An Oriental sage once said that to know the truth
one must go beyond one's limits. We should never have realized the validity
of this maxim if we had not crossed the borders to our country for what
was the first foreign tour of our Romany theatre troupe, Romen.
It was in 1982, and we were to perform in distant Japan "We the Gypsies",
one of the fifteen plays in our repertoire. After playing for six weeks
to packed houses, sometimes to over 2,000 spectators, we realized that
translation of our dialogue and lyrics was not necessary. The public called
us back for encores many times, and the famous Japanese signer Okada Yoshika
said, "Their songs resemble our traditional songs but differ sharply in
their passionate spirit".
What I value most in my people is their ability to be themselves, everywhere
and at all times; their capacity to follow their destiny along the many
paths of history, to draw new strength from one generation to the next;
their fight to preserve their vitality; their creative impulse and the
poetry with which they remember their ancestors.
Long ago on the banks of the Ganges there lived
a tribe of strong and handsome men who had the gift of creating delight
through their songs, of arousing strong emotions, laughter, and sometimes
tears. Their songs were sweet and harmonious, their dancing supple and
rhythmic. Did they perhaps already know that the power of their art would
feed the irresistible longing which would drive them to seek their fortune
Prosper Merimee's spirited and reckless Carmen, Victor Hugo's
graceful Esmeralda, Pushkin's rebellious Zemphira, Tolstoy's
voluptuous Masha the Gypsy, Leskov's heroine Grushenka, the
very incarnation beauty ... were not produced by their creator's imaginative
genius. These are real people, alive and warm, who came out of their tents
and their caravans and strode directly into literature.
Although the first Gypsy choirs were formed in Moscow in the eighteenth
century, the true folk art the Gypsies long remained unknown. Until the
1920s variety theatres, restaurants and cabarets presented the extravagantly
exotic charms of Gypsy songs and dances, a pseudo-art which was called
This was a slur on the authenticity of Gypsy folk art and a major threat
to its survival.
It was decided to end this state of affairs. The idea was born of creating
a Gypsy theatre which could perform the noble task of becoming a focus
of cultural activity and education, and a source of inspiration for a new
The experimental theatre was solemnly inaugurated
on 24 January 1931. At first it faced many difficulties. Almost half the
performers were illiterate. Roles had to be learned orally, by constant
repetition. Dramatic art in the strict sense was absent, and the problem
of creating a repertoire was particularly acute.
The first productions, a variety show called "Today and Tomorrow",
and "Life on Wheels", a musical drama based on a work by Alexander
Guermanov, contained an appeal in favour of sedentarization, with all that
sedentarization had to offer in the way of education, real participation
in the new life of society, and access to the values of world culture.
For the first time in their history the Gypsies could describe on stage
in their mother tongue what was most important in their lives.
A major theatrical event of both civic and artistic importance was the
staging of Bodas de Sangre ("Blood Wedding") by Federico
Garcia Lorca, an author endowed with extraordinary poetic feeling for everything
that is truly of the people. The play was directed by Mikhail Yanshin,
an outstanding actor with the Moscow Art Theatre and pupil of Stanislavsky
who directed the Romen theatre for five years. Under his leadership
the theatre moved away from ethnographic and exotic themes and ventured
into the realms of the mind and reason.
Inspired by noble ideals, Bodas de Sangre exalts the unique value
of each individual and his life, of his right to remain himself until his
dying breath. The production provided a foretaste of the later brilliance
of Lialia Tchernaia, who played the role of the fiancee, not only portraying
the tragedy of a woman who loses her beloved but also expressing a philosophical
idea rooted in folk wisdom--that it is better "to bleed to death" than
to ignore the message of the heart. This sublime tragedy by the great Spanish
poet was brought to life by the passion inherent in the Gypsy vision of
the world. The actors learned the psychological motivation of the characters
with the help of their colleagues at the Art Theatre. In Garcia Lorca's
work the originality of a people was not expressed in a striving for exotic
effects; instead the people's true character was summoned from the depths
of its history.
