CHERRY-BRANDY (the genesis)
The poet was dying. (…) The poet had been dying for so long he no longer understood what
death was. (…)
Life entered him by itself (…): he had not called it, but nevertheless it penetrated his body, his
brain; it entered like verse, like inspiration. And for the first time, the meaning of the word
‘inspiration ‘was revealed to him in all its fullness. Poetry was the creative force giving him life.
(…) He had not lived for poetry, he had lived by poetry.
Varlam Shalamov, in Kolyma Tales
With Cherry-Brandy, for the first time since 2006 and that “traversal of Henri Michaux’s oeuvre” that was
Asobu, Josef Nadj again dedicates a new work to a poet – one of the twentieth century’s greatest. Osip
Mandelstam (1891-1938), translator, writer, Russian language essayist, and author of The Stone, Tristia, The
Din of Time, the marvellous Conversation about Dante and the Voronezh Notebooks, which he composed
between 1935 and 1937 while in exile.
Born in 1891 in Warsaw to a provincial Jewish family, deceased in 1938 in Vladivostok, weary from long
months of humiliation and privation, victim of the Stalinist purges, this central character of Mandelstam is
surrounded by a constellation of writers – two other Russians, Anton Chekhov and Varlam Shalamov, to which
are added Petrarch, and Paul Celan.
Like it or not, it’s now time to rehearse the role of a corpse.
Anton Chekhov, Swan Song (Calchas)
With his Swan Song (1886-97), “dramatic study in one act”, which brings an old actor to the stage in a
deserted theatre late one evening after a performance, an actor on the decline, slightly drunk and inhabited by
the tatters of roles he had interpreted, a man alone on an empty stage, immersed in shadow… – Anton
Chekhov would become the starting point for Cherry-Brandy.
Even more than to the theme of this piece, Nadj was sensitive to the main character’s name, Svetlovidov,
which means “the one who sees clearly” – the one who in the darkness knows how to both detect and reveal
the least spark of light. In fact this name appeared to him as a possible metaphor for the stance of the artist,
completely turned towards his art, “good for nothing else” as Beckett is said to have said, consigned to his art,
everywhere and always – even in the most extreme situations.
Nadj turned to another work from Chekhov, the singular and relatively unknown work The Island of
Sakhalin (1893), where the playwright related his several-month-long stay in “the veritable hell” of the island’s
penal colony – a voyage he undertook at his own initiative in 1890, in order to testify to the living conditions of
“He died an actor.” – Yes, that was still understandable. But to die a poet?
Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales5
Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) was subjected for seventeen years to the gulag of another Siberian hell, an
experience he related in his Kolyma Tales. A book which – independently of its value as testimony concerning
the world of the camps – is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century literature.
Among these Tales, Nadj discovered a tale which, by referring to a poem by Ossip Mandelstam, explicitly
renders tribute to him. Entitled “Cherry-Brandy”, it describes a poet on his death bed, who even dying remains
a poet to his last breath. The perfect example, in the eyes of Josef Nadj, of the “absolute and uncompromising
A great number of us believed that what was happening was inevitable, and the others had
believed things were best that way. Everyone had realized there was no going back. This feeling
was dictated by past experience, the premonition of the future, and the fascination with the
present. I contend we were all (…) in a state neighbouring hypnotic slumber.
Nadejda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope
Already recognized from the publication of his first poetry collection at the age of 22, co-founder of
acmeism, a current in Russian avant-garde literature in the 1920s, friend of Anna Akhmatova and Boris
Pasternak, Mandelstam considered words as inseparable from the body, from the voice and from movement.
And he attributed to them a concrete and active force. A force he shared, making him a man involved in and
fully committed to his times.
Although unpublished, circulating only orally among the very restrained circle of those close to him, his
distichs on Stalin, veritable accusation against the “Ossetian ogre”, the “Montagnard of the Kremlin”, led to his
first arrest in 1934. Under house arrest in Voronezh, then condemned to forced labour, Mandelstam would die
from exhaustion during his stay in Kolyma.
Censured by the Stalinist power, his oeuvre was menaced with total annihilation. Nevertheless it has made
its way to us through the obstinacy of his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, who gave herself the mission in life of
preserving and transmitting his work, even learning lengthy sections by heart.
My century, my beast, who will be able
To sink his eyes into the pupils of your eyes
And weld together with his blood
The vertebrae of two centuries?
Ossip Mandelstam, The Age
With his own Cherry-Brandy, an austere and sombre piece where the performers seem immersed in a
“hypnotic slumber”, Nadj in turn pays tribute to Osip Mandelstam, notably in giving voice to several of his
poems, delivered in full (something of a first for Nadj), as well as to a “madrigal” by Petrarch8.
Nadj also explicitly pays tribute in staging the conflict between light and darkness. And even if in a certain
manner Nadj returns to the question of time, which has traversed his entire oeuvre from Comedia Tempio
(1990) to Sho-bo-gen-zo (2008), with Cherry-Brandy Nadj signs his name to a work that is highly political:
where reflection concerning art and the responsibility of the artist vis-à-vis his contemporaries becomes a
meditation on the twentieth century – and on today’s scarcity of “space to create”.
. “The story is told that Mandelstam, in the camp where he spent his final years, recited poems by Petrarch
to other prisoners. God only knows that there is nothing farther away than Petrarch from a camp of Russian
prisoners. But in this case poetry was a bit like a drop of water for a man treading through the desert,
something which suddenly takes on an infinite weightiness and helps you get through the worst. I was struck
that Shalamov, who lived in Kolyma, said of poetry that it was his fortress, and not at all an escape.”
(Philippe Jaccottet, « Grignan, une fenêtre ouverte sur le monde », Remarks gathered by Pierre-
André Stauffer and Antoine Duplan, L’Hebdo, no52, 24 December 1997.)
English translation by David Vaughn.
GENESIS OF THE PROJECT:
It was at the demand of Valéri Chadrine, Director of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival and Artistic
Director for the Russian component of Années Croisées France-Russie, that the project was born. 2010 in fact
marks the 150th anniversary of Anton Chekhov’s birth, and for this occasion a new work dedicated to Chekhov
was commissioned from Josef Nadj.
Following the two “research laboratory” periods in June and September 2009, this new work necessitated three
further months of rehearsal, at the C.C.N. d'Orléans between 22 March and the end of May 2010, followed by
the two first weeks of June at the Salle Jean-Louis Barrault of the Scène Nationale d'Orléans.
The first performances took place at "Années France-Russie 2010" on the 5th, 6th and 7th of July 2010 in
Moscow, and then on the 11th, 12th and 13th of July in Saint Petersburg.
WHY RUSSIA ?
For years, Josef Nadj has maintained a privilege relationship with Russia, where several of his works -les
Veilleurs, Woyzeck, le Temps du repli, Journal d'un inconnu, Entracte -have been performed in various cities -
Moscow, St Petersburg, Volvograd and Saratov.
Les Veilleurs received the Golden Mask award for the best foreign performance presented in Russia in 2000,
and Woyzeck received the same award in 2002.
The following year, Josef Nadj tookpart in the creation of the piece Penthesilea, directed or the stage by Alain
Milianti in 2003. Nadj spent several weeks in Saratov working with students of its conservatory of Theatre, then
directed by Anton Kouznetsov. On the occasion, he executed a series of photographs, entitled L’Opus de
Saratov, that have been exhibited several times, notably in 2006 at the Avignon Festival when Josef Nadj was
the Associated Artist.