My introduction to Russian novels in high school was wonderful but limited: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev. I did not catch up with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov until a few years ago. What a find! Three plots run in tandem: the Devil visits Moscow in the 1930s; Pontius Pilate orders Jesus to be crucified; and a playwright, the Master, who has written a play about Pilate, is saved from despair by his lover, Margarita, who makes a deal with the Devil to do it.
Bard College did a stage version as part of its summer program, and I caught the end of its run. The script was by János Szász, a Hungarian director, and Gideon Lester, who teaches at Bard. There were lots of bells and whistles, but Ronald Guttman was a suave Devil and Arliss Howard an earnest, suffering Master.
No question about the politics. The Devil is bemused to find a society of professed atheists, and delighted to show them that they are mistaken. It is a warning to any fatihless era: the Bard production updated Moscow to Putin’s pseudo-capitalism, without much dissonance. Lost a bit in the updating though was the off-stage presence of Stalin. When Bulgakov was attacked by Party hacks for one of his plays, Stalin gave a speech defending his work as a vindication of Bolshevism, though adding that the author himself had not intended his own effect. Is it better to live in a tyranny where the despot has no taste — or where he has some (à la Stalin and Hitler)?
Bard boasted that this was the first dramatization of the The Master and Margarita in America in twenty years; it would be a hell of thing if there weren’t more.