Russia, Freaks and Foreigners is a collection of three thematically linked plays set against the backdrop of a fractured, post-Soviet Russian society. Written by acclaimed playwright James MacDonald, who has cerebral palsy, these performance texts critique accepted notions of normality within authority, offering various models of difference—physical, cultural, and moral—and their stories of dislocation. Their themes, contextualized here by companion essays, expand the boundaries of British drama and connect to the comic grotesque tradition by giving the “abnormal” a broad appeal. Russia, Freaks and Foreigners is a daring portrayal of disability from the inside.
About the Author
James MacDonald is a playwright whose work is regularly staged in the United Kingdom. He is an honorary fellow of the drama department at the University of Exeter.
Read an Excerpt
Russia, Freaks and Foreigners
Three Performance Texts
By James MacDonald
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2008 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Part One: Texts
Bread and Circus Freaks
A One Act Vaudeville
First performed at the Finborough Theatre, London, on 6 March 2002, under the direction of Martin Harvey and with the following cast:
PANIA ANDREYEVNA Su Elliott
MARIANNA SELIGMAN Leslie O'Hara
Russia Consultant Inna Rodina
In the countryside surrounding Petersburg, winter.
Settlement No. 7, some 70 kilometres from Petersburg, a village impacted by snow and by circumstance – the remnants of a collective farm. A bread shop immediately after the morning delivery. PANIA ANDREYEVNA, 42 but looking 15 years older and very thin, supports INNA IGOROVNA through the back door. INNA is nearly twenty but looks five years younger. Most distinctively, though, she is heavily spastic from cerebral palsy. PANIA stations INNA on a chair and begins lifting the bread trays from the floor to the counter.
INNA (After watching her for several seconds.): I wish I could help you.
PANIA: You what? (Preoccupied.) No ... you can't do it.
INNA: If we could maybe carry the trays –
PANIA: ... I know. We'd feel like millionaires. I'd feel like a millionaire anyway. I'd feel like I didn't need to work ... and then I wouldn't employ you ... and then you wouldn't work ... You'd be an outcast, for people to take pity on or worse ... because pity soon turns to contempt ... and then you might starve ... they'd look for your footprints in the snow ... and then maybe some night – or maybe first light – someone would discover the corpse of an under-fed girl ... half-eaten by wolves ... and then they'd say, 'Wasn't that the waif that used to work for Pania Andreyevna? I'm sure of it.' And then they'd come looking for me ... and charge me with murder after the fact ... and all because I let you help me lift the trays. I wouldn't feel much like a millionaire then, would I? A million's not much good against a murder rap, is it? Especially if it's all an illusion. You can't pay a murder judge with it. 'If she felt she had a million, she could have showed more compassion to poor Inna Igorovna.' That's what they'd say ... that's the verdict they'd bring in on me. It's worth a little inconvenience to be spared a fate like that, now wouldn't you say?
She's been working the while.
INNA: I wish I could help you.
PANIA: Oh-ho, you're helping me. You think I'm running a charity ward? You're serving our hungry horde while I put my feet up in back. Maybe I'll even fall into the third degree of sleep ... so that when you have a riot here – when demand far exceeds our supply – you won't be able to wake me. I won't know anything about it. What do you reckon to that? I'm throwing you in at the deep end, my Inka. I don't believe in charity.
INNA: We don't have wolves here, do we?
PANIA: I didn't say I was throwing you to the wolves – I said –
INNA: ... half-eaten by wolves ... if you let me go. Don't you remember? Were you just trying to scare me?
PANIA: I was trying to show you the nonsense you're talking – you could help me lift the trays. I can't do it – I don't see how on earth you think you can. (Calculating.) One, two, three ... eight, nine ... nine. There isn't going to be enough brown. I told them last time to make it four dozen. They can't hear straight – they've given me four dozen white. Deaf bastards! Well, I thought I was doing you a favour, my darling, but now it looks like –
INNA: You've done me lots of favours, Pania Andreyevna. You've given me this job, for a start ...
PANIA: I mean I put up a notice the delivery was going to be late ... just to give us time to ourselves.
INNA: Do people really read notices? I don't think so.
PANIA: ... well, with four dozen white loaves, and next-to-no brown ... you'd better believe they'll do something constructive. Otherwise, they'll be taking our blood before midday.
