On the Feeling of Elasticity When Walking Over Dead Bodies is a landmark play by Matéi Vişniec and is representative of the playwright’s major thematic and stylistic concerns. Vişniec brings together fictional and real-life characters, aiming, on the one hand, to pay homage to Eugène Ionesco (himself of Romanian origin), and, on the other, to commemorate the victims of communism and reveal the contribution of those who defied official culture, often at the price of personal suffering. One strand of the play is set in one of the most notorious prisons in the Romanian communist gulag, at Sighet, specialising in the ‘re-education’ of dissident intelligentsia in the 1950s. The other follows the fictional character Sergiu Penegaru, a writer and translator, emblematic for Vişniec’s recurrent preoccupation with the role of the artist, the social responsibility of creative minds, and the risks involved in aspiring to freedom in totalitarian conditions. As the epitome of cultural resistance, the uncompromising Penegaru becomes the dissident writer par excellence, echoing actual anti-communist resistance in 1980s Romania, such as the activism of blacklisted poet Ana Blandiana and Vişniec’s own anti-establishment poetry.
Highlighting the imminent dangers of transgression, censorship emerges as a central theme in the play. In the extract below, set in a so-called re-education prison, the protagonists experiment with the cathartic potential of laughter, seen as a key instrument in maintaining human dignity: ‘You have to laugh in order to prevent yourself going mad’, claims Nicolae Balotă, eminent Romanian writer and literary critic, whose experience in communist prisons has been credited by Vişniec as the inspiration for this play. In this extract, the inmates discover the subversive energies inherent in unstifled laughter as they improvise a scene from Ionesco’s Bald Primadonna: bitter humour takes centre stage in the ensuing interrogation, where absurd blends into clownery as the prison governor makes the prisoners retake for the third time their virtual performance game, and engage in the very process of improvisation for which they were reprimanded in the first place. For Balotă, as well as for Vişniec, the absurd helped ‘to denounce the absurdity of the regime and provided a shield against it’(1), humour being foundational to cultural resistance and acting as a lifeline for survival.
By Matéi Vişniec and Jozefina Komporaly
1 Interview with Nicolae Balotă, taken by Ruxandra Cesereanu, Steaua (2007), no. 7-8.
THE POET, THE PHILOSOPHER, THE FORMER GOVERNMENT MINISTER and THE FORMER MAGISTRATE are interrogated by THE PRISON GOVERNOR.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: I’m asking you once again, as I assume you may not have heard my question: why were you roaring with laughter all night long, from Saturday to Sunday? (Beat) Well? Have you got nothing to say? Huh? Prisoner Penegaru, I asked you a question …
THE POET: Yes, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: So then, I expect an answer.
THE POET: It wasn’t all night long, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Are you pulling my leg, Comrade Prisoner?
THE POET: No, I’m not, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Yes, you are, you’re obviously pulling my leg, Comrade Prisoner.
THE POET: I’m really not, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Yet you had the audacity to be in hysterics in a communist prison, you dared to roar with laughter in a state prison, in a place for re-education. What was it that had you in stitches until three in the morning? I’m listening, Prisoner Penegaru.
THE PHILOSOPHER: He was sharing some memories with us …
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You were sharing memories …
THE PHILOSOPHER: Yes, we …
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Cut the cackle! I know you’re lying, you reactionary bastard. I’m asking you for the last time: why did you laugh so loudly and without a break until three in the morning? If you don’t give me the correct answer straightaway I’ll have all four of you in solitary confinement for two months, with only dry bread and water for food and drink.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: So, then? You were telling each other political jokes, weren’t you?
THE PHILOSOPHER: No, we weren’t.
THE FORMER GOVERNMENT MINISTER: Not at all.
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: Absolutely not.
THE POET: This is all my fault. I was telling them about a play.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: A play?
THE POET: Yes, a play for the theatre.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: What sort of a play?
THE POET: A play that is staged in a theatre.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You four, you’re making fun of me.
THE PHILOSOPHER: No, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: I don’t like being made fun of.
THE PHILOSOPHER: We would never make fun of you. We would never dare to make fun of those who are in charge of our re-education.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Prisoner Penegaru, step forward.
THE POET: At your command, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Tell us what exactly you were talking about.
THE POET: I was telling them about a play that I had read before coming here.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: And why were they laughing so boisterously?
THE POET: Because the play is very funny, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Great, then be so kind and share it with me, so I can laugh, too.
THE POET: Well, the play is a bit … different, it’s a piece of what they call the theatre of the absurd.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: The theatre of the absurd. Here in Romania?
THE POET: No, in fact … only the author is Romanian. I translated the play from the French … it’s on in Paris.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: It’s on in Paris?!
THE POET: Yes, it’s staged in Paris.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: This can’t be true. I must be dreaming. You’re either complete idiots or totally unaware of the situation. You are telling each other, here, in my prison, a story that’s happening in Paris? Are you kidding me? (Beat) Get the play text out right now, or I’ll order a full body search. I’ll personally check your bum holes! I’ll even check your bowels if need be!
THE POET: But we don’t have a written text, I was telling everything from memory. This is a play I translated from the French myself.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: From the French …
THE POET: Yes.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Where on earth did you learn foreign languages?
THE POET: I’m a teacher of French by training.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: So instead of serving the language of your own country, you translate from the French! What’s the name of the bloke who wrote this play?
THE POET: His name is Ionesco.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Ionesco?
THE POET: Yes, Ionesco.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Ionesco and what else?
THE POET: Ionesco Eugène.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR (to all four): Where did you meet him?
