Showbiz Chernobyl

Recently I found a copy of the America based newspaper "The Ukrainian Weekly" [as it says, pulished by the "Ukrainian National Association Inc. - a fraternal non profit organisation"]. The date of publishing was April 23rd 1989, that is, almost exactly three years after the diaster at the ChNPP. The major part of the issue was dedicated to the disasters, consequenses and current updates but for some reason especially one thing caught my attention. In February 1988, the Russian journalist and science editor of the Moscow Pravda, Vladimir Gubaryev, set up a theatre play about the Chernobyl disaster, simply entitled "Sarcophagus". This was displayed in Princeton, New Jersey in the U.S.

The Ukrainian Weekly had a 2 pages report, written by Larissa M.L Zaleska Onyshkevych, concerning this, including the views of the play's creator Gubaryev, whose opinions and ways of expression gives a very illustrating display  of the contradictions concerning Chernobyl and the use of nuclear energy. The following is a transcription of the article (all photos are from The Ukrainian Weekly):

"The only play this far, on the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, came to Princeton, N.J last February. The play "Sarcophagus" is by Vladimir Gubaryev, a Russian journalist and science editor of the Moscow Pravda. While the writer is only a beginning playwright and the play is not really a drama (in terms of the genre), after reading it one could really be concerned how this work will be produced. 

Upon entering Princeton's McCarter Theatre, one notices the unusual stage setting: the background in a form of  a semicircle with nine tall columns. Just before the beginning of the performance, with the lights still on, a grey background appears, with details of a photo of this cyclorama. It is a composit picture of the Chornobyl nuclear station in Ukraine. An eerie monotone sound gradually surfaces and increases in volume: one has the feeling of being on a submarine with the sonar testing the waters. Then flashes of red light covers the top of the plant. And as the photograph slowly fades, the columns become dark, like rods in an atomic reactor. A buzzing sound follows several jarring piano notes. Is this a bomb shelter or a hideout? As the unnerving sound hovers in the air, a silent protagonist appears on the stage, inspecting the setting. 

The stage becomes a foyer in a hospital with lounge chairs and two nurse stations. The lower parts of the column then changes into 10 doors leading to patient rooms. This changeover of setting is accomplished very swiftly and dramatically. The play is ready to begin. 

The plot of the "Sargophagus" actually deals with the stories that nine patients relate to a prosecutor, each other and to one called Bessmertniy [this means "immortal" - ed. note] who has been in the hospital of the institute of Radiation Safety for 487 days. He's the only patient who's been exposed to megadoses of radiation and managed to survive, thanks to 16 operations  and seven bone marrow transplants. 

As the only successful case he becomes a symbol of hope for others affected with high radiation dosages, as well as a source for dissertation research for the medical staff. Just as we learn about the details of this case - nine people are brought in from Chornobyl, after the 1986 explosion. 

They're all assigned to one of the 10 individual cubicles. While some treatment is administered, a special investigatior appears asking for individual statements of the details of the explosion and of the first minutes following it. There is a sudden blackout between scenes, as the stage becomes dim, music is heard again and on the backdrop a photograph appears, showing a dead forest, while a radio voice talks about basic emergency steps if there is an explosion of a nuclear bomb. 

In between other scenes, the columns  on stage becomes lighted rods as flashing stars appear and a voice over the radio describes the threat of radiation from a bomb and the necessary evacuation procedures. Then the doors/columns light up, becoming burning red while dead trees appear on an enlarged photo comvering the entire backdrop. 

Amongst those affected by the radiation of Chornobyl, there are people from different walks of life; the nuclear plant director, an engineer, a radiation dosimeter (Geiger counter) technician, a young firefighter - chief of the firefighters and his driver, a control room operator, a peasant woman, a physicist and a passing cyclist. 

While bits and pieces of information surface about the explosion, individual reproaches are also heard. The technician feels guilty for informing the engineer that the radiation was not threatening -- because he had an old meter and did not believe that the radiation could bring the pointer so far off the scale. The engineer went to perform some necessary repairs and exposed himself to the highest radiation on the roof of the reactor. While the technician suffers from remorse, the engineer admits that he guessed what the real situation was and went willingly to save the plant from a greater mishap.

