“Real and Phantom Pains”: John Freedman

Book Review by Dana Rufolo
Real and Phantom Pains;  An Anthology of New Russian Drama
Edited by John Freedman
Publisher: New Academia Publishing/The Spring
ISBN: 0991504763
1 June 2020


Real and Phantom Pains is “an anthology of New Russian drama” compiled and edited by John Freedman, an American expert on Russian theatre who has contributed frequently to this publication. Freedman translated the majority of the twelve plays in this volume. Real and Phantom Pains was published by Washington DC’s New Academia in 2014; I heard about it only a year ago [2019] and we immediately ran an advertisement about the book in the printed magazine that preceded this website. We gave instructions as to how to buy the 493-page volume.

Thomas J. Garza from the University of Texas at Austin has rightfully praised Real and Phantom Pains as offering “the unique and important contributions of contemporary Russian writers portraying the realities and experiences of a post-Soviet generation in the English language.” It is an extremely relevant book for those in the field of Slavic cultural studies, Russian literature, and contemporary Russian politics. I would say it is somewhat less useful for theatre directors looking for new voices, since many of the plays are virtually impossible to stage and appear to be expressions of frustration and emotional confusion that have not been tightly honed into a dramatic structure.

The book begins with a series of plays that fall within the loose label “new drama”; they are insider studies of the youth culture in contemporary Russia. The oldest playwright was born in 1970, the youngest in 1978. As Freedman says in his preface, “These plays often looked at the underbelly of society to find meaning.” l am not sure that “meaning” is the precise word — perhaps one ought to resort to the existential term ”étre-en-soi’” (being-in-itself) or raw existence which means nothing more than manifestation. With few exceptions, the plays’ universal themes are homelessness in the sense of being lost in space without meaningful social connection, being adrift; sex as a socially approved equivalent to physiological impulses that escape the will or control of the person (usually male) and in the face of which the female is incapable of transcending the object category; disjuncture between the older and the young generation; childlessness to the point of there being no fantasies about establishing a family or entering a temporal continuum; filmic influences that deconstruct the dramatic script through requirements impossible to achieve within the cubic space of a stage; and devaluation of language as expression of thought with the use of gratuitous swear words and exchanges that do not alter the action or development of plot. For instance, a conversation does not prevent someone conversing being spontaneously knifed. Characters are violent without motivation, and the submissive recipients of violence have no recourse to justice, a concept not even discussed in the plays that fit this category. These plays are by Yury Klavdiev, Olga Mukhina, Pavel Pryazhko, Vasily Sigarev, Maksym Kurochkin, Mikhail Durenkov, and Vyacheslav Durnenkov.

My favourite play in the volume is written by Yelena Gremina who was featured in a eulogy to her and to her husband Mikhail Ugarov, brave directors of Moscow’s Teatr.doc theatre, in the summer 2019 (printed) issue of Plays lnternational & Europe. I appreciated her using transcript material to stage the harrowing disregard of a dying Russian political prisoner in One Hour, Eighteen Minutes, because its form feels familiar. Similar to UK verbatim theatre of the first decade of this century or to its American equivalent — works like The Laramie Project — and to classic documentary theatre, its muffled scream of outrage and anger echoed my own western sensibility. This drama did not represent itself as a foreign alienating entity refusing in its own abject sense of alienation to pair with would-be sympathizers. Something was given to me as a reader and theatre person, also, by two short monologues from a female perspective by Yaroslava Pulinovich. These could surely be staged even by low-resource theatres or universities. Order Real and Phantom Pains through www.amazon.com, www.bn.com, or www.newacademia.com