Meister und Margarita
What do you do when Satan comes to town? Prostrate yourself before him? Beg for mercy? Pray? The characters in Bulgakov’s novel don’t even bother. Rather, they are already ogling their next advantage, some proof of respect, the next promotion or a bigger flat. They are suspicious of one another, sleazy, absolute opportunists – and yet, fully human. The little games people play at the office. They all live their lives without religious conviction, and yet they are absolutely certain that there is a God. Satan, who has just arrived, confuses the city dwellers with his transcendence, brings the dead back to life and hosts a ball. The Master has his first appearance on page 165. His life’s work, a novel, describes Pontius Pilate’s anguish in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion. The Roman procurator is slightly depressed and plagued by headaches. And he makes the biggest mistake known to humankind. He doesn’t really want this friendly, witty Yeshua to be executed, but feels he has no choice. Although the authors’ federation refuses to publish the novel, it receives scathing reviews, and the Master is mocked by the cultural public. He believes he has lost Margarita, his lover whose “eyes always glow with a strange fire”. But Satan persuades her to act as hostess at his grand ball and, because she plays the part so superbly, she is allowed to die with the Master, her one true love. On the way to their final resting place, Satan leads them past Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate is released from his guilt and allowed to walk into eternity next to his only friend, Yeshua. In the end, friendship and love prevail over totalitarianism. But only in death.
In Moscow in the 1920s and 30s, Mikhail Bulgakov was initially just met with hostility, but he increasingly fell afoul of the secret police, until his plays and further publications were finally banned. He refused to conform, to write anything glorifying the Stalin regime, and, mainly at night, wrote about the degradations suffered under the system. He worked on The Master and Margarita until his death in 1940, knowing he would never publish it. At most, he would read excerpts to his friends at various evening gatherings. He dictated changes to Yelena until his death. This collaboration formed the basis of the material and turned all the horrors into satire, with a deep, underlying humanism. It wasn’t until 1966 that the novel was published, and it would soon take its place in the canon of world literature: The lustful bitterness of the genius who, with supple thoughts, attacks a world of administrators and opportunists who turn against one another in the face of impending disasters. A universal weapon against the ever coarsening conditions. Nothing about that has changed, except that the word alone is no longer enough today.
Since 2004, visual artist Ene-Liis Semper and theatre director Tiit Ojasoo have been the artistic directors of Theater NO99 in Tallinn, Estonia. Their original plan was to disband after 100 productions, a goal they reached in January 2019. One hundred exciting and innovative, visually powerful and extremely physical works presented in their theatre. Many of these productions travelled to festivals around the world, several of them also to the Wiener Festwochen. In the German-speaking area, Semper and Ojasoo have worked in Hamburg, Munich and Lucerne, and are now presenting their first play at the Burgtheater.