In the Shadow of Your Family Tree
"We’re hanging in the shadow of your family tree. Your haunted heart and me. Brought down by an old idea. Whose time has come." - Tunde Adebimpe
Maybe the events that took place in Romania in 1989 are best understood by those who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Perhaps this story of revolution, collapse of a dictator, and the complex picture of life after years of repression, might be closer to home for us all than we first assume.
When we were conducting the dramaturgical research for this production, one of the most disturbing things we came across was the video footage of the trail and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu. The couple fled Bucharest during the revolutionary uprising on December 21 and 22, but were captured on the run and taken to an army base in Târgovişte, where they were tried and executed. If the footage available online is any indication, the trial and execution took less than one hour on the afternoon of December 25, 1989. What is particularly difficult to watch in this sequence of events is the way the couple appear during this ordeal. Perhaps the stress and trauma are to be expected, but there’s something more: the way they are dressed, the way they behave in relation to their prosecutors is uncannily like anyone’s elderly parents, say, caught off-guard as a bitter dispute that has erupted over Christmas dinner, has made them the focus of a series of accusations made by distraught offspring. Dressed and behaving like the impeccable people they believed themselves to be, Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu endure the accusations and slander, the indictments and the sentencing, in a manner that could only come from the abusive sense of love expressed by people who actually believed themselves to be the parental figures of the accusers.
And this point is driven home at the end of the trial. They have been sentenced to death, and a small group of soldiers are dispatched to tie their hands behind their backs. In this moment, Elena begins to scold the soldiers, calling them ungrateful children, and demanding how they could do such a thing to their mother. It’s effective what she says, on both the soldiers and the viewer, as the soldiers falter for a while, they actually look like disobedient children playing at being soldiers, trying to be men following orders from their commander; a struggle ensues, and the situation becomes chaotic. The Ceauşescus are eventually shot, and again the haunted image of how this was done remains: dressed as they are, as if the family dispute at Christmas dinner took a turn for the worse, toward a deadly outcome.
No doubt these abusive parental figures deserved their fate, this dictator and his wife, who made a point of being referred to as the father and mother of Romania are justly served by their bloody and humiliating end. But the shadow of the effects of their abuse are enduring, and I think have been made all the more powerful by the elusive and, one might even say, secretive way in which they were tried and executed.
I think the Romanian revolution was different from those that happened in other central European countries at this time primarily because of the parental status of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu. The people of Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia could focus their hatred and revolutionary aspirations toward an enemy from afar: the Kremlin, in Moscow was to blame for their suppression and suffering. In Romania, the problem was more internalized; the abuse was coming from within, from a man who told the Romanian people he was their father, and who claimed to be acting with their best interests at heart. It may be possible to kill such a person, but the intimate effects of such an abuser linger.
In this play, Churchill makes generous use of documentation that she found firsthand in the months that followed the December Revolution, yet her focus is more on the reactions of two families who celebrate two weddings, one before and one after the confusing events of December 1989. The families reflect the abuse perpetuated on the greater Romanian ‘family’, similar to trees that reveal a pathogen that has overcome a forest. The ritual of a wedding, perhaps the most enduring events of family pride and unity is here disturbingly affected by violence within.
In staging this play we incorporated a lot more music than the text called for, and for the longest time, images of this play came to my imagination in the form of film, so we’ve added this too. I think the music is an essential way to connect to the soul of the Romanian people; they can sing a doina – their version of the blues – as a way to cope with a stultifying totalitarian bureaucracy, represented here by the stacking chairs. The film manifests a window onto another perspective – more internal, more intimate – of the world of this play. As I found in my research, this way of existing is common in countries with totalitarian leaders; that is, there is always more than one reality happening in a given situation: there is the official version of the event, and the version that is a more accurate reflection of what’s really going on. This has also been my experience of living in a dysfunctional family.