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Vakhtangov Theatre (Moscow)

26 Arbat Street, Moscow (tel.: +7 495 241-16-79, +7 495 241-16-93), Metro station: "Arbatskaya".

The history of the Yevgeny Vakhtangov Theatre (the Theatre, for short) began long before it was founded. In late 1913, the Student Drama Studio (the Studio, for short) was established by a group of very young, 18–20 year-old, Moscow students who decided to study theatre art according to Stanislavsky's system. Moscow was full of gossip about the Studio. Yevgeny Vakhtangov, a thirty-year-old actor and a stage director at the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT, for short), who had already built his reputation as the best teacher that used the system, agreed to supervise the studies.

Vakhtangov did not promise that the students would become real actors; he said that it was much more important what kind of people they would become. From the First MAT Studio (the First Studio, for short), he brought an idea of moral improvement, which was taught to him by his teacher Leopold Sulerzhitsky. The new students welcomed the passion for the service of good. Employing their youthful strictness when enrolling students, the organisers of the Studio meticulously enquired into the motives of each and every candidate and were less pre-occupied with acting talents of the candidates.

It was decided to start with a play production right away: Boris Zaytsev's play The Lanins' Estate was selected. Since the Studio did not have its own rooms, a new place was used every day: one day it would be a tiny room of a student, the next day it could be a living room, rented for one evening, of a private apartment. Everything seemed romantic. The play itself was overfilled with love. As Vakhtangov explained, "The essential thing that had to be conveyed in that production was a sort of drunkenness with the spring, with the air and with the scent of the lilac that has just burst into flower." When three months later, on 26 March 1914, The Lanins' Estate was performed at the Hunters Club, the spring was already there, the air was intoxicating, and everybody was in love with everybody else.

The sets for the production were improvised, with clothes hanging over the stage, which was becoming fashionable at the time; anyway, there was no money available for professional design. Greyish green, cheap sackcloth was bought, and several pots with prop lilacs represented a terrace. In order to strengthen the feel of spring, the entire stage was scented with a perfume called Lilac. To tell the truth, the actors performed in an unsure manner, hesitantly, with some of them being virtually inaudible at all. However, they did not even notice their failure: instead, they went to a restaurant to celebrate the premiere, and then wandered about Moscow together with Vakhtangov all night long, and in the morning, having bought fresh newspapers, roared with laughter at devastating reviews.

After such a disgrace, the management of MAT forbade Vakhtangov to take any kind of job on the side, and, for this reason, the Studio decided to go underground. Everybody signed a statement that he or she would not tell the secret. This mystery endowed the membership at the Studio with new romanticism. In addition, it was decided that some serious studies were needed. Thus, it was probably for the first time in history that a theatre school had been created long before the theatre itself was founded.

In the autumn of 1914, the Studio settled in a small apartment in Mansurovsky Lane, off Ostozhenka Street (it was then that the Studio was dubbed the Mansurovsky Studio). A part of this apartment was used as a dormitory for students, while a tiny stage and an auditorium that seated 35 people were set up in another part.

Vakhtangov was insatiable and never rejected any job: he worked as a stage director at the First Studio, an actor at MAT and also at the First Studio (he always suffered from the fact that he played, in his opinion, so little, and before his death he desperately begged not to give his part to Mikhail Chekhov, a nephew of the writer Anton Chekhov) and he taught anywhere he could. Even though the money that his students paid him was barely enough for cab fares. Having noticed a misprint, "Ninth Studio of Vakhtangov", in a newspaper, he laughed at it, but there were many more than nine places where he was expected, day and night.

It seemed as if, having never forgiven his possessive and gloomy father his burdensome, love-deprived childhood in the town of Vladikavkaz, he was now searching for a real home; two years before, he happily replied to a suggestion to create the Studio: "I can't imagine anything better: we have our own stage. Our own rooms... Our own curtain... Think about it: it is our own theatre. Our own, small and cosy. Where one could relax by working. Where one would invest all one's love into. Where one would share all one's joy and sorrow. Dear faces. Kind eyes. Tender feelings. Everybody is a friend to everybody else. We approach everybody's soul tenderly and carefully. We cherish it. We are honest and loving. We feel the sanctity. Nothing rude. Nothing abrupt."

