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...
(The entire section is 1055 words.)