INNA: You're not serious.
PANIA: How long have I been selling bread? You'd better believe they'll be asking for bread ... and then taking our blood just as soon as we've run out. (A beat.) Can you use a hunter?
INNA: What's a hunter?
PANIA: ... or maybe it'd be all right if you just point.
INNA: I'm sure I can point, but what's –?
PANIA: A hunting rifle, of course, are you that naive?
INNA: You mean you ... fire on people?
PANIA: Yeah, well, mainly I just point.
INNA: And does it work?
PANIA: If it didn't, I'd be shooting at them, wouldn't I? It works, all right. People round here are such cowards.
INNA: So they wouldn't really take our blood. You were just pretend –
PANIA: What are you talking about? They'd certainly try if the delivery was like it was today, and if I didn't have my hunter.
INNA: My God ...
PANIA (Overlapping.): What do you think I got it for – effect? They'll try it with you – you'll see.
INNA: I don't want to fire on people!
PANIA: I'd better stay awake then.
INNA: You never told me it was going to be dangerous.
PANIA: What'd you think they were, friends? Furry bunny rabbits?
INNA: All right, I admit, I thought one or two thieves, maybe.
PANIA: Oh, you did, did you? There wouldn't be thieves round here, darling. We've grown up together, you know? We're just crazy, that's all. Especially when we're forced to eat white when they haven't brought brown. Then we're apt to grow a little irate, you know? And then the only thing that can calm us is a hunter, even if it's only pointed at us.
INNA: My mother heard ... I guess she saw it on television ... The President made a big speech.
PANIA: It couldn't have been on television.
INNA: Oh, you know the one I mean?
PANIA: One what?
INNA: ... speech – the one he just made.
PANIA: It wouldn't have made any difference, if he made it on television. Your mother couldn't have seen it.
INNA: What makes you so sure?
PANIA: ... we only have radio here ... and the radio said the television tower burnt down.
INNA: I don't think you –
PANIA: Are you simple as well as naive? I'm telling you straight – the whole place is in cinders. That's what the radio said.
INNA: Well, yes, I know that ...
PANIA: Well, then, what are you –?
INNA: ... but only one tower. Not enough to stop broadcasting.
PANIA: Your mother must have heard it on the radio, like everybody else.
INNA is vexed.
INNA: Anyway, the President issued the warning that Russia is steadily dying off. What do you say, d'you think it's true?
PANIA: I know it – there's not enough brown.
INNA: He means, she said, because older people are dying off faster than babies are being born.
PANIA: Older people, I tell you, aren't the problem – it's that people producing the babies are dying off. Older people don't produce, do they. They're better dead ... in the ground ... as manure.
INNA: But who would you say are the others – soldiers and people like that?
PANIA: Russians aren't getting their fibre ... (Shouting.) ... when all they'll deliver is mouldy white bread.
INNA: It's not mouldy, is it?
PANIA: It gets mouldy – nobody eats it. (A beat.) You like soldiers, do you? You'd like to be raped by a soldier?
INNA: No, you said ... I thought soldiers must be who you meant ... they'd all died.
PANIA: Not in my lifetime. There's not enough of 'em. In the history books, maybe. Yes, in the history books about wars. Is that your schoolgirl fantasy, is it? Foreign wars with Russian soldiers raping the flesh off you? Sex isn't that good.
INNA: That's not my fantasy, Madame Pania.
PANIA: Ha – says you.
INNA: It must be yours.
PANIA: It's nobody's, that's the whole point.
INNA: That's what the President says.
PANIA: What does the President know that I don't ... except where to find some brown bread? About sex, though, he can't tell me nothing. And what is this 'Madame Pania'? We've established I'm no millionaire.
INNA: But I wanted to show I respect you.
PANIA: Be a good girl then. Don't say 'Madame' just so you can give me an argument. I'd rather you were rude and then listened to some good advice.
INNA: I listen.
PANIA: You can't talk and listen.
INNA: That's called 'discussion'.
PANIA: It's called showing me no respect.
INNA: All right. I'm sorry.
