We’re pleased to present an except from Sarah Kornfeld’s new book The True, about her search to understand the life and death of theater director Alexandru “Ducu” Darie — and the unexpected route her investigation took when her path crossed with that of a con artist. Courtney B. Vance called the book “[a] hauntingly beautiful tale of love, loss, politics, and art that dares us all not to look away from our own disillusionment.”
Rock star of the international theater world, Alexandru “Ducu” Darie was also both hero and victim of his own design, a lover and an artist of chaos, and the only man I ever knew who loved his madness as though it were a friend.
A rebel for most of his life, Ducu lived in the shadow of his father, film star Iurie Darie. Born on June 14, 1959, and raised in the public eye of the Teatrul de Comedie of Bucharest, he grew up in the constant attention of Communist Romania. Very tall, Ducu had brown and green eyes that squinted at you through laughter, and his hands were soft against the rough language he preferred. Breaking from convention in the 1980s, he lived a private life in defiance of the state. After 1990, Ducu had many ear piercings, his long hair and striking clothing marking him a punk bon vivant of the 19th century. While discrete about his life, he would still speak publicly of drinking, something that would ultimately lead him to his death at sixty. He was known for his ability to direct comedies, yet his death is seen as tragedy. Once vibrant, annoying, sexy, mournful, generous, and very difficult, his memory a blessing, Ducu remains a pain in the ass.
Self-made, Ducu was an international star for more than thirty years: a director, producer, lighting designer, actor, writer, and opera fiend. Although he was a counter-culture figure in Romania, he nevertheless launched a career in 2006 as the president of the European Theater Union (founded by the great director Giorgio Strehler). Knighted in Romania, Italy, and France for his creative and societal contributions, Ducu also crossed borders with shows in the United States, Israel, Japan, Colombia, Italy, and Russia. At the end of his life, he was Managing Director of Bucharest’s famed Bulandra Theater. Burning bright and hard, he was controversial to the end. I believe he was his country: grappling with freedom, creative, untrusting, and often wild.
In December of 1989, Romania had revolted against the tyranny of the Communist party as led by the dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu. While other segments of Eastern Europe were removing themselves from Communist rule in 1989, Romania and its leadership, were in denial, aiming to maintain their unique police state. Starting on December 21, 1989, Ceausescu was booed by the people forced into a square to hear one of his monotonous speeches after weeks of bloody violence within the country. At the sound of the jeers, the army shot into the crowd, igniting three days of a revolution that led the army to revolt against the Communist Party, that led to the overtaking of the Palace of the People and the death of Ceausescu and his much despised wife, Elena. As reported by The Observer and chronicled in the book Tearing Down the Curtain: The People’s Revolution in Eastern Europe, the revolution was swift and deadly:
Its drama was the stuff of history: the central area in Bucharest, the Palace Square containing both the old palace and the new palace, the Party headquarters, in flames; people crowding round tanks urging the soldiers on; old ladies bringing freshly baked bread to the Army, whose tanks were covered with cheering people. Phrases were shouted aloud that in other circumstances would have sounded mawkish but here thrilled the soul—“You may kill us, but we won’t go away.”
With the revolution came a high cost of living, years of political conflict, and a future that continues to be confusing.
Born into a family of artists who had some freedom of movement inside Communist Romania, Ducu still grew up in a culture of cruelty. Romanian citizens had to face long food lines because Ceausescu was exporting their resources. There was little to no heat in winter and the scorch of paranoia bred by the government spread like a disease. Again from the book Tearing Down The Curtain on the realities of daily life in Ceausescu’s Romania:
By law, all typewriters had to be registered with the authorities, together with a copy of their typeface, making the circulation of clandestine pamphlets impossible. There were no photocopiers or duplicating machines. There had been no gatherings, meetings or discussion groups as there were in other Eastern countries….The feared secret police, the Securitate, tapped telephones at will and harassed people almost at random and with awesome bureaucratic efficiency. People vanished without a trace…Nobody knew how many political prisoners were in the jail, or even what constituted a political crime.
