Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Nicole Christian; Neil Cornwell | Go to book overview

Post-Revolutionary Russian Theatre

The Bolshevik Revolution had an enormous impact on cultural life in general, but particularly on the theatre, which was quickly perceived as a possible tool for "agitation" among the masses and the propagation of socialist ideas. Many theatre directors supported the Revolution, and were themselves supported in turn by the People's Commissar for Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii. Vsevolod Meierkhol'd ( 1874-1940), who had staged rather grandiose pre-revolutionary productions at the Aleksandrinskii Theatre in St Petersburg, immediately dedicated his art to the Revolution, and from 1918 to 1921 he was in charge of the Moscow Theatre Section of the Commissariat. During this time, commonly known as the "Theatrical October", he demanded a complete break with theatrical traditions: the theatre should become exclusively a tool for State and Party propaganda. Along with the young directors Sergei Eisenstein, Nikolai Evreinov, and Nikolai Okhlopkov, Meierkhol'd favoured mass spectacles, such as Evreinov's Vziatie zimnego dvortsa [ Storming of the Winter Palace], performed on 7 November 1920 for 100,000 spectators with 8,ooo participants commanded by the director with the help of a field phone. A celebration of the Revolution, the spectacle underlined at the same time a theatricalization of life (based on real events), and a politicization of art. Both directors and playwrights sought to politicize themes and theatricalize form in the years immediately after the Revolution. Vladimir Maiakovskii's Misteriia-Buff ( Mystery-Bouffe) 1918 (revised 1921), was the first "Soviet" play, specifically written in compliance with these demands. While thematically showing the triumph of the proletariat, Maiakovskii commented in the prologue of the play on the need to break down the fourth wall and openly attacked the verisimilitude of Stanislavskii's realism.

While Stanislavskii had aimed at creating an illusion of reality on stage, and wished the theatre to mirror reality, Meierkhol'd perceived the function of theatre as that of a magnifying glass, which would enhance certain fragments or episodes of reality. Meierkhol'd therefore restructured plays into fragments and episodes that would rouse the audience rationally rather than (as in Stanislavskii's method) emotionally. The sets were Constructivist in style, the costumes resembled factory wear, and leaflets were distributed to the audience as if at a political meeting; all these features were designed to bring art closer to the worker. Meierkhol'd perceived theatre as having a social function; he went out to factories to perform plays, and closely monitored audience response in order to heighten the comical and agitational elements in his productions. Calling for the collaboration of all aesthetic disciplines, he aspired towards a synthesis of the arts. He worked with renowned artists such as Liubov' Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova in his Constructivist productions of Zori [ Dawns] ( 1920), Velikodushnyi rogonosets [ The Magnanimous Cuckold] ( 1922) and Smert' Tarelkina [ Tarelkin's Death] ( 1922). Meierkhol'd's use of placards for locations served to stylize rather than to create reality on stage, and documentary evidence and cinematic devices such as screens, slogans, and projections enhanced parallels to real life, making the spectator aware of being in a theatre that sought to "agitate". His actors trained in biomechanics, so that movements on stage would be choreographed and paced, rather than motivated by psychological identification. Words were less important than the body language, characters became types, lacking in psychological depth: his was a theatre of demonstration rather than of identification and experience.

Despite his political engagement for the revolutionary cause, Meierkhol'd came under attack from Proletcult, an organization deprecating professionalism in the arts, and claiming that only workers should be creative in the artistic realm. Although this claim was not endorsed officially — in fact, Lenin defied its proponent Kerzhentsev by arguing that high standards must be maintained in culture and Lunacharskii called for a "return to Ostrovskii" and his critical realism — it was realism that would be favoured over formal innovation in the late I920s.The prevalence of realism is obvious from the dramatic writing of the I920s, and its treatment of the Revolution and the Civil War. Initially, recent history was presented in foreign settings as in Sergei Tret'iakov's Rychi, Kitai! [ Roar, China!] and Slyshish', Moskva?! [ Are You Listening, Moscow?!] (the latter set in Germany); later it was set in Russia, as for example in Vsevolod Vishnevskii 's Optimisticheskaia tragediia ( Optimistic Tragedy). Such writing lent itself for the purposes of propaganda of the official "historical truth" and was therefore supple enough to fit within the parameters of socialist realism, such as the plays of Bill-Belotserkovskii, Boris Lavrenev, Lidiia Seifullina, Aleksandr Afinogenov, Nikolai Pogodin, and others. Konstantin Trenev's Liubov' larovaia is a play whose eponymous heroine denounces her husband to the Reds; it enjoyed great success at the Malyi Theatre in 1926. Vsevolod Ivanov's Bronepoezd 14-69 ( Armoured Train 14-69), in which a Red officer is so devoted to the cause of the Revolution that he seizes a train of Whites which is about to leave the country, was staged at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1927. Both productions were hailed by the realists.

Satire was prominent as a genre in the I920s, inspired largely by the incongruities of life during the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced by Lenin in 1921. Mikhail Bulgakov's Zoikina kvartira ( Zoya's Apartment) and Nikolai Erdman's Mandat ( The Mandate) and Samoubiitsa ( The Suicide) are as scathing towards NEP as are Maiakovskii's later plays, written specifically for Meierkhol'd's theatre, Bania ( The Bathhouse) and Klop ( The Bedbug). Censorship, exercized by the Central Repertoire Board (Glavrepertkom), established in 1922, prevented this genre from flourishing. Satirical and grotesque elements informed the productions at the Vakhtangov Theatre, which had developed a style of fantastic realism for which Bulgakov's Zoya's Apartment, with its dream sequences, provided ideal material. Evgenii Vakhtangov ( 1883-1922), one of Stanislavskii's favourite pupils, had led the Third Studio at the Moscow Arts Theatre, which in 1926 became the Vakhtangov Theatre. Vakhtangov reconciled the formal innovations of Meierkhol'd with the psychological depth of Stanislavskii, while emphasizing the need for an imaginative reading of the text (rather than an obsession with the word, or a restructuring of the text into episodes) and enhancing the grotesque element of reality that came as a result of his preoccupation with the theme of death. His approach is best captured in his 1922 production of Princess Turandot. Vakhtangov died prematurely, leaving no direct successor, although his tradition was continued at the


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Reference Guide to Russian Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Reference Guide to Russian Literature *
  • Contents *
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers xi
  • Contributors xi
  • Alphabetical List of Writers and Works xiii
  • Alphabetical List of Works xix
  • Chronological List of Writers xxiii
  • General Reading List xxvii
  • Chronology xxxv
  • Glossary xxxix
  • Introductory Essays *
  • Old Russian Literature 3
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 9
  • Russian Literature in the I8th Century 13
  • Aleksandr Pushkin: from Byron to Shakespeare 18
  • The Classic Russian Novel 25
  • The Superfluous Man in Russian Literature 29
  • Women's Writing in Russia 35
  • Russian Literary Theory: from the Formalists to Lotman 40
  • Post-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 45
  • Experiment and Emigration: Russian Literature, 1917-1953 49
  • Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature 55
  • Thaws, Freezes, and Wakes: Russian Literature, 1953-1991 59
  • Russian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period 64
  • Writers and Works *
  • A 73
  • B 127
  • C 213
  • D 237
  • E 271
  • F 297
  • G 311
  • H 379
  • I 389
  • K 413
  • L 485
  • M 521
  • N 559
  • O 585
  • P 611
  • R 685
  • S 707
  • T 789
  • U 859
  • V 861
  • Y 897
  • Z 899
  • Title Index 933
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 963


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