8 m, 3 f
The play is based on the real life of Leon Sergeievich Theremin - an inventor, musician, and a spy. In the words of the father of the modern synthesizer, Robert Moog, without Theremin, Moog himself would not have been able to construct his synthesizer.
Theremin was born in 1896, and during the First World War he worked for the radio- technical battalion of the Red Army. Radio and electromagnetic waves continued to exert a powerful fascination on Theremin even after the war, and in 1920 he completed his important invention: a musical instrument called the "thereminvox," which to this day is the only non-contact musical instrument in the world. A performer on the "thereminvox" controls the pitch of the tone by shifting the distance of his or her right hand from one electrical antenna, while controlling the volume by doing the same with his or her left hand in relation to the other transmitter.
In 1922 Theremin presented the instrument to the enthusiastic Lenin, who saw it as a magnificent opportunity to promote the "new revolutionary music," and with it the Bolshevik revolution as such. On Lenin's orders Theremin embarked on a concert tour around disease and hunger-ravaged, post-revolutionary Russia, and the inventor slowly, and somehow against his will, become a professional musician.
The successful Russian tour was followed by a concert series abroad - in Germany, France, and England. Those tours however, were organized by the newly formed Soviet Secret Service GRU, for which Theremin had begun to work as an agent. His assignment was to conduct industrial espionage in the West. But perhaps not even the GRU could have imagined that during the years on Western European stages Theremin would become a major international star. After conquering Paris, the Royal Albert Hall, and Berlin, Theremin's journey continued, logically, to America.
He arrives in New York, a first class passenger on a transatlantic steamer, with his German friend and business manager Hans Goldberg. Their mission is clear: to place Theremin's inventions in the US industry and to receive US patents while at the same time infiltrating the nascent American air and electronic industries, to be present at the birth of radio and television, and to pass all information about those developments to the Soviet Secret Service. It is Theremin's time in the United States that constitutes the actual plot of the play. Recitals in Carnegie Hall, private performances for millionaires' parties, and even the first stadium concerts, the biggest of which attracts more than 20 000 people!!! Instead of the originally planned two months, Theremin would remain in America for ten years - ten years that would forever change the sound of contemporary music.
At its most basic level, Theremin is a story about the rise and fall of the world's first electronic music band, whose members in addition to Theremin include his manager, Hans Goldberg, the Russian émigré and an experimental musical innovator, Joseph Shillinger, and an American private investigator, one Samuel Hoffman. Their band consists of an eclectic assortment of early electronic instruments (thereminvox, rhythmicon - a primitive electronic drum set, ondes-martenot, etc.) In addition to their musicianship, the band members prove to be savvy businessmen as well. They establish a number of small corporations, work towards establishing the thereminvox as a popular musical instrument for the wider public, and they make plans for eventual mass production of the instrument. Their plans are bold, one may even say insane, but these are the roaring twenties in America, and everything seems possible. The idea of "new music" catches the imagination of some of the most influential Americans in the twenties; the rapid rise of radio as a new medium accelerates its reach; Theremin himself becomes a darling of both men and women; and his theory about an "instrument, which allows even those without talent to become musical virtuosos" seems as intriguing to many Americans as does his Bolshevik background.
R.C.A. finally mass produces the first series of five hundred thereminvoxes, and Theremin's dreams seem about to become reality. But in 1928 the beginning of the Great Depression puts an end to those bold designs. The excitement for everything that is new is quickly disappearing. Theremin's electronic band gradually loses its audience, and eventually dissolves. It becomes apparent that the thereminvox as a musical instrument may after all not be that magnificent. None of the contemporary composers or musicians writes music for it, and with very few exceptions, no one is really able to learn how to play it. At this point Theremin's problems come from other sources as well: the Russian secret service demands more information about the American industry, the American Immigration Service begins deportations procedures against him, Theremin's debts with different institutions, banks, and private investors pile up, and his personal life is in shambles. While his Russian wife Katherine joins him in the USA two years after his arrival there, he is unable to re-establish a relationship with her. Basically penniless, he is supported and in a sense "kept" by the wife of the millionaire Walter Rosen, Lucy. Lucy has a weakness for the tereminvox, she admires Theremin as a man, and dreams that one day she'll elope with him to a farm in Canada. Finally, Theremin falls in love and marries his music student Lavinia Williams, who is twenty years his junior and an African American. New York in the early 1930s considers such mixed marriage an absolute taboo, and Theremin, now abandoned even by his closest friend and manager Hans Goldberg, finds himself literally on the very fringes of the society. Alone and forgotten, Theremin receives news of his father's death and decides to return to Russia. The year is 1938, Stalin's purges are in full swing, and a return to Russia would be a veritable suicide for anyone let alone Theremin, the Soviet Secret Service agent, who got out of hand...
Beyond the dramatization of this journey, Theremin is a portrait of a controversial and a peculiar human being. It is a story of a man caught in the torrents of 20th century history, unable to be free in his calling, his actions, and his wants. It is a story of an inventor, who was forced to become a musician because he invented a musical instrument, which eventually took over his life. It was because of his invention that Theremin had to mount the world stages and that he became an international star, the object of admiration of women, and finally a gigolo. On some level he didn't have chance to alter the course of events. His invention not only changed his life and forced him to become a communist spy, but the thousands of hours of performing on tereminvox even severely changed his body posture. He hurt scores of people - men and women. He appeared to be a harsh and insensitive man, who put his invention first no matter what the consequences, and who always preferred his ideals to his feelings.
But maybe such picture is wrong. Maybe it was the Russian Secret Service that ordered him to come up with his inventions. Or perhaps Theremin knew something that not even they knew. Perhaps he actually was the engine behind his fate, and it is possible that his harshness and lack of empathy was a mask hiding some sort of impossible longing. Or maybe he was a hero, who because of his ongoing collaboration with the Soviet communists hoped to forever delay the looming execution of his father, a man who was brought up at the Czar's court, and remained a loyal Czarist during the twenties and thirties in the communist Soviet Union. We don't know and we cannot say. But as Leo Sergievich Theremin transforms before our very own eyes so does his divine invention. In the story, the thereminvox starts off as a musical instrument, later it turns into an alarm system, only to finally transform into a listening device, which, on Stalin's orders, Theremin himself may have used to secretly tap into Lenin's personal conversations in the last two years of Lenin's life.
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The play has been written for the Dejvice Theatre in Prague, and was premiered on 17th June 2005.