Ducu emerged from the revolution having taken to the streets with his friends and family in remarkably hopeful spirits, yet the past always haunted him. And though political organization was profoundly difficult in Romania, Ducu and many of his peers had found a way to fight against tyranny through irony and metaphor. They were sophisticated in their communications and this may have given him an edge when entering the post-1989 world.
Bucharest, Ducu’s home for his entire life, is an enormous sprawling city of two million people. The center of the city is an homage to the Paris of the 19th century, with a revitalized area once coopted by the Communists, who turned the neighborhood into the controlled dominion of Ceausescu and his family. They moved into the presidential home (Palatul Primaverii) after he became president in 1965. His wife, Elena, filled the mansion with replicas of western and eastern masterpieces; there are French sitting rooms, huge closets with hundreds of pieces of clothing, a private spa, and a massive indoor pool with murals for the family to enjoy while the citizens died of hunger, illness, and cold. Six peacocks remain in the gardens of the palace while inelegant sculptures adorn the external halls of the grand home. Inside, the smell of fresh linen on the beds is only a small reminder of the laundering of money and the lives of the corrupt leaders. One can sense the deception in this home of tyranny, one can feel the control, the false elegance, the cruel joke of authorities living in splendor while the people suffered.
Circling out and out from the city, the modern buildings meant to house the masses are blunt in design and now hover, often covered in graffiti. People live in apartments and some houses, and continue to share their food and expenses in a complex web of bartering and sharing stemming from the Communist regime, yet allowing for the people to survive together in an economy that’s never quite recovered. A member of NATO, Romania is a full EU member but does not yet enjoy complete freedom of travel within other EU countries—a dream of inclusion that’s still blocked by their own government’s deep investment in corruption.
A ghost of the past Soviet rule remains in Bucharest. Decades of near-slavery, doubts, secrets, and lies have permeated the skin of its people and are visible in the dark circles under the eyes of elders and in the smooth, glossy skin of the young. Patience is a given with Romanians; life is a long line, a struggle as well as desire, a hidden pleasure. The stain of Ceausescu remains in the air, a dance partner in a historically unfair waltz. Yet, my god, what a gorgeous group of people are found in Bucharest. Elegant and ancient, charming and illusive, the Romanians I’ve met are beautiful in a complex way, their faces a reflection of Romania’s history, from the eastern invasions to the international exploration of Queen Marie. People in Bucharest may look Turkish, Russian, Italian—their faces reflecting invasion or influence from the monarchs who only a century ago claimed Romania as their own. King Carol the First (1839-1914) was selected to be king to oversee the country with ties to Victorian England, the interconnections of that royal family found throughout Europe.
Romanian actors are some of the best in the world. Their training is a combination of the Stanislavsky technique, and of the hard seasons of life, and they have an innate sense of the body and its movement on stage. These actors are thrilling, smart, and determined, able to manage their careers on their own (there are few agents in Romania). In the past ten years, salaries for actors have increased; and so for those artists in permanent positions there is more stability—not so for the independent actors who must create their season and book enough productions to pay the bills. Yet all the actors are like wild horses, moving from theater to theater with their own ideas for productions, and though they live under the thumb of one theater manager or another, they still run wild, creating joy and havoc.
The directors come from a long history of great personalities, and the culture of the Maestro still exists—great directors are still valued here, they win big awards, they fight hard for their turf, they aim to make opuses in the theaters throughout Romania, and most often in Bucharest. Ducu was deeply proud of being a director, and he, along with his peers, felt a connection to the great legacy of the director born in Communism and later returned to Romania to lead the great theaters of the country. Ducu was a trailblazer after the fall of Communism, he traveled abroad, revamping his career and then finding a place for himself in his own country, all of which lead to his being named Director of the famed Bulandra Theater globally perceived as a leader of daring theater styles, directing, and political voice.
Building continues in the city, though there is the constant awareness that earthquakes could take down much of the city. On plaques outside many of the buildings, there’s a symbol for those predicted to collapse in the case of earthquake. The acceptance of your fate is a constant in Bucharest. I was told that you may get crushed taking a walk down the street, so enjoy your day! Theaters are often located in storefronts where space has been carved out. These are independent theaters that still have full houses and loyal audience members.
