Book review

“A History of Romanian Theatre”: Cristina Modreanu

A History of Romanian Theatre from Communism to Capitalism; Children of a Restless Time by Cristina Modreanu
Routledge (London and New York, 2020)
Reviewed by Dana Rufolo

1 September 2019


This important book on twentieth and twenty-first-century Romanian theatre by Cristina Modreanu starts with a striking image: Snow White sleeps for forty years, wakens to discover that her ways are outmoded – her clothing is dated, she is a relic of the past. Such was the fate of the Romanian theatre-makers when they woke to gaze at an artistic landscape beyond the communist-style prison walls of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.

A History of Romanian Theatre will interest specialists in Romanian and Eastern European theatre, anyone studying the relationship between totalitarian government and theatre arts, as well as those interested in artistic rebound after social repression – bearing in mind the specialness of the internationally recognized dramatic talent of the Romanian people themselves. In my opinion, the most valuable pages that can ever be written about theatre are when there is a candid exploration of drama’s urgency linked to sustaining human identity. The link is made here. We have everything to learn about the compulsion to perform against repression — those “small acts of resistance” during the pre-1989 era — by letting the facts of torture and deprivation sink into the happy story of dramatic imagination, for Modreanu reminds us that drama is the creation of “a parallel reality”. (4)

What I particularly admire about A History of Romanian Theatre is how Modreanu inserts her personal presence into these pages. We come to know her as a leading Romanian theatre critic whose grandmother “knitted her way out of the system” (5) by hand-knitting colourful garments to sell during the communist era so as to infuse cheerfulness and gaiety into the lives of women neighbours and acquaintances, counterbalancing drab and depressing day-to-day reality. We know Modreanu affiliates herself with the post-communist generation; we see a 1992 photo of her in the very same session of a creative writing camp attended by the contemporarily leading playwright-performer of the dramAcum documentary theatre movement Gianina Cărbunariu. And yet side by side with colourful references to her own Romanian experiences, the author respects the rigorous laws of research and impartial presentation of facts. It is a curious and eminently readable style for an academic book, worth imitating.

The book begins with the 1950s when theatre was used as propaganda and produced “acceptable social realist dramas”.(8) In the 1960s and 1970s, playwrights learned to communicate with audiences suffering under the regime by using images and “a coded language” that would be understood by someone experiencing life under communism”. (9)

After the fall of Ceaușescu in 1989, theatre directors came into prominence. We learn about the exiled theatre artist and film director Liviu Ciulei who was praised and honoured in the USA in the 1980s; Andrei Serban who re-migrated to Romania from the USA in the 1990s to become director of the National Theatre in Bucharest only to return to the USA after having been subjected to political rebuff (29); Mihai Maniutiu, still presently director of the National Theatre of Cluj  (who was featured in the Winter 2018 issue of Plays International & Europe and in the Winter 2019 issue) whose life mission is to show “the constant danger of forgetting the evils of the past”. (48) Masca, the only street theatre company in Romania, was begun by Mihai Malaimare in 1990; the director Alexander Hausvater brought in Western staging concepts in the 1990s (19). The only woman director with major influence, Catalina Buzoianu, spanned before and after 1989; she was “bold without being confrontational”. (21)

We also read about the internationally touring director Silviu Purcărete. Personally, I found the description of Purcărete’s contribution to the European Capital of Culture – his Metamorphosis presented at the Abbaye de Neumünster in 2007 (the year Romania joined the European Union) — perplexing, for not only was I living in Luxembourg in 2007 but also my own play Hurt, Dignified was produced in this same European Capital of Culture and yet I never heard a word about Metamorphosis and certainly was not present to see what must have been a breathtaking outdoor performance. I believe the poor publicity about this performance reveals the difference of need and intensity for theatre in a culture that has suffered collective trauma versus one where the arts are viewed as icing on a rich cake, as entertainment and not appeasement and catharsis. For all I know, in counter-distinction to the performance having been staged to warn against illusions of elitism (as YouTube excerpts indicate), Metamorphosis might well have been a by-invitation-only event.

After 2000, there was a “new wave” of theatre-makers. (24) Radu Afrim stages “the world of homeless, ageing, abandoned human beings or the world of hidden or suppressed desires and proclivities Afrim’s characters have the time to dream”. (59)

Theatre collectives started up: the dramAcum or theatre of urgency movement aimed at developing national playwrights that began in 2002, the tangaProject aimed at directors, with the Generosity Offensive community-based theatre being chief among them (66).

Chapter six of A History of Romanian Theatre discusses the ethics and aesthetics of the new Romanian theatre where, ever since 2000, “artists are driven more than ever to speak about the imperfections of the world they live in, trying to become again the conscience of a society that is badly in need of them”. (66)

New alternative theatrical forms in Romania include “devised theatre/theatre as experience performative video installations … and the experimental mix of theatre and film” (95-96). An example of a participatory art installation, among the current performance mode, is an installation by Ioana Păun that parallels the experience of becoming the victim of sex traffickers. Independent theatres like the small Reactor Theatre in Cluj (which we have reported on in the issues of Plays International & Europe cited above) host the companies and plays that are giving voice to minorities, thereby according to Modreanu learning about “how politicians and mass media manipulate public opinion”. (78) They may be calling attention to their local “toxic ecosystem” but in truth, it is not specifically Romanian and the documentary-style “theatre of the real” needs devotees around the globe.

There are many more playwright-producers mentioned in this book in conjunction with contemporary theatre practice who are doing original and provocative work, and Romanian theatre will continue to hold its worldwide reputation for being sensitive to the need of its audiences to seek clarity of thought and ethical arguments in the theatre. This is in part, as the Romanian-French playwright Matei Vișniec reports, because intellectuals are respected in Romania, and their opinions matter — as opposed to the USA where the public listens to “celebrities and politicians”. (142)

Cristina Modreanu concludes A History of Romanian Theatre from Communism to Capitalism with the reminder that when Romanians woke up from forty years of communism-induced sleep, they — and especially their artists — would need to accept their stake in the new reality and acknowledge the faults and weaknesses of what Modreanu calls “late” capitalism — even their own late-come-by version of it.


A History of Romanian Theatre from Communism to Capitalism: Children of a Restless Time by Cristina Modreanu is published by Routledge (London and New York, 2020). The book’s ISBN for the hardback version is 978-0-367-23722-6. For the eBook version, the ISBN is 978-0-429-28137-2.