Matei Vişniec (3270 words)

Jozefina Komporaly (University of the Arts London)
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Context

Matéi Visniec (aka Matei Vişniec, born 1956) is one of the most prolific writers of fiction, poetry and drama in the Romanian language, also known for a significant output of dramatic works originally authored in French (note 1). His many awards include prizes from the Romanian Writers’ Union, the Romanian Theatre Union (UNITER), the Avignon Festival, the French Society of Writers and Composers, and the 2016 Jean Monnet Award for European Literature for the novel Negustorul de începuturi de roman [The Merchant of Opening Lines]. Visniec is a respected public intellectual whose take on current affairs reaches large audiences, and whose preoccupation with the human condition invites reflection on the role and impact of history. Actively engaged with keeping cultural memory alive, Visniec argues that remembering is an act of duty and stresses the importance of configuring literature as a space that brings major concerns of our time to light.

Visniec frequently intertwines the tragic with the ridiculous, and the absurd with the ironic: “Here, we live the absurd, [while you, over there, you write it]” (cf. Komporaly 2015: 391). He conveys the essence of living under ideological oppression in a way that can make people understand its emotional impact on a visceral level, without having had a direct encounter with such oppression. Visniec’s works are grounded in personal exposure to totalitarianism, yet are not “historical” texts as such but reflections on this experience, which foreground the social, political and psychological ramifications of confinement. Prisons, hospitals and mental institutions feature prominently as a code for limitations to personal freedom, together with an examination of what being free might entail. Like the author himself in the late 1980s, the protagonist of the novel Dl K eliberat [Mr K Released] finds that leaving captivity behind does not necessarily translate into an ability to handle liberation. Mr K is unable to take destiny into his own hands and “opts instead for an exploration of the prison compound, his quarantine of sorts, charting endless series of Kafkaesque circles in which readers might also recognise themselves” (Komporaly 2020b: 13). This reading has gained particular relevance in the context of the ongoing pandemic, and since the novel’s English version appeared just prior to the Covid crisis, it had the added potential to draw attention to the idea of cultural resistance so prevalent in Visniec’s overall body of work. (Note 2)

Visniec emerged on the literary scene as a poet with the volume La noapte va ninge [Tonight It Will Snow] (1980), following which he started writing drama. The political undertones of his work (such as the poem “The Vessel”) attracted censorship, however, and by the time the Nottara Theatre in Bucharest announced plans to stage Caii la fereastă [Horses at the Window] in 1987, he already had an invitation to France, where he applied for political asylum. This meant that Visniec got instantly blacklisted, but, after the fall of the communist regime in December 1989, his work was soon rediscovered. Within a few years, Visniec has become the most frequently staged and published living Romanian playwright. His work has also become the subject of extensive critical scrutiny, in parallel with regular appearances at the Sibiu International Theatre Festival. In 2016, the Suceava municipal theatre was named after the playwright, and, in 2021, the Romanian post had issued a commemorative stamp in his honour. Meanwhile, Visniec’s writing has continued to be embedded into the French theatre system, where it was first nurtured. Over the years, Visniec has developed partnerships with companies such as Pli Urgent in Lyon, and established himself as one of the most popular playwrights at the Avignon OFF Festival. In the course of nearly thirty years, he had hundreds of productions directed by Christian Auger, Mustapha Aouar, Gérard Gelas, Serge Barbuscia, his work also benefitting from the extraordinary support of publisher Émile Lansman. As a result of translations into over thirty languages, Visniec’s plays were staged by prestigious European theatres, including the Young Vic in London, Théâtre du Rond Point des Champs Elysées in Paris, Stary Theatre Krakow, Piccolo Theatre Milan, Royal Dramatic Theatre Stockholm, National Theatre Istanbul, and Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin.  

