Tag Archives: Moscow Art Theatre

Composition under Culture Ministries and Culture Monies

Has anyone been following moves in Russia’s parliament over the summer, passing regressive anti-LGBT legislation? With the Winter Olympics in Sochi approaching in a few months, there’s been greater visibility and push-back regarding these laws from some in the international community and many in the LGBT community. LGBT citizens and activists within Russia have had a difficult if not impossible time recently in a country that has never been welcoming or liberal where LGBT rights were concerned. The reason I mention this is that there’s a new film about one of Russia’s favorite musical sons — Peter Tchaikovsky — being financed, in part, by the government. One of its main goals appears to be to refute or at least deny evidence about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. This weekend, The Guardian [London] ran this story about the effort to straight-wash Tchaikovsky’s biography.

Russia’s culture minister has denied that composer Peter Tchaikovsky was gay, discarding what has long been regarded as historical fact. Vladimir Medinsky claimed that there was no evidence to suggest the 19th-century composer was anything other than a lonely man who failed to find a suitable woman to marry.

Medinsky was asked about the composer’s sexuality after news emerged that a film biopic of Tchaikovsky being made with Russian government funding would ignore the composer’s sexuality. The script was apparently revised to remove references that could have made it vulnerable under Russia’s controversial new “gay propaganda” laws.

The film’s screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, denied that Tchaikovsky was gay, and told the newspaper Izvestiya that the composer of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty was “a person without a family who was stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men”.

“Arabov is actually right – there is no evidence that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual,” said Medinsky, when asked by the Interfax news agency if the climate of homophobia in Russia was forcing film-makers to censor the issue.

Historians, however, say there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

“In the case of Tchaikovsky his homosexuality is so well documented by his own writings and the writings of others that it is simply ludicrous to suggest otherwise,” said the author Konstantin Rotikov, who has written a history of gay Saint Petersburg. “It’s a historical fact. History doesn’t change just because we are trying to push a certain agenda today.”


I bring this story to your attention for a few reasons. One, because of the great affection (though no love affair) that existed between Tchaikovsky and Chekhov. Chekhov engraved this portrait of himself to the composer and dedicated a collection, Gloomy Stories, to a man who he regarded second only to Tolstoy in genius, an admiration he described in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother). Chekhov even invokes Tchaikovsky’s music in Act III of Three Sisters, when Veshinin hums the melody from the opera Yevgeny [Eugene] Onegin. They even discussed collaborating on an opera, Bela, with Chekhov serving as librettist, based on Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time (1839-41). Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky died from cholera (1893) before that project could begin.

Two, because last night Queer Nation staged a protest inside and outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera where a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin starring two Russian performers opens the season. This choice of action drew this response from the Met’s general manager, from which I thought this quote was particularly telling in any discussion of art and social justice:

But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.

Three, I turn to Tchaikovsky’s often disputed (and not just in Russia) personal life and the required revisions, absences, refusals in the new film as an example of state censorship that Chekhov dealt with (though under different historical circumstances) when writing plays. Before the [Moscow] Art Theatre was created as a private company, Chekhov had to submit his work to the Imperial Theatre Committee, which functioned as a government censor that would evaluate work, submit recommended and required changes, and assign it a state-subsidized public theater/company for performance. (The Lord Chamberlin’s Office served in this capacity in British theatre until 1968 and you can find out more details about other nineteenth-century theater censorship systems in the The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Robert Justin Goldstein, Berghahn Books, 2009.) By the time he had to decide whether or not to “give” Uncle Vanya to MAT or send it through the regular state system, the decision, according to his biographer Donald Rayfield, was made for him by the censor who “took umbrage at the play’s aspersions on a professor and demanded changes.” (Anton Chekhov: A Life 487).

All of this to say that it is easy to see how government imposed control on artists constrains, coerces, and sometimes radically, sometimes incrementally changes the how, what, and why of an artwork (even of an artist’s own history). Commercial interests operate in much the same way though their networks of influence are less visible and, one might argue, more insidious. We usually reserve the cry of “censorship” for government imposition of value(s), for a public entity’s or official’s intrusion on an artist’s process or product; however, the marketplace itself (and all the structural components of that marketplace, which includes people and capital) shapes who makes and the what, how and why that gets made. Certainly we decry the market’s influence when we see sequel and sequel or remake after remake cranked out of Hollywood; however, theater seasons make their programming choices based on similar calculus. Even in the non-profit world, money and patronage drive the production machine. Don’t forget, the MAT was able to offer Chekhov a free(r) space for dramaturgical invention but that freedom was made possible by the wealth of patrons and fellow artists particularly Stanislavski who had significant income from cotton mills, a fact that would later come to constrain his own freedoms after the Russian revolution.


