Revolution strikes the eye

John Willett

For anybody interested in the history of the modern Russian theatre, particularly its visual aspects, the publication of Dr Rudnitsky’s handsomely illustrated book is an event. Based at the Moscow Research Institute for Art History, the writer is an established authority who has already published two books on Meyerhold in the USSR, and was enterprisingly commissioned by Thames and Hudson to write the present work for English-language readers. In the past two decades a handful of good studies of Meyerhold, Stanislavsky and Granovsky have been published in the West (notably the works by Edward Braun and Béatrice Picon-Vallin): but nothing on quite this scale has appeared for many years – perhaps not since Joseph Gregor and the historian René Fülöp-Miller produced their Das Russische Theater in Vienna in 1928. The subject is still astonishingly rich, and if it has lost something of its original shock effect for our theatres, it gains greatly by the author’s presentation of many of its less well-known figures and aspects, along with the new material which he prints.

It must be said at the outset, though, that while the book is very much the size and thickness of Gregor’s (which likewise had over four hundred illustrations, many of them in colour), it only goes up to about 1932, the year when all the Soviet arts organisations of the Twenties were dissolved in favour of comprehensive new unions committed to Socialist Realism. Nor is it made clear whether this limitation of scope was what was originally intended. On the one hand, the author ends a little abruptly by referring to what happened after that date as constituting ‘the theme of another book’ (as if he might follow with a second volume). On the other, it could be argued that there is not all that much more to say about the ‘avant-garde’ of his subtitle, since the Soviet avant-garde was to spend the following quarter of the century dormant – or worse.

As it stands, the book is organised in four substantial chapters interspersed with sections of illustrations on art paper which cover the period of the preceding text: roughly 1905 to 1917, October 1917 to 1921 (Revolution and Civil War), 1921 to 1925 (NEP and LEF) and 1926 to 1930 (cultural revolution, RAPP and start of the Five-Year Plan). Each section, along with a fifth at the end, reproduces photographs of productions and actors, as well as original designs (often in colour) with captions that appear based on the relevant text but are not cross-referenced with it. Finally there is a short chapter entitled ‘Some Outcomes’, taking us via Okhlopkhov’s productions in the round and Vishnevsky’s Optimistic Tragedy at the Kamerny or Chamber Theatre to the triumph of the Moscow Art Theatre with Stanislavsky’s Dead Souls in 1932. Brief notes give references, and there are one and a half pages of bibliography and an index, though a list of illustrations and their sources is lacking.

Simplistic as it may seem, we are still tempted to see the story of the Soviet theatre before 1933 in terms of the rival approaches, ambitions and successes of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, the two great innovators of the prerevolutionary Moscow theatre of whom the one was in due course canonised under Stalin while the other was first cut down and then killed. And to start with, despite the impressive treatment given to the independent third force, Alexander Tairov and his collaborators at the Chamber Theatre, Dr Rudnitsky cannot quite avoid furthering this binary version of events. One of the merits of his book, though, is the way in which he gradually introduces other clearly original directors, starting with such gifted avant-gardists as Radlov, Foregger, the FEKS collaborators Kosintsev and Trauberg, the young Eisenstein (with his designs for Jack London’s The Mexican) and the quite forgotten Igor Terentiev – nearly all of whom came from Leningrad, the former capital – and drawing attention, too, to directors of the Berezil and Rustaveli (or Ukrainian and Georgian-language) theatres.

However, he leaves aside the post-revolutionary emigration, so that there is nothing about the Diaghilev Ballet or the career of subsequent émigrés like Granovsky and Mikhail Chekhov, Yakulov and Exter, let alone such important directors of Russian descent as Pitoeff, Komisarjevsky, Peter Brook and Jacques Tati, all of which is surely relevant to the modern reader’s view of the subject. He also virtually omits the cabaret and the ‘Blue Blouse’ agitprop movement, though he gives a useful account of the latter’s successor, the TRAM youth theatres which started in Leningrad and quickly fanned out all over the country (18 groups in 1928, 70 in 1930) before being swallowed up in the established theatre in the early Thirties.

Even allowing for these and other limitations – the omission of any reference to Tatlin’s stage designs, for instance, or to Meyer hold’s planned production of Olyesha’s The Conspiracy of Feelings – the overwhelming impression given is of a theatrical ferment such as no other country in our century can match. Gregor gave his verdict sixty years ago when he wrote that ‘theatre certainly means more in Russia than anywhere else in the world, because it occupies so much more space, altogether perhaps the greatest space, in the whole life of the spirit’ – interpreting this as a specific result of the Revolution, when the art and passion of the theatre became a substitute for many ‘lost categories absorbed by collectivism’. In his second chapter Dr Rudnitsky cites a number of Russian observers to much the same effect, and gives proper credit to Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar of Enlightenment. Lunacharsky was himself a playwright of some stature, whose mid-Twenties social-critical play Poison gets a critical paragraph and two illustrations (his Don Quixote Liberated might be worth revival). Nor is it irrelevant that he had been associated with Gorky and A.A. Bogdanov in their quest for a godless religion.

