Serious Play

Published on November 9th, 2010 by Emily Candela

Production still from the film "William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible." © Art21, Inc. and The Metropolitan Opera, 2010.

Perfect nonsense goes on in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all…” — Nikolai Gogol, The Nose

South African artist William Kentridge is known for his ambitious projects, but his latest work may surpass them all. In Spring 2010, The Nose, a wildly experimental opera by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, premiered under Kentridge’s direction and production design at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. This follows recent revivals of the opera by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 2004 and Opera Boston in 2009, but as we discover in Art21’s new film, William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, Kentridge’s version of The Nose offers audiences an entirely new experience. His elaborate stage design — which fuses moving image projections with live action — conjures a complex history linking the 19th-century Russian story that inspired the opera, Russia’s modernist artists of the years following its 1917 revolution, the horrors of Stalin’s reign, and South Africa’s own troubled past. In the process, Kentridge’s singular production illuminates the universal and political significance of The Nose across time, nations, and cultures.

Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, completed in 1928, is based on a short story written almost one hundred years earlier by the Russian 19th-century master of the absurd, Nikolai Gogol. It tells the tale of a pompous civil servant named Kovalyev who wakes up one morning to discover — to his horror — that his nose is missing. After much searching, he finally comes upon his estranged nose in a church, where we learn that the nose is now of a higher bureaucratic rank than Kovalyev and consequently will not speak to him.

Why this unrelenting attraction to the The Nose? There’s no question that the story’s premise is ridiculous. Yet, this satire of bureaucratic hierarchy has resonated across cultural and historical contexts, sparking numerous adaptations from Shostakovich’s innovative opera to lesser-known plays and even an animated film (Le Nez, made in the 1960s). The true answer might be found in the story’s sheer absurdity which, throughout The Nose‘s own history, has acted as a strategy for dealing with a world turned “upside-down” by societal upheavals or injustices brought on by what Kentridge calls the “terror of hierarchy.” After all, Gogol, Shostakovich, and Kentridge share an understanding of the importance of laughter in the face of this kind of “terror,” which each experienced in his own way, and Kentridge’s unique production teases this out. It places the audience at the center of a vast panorama that unites the three men, their common experience of a brutal or nonsensical hierarchical order, and their shared impulse to respond in dark times with a hilarious waltz, a brutal joke, or a nasal laugh.

A “Great Chain of Being”
The staging of this 19th-century Russian tale by a contemporary South African artist might seem like the biggest cultural leap yet for The Nose, but it is Kentridge’s own life experience that makes his production of the opera possible. At the heart of his art is South Africa’s recent history of apartheid, a legal system of discrimination that, from 1948 until 1994, divided the population into an unjust pecking order based on race. Kentridge’s horror at witnessing this oppressive social system — which he describes with irony as “our own great chain of being” — draws him to Gogol’s dark satire of an all-pervasive hierarchy.

William Kentridge, "Blue Head," 1993–1998. Etching and aquatint with two hand-painted plates on Velin Arches Blanc paper, 47 1/4 x 36 11/50 in. Edition of 35. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

Maybe it is this deep personal connection that allows Kentridge to make The Nose so distinctly his own while still honoring both the score and libretto of Shostakovich’s opera and the essence of Gogol’s story. His primary tool is imagery, especially those very Kentridge-esque projections narrating silent stories alongside the official plot. In addition to several playful vignettes featuring Kentridge’s imagined adventures of the nose character, many of these stories recount the history of The Nose‘s native Russia. This history becomes a lens for Kentridge’s exploration of the “terror of hierarchy” and the divisions it generates. Taking Gogol’s story as his starting point, Kentridge applies the visual trace of Russia’s utopian modernist avant-garde. His set for The Nose makes up an enormous dynamic collage that echoes the period and spirit in which Shostakovich wrote his opera. Also present, however, is the shadow of Stalin’s brutal purges of state officials, cultural figures, and the population at large, which crippled the country in the late 1930s. Known as The Great Terror, this period saw Shostakovich witnessing a destructive hierarchy. In assembling this history, Kentridge’s production amounts to a retrospective of the life of The Nose itself, revealing his work to be an unusual collaboration between three artists separated by several centuries.

