"Master and margarita." Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical fantasy of Satan's foray into the Moscow of Stalin's heyday in the 1930s, created a sensation here a decade ago when it was first published. His widow, Elena, had kept it hidden for 26 years after his death and even the bowdlerized version that appeared conveyed its audacity.
A fuller version then surfaced in the West and finally in a very limited edition in Moscow a few years ago. With the brilliance of its imagery unfolded, the book is increasingly acknowledged as one of the best Russian novels of the 20th century.
Yet another dimention of "Master and Margarita" has now emerged in a faithful adaptation for the stage, which premiered Wednesday night, featuring religious, sexual and social commentary bolder in form and substance than anything seen in the theater here in memory.
The fortuitous combination of Bulgakov's vision and langauge with the imaginative skills of Yuri Lyubimov, director of the Taganka Theater, creates an artistic excitement that transends the purely political fact - remarkable though it is - that the play was permitted to be staged.
Lyubimov is a silver-haried 59-year-old former actor who has deftly paried ideological criticisms in the past and made the Taganka Moscow's most interesting theater. He talked about doing "Master and Margarita" as early as 1971, but the complexity of the production he envisioned and more improtantly, the reluctance of officials to give the go-ahead, delayed matters until this season.
That he ultimately succeeded is a tribute to lyubimov's international standing (he was worked at La Scala and the Paris Opera), his daring and resourcefulness. Friends say he finally threatened to complain publicly about the problems he was having, the kind of skan-dahl party bureaucrats like to avoid.
A curious compromise was drawn up, according to the story relayed by Lyubimov's admirers. The director was told he could do his play but only as a supplement to his regular yearly plan (theaters in Rusassia, like factories, have a norm to fulfill). Moreover, he would get no funds for the staging, which given the elaborateness of the saga - a four-hour spectacular heavily dependent on special effects - was a considerable obstacle.
Lyubimov was plainly undaunted. He prevailed on associates who willingly went along with the extra work, and he scavenged from other Taganka productions for props and scenery. Part of Lyubimov's talent is that he makes the most of his small theater - only 650 seats - and the simple state.
He has certainly done that this time. Actors pop up all over the audience itself has a part to play. A bare brick wall highlights the haunting crucifixion scenes. A thick brown braided curtian (a backdrop in the Taganka's hamlet) is ingeniously maneuvered on levers as an all-purpose set. Somehow it all seems to accentuate Bulgakov's surrealistic world more than a smoother, glossier approach might.
Lyubimov confounds local prudishness by presenting the heroine, Margarita, naked in a dream-like Satan's banquet and having the black-bikini clad comely devil's assistant bump and grind at appropriate interludes. That and other unusual phenomena such as shooting flames will have some shock value for audiences, but they are not merely gimmicks. Without them the action would seem pallid.
Once the basic decision was taken, the script on which Lyubimov collaborated with Vladimir Duyachin got relatively easy approval, according to friends of the director. The result is portrayal of aspects of Soviet life that every Russian recognizes but are generally treated gingerly if at all.
So sinister and sensitive a practice as the incarceration of sane people in mental hospitals is treated along with the grimmest police state tactics like denunciations and arbitrary arrests. It helps that all of this takes place in the discredited Stalin era and in an atmosphere of calculated unreality.
Also captured are the petty corruptions of currency finagling, the trade in apartment space and the deadening weight of cultural bureaucrats whose mission is to surbordinate talent to reality and garner perquisites for themselves. The decadence and evil that Bulgakov saw has been preserved. Yet it is shown disapprovingly enough to evoke the moral message that is the necessary ingredient of accepted Socialist Realism.
Among many intellectuals here Bulgakov is becoming a revered figure. He was born in 1891 and studied to be a doctor but from 1920 on he only wrote. "The White Guard" was his first major novel and it was later dramatized. Little else of note made it past it censors and Bulgakov asked to be allowed to emirgrate. It is said that Stalin himself telephoned the writer with a refusal, primarily because the staging of "The White Guard" was one of his favorite plays.
"Master and Margarita" was finished in 1938. Bulgakov was going blind and he died in 1940. The writer's reputation, and as a consequence the interest in him, soared after his masterpiece was discovered.
So it is that at the curtain call for their play, the cast of "Master and Margarita" silently gather with blownup photographs of Bulgakov at various stages of his life. In the center of the stage a flame in lit and as the audience rushed flowers forward - a Russian custom - the actors pile them around the base of the burning lamp. Everyone understands.