The following article is reprinted from The Path of the Modern Russian Stage and Other Essays. Alexander Bakshy. London: Cecil Palmer & Hayward, 1916.
We are told by the chroniclers of the Moscow Art Theatre how one summer day in 1897 Constantine Sergeyevich Alexeyev and Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko met at a restaurant and for eighteen hours on end discussed the position and the problems of the drama of their day. They had never met before. One was an amateur actor, the leader of a company of other amateurs--members of the Society of Art and Literature, which had distinguished itself by a number of carefully staged productions. The other was a successful playwright and a man of letters, whose devotion to the drama led him to the management of a school of acting. The dissatisfaction with the state of the Russian stage, which they both strongly felt, brought them together on that eventful day in June of 1897, and resulted in the establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre, which, whatever its faults or merits, has certainly fixed an epoch in the theatre history of Russia. After a few more meetings and discussions, a definite programme was worked out and the zealous reformers set themselves enthusiastically to the task of carrying it out.
There were innumerable difficulties to overcome. The first of them was the problem of finding the necessary capital--not an easy thing in ordinary matters and how much more so where artistic enterprise is concerned. A number of patrons were approached, and fortunately a few were found willing to support the venture. The sum collected was by no means an overwhelming one--something over two thousand five hundred pounds in all--but the enthusiasm of the promoters was of course a much greater asset. Next the company was formed. The members of the Society of Art and Literature and the students of the Philharmonic School supplied the bulk of the company. Amateurs and students! A poor material, one would think, to embark with on the ambitious scheme of creating a reformed theatre! And yet when we look through the list of names of the original company we cannot suppress our wonder at the number of those, who, since the "prehistoric" days of 1897 have attained popularity and even fame. Here we see Alexeyev himself, whose stage-name of Stanislavsky is a household word all over the country. Then, Mme Lilin, Luzhsky, Artem, and Sanin, from among his collaborators at the Society, and Mme Knipper, Mme Savitsky, Moskvin, and Meyerhold from among the students of Nemirovich-Danchenko--all have distinguished themselves as actors, or have otherwise left traces of their personality upon the modern Russian stage. The capital found, and the company formed, the next thing was to settle upon a theatre. After much hesitation and deliberation this problem was also solved, a small theatre being taken to accommodate the new home of artistic drama. It had been previously used as a variety-stage, a fact rendered sufficiently obvious by the lingering odour of wine which filled it.
A year after the first meeting of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, rehearsals were started in the country, some short distance from Moscow, where a friend of the company lent them a shed. Before, however, dealing with the ideas which guided the new theatre in its work, a word should be said on its organization.
At the head of the company stood Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky, whose mutual relations were strictly defined from the outset. Nemirovich-Danchenko was given an absolute veto in all questions of a literary nature, such as, for instance, the choice of a play, the definition of its meaning and characters, and the general treatment of its parts. Stanislavsky, in his turn, was given as absolute a veto in all questions of an artistic nature, such as setting, scenery, acting, etc... This strict division of rights and duties was in itself a source of strength to the theatre, having enabled the two men to co-operate in the common cause for many years without appreciable friction or discord. As to the actors, they were also bound by certain rules. Thus one of the main principles of the company was that no one could refuse to act a part offered him. It may be said generally that this was not an ordinary company of actors and actresses. Their salaries were amazingly small, varying from thirty-five to fifty shillings a week, and not a few of them had sacrificed much better positions, solely that they might join the new theatre. However, after four months of hard work and innumerable rehearsals, the Moscow Art and Popular Theatre, as it was originally styled, opened its first season with Count Alexis Tolstoy's tragedy Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich.
The first production proved an immediate success. The setting and mass-scenes impressed the public by the richness of their detail and the faithful representation of the period. After all the doubts and fears with which the whole company was looking forward to the first production, this definite success at once relieved the strain of uncertainty, and raised the premature hope that the theatre was firmly established. But disappointment came when it was least expected. A number of new productions which followed Tsar Fyodor in the usual way of the repertoire system, and which amongst other plays included Hauptmann's Sunken Bell, and The Merchant of Venice, failed to catch the popular sympathy, and takings slowly, but surely, began to dwindle to such sums as nine or ten pounds per evening. In addition, the production of a play by Hauptmann entitled Hannele, on the preparation of which a considerable sum of money had been spent, was suddenly forbidden on the ground that the ecclesiastical authorities objected to some of its parts. It will be easily understood what a feeling of depression set in amongst the members of the theatre. Fortunately, the production of the Sea-gull by Chekhov, two months after the opening of the season, instantly changed the whole situation. The Sea-gull was a tremendous success, and with two such draws as this play and Tsar Fyodor, the Moscow Art Theatre began to feel firmer ground under its feet.
The limits of this chapter do not permit of my further quoting the facts illustrating the external history of the Art Theatre. Suffice it to say that gradually it was able to overcome all the difficulties with which it had to contend, and to establish itself as the most popular theatre in Russia. It is now housed in a commodious and artistically decorated building and enjoys well-deserved prosperity. The queues of anxious applicants who two months before the actual performances spend several days and nights in the street in order to get their seats, provides sufficient illustration of the interest taken in the work of the Art Theatre. I will remember a dismal and misty night a good many years ago, when, with several hundreds of such enthusiasts, I waited outside the booking office from ten o'clock in the evening till two o'clock next afternoon. And I was one of the more fortunate ones, in that one kind soul who had already waited for some twenty-four hours offered to share with me the seats he was entitled to buy, if I agreed to take his place in the queue. But this was my only experience of the kind. On other occasions I chose the easier, though perhaps the more parasitic course, of leaving the pleasure of the night duty to my more enthusiastic friends.
