A Portrait of a Poet as a Rightwing Leader
May 12 – 14 and May 16 – 18, 2018, TAG Theater, Vienna.
A portrait of the punk, the Russian Forrest Gump, the poet, the professional revolutionary, the ultra-nationalist party leader.
Limonov is the true story of the decline and fall of a man who once seemed poised to become the next great émigré writer, but ended up being a petty politician, an extreme nationalist. It is the fictional memoir of a poet who saw himself as a hero but in fact is just a scumbag. It is the portrait of the thug as sentimentalist, one that reveals a violence, an anarchy, a brutality, that the stories we tell ourselves about progress tend to conceal.
Limonov is part of the Real Fiction cycle
The performance Limonov is a study in theatrical narrative, and a character study. The theatrical narrative has to do with the way a story is told, live on stage. The story telling devices, techniques, methods, are exposed as part of the narrative, they become part of the story itself. The character study has to do with the way a character is introduced and then constructed live in front of an audience. The two intertwined to tell the story of Eduard Limonov, but also to show how we choose to tell the story of Limonov, what is the apparatus behind the methods we use.
So who is Eduard Limonov?
Here is the way the writer Emmanuel Carrere, who wrote a book about Limonov, describes him: “Limonov is not a fictional character. I know him. He has been a young punk in Ukraine, the idol of the Soviet underground; a bum, then a multimillionaire’s butler in Manhattan; a fashionable writer in Paris; a lost soldier in the Balkans; and now, in the fantastic shambles of post-communism, the elderly but charismatic leader of a party of young desperadoes. He sees himself as a hero; you might call him a scumbag…It’s a dangerous life. An ambiguous life: a real adventure novel. It is also, I believe, a life that says something, not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about all our history since the end of the Second World War.”
That final phrase is an over claim by some distance; but certainly Limonov’s deeds and beliefs help illuminate the history of the Soviet Union since 1989: the chaos, the anger, the despair, the wild-west capitalism, the pillaging of the economy by the oligarchs, the destruction of ordinary people’s savings, the loss of any sense of day-to-day normality, even if that normality had been dull and tarnished and unfree. What an extraordinarily short time has elapsed between the official abolition of the Communist party and the coming to power of a former KGB man, followed by the nostalgic semi-rehabilitation of Stalin.
Limonov journey from underground poet, to a leader of a fascist party, to now supporting Putin and his war in Ukraine is a peculiar one. Why, then, is he interesting? Flaubert, asked to justify his interest in Nero and the Marquis de Sade, replied, “These monsters explain history to us.” Limonov is not a monster, though would perhaps like to think himself one; he is a philosophical punk, a chancer, a blood-and-soil patriot who imagined himself a cleansing political force.
Limonov wrote many books about his favourite subject, himself. An adventurer rather than a hero, a delinquent rather than a dissident, Limonov’s freewheeling version of his life, swaggering in both its highlights and lowlights, has the relentlessness of one terrified of being thought a bore. He titled his books ‘fictional memoir.’ He told his life story as if he didn’t trust the fact that it was interesting enough. So, he turned himself into a character. Or more accurately, he tried to live a life of an interesting character. It is a constructed life that can be titled: ‘My life as a captivating person.’
This is the point where Limonov is of interest to us. He constructs his identity as if he was a character in a novel. A very up to date act. Something millions of people are doing on a daily basis via their digital devices.
Limonov’a first book ‘It’s Me, Eddie’ raised all sorts of hackles when it was published in 1979: The Soviet press found it filthy, while the more perceptive émigré establishment denounced Limonov for stating the awful truth: that for many of those who came over, America was just nasty, brutal, and expensive and New York was no city on a hill. But Eddie had its admirers, Truman Capote among them; the Germans gleefully gave their translation the English-language title ‘Fuck Off Amerika,’ and the French went with Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres, translated to: The Russian poet prefers big Negros. The book sold over a million copies when it was finally published in Russia in 1991.