Ducu loved his city. He understood its pace and its need for cultural excitement. Under communism, he had hits at Teatrul de Comedie in the old center, a meeting place for the rulers who permitted citizens to experience theater as their guests. Ducu’s production of Amadeus is still remembered as a treasure celebrating the freedom of Mozart. It dangerously took on the corruption of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II as a metaphor for Ceausescu’s political class. Mozart was one of Ducu’s heroes, and they had many similarities: both loved music, romance, and revels, both were high-level Masons who struggled at the end of their lives with illness, and both battled against the status quo, defending their need to be wild. Neither Ducu nor Mozart died rich; each has a simple grave. Both were called slightly silly but they were always touched by seemingly supernatural talent.
Yet even though he had to cope with the state’s failures, he was hilarious: the funniest person I knew.
Teatrul de Comedie (The Comedy Theater) sits at 2 Dumitru Street in Bucharest, standing in defiance of the mundane. It’s a place people enter to laugh, to turn their thoughts away from pain, to get a lift, a high from life.
The theater was founded in 1960 by Radu Beligan with the intent to provide the public with wonderful, accessible comedy. As the theater advanced, its audience also grew. The police state that was Romania was wary of artists and therefore kept a close eye on the rising theater. The theater states about its history: “Under the general mask of comedy and satire…(the theater was able to pass)…more easily over the obstacles placed by the authorities of the time.” Teatrul de Comedie became a place where you could play with the fire of irony, politics, and freedom of expression. It was not just fun and games at this theater, it was a place for radical laughter.
It is explained to me that Teatrul de Comedie was one of many theaters that supported radical art in times of tyranny. The Bulandra, Teatrul Mic, Teatrul de Stat Oradea and the National Theater—these created a web of voices and styles that gave life and energy toward the peoples’ search for authentic voice in the world. Under Communist rule, Romanian theater flourished in opaque rebellion, and later, when Ducu took over the Bulandra Theater, many hoped the risk and innovation of the past would continue through him. Yet it was what was funny that drove Ducu, even if what was funny on stage uncovered what was terrible in the world.
Romanian humor is an art form unto itself. Unlike most western theater, Romanian humor calls attention to irony in subtle, unspoken ways: an eye roll, a gesture, unsaid moments between people. Developed as a tool against oppression, the humor of Romania is a code. Within the code lie decades of practice, combined with the elegant tradition of classical theater. Romania (and Teatrul de Comedie) created a layered and exciting art. Along with the Romanian tradition of joke telling (something Ducu made into a fine art throughout his life), Teatrul de Comedie brought spectacle and visual magic into the work.
In A History of Romanian Theater from Communism to Capitalism: Children of a Restless Time, critic and theater journalist Cristina Modreanu writes about the “code” or, as she describes it, “underground speaking” that fueled Communist-era Romanian theater:
This kind of “underground speaking” was common in theatre productions and it had become standard for actors to use classics to parody the political system and its main figures. To do so, they used language—allusions, metaphors, citations from public speeches—placed in old plays to make connections to the real world and the terrors of the regime.
The life at that theater was rich in subtext, and Ducu was to spend his youth at the heart of it. And thank goodness for the relative safety of the theater, for Romania was caught in the vise of history and geography. As Robert D. Kaplan writes in his comprehensive book In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey through Romania and Beyond:
As tragic as Romanian history has been, the Communist epoch raised suffering to an unprecedented level…The end of World War II had given Romania little or no respite. From early 1944, the Western Allies recognized that the war inside Romania and the peace that followed, therefore, was “Russia’s business.”
“This bleak state of affairs was primarily the consequence of geography,” writes British historian Hugh Thomas in Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945-1946. “A place between two totalitarian empires, the German Nazi one and the Soviet Russian, is unenviable.” The humanitarian consequence of such geography during the early phases of the Cold War was simply appalling.
To be frank, there was nothing at all funny about life in Romania after World War II and into the Cold War. To maintain a stranglehold on the citizens of Romania, humor, free speech, and individual thought were strictly regulated. That’s why the Teatrul de Comedie was so remarkable: its compass pointed toward creative expression in a time regulated for no thought, no freedom, and no kindness.
