“On Viktor Korkiya“

By John Freedman

(Originally published as the introduction to Freedman's translation of Korkiya's „hamlet.ru”: http://viktor-korkia.narod.ru/english/hamlet.htm.)

Viktor Korkiya (born in 1948) is a poet and playwright whom one study has placed alongside Vladimir Sorokin, Dmitry Prigov (born in 1940) and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya as one of the most significant writers of so-called postmodernist tendencies in Russian drama [1]. I hesitate to hang the vague “postmodernist” tag on Korkiya for I believe his art outreaches any category we may impose upon him. However, the label does help undermine an even more limiting impression that has gained currency in regards to his art — that his dramas are lightweight knockabouts.

Korkiya's farce about Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria, “The Mystery Man, or, I Am Poor Soso Dzhugashvili,” enjoyed almost supernatural success following its premiere in 1988 at the Moscow State University Theater. (It subsequently was produced in over seventy theaters throughout the Soviet Union.) However, the university theater's interpretations of this and subsequent Korkiya works as trivial farces has blinded many to the plays' depth of insight and mastery of craft. Also contributing to a certain prejudice against the writer is that he usually writes in verse and often builds new works on the structure of classical sources. His plays include such titles as “The Invincible Armada“ (after Lope de Vega), “Satanic Comedy“ (Don Juan), “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the Island of Taganrog“ and „The Song of the Goat, or, What's Hecuba to Us?” (using Euripides' „Hecuba” as a springboard).

„Hamlet.ru,” which was completed in the year 2000 and originally bore the explanatory title of “The Late Shakespeare Scholar Alexander Anikst Explains Shakespeare's'The Tragedy of Hamlet' to Hamlet,” is Korkiya's first play written primarily in prose. That and the fact that the piece should be of particular interest to an English-speaking audience were the determining factors in my including specifically this play here [2].

Korkiya at his best can create fireworks of comic language and linguistic comedy. In the past I have translated one of Russia's greatest comic playwrights, Nikolai Erdman, and I think it worth noting that I experienced many of the same frustrations and joys in translating Korkiya as I did years ago translating Erdman. Korkiya builds comedy by rubbing a sore spot at length. His dialogue often circles in a single spot as repetition and subtle development slowly lead us to laughter before leaping on to the next cycle. As was true of Erdman and Shakespeare both, puns and elaborate word play are a major feature of Korkiya's style.

For all the farce and tomfoolery, however, Korkiya's “Hamlet“ is one of his darkest plays. (“Satanic Comedy,“ a striking work about death and the devil, is probably the only one that goes further into despair.) The author here has created a world in which every attempt to break through into freedom is denied. The canonical characters of the play are trapped even when they try to swap masks with other characters (as Hamlet does with Polonius and the „new” character of Alexander Anikst, and as Claudius and Gertrude do with characters from „Antony and Cleopatra” in the second act). Nothing they can do will allow them to avoid their destiny, just as nothing they can do will help them make sense of the roles they must play eternally.

The title character of Alexander Anikst takes his name from Russia's most celebrated Shakespeare scholar of the 20th century, a man who lived from 1910 to 1988 and whose books and articles have educated generations of Russians interested in English theater and drama. His role in Korkiya's play is deeply tragic. He is introduced into the play, perhaps, in a way similar to that of Dante's poet entering hell. But if in the 14th century Dante's poet could remain aloof of all the sad souls accosting him, Korkiya's Anikst does not have that luxury. He is as trapped in the world of “Hamlet“ as a Dantean sinner might be in stinking mire. Tongue-tied, frightened, confused and powerless, Anikst in death is utterly unable to do what his real-life namesake did so famously for so many readers: He cannot explain Hamlet's tragedy.

What do we make of the play's numerous references to birth or rebirth? One implication is that art is a place where eternity can exist. Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and the rest are reborn each time their play is performed. Perhaps Anikst has achieved immortality by being “born into“ a work of art. Ophelia, for example, teases him of wailing “like a newborn baby.“ Much later, Hamlet will encourage Polonius by telling him he is “in transition.“ He goes on to say, „Your birth into a new form is progressing wonderfully. As soon as your umbilical chord is cut you will immediately feel relief!” At the outset of the play, the skull that Hamlet and Anikst repeatedly trade back and forth is said to be that of one who „is not yet born” but „has already died.” Life and death, people and ghosts merely change places temporarily until it is time once again to go through the reverse metamorphosis.

I find Viktor Korkiya's „Hamlet” to be a stirring, complex work that, like the character Anikst, has no answers, but, like the character Hamlet, poses a myriad of intriguing, probing questions.


[1] Irina Skoropanova, “Russkaya postmodernistskaya literature” (Russian Postmodern Literature) (Moskva: Flinta-Nauka, 1999): especially 353-356 and 399-406.

[2] My translation is a shortened version of the significantly larger Russian original. Korkiya took part in the editing process and approved the final product.

John Freedman,

Oksana Mysina
Oxy Rocks

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