John Freedman on Maksym Kurochkin
Greetings, friends! As you know, we're gearing up for the opening of our production of Maksym Kurochkin's Vodka, Fucking and Television (trans. John J. Hanlon, directed by Liz Fisher) on November 29 at Hyde Park Theatre. Critic, translator and playwright John Freedman has generously given us permission to publish an overview of the VF&T, which includes interview snippets with Max, insights into the play, and a snapshot of the Russian playwriting scene from a few years ago.
This piece first appeared as an introduction to John J. Hanlon's VF&T translation, in TheatreForum's 2008 issue. Mr. Freedman and Kurochkin visited Austin in March as part of Breaking String's 2nd annual New Russian Drama Festival, where we spotlit the US premiere of Max's play, The Schooling of Bento Bonchev in Freedman's translation. John F. is a Contributing Editor to TheatreForum; His Theatre Plus blog, which provides English-speakers with authoritative and up-to-date coverage of Moscow's thriving theater community, has just entered its twentieth year. He has lived in the Russian capital for twenty years, and we've been fortunate to call John our Man in Moscow - one of Breaking String Theater's most important collaborators, colleagues and friends.
Maksym Kurochkin: A Writer for Paradoxical Times
By John Freedman
(Republished with permission from the author)
In Vodka, Fucking, and Television Maksym Kurochkin sketches the rather scabrous portrait of a sarcastic, self-effacing, offensive, painfully sensitive and intensely proud writer whose "life and work," to use a standard phrase, have run smack into a brick wall. But this Hero, as Kurochkin sardonically designates him, is no mere elitist scribbler bellyaching about his latest bout with writer's block. A cowering slave to his addictions and a willing victim of the modern world's most rampant and debilitating distractions, he also bears a distinct resemblance to Everyman. One can't help but think that while Kurochkin was working on this play his memory rang with at least the vague echoes of one of the seminal novels in Russian literature, Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. That would have been in a post-modern sort of way, of course. It is the shared moniker alone that clicks, not anything to do with plot, themes, or characterizations, but that is sufficient. It makes the connection and delivers a message that hits home. Kurochkin's Hero is unmistakably a child of his era.
Numerous playwrights in the 2000s have staked their claim to having defined Russia's hero-of-the-moment. Vasily Sigarev, whose work is enjoying great success in Europe and has been staged several times in the United States, is the author of gritty, stylistically traditional exposes of uncouth, undereducated, and hyperactive social pariahs. The Presnyakov brothers, Oleg and Vladimir, have gained a strong international reputation with slick, slashing plays that reconfigure basic Russian mythical types, often in the light of Western influences. Yury Klavdiev, a relative newcomer whose reputation is just becoming known beyond Russian borders, examines volatile loners and outsiders who precariously, though nimbly, maneuver on tight wires stretched between the poles of violence and tenderness. Ivan Vyrypaev, working in a structurally inventive form that is monologic in spirit if not in actual form, observes intelligent, if sometimes deviant, characters who eagerly engage in the time-honored Russian pastime of fevered introspection. Female voices have not been as prominent as in the 1990s, although Yelena Isayeva, Natalya Vorozhbit, and Olga Mukhina have put forth heroes and heroines fit for their times.
Kurochkin, like the characters who inhabit his more than 20 plays, is harder to define than most of his peers. Geography may have played a role in this. He was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, historically one of the great Eastern-European crossroads. The Russian language dominated the linguistic landscape, as it had for hundreds of years in Ukraine, helping to ensure Kurochkin would write in Russian. But aside from the obviously prominent native Ukrainian speech, Kurochkin also occasionally heard, or at least saw, evidence of the familiar but opaque chatter of Polish and Belarusian. For the record, Kurochkin flatly denies possessing any exceptional linguistic powers. "My mixing of languages [in some plays] reveals a complex I have," he wrote to me in an email with typically merciless self-deprecation. "This is a real sore spot. The fact of the matter is I do not have a good ear. I am very bad at capturing linguistic peculiarities." (27 October 2007). As he sees it, he was handicapped in comparison to his parents and friends who knew Polish well. As for Belarusian, he notes ironically that his first significant contact with that language occurred during perestroika when, in the Belarusian satirical journal Vozhik (Hedgehog), he encountered the only caricature he had ever seen of Joseph Stalin (24 October 2007). Be that as it may, a broad cultural diversity simmered beneath the surface of life in Kiev even as the Russian tongue claimed supremacy over all things cultural.
The lies are everywhere and no one denies it.
"Television is a magical window onto the natural world, a source of knowledge, a reliable friend in times of sadness and depression," gushes Television with no shame whatsoever. "What a crock of shit," responds the Hero, probably muttering with loathing.
Like most of his contemporaries, the Hero is contemptuous of those who came of age in the 1960s. "The Sixties generation," as that demographical group is known in Russia, is famed for its idealism and its failure to stop the nation from sliding into the devastating stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Kurochkin's irony here is as sharp as ever; not only does the Hero admit that he worships the great Sixties generation writers Alexander Volodin and Alexander Vampilov, but one has to wonder just how well the Hero's own generation is coping with the Putin era. Few will ever accuse it of being idealistic.
"We are nobodies, we're nothing-we work in advertising and magazines," the Hero declares before wending his way around to one of those marvelously paradoxical observations that Kurochkin's characters are so apt to make or embody. "We're already nothing, we never existed," the Hero asserts. "But we will."
If such a claim poses more questions than it answers, that, too, sounds very much like Kurochkin.
Kurochkin, Maksym. Emails to the author. 24 and 27 October 2007.
Kurochkin, Maxim [sic]. "The Second Speed." University of Iowa,