Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881-1940/entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life, 1770-1917/A History of Russian Theatre/The Chekhov Theatre: A Century of the Plays in Performance

Article excerpt

Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd, eds. Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881-1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 357 pp. Index. Paperback.

James von Gelden and Louise McReynolds, eds. Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life, 1770-1917. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. 394 pp. Paperback.

Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky, eds. A History of Russian Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 446 pp. Index. Hardcover.

Laurence Senelick. The Chekhov Theatre: A Century of the Plays in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.441 pp. Index. Hardcover.

Several years ago during a research trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, a Russian colleague shared with me her delight in the growing interest of American scholars in pre-revolutionary Russian theatre (noting also, with bemused irony, the absence of reciprocal interest on the part of Russian scholars in the history of American theatre). Surely she was right: the post-perestroika proliferation of monographs and edited anthologies on Russian theatre and culture attests to the rather lopsided fascination of Western researchers with the objects of Russian cultural production. Indeed, research by British and American scholars on Russian theatre and culture has expanded in direct proportion to the increased access to archives, museums, libraries, theatres, and colleagues in the Russian Federation. The four texts included in this review are among the most recent contributions to the literature of Russian cultural studies.

Two of these books, Constructing Russian Culture and Entertaining Tsarist Russia, are cultural studies anthologies. Constructing Russian Culturels a collection of essays; Entertaining Tsarist Russia is a collection of primary documents in translation. Although theatre appears as a subject category in the Kelly/Shepherd collection and the Gelden/McReynolds anthology includes vaudevilles and playscripts, theatre and drama are peripheral to the larger objective of characterizing Russian social life through reference to selected components of cultural production. With respect to methodology and subject matter, the other two books, A History of Russian Theatre and The Chekhov Theatre, are more conventional histories of dramatic literature and theatrical production.

In the introduction to Constructing Russian Culture, Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd argue that methodological tensions between the inherently complementary fields of literary and historical studies must be addressed and resolved. For that reason, a principal objective of this anthology is to reconcile the competing demands of literature and history by adopting a 'cultural studies approach' to the material of Russian life, literature, and art (3). Acknowledging that such an approach 'invites criticism,' they offer additional clarification: 'The term is used here to denote an approach in which "culture" has its anthropological sense of the totality of relations obtaining in a given society, and textual expression is understood as part of an intricate network in which symbolism is as important as materialism' (4). Kelly and Shepherd hope to 'present a more rounded view of Russian culture' and to 'initiate a fuller dialogue between literature and history' (4).

This dialogue is achieved by thirteen authors who were apparently charged to construct a thematically unified account of Russian culture as it developed and was transfigured in the late Imperial and early Soviet periods. The text is divided into three parts: 'Key Concepts Before 188!,"Cultural Transformation in Late Imperial Russia,' and 'Constructing a New Russia.' Bibliographies of 'Suggested Further Readings' follow each section. Although the eclecticism of this apparently unified volume occasionally compromises both its clarity and its utility, students and teachers of Russian culture and society will find much to interest them here. …