How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients
by Matei Visniec
The action takes place at the Central Hospital for Mental Disorders in Moscow in 1953, several weeks before the death of Josef Stalin. A writer is sent into the hospital to use “art & literature” to redeem the mentally ill by telling them the history of Communism in a way that they can understand it (and be saved by the utopian vision of the future). The writer begins his story (very funny the more one knows about how Communism was practiced within the Soviet bloc) as a subversive storyteller, using childlike language to recount the events, with all their absurdities articulated. The deeper the writer progresses into his storytelling, the deeper he gets caught in the bizarre characters and events taking place within the “hospital”. There are partisans lurking in every corner, including a secret cabal of “authentic revolutionaries” masquerading as mad (typical Soviet political prisoners) and meeting within hospital grounds unbeknownst to the hysterical doctors and nurses, fully invested in the cult of Stalin worship that the others reject. When Stalin’s death is announced, he is given a choice to either join the group of “patients” or the group of “doctors” and for fear of everyone, he chooses the doctors, but general havoc ensues as all the lives propped up by the “story of Communism” collapse. In the final scene, Stalin himself wanders by outside the building windows – as ghost or a mental patient?
Matei Visniec was born in Romania in 1956. From an early age, he discovered literature as a space dedicated to freedom. He draws his strengths from Kafka, Dostoevsky, Poe, Lautréamont. He loves the Surrealists, the Dadaists, absurd and grotesque theatre, surrealist poetry, fantastic literature, magical realism, even the realist Anglo-Saxon theatre. He loves everything except Socialist Realism.
Visniec studied philosophy at Bucharest University and became an active member of the so-called Eighties Generation, who left a clear stamp on the Romanian literature. He believes in cultural resistance, and in literature’s capacity to demolish totalitarianism. Above all, Matéi Visniec believes that theatre and poetry can denounce manipulation through "great ideas", as well as brainwashing through ideology.
Before 1987 Matéi Visniec had made a name for himself in Romania by his clear, lucid, bitter poetry. Starting with 1977, he wrote drama; the plays were much circulated in the literary milieus but were barred from staging. In September 1987, Visniec left Romania for France, where he was granted political asylum. He started writing in French and began working for Radio France Internationale. At the present time, Visniec has had many of his works staged in France, and some fifteen of his plays written in French are published (Actes Sud-Papier, L'Harmattan, Lansman). His plays have been staged in more than 20 countries. In Romania, after the fall of Communism, Matéi Visniec has become one of the most frequently performed authors.
The work of Matéi Visniec has been represented in London by the performance "The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield", staged at the Young Vic Theatre, in November 2000. The play received rave reviews in the British newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian. "The Story of the Panda Bears told by a Saxophonist who has a Girlfriend in Frankfurt" will be performed at the Edinburgh Festival (August 2005). The production is by Rouge28 Theatre, London. In Unites States, the work of Matéi Visniec has been represented in New York, Chicago, New Jersey and Hollywood.