It may well have been that this unquenched sorrow made enormous his exactingness to the home that he was constructing. Vakhtangov insisted that the Studio be the most important thing in life for each of his students, even be his or her entire life. The principle was: "If you have something else in your life, you had better be leaving." He conceded that it was like a monastery. He introduced a notion of "studioness": "studio" and "unstudio"action, "studio" and "unstudio" person. It may well have been that this way he tried to create a kind of special life to his own design, kind of special relationships. He put up wall of moral prohibitions, trying to save the members of the Studio from the ill influence of the outside world. By building a complex hierarchy of the Studio's members, he sought to protect the Studio from strangers.

He was still in need of a home, even after he had seemingly found one at the First Studio, a friendly, cosy home, with a lit fireplace and a "cricket" (this image of the family was taken from his favourite production based on Dickens' novella The Cricket on the Hearth). No, it was his own home that he needed, one where he would be the head of the family, the father and the master.

Even at a very early age Vakhtangov felt that he was strong enough to be a leader and that he had a right to be a teacher. He did not just teach, but he rather brought up. He preached. His intransigence and maximalism as well as his high pathos were justified by his aspiration for the absolute, naked sincerity and by his life in theatre, which was ten years of burning oneself out.

As a teacher, he was at times cruel and at times tender. The insults that he made could not be forgotten, as a lesson learnt. His charm, his stage-directorial demonstrations, his sense of humour, his brilliant and unpredictable imagination were incredible, while his stage director's intuition and sensibility were enormous.

Vakhtangov's relationship with the Studio was similar to love: it involved jealousy, continual heart-to-heart talks, intolerance, a tragic break-up and a new reunion. For him, the most evil day was the one in 1919 when twelve talented people left the Studio. Vakhtangov was devastated, because the Studio was already his home: in 1917, having emerged from the underground, the Mansurovsky Studio was renamed Moscow Vakhtangov Drama Studio. It was as if his family had broken up or he had been betrayed. However, the departure of the twelve members of the Studio was simply their proud and miserable gesture of being hurt: they had not received enough love. Yury Zavadsky staged the plays Doll of the Infanta and Puss in Boots by Pavel Antokolsky; however, it seemed to those involved that Vakhtangov was not interested in productions made independently by themselves and that he was pre-occupied with how to save the Studio from a collapse. Later, some of those who had left came back and asked for an apology, and some, having not reconciled their old betrayal with themselves, wrote desperate love letters to Vakhtangov before his death.

The reunion of the Studio was painful: young people from other studios came, admission to the first year of the school was announced; this way Boris Shchukin and Tsetsiliya Mansurova joined the Studio, followed by Ruben Simonov, Aleksandra Remizova, Mariya Sinelnikova and Yelizaveta Alekseyeva. However, Vakhtangov was not able to overcome his disappointment for a long time, refusing to recognise the Studio as his own and obstinately calling it the Mansurovsky Studio.

Rehearsals went on. The production of Maurice Maeterlinck's play The Miracle of Saint Antony, which was performed as early as in 1918, was restored with a new cast; and in summer, Vakhtangov staged the play The Wedding by Chekhov. Both the productions were charming and kind-hearted. There was no satire in them; they just made affectionate fun of the dear, foolish and somewhat silly characters. In a year, both the productions would be completely remade. As a stage director, Vakhtangov evolved rapidly and in an unpredictable manner: at the First Studio, he went from the almost naturalistic, psychologically naked The Reconciliation by Gerhart Hauptmann and The Sin Flood by Henning Berger (which also had its "maternal roots" at MAT) to a self-denial and an asceticism of the pure thought in Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm. Later, Vakhtangov would stage a sarcastic grotesque of The Miracle of Saint Antonio and The Wedding, a contrast and a "fracture" of the expressionist Erik IV by August Strindberg (at the First Studio again), then a mystic act of Gadibuk by Semyon Ansky at the Habima Studio and a happy lightness of Princess Turandot based on the play Turandot by Carlo Gozzi. Vakhtangov sought to create new theatre with every new production. At that moment, he was already fatally ill and exhausted by never-ending surgeries, and he had only two more years to live; however, it was thanks to those two years that he entered the history of theatre as a great stage director.

