The most successful contemporary Croatian dramatist worldwide, Miro Gavran, has again received a series of exceptional awards this year. Firstly in March, his drama Chekhov Says Good-bye to Tolstoy was premiered at the famous Silvia Monfort Theatre in Paris, with the eminent French actor, Jean-Claude Drouot, playing the leading role as Tolstoy. The influential Paris Journal du Dumanche pronounced the play to be ‘absolutely wonderful’ and ‘one of the very best during the season’. In April, the El ateneo editorial from Buenos Aires published Gavran’s novel John the Baptist in Spanish, while a couple of days later the Anton Hiersemann Publishers from Stuttgart brought out a book containing a review of works by the world’s best drama writers, in which Gavran’s plays Creont’s Antigone, Night of the Gods and George Washington’s Loves were included. The significance of this is clear if one bears in mind the fact that this publishing house has been systematically dealing with theatre works for thirty years and that its selection, an anthology of sorts of the best world theatre works, is drawn up in co-operation with the Institute for Theatrology in Vienna. For example, in this most recent survey of theatre productions includes publication of Jon Fosse, David Edgar, Peter Handke, Michael Frayn, and the Nobel laureate, Elfride Jelinek… and, along with them, three plays by Gavran.
Gavran has written seven novels for adults, seven novels for young people, a film script, a libretto but his plays are what have made his name. They have brought him prestigious Croatian and European awards, including: the Central European Time (1999), an award given to the best Central European writers for their work overall, and the European Circle (2003), for affirmation of European values in literary texts. Gavran’s plays have been translated into 25 languages, they have had more than 160 premieres worldwide, have been seen by some two million people and, since 2003, the GAVRANFEST has been held in the town of Trnava, at which exclusively Gavran’s plays are performed. This probably makes him the only living European dramatist to be honoured in such a way.
Today people already speak of ‘the phenomenon of the theatres plays’ of Miro Gavran.
How do you yourself regard your own theatre status?
I think that my dramas, comedies and novels are near to and understandable to both ordinary people and intellectuals, because I always try to retain the human dimension and identifiable situations from life. The theatre and literature are best when one speaks in the simple language of human beings and their raptures and falls, love and friendship, and realised and unrealised dreams. My wish as a writer has always been to penetrate to the heart of my audiences and readers. The novel and the theatre production must either make us laugh or make us cry – if that does not happen, then art has not ‘happened’ either. I am happy when I sometimes manage to interweave humour and emotion in some of my texts, as was the case with the theatre piece All About Women, in which three actresses play five roles each in five different stories that are mutually interwoven, so that three of those stories are humorous, and two serious. Since that text has had 13 premiere performances all over the world during the last six years, I came out in public with the play All About Men last Autumn. There, three men play five roles each, dissecting the male world with both humour and with a serious note.
Do you think that the critics have explained your work in the way that it deserves?
I have had the good fortune that numerous critics in Croatia, and also abroad, have written about my work with love and understanding. Since there are lectures about my work at numerous world universities, they often send me degree papers, master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, or essays, in which they write about me in an interesting way. To be frank, I sometimes read in some of those papers that my texts also carry meaning that did not occur to me while I was writing. However, the most detailed work about me was published two years ago by the eminent theatrologist and university professor from Sarajevo, Gordana Muzaferija, who made a studious analysis of 34 of my theatre texts in her 300-page book.
Are careerism, political manipulations, private lives, marriage break-ups and almost inconceivable situations featuring, for example, the female bigamist in your popular comedy My Wife’s Husband, and other subjects you deal with, themes in the European theatre and literature or something quite new?
Everything that is part of our lives can also be a theme in a play, under the condition that the characters of the heroes and heroines and their relations are described convincingly. It is also important that the dialogue, too, that is, the sentences they utter, sound life-like and believable. As a young writer, I made my debut at the age of twenty-two with a serious drama, Creont’s Antigone, in which I spoke about political manipulation. It was similar with Night of the Gods, where the French King Louis XIV, the great writer Moliere and the Court Jester were the lead characters; followed by the drama George Washington’s Loves, in which I gave the conflict between the wife and the mistress of the first American president. That play has had as many as 28 premieres in 15 countries up until today. . . After those serious dramas, I sat down and wrote my first comedy, My Wife’s Husband, which I set in our day and described two dear small people who had the misfortune to be married to the same woman for five years. How was that possible? Well, she worked as an attendant in a train and lived in one town for two days, and for the next two in another, right up until the day that her husbands found out. That humorous encounter between the two cheated husbands, who have no idea of how best to extract themselves from the impossible situation into which they have been placed by a dominant woman, gave me the ideal opportunity to depict warm identifiable heroes, an opportunity to play in a funny way with male-female relations, marital fidelity and the illusions we often weave ourselves about people who come into our lives. The success of that comedy is probably not merely the result of humour, but also of the fact that my heroes are shown as exceptionally sweet and positive people.
Why do you defend yourself against such magnetic forces such as fame? And what was it that induced you to write: ‘Spit out the taste of fame before it poisons you’?
