Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia

Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia

Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia

Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia


"Swift captures the habits, inclinations, tastes, and uses of leisure time among Tsarist Russia's urban lower classes--in all their colorful complexity. He vividly presents the kaleidoscopic world of popular theater, where culture meets entertainment, where Shakespeare and Ostrovsky meet racy vaudeville, farce, and melodrama, and where social and cultural identities blur. His study is a carefully analyzed, superbly documented, and immensely readable exposition of how "popular culture" really worked in prerevolutionary Russia, and how the tastes of its consumers constantly stymied and conflicted with the visions of state, educated society, and radicals alike."--Richard Stites, Georgetown University

"The fullest and most interesting account of how the Russian public seized upon the theater as an art form, as entertainment, and as an instrument of popular education. Swift makes Ostrovsky, Stanislavsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy come alive, bringing great clarity to the larger context in which Russia's great dramatists thought about theater, its audience, and its functions."--Jeffrey Brooks, author of "When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917"

"In this stimulating book, Anthony Swift shows how popular theater became a forum where all the weighty questions of Russia's future were discussed: Who were the Russian people, how should they be governed, and what should they believe?"--Lynn Mally, author of "Revolutionary Acts: Amateur Theater and the Soviet State


People's theater had deep roots in post-Petrine Russian culture. These roots were nourished from different sources, some of which were, and still are, usually thought to be antagonistic: an authoritarian state, an emerging civil society, high culture, commercial popular culture, folk culture. Understanding the origins and development of people's theater in Russia entails understanding the diverse currents in Russian cultural, social, and political history that came together, not without tension and never quite merging, to shape the idea of a theater that would both serve and transform the common people.

From the end of the seventeenth century, when Peter the Great (1682– 1725) made Westernization an official policy, the state played a preponderant role in initiating, promoting, and regulating the development in Russia of a European-inspired culture, one of whose key elements was theater. The state founded the first public theater in Russia, established a network of state-subsidized imperial theaters, opened schools for actors, and zealously censored the texts performed on the nation's stages. It also alternately encouraged and obstructed efforts to democratize theater by making performances accessible to the masses, a stop-and-start attitude that reflected official Russia's highly ambivalent attitude toward the theater's potential impact on the common people.

Yet the state was not alone in shaping the development of Russian people's theaters; other forces were also at work. Commercial popular theatrical enterprises from fairgrounds, pleasure gardens, and city streets left their imprint on the form and content of performances in the people's theaters, as did the imperial theaters, which catered primarily to elite audiences. Popular theatrical traditions, such as the oral folk plays passed back and forth among factories, barracks, and rural villages, also influenced audiences' expecta-

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