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The Real Theatre is Neither Falsely Modern nor Deathly Old

The novelist, dramatist, and story-teller Miro Gavran (1961) is the most successful Croatian writer at this time – his plays are performed on theatre stages throughout the world, and his books, which have been translated into some 30 languages, are also represented on all sides of the globe. Productions of Gavran’s texts have been seen to date by some two million people, and the crown of his success story is the fact that Miro Gavran is the only living European writer who has his own festival – the Gavranfest in Slovakia. Miro Gavran is enjoying a string of successes.
So he launched his widely-read novel John the Baptist in Argentina and Chile in September, and a festival of contemporary drama held in the Polish city of Zabrze last month was dedicated to him.
And this October, too, the play My Wife’s Husband was awarded three prizes at the Amurska Autumn Festival in Moscow. Miro Gavran’s most recent comedy, Henpecked Husbands, was premiered on Sunday evening at the Small Auditorium of the Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall in Zagreb, performed by the GAVRAN Theatre with Nina Kleflin directing.
That, of course, is not all that this prolific author is preparing for us – the promotion of his most successful novel Judith will be taking place in a day or two in Prague, where a premiere of his drama Dr Freud’s Patient was held a few days ago.
And there will be a premiere performance in December in Tirana, Albania of his comedy My Wife’s Husband.

1. Your play Henpecked Husbands has been announced as a cheerful comedy about sad men. Why are those men sad?
My comedy speaks of men whom fate has tied to an exceptionally dominant woman. In addition, my intention was for the play to have positive and dear heroes, heroes we can love, sympathise with, and laugh at the conflicts that they did not themselves provoke, but were the consequence of force majeure and misunderstandings that were none of their own doing. In many ways, men and women have exchanged roles in multiple ways over recent decades, without this being acceptable to either men or women. I have tried to speak out about that in this comedy, which takes place ‘here and now’. I think that certain important messages can be given through ostensibly simple life stories.

2. Women are often the main characters in your work. Why is that?
That’s true – in both my novels and theatre texts I have created a large number of heroines. Literature has spoken much less about women than about men over recent centuries, and that is how it still is today. Apart from that, the fate of women continues to be much more complex than that of men, which in itself means that women are more interesting as literary personages for that very reason. And since I believe that real literature has to present emotion, and that every literary work must make us either laugh or cry – then it is easier to achieve that with female characters, with whom it is easier to link that emotional dimension.

3. Your comedy My Wife’s Husband has been premiered in 12 theatres throughout the world, and it will also be performed in Tirana at the beginning of December. Do you ever think about what it is that links the people who watch your plays on stages throughout the world?
I think they are linked by similar sensibility that expects a dramatic text to have convincing characters, a clear and rich dramatic story, and the emotions upon which I always insist. I have had the good fortune that some great actors in certain countries have come to like my dramas and comedies, and that is probably what brought them onto numerous stages. I could add that some directors seem to have found their own worlds in my dramas, so that there are quite a few directors who have directed my plays several times. Of course, it is difficult for me to analyse myself and to answer such difficult questions – those texts of mine probably carry some universal messages when they are liked by theatre people and the public in various countries and cultural environments.

4. You are the only [living] European writer who has his own festival – the Slovakian Gavranfest – while a festival of contemporary drama held recently in the Polish city of Zabrze was dedicated to your work. That is, of course, only a part of your successful world career. How do you explain this unusual achievement and how has it influenced your life?
Some of the answers to your question are given in the previous answer. Perhaps some small secret of my success lies in the fact that European and world Theatre over the last decades have been flooded with texts that carry a negative charge, a destructive note and the intention to show the uglier side of existence. In that context, my texts are experienced by many as a breath of fresh air and relief. I try to justify and understand my heroes, and to find something positive in them. I love it when a theatre production is a catharsis of sorts; I am not fond of grand digressions in telling the story of the drama. I am not afraid to say that I advocate the so-called ‘actors theatre’, with the actor as the measure of all value in the theatre. The drama text is worthwhile to the extent that it offers the actor the opportunity to build a convincing character. And now regarding how much my life has been changed by those numerous premiers and promotions all over the world – the sole real merit of all that is that, thanks to it, I have travelled in a great part of the world and come to know many interesting people. I think that this has been a good thing for me as a writer, since I have been given an insight in that way to diverse cultural environments and personalities or, to put it more simply, my own experience of life has been broadened.

5. In your opinion, what is the Croatian theatre today? What do you think of the new generation of actors and directors?
The Croatian theatre today is very diverse. A thousand flowers in bloom. That is good and bad. It depends on how you look at it. The problem is that one current of the Croatian theatre has completely forgotten the audience, and it is as though productions are done only for premieres and festivals.
They are not interested in the fact that there is hardly any audience at all as early as the fifth performance, or that it is seen only by a group of high-school students who have been brought to the performance.
There is another trend that can be called the ‘reading-list theatre’ that often creates boring moth-ball shows, whose survival is guaranteed by that same group of high-school students.
In my opinion, the real theatre has to captivate the audience of its time, to speak out about contemporary existential dilemmas, to tell us stories about ourselves as we are – imperfect, happy or unhappy, torn between our desires and our possibilities. Entwined in subtle relations with our fellows in whose eyes we measure our own importance, weaknesses, ups and downs, our ecstasies and our defeats. That real theatre is never pseudo-modern, or deathly old-fashioned; simply said, it is natural in a contemporary way. If Shakespeare or Moliere had not managed to fascinate the public of their time, we would not know today that they had ever existed. Happily, despite all the shortcomings of the Croatian theatre, a new generation of actors and directors is coming and I believe that they will infuse new life.