As a formerly censored author himself, Visniec draws on the right to free speech in various configurations. He creates a memorable alter ego in the character of blacklisted poet Sergiu Penegaru in Despre senzaţia de elasticitate când păşim peste cadavre [The Feeling of Elasticity When Walking on Dead Bodies]; whereas in Istoria comunismului povestită pentru bolnavii mintal [How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients] he reworks the trope of the Shakespearean fool in order to carve out a space for political contestation under Stalinism. Sharing an affinity with the author’s anti-establishment poetry, such as the volume La masa cu Marx [Dinner with Marx], these texts are virulent satires on ideological oppression, exposing the failed experiment of communism as “the best of all possible worlds” where “mad” people are free and “normal” people are gradually losing their mind. Romanian critic Nicolae Manolescu noted that “seldom has the human sub-condition been shown in such a crude, even mad light, illustrating not only a psychological degradation but also a political one” (1990: 1393). Visniec situates madness as a disease and a mad social system side by side; in this way, the mental asylum chosen as setting becomes metonymic for the whole country, its prison-like conditions emblematic for the concentration camp universe of the Stalinist regime itself. Moreover, as Daniela Magiaru contends, the ambiguity of the play’s language “contributes to the confusion between narrative planes and defies clear boundaries between madness and normality” (2010: 154). This play was the first Visniec text to be staged in the US (at The Open Fist Theater Company in Hollywood in 2000), and also led on to the English translation of Richard III se interzice, sau scene din viaţa lui Meyerhold [Richard III Will Not Take Place, or Scenes from the Life of Meyerhold] (2001). The latter departs from the premise of a banned theatre production, and through the character of Meyerhold explores the fate of countless creatives and intellectuals who have been fatally silenced by dictatorial regimes. As Ileana Orlich argues, Visniec’s play “not only depicts trauma but also reproduces it on stage, engaging the audience to be witnesses, through theatrical performance, to the horrors of Stalin’s Soviet Union” (2017: 105).

Intending to refresh collective memory regarding the “horror disguised as humanism” (Visniec 2012: 14), the volume Procesul comunismului prin teatru [The Trial of Communism by Theatre] is an open invitation to reignite reflection on the atrocities of communism, rooted in the concern that, unless kept alive, memory will efface certain episodes in history. Spectatorul condamnat la moarte [The Spectator Sentenced to Death] is a bitter parody of the Stalinist justice system, which totally disregards whether the accused is actually guilty or not. Examining what it means to be a victim, the play parallels criminal investigations with the trial of the audience, and was one of the few truly contestational plays written in Romania during the communist regime. (Note 3) Dramaturgically, Visniec deals with the problem of communism by creating an emotional impact on the audience and addresses complex topics such as utopia, censorship, Stalinism, cultural resistance and interethnic conflict through the medium of perfectly crafted dramatic situations. These situations are universally relatable on a purely visceral level, as Visniec’s goal is to convey “the essence of communism” and not to carry out an act of public denunciation. Crucially, as I suggest in an essay on Visniec as a European playwright, this critique can incorporate any totalitarian form of governance, and in this sense “has the potential to resonate with younger generations in their attempts to recover leftist progressive politics despite the troubled history of communism” (Komporaly 2020a: 84).

As an avid political commentator, Visniec has acknowledged that the demise of communism in Eastern Europe has not resulted in a flawless democratic society. One of Visniec’s most successful plays looks at the Yugoslav war and situates an American psychiatrist alongside a victim of genocide and rape. As an intimate two-hander confronting two women metonymic for their communities, the play offers an insight into international conflict resolution and makes an attempt at celebrating humanity at a time of utter desperation. Faynia Williams was first to direct Visniec in the UK, and her production of Despre sexul femeii-cîmp de luptă în războiul din Bosnia [The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield in the Bosnian War] for the Brighton Festival in 1999 took place just as NATO bombs were falling on Belgrade during the Kosovo War. This play then went on to be workshopped at the National Theatre Studio in London, and then to the Young Vic. This occasion gave Visniec his first London exposure, an event followed by other productions, such as Şi cu violoncelul cum rămâne? [What Shall We Do with the Cello?] directed by Vasile Nedelcu for Atelier Theatre Studio at the Vault Festival (2017).   

More recently, Visniec has focused on the global impact of migration, and Occident express [Occidental Express] (2009) and Migraaaanți sau Prea suntem mulți în aceeași barcă [Migraaaants or There’s Too Many People on This Damn Boat] (2017) illuminate the unprecedented human cost of displacement. Both plays contrast the idealised image would-be migrants entertain of their target countries with the realities of the present, thus situating mythical and dystopian visions side by side. These works also prefigure Visniec’s recent play that addresses the plight of children left in the care of grandparents while their parents are trying to make a better living abroad – Extraterestrul care își dorea ca amintire o pijama [The Extra-terrestrial that Wanted Some Pyjamas as a Keepsake] staged in 2019 by the Matei Visniec Theatre in Suceava. Occidental Express was also produced by Visniec’s most ardent US champions, Trap Door Theatre in Chicago in 2017, following on from their premiere of Cuvintul progres spus de mama suna teribil de fals [The Word Progress on My Mother’s Lips Doesn’t Ring True] in 2011. Trap Door Theatre, led by artistic director Beata Pilch, have gained a reputation for championing European drama and their most recent work is a digital version of Teatru descompus [Decomposed Theatre], available online in eight episodes that respond eloquently to the challenges of making theatre during the pandemic. This emblematic production has been invited to numerous festivals, including the International Voices Project in Chicago in 2020 and the Matei Visniec Festival at the National Museum of Romanian Literature in March 2021. (Note 4)

