Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 59, no.3 (Fall 2015), page 454: Review: Night and Fog: The Collected Dramas and Screenplays of Danilo Kiš

Radmila Gorup, Columbia University

Night and Fog

The anthology features five dramas (Night and Fog, The Parrot, A Wooden Trunk for Thomas Wolfe, The Mechanical Lions, and Electra), and two screenplays (Marin Držić Always Lands on his Feet and Končarevci: A Factory Story). All the plays take place in modern times with the exception of Electra and Marin Držić, and all their characters are situated in their social contexts. Some plays address social and political conditions (The Parrot and Končarevci), while others investigate legacies of the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century (Night and Fog, Mechanical Lions, and A Wooden Trunk for Thomas Wolfe). All the plays simultaneously portray everyday life and the human condition in a broader sense. Ideology has an important place in Kiš’s plays: institutional religion in Electra and Marin Držić, legacies of Fascism and Communism in the rest. Violence is foregrounded and many characters die a violent death.

Written and performed in 1968, Night and Fog is, in Kiš’s words, “a set of lyrical variations on the theme of time and memory” (Appendix, 351). Readers of Early Sorrows and Garden, Ashes will recognize Andreas Sam, a Yugoslav-Hungarian young man who twenty years later returns to a Hungarian village where he spent the war years. Each of the three characters— Andy, Mrs. Rigo, and her husband—sees the past in their own way. While Andy admits that memory is elusive, he is certain that an injustice was done to his family. Physically absent but omnipresent is the tragicomic figure of his lost father.

The Parrot, shown on Belgrade TV in 1970, portrays class and generational conflicts of the late 1960s, and recalls Kiš’s novel Mansarda. The bizarre “crime” takes place in an upscale Belgrade apartment. The intruder is a chatty young man, perhaps mentally disturbed, with an imaginary parrot on his shoulder. The “victims” are a middle-aged couple, representative of the red bourgeoisie. The absurd exchange of “Who are you?” ends with the shooting of the young man.

When writer David Filip suggested to several colleagues that they write a play on the seven deadly sins, Kiš chose to write on laziness, the lesser sin, and composed A Wooden Trunk for Thomas Wolfe, which was shown on Belgrade TV in 1974. The play’s two characters, an old doctor and a young would-be writer, are based on real people. Holocaust survivors, they are trying to forge a new existence but their traumatic past prevents that. Unable to do it himself, the old man encourages his younger friend to write about the war experiences and bear witness to the Shoah, but the young man is afflicted with laziness and lacks talent. The two characters are reminiscent of similar ones in Kiš’s The Psalm, Early Sorrows, and The Lute and the Stars.

Mechanical Lions, staged in 1980, is a dramatization of the story “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” and two other stories from the same collection. Kiš met with unexpected difficulties transferring narrative to drama and needed a new approach to portray the tragic destiny of Boris Davidovič Novsky, an idealistic revolutionary and true believer, pitted against a system intent on sacrificing him in the most brutal fashion. The system is represented by the investigating magistrate Fedjukin, who relentlessly tries to corrupt Novsky’s stellar revolutionary past, which Novsky fights to the very end to preserve. The play illuminates various historical periods, starting with pre-revolutionary Russia, the Revolution, and the political persecutions of the Soviet period.

Electra (1968), Kiš’s first dramatic work, was commissioned by the Belgrade experimental theater “Atelje 12.” Kiš began work with the single available Serbo-Croatian translation of Euripides’s play, but ultimately had to write his own verse. Kiš preserved the general traits of the famous legend of Electra and Orestes but combined it with elements of the theater of cruelty of Antoine Arnaud, to whom Kiš dedicated the play. The combination of the two models makes Kiš’s Electra modern and the play bridges the tyranny of antiquity with the oppressive ideologies of the twentieth century.

In 1979, Kiš wrote two screenplays, one on the life of Dubrovnik Renaissance playwright and perpetual rebel Marin Držić (1508–67) and another on the unorthodox socialist industrialization in Yugoslavia. Neither screenplay was filmed.