In theatrical matters Lunacharsky tried to keep an even hand, giving scope to the innovators while granting a special protected status to the four ‘academic’ theatres (including Tairov’s and Stanislavsky’s) and two opera houses. That Stanislavsky’s work at the Moscow Art Theatre was somewhat overshadowed by Meyerhold during the first ten years of Soviet power is still very apparent despite the author’s concern to show that he was by no means inactive. At the same time Meyerhold’s rather ostentatious association with the government, the Party and the new Red Army has come to seem a little narcissistic: he emerges from the photographs as a genius, certainly, but a genius who, like many lesser theatre people today, enjoys playing the part of a revolutionary figure. The result is seldom wholly convincing.

What undermined his favoured position once the period of war Communism was over was in the first place the box office: once theatre tickets were no longer free it was the more traditional productions that attracted full houses. Even so, the wonderful illustrations from every band of the theatrical spectrum up to the later Twenties seem to reflect a society prepared to pay almost any price for theatrical brilliance – not ‘energy’, that nondescript goal of the British theatre (which is never mentioned), so much as the excitement and precision of a huge cast in a complex modern set. It would have been good to know more about the financing of this. Many a director today will give a wry smile on reading of the ‘exceptionally complex problem’ (for Alexei Popov in 1926) of staging a crowd scene with ‘only’ 18 to 20 actors.

More about the plays themselves might also seem desirable, though it is difficult when the English reader becomes dependent for a critical view on the opinions of those for whom they mean so much more than they can ever do for him. He cannot in this case check against the evidence of the pictures (as he can do with the claims made for particular actors), but after reading translations in three different languages, I for one have never felt so enthusiastic about the plays of Mayakovsky as do the Russian specialists, whereas Tretiakov’s unproduced I want a child strikes me as more interesting than Dr Rudnitsky allows. What the pictures do suggest is that a certain conventional woodenness began to prevail in many theatres after about 1926, the year of Meyerhold’s The Government Inspector (though it is difficult to say how far this lies in the photos themselves and the difference between a ‘photo-call’ and an actual performance). Many of the Moscow Art Theatre’s photographs appear posed, but then so do those of Meyerhold’s productions of Roar China and the last two Mayakovsky plays. Certainly the liveliest things in the last two picture sections are the photos of the amateur performances by the Leningrad and Moscow TRAM groups, so that one can begin to see why they made such an impression on contemporary Germans.

Throughout the period of the Weimar Republic (which is pretty well that of Dr Rudnitsky’s book) the German theatre was closer to that of the USSR than any other, not least because Expressionists like Toller, Kaiser and Hasenclever had been writing revolutionary plays of a more or less Utopian kind before any specifically Soviet school of drama began to emerge. Thus directors such as Tairov, Meyerhold, Mardzhanov and Radlov all turned to these playwrights in the early Twenties, while Alexander Vesnin’s set for The Man who was Thursday in 1923 is a clear anticipation of Piscator’s 1927 Berlin production of Toller’s Hoppla! (and incidentally very remote from Chesterton’s marvellous novel).

What emerges from the originally East German publication The ‘Golden’ Twenties, however, is the ironic truth that the Berlin audience for such plays was not all that unlike the NEP men and capitalists of Soviet satire. ‘A fine seat in the box and revolution on the stage. All I can say is: “Vive la république!” ’ say the double-chinned dinner-jacketed slobs in Karl Arnold’s caricature, while Toller, ignored by director and designer, stares out sadly from the photograph on the opposite page.

Jürgen Schebera has already published a brilliantly-illustrated short biography of Kurt Weill, and one can only gape at his success in gathering once again so many telling illustrations of the arts of the Weimar Republic without re-using more than a handful of the previously published pictures on this subject. Pictorially, his collaborative work with the East Germany literary historian Bärbel Schrader is an essential complement to all other Weimar books, not excluding my own. Textually, too, it boasts a useful ‘sychronology’ and a persistent concern with the social, political and technical setting of that extraordinary decade. Otherwise the style is a shade too chatty, in a ‘you really should have been there’ vein; the interpretation of events sometimes contentious, and the descents into Time-style (‘Writer Ernst Toller’ and the like) embarrassing. If it can be considered alongside Dr Rudnitsky’s very much more important volume it is because both emanate from Eastern Europe and represent (for that area) a fresh view of a very fertile period. Unfortunately both to some extent suffer from certain solecisms and confusions that still afflict translated books on the arts.