In this harsh context of dictatorship, Ducu was born at seven months on the 14th of June, 1959. He was the son of two artists of the Comedy Theater, Consuela Rosu and Iurie Darie. Though he was born prematurely, his devoted parents embraced him completely—his mother breastfed him. And Iurie, returning from the theater, would hold him through the night. Consuela had been raised in a circus and later became an actress, and then a deeply insightful mother. Iurie was a gallant leading man, elegant, funny (as well as a gifted artist), and was as successful on stage as he was in film and television.
As an American, I see Ducu as though he were Steve McQueen’s son—surrounded by people watching, standing before cameras set up by the studio (in this case, the State)—his parents were always being watched by audiences and by the government. There are pictures of them together and they look brooding and beautiful; they knew how to pose—they knew how to hide in plain sight. In photographs, his mother and father tend to look sideways at the lens, their mouths are curled into practiced smiles and their cheekbones look fabulous; they are stars. Ducu is generally gazing defiantly into the camera, his eyes huge and his mouth tight. He is not an obvious star, but unrelentingly present, a force of nature that doesn’t fear the lens.
On Romanian television’s Backstage in 1999, Iurie and Ducu did a joint interview with Ducu about his childhood. Ducu spoke of remembering being taken to the theater (because they did not have babysitters), the sound of his father’s voice, the smell of Teatrul de Comedie’s stage, his parents acting together and his first time on stage in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In that production, he’d played Myrmidon, an ancient Greek soldier of Achilles. Ducu’s memory was very specific, he explained that when he played the small role as a soldier he was set to “kill” his father in a grand fight scene. Yet one day during rehearsal, Ducu sat in the theater and for the first time, realized his father was acting—he must have assumed Iurie was able to die and come back to life. Later, after Ducu returned to the stage, Iurie told of being “stabbed” extremely hard, which broke his concentration. Looking up, he saw Ducu intensely trying to kill him. Ducu wasn’t really trying to kill his father, but was instead trying to break the veil of a stage, to find what was real, to draw blood in his imagination.
This memory is poignant for me because Ducu loved his father yet lived his life having to make extra space for himself in the world. He certainly did not want to kill off his father, yet he had to find a way to take the stage himself. He soon decided that being a director would help him have his own voice, his own place on the stage.
Ducu explained in the interview that he decided not to become an actor but a director. Lucky to have the support of his parents, he asked to attend the National University of Theater and Cinematic Art. Desiring to gain acceptance into the school on his own merits, he implored his father not to talk to anyone there. Ducu said in the interview that he was terrified by the idea that people would think his father got him into the school. Nepotism and bribes were integral to the Communist way, and Ducu wanted a clean entry into his creative life. Iurie agreed to stay silent, but he warned Ducu of the double-edged sword, that Ducu might not get into the school even with his father’s help.
As fate would have it, Ducu received one of the three spots open at the school, and though he was offered a slot, he was first told to serve in the army before becoming a director. Ducu served his time and learned to shoot a gun, then came back hungry to make theater, later to graduate in 1983.
How did Consuela and Iurie raise such a confident person in such dangerous times?
Perhaps the answer is that they took their son to the theater as soon as he was born and he never left it. He must have been imbued with the feelings and jokes of Teatrul de Comedie, the laughter of audiences becoming as close and consistent as family. He was safe inside comedy; he was free from a world of hate.
Nicolae Ceausescu rose to power in Romania in the early 1960s. Steely in his resolve to control the country, the dictator starved and bored the people for decades until they took humor underground. Movies were made in Romania according to Communist code, yet international films were smuggled into the country for view. The actors encoded their own personal language to hide the truth, and the theater found ways to convey the life of Romania through layers of humor.
I imagine the Romanian actors and directors glittering, sardonic, and alive, each one held for long curtain calls, lauded by fans as they walked the streets, given flowers in the dead of winter. The theater, a place to be free, yes, but also a place identified by the State as potentially dangerous.
Describing his early life as magical, Ducu rejected school as something deeply boring and stupid. So he gave himself to the life of the theater where he was free to draw, listen, and (his favorite) watch. It was all part of breathing life in a place where ghosts roamed the stage and pretty actresses lavished attention on him. Early on, he learned to see things for himself, to accept the surprise of the stage and to appreciate a good laugh.
