Academic journal article The Hudson Review

International Theatre

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

International Theatre

Article excerpt

International Theatre

JOSEPH STALIN, THAT OLD SOFTY, HAD A DEEP LOVE OF THEATRE. He built theatres for the Russian people almost as fast as he murdered them, so that there were some 250 professional theatres in Moscow alone. A connoisseur of Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre, Stalin had his own private box there, which he could enter and exit unseen. He would return again and again to watch his old favorites, seeing one play a total of fifteen times. This was Bulgakov's Days of the Turbins, a drama about the 1918-22 Civil Wars in Russia told from the anticommunist or White point of view; apparendy the broad-minded tyrant appreciated the sympathetic treatment of his old enemies. Ah well, contradiction was at the heart of Marxist dialectics. Why shouldn't great theatre go hand in hand with great oppression? Open-mindedness with paranoia? Aesthetic refinement with savagery?

Thus the great Russian theatre managed to survive Stalin and his successors. Bulgakov had trouble with censorship but managed to avoid being tortured or murdered, unlike many playwrights and directors, including the great Symbolist director Vsevolod Meyerhold, imprisoned, tortured, and executed in 1940. His "crime" was deviation from the official style of socialist realism. Even Stanislavski lived out his final years under informal house arrest. The theatres continued to operate, the level of acting was outstanding, and theatre conservatories were of a high level, but the Soviet theatre operated in an ideological vacuum. After a while, there were no more playwrights or directors of international caliber. Russian theatre companies rarely toured abroad, and when they did, it was with well-crafted productions of pre-revolutionary plays. Few foreign companies or even foreign plays made it to the Soviet theatre, where ideology trumped aesthetics; Tennessee Williams became popular, perhaps because he seemed to be criticizing America, but Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not appear on the Russian stage until 1985. Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco were considered decadent. Now, great theatre went hand in hand with banality.

Nevertheless, one fact that theatre history teaches us is that the actor is primary. Without great acting there can be no great playwriting; we should recall that Chekhov-initially a writer of short stories, not a playwright-vowed never to write for the stage again after the failure of his first major play, The Seagull, in its St. Petersburg premiere. Only after the newly formed Moscow Art Theatre succeeded with it, using Stanislavski's innovative acting techniques, did Chekhov go on to write the great stage masterpieces Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. With its tradition of fine acting and outstanding actor training, the post-Soviet Russian theatre has the potential for renewed greatness.

Nevertheless, since the collapse of the Communist system, theatre in the new Russia has been problematical. Bizarre adaptations, nudity, and profanity were inevitable, but ultimately benign; the real problems are financial. It would be hard for theatre to flourish anywhere under the political and economic instability that has cursed the nation. It was even worse in Russia, where all theatres had been nationalized and generously subsidized for two generations, but which were now suddenly expected to turn a profit or at least break even. Many theatres closed. Others discovered what we have long known in the West, that to be under the thumbs of philistine businessmen is just as suffocating as to be under the thumbs of government bureaucrats. Nevertheless, major theatre companies do exist. The Moscow Art Theatre is still around (split into two parts), as is the wonderful Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg. There are important experimental troupes like the Taganka Theatre, where founder Yuri Lyubimov, who had been in constant trouble under the Soviets for his stylized productions, a few years ago directed a production of Eugene Onegin on his eighty-fifth birthday. …

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