In the late I7th century, when the French professional theatre was at its zenith and England and Spain looked back over several generations to the heyday of their theatre, drama in Russia first tottered into official existence. Wishing to please his new wife and mark the birth of their first child (the future Peter the Great), Tsar Alexei ordered the court performance of a play, the biblical story of Esther, entitled Artaxerxes. This was the same tsar who, in 1648, had decreed the destruction of all musical instruments and theatrical properties, with severe punishment for anyone using them. Now, in 1672 (when Paris was watching the premiere of Racine's Bajazet), the stilted, day-long play received royal approval, and the German producer Johann Gregorii ( 1631-75), was encouraged to form a small Court Theatre.The enterprise began well, extolling the Monarchy and glorifying the Christian Church as instructed, but it staged only nine productions and fizzled out in less than three years. This miserable false start, ill-conceived, artificial and un-Russian as it was, typifies the desultory beginnings of the Russian theatre, which would not achieve any real stature or permanence for nearly another century. Its early story is one of sporadic outbursts in various directions, followed by persecution, indifference or uncontainable competition from foreigners.
The earliest sources of Russian theatre are similar to those in other countries, deriving from either folk arts or both pagan and liturgical ceremony. Peripatetic entertainers — minstrels, clowns, animal-trainers, puppeteers, musicians and the like — were in demand from the earliest times of Russian history to perform at holidays and festivals, weddings and funerals. (The Russian skomorokh combined many of these functions.) Despite their natural popularity with ordinary Russians, they were distrusted by both Monarchy and Church, cruelly persecuted and driven to the outer regions of the country. Ecclesiastical drama, while more acceptable, failed to develop in any meaningful direction. One or two morality pieces became established in annual performances, particularly "The Fiery Furnace", an adaptation of the famous third chapter of Daniel, in which three youths are rescued at the last moment from death in the flames as punishment for refusing to worship the Golden Calf. Church schools also borrowed from abroad, imitating first Byzantine religious drama and then the theatrical practices of Jesuit schools in Poland, which even permitted diverting interludes (usually improvised) to enliven the familiar morality pieces. From this sub-genre emerged at least one or two I7th-century plays written in Russian that have a modest claim to interesting characters and stories, the best of them generally considered to be Komediia pritchi o bludnom syne [ Prodigal Son] by Simeon Polotskii (1628/29-80). These separate streams, however, never fed into each other to produce an early current of indigenous drama, and all the attempts to assimilate western theatrical culture petered out after 1676, when Alexei died and the small court theatre was closed. Three decades of indifference ensued.
Early in the I8th century Peter the Great, seeing the propaganda potential of drama, made some attempts to institute a popular theatre using secular materials. His coercive measures brought in some hundreds of spectators but killed off any genuine enthusiasm; attention reverted to the court where imported ballet and opera became fashionable in Moscow and even in the newly-constructed St Petersburg.Some historical plays were written and produced by Feofan Prokopovich ( 1681‐ 1736), but the actors were always non-Russian, and the spirit of the age — strictly moral when prescribed by the Church and flippant within the royal precincts — discouraged new theatrical practices. Once again a halting start came to nothing much.
The next beginning was a real one. Several factors came together by the middle of the century to initiate a truly Russian theatrical tradition. A professional company was created by royal edict in 1756, its chief performer being Fedor Volkov ( 1729-63), a celebrated young actor-manager whose reputation had been made in the provinces (Iaroslavl); his impact was such that Belinskii would one day describe him as "the father of the Russian theatre". He put money, talent, and effort into the company, eventually becoming its director and leaving it, when he died, in good health. His arrival coincided with the mature work of Russia's first serious playwright, Aleksei Sumarokov ( 1717-77), the author of a dozen derivative comedies and nine more substantial tragedies, which provided good roles for Volkov.Apart from an interesting adaptation of Hamlet, which transformed the play into a political allegory with a happy ending, the most striking of his plays was Dmitrii samozvanets ( Dmitrii the Imposter) 1771, the Russian subject-matter of which won immediate popularity and also invited imitation, notably by Iakov Kniazhnin ( 1740-91) in Vadim Novgorodskii [ Vadim of Novgorod] ( 1789). For the first time Russian plays were being well performed by Russian actors. Along with the serious plays a wide range of entertainment through comedy and opera also became available, much of it along lines dictated by France and Germany. The Empress herself, Catherine the Great ( 1729-96), contributed numerous works, now regarded as undistinguished, but some of them imaginative enough to break with the ruling Neoclassical tradition and involve the adaptation of Shakespeare.This age also produced one dramatist of enduring significance, Denis Fonvizin ( 1745-92), whose satirical comedies posed serious questions about the responsibilities of the landowning class. His first original play was Brigadir ( The Brigadier) 1780, an entertaining satire directed against the over-Frenchified manners of polite Russian society; the characters speak an absurd language half-way between French and Russian, coining ludicrous gallicisms in every other sentence to avoid the ostensible vulgarity of their native language. His masterpiece, Nedorosl' ( The Minor) 1782, creates a group of amusingly negative characters not far removed from the archetypes of Molière but recognizably Russian; this is the earliest Russian play that is still performed in the zoth century.
By the end of the century Russia had created a theatrical tradition which, for all its old-fashioned spirit, consisted of original Russian works, well-written and ably performed by Russian actors. The strongest development of all was in the theatre itself, which had grown rapidly in popularity at all levels of society. Encouragement came from the top. Catherine herself had ordered the beginning of a Grand Theatre, later called the Bolshoi, in 1773, and six years later she founded the Imperial Theatre School.All of this involved much expenditure, which Catherine may be credited with underwriting for good artistic reasons as well as for the possibilities of autocratic control that