Nikolai Evreinov’s contributions to twentieth century drama are several. He developed his own form of epic theater, independent of Bertolt Brecht and Pirandello. His multiple talents as director, writer, and musician (he composed his own music for A Merry Death and The Ship of the Righteous) combined to produce some of the most provocative staging and sets to be found anywhere. He pioneered approaches to actor-audience interaction and to making theater theatrical. Most important, he transformed his own theories on the function of illusion into highly unusual, sophisticated dramas.
The idea that life is theater, which is at the base of Evreinov’s theoretical writings, takes its cue from William Shakespeare’s “all the world is a stage.” Each of Evreinov’s dramas in one way or another, incorporates this notion. His innovations developed from a reaction against the dramatic realism that characterized nineteenth century Russian theater. He also believed that Chekhov, genius though he was, had dominated the Russian stage to the exclusion of all others. As staged by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Chekhov drama tended toward stark naturalism, and this was in direct opposition to Evreinov’s view of the purpose of theater. For Evreinov, to strive for verisimilitude constituted only a cardboard faithfulness to reality, a vulgar pretension. Instead, he endeavored to appeal to the theatrical instincts of the public, to the role-playing in which everyone engaged in daily life. This necessitated the disclosure of dramatic devices, an emphasis on the theatrical properties of theater through striking visual effects and exotic nonrepresentational staging, and interaction, or at least identification, between public and players.
Toward this end, Evreinov devoted as much effort to staging as to writing. His first professional theater activity, the production of medieval mystery plays at the Theater of Antiquity immediately reflected his novel ideas. In 1907, for a Latin-language mystery play based on the Three Magi theme, he composed a prologue in Russian that revealed to the spectators the props to be used, the staging devices, and other behind-the-scenes information. He used his tenure at The Crooked Mirror to perfect his own version of the monodrama, or single-act play. In The Theatre of the Soul, his creative staging is designed to focus audience attention on the props. The character of the Professor, in a long prologue, uses blackboard drawings to explain the parts of the personality that the performers act out. Evreinov requires large, colorful displays for the parts of the body. Heart and lungs beat rhythmically in time to background music, speeding up or slowing down to reflect the mood of the central character, who never appears onstage. The suicide of the latter is signaled through a sudden gaping hole in the heart, which disgorges rolls of red ribbons.
Evreinov’s early piece A Merry Death gives full expression to his preference for commedia dell’arte characters. The practice of commedia dell’arte according to which the same persons portrayed Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, and the Doctor for long periods, resulting in identification of actor with role, appealed greatly to Evreinov’s dramatic ideas. He also liked the Harlequin actors’ freedom to improvise and their informal interaction with the audience. At the conclusion of A Merry Death, Pierrot discusses with the audience the extent of the actors’ obligation to the playwright. The use of harlequinade sequences also permitted Evreinov to forgo a traditional conclusion. Instead, a carnivalistic flourish, often including Harlequin and his group, emphasizes that human existence has no neat solutions, that nothing in life, as Pierrot says in A Merry Death, is worth taking seriously.
Another technique that Evreinov frequently employed was a play-within-a-play. This device allowed Evreinov to focus on the mechanics of the production, as the performers prepare for their parts, construct the set-within-the-set, and rehearse their roles. In all cases, however, the content of the inserted playlet is a comment on the theme of the entire piece. In The Main Thing, a rehearsal of Quo Vadis reveals the tensions attending a production, shows that the actors’ personal perceptions continuously affect their acting, and demonstrates that the stage is a most artificial and unsuitable place for actors. Their failure onstage is redeemed by successful performances in “living roles” offstage, enriching the lives of several unhappy people. In The Ship of the Righteous, the tragicomic play-within-a-play “Ham Versus Noah,” in which the actors don animal masks to portray the ark, foreshadows the abandonment of the two central characters in their search for a seafaring utopia. In The Unmasked Ball, the playlet takes the form of an “unmasked ball,” in which the performers are to express their opinions honestly. The resulting disillusionment proves that role playing is far superior to naked truth in human relationships.
Evreinov also made frequent use of direct address to the audience to ensure public involvement. In A Merry Death, Pierrot greets his listeners with a long monologue and keeps up a continuous chatter with them. In The Theatre of the Soul, the Professor gives a scientific explanation of the ego, id, and superego before the actors appear. The Main Thing brings the director and regisseur onstage in order to force Harlequin to finish the performance, so that the spectators will not miss the last streetcar. All of Evreinov’s plays, in the end, illustrate the author’s viewpoint that life and theater are closely interwoven.
Even those of Evreinov’s humorous and grotesque satires written while he still pursued a civil service career contain the seeds of his later technique. Fundament schastya (the foundation of happiness) features a dream, humor...
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