PANIA: So you should be. (A beat.) I don't hold discussions with people. It's just the way I'm made. God said at my birth, 'This one won't discuss anything with anyone. We can make sure she has a pretty face, strong hands. We'll give her other things to get by with in life. But when other people hold their discussions, it'll be like she's not in the room.' So – that's my personal message from God, that's my fate. I'm healthy enough, good and strong.
INNA: You can produce babies.
PANIA: Oh, yes, my insides still work. My mother had me when she was 47. There's only one thing wrong with birth in this village. You discuss things. Do you know what that is? Shall I tell you? The men who are still living are all past it. I'm wasting away.
INNA: ... so the President's right.
There is a thumping against the door.
PANIA: Unless I want to produce with a goat.
INNA: What was that?
PANIA: The billygoat mounting the nanny.
INNA: Oh, you're joking.
INNA crosses the space to get a better look at the goats from one of the two windows. Her walk is asymmetrical and slow.
Somebody should take a photograph – that's hilarious.
PANIA: Maybe you should still be at school.
INNA (Still amused.): Why's that? It's true – they're really making love.
PANIA: You've seen dogs do it.
INNA: Not that often ... and somehow it's not so funny.
PANIA: You should maybe study mathematics.
INNA: Why? I know what's what – I'm not that innocent.
PANIA: With mathematics on your mind, the sight of the goats might not be so funny.
INNA: What's wrong with having a laugh?
PANIA: There's no men, just like there's not enough brown. So what's the point of liking sex?
INNA: No, you can't call that sex – it's just funny.
PANIA (A beat.): Maybe you should study biology.
INNA (Trying to peer through the window.): Who'd have thought they could do it in this cold?
PANIA: They were forced to push the train for the final kilometre.
INNA: Eh? What was that, Mad – Pania Andreyevna?
PANIA: It doesn't matter in the least. Go on with your dreaming.
INNA (Turns back to PANIA.): No, I'm sorry. What did you say?
PANIA: Don't apologize, Inna. It gets on my nerves.
INNA: But you said something I didn't hear. I want to know what it was. Unless you don't want to tell me. Did God say, 'You mustn't repeat yourself'?
PANIA: Let's leave God up in heaven. I was talking about the bread train.
INNA: What, and there being no brown?
PANIA: Not enough brown, I said.
INNA: Well, other than pointing your hunter –
PANIA: ... and the fact that you take no interest at all. I was only trying to tell you how the bread train had to be pushed the last bit.
INNA: What do you mean, pushed? That's terrible ... isn't it?
PANIA: It's bloody hard work.
INNA: What – you mean you did it, too?
PANIA: All the women helped.
INNA: What did the men do, stand and watch?
PANIA: There were no men.
INNA: So who did the driving?
PANIA: What the hell does that matter?
INNA: Well, if it was a man, it matters quite a lot, I'd have thought.
PANIA: Who else would they get to drive the damn train? But where were the others to push it? That's what I'm saying. It took fifteen or twenty of us women.
INNA: Well, yes, it would, fifteen or twenty at least. And I'll bet it took you an age and three quarters.
PANIA: It was on a downward incline.
INNA: Yes, all right, but even so ...
PANIA: You see what I'm trying to tell you now.
INNA: ... and I see what the President meant.
PANIA: And he doesn't help us. (Sighs.) I'm sure he's a great man ... he has a great plan for Russia and all that ...
INNA: You can't expect him to help you push the train!
PANIA: Fool. I'm not talking about that.
INNA (A beat.): He once lived in Petersburg, you know.
PANIA: Well, I never met him.
INNA: I didn't say you did.
PANIA: Well, then, why bring it up? He once lived in Peters, so what? He should have helped push?
INNA: Now you're making fun of me.
PANIA: Then you can say I don't understand today's youth ... that I must be past it. I'm good only for giving out not enough loaves. Our Lord's grace is no longer in me. All right. Let the hungry go on to the city. I want a good long rest.
INNA: ... and let me look after the shop for you.
PANIA: ... when there aren't any people.
INNA: But there will be. You said so yourself.
PANIA: Yeah, too many for one. They'll come in, see you just about standing there ... defenceless ... and they'll reckon they can exploit the situation. The pushier ones will take immediate advantage ... they'll grab the bread without paying ...
INNA: But you said they're not thieves.
PANIA: Today's youth have never seen really desperate people. They think they can cope with anything.