The individual reports and the ensuing discussion of events prior to the explosion inevitably turn to the question as to who gave the order to disconnect the cooling and the safety systems.

The fire chief and the plant director are blamed for tolerating improper procedured and standards, but the general verdict is that it was the "system" the general way of life and work, that led to the accident. The artistic director of the performance in Princeton wanted to underline this search for the guilty party, and in the theater's foyer buttons were distributed with the question "Who is guilty?".

As the depositions and discussions continue, over the doors of the individual cubicles lights occasionally flash as crisis occur, and when the inevitable death quickly overtakes the patients one by one -- the light simply fades away. Finally, only the plant director remains as the only persons for whom no bone marrow donors are found. It is then that Bessmertniy volunteers his own, well knowingly that this may be his final surgery, he wants the plant director to come out of the operation alive so that he would live, be judged and punished, and then shown to the children as one of the culprits of Chornobyl, as an example not to be followed. It is here that the writer could not make up his mind as to the guilt. If it was the "system" that made people irresponsible then why punish one of the cogs in it? Why not attack the system? 

Then, on a white background, a black and white photograph of the Chornobyl plant appears; the columnar doors slowly fill up with red. Shadowy flames of Chornobyl encase the stage like in hell, and then the columns appear. One may envision the skeleton of a dinosaur. Or is it a sarcophagus, a tomb? A pounding rhythm, that of a heartbeaat, becomes louder and louder as the names of the 10 first victims of Chornobyl are read at the end of the play; seven of the people were Ukrainian, two were Russian and one Byelorussian. 

This striking production in Princeton was directed by Nagle Jackson, artistic director of McCarter Theatre for 10 years. This is his last year in this theater and it's crowned by his best production ever; "Sarcophagus" , despite its dramatic weaknesses, the way it was staged is an unforgettable and haunting work of art. While much of the success is also due to the masterful acting of Edmund Davys as Bessmertniy, it is the unique stage design that provides the impression of the skeleton-sarcophagus. The designer's clever use of the simple setting, supplemented by photographs and lights creates a marvel of a design.

In discussion of this production, Mr. Gubareyev told me that he considers Eduard Kochergin, the guest designer from Leningrad's Gorky Theatre, simply a genius. Besides designing the set, Mr. Kochergin also assisted the artistic director during rehearsals. (While he probably contributed many good suggestions, he can personally be blamed for one that was inappropriate. When the peasant woman from the Chornobyl area, probably a Ukrainian or Byelorussian, crosses herself, it is not in the form of a large Ukrainian cross only with little crosses over several parts of her face - in manner of peasants in the Moscow area.)

The author said that out of the 150 theaters in the world that staged his play, he saw about 20. He considers that two productions (one in Italy and one at London's Royal Shakespeare Theatre) together with the one at McCarter in Princeton, were the most outstanding ones. 

When Mr. Gubaryev went to Chornobyl shortly after the explosion, it was as a science reporter, but after filling his articles he was not satisfied. He said that the terrible pain that one felt there, could only be expressed in the theater and therefore the play came into being -- because of journalism's powerlessness: "I wrote only the truth, but I felt that the people didn't understand the whole truth." He then wrote the play in six days. 

While during the early months of glasnost, he was not certain if it should be censored, he was immediately informed that as a major Moscow periodical Znamya (which was to publish it) was not subject to any censorship. The play was published in that periodical in September 1986.

Although subtitled "a tragedy", Mr. Gubaryev's "Sarcophagus" is hardly that. In fact, hardly any critics considers it even good literature. It is a message play and on a very current subject. The play was stage in an excellent English translation by Michael Glenny. While "Sarcophagus" has also been translated and staged in numerous languages of the world, it hasn't been staged by any Ukrainian theaters in Ukraine. Last year an opening performance at the Kiev Theatre of Drama and Comedy was cancelled at the last minute so that the audience "would not be unduly excited". Only once, and after special intercession by Mr. Gubaryev, was a visiting Russian theater from Tambov allowed to stage it in Ukraine, in Cherkassy. 

While the play, or rather the "piece a these" deals with the general and universal problems of personal job responsibility, especially in the unique situations of a nuclear plant -- a lot of propaganda dissemination is inevitable. especially as the writer is primarily a journalist and science editor.

