Russian Drama Since the 1600's Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Russian drama sprang from universal human impulses to imitate, mime, playact, dance, sing, jest, and celebrate nature’s cycles. Like Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, and many other peoples, ancient Slavs had pagan ceremonies to celebrate the death of winter and birth of spring. Later, when Christianized, they dramatized the festivals of Christmas and Easter, or mixed cultural rituals in carnival rites, reminiscent of Greek Dionysian festivals, which featured skomorokhi (“merry men”) who played flutes and gamboled.

By the sixteenth century, the conservative Russian Orthodox Church began to persecute groups of nomadic skomorokhi because their puppet shows often featured satirical, anticlerical themes. In riposte, Czar Ivan IV (“Ivan the Terrible,” reigned 1533-1584) baited the Novgorod bishopric by costuming a street clown as Archbishop Pimen and using jesters and dancing bears at royal weddings. The Church did introduce some morality plays closely tied to the liturgy, but their quality was inferior to imported Western morality plays, which popularized religious and moral concepts in the vernacular. These works inspired Russia’s first noted playwright, Saint Dmitry Rostovsky, to compose religious plays. They were performed for many decades by itinerant actors in the houses of landed gentry, who paid the troupes in food, drink, and clothing.

Czar Alexis I (reigned 1645-1676), influenced by European advisers, had an imperial theater built in his residence, sent emissaries to Germany to recruit actors, and authorized Johann Gregory, a minister of Moscow’s Lutheran Church, to found a theatrical school in 1673, wholly financed by the czar’s treasury. This patronage began a long tradition of dependency on the throne for the Russian state theater, with all theatrical workers considered government employees, and playwrights expected to accede to monarchical mandates. Even provincial theaters, which began to burgeon in the eighteenth century, were controlled by local imperial bureaucrats and subject to the authority of censorship as well as the comfort of subsidy.

Czar Peter I (“The Great,” reigned 1682-1725) had the imperial theater moved to the new Russian capital he built, St. Petersburg, in 1709. As a determined westernizer, he welcomed the immigration of a German theatrical company headed by Johann Kunst, and he encouraged Kunst and his successor, Otto Furst, to train Russian ensembles that would glorify his military triumphs and domestic reforms. Moreover, when the czar replaced his plain empress with a pretty...

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Nineteenth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Czar Alexander I (reigned 1801-1825) promoted a relatively benign and liberal policy toward the performing arts, slanted only by his marked preference for foreign achievements: Of the 135 operas presented during his reign, only 45 were Russian, and the music and librettos of the latter were seldom by native composers. At court, persons of culture spoke French or German; Russian was for the rabble. Nevertheless, a growing intelligentsia and middle class showed increasing interest in a Russian repertory. In 1824, the Moscow Maly (or “small”) Theater became a national center for drama, while St. Petersburg’s Bolshoi (or “big”) Theater concentrated on ballet and opera. The Maly was soon rivaled by St. Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theater, finished in 1832, which boasted a gifted galaxy of actors headed by Vasily Karatygin, the leading tragedian of his era. Karatygin was famous for the studied care that he applied to his roles, the subtle restraint of his technique, and the polished sonority of his voice. His most popular counterpart was Pavel Mochalov, the son of a serf actor, whose spontaneous temperament and intuitive style put him at polar odds with Karatygin’s highly calculated method. One Russian critic compared Mochalov to the English Romantic actor Edmund Kean, calling the former a forest while Karatygin resembled a well-kept garden.

A third great actor was Mikhail Shchepkin, also the son of a serf, whose brilliant performances illuminated the Maly Theater after his freedom had been expensively bought in 1823. The most influential Russian critic of the era, Vissarion Belinsky, judged Shchepkin’s skills a synthesis of Mochalov’s passion and Karatygin’s technical prowess. Shchepkin emphasized the dignity of his profession and founded a school of acting, the disciples of which excelled in the plays of Ostrovsky, Chekhov, and Maxim Gorky.

Among actresses, the most intense competition was international: Mlle Marguerite George acted with a French company in Russia for five triumphant years. Her rival was Ekaterina Semenova, the daughter of a landowner and a serf mother. Both women excelled in tragic roles and attracted fanatic followings; after one heroic performance, Semenova was given a diamond diadem valued at 100,000 rubles.