I would not say that I defend myself from fame; it is just that I do not allow it to define my behaviour in any way. A writer who loses his soul, a writer who starts to enjoy his own fame, quickly becomes an inferior person and, by that very fact, an inferior writer. I try to conserve my energy for a new text. Fortunately, I am constantly visited and even beset by new ideas, so that I do not have the time to think about what I did once, but instead think about what I am going to write next. Since I made my debut as a writer at twenty-two, I have become accustomed to everything that goes with this job, and am not fascinated with fame or popularity, with the letters I receive from readers and theatre-goers, or with being recognised in the street. . . I am happiest when I sit down at my desk and when I am writing. I have a wide circle of friends, most of whom became part of my life before I achieved any popularity and fame, I have a wonderful family, as the child of a village teacher I never had any great materialistic demands and I regard myself as being very fortunate in that my hobby from my youth has become my occupation. Thanks to my writing, I have travelled in some ten countries, visited hundreds of cities, and met wonderful people, and what more could a man ask of life?
Great authors from the recent centuries, especially the 19th, were largely mutinous, subversive, in opposition to both their environment and time but also to their entire epoch. In contrast to them, you are benign and conciliatory and you advocate a return to the virtues…
I think it best that every writer and every human being lives and works in keeping with his/her own character. It’s important to be sincere, and I cannot escape from myself. I have an exceptionally positive approach to life, I do not like violence, I do not like a great fuss, and if I have anything to say I try to say it in my plays and my novels. I have a genuine love of people, and that probably shows in the majority of my texts. I say in the majority because I have written texts in which I speak out about things that I do not like. The positive approach to life reflects itself in the positive depiction of life in my texts. I think it is important that every writer be as sincere as possible.
Do you make an effort to be a modern author?
I have never tried to be modern, I have never followed any mainstream trends in literature and the theatre, and I have never thought about whether I will be liked by certain people who have advocated the literature that was popular at a particular juncture. The only thing I have thought of in the process of my writing has been how to express in the most suggestible way the truth of my heart. I said in one interview that I could never go out of fashion, because I had never been in fashion. And now, when you say that I am ‘benign and conciliatory’, that is only partly true. In other words, I am not particularly brave as a citizen, but I know how to be brave as a writer because I listen to my heart, and the heart knows nothing of censorship. It does what it feels to be good and not what is socially desirable and advantageous as a given moment.
Do you suggest to your colleagues that they return to biblical themes, that is, that they recount them, since one can find, as you say, all the answers that can make easier the lives of the people now. Isn’t that the mission of the Church, theological writers, preachers, mystics…?
After I had written several novels in which I depicted Croatian contemporary life, I sat down at the age of forty and wrote the novel Judith, which is set in the region of Judea six centuries before the birth of Christ. The heroine is a young widow who narrates her life in the first person singular, speaking about her cruel, patriarchal environment in the midst of war, when it happens that she falls in love with the military commander of her people’s greatest enemy. That novel of mine was inspired by the Old Testament biblical tale and it has gone through six editions in Croatia, and been translated into eleven languages. After that novel, the Bible continued to attract and inspire me so I wrote the novels John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate, with the focus on Old Testament characters. I found a host of similarities in what was happening in the New Testament regions and in ancient Rome at the beginning of the 1st century with how we live today and experience life at the beginning of the 21st century. I wrote those three independent novels in the so-called ‘biblical trilogy’ over five years, and said with full conviction that writers from all generations should start out telling a biblical tale, because they are so exceptionally inspiring for depicting our modern times. By going back into the distant past, we writers are able more easily to speak out and take an overview of the contemporary existential issues of modern man. I am pleased that my novels have attracted the public and critics in various countries, happy that they have been enjoyed by both believers and atheists, and by Christians and those who are not Christians. I could not agree at all that it is solely the mission of the Church and theological authors to write about those themes. Moreover, I do not think that any contemporary writer should reduce Man to only one dimension – that of a materialistic creature. Everyone, precisely everyone, believer and atheist, also has a spiritual dimension, is also bothered by transcendental questions, and we cannot escape materialist thinking from time to time. . . sexuality and friendship and family and career are important to all of us, and I write about all these issues in my serious ‘biblical novels’, and also in my contemporary dramas and light comedies.
What could cause you today, let us say, to be angry and shout rather than laugh?
The dehumanisation of the world in which we live and the numerous consequences of vulgar globalisation are certainly issues that cause me much pain. My drama How To Kill the President, in which the hero is a young anti-globalist who want to change the world using the methods of early anarchism, is an artistic scream of sorts. It is an exceptionally political drama that depicts where this dehumanised world is going at the beginning of the 21st century.
Your major theme is male-female relations, and you recognise the new male-female psychology and the new division of roles. In your opinion, what have those relations actually been reduced to, and what do you find so dramatic, even tragic, in all that?