Some of the most memorable Visniec productions have resulted from partnerships with companies, festivals and artistic directors. In addition to the Avignon OFF and Sibiu festivals, Visniec has found long-lasting creative associations with KAZE Theatre in Japan, and with director and producer Márcio Meirelles of Salvador da Bahia. Visniec notes that Brazil is the country that reminds him the most of Romania, a connection that explains the fact that É Realizações in São Paulo has to date published over twenty volumes of his work in Portuguese translation. As Dragan Klaić observes (2009: xviii), “the parabolic features” of Visniec’s theatre make his work “more accessible for foreign readers and spectators, who were most likely little informed about the everyday life under the great Conducator [Nicolae Ceauşescu]”. Indeed, Visniec denounces the dangers of manipulation through ideology whatever it might be, and charts a history of cultural resistance against totalitarianism of any kind. Meirelles transposes The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield in the Bosnian War (2014) to contemporary Brazil, and examines inter-racial relations in a post-colonial society through the play’s initial juxtaposition of a Western and Eastern woman. A similar attempt for cultural reclamation is present in Meirelles’s staging of Ultimul Godot [The Last Godot] (2014), whereby an Afro-Brazilian actor is cast as Godot, thus incorporating a canonical European character into the fabric of indigenous ethnic and performance traditions.

Visniec engages in a subtle dialogue with landmark moments in theatre history, and his absurdist vein is rooted in the tradition of Cioran, Chekhov, Ionesco, and Beckett. These authors have not only influenced his style and worldview, but also feature as references in his plays (cf. Mansardă la Paris cu vedere spre moarte [A Paris Attic Overlooking Death]; Maşinăria Cehov [The Chekhov Machine]; Nina sau despre fragilitatea pescăruşilor impăiaţi [Nina, or the Fragility of Stuffed Seagulls]). The Last Godot, for instance, has at its core the two figures that are notoriously absent in Waiting for Godot, Visniec thus transforming into characters the non-fictional person of the author and what was in Beckett’s play a mere name. Lecossois argues that “by calling into question the status of the character and that of the author, he shakes the very foundation of theatre as a genre” (2008: 94), not in the least because the characters in Visniec’s play claim that theatre has just been killed so the play first appears a lament for the death of theatre. The trope of waiting is an underlying motif in Visniec’s oeuvre, situated at the core of Buzunarul cu pâine [Pockets Full of Bread] (2004) and building up to the waiting for Ionesco himself in The Feeling of Elasticity When Walking on Dead Bodies (2009), memorably staged in 2018 by Răzvan Mureşan at the National Theatre of Cluj.

Visniec has a predilection for examining the ways in which history is framed, contested, and periodically rewritten. Over time, his responses to communism have given way to a reflection on the impact of globalisation and, whilst clearly signalling the differences among contexts, Visniec points out the totalitarian strand inherent in both socialist regimes and conspicuous consumption. Brainwashing was centrally imposed under the former, yet it has become self-inflicted in conditions of the latter: “Disinfecting language will open up the way towards true essence” (Visniec 2016: 104). As a practising journalist (for Radio France Internationale), Visniec has immediate insight into the workings of the media, and observes that the drive for sensationalism has reconfigured the ways in which people are exposed to facts, which has an impact not only on understanding the past but also on shaping the present and the future.

Visniec’s most post-modern writings are modular texts, a cluster of independent scenes that can be combined in various permutations, thus allowing theatre companies flexibility towards achieving their artistic vision. Visniec takes pleasure in meta-theatrical experiments and rejoices in improvisation, yet writes with striking precision and focus. He ritualizes repetition and accumulation, gradually divesting words and situations of their original meanings and connotations, to the extent that they lead to a troubling sense of unease. His Cabaretul cuvintelor [Cabaret of Words] (2012) takes readers on a subjective journey into a universe where words lead a life independent from that of humans, while Teatrul descompus sau Omul-pubelă [Decomposed Theatre or The Human Trashcan] (1993) includes parable-like tales, where his focus is on the psychological effect of wider situational changes on everyday life, and the creeping way in which the surreal becomes normality. This approach was fruitfully explored in a landmark marionette theatre production by Drolatic Industry (2005), where director Eric Deniaud had indeed observed Visniec’s advice and opted for “total creative freedom”, or in the recent audio adaptation for Trafika Europe Radio by Kate O’Connor (2021). (Note 5)

In sum, Visniec’s rich body of work addresses a recurrent central question: whether it is possible to strive for a kind of freedom that cannot be taken away. Visniec spots dramatic situations in an extraordinary variety of mundane circumstances, has a sharp eye for detail and an uncanny “capacity to transform abstract ideas into characters”, while his frequent intertextual references are rooted in his own rigorous practice as an attentive reader (Ghiţulescu 2008: 518). As a playwright, Visniec demonstrates remarkable generosity towards staging practice, and insists on the creative autonomy of directors and theatre-makers despite having authored some of the most influential plays of the last three decades. As an author versed in multiple literary modes, he systematically tests generic boundaries and practices a form of writing that transgresses linguistic, cultural, and stylistic confines. Last but not least, his self-translation between Romanian and French celebrates transnational communication and the possibility of belonging to multiple cultural contexts and traditions at once.