Among dramatists of the early nineteenth century, the most popular was Ivan Krylov . Basically a writer of fables, he was read and quoted everywhere. His comedies, such as Modnaya Lavka (pb. 1807; the fashion shop), mock Gallomania, sentimentality, vanity, hypocrisy—all good targets for an acerbic satirist. A better though less influential comic playwright was Alexander Griboyedov . His best play, Gore ot uma (pr. 1831; The Mischief of Being Clever, 1857), is a powerful protest against the corruption and complacency of czarist society and has remained in the canon of notable Russian reformist dramas. The role of its vehement protagonist, Chatsky, is prized by young Russian actors as a formidable challenge.

Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin , wrote his monumental political drama Boris Godunov (wr. 1824-1825; English translation, 1918) under the inspiration of William Shakespeare and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Denied production by contemporaneous censors, it was not staged until 1870; it was then adapted by Modest Mussorgsky for his towering 1873...

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The Silver Age

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the turn of the twentieth century, a revolution in stage production swept over Russia in what was called the “Silver Age” of the arts. Two European theatrical companies provoked enormous interest: The Théâtre Libre, founded by André Antoine in 1887, specializing in the new plays of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Gerhart Hauptmann, and inaugurating innovations in acting styles and scenic design; and the Meiningen Players, formed by the theater-loving George II, duke of Saxe-Meiningen , in 1874, and integrating every detail of a performance into a unified ensemble. The Meiningen Players stressed a high level of discipline, with every company member contributing to the overall effect of period accuracy, superb crowd scenes, and unified purpose. They toured Russia in 1890 and made a sensational impression on such aspiring directors as Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko .

Stanislavsky was the son of a rich industrialist who had him trained in singing, acting, and dancing; at one time, Stanislavsky dreamed of becoming an opera performer. As a young man he went to Paris, saw two plays daily, acted in amateur companies, and then began his career as a Russian director at Moscow’s Hunters’ Club, staging both naturalistic and Symbolist works from 1888 to 1896. In June, 1898, he had a fateful meeting, lasting eighteen hours, with nobleman Nemirovich-Danchenko, whose 1896 play, Tsena zhizni (the worth of life), had been the hit of the season. These two visionaries agreed to found the Moscow Art Theatre , soon Russia’s foremost theatrical company, which became one of the world’s most illustrious stage enterprises.

The Moscow Art Theatre was a highly idealistic, cooperative venture, issuing shares to its patrons and encouraging company members to live in groups as they rehearsed with strenuous energy, fierce dedication, and remarkable fondness for one another. Nemirovich-Danchenko was primarily responsible for the literary and administrative aspects of the organization, while Stanislavsky concentrated on directing but also often acted in such roles as Astrov in Chekhov’s Dyadya Vanya (pr. 1899; Uncle Vanya, 1914) and as Vershinin in Tri sestry (pr. 1901; The Three Sisters, 1920). They had mutual veto rights but seldom exercised them. Both agreed on the dramaturgic premise that the director had absolute authority over a production, conceiving and shaping it as an integration of verbal, pictorial, and musical components; each actor therefore had to fit into the organic unity of the presentation: “There are no small parts, only small actors”; the star system and sentimental, affected, declamatory acting styles were forbidden; each play was thoroughly discussed by company members before parts were assigned; each actor was urged to catch from closely observed life experiences the characteristic motives and meaning of his or her role; the actors onstage were encouraged to forget about the audience and react to another, sometimes turning their backs to the public; and the mise en scène of settings, sounds, and costumes was carefully coordinated with the play’s text and tone.

In October, 1898, the Moscow Art Theatre began a new era for the Russian theater with its premier production: Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (pr. 1868; Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich, 1923), a play by Alexei Tolstoy about Ivan the Terrible’s pathetic son. The spectators were astounded to see onstage an exact replica of the czar’s quarters in the Kremlin; all costumes, furnishings, and weapons were museum pieces; acting was unaffected and verisimilar; makeup was natural rather than exaggerated. The response was enthusiastic acclaim, which only intensified when, in succeeding productions, Roman streets were accurately reproduced for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600) and Norwegian furniture imported for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (pr. 1891; English translation, 1891). When enacting Na dne (pr. 1902; The Lower Depths, 1912), by Gorky, the players wore real rags and filthy, broken-down shoes.

