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Los Angeles Festival : CHERNOBYL: DISASTER AS THEATER : 'Sarcophagus' Play Indicts Authorities at Nuclear Plant

September 06, 1987|WILLIAM J. EATON | E aton is The Times' Moscow bureau chief. and

MOSCOW — "I am a little annoyed that no Moscow theater wanted to produce the play," Vladimir S. Gubaryev said the other day. "I usually say, 'We're having a theatrical Chernobyl in Moscow. . "

Gubaryev was talking about "Sarcophagus," his play on the Chernobyl disaster, which will have its U.S. premiere Sept. 18 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center as part of the Los Angeles Festival.

Sitting in his spacious office in the headquarters of Pravda, Gubaryev was one of the few people in Moscow to hear about an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on the same day that it happened, April 26, 1986.

As the science editor of the Communist Party's leading newspaper, it was fitting that Gubaryev would be trusted with information that was not disclosed to the world for nearly three days.

Even so, he recalled, at first he doubted that anything serious had occurred at Chernobyl because so many scientists had assured him that nuclear plants were safe.

The first report from Pravda's correspondent in Kiev, 80 miles to the south of the plant, was also reassuring: A small accident had occurred and everything was under control.

But as specialists from Moscow arrived and saw flames shooting into the air over Chernobyl, they gradually realized that they were seeing a major nuclear disaster.

Gubaryev, 48, a big, rugged man who had covered space launches and the development of nuclear power in his 25-year career as a reporter, could hardly wait to get to the scene. He went to the burning reactor a week later, on May 3, with the first group of Soviet journalists allowed near Chernobyl. His impressions were indelible.

"In the first two weeks I spent there, I saw more heroism, tragedy and greatness of the human spirit than I had in a lifetime," Gubaryev said.

"I felt a distance between myself and my audience. When we returned (from Chernobyl) to our hotel in Kiev, scores of people were waiting for us. By their questions, I felt some kind of a gap, a lack of understanding."

One day, while on a river boat approaching the stricken plant, he conceived an idea for a play that would dramatize the searing experience and try to bridge that gap.

"I regarded myself as one of the co-defendants," he said. "I had not been critical enough of the conditions in nuclear plants. If I had started a campaign (for greater safety) five years ago, I might have prevented it."

For Gubaryev, who had written other plays as a sideline, the dramatic format was a natural choice. "It's the place where you come closest to people--the theater," he said.

When he returned from one of several reporting trips to Chernobyl, he asked his editor for some time off.

"I sat down at the typewriter at 5 p.m.," he said. "The first six pages were done by midnight. I couldn't sleep, so I got up and wrote until morning. . . . It took me seven days, along with 25 years experience as a professional writer, to finish the play."

In the Soviet Union, however, writing a play is one thing; getting it published or staged is quite another. Literary works must be cleared by government and party officials, and Chernobyl was hardly noncontroversial.

The play is a damning indictment of incompetence and irresponsibility by authorities at the plant, remarkable for its candor even in the new era of glasnost ordained by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Some reports said Gorbachev had read the play and liked it.

In any event, the work by Gubaryev, a party member, broke into print with amazing speed. Excerpts were run in Soviet Culture, a triweekly, and the entire play, uncensored, was published in the literary magazine Znamya within six months after the accident.

"Sarcophagus" had its world premiere in Tambov, about 300 miles southeast of the Soviet capital, in November. Seven other cities in the Soviet Union also staged it. But not Moscow.

Almost immediately, theater directors abroad expressed interest in staging the play. Gubaryev's drama was produced in Vienna, London and Stockholm, winning bravos from shocked audiences and cheers from critics for its forthright style and compelling theme. In all, Gubaryev said, producers in 25 countries want to put on the play.

But not Moscow. For reasons of its own, Moscow's theatrical Establishment has virtually ignored "Sarcophagus." The Tambov production came to the capital for four days at Gubaryev's suggestion. Although there was no advance announcement, tickets went so fast that even he could not get a seat for any of the Moscow performances, he noted.

Even so, Moscow theaters continue to give the play a cold shoulder. Why? Gubaryev ascribes it to "theatrical conservatism." Kirill Lavrov, a Leningrad actor who is board chairman of the New Union of Theatrical Workers, had another answer when asked about the lack of a Moscow production at a recent news conference.

"It's not theatrically good enough," Lavrov replied.

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