THE STAGE:

Getlein, Frank

THE STAGE Arena Stage in Washington has mounted the most sensational Soviet play since Gorky. It's called The Ascent of Mount Fuji by Chingiz Aitmatov and Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov, both residents of...

...He was destroyed as a person through the standard Soviet treatment of dissidents, through prisons and madhouses, interrogations and tortures, even Siberia...
...Also present is a history teacher who has not entirely gone along with conditions as they exist and consequently has re-mained at a low level of professional advancement...
...The teacher departs and, led by the journalist, the men get drunk by way of celebration and absolution...
...Yet Sabur was seized by the authorities, taken away and never seen again...
...FRANK GETLEIN...
...I do not exist...
...Once the commitment to Fuji-like truth is made, the memory of Sabur, or rather of Sabur's betrayal, takes over...
...Sabur was a poet and inseparable from the others...
...When he leaves to fetch the authorities, the characters behave absolutely in character and we see, with tragic inevitability, that the betrayals of silence and desertion are as possible at the end as they were before the beginning...
...All this is very true, but it is not the main point to be derived from an exceptionally rich and challenging play...
...Leslie Cass as the teacher is magnificent as the voice of suppressed conscience forc-ing itself free, Richard Bauer ingeniously devious as the journalist, as twisting in body and face as the lines make him in mind...
...The poem was never published and was circulated only among the five friends...
...the culprit could easily have been the academician, who has made the same kind of compromise professionally, perhaps even the history teacher, whose subsequent career-stalling has been by way of atonement or horror at what he was capable of...
...Read the papers...
...The four friends, old schoolmates and Red Army comrades in the Second World War, come together for a reunion on a mountain top in Kirghiz, where all of them were born and brought up...
...There is an easy and self-serving American reaction ready to hand to meet the dramatic excellence and political provocation of The Ascent of Mount Fuji...
...Suspicion is expertly diverted from one of the men to another...
...Aitmatov is a member not only in good standing but of high standing in the Communist Party in Kirghiz...
...It's called The Ascent of Mount Fuji by Chingiz Aitmatov and Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov, both residents of the Kirghiz SSR in Central Asia bordering Western China...
...The fact faced in Fuji is particularly unpleasant and the precise nature of it is the key to why the play is not merely sensational but also highly satisfactory as drama...
...mere inquiry would have been dangerous as well as futile, probably made things worse for the prisoner...
...In the morning, as they are packing up for the re-turn to "real life," a forest ranger arrives: last night an old woman was killed on the road apparently by a flung stone...
...witness of Sabur's essential inno-cence would merely have implicated, perhaps incrimi-nated, the witness...
...Thank heaven, it is not like that with us, we have civil liberties, freedom of speech, due process and so on and so on...
...Or, on the other hand, how interesting it is that the Soviets have allowed this play to be staged: clearly they are moving toward some relaxation of the tradi-tional ways of repression and at the same time repudi-ating certain monster-figures from their past, horrors who always seem to be threatening resurrection...
...A firm believer, like the others, he fought honorably in the war, but as the Red Army was driving the Nazis back toward the Russian frontier, Sabur wrote a long poem in which he advocated or seemed to advocate that the Soviet troops stop at their own borders, ensuring independence for the East-ern European nations following the inevitable collapse of the already ruined German forces...
...The play is structured as if it were itself an ascent from one level of understanding to the next...
...The drama is that of four surviving and mostly successful Soviet citizens facing or refusing to face, owning up to or obfuscating the fact that one of them and in some sense all of them betrayed a friend into the hands of the state apparatus...
...Like all the characters in Fuji, he is a believing Communist and clearly among the things he believes is the efficacy of facing facts, however unpleasant...
...The production, in Arena's adjacent end-stage house, the Kreeger, is first-rate...
...The men gladly flee down from the austere and icy heights of the mountain of conscience they have ascended...
...There are one or two shrill mo-ments that might better have been modulated, but the play is so strong that it carries them with no trouble...
...That practice of the state against its own citizens is merely a condition against which the real drama takes place...
...Again, the four survivors go through the degrees of complicity and condonement: Protest would have done no good...
...The authors are neither defectors, exiles nor them-selves particularly anti-Soviet...
...Granted the betrayal, how could we all have sat silent while our friend and comrade simply disappeared from the earth...
...Even more than the characters, the audience is trying to figure out who did in the poet...
...Host is the manager of a nearby collective farm, a man who accepted con-ditions as they are and worked his way within them to a respectable position in the region...
...At once the absent comrade becomes the most im-portant member of the outing...
...The mountain they are on-a mild one, to be sure- has been named Fuji by the farm manager's wife and early on they agree to keep the traditional Buddhist convention that on the original Fuji one faces one's innermost soul and comes to terms with the reality of one's past...
...She is anything but aspectual...
...Could it happen again like the Soviets with their stone-throwing...
...The other two men have made it big, one a scientific aca-demician with a convenient accommodation or two of his own in his career, the other an international jour-nalist, specializing in the third world and the advance of socialism among deprived peoples everywhere, a man, the play swiftly makes clear, who has built a brilliant career by knowing exactly when and in what direction the wind of the official line is changing...
...The first act is almost a kind of detective story...
...The play isn't really about the awful things the Soviets have done to dissident thinkers during Stalin's rule, before Stalin and after Stalin...
...Beyond the purely dramatic rewards, and these are substantial, the American meaning of the play is something like, It's1 the same the whole world over, or, Brother, you are my brother, or, from the Old Testament, Thou art the man...
...We get no answer but pass, in the second act, to a level of concern a little higher...
...Also along is their former teacher, a woman, who inspired the men in school with a love for socialism and who proudly sent them off to the war in its defense...
...Reverting to schoolboys, they end the act throwing stones down the mountain...
...The men's old school-teacher has arrived and becomes the center of the con-tinuing inquiry, of which the question now becomes...
...What was sensational about the play in its Moscow premiere two years ago was its open, matter-of-fact handling of the sensitive subject of the suppression of dissidents by the Soviet state...
...The set, by Ming Cho Lee, is indeed a high mountain, full of sky and distant views and a great variety of levels for the changing relationships among the char-acters and their past...
...The aging teacher cuts through all this with a poignant glimpse of the guilt she, the least involved, has car-ried through the years: "I should have hammered on windows...
...Three of the wives of the men are along, but they are aspectual to the play, drawing out or being reacted to by the principals...
...And so on...
...Most audience members probably conclude it was the journalist making his first move in a careerism based on sacrificing anything asked...
...Well along, we learn that after all he had been invited to the reunion and had replied, "Consider that I was killed in the war...
...Zelda Fichandler's direction has welded her resident company into precisely the col-lective body, with individual variations, that the theme of the play demands...
...But no conclusions are reached...
...Washington, at any rate, is full of upper-level bureaucrats who, in the time of Joe McCarthy, built their careers on precisely the silences and betrayals Fuji is about...
...The sensation continued through the play's various appearances in East European cities, and it has played in Washington to audiences equally fasci-nated by the simple fact that Fuji was allowed to be produced in Moscow and in other Warsaw Pact na-tions...

Vol. 102 • July 1975 • No. 9


 
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