For over fifteen years, I have been active in Russian-American theater exchanges in New York, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. My work has ranged from early exchanges of “cultural diplomacy” with the Soviet Union, to adapting and directing a production of The Great Gatsby for a Russian theater that was in repertory through the 90s. Through this challenging period of Soviet/Russian history, I have always admired the courage of those who remain in their country in hopes of making it a better place to live.
When my dear friend and colleague, Rebecca Taichman, approached me about writing a play inspired by murals Marc Chagall painted for the first Soviet Yiddish Theater (GOSET) in 1920, I was thrilled. The subsequent history of the theater after Chagall’s departure from the Soviet Union in 1922 is fascinating. The GOSET continued to flourish as Yiddish theater in the 30s and through the War under the artistic leadership of the brilliant actor, Solomon Mikhoels, who was murdered by Stalin in 1948. My research led me back to Moscow, where many people in the theater establishment brushed it off as a thing of the past. With persistence I found several devoted scholars, archives, and even a surviving member of the GOSET company in her eighties, Maria Kotlyarova, who shared recollections, songs, and dance steps with me in her small kitchen.
The impulse to write Green Violin is to recollect and celebrate the extraordinary work and idealism of a group of Jewish artists who, emerging from the Pale of Settlement, exploded with creativity when, for a brief moment, the Soviet government supported Yiddish culture. Green Violin examines artists’ choices under an increasingly repressive political system that persists to this day. Many, like Chagall who left Russia in the early 20s, flourished as individual artists in the West, but suffered from profound nostalgia for their native land. Those who stayed in the Soviet Union created a dynamic culture and sustained an advocacy for their people, but for the most part met a horrible end. Their legacy of heroic activism and hope haunts us to this day.
Green Violin focuses on the relationship between Marc Chagall, quintessential individual artist, and Solomon Mikhoels, an actor devoted to his Yiddish theater company and increasingly a political advocate for Jews in the Soviet Union. When they met as young men in Moscow in 1920, Mikhoels discovered a unique style of acting through working with Chagall’s paintings. He became the embodiment of Chagall’s paint on stage; in Mikhoels, Chagall saw his work living and breathing in three dimensions with music and song. After this unique collaboration, Chagall left Russia and was not allowed to return. The friends met twice: once in Paris in 1928, when the GOSET was on a European tour, and once in New York in 1943, when Mikhoels was sent to the United States by Stalin to raise money for the Soviet Red Army’s fight against Nazism. Snap shot photographs of these meetings were springboards for my imagination. My task to dramatize this passionate friendship, which was torn apart by events and choices each man made in a shattering world.
History is alive within us when we choose to listen and share stories that reflect choices we are making today. Theater gives us the opportunity for this collective questioning. Chagall painted four marvelous panels for the Soviet Yiddish theater, “the muses:” literature, drama, dance, and music – all of which apply to Green Violin. In addition to story telling and drama, music and dance play an important role in Green Violin as they did in each GOSET performance. I was blessed to work with wonderful collaborators: the composer, Frank London, of the Klezmatics, who wrote the score for Green Violin, and the choreographer, David Dorfman, who with Rebecca Taichman brought the spirit of Chagall’s paintings to the stage through dance and movement.
A friend once looked at the Chagall murals and asked me quite honestly: “what’s so great about them?” I responded spontaneously: “they twist sorrow into joy.” And that has been a guiding impulse in the writing and collaboration on Green Violin.
- Elise Thoron, playwright, New York