The history of Soviet theatre can be told in two different ways, because the Soviet and Western histories sound completely different. Some people might actually say that it seems like the theatre’s history in two fundamentally different states. In my latest article I wrote specifically about Chekhov. This article is supposed to discuss the development of Soviet theatre from 1917 until 1941 including both mentioned points of view. (Hirniak et al. 1954: vii)
The development of drama and theatre since the Russian Revolution in 1917 is, according to Soviet theatre experts, a problem for a socialist repertoire. The historians lament the impact of the Soviet government concerning freedom of speech in Soviet theatre. Moreover, they consider the time since 1917 as a progressive disclosure of the rules for socialist art in theatre, because the prerevolutionary theatre is said to be an elitist theatre which is more interested in form than content. Before I explain why some Soviet writers think typical Russian theatre methods do not fit into the new socialist theatre, I myself will give you a quick overview about the two main methods. (Hirniak et al. 1954: vii)
The first acting method by Konstantin Stanislavsky is best described with the phrase “express yourself”. Stanislavsky wanted his actors to feel their roles and express the emotions, which are felt by the characters in the actual scenes, as if they were their own feelings. In fact, he wanted his actors to be the play’s figures because, in his opinion, it had to be real. On the contrary, Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theatre is based on a concept called “biomechanics” whereby effective gesticulation and strict body tension are supposed to express the emotions of the characters. Furthermore, Meyerhold’s method is based on a coolish, strict, controlled and artificial way of expression. That is the reason why his method is the exact opposite of Stanislavsky’s one. Personally, I am a big fan of Stanislavsky and his acting method because his theatre is real and you have the possibility to feel the characters’ emotions which are presented by the actors.
So that is why some Soviet writers assessed Stanislavsky as too “mystic” and Meyerhold as too “aesthetic” for the new socialist theatre. The official view is that “new theatre” has to bring classic works back en vogue. Moreover, new plays for teaching people, in regard to their behaviour in the “new society”, should be written. (Hirniak et al. 1954: vii)
On the other hand, the Western view of Soviet theatre history is a completely different one, because their representatives evaluated this process as a time of degeneration. To be honest, many early popular reports about Soviet theatre, which were written in English, were very similar to the Soviet propaganda itself. However, a lot of serious Western observers criticised that art and theatre used to be controlled by the Soviet government or the state party. Western experts describe the first years after the Revolution in 1917 as a time full of international theatre movements which took place in Soviet Russia. In addition, it was said that every famous person, who came to artistic maturity during the Russian Revolution, was a man. Apart from this, world-famous Soviet producers became silent little by little, because the government shut them down one by one. (Hirniak et al. 1954: viii)
Well, there are some writings in English, like e. g. articles, letters or memoirs about Soviet theatre, which are written by great men of the Russian theatre. They are supposed to give an insight into the circumstances regarding the life and the world of theatre under the Soviet regime. Getting back to Stanislavsky, there is to mention that he wrote two papers about this issue which are called My Life in Art and The Actor Prepares. Some of Meyerhold’s rehearsal notes and Nemirovich Danchenko’s My Life in the Russian Theatre puzzle this great collection together. Of course, the mentioned works are only a fraction of the whole accumulation. (Hirniak et al. 1954: viii)
It is of particular importance to emphasise that the above mentioned contributors and all the rest of them left the U.S.S.R. soon after 1940. So that is the reason why their works mainly refer to the 1920s and 1930s. (Hirniak et al. 1954: x) Another key factor is that in Soviet Russia all theatres were nationalized in August 1919 and a “Theatre Central Committee” was also formed. The thing is, the theatrical collectives’ members became members of an all-Russian trade union. (Hirniak et al. 1954: xi) Now I could bore you with a long list of historical events but I chose not to because I just want to make clear that the Soviet regime had an enormous impact on Soviet theatre and its development.
Instead I am trying to give you a sense of the social situation at that time. As you can imagine, life was not exactly fun and games all day long. In fact, the whole state gathered in excited meetings because the country was full of panic, chaos, problems and anxiety. This applies just as much for the theatre area as any other area concerning people’s social life. Anyway, the circumstances in the theatre scene were disastrous because the theatres’ directors fled and the financial condition of the theatres was catastrophic, too. Donations or subsidies did not exist and the theatre companies themselves were not interested in paying salaries to their workers. In addition, free tickets were distributed in army divisions, factories or plants, for example. Discipline and attitude fell totally apart in the theatre world on these days. (Hirniak et al. 1954: 2 ff.)
Unfortunately, telling the whole story of the Soviet theatre’s development would go beyond the scope of this article. Maybe I will come back to this topic in another article and write about theatrical studios after the U.S.S.R. collapsed.
source: Hirniak, Yosyp et al. (1954): Soviet Theaters. 1917 – 1941. In: EDWARDS BROTHERS, INC., Michigan.