It’s complicated.

Last Tuesday, Jeff and I drew a set of through-lines between Chekhov’s biography, his evolving dramaturgy in major and minor works, and Stanislavski’s emerging actor training system and vocabulary some of you know well or not very well that will be relevant as we go forward, building into/onto the movement language we’re developing with Kali.

In reading David Allen’s  book Performing Chekhov (Routledge, 2000), I found some more connections among the topics of discussion last Tuesday as well as the overall approach we’re taking with this production. Just as with Boyd’s “Chekhov lexicon,” these quotes are mere snippets of a complex and lengthy studies, but it’s my hope that they continue to add to the given circumstances of historiography, biography and dramaturgy we are exploring this semester.

In 1899, [Chekhov] told Ilya Gurlyand: ‘Let everything on stage be just as complicated and just as simple as in life. People eat, just eat, and at the same time their happiness is being decided or their lives ruined.’ This implies a rejection of ‘extraordinary events’ in drama. Rather, the emphasis is on apparently minor or incidental events — ‘people come and go, eat, talk about the weather and play cards’. At the same time the aim is not simply to reproduce the ‘naturalistic’ surface of life. On the surface, little may appear to be happening; but there is a tension and dichotomy between this lack of ‘external’ drama, and the significant changes, the inner drama, that may be occurring just beneath the surface. (4)

‘Chekhov’s art demands a theater of mood’, Meyerhold declared. The premiere of [The Seagull] at the Aleksandrinski [in 1898] failed, he argued, because it did not capture ‘the mood the author demands.’ Now only two years later the play was a triumph; and the difference was attributed, in part, to Stanislavski’s creation of an emotionally absorbing ‘atmosphere’. […] The [Moscow] Art Theatre production, sometimes seen as the acme of stage naturalism, was in fact a highly poetic rendering of the play. The use of lighting, sound, and setting was intended less to reproduce the naturalistic surface of life, than to soak the play in an overwhelming ‘atmosphere’. (13)

Although we are taking a very different approach than Stanislavski — who was more focused on making external details, particularly those of the environment, present via sound effects especially — I would argue that we are in search of that same poetic rendering that evokes a mood or feeling in the audience about the world and mood of the characters. And perhaps, just perhaps, we might find a happier marriage between text and performance than Chekhov himself found with Stanislavski’s early approaches:

On one famous occasion [Chekhov] declared: “You say you have cried at my plays. And you are not the only ones. But that is not why I wrote them, it was Alekseev [Stanislavski] who turned them into cry-babies. I wanted something else. I simply wanted to say to people honestly: “Look at yourselves, look at how bad and boring your lives are!” The important thing is, that people should understand this, and when they understand it, they will, without fail, create for themselves another and better life. I will not see it, but I know — it will be completely different and nothing like this life. And until it arrives, I will say to people again and again: “Understand how bad and boring your lives are!” What is there in this to cry about?” (23)

Allen observes how the notion of life itself “being stupid, boring” could be seen as a leitmotif for Uncle Vanya.

[Aleksandr] Kugel observed: ‘All the acts begin with a pause. The pauses act like an introduction to the inner world of this stagnant life’ (qtd in Allen 23)

Stanislavski used sound very specifically to emphasize the inner lives of the characters. He was particularly focused on the final moments of Act 4 when first the Professor & Yelena depart and then Astrov. From an interview for a 1924 book, he describes the process:

We were rehearsing … the fourth Act ofUncle Vanya. All its meaning lies in the phrase, ‘They’ve gone.’ The director had to ensure that the spectator really felt they had gone — and everything in the house had become empty, as if the lid has been nailed down on the coffin, as if everything has died forever. Without this, there is no Act, without this the play has no ending. […] During a tedious break in rehearsal we were trying to think of an answer, one of the crew who was tinkering with the set started banging with a stick. And we … suddenly sensed in this tapping the clatter of horses’ hoofs on a bridge. Why no use it, if it conveys the author’s meaning truthfully and expressively, and gives us what we need, and helps to solve the problem. (qtd. in Allen 25)

This put me in mind of the sleigh/harness bells as they are used in Vanya on 42nd Street in just an ever so slight but powerfully suggestive way.

Stanislavski was developing a whole new approach to directing (which would greatly influence his system of acting) and as these productions became popular, he drove ahead with his ideas about what the play could do in ways that would influence other emerging companies who had neither the resources nor the time to achieve the same effects. This proliferation of mood-heavy, sound drenched, actor emotive performances displeased Chekhov greatly, partly because he wasn’t quite so sold on Stanislaviski’s own approaches (you can read some of the novelizations that are the director’s production notes in Allen’s book).

