BY ANDREW KALLOCH
“With the exception of rumor, everything here is fact; apart from all the very colorful bits, it is imagination; this is how we create a history.” The Communist Dracula Pageant, written by Anne Washburn and directed by Anne Kauffman, is a satirical portrayal of life in Romania under its most infamous modern leader-Nicolae Ceau?escu-and his wife, Elena. While the performance has all the trappings of an American Repertory Theatre production-unique staging, colorful costumes, and the use of multimedia-it is truly a play for history lovers.
The Pageant takes place in three time periods-the volatile days of December 1989, which witnessed the coup that brought down Ceau?escu; the “glory days” of his reign in which the Romanian people held great galas in his honor, at his bequest; and the reign of Vlad the Impaler (more popularly known as Dracula), who ruled Romania three different times during the 15th century.
As the play transitions between these three periods, Ceau?escu’s incompetence and cruelty, well documented by historians worldwide, is evident. However, what gives the play its gravitas is not an immature browbeating of a dictator, but rather the historical parallels between Ceau?escu and Dracula, and the role of the people in celebrating these brutal tyrants.
The pageant performed in Ceau?escu’s honor places Ceau?escu in the company of the great Dracula, a supposedly transcendent leader of the Romanian people 500 years earlier. Of course, the scant historical accounts of Dracula support the conclusion that he was as cruel and unjust as Ceau?escu. Nevertheless, the people came together in towns of all sizes throughout Romania to celebrate their past and present tyrants.
It is easy to interpret the play’s mocking depiction of one of these pageants from our comfortable view in the present. Such an interpretation is made all the easier by the actors’ brilliant portrayal a sense of unbelief at the wild claims of the Ceau?escu’s, including Elena’s claim that she was a world-renown scientist when in fact she is known to have had a fourth-grade education.
Of course, like any art worth its salt, the Pageant’s surface interpretation prods the reading to dig deeper into the psyche of the Romanian people and challenge one’s own assumptions about the nation’s history. If history has taught us anything it is that the truth hides itself from view only until the most dedicated and enlightened mind can dig it from the scrapheap of legend and myth. As President John F. Kennedy once noted, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often…we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
The witness to the Pageant and a historian of this dark period of Romanian history must do more than pile moral opprobrium on the Ceau?escu’s. Instead, what Kauffman begs us to ask is not how horrible the Ceau?escu’s were, but how the Romanian people themselves became bystanders (or cheering pageant-participants) to their own horrific demise. Indeed, the Pageant reminds us of Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which explores not how Hitler’s orders came to be, but rather why his orders, including those for the Final Solution, were carried out by the common men of Germany.
For people obsessed with the law, which includes, I should think, some of our readers, the Pageant has something for you as well. The performance depicts the trial and execution of the Ceau?escu’s-a trial eerily similar to that which condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2006. The Ceau?escu’s military trial, which took place in a converted schoolhouse, took less than three days to finish, partially because the accused did not recognize the tribunal and thus did not muster a substantial defense. Ionel Boeru, one of the three elite military officers who executed the Ceau?escu’s by firing squad, when asked about the fairness of the trial, stated, “The process was of course a pure farce…the judges were anything but neutral.”
Thus, at a time when the Romanian people believed that, at long last, the fog of mythology and tyranny had evaporated and they could see the world for what it was, their vision remained obscured. Decades of hunger, terror, and faint-hearted praise had produced a vengeful response. Indeed, before the media could document the execution, the soldiers opened fire-90 shots from three assault weapons. The play permits one to leave the theatre and wonder what the truth was-an exercise much needed for every historian and citizen.
The Communist Dracula Pageant is playing at the American Repertory Theatre’s Zero Arrow Theatre until November 9. Student Rush tickets are available on the day of show for $15 with a valid Harvard ID.