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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Walpurgis Night

Venedikt Erofeev

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To purchase Walpurgis Night

Title: Walpurgis Night
Author: Venedikt Erofeev
Genre: Play
Written: 1985 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 142 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Walpurgis Night - US
Walpurgis Night - UK
Walpurgis Night - Canada
Walpurgis Night - India
in Théâtre russe contemporain - France
  • or the Steps of the Commander
  • A Tragicomedy in Five Acts
  • Russian title: Вальпургиева ночь, или Шаги Командора
  • Translated by Marian Schwartz
  • Previously translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky (2204)
  • With an Introduction by Karen Ryan

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Our Assessment:

B : some interesting variations, but a too-familiar set-up

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Walpurgis Night takes place in a psych hospital -- a mental ward -- and also involves a great deal of alcoholic excess, an all too familiar set-up where wisdom comes from those deemed fools and at the bottom of a bottle -- though at least Erofeev takes this to its proper extremes, the play concluding with the inmates downing poisonous methyl alcohol, blinding and then killing them all. Set in the Soviet Union, the set-up of this 1985 play also rings all too true: the (ab)use of psychiatric institutions to silence and keep out of sight troublesome contrarian voices remained widespread and popular there to the bitter end. With its authoritarian (and brutal) bureaucracy, the psych hospital is, of course, also a reflection of Soviet conditions per se
       Walpurgis Night conveniently coïncides with May Day -- the first of May -- and the contrast here between officialdom -- those in charge -- celebrating that leading holiday of Communist and Socialist regimes and the patients, carousing in a celebration whose historical purpose included warding off witches, is more than fitting. As the main character notes; "Since the late eighth century, this night has always been marked by something terrifying and wonderworking. Involving Satan".
       The play begins with a new patient being admitted, Lev Isakovich Gurevich, and being aggressively interrogated by the admitting doctor. Questions of ethnic identity and national allegiance trump any concerns about mental state or health, the doctor emphasizing: "it's no secret that our enemies live solely for the thought of destabilizing us, and decisively", a paranoia that justifies the small-scale oppression in the hospital that is merely a reflection of the large-scale repression found throughout this society.
       Gurevich is amiable enough -- and supportive of the Motherland. Not that anything he says could convince the authorities/professionals whose minds are made up: if he has been sent here, it is because he belongs here. But he's dangerous only in the sense of being a free spirit, and artistically inclined -- hardly a national threat: "Ever since I was a teen / I've been learning to obey", and though he obviously has some trouble fitting in, he tries his best. If pressed, he doesn't go much beyond:

If there's something I don't like, it's the ban on the nomadic life. And the disrespect for the Word.
       Language and artistic expression are one point of constant conflict with the authorities. Gurevich has a tendency to fall into speech patterns of "Shakespearean iambs", and he's repeatedly told to stop clowning around like that -- but it comes all too naturally to him.
       For all his willingness to go along with things, Gurevich isn't entirely unrealistic about his -- or the general -- situation. He observes that: "humanity is degenerating headlong anyway", and suggests (contrary to the communist dream of a better world):
We should put all our trust in fate and firmly believe that the worst is yet to come.
       In the final scenes, the poisoned characters find no more way out -- indeed, they recognize they were always doomed:
PROKHOROV: Just tell me, the fatal dose -- are we already past that ?
GUREVICH: Yes, I think so. Long ago.

They exchange looks full of bottomless meaning. It gets darker and darker
       Yes, Erofeev's stage direction isn't subtle either -- also one reason why Walpurgis Night is a play that lends itself to reading, rather than just seeing it performed. Though some of it is presumably also quite effective in performance -- notably the between-the-act interludes: "five minutes of bad, ponderous music" between the first and second act, for example, or:
     Between Acts 4 and 5, five to seven minutes of music like nothing else and anything at all: a mix of Georgian lezginkas, turn-of-the-century-café-chantant dances, the silly intro to Varlaam's part in Mussorgsky's opera, cancans and cakewalks, slapstick Russian dances, and the most bravura motifs taken from Magyar operettas from the era of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy's fall.
       Walpurgis Night offers the brutality, absurdity, and confrontations one would expect -- and has seen, far, far too many times -- in a play set in an insane asylum. There are some decent variations, and some clever touches, and it is engaging enough, but at this safe distance -- the Soviet Union long left behind (and Putin's Russia, despite his best efforts, not quite in the same crazy league) -- Walpurgis Night is more historical curiosity than compelling drama. Erofeev's language-play -- admirably engaged with by translator Marian Schwartz -- does make for a still interesting added facet, but not quite enough to make this a real stand-out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 September 2018

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Walpurgis Night: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Soviet author Venedikt Erofeev (Венедикт Ерофеев) lived 1938 to 1990.

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© 2018 the complete review

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