Walpurgis Night by Venedikt Erofeev – a little-known Soviet play in a new translation

This is a play of satisfying contradictions: a funny Tragedy on the subject of punitive psychiatry in a style which combines plausible realism with literary flourish, writes Noah Birksted-Breen.

Venedikt Erofeev is an iconic Soviet poet-playwright. The only one of his works which is widely known in the West is a prose poem usually translated as Moscow to the End of the Line. According to the introduction of this Yale University Press publication, Walpurgis Night is Erofeev’s only completed play – and this new publication contains its second English-language translation.

The plot is simple. A new arrival, Gurevich, joins Ward 3 of a psychiatric hospital. He learns to live with the other patients in an uncomfortable existence where nothing in black and white. While one cruel orderly provides a sense of despair, Gurevich is given a ray of hope by the presence of the nurse, Natalia, who is a former love of his. The human dynamics are multi-layered – patients have the autonomy to run the ward more or less to their own rules. Gurevich finds his place first as a figure of suspicion, despised for his Jewishness, and then as a friend to the monitor. He hatches a plan by manipulating Natalia and stealing her key to the medical cabinet. When the unrepentant alcoholic, Gurevich, illicitly obtains some alcohol from the medical cabinet, he is able to start drinking again with his new companions.

It seems as if he has reached his longed-for prize, even under the noses of his captors. The play ends with a huge celebration of May Day by the patients – a unifying joy which parodies communism’s delusional desire for social equality and an undivided brotherhood. The twist is that Gurevich has found not alcohol but a type of poison – and this celebration turns carnivalesque with the liberation of all the patients through death.

While the play works as a damning critique of communism in its portrayal of dissidents of various types, its strength is that it also explores the magnetic appeal of a failed system. Alcohol (or rather poison) becomes a metaphor for the false hope of a seductive ideology in the mouths of the dissidents themselves who – in the true Russian tradition – riff eloquently about life and the world, high and low, when drunk (and poisoned). While the subject could have become rather niche, the play retains a universalism through its depiction of human hope and despair, in addition to a philosophical layer about what a life is worth.

The style of the play is not realism, nor is it fantasy, it is a playful blend of both. Acccordingly, the dialogue merges a spoken register with a humorous literary language. This fictional language, which is plausible without becoming bound to a plodding realism, is an impressive achievement by the playwright.

This new translation captures much of the play’s power. It contains the all-important humour of an absurd situation (a Kafka-esque imprisonment of innocents) without losing the undercurrents of violence between the characters. If there is a weakness in the translation by the experienced literary translator, Marian Schwartz, it that perhaps that this feels more like a literary translation than a dramatic one. It works well on the page but not all aspects of it would work in a production, I suspect: the dialogue can feel clunky at times, particularly in the early Acts when a doggedly faithful attitude is taken to Russian’s challenging particles and slang – jarring in a way which reminds us that this is a translated text. As the play’s momentum builds towards its climax, the translation reaches its peak, with satisfying invention and fluidity. Overall this is a convincing translation of an extremely challenging play.

In my view, this play deserves attention in the West. It could reinvigorate a Western engagement with the Soviet-era canon which tends to be limited to half a dozen names. Of course, Erofeev’s more famous work has had a prominent production history in the UK – with a West End transfer from the Pleasance Theatre of Moscow to the End of the Line (under the title Moscow Stations), played by Tom Courtenay in 1994, which left a strong impression on me when I saw it two decades ago. Now, it is time for Erofeev’s darker and more challenging work to take centre stage.

Walpurgis Night, or Steps of the Commander by Venedikt Erofeev, translated by Marian Schwartz is published by Yale University Press.

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