A playwright examines writer who fought Soviet system
The persecution of Ukrainian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel under Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s — also known as the “Great Terror” — is the subject of a new play, “Isaac Babel and the Black Sea,” by Tim McNeil, who also directs. The show is a workshop production of the Stella Adler Lab Theatre Company in Hollywood and runs through Sept. 13.
Babel is described by McNeil as “a pioneer of the short story.” Among his most celebrated works are “The Story of My Dovecot,” which deals with a 1905 pogrom and its effect on his family; “Red Cavalry,” based on his experiences as a journalist embedded with the 1st Cavalry Army in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. In the latter, he reveals the brutalities perpetrated by both sides, particularly in the disputed area of Galicia, between Poland and Ukraine. There is also “The Odessa Tales,” a group of stories about a ghetto in Odessa and a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik.
Babel is depicted in the new play as being passionate to learn about everything, and McNeil says he originally was a supporter of the Russian Revolution.
“I think a lot of Jews at that particular moment in time saw communism as a way out of their second-class citizenship, and also a sort of utopian ideal that made sense to them,” McNeil said.
“But I think that Galicia and what he saw with the Cossack army sort of broke the idealism in him — the destruction of the shtetls and Jewish life in Galicia during the Polish-Soviet War, by the Russian army in general and the Polish army.”
Galicia has particular meaning for McNeil, who is not Jewish but has been married for 24 years to a Jewish woman whose family came from the area.
“I love my wife, and I love her culture. And I just find it so different from my Presbyterian upbringing in the desire to learn, and the desire to understand, and the questions,” McNeil said. “I guess delving into Babel’s life and work represents a desire to learn more, too, for me personally, to learn more about that particular experience and specifically my wife’s heritage.”
In learning about Babel, McNeil had a limited amount of original material to use as reference. “There are some sources,” he said. “For instance, Antonina Pirozhkova [Babel’s common-law wife] wrote an autobiography about her life and her time with Babel. Plus, he had a diary that was published. Other than that, [there was] not that much.”
So, he said, “I took all of this information that I had, and then I decided to create a piece of imagination, trying to understand exactly who he is.”
As McNeils’s play begins, it is 1939, and Babel (Chervine Namani) is being interrogated by two investigators (Teo Celigo and Stephen Sitkowski)) of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Interspersed with the interrogation scenes — in which Babel is alternately cajoled and beaten by the officers — are passages from the author’s past, created by the playwright but based on items in Babel’s works.
During his interrogation, he is accused of such crimes as being a terrorist in support of Stalin’s rival, Leon Trotsky, and of spying for France. The charges are obviously trumped up, but it doesn’t help that Babel is actually having an affair with the woman married to the head of the NKVD.
However, McNeil contends that, beyond the affair — which was historically real — Babel was criticized because he became relatively silent as a writer. In the 1930s, he was condemned for low productivity. He was reacting to Stalin’s restrictions, under which all artists had to glorify the working class and the Soviet system. As a result, Babel was not free to write about the flaws and
abuses he saw in that system, including the persecution of the more successful peasants in Ukraine under the collectivization
“I believe he felt compromised that way,” McNeil said.
His relative silence was damning in Stalin’s eyes, McNeil believes, as was a public appearance at the Soviet Writers Congress.
“There’s a speech that I have in the play that … was a powerful indictment — but subtle — of the system. He talks about, ‘We are denied one privilege: the ability to write badly,’ which got a lot of laughter from the audience,” McNeil said.
“He was quite out front in a way that it was probably very difficult for him when he got home.”
The difficulties led to his ultimate execution, in secret, which is where the play ends. Historically, Babel then became a virtual non-person in the Soviet Union; his books were no longer available, and his name erased from all other publications.
He was “rehabilitated” and cleared of all charges in the 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power. But it wasn’t until Glasnost and the breakup of the Soviet Union that the entire truth of his execution — followed by cremation and the burial of his ashes in a mass grave — was revealed.
As for the play, McNeil hopes that audiences leave with an appreciation for Babel as a seeker.
“I think that’s a huge thing for us to take away from it,” McNeil said, “but also that he resisted, that he was, actually, in his own particular way, in his own mad way, he was a fighter against tyranny.”
For tickets or information about “Isaac Babel and the Black Sea” at the Stella Adler Theatre, visit here.