On 13 September 1920, the Vakhtangov Studio was accepted into the "family" of MAT as the Third MAT Studio (the Third Studio, for short). On 29 January 1921, the second version of The Miracle of Saint Antony was premiered.

Vakhtangov had completely remade the production by having absolutely changed his interpretation of the characters: the production had been deprived of its tenderness. An daily-life comedy had turned into a tragic farce. Clad in black, the relatives of the deceased old woman became similar to ugly shadows, a kind of chimeras against a background of white walls and white furniture. Horrible, like Francisco Goya's characters, with disgusting faces resembling masks and moving in a mechanical manner like robots or puppets, they were creating an evil, grotesque and dead world. Black groups of man and women, like two flocks of predator birds, were acting as if in response to a command: sighing together and gesticulating in the same way; as P. Markov wrote, "a crowd was moving slowly and rhythmically as one, and when it broke up at times, it seemed as if it was a body breaking apart, with its limbs falling off." Here, while staging crowd scenes, Vakhtangov introduced a notion of a "point", which is a mise-en-scene that freezes for a moment. Like a sculptor, he shaped expressive bas-reliefs out of his actors. The arms were especially important: the people in the crowd reacted to events by moving their arms simultaneously, now in surprise, now in order to ask a question and now in fear. (In a year, Vakhtangov would stage an entire "symphony of arms" in his production of the play Gadibuk at the Habima Studio).

Zavadsky performed the part of Saint Antony: he wall tall, slender, spoke in a rich voice, and his motions were nobly free and quiet. Being strict and focused as a result of his complete knowledge and demonstrating lucid holiness and faith, he contrasted with the surrounding nightmare of the mechanic monsters, and, for this reason, it was impossible not to believe in his miracles. In the final of the performance, the audience, transfixed, experienced some kind of awe.

The image of the production was simple and bright; however, this kind of lapidarity made the play much more serious by turning it into almost Medieval performance about Good and Evil. Perhaps, a basis for that was laid by Maeterlinck himself, because what he wrote was indeed a miracle play of the 20th century.

Three months later, a new production by Vakhtangov, Strindberg's Eric XIV, was released by the First Studio. In it, death clashed with life again: the sufferings and horrors as well as the fear of the raving crowds of the first years of the 1917 Russian Revolution were present there. In the "dead kingdom", the faces of the courtiers were similar to masks as they slid, whispering to each other, like ghosts among cubes and around a "fractured" ground. And among them there was a languishing and unhappy, at times reaching a point of desperation, Erik XIV played by Mikhail Chekhov.

After The Miracle of Saint Antony, Vakhtangov continued with reworking Chekov's The Wedding. And there again, like in The Miracle of Saint Antony, his directorial interpretation turned out to be derisive and harsh: instead of a funny incident, spectators faced a meaninglessly ugly and even a tragic life. What had been funny became dreadful.

Not a living thing: just human monsters, similar to mechanic dolls with glass eyes; "mugs and snouts, and the quadrille dance as the engine of their lives," as one reviewer put it. Laughter stopped abruptly after the offended old man cried drawlingly and plangently, "Waiter! Waiter!", with the pre-revolutionary Russian for "waiter" meaning more generally "man" or "human". However, there were no human beings around.

While n The Miracle of Saint Antony and The Wedding the actor's arms were very expressive, in this production, again being reminiscent of Goya's etchings, "surprising and unusual was the performance of the mouths, with them being at times round, wide open, meaningless, stupidly shouting the ridiculous "Hurrah!" and at times dry, pursed, angry, resenting the behaviour of the general," as the stage director Boris Vershilov remembered.