It was probably in this theater that Ducu became a believer in ritual and ghosts. He was a superstitious person by nature, and in the theater there were years of traditions meant to ward off evil spirits, to encourage a “full house” of audiences, to gain good health and luck. Later in life, Ducu would adorn his neck with dozens of necklaces with ornaments and icons to help protect him. He believed that energy could help or harm you; the theater had taught him to believe in the unknown, and in those years he would become obsessed with being protected from the dangers of the outside world, and particularly from the politicians and governments he grew to distrust. He would mention “auras” as casually as one mentions coffee. He was a bit of a superstitious fruitcake at times, and could be hurtful with quick judgments if he felt there was an “evil eye” on a person or project.
For Ducu, ghosts were everywhere. Phantoms lived in the empty seats of any theater. Memories could carry on as feelings, tangible to the eye when the lights were dimming. Costumes had authentic energy and could exude the essence of a character. People had souls and those souls could live in the walls of a theater, forever. Emerging from Romania after the revolution in 1989, Ducu would assess the artistic weight of a theater through his sense of ghosts.
In New York, he told me he found few ghosts because America was too young, too arrogant. In London, he felt the presence of Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare and would whisper to them from the plush velvet seats. In Paris, he felt Molière, wild and free, floating low across the stage of the grand Odeon Theater. In Romania, he felt the ghosts of his past, the past of his country, as though it had a body that it had to drag across the stage in each play. Yes, ghosts were everywhere.
But Ducu could be a real asshole. He avoided important telephone calls. He hated to make choices in life. He laughed at others when they adored him. He was that “popular” kid in high school whom you knew was dangerous but you wanted to sleep with anyway. His eyes could be cruel. He could make selfish decisions. He could taunt authority. He did all this, and then he smiled, and it would melt the room—he was a master of charm and many people would ultimately find that they would do anything for him.
In the beginning, he was a child of the theater who did not know there was life beyond a curtain: he came to believe that what was unreal was real, and he was shaped to live in a time all its own. Because there was only the time of the stage, Ducu grew up singularly unaware of clocks. Consistently late his entire life, he never rushed anywhere but lived to the timing of a good joke: if you wait for it, let it land, the laugh will feel like forever. He was never aware that time could be different for other people, and quite frankly, his rude tardiness drove everyone crazy.
Ducu gave an interview in 2011, ironically for a Silva beer special, in which he spoke of time and his relationship to it: “When an actor is onstage and forgets his lines, it is a few seconds, but for the actor who goes ‘blank’ it feels like hours,” Ducu said. “When you are in rehearsal, you practice the same lines for days and days, but when you are on stage, those lines go by so fast. The same is with life, moments go by very, very fast, especially when they are the happiest moments.”
And in every fleeting moment, there was Consuela. Centered, intelligent, his mother kept the apartment filled with books and guided her son as best she could to a meaningful life of the mind. Ducu spoke of his mother’s life, and early death, with deep love: he felt seen by her, and he saw her intellect and creativity as a gift he lost too soon.
Devoted mother ando working actress, Consuela was at the theater as much, or more, than at their home, and she probably managed a good deal of Ducu’s care on her own. To say that Ducu was a highly energetic child is an understatement; he was always making or moving, playing games or breaking rules. Yet Ducu and his mother had a deep connection—he valued her opinion, even wanted her approval. As an artist, Consuela was extremely elegant, engaging, and open minded; she shaped their life to the flow between the theater and the day-to-day world outside of the arts.
Consuela died early of cancer in 1986 (only a year after Ducu became persona non grata for his production of Jolly Joker). Her death was a shock to him, and her absence never left him. Although he had a career working with men to create all forms of art, women played a key role in his work throughout his life. And if the solidity of his parents’ marriage was a guide for his life, Ducu sought longstanding creative partnerships to make productions.