Notes

Note 1. The author uses the spelling Matéi Visniec in an international context, and Matei Vişniec in Romania.
Note 2. Mr K Released (trans. Jozefina Komporaly, Seagull Books, 2020). https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/M/bo38690079.html Shortlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize 2021: https://www.ebrd.com/cs/Satellite?c=Content&cid=1395297685333&pagename=EBRD%2FContent%2FHublet&fbclid=IwAR3xwVfRwCHJ_2TDRnhEf1nofoLg6a8VFlD4hg7padh2LMxRSAx03x2-QFc. Listed among the 75 notable translations of 2020 by World Literature Today https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/blog/lit-lists/world-literature-todays-75-notable-translations-2020-michelle-johnson?fbclid=IwAR19xKLy5NDvyuDlPH1AG8daNi_REIrv3nXRS8_tcZCXYqecciUOg_zapUo
Note 3. The play will soon be available in English translation, cf. Plays from Romania, ed. Komporaly 2021.
Note 4. https://www.ivpchicago.org/calendar/2020/decomposedtheatre-romania; https://mnlr.ro/festivalul-international-matei-visniec-21-27-martie-2021/
Note 5. https://omny.fm/shows/trafika-europe-radio-3/decomposed-theatre?fbclid=IwAR0cj9ZHCzIEjnCskTWd4_nrSNd3ZMErEP8wg54A8w5zeg4DgCt_glHowNI

References

Gerould, Daniel (ed.) (2009) Playwrights before the Fall: Eastern European Drama in Times of Revolution. New York: Martin E. Segal Centre Publications.
Ghiţulescu, M. (2008) Viziunile lui Matei Vişniec, in Istoria literaturii române: Dramaturgia (Matéi Visniec’s Visions, in The History of Romanian Literature: Theatre). Bucharest: Editura Academiei Române.
Klaić, D. (2009) “Preface: Retrieved from Oblivion”, in Gerould, Daniel (ed.) (2009) Playwrights before the Fall: Eastern European Drama in Times of Revolution. New York: Martin E. Segal Centre Publications: xi-xxi.
Komporaly, J. (ed.) (2021) Plays from Romania: Dramaturgies of Subversion. Bloomsbury.
Komporaly, J. (2020a) “András Visky & Matéi Visniec: Challenging boundaries of cultural specificity”, in Contemporary European Playwrights, eds. Maria M Delgado, Bryce Lease and Dan Rebellato. Routledge.
Komporaly, J. (2020b) “Lockdown Literature”, ITI Bulletin, July-August: 13.
Komporaly, J. (ed.) (2015) Matéi Visniec: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients and Other Plays. Seagull Books.
Lecossois, H. (2008) Samuel Beckett, Matéi Visniec: From one Godot to the last, in Carvalho, P. E. and Homem, R. C. (eds.) Plural Beckett/Beckett Pluriel: Centenary Essays/Essays d’un centenaire. Porto: University of Porto, pp. 93-104. Available at  https://ler.letras.up.pt/uploads/ficheiros/6598.pdf (Accessed 14 May 2019).
Magiaru, D. (2010) Mirajul cuvintelor calde (The Charm of Spirited Words). Bucharest: Editura Institutul Cultural Român.
Manolescu, N. (1990) Istoria critică a literaturii române (A Critical History of Romanian Literature). Piteşti: Editura Paralela 45.
Orlich, I. A. (2017) Subversive Stages: Theatre in Pre- and Post-communist Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press.
Visniec, M. (2020) Mr K Released, trans. J Komporaly, Seagull Books.
Visniec, M. (2016) The Man Who Had All His Malice Removed (excerpt), trans. J. Komporaly, Index on Censorship, 45 (2) (Summer): 100-110.
Vişniec, M. (2012) Procesul comunismului prin teatru (The Trial of Communism by Theatre). Bucharest: Humanitas.
Visniec, M. website: https://www.visniec.com/home.html

Citation: Komporaly, Jozefina. "Matei Vişniec". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 May 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=14714, accessed 26 January 2022.]

14714 Matei Vişniec 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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