Asya Sosis directs a new production of 1944 Soviet satire Dragon for two performances only this weekend, hot on the heels of the UK’s general election. In the piece, a brave knight’s attempts to kill an evil dragon are met with hostility by the very people he’s trying to liberate. Here, Sosis explores the darker themes in Eugene Schwartz’s play. Time to get booking!
Eugene Schwartz first spoke of his idea for a fairy-tale play about a dragon, whose people are so obedient and controllable, because he maimed their souls, in 1939. The main theme voiced at the time was the criticism of the Nazi regime. However, the feedback he received wasn’t positive due to Russia’s alliance with Germany at the time, so the story was shelved for a few years.
Schwartz next returned to it in 1943, two years after Hitler violated his agreement with Stalin and opened the second front. At the time, the writer was evacuated from Leningrad to the south of Russia, where he began writing Dragon again and completed it by 1944. The most prominent and obvious theme then was tyranny.
In the story, Dragon is portrayed as a human for most scenes, because he likes to visit his people “as a friend”. But he changes heads. At one point, he appears as a retired soldier, deaf in one ear; at another, he’s a tall bourgeois-looking man gentleman; at yet another, he turns into a short angry old man. Dragon misleads his opponent, making him think he’s harmless, friendly – yet he will easily turn monstrous if he is not obeyed.
Dragon’s power is absolute and there is no hope of winning a fight against him.
Dragon’s power is absolute and there is no hope of winning a fight against him. In the story, it’s described that, in the first 200 years of Dragon’s reign, people tried opposing him. But he would always destroy combatant armies and punish anyone close to those who dared fight, and so people gave up. Over the next 200 years, they worked hard to adapt. With such a premise, it was no wonder the Censorship Committee of the USSR didn’t see Nazis as the exclusive tyrannical group criticised.
Another important aspect in Schwartz’s tale is, of course, the people themselves. Traditionally, in Western mythology, the people suffer greatly under a dragon, and when a hero arrives, they beg him to save them and to slay the dragon. Not here.
Schwartz veered more in the direction of Biblical heroes like Moses and Jesus, whose great deeds to mankind were often unappreciated by those they wished to save. Dragon’s people are Pilate’s people. They’re afraid of the immediate turmoil, the breaking away of the order of life they’ve become used to. Like Hebrews in Exodus, they fear also the greater retribution of their tyrant for voicing discontent.
The dragon is slain, but is he really gone?
As a result, everything in those people’s lives is crooked and reversed. The wish to save one’s daughter is considered selfish while killing the one wanting to save them is thought heroic. Speaking the truth brings dire consequences, and some have forgotten what it even feels like to not utter a lie, carefully designed to manipulate others in some way. Everyone is afraid to be reported to the dragon for a careless word or action. People become agents of their own censorship. In the end, they are complicit in their own enslavement.
In a world where everyone is paralysed by fear and spite, there is nothing to want for the soul. And so another theme emerges in the story: materialism. Dragon’s characters, while different from each other, all crave material things: financing for their project, getting their boss sacked (or executed) so they can take his job, the best clothes, the best things. To earn all that, they only have to be the most helpful to Dragon.
The darkest theme is probably contained in the third act. The dragon is slain, but is he really gone? The power vacuum is quickly filled, and the question arises: is there any real hope of destroying tyranny? Rather dark, don’t you think?
Happily, these aren’t the only themes in Dragon. There is hope in the story as well. We invite you to see the play to find it.
Are you stuck with how to treat your friends and family this #Christmas2019 ? Why not give them the gift of theatre tickets for #Dragon, a powerful fairy-tale full of love and hope for humanity. Tickets available here: https://t.co/lki3Enoi9S pic.twitter.com/wcoUHAU1f3
— Gamayun Theatre (@gamayuntheatre) December 7, 2019