For thirty or more years, Ducu collaborated with Maria Miu on productions that dazzled, made trouble, and most importantly, moved audiences. Ducu trusted Maria’s eye and taste above those of most people. If there was a fight to be had about the vision of a show, he listened to her and was guided by her eye. In this way, they became one body—a body born in the context of totalitarianism, and their rebellion against it was to create art that made you feel free. Their partnership was love, yes, and it was also defiance against a loss of vision and the seemingly constant threat to art. I picture them never stopping for time in the 1990s, and even in the 2000s when they divorced but nevertheless together continued to push their body of work into a new era for Romania.
In the theater, it’s not unusual for couples to blend their creative and personal lives. Perhaps this is because the world of the theater has its own pacing, sense of time, and rules. And certainly, for most artists, being different is lonely. Couples can protect each other from the harshness of life and the risk of expressing your inner world. Ducu and Maria had this remarkable life of art, and history should hold them up as one of the great creative teams of Europe.
The theater is a very patriarchal place. Men are meant to be directors and women to “support” them. In this way, Ducu was not changing any trends by working with women in Romania (although he empowered many to take decision-making roles). Cristina Modreanu speaks to the patriarchy of Romanian theater post 1989, in The History of Romanian Theatre from Communism to Capitalism:
The patriarchal model is unfortunately very popular in the artists area too, where 95 percent of the decision-makers are men, even though, for example, both staff and artistic teams in the theatre are composed mostly of women.
That said, Ducu had a lot of doubts about men in power. He didn’t appear to believe that just because you were a guy you had the right stuff to make magic and lead people into art. Perhaps because of this, he worked with and promoted women as directors, designers, writers, and managers. He trusted women in powerful roles with a great deal of intention. When he became the General Manager of the Bulandra Theater in 2002, he brought his deeply personal (if boundary-less) management and creative style to bear, and he brought those he was close to into the fold of his administration. Every family has a “system” and Ducu had his system. His need for emotion and risk created a certain kind of culture that demanded loyalty to his vision, while also establishing a tight-knit team to create safety.
Ducu believed that a creative team was a family. So though he partnered with men to make art, the women often led the way in the creative endeavor to protect “the family.” Though he appeared to admire fierceness, Ducu wanted a protective vibe around rehearsals and creative planning. He demanded an intimacy that crossed boundaries: people drinking, crying, feeling, and laughing together into late hours. He wanted the life inside a theater to feel like a vibrant home, and he pushed back on anyone who wanted him to be professionally “normal.” Therefore, his “home” in a theater was filled with intimacy, the collective happiness of everyone shifting according to the degree of their closeness to each other.
It is difficult not to fall into clichés while exploring Ducu’s partnerships with women, especially if you accept that gender is a construct. Yet it is possible that Ducu thought that women were more connected to feelings, though he knew that women are as tough as men. Because he valued feelings as much as he did thought, Ducu believed that feelings are the lifeblood of the theater. He also allowed himself to live a more deeply emotional life, and often looked to women on his team to help him manage his feelings—feelings that were often large, sensitive and in need of care. These feelings were especially intense because he had no room for machismo when it came to exploring the emotions of a play; he could leave the conventional construct of a man at the door, and in rehearsal, he met everyone on an emotional level that transformed the idea of artmaking. For Ducu, empathy was empathy, and so he could walk in the shoes of a woman as well as in the shoes of a man. This made him unbelievably attractive to people; he could understand you very quickly, and make you feel you were in a simultaneous act of seduction and communion. Did he learn this ability from women? Did it matter to him? I still don’t know. What mattered to him was being free to be who you are, while also feeling you were part of a family.
But all this talk of family did not stop him from being sexy. Sensuality and sex played a large role in Ducu’s work. He loved to see people try to connect on stage, and he was unabashed to show sexuality. A sexy person, he liked sexy content. Throughout his work, you can see his interest in couples, how they connect or not.
He once directed a play by the Marquis de Sade in Bogota. Away from his Romanian audience, he explored sexuality more deeply, diving into the ways in which people love, how they connected, how they did not. He wanted to explore what sex meant to you as a viewer, what turned you on. He was also curious about how sexuality was expressed and experienced differently for men and women. He seemed to have done more of this exploration of sex and gender when working internationally, perhaps because of the social mores of Romania, but perhaps because he didn’t know the audience and had more freedom in his mind to explore.
