11 August 1991 | When Poverty Begets Pride

First published in the New York Times

In Eastern Europe, the drama of politics gives birth to the economies of drama.

The actors Ian McKellen and Brian Cox led a company from the Royal National Theater in London on a six-month world tour of "King Lear" and "Richard III" that ended earlier this year. The same production of "Richard III," with Ian McKellen in the title role, is now playing in London and is scheduled to come to New York and other American cities next June. The world tour included stops in Japan and Eastern Europe. During the company's four weeks in Czechoslovakia, Romania and eastern Germany, Ian McKellen kept a diary from which he has adapted this article.

AFTER SIX MONTHS ON THE ROAD and in the air, our company from the Royal National Theater is back home in London, on the south bank of the River Thames. There, 25 years ago, an act of Parliament uniquely created under one concrete roof the largest theater complex in the world. Three playhouses, three restaurants and a warren of workshops, rehearsal rooms and offices, house more than 700 people who annually produce 15 new productions. Like anyone working in a factory, I have my complaints. I work too long hours for too little pay — about a 10th of the going rate in the commercial West End. But after my most recent experiences in Eastern Europe, I feel like one of the luckiest actors in the world.

Last year, Richard Eyre, the director of the National, asked me to organize an international tour. On a very basic level, international touring is important because it gets the company seen by a wider audience and our productions can be judged next to the home-produced work. But perhaps most important, it breaks down and crosses so many barriers — cultural, linguistic and political. It seemed obvious to choose, for foreign parts, at least one Shakespeare. Imagine the Moscow Art Theater not doing Chekov; or the Comedie Francaise without Moliere. I invited the director Deborah Warner to team up with Brian Cox and present "King Lear." Then we looked for a second play that would complement it in repertory.

Ideally, the best export would have been a new British play; but what if it bombed before we'd even left our own country? Besides, dramatists have been too long discouraged from writing for an expansive cast, which "King Lear" required. So we settled for another Shakespeare king: Richard III. And I got to play one of the great roles in the classical repertory. Brian Cox would be Buckingham in "Richard III" and everyone else would have at least one meaty part in one of our plays. I then had the extraordinary experience of asking my employer to direct in his own theater. Being the man he is, Richard Eyre said yes.

The man he is was formed by years in regional repertory companies where, like the best of British directors, he learned to trust actors and believe that dictatorship is alien to the theater's democratic spirit. How well he has succeeded with "Richard III" is scarcely for me to judge; I don't want to anticipate the reaction of American audiences and critics when we perform there next year.

Touring abroad requires extra funds, and for the most ambitious tour in the National's history, we needed to raise a princely $800,000. Enter the British Council, a Government agency that promotes the national interest worldwide, partly by carrying home-grown culture to foreign lands: By thinking British, people will be encouraged to buy British, or so the thinking goes.

The minute we landed abroad, we became cultural diplomats for the nation. In Tokyo, at the outset of our tour, I found myself one of three speakers at an assembly of local businessmen. The other two were the British Foreign Secretary and the Japanese Prime Minister. Because our traveling troupe numbered about 55, counting stage technicians and those involved in makeup and costumes, the British Council's beneficence needed shoring up by commercial firms. For example, during the four climactic weeks when our tour landed in Eastern Europe, the Japanese investment bankers Nomura contributed the final $100,000 to bring us to Prague, Bucharest, Leipzig and Dresden.

We are all grateful, although without the National Theater, of course, Nomura could not have impressed its clients in -the company of Shakespeare, ambassadors, heads of state and le beau monde. At one post-performance party in Dresden, a National Theater actor -elegantly thanked, in fluent German, the good and the great, who included four local cabinet ministers. I hope that relations with the British Government and our other sponsors were made more profitable. But which-of them knew that, by coming on the tour, our obliging German-speaking actor had fallen into debt to a mortgage company?

Actors in the new Europe might sniff at these niceties of conscience. Their own finances are dire. Under Communism, theaters were well favored. Senior actors were well paid, bemedaled and traveled abroad. Drama students were guaranteed jobs for life in a system where unemployment was illegal. The new freedom includes the freedom to be out-of-work.

In Czechoslovakia, the current finance minister is a devotee of the free-market economy. He must believe that investment will soon flow to a country that is rich in natural assets! But meanwhile, there isn't enough Government cash to continue financing Prague's long-established 38 theater companies. They must close or learn how to survive from the box office alone.

