Ancient Art on Modern-Day Stage

Issue #3-4 • 1644

Prior to the emergence of a new-type theatre, during pre-Islamic and throughout the entire Islamic period, Central Asia had its own system of entertaining performance. The Uzbek performance culture included not only pre-theatrical forms pertaining to rites and rituals marking the milestones of human life and calendar holidays, but also advanced theatrical forms such as varieties of puppet show and the folk theatre of oral tradition – the theatre of maskharabozes.

Maskharabozes, the actors in Uzbek traditional theatre, performed comic and satirical scenes and pantomimes, they sang and danced. In Fergana Valley they were known as kyzykchi, whose art is characterized with a strong emphasis on sophisticated wit. The idea behind the theatre of maskharabozes and kyzykchi was improvisation and conventionality based on a thematic framework screen-play that lived and was passed on orally. Performances were predominantly comic and satirical, and the company were all male.

1. The actors in The Tricks of Maysara  play staged by Uzbek Drama Theatre

References to the theatre of maskharabozes in texts mainly belong to the 19th century. Detailed research into it began in the second half of the 20th century when theatre studies in Uzbekistan became a sector in its own right in the science of art history. Special value of these studies lies in the fact that so far not in a single domain of humanitarian knowledge, including philology, the humour of Uzbek people was so thoroughly covered as it was in these theatrical studies (1). Information about the theatre of maskharabozes and its existence for almost fifteen previous centuries is extremely scanty. Such information is rarely found in travelers’ notes and is virtually absent from the works of scholars and poets of the past. In one quatrain Navoi does use the word maskharaboz, but even that was done in a negative context: “You look like a dirty and ragged maskharaboz…”. Aesthetic mind that was formed and determined by the canons of ‘haute culture’ could not distinguish “a dirty and ragged maskharaboz” from his habitat and rate his improvisations aesthetically level with architecture, poetry and music which reached extraordinary perfection and glory in Islamic culture.

A short story by Borges dedicated to an Arab thinker Ibn Rushd who is known in the West as Averroes describes an episode from the life of Averroes when he translated Aristotle’s Poetics (2). The translator was facing an insurmountable challenge: he could not translate words “tragedy” and “comedy” as he was not familiar with these notions of classical Greek theatre. Earlier the similar problem apparently was facing Farabi: during his time these notions were not known in the Islamic world and thoroughly forgotten in the Christian world. It was only through misunderstanding that Dante titled his creation Comedia Divina, thinking that comedy is a piece in which the lead character is an ordinary man, i.e. Dante himself. Farabi, or Ibn Rushd, or Dante – none of them could associate the performance of strolling players with the word “comedy”.

The Maskharabozes

After the Europeans had forgotten classical theatre, the Aristotle-type theatre experienced a rebirth in Western Europe in late medieval period and developed during Renaissance. In the 18th century the so-called “European” theatre appeared in Eastern Europe. Finally, on the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries a theatre based on literary drama was born in the Islamic world and in Central Asia specifically.

The emergence and development of literary drama followed by the “new-type” theatre are linked to the rise of new urban culture and the concentration of people in large urban centres where the emerging capitalism brought about the evolution of new communication style and relations. All these factors, including the enlightener sentiments of local intellectuals that were characteristic of economic, political and spiritual situation in the early 20th century Turkestan, had provided a nourishing environment for the European-style theatre to be born here.

The genesis of new Uzbek theatre bears “traces” of maskharaboz theatre. Some first generation comedy actors in Uzbek theatre had connections with the companies of maskharabozes. The absence of temporal and cultural distances between traditional and new theatre resulted in the gravitation of the art of performance towards naturalism, raw humour and improvisation, which are characteristic of the theatre of oral tradition.

The “new theatre” evolved from the plays of jadid in amateur theatrical circles and excited rather keen interest. One can claim that the emergence of literary drama and European-style theatre was the most visible result of the jadid cultural program in 1910s. Theatre was given a role of a promoter and propagator of new lifestyle. Therefore, European-style theatre enjoyed the status of “most favoured” art.

The Maskharaboz

Traditional forms of entertainment, in turn, were marginalized in social and cultural life. There are many historical analogies to this phenomenon: even famous Italian Comedia del’Arte deferred to literary drama and new-type theatre.

