Gordon Craig's Moscow Hamlet: A Reconstruction

Gordon Craig's Moscow Hamlet: A Reconstruction

Gordon Craig's Moscow Hamlet: A Reconstruction

Gordon Craig's Moscow Hamlet: A Reconstruction


'Senelick has painstakingly pieced together the amazing story of how [the Moscow Art Theatre's production of Hamlet] came about, and combines it with a detailed, scene-by-scene reconstruction of the unfinished product.'... He makes use of what would seem to be every possible primary source, Russian and English.... In the end, Senelick does more than reconstruct' Craig's Moscow Hamlet. He shows how, despite its central flaw, it became the standard from which to deviate. Until now the material necessary to unshroud the legend has been scattered all over Europe. Senelick has gathered it into an exemplary, illuminating study.'-Theatre Journal


In 1935, Gordon Craig returned to Russia for the first time in twenty-three years, to attend a theatre festival. He was fascinated by the Jewish Theatre King Lear with Mikhoels in the lead; excited by Meyerhold's productions; delighted to see that the actors he had known as promising beginners were now the leading movers and doers; startled to find that the elegant Nemirovich-Danchenko dwelt in the same mansion as before but now had to answer his own door; and suspicious that Stanislavsky pleaded illness to avoid meeting him. He also met a young scholar named Nikolay Chushkin, who was anxious to garner information about the legendary production of Hamlet staged at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1912 from the survivors of the experiment. Craig professed disinterest in the past and explained that his ideas about Hamlet had changed. But when Chushkin followed up his solicitations with a letter to Florence the next month, Craig replied formally:

I my self cannot reconstruct all the happenings on the stage of the Art Theatre of Moscow during the performance of "Hamlet". And whenever I attempt to do so, it is like returning to a plate of cold food that has been in a pantry for several years . . . one turns from it, not towards it.

The historian, on the other hand, is excited by the idea of these things, which are so hidden; and the only excuse for the historian, so far as I can see, is that thinking of these old things which he has not seen and cannot see, will awaken his imagination (and I sometimes think there is no imagination so vivid as that of the historian) and enable him to create a performance of "Hamlet" or "Lear" or "Macbeth" such as never took place. But then, why does the historian mix this beautiful fantasy of his with dates and names?

Chushkin was sufficiently undiscouraged by this reply to publish (if only in the 1960s) a book on Kachalov's performance as the Prince of Denmark, using all the testimony he had gathered from participants and eye-witnesses. And Craig continued to be questioned by interviewers. With the years his judgment on the Moscow Art Hamlet became harsher and harsher: by the end of his life he mourned that the whole enterprise had been like "taking God Almighty into a music-hall."

Any attempt at reconstruction is complicated by contradictory reports of the production that appeared at the time, and the myth-making capacities of the individuals involved. In Russia, the Moscow Art Hamlet was considered a qualified failure or, at best, a succès d'estime; in Western Europe, it . . .

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