This eager interest in the art of the theatre is in itself a striking illustration of the atmosphere in which the modern Russian theatre has to carry on its work. It takes time, of course, for a new theatre to create and educate its own public, and in not a few cases a new venture broke down through lack of resources, before the ideas put forward found favour with the public. But in Russia the playgoers are certainly more receptive and more alive to the original work in the theatre than they are in other countries, where the public taste has been corrupted by the demoralizing influence of unblushing commercialism. In the case of the Moscow Art Theatre, the purer and more artistic atmosphere prevailing in Russia was one of the chief factors that assured its success at the time when, still uncertain of its own powers, it embarked on a new and seemingly revolutionary path.
Let us now examine more closely the principles which the Art Theatre gradually evolved in the course of its development.
The essential feature of the new theatre was embodied in its peculiar name-- "The Moscow Art Theatre." Why an "Art" theatre? one may ask. One does not hear of "art painting" or "art music." Music or painting can be good or bad, but "art music"! The words seem simply to be redundant. Yet there was sense in the appellation. A reference has already been made to the conditions prevailing on the Russian stage towards the end of the 19th century. These conditions betrayed a state of provincial crudity, and were characterized by slovenliness and vulgarity of detail pretending to be realistic, which, singularly enough, flourished side by side with an exhibition of real dramatic genius on the part of a few gifted actors of the old school. The backslidings of this kind were so obnoxious to the taste of the better educated and more cultivated members of the public that drastic reform seemed to be urgently needed. The forms the new dramatic art was to assume, appeared, for the moment, perfectly clear: there was modern literature free and unrestricted in its portrayal of the world that corresponds to the intellectual and artistic demands of the modern man, and the drama, which was then considered but a branch of that literature, could have no other object save that of creating the same world on the boards of the theatre. Thus "Art" in the first place meant fidelity to the object represented, or, in the conditions of dramatic representation, a complete subordination of the methods of production to the subject of the play as this would exist outside the stage.
This general method, however, admitted of a variety of special forms. What peculiar features constitute the idea of reality? The simplist and the most natural answer would be: reality is what we see in real life, for is it not for this reason that we call it "real"? Once our material surroundings are faithfully reproduced, once the actors no longer act their parts but live in them, completely merged in the characters they represent, the stage is no longer a stage: it is transmuted into the world portrayed in the play. This tempting theory was enthusiastically adopted by the Art Theatre, the leaders of which had already had occasion of seeing how it worked in practice. Only a few years before they launched their theatre, the famous German company of the Meiningen actors, under the leadership of Cronegk, had paid a visit to Moscow and startled the public by the extraordinary realistic effects it was able to produce, both in the setting and the method of acting. With this example in their mind the Art Theatre boldly proclaimed the gospel of naturalism as the only road to salvation--and proceeded eagerly to emulate Cronegk. A few illustrations from their productions of this period will enable us to see to what length the new creed was carried.
We all remember the time-honoured three cloths with painted ornaments, pictures and fireplaces, which in the unsophisticated days of our youth represented a house which served equally well to accommodate the characters of all periods and all countries. From the naturalistic standpoint this, of course, was not to be thought of, and so in the Art Theatre we were given a room broken up into a number of more or less independent parts, with a view of other real rooms seen through the doors, and even with realistic suggestions of the stories above. Besides being nearer to "real life" this arrangement afforded special advantages for grouping the actors in different places, and introducing a greater variety. Needless to say, every setting on the stage of the Art Theatre faithfully reproduced the architecture, furniture, dress, and all other features of the period concerned. To achieve this accuracy the Art Theatre spared no efforts, as can be judged from the fact that special missions were sent to Rome when Julius Caesar was produced, to Silesia when The Carrier Henschel by Hauptmann was staged, and to various parts of Russia whenever a play possessed a semblance of local "colour." For some plays even local dialects were specially studied. With this fidelity to "nature," one will hardly be surprised to learn that rain on the Art stage did make the actors wet, that waterfalls were no sham imitation, or that specially embossed and painted papier-måché lining produced a perfect illusion of mud. In the same way, walls, cornices, and doors were made of their proper materials or suitable substitutes. And there were innumerable tiny articles on the tables and shelves to give the impression of the actual environment in which people lived.
If we turn to the method of acting we find a similar thing. All affectation in the manner of speech or acting was rigorously suppressed. Principal characters were deprived of all the artificial glamour, with which the conventional stage surrounds them in order to emphasize their importance. On the other hand, the secondary parts and the masses in which the leading members of the company had to appear, were raised to the same level as the central characters. A complete unity of the life portrayed, sustained throughout the play, and in this way a perfect ensemble of acting, running without a hitch, became the watchword of the Art Theatre.
It is important not to confuse the two methods of acting just described. The naturalistic method tended to reduce the contrasts between what was the principal and the secondary, the climax and the moments leading up to it, to the dead level of the mean, and agreed ill with many of the plays produced, particularly of the classical repertoire opposed to naturalism. On the contrary, the method of ensemble which the Art Theatre employed, revealed undreamed of possibilities in co-ordinated acting and has since become one of the most valuable means in representing (and I lay special stress on this word) the world pictured in the play.
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