INNA: Where'd you get the idea I ever said that?
PANIA: What makes you think you can cope on your own? You're nothing but a kid, a crippled kid at that ... living in fantasy land. That may be all right for kids ...
INNA: I wish you'd stop saying that.
PANIA: ... but I have to cope in the real world, where trains have to be pushed and then the bread don't get delivered ...
INNA: Those sailors who were drowned weren't living in fantasy land ... or the soldiers dying in Chechnya.
PANIA: What are you bringing them up for?
INNA: Aren't they just as much youth of today?
PANIA: All right, but you're not dying in Chechnya, are you. What makes you think you can speak for them? Are you a sailor's widow?
INNA: I was just saying what the President said.
PANIA: ... you said he could help us.
INNA: No. I just thought it was interesting he comes from –
PANIA: He's not there now, so what's 'interesting' about it? He's in Moscow sorting out other things. I wouldn't expect him to help us.
INNA: Nor would I.
PANIA: He's got to try to console the poor mothers, poor man. What can he do? He's not God.
INNA: He says he'll look after the children.
PANIA: All their lives? My father was a disabled war veteran they also promised to 'look after'. A blanket, two towels and the message, 'You're lucky you'll die in bed.' 'Look after.'
INNA: And that was in Soviet times. They're saying it's that much worse now.
PANIA: Who are you quoting now ... who's 'they'?
INNA: Newspapers, I guess, I don't –
PANIA: They're blasphemers, whoever they are. I don't want to hear you blaspheme. Your mother specifically asked me, she did: 'Look after my Inna, Pania Andreyevna. Make her useful for something. I have to find work in the city.' She's one of my oldest friends.
INNA: Were you Pioneers together?
PANIA: I never made friends in the Pioneers ... bunch of hooligans.
INNA: Who, the Pioneers?
PANIA: Of course. (A beat.) You were never a Pioneer, were you?
INNA: They wouldn't let me join.
PANIA: You had a lucky escape, let me tell you.
INNA: I'd have been asked to perform feats of skill, which I couldn't ... or go rock climbing.
PANIA: They'd have asked all cadets to burn holes in your hands – your torture as their rite of passage.
INNA: The Pioneers?
PANIA: Believe me. Organized criminals, like everybody. Only smaller. Don't look at me like that – I know.
INNA: You mean they tortured you?
PANIA: How could they torture me? I'm not 'unclean'. I could always look after myself. Nobody picked fights with Pania Andreyevna. I'd have bloodied my knuckles on anyone that tried.
INNA: Were you a bit of a bully?
PANIA: What are you talking about, 'bully'? Crazy, are you?
INNA: No, I'm not saying now.
PANIA: Now or ever ... is that what you think? You'd characterize me as a bully, would you?
INNA: No, believe me, I –
PANIA: Perhaps next you'll be telling all your crippled friends, 'Pania Andreyevna stuck pins in me, I swear ... she stuck lighted fags up my arse.' The Pioneers would do that. I quit the Pioneers when I was younger than you are ... and I don't allow smoking in here.
INNA: I was only joking.
PANIA: I'm splitting my sides. You've a warped sense of I-don't-know-what – it isn't humour. Just like the Pioneers.
INNA: Isn't it dangerous to speak out against them?
PANIA: Can anyone hear me? They can't. They've disbanded, like everything else. It's all for nothing. Sailors go down with their ship; towers get razed to the ground. Fucking Chechens won't die – they seem to come out of the ground.
INNA (Sighing.): ... and there's no bread.
PANIA: Not enough of it anyway. (Crossing to a bread tray and selecting a brown loaf for her.) Here.
INNA: What? No, I don't want –
PANIA: What, you're not like the rest of us? You live on thin air? Are you a sprite?
INNA: No, of course I eat bread, but I have no objection to the white loaf.
PANIA: Unlike the rest of us. Aren't you human? Look here ... (Showing her.) It's mouldy. There's gobs of mould here and here.
Excerpted from Russia, Freaks and Foreigners by James MacDonald. Copyright © 2008 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Texts
Bread and Circus Freaks
The Sweetheart Zone
Part Two: Essays
Getting to Know James MacDonald
Freaks, Food and Fairy Tales: Confronting the Limits of Disability in Bread and Circus Freaks