10 April 2006

From Revolutionary to Reactionary in 20 Years

Theatres ... were much more tightly controlled [after the Russian Revolution]. The Moscow Art Theatre soon had to search for a repertoire more attuned to the new era, just as Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko had to forget their enthusiasm for Kerensky, who had fled into exile following the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. In fact the tall and distinguished Stanislavsky now strode down Moscow streets with his fur coat thrown wide open to show a large red bow, demonstrating his revolutionary loyalty. The actors and stage crew of the Moscow Art Theatre became state employees on pitiful salaries and answerable to People's Commissar for Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky.

Bolshevik agitprop groups brought factory workers into the much larger Solodovnikovsky Theatre, just across the road, where Stanislavsky and his colleagues performed as part of a programme, designated 'Proletkult', to bring culture to the factory floor. This organization, promoted so strongly by Lunacharsky, was designed through groups of actors, musicians and singers to create a cultural revolution for the working class, just as the encyclopédistes had produced one for the bourgeoisie of eighteenth-century France. Lenin, however, was privately scathing about such efforts, partly because his own tastes owed more to the ancien régime, but also because he knew perfectly well that this was not real proletarian culture. At best, it was simply an attempt to force-feed the masses on high-minded political correctness. At worst, it was an excuse for cultural nihilists, such as Futurists like Mayakovsky, to call for the destruction of all traditional art works as a shock tactic of cultural liberation.

Some of these workers gaped in bewilderment at the Moscow Art Theatre production or simply ignored the proceedings and just ate, drank, smoked and chatted together. Others, however, shuffled their feet in irritation at what seemed to them a sympathetic portrayal of bourgeois life. Many yelled their opinions. On some occasions, the noise and behaviour struck Stanislavsky as so unseemly that he went front of stage to remonstrate with the audience. The Moscow Art Theatre, which had appeared so revolutionary when it began in 1898, now looked dated, if not reactionary. It was a depressing twentieth anniversary for those who, in Stanislavsky's phrase, 'always served beauty and nobility'. But he also acknowledged rather abjectly that 'we have become the representatives of experience; we have been placed as conservatives with whom it is the holy duty of the innovator to struggle. One must have enemies to attack.'
SOURCE: The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war, by Antony Beevor (Penguin, 2005), pp. 52-54

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