Much of this trouble comes from the present vogue for translating titles, whether of works or of organisations. The result can be absolutely baffling, and for nobody more so than those who are familiar with the works or organisations concerned. ‘The German Craft League’ is presumably the Deutsche Werkbund, which British architects and students seldom know by any English name. The Unhappy Eugene is Toller’s play Hinkemann, sometimes known in English as Brokenbrow but here literally and unidentifiably translated from its Russian title of the Twenties. The Big Playhouse is Reinhardt’s Grosses Schauspielhaus. ‘The Reichswehr divisions in black’ must be the ‘black’ or underground armed forces of the 1920s, das schwarze Reichswehr. And so on. The problem is compounded by the transliteration of non-Russian names from Cyrillic: ‘Burdel’ the French sculptor and others. The quasi-Fascist ‘Homelanders’ in Austria are, one infers, the Heimwehr of Prince Starhemberg; ‘the Contemporary Theatre’ must be the ‘Zeittheater’ or ‘plays of the times’ that were fashionable in Germany around 1929.

There are also of course plain ordinary mistranslations, and if there is no cast-iron rule for avoiding these, one can at least say that they will be less jarring if the translator’s natural language is English. But it is surely possible to guarantee against confusion by title: wherever a title has to be translated the original should somewhere be given, except where there is a familiar and unmistakable English equivalent (such as Crime and Punishment or The Magic Mountain). And generally such translation should be done only where absolutely essential: otherwise we may end up with such idiocies as ‘the Protection Squad’ for the SS (assuming that people remember what that was). Even if the original is not understandable by the insulated reader, there is nothing else that can be looked up in reference books or matched with other accounts. There is no way on earth to find out about the desperate inventions of a translator: ‘The Technical College’, for instance, in Twenties Berlin, what was that? Friends of intelligibility please note.

All these hazards become greater when books are being translated from East to West, as is the case here. The mechanics of co-operation and checking, and even of ordinary postal communication, are that much harder. It does seem extremely important that they should be eased, particularly now that the two halves of Europe are becoming so much closer to one another in their cultural interests and their understanding of the modern heritage. Even twenty years ago Dr Rudnitsky’s book could scarcely have been written in the USSR while the Weimar volume might have been manufactured for export perhaps, but not published (as it has been) for internal GDR consumption. Both are symptoms of better times At the same time, both suffer from the still unresolved problems of East European cultural policy: how many of the past abuses and aberrations by its official administrators can yet be frankly examined? Not many, the reader of these two books may conclude.

Thus on the one hand the sense of decline at the end of Russian and Soviet Theatre is not remarked on by the author, other than perhaps implicitly through the brevity of his concluding chapter. The term ‘Socialist Realism’ which was to dominate the arts in the USSR from the Thirties to the Fifties (if not later) is nowhere mentioned. Simply there is a ‘turn to Realism’ – made visible already in the fine photographs of The Government Inspector – and a new emphasis on the individual hero or (in Vishnevsky’s case) heroine, leading to the establishment of what Dr Rudnitzky terms ‘historical detail, social and psychological truth, emotional saturation of the acting’. He comments that ‘the division of theatres into “leftists” and “rightists”, avant-garde and traditional, finally lost all meaning. Life had introduced decisive correctives into the former correlation between artistic movements ...’ That is perhaps one way of putting it, in a country where it is recognised that by 1932 something very decisive was indeed taking place: something that can only be described in another, as yet unwritten, book.

The other way, as seen in The ‘Golden’ Twenties, is to argue that the Party was always right; that the Communists, alone in Weimar Germany, never made any mistakes; that it was not the failure of the whole Left to combine that opened Hitler’s road to power at the end of that same year but the hesitations of the Socialists alone; and that the republic was only a ‘stopgap’ which ‘ultimately collapsed because the decisive questions of power and structure were never resolved’. Certainly neither book comes near to commenting on the historical coincidence by which the Russian and German avant-gardes suffered their corrective treatment at exactly the same time. At this embarrassing juncture both take shelter in imprecision. Thus Schrader and Schebera on the final three or four years: ‘High standards of bourgeois democratic art developed, but at the same time nationalism increased its arsenal of broadly effective works. Revolutionary proletarian culture blossomed.’ Where the Russian book is obviously superior is in its refusal to pretend that the crushing of the Modern movement was beyond anybody’s control. The problems of how and why its suppression took place may or may not get analysed in a sequel. But at least it is left open.