There is no evidence that the performance of maskharabozes was ever banned or restricted. However, like it was in the past, the traditions of visual entertainment were supported not by authorities in power, but by enthusiasm and love of the audience alone. This seems to be the destiny of folk humour culture that has never been in favour either in the East or West. For this reason, already in early 1920s some among Uzbek intellectuals began to realize that many aspects of traditional culture, including traditional theatre of maskharabozes, are about to be lost as aesthetic and artistic asset. At about the same time there was an intention to employ the national performance traditions in the productions of the new theatre. Director Mannon Uygur in his play “Khujum” (1928) dedicated to the emancipation of women was the first to turn to the elements of maskharaboz theatre. He experimented with the play’s form; in “Khujum” he was looking for ways to synthesize European-style theatre and the traditions of the Uzbek maskharaboz theatre. The actors engaged in this production used to call it ‘Our “Turandot”, in reference to a famous production by Evgeniy Vakhtangov, in which the prominent Russian director extensively employed the devices of Comedia del’Arte.

In one of his articles Chulpan wrote about the necessity to use folk theatre traditions on stage (3).

Uygur and Chulpan appreciated the importance of studying different theatrical methods and analyzing histrionic systems of East and West, and of organically using the many centuries old experience of entertainment traditions in a young Uzbek theatre. However, a temporal and cultural interval and higher professionalism in the art of drama would be required for these traditions to be more extensively employed. Besides, a certain negative attitude towards maskharaboz theatre had to be overcome – a rather deeply entrenched attitude carried over into the new times.

The new theatre, now supported by government, was no longer associated with the “lowly culture”, from which the maskharaboz theatre originated. It was gaining its niche in the system of cultural values that were privileged in the traditional culture as well: now it was rated aesthetically level with poetry, music, choreography, and architecture. Moreover, being given a special propaganda function, theatre quickly became leader among other arts. Its status was changing, and in people’s minds theatre became identified with high culture. In the orbit of this culture, theatre not only acquired the right to be “serious and respectable”, but was obliged to be such. Conventional, play-based origin of histrionic art characteristic of folk theatre and street entertainment, valuable play of imagination and fantasy were either labelled as formalism, or considered not serious. Willy-nilly, the young theatre seemed to be itself eager to forget about its strolling “poor cousins” in order to be accepted in “high society”.

The Maskharaboz

An art could only become respectable, serious and academic on “the wide road of realistic art” (commas here do not mean irony, but only indicate a common expression of those and subsequent years when aesthetic terms were usually framed in either elevating or derogatory modifiers). The achievements of Uzbek theatre in the mainstream of this academic tradition have indeed been obvious. There would have been nothing contentious or questionable about it, had it not been the only one that excluded all alternatives for many long years. This trend fixed in standard aesthetics became so strongly entrenched in the stereotypical perception of the audience and became so customary for many playwrights, theatres and critics, that for a long time it remained an insurmountable obstacle, a bastion that was concealing a colourful diversity of styles and trends in the theatrical art of the 20th century. One of these trends was precisely the active employment of principles and devices of street entertainment traditions.

Their time has come on the verge of 1980s-90s when high on the agenda was the issue of originality of Uzbek drama. It was no accident that the long-brewing desire for change started with the turning to the traditions of maskharaboz theatre. Once set free, unattended theatre that first did not try very hard to get rid of the ragged shell of prosy “usefulness” was increasingly gravitating towards its own element. Not sensing the taste for this element among modern playwrights who with little success were then competing with journalism, theatre started looking back as it always did in difficult times. Once it did, it saw what it wanted to see: the origins of its play nature. In search for theatricality producers and directors of Uzbek theatre turned to the folk origins and traditions of the national artistic culture.

One of the costs to the intense development of theatre was the fact that at one time the connection between folk traditions and professional theatres was broken, primarily because basically from the start Uzbek drama theatre was oriented towards European models, and, secondly, due to vulnerable situation in which folk artists found themselves in the traditional culture. The missing link – the crossing point between traditional and new theatres – contemporary directors saw in plays by Khamza. They revisited pieces created by Khamza, both known and unkown, removing the habitual gloss from them and discovering elements of national theatrical poetics which they had once “overlooked”. Producers and directors saw his comedies as an opportunity for an extensive use of devices pertaining to folk street theatre that encompasses a substantial portion of humour culture of Uzbek people – the maskharaboz, askiyaboz, and kugyrchakboz; the entire street element with its sometimes dirty jokes, low farce and buffoonery…

This segment of traditional culture has become the focus of attention for stage directors – first B. Yuldashev and later A. Abdunazarov who delivered productions based on Khamza’s plays, to be followed by O. Salimov with his play “Journey to Tashkent”. Speaking of the most remarkable productions, I should mention that manifestations of renewal were also seen in the art of directors such as M. Ravhanov and K. Yuldashev. Interesting experiments with the interpretation of Khorezm-specific folklore on stage were carried out by I. Niyazmatov.