For the Germans it was clear ‘Fuck America,’ for the French it was all about sex. Limonov seemed to give everyone what they wanted. He is the ultimate character for all seasons. The more time passed the more Limonov became in politics, an extreme nationalist; and as a writer, an extreme narcissist. He turned into both a parodic anti-dissident dissident, and a parodic right-winger.
Yet something about Limonov still haunts the mind. He is, without question, a real asshole—he called for press censorship during the first war in Chechnya, he struck the British writer Paul Bailey in the head with a champagne bottle at an international writers conference, he declared that what Russia’s liberals needed was a dose of the gulag. He is not himself an anti-Semite, but, as the anti-Semites used to say, some of his best friends are. His arrival at this low point was certainly large parts stupidity, confusion, and just plain inferiority complex—Solzhenitsyn once called him “a little insect,” and how do you get over that? But there’s more than foolishness here. All his writing is shot through with a curious mixture of self-pity and self-regard, it’s all about the self, the self, the self. Perhaps every memoirist is already something of a fascist, the politics a logical extension of the idea that your life is more than other lives.
Limonov himself is less of an interest to us as a character, we are not so curious about the real historic person. Limonov as an idea its what we are after. The prototype of Limonov, the person who will do everything to stand out, to become a celebrity, is what we will try to construct on stage. The real Limonov is just a hook for us to create the archetype Limonov-like character.
That is why our performance is not a biography play, a biopic in Hollywood terminology. We are not interested in facts check, or what Limonov actually said. Our Limonov is pure fiction made out of pseudo-biographies written by a guy named Edward Limonov. Limonov is not his real name, “Eduard Limonov” itself is a self-fiction, it is just another identity construction, a name he took to sound more interesting. Captivating as Limonov’s early writing was, few people would have the time and patience to read ten or more books about a single person’s life. It is therefore useful to have the remarkable life story condensed into a single performance. Facts, true, accuracy, are secondary features in our attempt to construct a theatrical narrative.
Our performance will repackage stories that have been rehearsed over and over, losing details, acquiring embellishments, and stringing themselves into sequences more logical than life itself can provide, conflating and reshuffling dates in the process. What makes the performance Limonov unusual is that using the written record one can trace some of the changes that have been made in the stories along the way. Limonov is not only the stories he told, but also the stories told or written about him, and the stories written about the stories written about him, and about how we, a performance group, put these stories together.
On an empty stage we meet the writer/dramaturg/director. Immediately she tells us, the audience, that she is not the writer/dramaturg/director but only an actress, a stand-in for these roles. After a short introduction she invites onto the stage the actor, the one who will play Limonov in the course of the evening.
What ensues from then on is a construction work, the making of Limonov. With simple theatrical devices, costume, spotlight, accents, a character named Limonov comes to life. But the process is not a Stanislavski Building a Character technique, or Pirandello-like personality looking for an author. The writer/dramaturg/director cannot make up her mind so she turns to the audience for answers. What kind of character they, the audience, would like to see? The talk with the audience is a rhetoric one, she is not really looking for a reply, it is not an audience participation evening. What she is doing is playing with possibilities, trying to figure out what the public wants to see. What kind of character are we attracted to, nowadays? The audience is confronted with its own prejudices, with its own preferences, with its attraction to the extreme, to the bizarre, to the uncanny, to the unconventional. It is the underground-scene version of reality TV. The mix of politics, sex, poetry, cheap philosophy. For us Limonov is like a clown in a little traveling circus, the kind that shuttled across America in the beginning of the 20th century, one of those guys in the freak show, a worm eater, or a bearded woman. The better he performs, the more attention he wins, the happier he is, the happier we are as audience. We the self-doubting liberals are invited into the world of Limonov a clear-headed extremist. How far can we go with this fictional memoir?
Maybe the best way to illustrate the dilemma is to close with a quote from Limonov:
“To be Russian writer means to find yourself between two gigantic millstones, Russia and the West. Being a Russian means having to write about what “they” want from you. In Russia you have to write about workers, about miners. In the West you’re obliged to write about labor camps and repression; publishers and readers expect you to be a model dissident. Both are identically uninteresting to me. I write about myself. And because I am absolutely alone, no one supports me…”