Male-female relations are my favourite and most frequent theme, and the eternal theme of world literature and theatre. Sometimes I approach that theme from the humorous aspect, sometimes from the dramatic, and sometimes I combine the dramatic and the comical in describing them, as is the case in my more recent drama Nora in Our Time, which is a replica of sorts of Ibsen’s well-known The Dolls’ House, except that in my case the plot takes place at the beginning of the 21st century, that is, in our time. I wanted to show in that drama that women and men have exchanged places in many aspects so that, at the end of the play, the man leaves his family wanting first to build up himself personally, so that he can then return home and built a mature relationship with his wife. Naturally enough, I gave the piece strong dramatic charge, but also a little bit of comedy, because real life is never only funny or only serious. . . but is usually a melding of one and the other.
Is it difficult for you to concentrate on one theme in today’s fairly chaotic and agitated time?
No, it’s not. When I am writing a new text, I do not do anything else. I write largely during Winter, during December, January and February, and then during the Summer when I go to an Adriatic island, where I spend two months in complete relaxation and with good concentration. I usually spend Autumn and Spring at rehearsals for new productions by the GAVRAN Theatre, which I founded with my wife, Mladena Gavran, the actress. Or I travel around the world from Paris, Buenos Aires, to Moscow, Krakow, Ljubljana, Athens, Bratislava. . . and watch my premieres in other countries, or I give lectures about my writing at universities abroad, attend the launch of a translated novel or speak at schools in Croatia, in small villages and towns, in the hope to bring my work closer to young readers and to show them that literature is something wonderful, and that the writer is an ordinary man of flesh and blood, someone who should not be wrapped up in mystery.
How do you write? Do you have a certain system, procedure, ritual. . . which is otherwise regarded as being characteristic to writers?
I have never gone to my desk without a great desire to write a text. The idea itself appears whenever it wants to, and not when I want it to. When I get an idea, I write it down on one or two pages, if it retains its attraction for me, then I draw up a detailed plan of the future novel or the future play. I write the biography of the hero and what will happen in the planned future chapters or scenes. Only when the plan is clear do I sit down and write the first version of the text. Working on the first version give me the most pleasure, because I do that guided by the desire myself to see the first outlines of the future work. I usually write the first version working for some ten hours a day. Otherwise, I write all my texts in longhand using a fountain pen or a Biro, even though I learnt to touch-type when I was eighteen. When I write in longhand using a pen I somehow feel closer to the text than when I type it on a typewriter or a computer. When I finish the first version, I set the text aside for a month, and only then start writing the second version. Most of my texts go through four versions. I have written under all sorts of circumstances: in a small room in the student hostel and on the beach, in my study and in the kitchen. . . there are no set rules. When I have a great desire to write a text, nothing can stop me. One thing I have noticed though is that I like to have peace and quiet when I am writing.
Do you feel the solitude of a writer which, ostensibly, is generally very marked?
Solitude is wonderful, just as it is wonderful to socialise with friends. What is essential is that those two states interchange equally. Writing is a lonely job in itself, but I often think about people who are dear to me when I am writing, and about how they will experience my text after I finish it. Thanks to that, I do not feel the solitude of my job as anything negative, but rather as an opportunity to delve into the depth of my soul so as to be able to give others the emotional and vital experiences that can bring us together in understanding and recognition of our world.
Can writing be a type of psychotherapy, as some of your colleagues claim?
Writing can definitely be psychotherapy of sorts, but if it is only that, then the produced text is often one-dimensional. Writing must contain a powerful need for story-telling, for play, an intimate plunge into the worlds of many people, a demonstration of all possible existential situations and our amazement when we find ourselves in such situations. Writing also has to carry our need to give the depicted world something of our own personality and that, in the process, every reader or theatre-goer can find there parts of his/her own intimate life.
Are you ever enveloped by fear of a so-called creative crisis experienced by almost all writers, and creative people in general?
Fortunately, I have so many ideas that I would need to live at least 200 years to realise them all, so that I have not experienced creative crisis. But in my case there is another type of crisis and that is – how to decide which idea should be given precedence, which idea should be realised first.
What do you think of life and its meaning?
I felt sure that you would ask me such a difficult question at the end of our conversation. Since you have read my books and watched my plays, you have an inkling of how I experience this world and the meaning I give to life. For those who have not read my work, it would be hard to express in one sentence my attitude about something so complex. Well, I could say that life is the meaning of life, just as I could say that we are in this world for two reasons: in order to acquire knowledge and in order to spread love. . . but then I would have to explain that when I say knowledge I am thinking of our comprehensive experience of life, and that when I say love I am also thinking of friendship and of much more than mere expression of emotions.
Was it you who said or wrote that reading books does not make people happy and does not make them better people?
In one particular poem I wrote: ‘ You won’t perfect the skill of living by reading books. . . Life is a non-inclusive flow: it resists every definition. You will not penetrate to the truth by reading books. Everything that is written is invented – reality does not submit to words. You won’t become either happier or better reading books – but you have to read books to understand all that. . . ‘ I wrote that poem a long time ago and I really feel that our lives without books would be deprived of a splendid dimension that helps us to be human beings in a more complete manner – those dear imperfect emotional beings.
(The following is Andelka Mustapia’s interview with Miro Gavran conducted in April, 2007 that came out in the Summer issue of the CROATIA magazine, published by CROATIA AIRLINES.)