Vakhtangov's change was striking. Strained and tragic, his new style, which transformed the expressive stage movement into almost a dance, which "condensed" the reality into a symbol and which always was on the brink between life and death, was yet to be named.

Some called it "neorealism", while some proposed "naturalism", but all that was not good enough. Vakhtangov himself referred to what he was doing with the strange and telling term "fantastic realism", and this name caught on (though around 15 years later socialist realism would crush it down).

That was a moment when Vakhtangov broke up with MAT, which he described as "naturalist" and "everyday-life" (that was not quite true after the theatre had produced its versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dostoyevsky's Demons and Andreyev's Thought). However, this break-up was somewhat too noticeable to everybody and too vehemently stated in Vahktangov's own diaries to be completely true. His rejection of his love to MAT, to his worshipped Stanislavsky and his deeply respected Nemirovich-Danchenko included a protest of a son that had left his family, nevertheless remaining obviously an individual brought by his parents and similar to them. His insolent and excessive accusations against, as he put it, "Stanislavsky's theatre that has died" were a rebellion against the constricting parental love and care. Vakhtangov was led by his enthusiasm for independent pursuit and his new passion for Vsevolod Meyerhold and, finally, his avidity for life that he interpreted as the creative act. On Sunday, 13 November 1921, a permanent theatre of the Third School was opened at Berg Mansion, 26 Arbat Street (the Vakhtangov Theatre has been situated at that address up to now). The mansion had been obtained by the Studio as early as the previous summer, and since then major repairs had been made there. The theatre was opened with a performance of The Miracle of Saint Antony. This day is considered a birthday of the Theatre.

Vakhtangov was living a feverish life: he was teaching, playing, staging wherever he could; he suddenly felt an extraordinary creative freedom that provided access to everything for him as an artist. However, his life force was waning. As early as in March of 1919, he wrote to Stanislavsky: "I am writing about something that I have never said to you directly. I know that my days on earth are short. I calmly accept the fact that I will not live much longer, and I need you to know about my attitude towards you, towards the art of the Theatre and towards myself... A person has no reason to hide the truth when his days are numbered." Suffering from pain, he could not sleep almost at all; having grown thin and with fiery eyes, he was racing against time. "The days were not enough for him, he turned the nights into days", the Jewish actors told about him. On 31 January, the Habima Studio performed Ansky's The Dybbuk, a poetic tragedy based on an old legend about reincarnation staged by Vakhtangov in the Hebrew language.

Less than in a month, the night between 23 and 24 February 1922 saw the last rehearsal of Princess Turandot. Shaking with chills, Vakhtangov was wearing a fur coat and had his head wrapped in a wet towel. He set up the light himself and made the actors to keep the same mise-en-scene for a long time. At four in the morning, he gathered everybody and ordered: "The entire play, from the beginning to the end!" Having returned home, he went to bed only to never get out of it again.

On 27 February, the members of the Studio, without Vakhtangov, performed for the first time to submit their work to MAT. The entire company including the MAT's First and Second Studios as well as the Habima Studio.

Vakhtangov had selected this play almost by accident: in the beginning, the Studio rehearsed the adaptation of Turandot by Friedrich Schiller, but that version seemed too slow-paced and heavy. Then, the idea to perform the original play, the one by Gozzi. Vakhtangov needed a stimulus for improvisation, and since Gozzi was not ashamed of imagination, Vakhtangov considered his play to be the best form for the actor's improvement and self-assertion. For the premiere, Vakhtangov sent a letter that was read by Zavadsky from the stage before the performance started: "We are now only starting, we don't have a right to suggest to the audience a production performed by superb actors, because such actors have not been shaped yet..."

The Chinese tale about a cruel-hearted princess and a enamoured prince could have been staged as a refined stylisation. This was exactly how Fyodor Kommissarzhevsky staged it shortly before the 1917 Russian Revolution: little lanterns, stylized stage sets and magnificent Chinese costumes. However, the elegant props hid the meaning of the tale: a story about misadventures and about the victory of love. While this Vakhtangov's production concealed, behind its extremely charming appearance, true tears, passion, insidiousness and wholeheartedness. Vakhtangov mixed the light Gozzi with the magniloquent Schiller, and his actors played not only the characters from the naive and romantic tale, but quite real-life Italian actors of commedia dell'arte who used to impersonate those characters without support of an established text, in squares under the open sky.

