A Bulgarian Femme Fatale

Dear Reader, 

I have a confession to make – for the past month or so, I have been chasing a woman and today, finally, I am happy to say – I got her. 

Confused? 🙂 

I am speaking about Sevdana – the protagonist of a long-forgotten Bulgarian play, written by Tsanko Tserkovski (Цанко Церковски), a politician, today mostly remembered for his children’s and peasant poems, extolling the beauty of harvest and other grueling agricultural activities. (We Bulgarians are all Renaissance people:))

Tsansko Tserkovski (1869-1926). Source: Wikipedia
Tsansko Tserkovski (1869-1926). Source: Wikipedia

The play is called Under the Olden Sky (Под старото небе). А black-and-white movie, based on the play, was produced in 1922, but the filmed material had been mysteriously stolen and thus the movie was never released. Starring as Sevdana was actress Vela Usheva (Вела Ушева), about whom I told you here.

Children's book writer Angel Karaliychev and his wife, actress Vela Usheva.
Children’s book author Angel Karaliychev and his wife, actress Vela Usheva. Source: Click here.

Until April of this year, I never suspected of Sevdana’s existence. I went to a charity concert which had among its participants the dance school my daughter goes to. At the event, two young musicians performed a very beautiful and haunting piece for violin and piano called Sevdana which mesmerised me and I took a mental note to dig into it later.

Turns out Under the Olden Sky, the play, has been completely forgotten – unstaged and unpublished since about 1918 – and this musical piece, Sevdana, is the only thing still reminding of it, at least to those interested in Bulgarian chamber music. 🙂

The piece was written by composer Georgi Zlatev-Cherkin (Георги Златев-Черкин) (1905-1977), in 1944. I have a great performance of Sevdana for you, by pianist Georgi Cherkin (b. 1977) who is the composer’s grandson, and violinist Svetlin Russev (b. 1976) – both accomplished musicians enjoying world renown.

Handsome pianist Georgi Cherkin. Apart from being Renaissance men, we Bulgarians are also a good-looking lot, aren't we? :)
Handsome pianist Georgi Cherkin. Apart from being Renaissance people, we Bulgarians are also a good-looking lot, aren’t we? 🙂 Source: Click here.
Here you can see Georgi Cherkin and Maestra Lyubka Biagioni, who has a Bulgarian mother, is a symphonic conductor and a German baroness by marriage.
Here you can see Georgi Cherkin and maestra Lyubka Biagioni, who has a Bulgarian mother, is a symphonic orchestra conductor and a German baroness by marriage. The concert programme, called Apotheosis of Beauty, includes works by Rachmaninov, Debussy and Borodin. Source: Click here. 

I must say the play was rightly forgotten – I found it very sentimental and melodramatic and so tragic that it bordered on the unbelievable. Of course it dealt with forbidden love which ended in death, this time for nearly everyone in the affected (or infected) village. 🙂 I feel I have by now gained so much expertise on forbidden love that I could write a PhD comparing the subject across 19th and early 20th century European literature…:)

The facade of the Sofia City Library where I read the Sevdana play.
The facade of the Sofia City Library where I read the Sevdana play. It was available in only one very frail copy in the Rare and Valuable Books reading room. Another copy was available at the National Library but is undergoing chemical restoration at the moment , so is actually unavailable. I am humbly thankful to my husband for doing all the research on locating Sevdana’s current abode. 🙂

However, if we return a nos moutons, I am not sure what to think of this play because it was slightly absurd but still had some valuable points.

As a strong point I may state that the characters were not portrayed black-and-white, meaning that the good ones sometimes did or said bad things and vice versa. But at the end, it turned out that grey, or coloured, as people are, the God’s laws they should abide by are black and white, strict and subject to no exceptions.

On the library stairs. I like the old-time feel of this place.
On the library stairs. I like the old-time feel of this place.

For example, the play states that the drought, fire and heavy rain storms suffered by the village where the action is set in the month of August, were God’s punishment for the villagers’ sins which included gossiping, breaking the Lent, lusting after married and widowed women, stealing agricultural produce and livestock, being negligent to one’s duties towards the community and, for young and unmarried people like Sevdana and her sweetheart Goran, crossing the line between acceptable flirting and something else.

At the end of the play, almost all characters die and those who survive, pass through ordeals because of the weather cataclysms, in this way undergoing spiritual catharsis bringing them to repentance and renewed obedience to God’s laws.

Fatality weighs heavily over the village throughout the play. E.g. Goran, who flirted heavily with Sevdana by kissing her on the neck in broad daylight, later gave up his affection and urged her to forget too, because the customs of the village were against them. He repented for having loved Sevdana because this had made him lose his will and freedom, which he valued so much at the beginning. He said he could only get them back if Sevdana forgot about him, but she wouldn’t. She went crazy and died instead, because she was already compromised and ostracised by her community and, what is worse, kept on loving Goran and wanting him back.

Front cover of the book after the leather binding.
Book front cover.

Also, at the very end, Sevdana’s father admits the village was living immersed in ignorance and backwardness (figuratively embodied by the olden sky), but adds that that darkness was inside them all and that was how it was going to remain.

As a teenager I had a favourite band called Symphony X and they had an album called The Divine Wings of Tragedy. Then I thought it was a nice phrase but only now do I get an idea of what it might actually mean. 🙂

This is the other side of the front cover, attesting with a 1953 stamp reading Checked! that the contents has passed communist censorship scrutiny and is deemed ideologically safe. From a psychological point of view, the communists did not have it easy with all this obsession with enemies and persecution...
This is the other side of the front cover, attesting with stamps reading Checked! and dating from 1953 and 1956, that the contents had passed communist censorship scrutiny and was deemed ideologically safe. From a psychological point of view, the communists did not have it easy with all this obsession with enemies and persecution…

Poor Sevdana, she may have been the victim of the strict patriarchal mores of early 20th-century Bulgaria, but literature and drama are full of examples of women sharing her predicament in more advanced or cultured times and settings. I once read a quote by somebody famous, saying “The many existing definitions of happiness suggest that we don’t know what it is.”

So, same here. Authors struggle with the forbidden love and kill their characters in exasperation, when they cannot think of anything else to do with them 🙂

This is why, dear Reader, I suggest that we let the ghosts of Sevdana and her happy-go-lucky sweetheart Goran rest in peace and focus only on the great music Georgi Zlatev-Cherkin composed in their honour. It has it all – the blistering hot weather, the climaxing inquietude, the pain, the tragedy, the underlying current of staleness and fatality.

Saint Sophia with daughters Faith, Hope and Love in the City Library lobby.
Saint Sophia with daughters Faith, Hope and Love in the City Library lobby.

Funny to think of it, but both Under the Olden Sky and The Peach Thief are set in August and I have had the same idea of this, judging by its name, supposedly sublime month, even before having read them.  

August unsettles me. It is some sort of a divide – sizzling weather but leaves turning yellow, empty cities, the fatality of living the last days of summer chased away by the relentlessly approaching autumn…August does scare me, a bit.

PS. More optimistically, did you notice how fabulously straight the backs of Cherkin and Russev are? That’s something we can take from professional musicians and military men – the excellent posture with which to face the August challenges! 🙂 

Play excerpt.
Play excerpt.

PS 2. In the excerpt above, a surviving character of the play, who was the joker, played rachenitsas on his mandoline and nearly drowned as divine punishment for ogling at the legs of women, suggests to Sevdana’s father who killed her sweetheart and had just witnessed his daughter’s death, to buy himself a mandoline and play, as playing kills the pain. 🙂 The suggestion sounds a bit ludicrous, given the circumstances, but still, very true.