The city's National Theater, where we, did our shows, will be protected from the harsh and variable winds of commerce. It was built 100 years ago by public subscription and preserved by state money as a potent symbol of the Czechoslovak national identity. Commercial sponsorship or a single rich patron are impossible dreams. Indeed the only rich people in the country are the black-market bosses, whose agents politely whisper their requests for hard-currency exchanges in Wenceslaus Square. They are busy eyeing the property bargains in Prague, as houses and shops return to private ownership. Everyone is learning to fend for himself and it isn't easy after 45 years of the one-party system.

But need the theater worry for its future when the very popular President is a playwright? Vaclav Havel and his theater cronies nurtured, launched and carried through the revolution. His plays, once banned, are now everywhere, slightly to his embarrassment. Backstage, in our theater, his photos were ubiquitous, next to pinups of the Pope and President Bush. When President Havel came to see our "King Lear," the audience rose to greet him. At the end, he leaned forward from his box to catch the tulip I had thrown from our on-stage bouquet.

Vaclav Havel is still writing — speeches now, instead of plays. The revolution has postponed his own re-.working of the Lear story. He was much, taken by the current relevance of Shakespeare's king, who like Mr. Havel himself, battles with a new tripartite constitution. He went further, at a news conference: “After my year as President, I realize again and again what I didn’t know before, that personal relations, sympathies, jealousies and rivalries play such an important role among nations. It's a bit frightening when you realize this. In 'King Lear,' this is demonstrated in a very drastic way, how in history people will kill and nations fight, all because of personal rivalries."

In Romania, too, workers in the theater initiated political change. The popular Romanian actor Ion Caramitru rode the tank that led the charge on Ceausescu's television station. Mr. Caramitru was the arts minister in the interim Government of the National Liberation before returning to his beloved Bulandra Theater, whose production of "Hamlet" played at our National Theater last fall. Our visit to Bucharest was a direct exchange.

The newly elected Government has brought back to power many of the old faces of Ceausescu's tyranny. Who else has experience of day-to-day politics? The mansion of one of Ceausescu's sons, who is in prison, now houses the Theater Workers Union. Upstairs, they have kept the curtains torn by bullets that shattered a mirror before lodging in the bathroom wall.

As I walked the streets and heard the firsthand stories of bravery, despair and of AIDS, others from our company took toys, clothes and medicines to hospitals and to the unwanted children in the orphanages, relics of Ceausescu's decree that each Romanian couple should conceive at least five children for the nation. We all felt guilty to be actors, not doctors or useful benefactors.

But our hosts were unfailingly generous in their welcome. "Richard III" was an important event for them. At the death of the medieval tyrant, the heart of the national flag is ripped out on stage and draped around the new king. Such symbolic acts had been familiar on the streets of Bucharest the previous year. Each night, our audience stopped the performance to applaud and cheer in recognition, keeping faith with the drama of their own lives.

It won't be easy. The local currency is worthless and prices are rising as wages fall. In the theater, our technicians slept in with their equipment; which on the black market might have been worth a fortune. Even so, some of it disappeared. “But how can I apologize?” a theatre official said, "If someone needs $50 for medicine, is theft a crime?"

As in Prague, how can Bucharest's theater people, so central to the revolution's success, expect to be subsidized at the old level? Mr. Caramitru, whose Bulandra Theater must halve its work force, asked: "How can I sack my colleagues, unless I first sack myself?"

In poverty-stricken Romania, where investment is crucial, everyone asks questions that only richer economies can answer. As we left, I was given a poster for a local production of "Richard III," which had been banned by Ceausescu, who took it personally. It showed a crowned monarch, blindfolded.

In Romania as in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Communists supported the arts to bolster national confidence. Artists, to that extent, connived with tyranny. Simultaneously and seditiously, they also helped to undermine it. In theaters, where tickets were cheap, audiences met to celebrate and exchange ideas and emotions that were available nowhere else. Mr. Havel and other radicals were reviled and imprisoned. Now they are free and powerful. Yet many of the theaters have emptied as real-life, bloody drama took to the. streets. Now there is television to entertain and a multitude of newspapers to inform and stimulate debate. Has the theater lost its relevance forever? Should we worry if the new struggling societies deny it financial support and risk its death?

Actors, you might think, are partial. But I believe that a nation's identity is rooted in its culture. To that extent the Communists were right. The democracies of Western Europe have long accepted their responsibility to educate the people and keep them healthy. On the same principle we support our theaters.- It's a very small price. I hope the new Europe is prepared to pay it.

Photo: Nigel Parry

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