During the rehearsals, Vakhtangov said: "Imagine the following: an actor enters the stage. This is the main character. His eyes are glowing with passion. He is telling a monologue. A true suffering can be heard in his every word. Tear are flowing over his cheeks. But he is not hiding them from the spectators. He is bringing them downstage: you see how I am crying, how I am suffering, how I love my beloved! Now the monologue has finished. Great ovation from the audience. And, through the tears that have not yet dried, he is smiling at the spectators. He is catching oranges flying from the audience. He is blowing a kiss to a beauty sitting in the fifth row."

Thus, the young actors of the Studio did not "play theatre" at all, as some people thought: their sincerity was unconditional. However, while creating a theatrical image, they also presented their attitude to it: they either admired their characters or laughed at them. They felt as if they were strolling comedians from an ancient masque theatre and, most importantly, at the same time they considered themselves contemporary actors. They all, Boris Zakhava, Tsetsiliya Mansurova, Yury Zavadsky, Aleksandra Remizova, Boris Shchukin, Ruben Simonov and Anna Orochko, were not merely actors, but had the same rights as the author. They did not conceal the joy of independent creative work. Having been transferred to the audience, this joy created a feeling of incomparable lightness. This "liberation" of the actor was invented by Vakhtangov.

Pavel Antokolsky wrote: "All the available courage and bravery was required in order to break through the shell of stylising prejudices and through the rags of all this harlequinade (only appropriate for candy boxes) to see the real core of Italian commedia dell'arte".

This Vakhtangov's production used music by Nikolay Sizov and Aleksandr Kozlovsky: unsophisticated galops and polkas, at times sounding like bravura and at times being lyrical. The orchestra employed combs with tissue paper, rattles and whistles, which endowed the music with childish, simple-hearted and happy intonation.

The song ran like this: "Here we start with our simple song; very soon our platform will turn into China..."

The traditional masks of commedia dell'arte served as conferenciers: Tartaglia, a naive and stuttering lover of thoughtful reflections played by Boris Shchukin as a pre-occupied child; Pantalone, a funny and clearly provincial (judging by the accent) old government minister (Ivan Kudryavtsev); Brigella, a roguish and rough "warrior" and the head of guards (Oswald Glazunov); and Truffaldino, an acrobat showing off with his skits and an embodiment of elegance and agility. A communication with the audience started immediately, during the presentation of the actors. The men dressed in immaculate tailcoats and the women dressed in refined evening dresses from the famous designer Nadezhda Lamanova (as Vakhtangov admitted, the clothes were actually made of cheap silk for lining, thick flannelette and coarse linen) lined up in front of the curtain, and Zavadsky addressed the spectators by reading a letter from Vakhtangov, which personally presented each actor and told about future plans of the Studio. During later, ordinary performances, the actors were presented by Tartaglia who continually made asides such as "The Russian language has only three words that end with va: Zakhava, korova ("cow") and halva (halva)" or "Them female slaves are all the oppressed class".

Then, suddenly, colourful and light clothes would fly up, and the actors, having been draped right in front of the audience, would turn into the tale characters, while the zanni, the servants of the proscenium, would turn the stage into a Beijing street. Random objects when taken by the actors obtained a new, performance-related meaning: a muffler scarf turned into a beard of a khan, a lampshade into a hat of a wiseman, a table cloth into a cloak, a tennis racquet into a sceptre and a candy-box lid turned into a portrait of a beauty.

When designing for Princess Turandot, the set designer Ignaty Nivinsky used his own stage sets for Erik XIV as a model: he came up with a deformed, sloped stage broken into small areas and featuring a "sharp" wooden column in the middle, gym trapeze and rings, stairs and balconies. A flat, yellow sun and a moon showed the time of the day. Two or three thin curtains were enough to transform the stage into a Beijing street or a throne room.