The Moscow Art Theatre’s greatest triumphs were productions of the four major plays of Chekhov. By 1898, Chekhov had already become recognized as his country’s finest writer of short stories; however, his one-act dramas had attracted little attention. In 1896, his full-length play Chayka (The...

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The Revolution

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When the Bolsheviks seized power from Aleksandr Kerensky’s six-month republican administration in October, 1917, most theatrical professionals adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude, while a few, such as Meyerhold and many Symbolist writers, enthusiastically welcomed the replacement of the Whites by the Reds. Evreinov produced an extraordinary pageant on November 7, 1920: Vzyatiye zimnego dvortsa (pr. 1920; the storming of the Winter Palace). He used eight thousand actors and the cruiser Aurora to restage, in the very square in front of the Winter Palace, where the event had occurred, the Bolshevik attack on the headquarters of Kerensky’s provisional government. An audience of 100,000 sang the...

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Post-World War II

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the end of the war, the repressive policy concerning literature continued until the death of Stalin in March, 1953. A gradual thaw ensued that did not reach its climax until several years later. Two playwrights, Alexey Arbuzov and Viktor Rozov, wrote several successful plays each. Arbuzov wrote Irkutskaya istoriya (pr. 1959; The Irkutsk Story, 1961) and Moi bedny Marat (pr. 1964; The Promise, 1967), and Rozov wrote Vechno zhivyo (pr. 1956; Alive Forever, 1968). Many playwrights who were ostracized during the previous decades were rediscovered. Even Mayakovsky’s plays were staged again, some thirty years after their premieres. Noteworthy also is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ’s drama, Olen’ i shalashovka (pr. 1968; The Love Girl and the Innocent, 1969). Banned after it was accepted for staging, the play depicts a love story of two prisoners in a Stalinist slave-labor camp and their struggle to preserve their integrity by refusing to compromise.

After the demise of communism and gradual rebirth of Russia in the 1990’s, playwrights tried to cope with the increasing freedom to express themselves. Some of the older playwrights continued to write plays, and new notable names also arose. One of the most powerful among them is Vassily Aksyonov, with his comedies, Vsegda v prodazhe (pr. 1965; always on sale) and Vash ubiytsa (pr. 1975; Your Murderer, 2000).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Karlinsky, Simon. Russian Drama from Its Beginnings to the Age of Pushkin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Studious analysis of Russian drama before Pushkin, from the religious beginnings and the secular drama and into the nineteenth century. Treats with equal attention tragedy, comedy, verse drama, and the relationship between drama and opera. One of the best studies of the subject.

Leach, Robert, and Victor Borovsky. A History of Russian Theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999. One of the most comprehensive histories of Russian drama and theater. Covers all the important playwrights, their plays, and all matters concerning the theater.

Russel, Roberts. Russian Drama of the Revolutionary Period. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1988. Starts with the prerevolutionary drama and follows Soviet drama from 1917 to 1921. Emphasizes the depiction of the civil war, as in Bulgakov’s plays, but also discusses Mayakovsky, Olesha, and Erdman, among many others. Competent introduction to this period and good bibliography.

Segel, Harold B. Twentieth Century Russian Drama from Gorky to the Present. Rev. ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Valuable survey of Russian drama from Gorky’s prerevolutionary plays into the 1990’s. Analyzes both the plays and the relevant background material impacting them, especially political and ideological factors. The updated edition has a chapter on the drama from the late 1970’s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Generous bibliography.

Slonim, Marc. Russian Theater from the Empire to the Soviets. Cleveland, Ohio: World, 1961. A historical presentation of Russian drama and theater from the beginnings to the 1950’s. Thorough analysis of the plays and theater in general, with pertinent observations about nonliterary factors. Pays special attention to connections between Russian and foreign dramas.

Varnecke, B. V. History of the Russian Theatre. New York: Hafner, 1971. A thorough study of the Russian theater by a leading Russian scholar, covering playwrights and their plays as well as the development of Russian dramaturgy from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The original appeared in 1939, but it is still a standard work in its field.

Welsh, David. Russian Comedy, 1765-1823. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. Limited in scope but a penetrating study of themes, characters, genre, and structure of the fifty years of Russian comedy from the last quarter of the eighteenth to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Emphasizes the representative comedies and the influence of foreign comedy, especially French.