Maskharabozes on modern stage

“The Tricks of Maysara” staged by the theatre named after A. Khidoyatov breathed the joy of the first breakthrough into a sanctuary. B. Yuldashev did not strive for an accurate replication of principles and devices of the theatre of oral tradition. That was an exotic and unconcealed stylization, inside of which actors could improvise easily and freely. A sense of integrity was more important here than the accuracy of details. The director, the stage designer and the actors – all were united by the element of playing. Contemporary actors played the game of maskharaboz theatre, and apparent violations of the folk theatre aesthetics were discounted. The novelty of impression and the risk of experimenting outweighed the inevitable flaws. The most important is the crucial significance of “Maysara”. That, obviously, was an attempt to realize the nature of traditional play-based theatre with modern means.

In all its modesty, “Unknown Khamza” staged by the “Mulokot” studio in Qarshi gives an impression of a more subtle insight into folk theatre aesthetics. Whereas “Maysara” is a “theatre born in the street”, in a crowded, diverse and colourful square on a holiday, the production by the “Mulokot” studio demonstrates another well-known formula that says that theatre “is a rug and two actors”. Suzane and two actors… The manner and the way actors live in this play are like an old suzane rug that may have lost the brightness of colours over a hundred years, but is yet the more precious. Actors from Qarshi win the audience not by an overt brightness, but by the authenticity of unsophisticated and naive folk art.

Accurately employing the device of “theatre inside theatre”, director Abdunazarov finds a solution for the production in a “poor theatre” style. The laconism of the overall solution, careful selection of details and the gracefulness of actors’ performance – everything reveals the director’s playful touch.

More of a raw naturalism in acting demonstrated in the Fergana theatre’s production “Journey to Tashkent” directed by O. Salimov reminds of the other side of folk humour – grotesque comicality and buffoonery. Later, in mid 1990s, producing Moliere’s early farce “The Flying Doctor” Salimov also uses the “theatre inside theatre” device, through which he brings closer together French farce actors and Uzbek maskharabozes. The logic behind the solution is obvious: both are known for their improvisational performance and the conventionality of folk theatre, the roots of which nourished the art of Moliere. Yet differences are also obvious: they are determined by place and time of action – on stage is not a 17th century Paris, but early 20th century Turkestan.

In 1990s there was no single theatre that would not feature any kind of maskharaboz in one of its productions. So far, no fundamental discoveries have been made on this path… perhaps, except one. In a number of productions of historical plays dedicated to Amir Temur and the Temurids, there appears a character that is new for Uzbek stage – Maskhara who is given a role similar to one of a Jester in European, or more precisely, Shakespearean drama. The privilege of both is to tell kings and emirs the bitter truth disguised as buffoonery. I cannot guarantee the historical credibility of the analogy, yet it shows the willingness to expand the range of interests of Uzbek theatre and introduce it into the domain of global art, still employing national traditions.

To what extent the device of using maskharaboz traditions on modern stage has been exhausted? It is difficult to give a definite answer. One thing is clear though: the use of entertainment traditions in modern-day theatre does not tolerate approximate-ness of ideas and “untidy” forms. Proper implementation of these traditions is possible only through mastering the culture of modern stage. The important thing is that contemporary interpretations of the traditional maskharaboz theatre have revived the taste of Uzbek theatre for the playing element and extra-regular directing and acting solutions, as well as opened a way to the stage for folklore and ritual motifs, and encouraged creative search of those who is concerned with the renewal of the national stage.

Literature
1. Kодиров М. Ўзбек театр анъаналари. Тошкент, 1976; Анъанавий театр драматургияси. Тошкент, 2006 и другие труды этого автора.
2. Борхес Х.-Л. Проза разных лет. М., 1984.
3. Чулпан. О театре Мейерхольда// “Санъат”, 1991, № 12.

Ildar Mukhtarov

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