Everything in this Vakhtangov's production was an extremely natural application of the latest achievements of "formalist", "left" theatre; this included a use of conventions in the stage sets, which were also quite acute; a playful exposure of theatre machinery (the flies hanged in open view, and the zanni changed the sets before everybody's eyes); a festiveness of the dresses, tailcoats and the light, thin curtains, which suggested "playing theatre"; a rejection of the realistic credibility; a musical composition of motion and speech; and even a replacement of the play with a constantly changing script (which contained interludes that discussed contemporary topics and improvisations in the spirit of comedia dell'arte). In Princess Turandot, everything that raised expert disputes in other theatres was made attractive and easy-to-understand for any spectator. What seemed scandalous or audacious a day before, what was a challenge for sophisticated minds and what led to clashes between theatre talents, here lost the pathos of aesthetic manifest and seemed a natural condition for performance of young actors.

It turned out that the irony of this production (an unrestricted mixture of styles, intertwined everyday life and imagination, an eccentrically shifted meaning of things, slang coming out of a minister's mouth) did not destroy the poetry of the tale and preserved the sincerity, the drama of the fantastic misfortunes and the faith in a victory of love.

The beautiful, infinitely feminine, capricious and touching Turandot (the first part of Mansurova) was a carefree little girl and an arrogant princess at the same time. The everybody's favourite and handsome Zavadsky played the soulful, flexible, agile and noble Calaf who told long monologues caused by his sincere romantic impulses. With her deep voice, full of drama, and the fire that raged inside her, Orochko revealed her talents of a tragic actress by playing the passionate Adelma.

The spectators present at the famous, first performance roared with laughter, being not able to stop, and applauded continually. During an interval, Stanislavsky took a cab and went to Vakhtangov to congratulate him (having sent his actors to the performance, Vakhtangov was lying alone in his dark apartment). The second act was delayed, waiting for Stanislavsky's return. After the performance had finished, he again called Vakhtangov to express his admiration. It was not a mere success: the production caused a furore, a jubilation and an endless ovation. Having jumped onto an armchair, Mikhail Chekhov proclaimed, "Bravo to Vakhtangov!", which caused a storm of exaltation in the audience.

The success of Princess Turandot was universal: it was loved by Arbat intellectuals, university students, workers, and well-dressed businessmen. For a short time, everybody was made happy by the unsophisticated tale. Later, a perfume called Prince Calaf appeared, and everywhere at parties people danced a waltz called Turandot. Everybody knew the production.

With the gloomy Communist reality setting in outside his theatre, Vakhtangov staged a show that did not praise it, but rather was defiant of it. For many years, this defiance would be protecting Vakhtangov's students and their world from destruction. "Having watched Turandot, I believe in the melted snow and the return of birds as part of the coming spring, because this spring has already started in Berg Mansion, Arbat Street," wrote a reviewer.

Being full of life and opening all its secrets to the end with seeming naivety (which was in fact wisdom), this production contained the triumph of theatre and its justification. Vakhtangov was sure about one thing: theatre is attractive not despite being full of conventions and deceit, but rather thanks to it.

After having staged the "raw nerve" productions that cried with anxiety and despair and were painfully dissonant, twisted and full with nightmares of a dead world defeating the living world, Vakhtangov came up with a masterpiece of harmony and a hymn to theatre and life. Dying, Vakhtangov created a production full of such incredible life force and of such strong and happy faith in victory, which for a moment made one believe that there was no such thing as death. Vakhtangov overcame death with art. And died after that.

On the evening of 29 May, Nadezhda, Vakhtangov's wife, called the Studio and told that Vakhtangov was really ill. Members of the Studio came to see him: Boris Zakhava, Tsetsiliya Mansurova, Anna Orochko, Kseniya Kotlubay, Konstantin Mironov, and others. Around thirty people gathered. Vakhtangov died around ten in the evening. The following day, Stanislavsky came. On 31 May, Vakhtangov was buried; the coffin was carried by his students and friends all the way from the Studio to the Novodevichy Cemetery.

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Vakhtangov Theatre