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Ryan Recommends: Sarcophagus

By: Ryan Quinn

Gubaryev, Vladimir – Sarcophagus

Sarcophagus may be one of the most frightening pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. The play takes place in an isolation clinic for radiation poisoning in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl incident. The protagonist in this story is Bessmertny, a man who has been in the clinic for over a year following a disastrous mishap in another plant. We see the panic and confusion as survivors of Chernobyl are brought in and put up in separate cubicles, their clothes burned, and their symptoms getting worse by the minute. Gubaryev wisely does not name most of these characters, but lets the identities they came in with become their permanent name tags. There’s a terrifying sense of isolation throughout the play, but it’s balanced with a fear of outbreak. It resides somewhere on the scale between containment and freedom, constantly threatening to tip to the dark side of one of those extremes.

What may be the most remarkable about this play is that Gubaryev is not first and foremost a playwright, but a journalist. In fact, as a writer for Pravda, Gubaryev was the first journalist on the scene after the incident occurred. What he saw was so breathtaking and horrifying that instead of writing a full piece on it as he was directed, he fashioned his information and experiences into the form of a tragic theatre piece. As a tragedy, it works, too. It upholds the three unities, it makes a comment about our hubris as a people, and all the violence and death happens offstage. Perhaps the great man that we see fall into ruin is Russia itself. Or, possibly, it’s all of us. A nuclear disaster affects all of us, and Chernobyl certainly affected the entire world. Crops in other countries became inedible, animals had to be killed, and their meat uneaten. Paranoia about the atom, and whether something like this could just as easily happen again became rampant.

It’s also a miracle that this play was published under the Soviet government. This kind of proves how different Russia was under Gorbachev than Stalin. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost may not have been anywhere near as transparent as it was made out to be, but it would be impossible to label this play as anything but critical of the failures of Russian government, Russian policy, and Russian bureaucracy. It’s an achievement that this piece was created, and I’d hate to see it forgotten in the future.

1987 – Variable casting

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