Mr. Gubaryev considers himself a Russian (although one parent is Byelorussian and he was born in Byelorussia) and also sees the accident in terms of Soviet, or rather even Russian, losses. Not once is Chornobyl's national identification mentioned; there is not a word about the Ukrainian and Byelorussian human and egological losses. In the play's discussions between physicians in the hospital and a visiting American "Dr. Kale", talk is only about  Russian science and Russian medicine -- not Soviet.

In the play the author states that ours is not the age of the atom but the age of catastrophe -- due to "the system of irresponsibility" which prevails within the bureaucracy that has no public accountability. In the "system" practised for many years in the USSR that contributed to the poor workmanship and the shutting off of the warning systems. 

However, the accusation is not directed at the Soviet Union alone. There is much criticism of the American way of life and standards, as well as American science (which supposedly often benefits from Russian experiments and gain experience at the expense of the Russians). The Chornobyl accident is treated as a warning against nuclear war, especially with the Americans holding a finger on the button.

The claims while he has become an active pacifist, he's not against nuclear energy. In an interview published in Ukraine (September 1988) , he said that "Ukraine always demanded an increase of industrialization and the building of atomic stations" (Just how Ukraine demanded this, he did not say. Who authorized and signed such demands -- whether it was Shcherbytsky or the Energy Ministry? Was it in Kiev or in Moscow? Current discussions in Ukraine's press shows just the opposite: it demands to stop the building and to take down the nuclear stations.)

However, in a personal interview, Mr. Gubaryev claimed that Ukraine needs so many nuclear stations due to its large population: no mention was made of the large proportions of energy that it can now afford to export. 

Since the play definitely carries an anti nuclear message - that is probably why following the first three performances of the play at the McCarter theater, there was a symposium on nuclear power and nuclear arms. Besides Mr. Gubaryev, the other panel discussants were Jonathan Schell (journalist and author of "Fate of the Earth"), Prof. Frank von Hippel (Princeton University), Celestine Bohlen (then a Washington Post correspondant in Moscow covering Chornobyl) and Fred Friendly (former president of CBS News). The plan for the panel was to discuss "whether public policy is a journalist's responsibility".

In discussing the lack of information about Chornobyl in the first days after the accident, Ms.Bohlen complained about complete initial denials of any casualties when she telephoned the plant after some papers already carried the figures of 27 dead. She summarized the communication situation stating that Chornobyl became "the trigger for glasnost for the govenrment".

Mr. Gubaryev in turn explained, however, that the denial was only in the first three days, because no one really understood what went on, in fact, he implied that the authorities in Kiev were keeping the details secret from Moscow; even on May 27 Gubaryev was told in Kiev that actually nothing out of the ordinary took place. He said, that actually on the forth day after the accident "new forces" took over, and when experts from Moscow arrived, true reports were issued.

In terms of glasnost, Mr. Gubaryev said that while a year ago he had to watch out what he was saying, things are different now. But he did admit that in Ukraine the press was not allowed to print the information that was permissible for the press in Moscow. On the whole he said that very much information is published now about the Chornobyl disaster; there are supposed to be even dosens of photograph albums. 

However, he also claimed that American secretiveness isn't any better from the Soviet one, when in reference to Plutonium most of the imformation is still being kept secret. 

Mr. von Hippel compared Soviet bureaucracy to that of our State Department's. Most of the comments from the panelists and the audience expressed sentiments against building nuclear power plants in this country.

Mr. Gubaryev himself did not shrink from attacking the United States; he claimed that America, with our nuclear power, can destroy the Earth 17 times over, while the Soviets - only eight times. When asked about the 1957 Soviet plutonium accident in Kyshtym, in the Urals, Mr. Gubaryev said that there were no deaths, only an ecological contamination. Contrary to the reports by Zhores Medvedev and other scientists, Mr. Gubaryev claimed that radiation effects there were minimal, and that the place is now used only as a testing site. 

While the symposium and the discussions about the "Sarcophagus" was to deal with the fallout from Chornobyl -- it aired largely antinuclear sentiments and criticism of bureaucracy, with little concern for the people most painfully affected by the actual fallout in the Chornobyl area, in Ukraine and in Byelorussia.

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