Russian and other classics began to appear on the playbills: "Grushenka"
adapted from Leskov's "Enchanted Wanderer," "Makar Chudra"
from Gorki; "Olessia", from Kuprin; "Aza the Gypsy", from
the Ukrainian writer Mikhail Startits; Merimee's "Carmen"; "The
Little Gypsy", adapted from Cervantes; "Esmeralda", from Victor
Hugo, and many others.
The Gypsy theatre gave birth to a national intelligentsia, whose first
university it was. It also provided a training ground for dramatists and
In our productions, the mystery of the origins
of my people and its destiny is sustained by humanism and goodness. We
refer to universal values: the vocation of man, his responsibility in this
beautiful but fragile and threatened would; good and evil; whatever is
of ethical concern. There is nothing new in this; any "theatre of ideas"
is concerned with these questions.
But our Gypsy theatre also has a special mission. Of the millions of
Gypsies all over the world, the 200,000 Soviet Gypsies were the first to
have a professional theatre. This confers on us a special responsibility
for strengthening awareness of our existence as a people and safeguarding
our artistic and cultural identity.
I believe that an authentically Gypsy theatre is not only a means of
staging dramatic performances but an instrument for shaping the conscience
of a people. It creates a moral climate in which the Gypsy not only questions
himself about life in the encampment or about his guitar but, like Hamlet,
asks the question "to be or not to be?"
We try to combine the emotional effusiveness of the past with the economy
of expression of modern art. As director and actor I am not content to
evoke an isolated destiny, however exciting, swept along in the great upheaval
of history. Our era, so rich in heroic poetry and faith in the ideals of
humanity, with all that we have won and lost, is expressed in the poems
of Anna Akhmatova with their vibrant emotional intensity, in the verse
of Sergei Essenin with its boundless freedom, in the romantic lyricism
of Mikhail Svetlov. The poets comment on events. The burning passion of
the Gypsies gives them a symbolic splendour.
Our theatre seeks to be a dialogue between different nationalities,
with the aid of two Gypsy "languages": the language of our times and the
vocabulary of the past.
In "We the Gypsies" we have tried to speak not of individuals
but of a people. We chose to stage a production in the form of a folk festival,
a kind of chronicle being recorded in the presence of the audience using
dramatic techniques. We wanted to communicate to the public through singing
and dancing the gaiety of a folklore imbued with the most authentic inspiration.
The soul of this people plunges its roots into
its roving, which began with its exodus from India when, according to legend,
the Gypsies had for some unknown reason (perhaps because of the magic effects
of their art on the spectators or because of their eternally rebellious
nature) angered God, who sent against them a wind so strong that men, horses
and wagons were all scattered. When the storm abated the men looked around
them and could not believe their eyes: they were in unknown places and
among unknown people, and no one knew where their country was nor even
if it had ever existed ...
This marked the start of their endless and always dangerous roaming
in search of the unknown. But the bare feet were already advancing along
a path which would lead this people to its maturity, make it an organic
part of the human community, and lead it towards spiritual renewal. We
invite the public to share the dance of Esmeralda, as brief and passionate
as her life, amidst the noisy crowds of medieval Paris. We wish to transmit
to our audiences some of our knowledge of the irresistible force of love,
so well illustrated by the impetuous Carmen. And the Russian Gypsy
after piercing the heart of Fedia Protassov in Tolstoy's
Audacity of thought, which is to a certain degree acquired in the theatre,
allows us to stage a work by Tolstoy and with Fedia Protassov to question
ourselves about the meaning of life, to recreate the pure and eternal love
of Kuprin's heroine Olessia, and to evoke the implacable sadness
of Hemingway's masterpiece "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
It seems to me that the more artistic our language is and the more human
the subjects we treat, the more familiar, understandable and reliable will
be the relationships between human beings, so vital in today's world when
we run the risk of breaking forever what Shakespeare called "the succession
of the ages."