THE POET: I’ve never met him in person.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Then who has?
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: I’m asking you again. Who has met this Ionesco?
THE PHILOSOPHER: We went to university together.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: So, Prisoner Noica, you are doing propaganda for the absurd, here in a people’s prison?
THE PHILOSOPHER: No, Comrade Governor. All I did was listen to this play, which is completely bonkers.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: What do you mean?
THE POET: He means that it’s absurd.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Prisoner Steinhardt!
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: At your command!
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Why are you laughing up your sleeve?
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: I’m not laughing up my sleeve, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You traffic foreign plays. Here … in my prison! You are having fun instead of cooperating with your re-education. Do you think these shenanigans will get you out of here any time soon?
THE FORMER MINISTER: But honestly, we didn’t do anything wrong, Comrade Governor.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Shut your gob! You only speak if you’re spoken to. Understood? (Beat) I said, understood?
THE FORMER MINISTER: Yes, Comrade Governor!
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: I want to know about this Ionesco.
THE PHILOSOPHER: He’s a writer of Romanian origin, who lives in Paris.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: In Paris?!
THE PHILOSOPHER: Yes, in Paris, in France.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR (to all four): And how did you get in touch with him?
THE POET: We aren’t in touch with him. I have only read his plays. That’s all.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You really think, that’s all?
THE POET: Yes, I do.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Shut it!
Beat. THE PRISON GOVERNOR is pacing up and down in front of the four prisoners.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Well, there’s no doubt that we’ll have our work cut out for us. You are in contact with foreign agents.
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: Comrade Governor … We were laughing because this was a funny play, that’s all. Our fellow prisoner, Comrade Penegaru, is also a translator of French literature. This is how he came across the play.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: What is this play called?
THE POET: The Bald Primadonna.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: The Bald Primadonna …
THE POET: Yes.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: And you find this funny.
THE POET: It’s funny because … as I said … it’s a bit absurd.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You were laughing at an absurd play in a high-security prison. Riiight. Tell me the plot.
THE POET: It’s the story of a bourgeois couple … who visits another bourgeois couple … that’s about it. There is also a maid who terrorises everybody and a fire chief who has no fires to fight.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: I see, I’m literally dying laughing.
Beat. THE PRISON GOVERNOR opens a file.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You started laughing at eleven o’clock at night and only ended your pandemonium at two o’clock in the morning. You were laughing without a break for three hours. You burst out laughing, all four of you, approximately 115 times. This means that you roared with laughter every two minutes. I want to know why. I’m asking you, comrade Penegaru.
THE POET: This was because … we acted out the first scene …in the dark…
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You acted out the first scene.
THE POET: Yes.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Yes …
THE POET: Yes.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Good, then you shall re-enact it for me. Exactly as it happened that night.
The four prisoners re-enact the scene.
ALL FOUR (they are ‘acting out’ the thirteen strokes of the clock): Ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding …
THE POET: ‘There, it’s nine English o’clock.’
All four burst out laughing.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Why are you laughing?
THE POET: We are laughing because of … the English clock.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: What clock?
THE POET: It’s in the play. There’s an English clock that strikes English strokes.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Again!
The four prisoners re-enact the scene again.
ALL FOUR: Ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding …
THE POET: ‘There, it’s nine English o’clock.’
THE PHILOSOPHER: ‘Our English children have drunk English water.’
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: ‘The oil from the grocer on the corner is of better quality than the oil from the grocer across the street.’
THE POET: ‘Mary did the English potatoes very well.’
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: ‘Yoghurt is excellent for the stomach, the kidneys, the appendicitis, and apotheosis.’
THE POET: ‘No! “Only the Royal Navy is honest in England” …’
ALL FOUR: Ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding … ding …
THE POET: ‘Look, it’s two English o’clock.’
ALL FOUR: Ding … ding …
THE POET: ‘Look, it’s ten English o’clock.’
THE PHILOSOPHER: ‘This wasn’t the clock, this was the doorbell.’
THE POET: ‘No, it was the clock! Why are you saying it was the doorbell?’
THE FORMER MAGISTRATE: ‘Anyway, there is never anyone at the door when the clock strikes seven English strokes and the doorbell rings.’
THE FORMER MINISTER: ‘In fact, when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.’
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You are making fun of our regime.
THE PHILOSOPHER: No, we’re not.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: You are making fun of our People’s Republic. You are making fun of … Where did you get the play text from?
THE POET: We didn’t have a play text, we improvised.
THE PRISON GOVERNOR: Here, in a communist prison?! Again!
By Matéi Vişniec
Translated by Jozefina Komporaly
Note: Copyright © 2009 Matéi Vişniec. An earlier version of this play in English translation entitled ‘And Now Who’s Going to Do the Dishes?’ was published in the anthology Matéi Vişniec: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients and Other Plays (ed. J. Komporaly, Seagull Books, 2015). Many thanks to Seagull Books for their kind permission.
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Matéi Vişniec is a multi-award-winning Romanian-born novelist, playwright, poet, and journalist. He has been based in Paris since 1987, where he is a journalist at Radio France Internationale. He is the recipient of several awards including the 2016 Jean Monnet Award for European Literature for the novel The Merchant of First Sentences and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Romanian Union of Theatre Practitioners.
Jozefina Komporaly lectures at the University of the Arts London, and translates from Romanian and Hungarian into English. Her script translations have been produced in London and Chicago. Her recent translations include two volumes on theatre by Mihai Măniuţiu (co-translated with Nicoleta Cinpoeş) and Matéi Vişniec’s Mr K Released.