‘There's a particular tone to Russian language literature, it is lacking in frivolity’. An interview with the playwright David Britton


Professor David J. Britton, Director of Creative Writing at Swansea University, is an award-winning writer for the theatre who writes extensively for the BBC, both original dramas and adaptations of novels, including those by famous Russian authors.
Kommersant UK has spoken to David J. Britton about his adaptations of Sholokhov and Bulgakov's pieces, differences between Russian and British literature in general and also about existing connections between business and creativity.

You moved to Wales from Australia and then took an academic post at Swansea University. How did that happen?

I was already established in Wales as a playwright and director before I joined Swansea University. In Australia, I led the production team for radio drama at the national broadcaster, the ABC.  When I finished there I looked more broadly around the world. My sister lived in Wales, and I’d already done productions for the BBC in Wales, so I came and eventually, I stayed here. I liked it here very much from the start and Wales has been kind to me, both as a playwright and as an academic.

Where does your research and writing interest in Eastern Europe come from? 

Initially, my interest was simply in theatre: I became very interested as a theatre worker in the plays of Anton Chekhov. In Australia, I made a version of his Three Sisters in English and, like many modern playwrights, I regard Chekhov as the master of naturalism. Gradually, through Chekhov,  I became more interested in broader Eastern European literature, but Chekhov really was the guiding light to my playwriting, and he continues to be so.

Can we say that Chekhov is one of your favourite writers?

He definitely is. My favourite plays are Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya (by the way, I teach Uncle Vanya at Swansea University). Chekhov was probably the first playwright who recognised certain hidden truths in dialogue; for example that it is just as important to understand things which are unsaid, what people do not say, as what is actually said. He is the master of creating characters whose individual situations are set against social realities over which they have little control.

What inspired you to make a stage and radio dramatisations of the children's classic book Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome?

In this instance, it was not my interest in Eastern European culture, rather it came from the fact that Arthur Ransome wrote the series of kids’ books called Swallows and Amazons. These are stories about a group of kids who become fascinated with sailing in small boats in the Lake District of England. When I was young, I read these books and was drawn to them because my father was a seaman and when he left the sea, he spent much of his time building small boats. Later, I went on to read Ransome’s Old Peter's Russian Tales and was amazed that these folk stories were not widely known in the West and I wanted to help bring them to a wider audience. The best-known story is probably Baba Yaga and, in my view, another tale, Little Master Misery, is a wonderful piece.

Why did you decide to adapt Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The White Guard, as it is quite an interesting choice...?

I think Bulgakov is a masterful writer. His most famous novel is The Master and Margarita, which was not published in his lifetime because of his fear that it would be unacceptable to the Soviet authorities. However, I believe The White Guard is just as fascinating. Bulgakov was Ukrainian, and this book is set in Kyiv in the period just after the Bolshevik revolution. What it tells us about the complexities of the political situation at that time is astonishing. The central character is a monarchist. How he negotiates a path between the oncoming Red Guard, Ukrainian armed movements and even the Germans and all within his own pursuit of love gives us a sense of how complicated it was to live in that post-revolution period.

I believe it was not so easy to adapt. What was the most challenging aspect for you during the process of adapting this novel?

This novel is full of action; there is street fighting, escape and extraordinary sequences where men are running through Kyiv trying to get away. During adaptation, these things were quite difficult to portray. I was asked to show the adaptation at the Bulgakov festival in Kyiv several years ago, and it was interesting to see just how well-known the novel is there. The conversation after our presentation was amazing because people asked me questions about the adaptation which demonstrated that they knew every line of the original novel; that’s quite a challenge for the dramatist.

What about the adaptation of Mikhail Sholokhov's book, And Quiet Flows the Don?

This was challenging too, it’s such a wide-reaching novel. Its sense of the landscape beside the river Don is very important, and it’s difficult to create a landscape on stage or radio. In both the Sholokhov and the Bulgakov adaptations, I tended to focus on the interplay of the characters; the emphasis was on people and their personalities rather than the landscape.

It is not an easy question due to this difficult global situation, but still, what do you think about the role of Russian culture and literature in the world given the current situation; its well-known cancellation? 

I think whenever a nation becomes unpopular in the rest of the world, the side effect is always that its cultural legacy becomes less popular. This is an inevitable consequence of the Moscow regime’s aggression and its invasion of Ukraine. If one is interested in the legacy of Russian culture then it will be necessary to wait until the current conflict is over.
More generally, the contribution of Russian language literature to the world, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been enormous. Much of that literary energy comes from questioning prevailing society. So whether we're talking about Tolstoy or Bulgakov or many other great figures, the power nearly always comes from the energy which emerges from questioning the status quo. Perhaps in the present time, new movements in the culture of Eastern Europe may emerge. For example, right now, the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov’s novel Grey Bees (written in Russian and available in English) has found huge success – quite rightly because it is a wonderful book.  

In your opinion, how compatible are business and creativity in general?
For example, when a writer has to choose between commercial success and the simple wish to write to express themself. What would you recommend?

I would advise you to do both. On the one hand, we must all do things for a living, and at the same time, we can have artistic ambitions which may not bring us much income. In my earlier years as a writer, I wrote for commercial organisations because I was in need of money and I had a young family.
In broad terms, I think business has a lot to learn from the world of artistic creativity because successful business depends on original thinking. The best artistic creativity is of course original and unique, and this offers many benefits to businesses.
I'd like to think that the world of business could be more open to the creativity of the world of art and literature.

What does an aspiring writer need first of all, regardless of their nationality and any other characteristics?

In the first place, an interest in the world. The ability to see the world, whether that’s the big wide world or simply your own environment, then to apply your own imagination to what you see. The output, what you come out with, is not simply a representation of the world, but your personal interpretation of it. But first, you must be interested and you must observe things fully; seeing, but also hearing, feeling and tasting.
In my opinion, good writing does not simply come from having a vivid imagination. It comes from the combination of observation and imagination. Going back to Chekhov,  it was his observation as a doctor, his experience with patients, of what their feelings and thoughts were, that underpinned his writing. He then combined this with his own rich imagination.
I'm always saying to my students that observation is the starting point; as a future writer, one should look deeply into the world, be aware of what is going on around you, then apply your imagination, and then apply your literary skills, whatever they might be.

Can we somehow compare Russian and English literature, is there anything in common?

Yes, their humanity is in common. Character is at the heart of good writing. The great masterpieces of Russian language literature and great masterpieces of English language literature both give us people we can believe in. These are usually presented in stressful situations; for example political or economic stress. I think these factors are universal.  

And what is very different; what we can see only in books written by Russian writers?

Probably the tone, there's a particular tone to Russian language literature which in my reading differs from most other literature.

Is it a more depressing tone?

Not necessarily, although some people might say so. I’d say it’s not so much depressing as lacking in frivolity.

And is it possible for a non-native English speaker, for example, a Russian émigré in the UK,  to become a good writer and write books in English?  

I’m sure it is. I myself have never tried to write in a second language and I can only imagine how difficult it is. On the other hand, we have a very good example; the famous writer Joseph Conrad. His first language was Polish, his second was French. Yet he made a massive international reputation in the early 20th century by writing in English. For sure he had enormous ability, but also he showed by his example that it is possible to write effectively in a language other than your own. 

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