6. You promoted your exceptionally widely-read novel, John the Baptist, in Argentina and Chile in September. What memories do you carry with you from those countries?
The novel John the Baptist was published in Spanish by the Argentinean publishing house El Ateneo Editorial, which has twenty-eight bookshops in Buenos Aires alone, and places its books on the entire territory of South America and Spain. In Buenos Aires, their successful and widely-translated author, Marcelo Birmajer, spoke about my novel, and the great Argentinean writer Borges’ widow, Maria Kodama, also came to the promotion. She invited me to visit the Borges Foundation the next day and gave me a good three hours of her time, so that I learnt some interesting things about that great writer that one cannot find in lexicons. She invited me to come to Paris to an intellectual get-together of sorts, organised every year by friends and devotes of Borges, for a small circle of people from all over the world.
In Santiago de Chile my novel was promoted at the National Library by their great writer Antonio Skarmeta, known for his novel Neruda’s Postman, and by the film of the same name that brought him worldwide acclaim. Skarmeta also had my novel Forgotten Son in front of him, and he began his report by saying that he and his wife had come to know me through that novel, which they had enjoyed very much, and only after that did he continue with his inspiring report, in which he spoke of the stratified nature of John the Baptist. Before we met in person, that wonderful writer and human being had told the translator, Zeljka Loreneia, that he would write an introduction to Forgotten Son for its publication in Spanish.

7. Fourteen years ago, you became a freelance writer and devoted yourself to your dream – being exclusively a writer. From that time on, you have had a series of international successes. It was a very courageous move for the circumstances in Croatia at that time. Would you do the same thing today?
Yes, I would do the same thing today, despite the fact that I could hardly make ends meet during those first three years as a freelancer. But if I hadn’t become a freelancer, I would not have written half the texts that I have managed to over the last fourteen years. And somehow it seems to me that an author who chooses writing as his/her destiny has to be a freelancer, and has to be brave, whatever the price.

8. What role have literary agents played in your literary career abroad?
I have had two to three very good agents and ten or so inert ones. I think that here in Croatia we are inclined to exaggerate the significance of agents. Some literary and theatre agents represent two or three hundred writers, and do almost nothing to place those writers. In some countries, agents are required by law since contracts on performance or publication can be concluded only through them, they are something like notaries public in Croatia. I would say that the translators have been more significant for my success abroad. Until now, my work has been translated into more than thirty languages by more than sixty translators. I have never even met half of them. Many translators contacted me themselves and suggested they translate me, because they had liked my texts and believed they would be liked by their countrymen. Some have engaged publishers and theatres, without consulting me.

9. At numerous launchings of your books throughout the world you have had an opportunity to become acquainted with the literary publics abroad. Do they differ from our own?
I have to say that I got to know the theatre public more than the literary. I would even venture to say our theatre colleagues in some countries have a more loyal theatre-going public than we do. Personally, though, I do not have any problems with the theatre and reading public in Croatia, quite to the contrary in fact.

10. You have never belonged to any literary clan, you have not written theatre and literary criticism about other writers, you have never uttered a negative sentence about any Croatian writer. Under conditions in Croatia, is that a difficult, lonely position?
I think it is a matter of correctness to one’s fellow writers and also of good manners never to say even one negative word about any colleague. Those of us who create must not be judges of each other. We writers are in this world with only one task and that is to tell our stories in the most convincing way. I believe that none of us has the right to be proud of his/her talent, because none of us deserve the credit for that talent. We are all dependent on ideas that we receive ‘from somewhere up there’, and our worldview is a consequence of the environment in which we grew up, our upbringing and education, friends we socialised with and the books we read. When I think that I should feel important about some text of mine I remember St Paul’s sentence that says: ‘We can only give to others that which we have received’. And we in no way deserve the credit for what we have received. I do not like literary clans, because they are harmful for the literary environment and also for the normal life of a writer. They are a sign of doubt in the personal worth of those who cannot live without clannish association and activity. I am an adherent of that sentence of Ibsen’s from Enemy of the People that says: ‘The strongest man in the world is the one who is alone’.
People who have created clans and maintained them in literary life can never find out how much their work is worth on its own.

11. With all your other obligations at this time, are you perhaps working on a new text?
I am always working on something new. . . Since I completed my comedy Henpecked Husbands this Spring, I have spent my time working on the preparation of a new drama with a serious theme – but it is still early to talk about it.

(This conversation between Miro Gavran and Sandra-Victorija Antia was published in the VJESNIK daily on November 13, 2007)

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