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Russian Theatre Books

This book review will run in the Moscow Times Sat., Sept. 30, 2000. [Note from Lurana O'Malley: my own review of the Leach/Borovsky book will run in the upcoming issue of the new journal TEATR]

Book Review of two new books on Russian theater.

By John Freedman

Russian theater, perhaps as none other in the world, is capable of evoking in people an enthusiasm bordering on obsession.

It has been known to change people's lives -- and the course of history.

In his memoirs, Lee Strasberg described seeing performances by the Moscow Art Theater in New York in the 1920s as "the decisive step in my search for a solution to the actor's problem."

Strasberg, inspired by Konstantin Stanislavsky's famous acting System, went on to develop his own Method at the Actor's Studio in New York. This eventually would become the alma mater to such American legends as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman.

Strasberg may have been the most famous fan of Russian theater, but he was, and is, far from alone. I could fill several articles with tales of people who have changed professions or altered direction within a profession as a result of coming into contact with theater performed by Russians.

For all of that, readers looking for books on the subject will be frustrated at the bookstore. There just is not much out there.

That makes the appearance of two books especially welcome.

Konstantin Rudnitsky's ***Russian and Soviet Theatre. Tradition and the Avant-Garde*** is an oversized paperback reissue of a brilliant study of Russian theater between 1905 and 1932 that became an instant classic when it originally appeared in 1988. This is its first reprinting, and it is cause for celebration.

Also recently available is ***A History of Russian Theatre,*** edited by Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky. This collection of 18 chapters written by 15 scholars attempts to paint a comprehensive picture of developments on the Russian stage from the appearance in the 11th century of the traveling musicians and comedians called ***skomorokhi*** to the demise of the Soviet period in the early 1990s.

What the Leach-Borovsky book does best is provide an admirable amount of information in a single source. Specialists can use it to check a name or get a quick fix on a specific topic, although its encyclopedic prose is such that most readers will not take especial pleasure slogging through it.

The editors sought to fashion not only a history of the art form, but a larger cultural history putting the art form in context. In principal, that approach is sound.

Theater, especially in Russia, cannot be divorced from its political and sociological surroundings. State control of theatrical activity has been a constant in Russia from the beginning, with only certain levels of independence arising between the years of 1882 and 1917, and, again, in 1991.

But the social background given in this book is too sketchy to create a clear picture, while not nearly enough attention is devoted to key artistic developments.

One chapter treats us to four long paragraphs about an actor/impressario in the late 19th century who put on fireworks displays and bathing beauty contests, while the sole chapter on opera devotes two stray sentences to Fyodor Chalyapin.

In a similar fashion, the only chapter on ballet mentions the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky once. True, this section is entitled "The Russian Imperial Ballet," thus purposefully leaving aside Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, for whom Nijinsky starred in Europe. But the criteria for including the imperial ballet while neglecting Nijinsky -- to say nothing of the great achievements of Soviet ballet -- is neither clear nor justifiable.

Such distracting and seemingly haphazard choices of inclusion and exclusion are met repeatedly. Inexplicably, there is only passing reference made to the vast and influential art of Russian stage design.

The book has successes. A.D.P. Briggs wrote some nice passages on the contributions of the neglected playwright Alexander Shakhovskoi to the growth of drama in the early 19th century. Kate Sealey Rahman contributed a chapter on the great playwright and theater organizer Alexander Ostrovsky, making a convincing argument that this writer is ripe to be discovered in the West. There is a concerted effort among all the authors to focus on lesser-known women of importance.

But ultimately, "A History of Russian Theatre" is a hodgepodge of cultural narratives, statistics, artistic portraits, performance histories and plot summaries that functions best, if eclectically, as a reference work.

Konstantin Rudnitsky, who was born in 1920 and died in 1988, was the finest Russian theater historian of his time. His books on the great experimental director Vsevolod Meyerhold alone brought him international acclaim, although he wrote with impeccable authority on a myriad of topics from the mid-19th century to the 1980s.

His "Russian and Soviet Theatre," however, is in a class by itself. It was -- and in this reissue, remains -- a work of breathtaking range and depth. Not least of all in this lucid, stimulating narrative covering the 30 years when Russia was gripped by various revolutionary fevers are the amazing 457 illustrations, 64 of which are in glorious color.

It is a cliche that theater is the most perishable art, for no sooner has the curtain fallen than the work is gone forever. But this edition's spectacular photos, drawings and paintings, combined with Rudnitsky's flair for story-telling and his profound understanding of the creative process, bring us closer than we could ever have hoped to experiencing the excitement, variety and innovation of one of the great eras in world theater.

Rudnitsky himself was fondest of the protean talent of Meyerhold, a pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky who absorbed his mentor's experiments in realistic theater and then went out and broke all the rules, in the process, almost singlehandedly creating what has come to be known as 20th-century modernist or avant-garde theater.

And yet, Rudnitsky writes with equal conviction and understanding not only of Stanislavsky and his travails at the Moscow Art Theater as that legendary playhouse struggled to maintain its early successes, but also of such "rivals" of Meyerhold as the director Alexander Tairov, whose interest in spectacle and "enchanting beauty" irritated Meyerhold.

Some of the finest pages in this book are devoted to Alisa Koonen, who, as Tairov's wife and the leading actress at Tairov's Kamerny Theater, was one of the dominant figures of her age.

But the great depth of Rudnitsky's book comes clearest in the author's equally cogent discussions of figures history has often turned its back on. Read the pages devoted to Igor Terentyev, a daring director whose career ran its course in the 1920s, and you will sense an age of extraordinary diversity, where new theatrical ideas seemed to tumble out of people's heads as fruits do from a cornucopia.

The only drawback to "Russian and Soviet Theatre" is that it covers so short a period. But it was an age of such explosive change, rapid growth and rich development, it seems to cradle in itself the whole of all Russian theater. I would hazard to guess that Rudnitsky's passionate, colorful and insightful book will never be surpassed as the finest in its field. It is a joy to have it available again.

***Konstantin Rudnitsky. Russian and Soviet Theatre. Tradition and the Avant-Garde. 320 pages. Thames & Hudson.

Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky, editors. A History of Russian Theatre. 446 pages. Cambridge University Press.