One wants to live in history, but one does not want to be a disaster tourist—especially when the disaster can be witnessed a mile away from your house. Wednesday night, at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, at a benefit for The Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Koliada, the group’s co-founder, reported at the outset that, earlier in the day, one of the actresses—a woman backstage, preparing to perform for the 200 or so patrons in the club’s darkly lit basement space on Bleecker Street—had received a one-word text message from her husband, back in Minsk: “Arrest.” Yesterday was the one-month anniversary of a violent crackdown following a fraudulent election in Europe’s last true dictatorship, and her husband, protesting, was taken into custody by President Alexander Lukashenko’s secret police, which—in a symbol of the regime’s brutality, heritage, and almost self-parodic oppressiveness—is still called the KGB. “I didn’t plan to tell you some bad news,” said Koliada. She was dressed in a denim jacket and a hoodie with fashionable short hair—someone whom you would assume was just another neighborhood resident if you saw her walking down East Seventh Street one afternoon. She had hoped for a “cheerful” evening, but unfortunately, History had taken place. I immediately realized that It had, and that this was therefore a rare and valuable experience for me, one that, in a paradoxical but unembarassing way, I would cherish. Then again, it dawned on me that my rare experience was another man’s prison sentence.
The lump in my throat only grew once I felt yet less estranged from the repression in Belarus—and not only because of the (not untrue) insistence, made by the PEN major domo, that the squashing of a writer in one place means the squashing of all writers in all places. After the troupe produced an excerpt from a play, Numbers, two screens flashed the names of various famous personages of Belarusian origin. Many of these—and nearly all the famous names—were Jews, including Kirk Douglas (whose son Michael had written a letter of solidarity that was read at the event); Chaim Weizmann; Shimon Peres; Isaac Asimov; Larry King; Irving Berlin; Ralph Lauren; and Marc Chagall. So it would be especially silly for me to think of these people as fundamentally different than myself. We would be bonded enough if we merely shared our humanity, but this extra connection brought our kinship home for me.
The emcee for the evening was Tom Stoppard—“Thoh-muss Stoh-PAR,” he pronounced it, an Oxbridge accent vaguely inflected with an East European lilt and a silent “d,” as though his surname were French (actually, it was originally Straussler). A Czech Jew, Stoppard is the world’s greatest living playwright. In his Cahoot’s Macbeth, a playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia stages Macbeth in his living room, the resonances between the titular usurping tyrant and the Soviet rulers of the playwright’s own “nation miserable” screaming so loudly that the proceedings are interrupted by a secret policeman. The actors get around his existence by, seemingly on the fly, inventing their own language; Act V is performed in that matter, with Macbeth’s climactic declaration, “Lay on, Macduff! And damned be he who first cries ‘Hold, enough!’” translated to “Frantic, Macduff! Fry butter ban loss underlay—November glove!”. Artifice carries the day—the literal embodiment of Koliada’s declaration, “Art could save our country.” Arguably, however, the real-life drama involving the actress’s husband was challenging the “drama” of art.
The evening began with a woman singing a Belarusian folk song, accompanying herself on violin at times; she made her voice sound alternately like a string and like a piccolo. Then Stoppard introduced himself, speaking haltingly, and praised the group: “I think I would not try to embarrass them with my admiration for them, for their courage and persistence, to say nothing of their gifts.” Then came a reading of a poem, in Belarusian and English, that happened to be written by one of the candidates who opposed Lukashenko in the latest election, and who is now—what else?—languishing in a KGB prison.
Next was the novelist E.L. Doctorow—charmingly pronounced “Doctoroff” by Koliada, who was more aware than most that at one point it probably was pronounced that way—who read an unattributed (so perhaps by him?) monologue that slowly, slowly, carefully built toward a subdued yet hilarious conclusion in which we were asked to imagine—and indeed believed—that the souls of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the like were merely “bacteria living in the asshole” of a pathetic sea-creature hiding at the bottom of the darkest, deepest ocean. I distinctly recall the use of the phrase “electric anus.”
Then there was a dialogue, performed by two American actors, in which a lawyer is questioning a state interrogator about the use of torture, which he insists on calling “pizza,” for “persuasion and interrogation techniques.” “It’s an acronym,” he says. “More of an ellipsis.” The scene builds until the interrogator is threatening the lawyer, coercing her into saying “five little words, and it’s a normal day.” She relents: “It’s not torture, it’s pizza.” She is permitted to leave; the interrogator turns to the audience and declares, “Never laid a finger on her.” This was followed by the novelist Don DeDillo, who spryly, humbly took the stage to read an excerpt from his novel Mao II, an imagistic, convincing depiction of a terrible warzone.
I should say that while even a non-cynic might have expected an element of self-congratulation on the part of the distinguished guests, I swear there was none. Probably because their reputations need no burnishing, Stoppard, Doctorow, and DeLillo did not attempt to burnish theirs: They were there, clearly, for the cause.
Finally, the highlight, with three actors and two actresses—a blonde and a brunette—performing scenes from Numbers, which consisted of various pantomimes that reflected the various horrific statistics—the numbers—that describe Belarus today: The country is 176th out of 185 in terms of press freedom; 64,730 abortions took place in Belarus in one recent year; every third Belarusian died in World War Two; every fourth contemporary citizen has a mental disorder; over 85 percent of students wish to leave; 70 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster landed in the country. At one point, as these statistics assaulted our intellects, the actors sang the Belarusian national anthem. It was thrilling and powerful stuff: It was art, kind of, doing something.
As it closed and the actors took a bow, I couldn’t help but wonder to my companion which of the two actresses was the one whose husband had just been arrested. I guessed the blonde woman—there was something hesitant about her, and I couldn’t tell if it was her characters or her performance, and, if her performance, then something deliberate or not; but the brunette woman seemed too self-assured and expert and even intense in her performance to be the one.
Naturally, it was the brunette woman. Koliada introduced the five, and paused, and pointed to the brunette woman, opened her mouth to speak, and started crying; the woman herself had already started to cry.
“Give sorrow words,” Malcolm, the rightful king of Scoland, in exile, instructs Macduff, who has just learned that his wife and children have been slaughtered, “the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.” The Belarus Free Theatre’s art are the words that speak their grief, and if, on Wednesday night, art was powerless over the action of evil men—if could not prevent an unjust arrest, and could not prevent a wife’s heart from breaking—one felt a little less pessimistic concerning art’s chances over the long run.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.