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Selected Serbian ComediesPages:
Emanuel Kozachinsky, a Ukrainian monk of Polish origin, arrived in Sremski Karlovci with four Russian colleagues in 1733 and wrote the first Serbian play in 1734. Although bearing the name of the last Serbian Tsar Uroš, the play treats the historical events from the earliest times of Serbian history up to the days when the play was written. With his Serbian colleagues, Kozachinsky established the first Latin school, which staged his play with the help of his students during the school celebration in 1734. Kozachinsky and his Russian colleagues stayed and worked in Sremski Karlovci and Belgrade until 1736.
Examining the context of Serbian drama and comedy within the larger context of the world scene indicates how huge the time gap is between the first dramatic works and the first Serbian drama. Some 2,200 years before the arrival of Kozachinsky in Sremski Karlovci, in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, great Greek playwrights, including the comedy playwright Aristophanes, wrote some of the greatest plays in history and inaugurated the long and important tradition of playwriting. Despite the “prevailing wisdom” that comedy is inferior to tragedy, comedy proved to be a vital force in literature and theater over the centuries. Aristotle’s thesis on the superiority of tragedy over comedy prevailed throughout the centuries; even Milton, Nietzsche, and many other writers and philosophers shared this opinion. Today, this matter is viewed differently and the old opinion is considered prejudice. One scholar who supports a more favorable view toward comedy is Mathew Kieran (University of Leeds, UK), who wrote the essay “Tragedy versus Comedy: On Why Comedy is the Equal of Tragedy.”
Whatever period we analyze, comedy played an important role. This more flexible notion toward comedy should not be affected by the fact that even Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, according to many literary experts, is a work with less literary merit than his other works. In addition, Falstaff’s character is much stronger in the Henry V plays than in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The lesser quality of this play may be attributed to the limited time at Shakespeare’s disposal rather than to the shortages of the genre per se. Indeed, this Shakespearean play has more prose (the majority of the play) than any of his other plays.
In Serbia, comedy played a crucial role not only in theater, but also in the resurrection of literature in its totality. Even now, Branislav Nušić remains the greatest Serbian writer of comedies and, perhaps, the greatest dramatist of all. Joakim Vujić (1772–1847) is considered the father of the Serbian theater, and Jovan Sterija Popović is considered the father of Serbian drama. Although this conclusion may be confusing, the fact is that Vujić, working with the Prince of Serbia, Miloš Obrenović, established the first Serbian theater in Kragujevac, whereas Sterija Popović was the first Serbian to write plays of literary value.
Popović wrote poetry, historical novels, and plays but he only achieved real literary acclaim with his comedies. He was the first Serbian comedic playwright, yet even in his comedies he lacked – to some extent – one critical element: a sharp sense of humor. His strength lies rather in his clever use of irony. He was one of the most educated people in nineteenth-century Serbia and established major cultural institutions, such as the National Museum in Belgrade in 1844. He also initiated the establishment of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the National Library, and participated in the opening of the first theater in Belgrade (Djumruk, 1841), which opened with his tragedy The Death of Stephan of Dečani. In the same year, Belgrade became the capitol of Serbia, and the Lyceum (Licej), the first law school, was established in Belgrade; Popović, who was a lawyer, became one of the first professors at this school.
As a person of large intellectual capacity, Popović felt the need to influence society in many ways and was an educator among other things. He was aware of the inherent hypocrisy and the low level of education of the people living in nineteenth-century Serbia. Comedy was a good medium for him to express his satirical points and to trigger change, if possible. One such play, The Patriots – the first play in this anthology – deals with such hypocrisy and implicitly fights against the flashy phenomenon, in which empty words and declarations are not followed by real and sincere deeds.
The development of drama and its perception in any culture has faced some strange turns throughout the centuries. In today’s Serbia, it would be hard to find anybody who would not agree that Branislav Nušić is not only one of the greatest—if not the greatest—Serbian playwrights as well as one of the greatest Serbian literary figures in general. One of Nušić’s most famous plays is A Suspicious Character, presented in this book. In his preface to this play, knowing that he would be accused of imitating Gogol, Nušić admitted that he “wrote the play under the direct influence of Gogol, so that critics cannot brag that they had discovered that.”
Yet in the period between the two world wars, with only a few exceptions, nobody believed that Nušić was a great writer. Many critical texts focused on Nušić’s plays, emphasizing his “shortcomings.” Today, almost all people familiar with theater and the history of Serbian theater and literature would agree that Nušić was, in fact, the only Serbian playwright of high caliber between the two world wars. More than three centuries before Nušić, the greatest English dramatist and writer, William Shakespeare, died in 1616; only a few years after his death, he was almost forgotten, and his plays were not being performed. If it were not for his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, half of his plays would have been lost and, most likely, Shakespeare, as we know him today, would not exist. Thanks to the turns or whims of history, as well as the more open-minded theater people, Nušić became the most staged Serbian playwright and most popular after World War II. The new generations of theater directors realized that Nušić had a streak of genius and was, perhaps, 50 years ahead of his time for the Serbian theater.
The third playwright in this anthology, Dušan Kovačević, has been one of the most prolific and popular Serbian playwrights on the Serbian theatrical scene since the 1970s. The first term that comes to mind when thinking about some of Kovačević’s plays is grotesque, especially in The Marathon Family, one of Kovačević’s first plays. He more or less continued in this manner in his other plays. Victor Hugo thought that grotesque was “the richest source nature can offer art.” The simplest explanation why grotesque is so effective is that it makes the contrasts more obvious while juxtaposing the ugly and the beautiful, the divine and the unholy, the sublime and the ordinary, the romantic and the dull. If we are directly confronted with beauty and ugliness, beauty starts shining brighter and becomes more obvious, forcing us to appreciate it more and not take it for granted. Kovačević is a master of the grotesque and, for that reason, his plays may appear somewhat exotic, especially to foreign theater goers.
The Marathon Family play, as well as a movie made in 1982, based on a screenplay by Kovačević himself and directed by Slobodan Šijan, was so popular in the former Yugoslavia and Serbia that, in 2013, theater director Milica Kralj decided to stage The Marathon Family with the male roles played by female actors. In such a situation, for instance, Grandma Pantelija resembles Josip Broz Tito, and the main goal of all the women in the family is to become CEOs of some kind. This was not the first time that this play was played by female actors. Actually, in 1996, director Jagoš Marković staged the same play with female actors and achieved much success. Similarly, also in 2013, the female roles in Mrs. Minister, directed by Tatjana Mandić Rigonat, were played by male actors at the Boško Buha theatre. This approach was influenced by and reminiscent of Elizabethan times when females were forbidden to act because acting and playwriting were not respected professions. Indeed, they were not even considered real jobs. In fact, until 1660, it was illegal for women to act in England.
By presenting these three playwrights and their comedies, we can follow the most important developments in the last few centuries and develop direct and indirect feelings about the state of affairs in Serbian society on many levels, not only on the level of literature and theater. Popović was more of an intellectual and a didactic educator, desiring to enlighten the general populous and open their eyes through satire within the idea of the comedy of character. Meanwhile, Kovačević uses his imagination more freely, relies much more on humor, and does not incorporate much satirical tone into his comedies. Somewhere between them, not only chronologically but also stylistically and in terms of the creative method, stands Nušić, as the most remarkable figure of the Serbian theatre.
Branko Mikasinovich, Dejan Stojanovic, Jovan Sterija Popovic, Branislav Nusic, Dusan Kovacevic
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