We can get a sense of Chekhov’s frustration from an account by Evtikhi Karpov who met Chekhov after a production of The Cherry Orchard in Yalta by a company from Sevastapol who promised their production would be “in the style of the [Moscow] Art Theatre production”:

‘They tell me you saw The Cherry Orchard?’ Anton Pavlovich asked, not looking at me.


‘How they’ve ruined it! It’s an outrage! It still says on the poster that they are acting under my supervision. And I’ve never set eyes on them. It’s scandalous! They all want to ape the Art Theatre. And all in vain. There, the whole complex production is achieved by incredible work, by the expenditure of a colossal amount of time, by loving attention to every detail. They can do it … This lot have put in so many noises, they say, that the whole text disappeared. Half of the words were inaudible … And in the Art Theatre, all these theatrical details distract the spectator, stop him listening, overshadow the author. And here … I can imagine what it was like… You know, I would like them to perform my work quite simply, primitively. As in the old days — a room; on the forestage, a sofa, chairs … And with good actors. And that’s all. No birds, no theatrical mood. I would really like to see my play performed like that. I’d like to know, would my play collapse? That is very interesting! Perhaps it would collapse. And perhaps not. (qtd in Allen 45-46)

Stanislavski’s insistence on mood was for the audience but almost more for the actors, to help them access the “inner truth” that would suture the stage space to the play’s reality. Viktor Simov designed the sets for The Seagull and these were a great departure from what had been the convention of late nineteenth-century scenography. As Allen describes,

Simov’s settings created a ‘real’ environment in which the actors could ‘move, live, and act.’ In Stanislavski’s production plan, at the start of the play, Masha and Medvedenko walked through trees and bushes. The audience heard a snatch of their conversation, and then they disappeared into the tress. They crossed and exited once more, on the different topic of conversation. This was a bold device, breaking up the formality of conventional stage dualogues (where actors stood and spouted at each other, or even stood facing the audience). The staging created a sense of natural conversation. For the actors, too, this must have fostered a sense of simply strolling through a park, rather than being ‘on stage’. (49)

In this production we’re striving to find again the way to make our audiences see Uncle Vanya with the same kind of new, fresh eyes as those who saw these productions originally. So while the turn was away from a consciousness of stage-ness in Stanislavski’s production and an immersion in an on-stage environment that was pulled from real life, we are flipping the script so to speak. Making the stage-ness present, facing the audience (possibly for direct address moments), disregarding conventional architecture, double-casting … all while respecting the text and the inner truth of character … these are our bold devices to break up what has become the formality of convention.

I love that both Meyerhold and Stanislavski worked together and with Chekhov, especially given the very divergent paths they took in developing their own systems of acting and directing. I thought you might be interested in this story Meyerhold told about working with Stanislavski on Three Sisters as it illustrates a connection between Chekhov’s refusal to explain his characters to the actors and instead direct them to a character’s environment, way of doing things. The first story is from Meyerhold, the second is from an actor working in the [Moscow] Art Theatre interacting with Chekhov.on a production of The Seagull:

Another time this happened. I wanted to make the words sound anxious, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit anxious. It wasn’t working. Then he [Stanislavski] gave me a bottle of wine and a corkscrew and said: ‘Do your speech, and at the same time open the bottle.’ And really, when I started doing it, I found that what little anxiety I did feel began to grow. And I got it from the difficulty I was having opening the bottle of wine. I did it rather expertly, after all I know how to open a bottle (laughter). I hated Stanislavski, hated the bottle, hated everything — obstacle arose in my path, and then in my speech I found the intonation of truth. (qtd in Allen 53)

…when members of the Art Theater asked Chekhov for pointer on how to play his characters, he always answered them, not with an explanation of motivation or psychology, but in terms of minute details of behavior, and physical actions. For example, when Kachalov was rehearsing the role of Trigorin, Chekhov advised him that the character’s fishing rods should be ‘home-made’ — ‘he makes them himself with a pen-knife’ — and he smokes a good cigar — ‘perhaps not very good, but certainly wrapped in silver paper.’  […] But Kachalov was dissatisfied and persisted with questions So, Chekhov added:

‘You know when he, Trigorin, drinks vodka with Masha, I would certainly do this, certainly’ And at this he got up, adjusted his waistcoat, and cleared his throat awkwardly a couple of times. ‘You know, I would certainly do that. When you’ve been sitting for a long time, you always want to do that …’

‘But how can you play such a difficult role,’ I continued. Then he even got a little angry.

‘There’s nothing more, it is all written down,’ he said.