The American writer Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers.” Ducu did this, he freely presented his vision to strangers, refusing, however, to shape his work to pander to any particular audience. As he grew older, perhaps wiser, he began to look at the less sexual elements of connection, beyond the sexual, and he worked on stage with texts showing families in conflict rather than romantic stories of couples. He matured in this way, yet his reputation for fearlessness remained in the countries where he made work.
Ducu once sat nude for a compilation of Romanian portraits showing the body. His body was his place of worship— he was comfortable in his skin, and he wanted a world where the body had its story told.
“I believe in theater that is made with blood,” Ducu in the last year his life said. “Theater keeps me alive. I have always made theater made of love, not of fear. Theater is the only art invented by mankind that shows what you don’t see.” Art being born of blood—yes, vital for Ducu, as all of the artists close to him confirmed to me, the idea one of Ducu’s most important discoveries for himself. He loved the theater as much as he loved life. He surrendered himself completely to the theater he made with others, even throughout the illness that ultimately killed him. This often put him at odds with Romania, a place that can be both unconventionally wild and wildly conventional. Though he was a star abroad, he was also called “strange” in Romania. Yet, again, he projected the opinion that he did not care—he had been to and worked in a dozen countries to make theater and live his life, and in those places he’d found an inner freedom with no need to label himself. Instead, he focused on the ephemeral excitement of creative and personal partnerships and brought this learning back to Bucharest.
To the end, Ducu stayed loyal to himself first and then to his team of artists, a combination of strong women and open-minded men. This, in my opinion, makes his legacy genderless and his love of the family of theater one of his defining traits. For the big idea that Ducu embodied is that men and women could work together, as family. This may seem obvious, but it’s not obvious in a theater environment that still reflects the rest of the world: women very often get left out of the deep creative process, unlike men who are simply let into the club. An auteur director who demanded the vision be his and his alone, he nevertheless did share, with both women and men.
The truth, though, is that time haunted Ducu. He had to balance the time he was able to manage in the theater with his sense of lost time under Communism. He could be in the moment, and then in the next moment weep because he was thrown into a memory. The trauma that Ducu (and all Romanians under Ceausescu’s rule) experienced was real. The negation of the self, the threats of death, unknown violations, the starvation and shame, all have had a lasting imprint on the people of Romania to this day. Yet for Ducu, in the year he had his identity taken for acting against the state (Jolly Joker, 1984-1985), he paid a price; he never forgot it and at times he seemed to feel it had just happened. One might argue that this was his first experience in exile.
Having his soul and person erased for a year, I believe, started a trend for Ducu; that of inner exile, where he never felt totally at home again and was most comfortable in other countries, yet was constantly drawn back to Romania with the hope that she would be kinder. From my perspective, he never seemed to feel he had a truly safe place to land. And so, drinking, perhaps, became his way of coping with the pressure of his own fame, responsibilities, and internal experience of feeling on the outside, something he’d long felt because of his father’s fame and entitlements.
Unfortunately, the population of Romania is the fifteenth highest consumer of alcohol in the world at 13.7 liters of pure alcohol per capita (World Health Organization, 2016), with little to no cultural (or psychological) support for those suffering with addiction. Additionally, post-Soviet Union, Moscow’s decades long campaigns to dissuade drinking were canceled and Eastern Europe as a whole saw a fifty percent increase in alcohol consumption (per IZA, World of Labor, Evgeny Yakovlev). The region was filled with alcohol, leaving Ducu (and others) under its toxic spell.
Even with the hard living, Ducu had a career where almost every one of his plays was a hit, and he was consistently growing and at the top of his skills as an artist. His trauma may have been very real, yet he seemed to find a place of happiness that brought him out enough to work on a new play. He used Teatrul de Comedie as his creative DNA. “Luckily” for his audience, comedy thrives in those who feel they are on the outside of culture, and so amidst the applause, his inner exile thrived, while his inner demons used the theater to survive.
How do you do funny when you are in hell? I didn’t know the answer to that question until I first went to Bucharest and spent most of my time laughing my ass off. Although the city is a bit worn down, the life of Bucharest is vibrant and awake. As in New York, the people don’t sleep, and they spend a good amount of their time in cafés telling stories surrounded by smoke and stiff drinks. Because the city is alive and the people demanding of fun, humor is the electricity for their glittering nights.
