figure – there is an intriguing historical story which has still to be uncovered. In the 1990s there was a lot more scholarship done on the period. Scholars have access to a lot more material than before although now I’m told things are closing up again.”

While the composer is not the central character in A Model for Mankind, Sheldon was drawn to him as a dramatic personality. “He was clearly a great man under unimaginable pressure to survive and be true to his art, his ideas and to his country – forced to choose between his artistic freedom and his responsibilities as a father, as a spokesperson, and perhaps a rearguard for opposition to the regime.

“How he managed that without collaborating with the Stalinist regime in much more severe ways is itself an interesting historical question. But what made me want to write a play about him and his times is that, on a grand scale, it is a conflict that we all go through in our small ways. Where do we draw the line between what our ideals tell us to do and what reality requires of us?”

Arguments over the composer’s relationship to the Soviet regime are still raging – as well as the authenticity or not of a book of alleged memoirs. A child protégé, Shostakovich achieved fame in the Soviet Union under the patronage of the composer Alexander Glazunov, as well as Leon Trotsky's chief of staff Mikhail Tukhachevsky.

In 1936 when Pravda savagely attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and his ballet Bright Stream, the composer lived in fear of his life. In 1937 Tukhachevsky was murdered during Stalin’s purge of Red Army officers. Although he stayed in his Leningrad home during the Nazi siege, working as a firefighter, Shostakovich’s music was officially denounced again after the war.

The post-Stalin era saw him become a member of the Communist Party but also joining with Yevgeny Yevtushenko and other artists to denounce anti-Semitism, support the poet Joseph Brodsky and oppose the rehabilitation of Stalin after Khrushchev’s “thaw”.

Sheldon is sanguine about Shostakovich’s loyalty towards the young Soviet Union. “Look, I’m not an expert on Soviet history. From what I have learned there were great reasons why the revolution occurred. There were tremendous accomplishments and ideals which the revolution stood for at least in its first 10 or 15 years.

“It’s fair to say that biographers would agree, that certainly in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Shostakovich was a very loyal supporter of the Bolshevik ideals. He was a little too young to have taken part in the revolution, but a lot of what he wrote in music,  his letters and statements attributed to him at that time were entirely pro-Soviet.

“The title says it all. It’s both a kind of ironic moniker – A Model for Mankind – that was how they referred to Lenin and how Shostakovich’s legacy was presented for Soviet mankind. For me the question that all good literature and art should consider is what are the guideposts and priorities for all of us who have to make difficult decisions? Who is a model for mankind? Was it Shostakovich because he was a great composer – and a great collaborator? He did things that don’t look too commendable. But he did them for good reasons. We are all struggling with those priorities.”

11 March 2010

A Model for Mankind by James Sheldon at The Cock Tavern Theatre from 27 March to 17 April

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