Cox translated Marin Držić Vidra, the title of the first screenplay, rather awkwardly as Marin Držić Always Lands on his Feet. Even if not exact, Marin Držić the Fox might have been better. This is not a screenplay in the true sense of the word since dialogue is sparse and narrative and stage directions predominate. Kiš must have found the figure of the Renaissance playwright appealing because of his rebellious streak and his broad-mindedness. Držić never stopped pursuing his artistic interests even though he became a priest. He criticized conservatism and the corruption of the Dubrovnik ruling class and the intolerance of the church and universities. The play is also a meta-text, as parts of Držić’s most successful play Uncle Maroje are integrated in the work. The screenplay written in Dubrovnik vernacular attests to Kiš’s linguistic skills.

Končarevci: A Factory Story is an accomplished screenplay that depicts the turbulent years after World War II, the crisis after Tito’s split with Stalin, and Tito’s subsequent efforts to forge Yugoslavia’s path to Socialism. The play consists of scenes with detailed settings and numerous prompts. The plot takes place in a pre-war Siemens electronic factory, now reconstructed and named after a partisan hero. The characters are numerous, and they are depicted in conflict both with society and with one another. Končarevci is another meta-text, a film within a screenplay. Within the screenplay a film crew is making a film. The screenplay ends with a loss of confidence in the Communist ideology largely because of the Party’s unwillingness to face reality and admit crimes committed in the name of an illusory future. Kiš’s irony is evident as Beethoven’s music is being played to an indifferent factory audience. Biography plays a crucial role in Kiš’s entire opus. Images of the author’s life are incorporated into his plays. He extended his cosmopolitan orientation to his dramatic works. His dramas include a classical tragedy, a Renaissance play, a portrayal of the Soviet gulag and its legacy, the Tito-Stalin split, and the Yugoslav brand of Socialism.

Kiš started to write dramas somewhat late in his career. Cox offers an argument that the author might have had reservations about drama because of his literature of facts, i.e., his reliance on documents, something which drama by its very nature avoids. Whatever the case, Kiš found a way to preserve the authenticity he advocated elsewhere.

Readers and scholars of Kiš should be grateful to Cox for an excellent translation of the writer’s dramatic works. Even though they are minor works when compared to his masterpieces, these plays nonetheless add to our understanding of one of the most important European writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Night and Fog: The Collected Dramas and Screenplays of Danilo Kiš

Translated and with an introduction by John K. Cox


Night and Fog

This volume of translations represents the entire dramatic and cinematic ouevre of the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš (1935-1989). The seven dramas and screenplays are accompanied by a historical introduction by the translator, John K. Cox, who has also translated two of Kiš’s novels (The Attic and Psalm 44) and a volume of his short stories (The Lute and the Scars). Written mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, the themes of the works in this anthology vary widely. Of the seven translations in Night and Fog, two address classical literary themes, one is a dramatization of part of Kiš’s own A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, and the others explore personal and political conflicts during the Holocaust and the first decades of socialism in Tito’s Yugoslavia and Hungary. What they have in common is Kiš’s ear for precise language, telling detail, epistemological and narrative anxiety, and, in most of the pieces, his eye for the personal costs and often lethal emotional turmoil of individuals in communist and fascist systems. As readers work their way through the torturous and unsatisfying workings of the characters’ memories, they are also exposed to many seldom-discussed details of life in Tito’s Yugoslavia from the split with the Cominform in 1948 to the student uprisings of 1968. Many people who knew Kiš consider A Wooden Trunk for Thomas Wolfe to be his finest play; it is the chronicle of the intense relationship of two men, one broken by Hitler’s death camps and the other by Stalinism, as they wrestle with their own physical infirmities and artistic impotence. Night and Fog, the translator’s favorite, originates in the same milieu—the multicultural region of Vojvodina between Belgrade and Szeged— as Kiš’s other autobiographical writings about the childhood of a young male character named Andreas Sam. But in this play a twenty-something Sam tracks down a married couple in Hungary who had been teachers in his wartime home town, and their three-way sparring over contested memories transitions slowly from nostalgia to bitter awareness of lies and collaboration. The Mechanical Lions is a must for anyone who has read A Tomb for Boris Davidovich; this stage version of the main story in Kiš’s path-breaking eponymous short story collection leads through terrain familiar to readers of Darkness at Noon and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Written with vintage Kiš wryness, spareness, and emotional force it bounces around through time and place to tell the story of the Soviet purges in the 1930s, and honor and historical truth join Old Bolsheviks and international activists on the secret police’s hit list.