Though I first saw Bucharest only in 2018, I can imagine how the elegant spark of Teatrul de Comedie lit up groups of friends at the height of tyranny. Hiding their joy, they would gather at the theater to catch a smile, to sit in soft seats, and enjoy the rolling of actors’ eyes and the pink lips of leading ladies.
When I picture Ducu in his own world as a young teen, I imagine him already sitting with his legs crossed at the knee. By his early teens, he would have seen a good amount of Molière and known the proper way to lean into farce. He probably started smoking then, too, bumming cigarettes off the stagehands. Perhaps he stood alone on stage in the afternoons and counted the lights that hung above him.
But it is all about timing, says every comic in the world. Timing is the life-blood of a joke, and Ducu spent eighteen years as a kid at Teatrul de Comedie studying the craft. So irony was something he learned early, and this probably set him apart from the other kids who were being trained to see “progress for the State” as the meaning of life. For Ducu, comedy was proof that nothing is set in stone, that “funny” is the belief that nothing makes total sense, that our desire to control our outcomes is pointless, and hilarious.
When you direct comedy, you must always be aware of the truth of pain buried in the story. When Ducu directed anything funny, he was able to amplify the moments of deep despair with very funny, desperate action: his characters ran, fell, grabbed, stumbled, shook, begged, danced, seduced, lied—all the things he saw when he was growing up in a culture dictated by a lie; the lie of freedom found only in authoritarian rule. He never forgot the anguish of being hidden away from the world, and his characters were free to be manic failures in a drama they had no control over.
The truth is that Ducu specialized in humor because he knew what hate looked like. And the hate he was born into became the canvas for his art and a private life that could appear like farce. Ducu was neither a “Romeo” nor a “Casanova”—he was more than that, he was a deep adventurer, and he protected this identity from a Romanian culture steeped in judgment and cruel opinions. So if you were his friend, you were part of a story that had to have a sense of humor, passion, and a brave commitment to a long connection with him. Many think the way to remember him is through pictures of him telling actors what to do on a stage. Yet I would argue that it’s quite the opposite—to remember him in his brave defiance of the status quo and bourgeois conventions is what I would suggest. Defiance is what makes him such an interesting person, and it was his love of searching that made him such a thrilling artist.
What is also true is that the man loved a great suit. It did not matter if it was cut for him, or cut to fit a woman, if it was well-made he would wear it. Ducu’s love of style brought him into the world of fashion where he directed runway shows, music videos, and concerts in Romania. He loved the change inherent in fashion, and he took grief from people (and from gossip) that this made him effete. Laughing, he once told me he did “not give a fuck” about the people in Romania who thought his earrings made him gay.
Style was his weapon. He wore his hair chopped, long in a ponytail, curly and big, or cropped to the head like a Roman sentry. He put loops in his left ear, studs climbed up his right ear that seemed to catch light and draw attention to his eyes. He wore colors that clashed, ties that did not match his socks, scarves that did not match his jackets, all this mixing and matching were usually en vogue with the color blocks found in magazines, yet not worn by the people in power around him. He didn’t exercise and was proud of his belly. His long legs looked great in jeans and he wore his shirt out, messy and cool like a kid. For a person so very tall, his feet were a bit small, but this did not stop him from wearing hip shoes for men. He always had a cigarette lit. He was caught once with a “man purse.” He wore long Indian shirts and folded himself in floor-length coats that from behind made him look like a sea captain. His necklaces and the rings on his fingers had symbolism. He was a walking fashion statement that seemed to say, “Fuck you, very much.”
No one owned Ducu. And he had no time for our small mindedness, our conflicts over our freedom, our cruel judgments borne of human foibles. Yet he was a director, and so he had pity for us, saw us in all of our stuck and frightened lives and took our silliness to the stage, where he built worlds where we could recognize society without having the awareness that it was we whom he was capturing in time. We were all of the characters in his comedy.
We were the madness.
We were dangerous and we needed to be laughed at, constantly.
(We were, to the very end, players in his play.)