“Not to Make Sense”
Gogol’s The Nose is one of the most well-known short stories by a colossal, yet unquestionably strange figure of Russian literature. The Nose is typical of many of his other prominent works in its satirical take on 19th-century St. Petersburg society, which was dominated at the time by a stringent and excessively hierarchical social order. To Gogol, a transplant from the Ukrainian provinces, this status-obsessed bureaucratic society was a cold, unfamiliar world. Working as a civil servant by day (like many of his fictional characters) and writing by night, Gogol responded to this society and its upside-down value system with a literature of the grotesque and absurd. The Nose presents Gogol’s vision its most distilled form, for this story is built out of little else besides its impossible premise and unlikeable characters.

Even though Kentridge’s production of The Nose takes on history in a serious way, it is entirely shaped by the bizarre dreamlike logic of Gogol’s tale. We can see this in the way Kentridge foregrounds the ephemeral quality of the filmic medium: projected paper cut-outs form momentary figures only to scatter into immaterial fragments, and archival footage of Soviet athletes, marchers, and even the ballerina Anna Pavlova – her head replaced by a gigantic nose – flicker on the set before yielding to the on-stage scenery. Also shifting between live and projected form is the character of the nose himself, who really is just that: an oversized nose with legs. Most of his exploits (which include falling in love) are absent in Gogol’s original story and Shostakovich’s libretto of The Nose, but the addition of this dreamlike and comical subplot in Kentridge’s version is in keeping with Gogol’s own monstrous imagination. After all, the writer once proclaimed his burning desire to transform into an enormous nose, “with nostrils the size of two goodly pails so that I might inhale all possible vernal perfumes.”[1]

Production still from the film "William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible." © Art21, Inc. and The Metropolitan Opera, 2010.

Like Gogol, Shostakovich is known for his grotesque, satirical wit (often expressed through the smashing together of opposing elements) and, like Kentridge, he took pleasure in applying the story’s irrational logic to his operatic version of The Nose. Shostakovich’s tool for achieving this is the iconoclastic language of Russia’s modernist artists of the tumultuous decade following the 1917 revolution. In his score for The Nose, he creates a feeling of destabilized reality through auditory spells of dissonance, atonality, an unconventional separation between the orchestra and vocal parts, and a raucous interlude written entirely for percussion that still shocks audiences today. When his score leaps illogically from waltzes to folksongs in a comic flurry, Shostakovich mirrors not only Gogol’s absurd tale, but also the jump cuts of the Russian modernist filmmakers’ new technique of montage, pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. Shostakovich was a contemporary of Russia’s early modernist artists, collaborating with luminaries such as the writer Vladimir Mayakovsky and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Like many Russian avant-garde artists at the time — especially the utilitarian-minded Constructivists Varvara Stepanova and her husband, photographer Aleksander Rodchenko — Shostakovich worked across media. His involvement in cinema and theater allowed for a cross-fertilization that brings to mind not only Kentridge’s synthesis of projections and live performance in The Nose, but also the contemporary artist’s multi-disciplinary way of working.

Production still from the film William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible. © Art21, Inc. and The Metropolitan Opera, 2010.

Producing his opera nearly a century later, Kentridge complements Shostakovich’s modernist score with striking scenography (conceived with Sabine Theunissen) that recalls this modernist avant-garde. The stage is transformed into a giant shifting collage, where text and shape merge, as in the graphic experiments of El Lissitzky. One character even appears to be wearing a replica of Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist design for a never-erected Soviet monument. It’s clear that while the production’s fragmentation and collage conjure the dreamlike logic of Gogol’s story and match the pessimistic aura of Shostakovich’s score, they also point to that other sense of dreaming: the utopian imagination of Russia’s modernists. By evoking their style, which thrives on the ripping apart and reformation of elements, Kentridge rouses both the feeling of total breakdown and a sense of possibility. In addition to contributing to the opera’s overall sense of the absurd, this unification of opposites hints at the power of the absurd as a response to huge societal upheavals or tragedies, like those witnessed by Shostakovich and Kentridge, simply because of its simultaneous acknowledgement of despair and optimism. In William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, Kentridge speaks of this power of the irrational in deceptively self-deprecating words when he says, “I am only an artist. My job is to make drawings. Not to make sense.”

