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.

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