Yevgeny Lvovich Shvarts was born on October 21, 1896, in the city of Kazan on the Volga River. His father, Lev Borisovich Shvarts, was from a Jewish family and worked as a provincial doctor. He was one of the many liberals of Anton Chekhov’s generation who dedicated themselves to the gradual reform of Russian society through their work as educated professionals (doctors, teachers, and so on) within the provincial government. Shvarts’s mother, Maria Fyodorovna, came from a Russian Orthodox family, was well educated generally, and was particularly interested in theater. The family moved several times in Shvarts’s youth—from Kazan to Dmitrov near Moscow, then back to Kazan, and, at the outbreak of World War I, to Maikop in the northern Caucasus and to Rostov-on-the-Don. Shvarts began the study of law at Moscow University during the first year of the war but then left the university in 1915 and returned to Rostov. In 1917, he joined an amateur avant-garde theater in Rostov called the Theater Workshop, where he became a character actor, specializing in comic roles. His first marriage was to one of the actresses from the Theater Workshop, Gaiane Khaladzieva.
When the Russian Revolution and Civil War were over in 1921, Shvarts moved to Petrograd (rechristened Leningrad in 1924) with other members of Rostov’s Theater Workshop. The attempt to establish their experimental workshop as a professional theater failed after its second season, but the move to Petrograd had put Shvarts in touch with the leading members of the literary intelligentsia there. He soon became personal secretary to Kornei Chukovsky; he was an active member of the writers’ club known as The Crazy Ship; and in 1925, he became an editor and writer for two children’s magazines, Hedgehog and Siskin. Together with his chief editor, Samuil Marshak, Shvarts encouraged the collaboration of leading experimental prose writers and poets (such as Danil Kharms and Nikolai Zabolotsky) in the writing of children’s literature.
Shvarts wrote his first play, Undervud, in 1929 for the Leningrad children’s theater TIUZ; in 1932, he wrote Pustyaki (trifles) for the Leningrad Puppet Theater; and in 1933 and 1934, he wrote three plays: Klad (the treasure), Priklyucheniya Gogenshtaufena (the adventures of Hohenstauffen), and The Naked King. Except for The Naked King, all these early plays are clearly written for children and combine a realistic portrayal of contemporary life with fantastic elements (for example, Undervud is about the theft of a typewriter from an office by a woman who turns out to be a witch). The Naked King is different from the earlier plays in that its erotic and political themes make it more appropriate for adults than for children; it also marks the beginning of Shvarts’s works as a dramatic adapter of popular tales.
In 1934, Shvarts also began his friendship and collaboration with Nikolai Akimov, director of the Comedy Theater in Leningrad. With Akimov’s encouragement to continue adapting popular stories according to ironic, fantastic, avant-garde styles,...
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