“Society Tearing Itself Apart”

Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he feels sad at heart.” — Dmitri Shostakovich

It’s no coincidence that Shostakovich’s score suggests discordance and societal breakdown. When he was composing The Nose in the late 1920s, the frenzy of revolution and the idealism of the avant-garde artists were beginning to give way to a dimmer reality. Stalin had just consolidated his authority as Soviet leader, bringing with him a disconcerting tightening of control, and a new bureaucratic elite had settled into power. Shostakovich’s The Nose is often considered to be a satire of this new order but the composer, who was alternately held up as a hero and denounced by the Soviet state, never actually admitted as much. However, it’s telling that one of the writers he chose to collaborate on the libretto was Yevgeny Zamyatin, a biting satirist of the Soviet regime.

When Shostakovich’s opera premiered in 1930, Soviet officials criticized The Nose for its complex modernist style. By this time, the modernist avant-garde’s honeymoon period with the Soviet government was over. The only artworks that were acceptable now were those that celebrated the state and appealed to the working class, and Shostakovich’s The Nose did neither. But this criticism was a mere slap on the wrist compared with the attacks Shostakovich received for his following opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1936). The Communist party newspaper slated its “deliberate dissonance,” and warned that his experimental modernist style was “a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”[2] This was the year that Stalin’s Great Terror began in earnest, and Shostakovich’s bad review was a dire threat directed at all artists.

In his 2010 production of The Nose, Kentridge exhumes this dark period. Behind the action on stage, he projects archival footage of events like the unveiling of a building-sized portrait of Stalin, and haunting text from purge-era documents amounting to a bureaucratic trail of blood. Even though Stalin’s murderous Terror began years after Shostakovich premiered The Nose, Kentridge is right in considering it to be a part of the opera’s life; Stalin’s rule affected the composer and ushered in a long period of silence that wasn’t broken until The Nose was revived by The Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre in 1974, just one year before Shostakovich died.

“Understanding the World as Process”
While the acknowledgment of past horrors is important to Kentridge’s opera (and to his work overall), his production of The Nose is not limited to a backwards glance. Kentridge shows very clearly that each time The Nose materializes, it is linked to the society that gives birth to it. So the obvious question is: what does this story means for us today? The staging of The Nose in New York in 2010 comes at a time when the political landscape in America has become increasingly polarized, as more hot-button issues, from gay marriage to health care, incite vitriolic, emotional debate. Needless to say, this does not compare to the horrors of apartheid or Stalin’s purges, but it has engendered a new bizarre reality, bringing stark internal divisions to the country. In this atmosphere, many actually turn to absurdity, often in the form of satire, as a tool for understanding what seems like our own upside-down reality. In a climate where we look to humor to provide a return “to sanity,” it seems that the arrival of The Nose is, once again, right on time.

Absurdity, however, is not an end in itself and Kentridge is well aware of its serious significance. His own artwork comes out of a process of balancing the somber weight of history and the “play” of drawing. Kentridge sees this same synthesis in “the brutal comic” sensibility that both Gogol and Shostakovich bring to The Nose. In a similar vein, Kentridge’s production of The Nose leaves the door open to both despair and optimism, recalling Stalin’s cruel Terror on one hand and the Russian avant-garde’s sparkling utopian dreams on the other. So this 2010 update of The Nose suggests that the story’s absurd credo, “anything is possible,” points not only to the plausibility of inconceivable horrors (and the importance of remembering those past), but of hope for the future. This is where Kentridge’s The Nose unveils a political role for art through the absurd, because without a sense that the impossible can become reality, hope for a better society is, well, impossible.

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Gogol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 124.

[2] “Chaos instead of music,” Pravda, January 29, 1936.

One Response to “Serious Play”

  1. […] (who created this production of the opera) and check out the essay “Serious Play.”  See the commentary on Shostakovich and the Russia of his […]

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