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The Moscow Art Theatre: A Model
By N. Ostrovsky

 

What follows is a copy of an article found in Volume 1, Number 4 of Theatre Arts Magazine, published in August, 1917. I can only assume that the copyright on this article is now in the public domain. If not, my apologies. If any organization or individual holds claim to this material, please advise me, and it will be removed, if desired.

Although I do not necessarily find the opinions of the writer at all times agreeable, I do find it interesting to reflect upon the perceptions of one living in 1917.

 

The Moscow Art Theatre, sometimes known as "The Sea-Gull Theatre", is probably the most important center of dramatic art in Europe. It is not a theatre in the American sense. That is, it is not merely a building to which travelling companies come. Nor is it like your stock companies, which are based on purely commercial standards, and in which the actors have no more interest than that of making a living and playing up their personal acting. The Moscow Art Theatre is more like an art institution, or a craftsmen's cooperative society. It is hardly too much to say that it is the one art institution in Russia that is best known to the world.

The history of the theatre began with a revolt of a forward-seeing playwright, Nemirovitch-Danchenko, against the stupid conservatism of the established Russian theatres. He was a dramatic teacher as well as a writer -- the sort of man whom the American theatre merchants would call a theorist and an outsider. He met in 1897 the since-famous Konstantin Stanislavsky, who at that time had become known only for his connection with an amateur dramatic society. The two formed a partnership and determined to start a new kind of theatre.

 

The first company was made up chiefly of amateurs. Rehearsals were started in a barn in the suburbs of Moscow -- just as humbly as many of your American little theatres are starting. The first productions, which were given in the unsympathetic atmosphere of a variety theatre, were treated to a storm of abuse from the critics and the men of the older theatres. But a few people saw a new something in the company's work, and the founders persisted in their venture.

 

In the early years of the project, the company was hampered by lack of money, and like many other worthy art ventures, this once contracted a large debt during its first year. But it found means to continue, and later became an exceedingly profitable enterprise. At the end of its worst season, a wealthy amateur of Moscow became interested, and secured the present home of the theatre, building for it one of the most modern stages in Europe.

 

The productions at the theatre are generally divided into three groups. First, there was a realistic phase, when the founders emulated the famous Theatre Libre of Antoine in Paris. They were fortunate in discovering the plays of Anton Tchekov. These had been thrown aside by the regular theatres as impossible, but with them the Art Theatre made its first great successes. The tendency toward deepest realism and naturalism continued, with the works of Gorky, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Hauptmann, until the theatre became stamped as one of the foremost exponents of naturalistic doctrines. In staging, absolute imitation of natural life became the rule. There was even an attempt to provide the semblance of the fourth wall of a room at the front of the stage, and at another time four room were shown on the stage at once. And in historical productions every detail had to be archaeologically correct. While this period of the theatre's work is now seen to be very one-sided, it served a good purpose in demolishing the old trickery and conventionality in acting, which had been left over from the romantic movement, and it showed up the faults of the old artificial methods of stage setting.

 

But a group of inspired artists could not long be satisfied with mere naturalism. Retaining their new quiet method of acting, the company swung to the extreme away from realism in staging. It began to search for utter conventionalization, and adopted a method of symbolism. The name of Maeterlinck now comes into the theatre's history, and the symbolistic staging of The Blue Bird was one of the most interesting achievements of the company. But most important among the experiments in this direction was the production of Hamlet with no other setting than Gordon Craig's folding screens. This production has become celebrated throughout Europe as a classic example of simplified staging.

 

The third phase of the theatre's work brought a return to modified realism. While the naturalistic method of staging was not revived, the purely symbolistic method was set aside and realistic dramatists came into favor again. The theatre really tried to combine the two methods, attempting to interpret the realistic plays spiritually. It sought to attain truth to life -- but artistic and not photographic truth. While preserving the stylistic, symbolic and lyric notes, which it had learned to value in its second phase, it tried to get back to types of drama more closely related to the present world. In Tchekov's plays especially it has learned to create mood.

 

The acting company contains no "stars." Perfect ensemble effect is the aim of every player, and an actor who has an important part in one play may be hardly more than a "super" in the next. The theatre now has the reputation of being the home of perhaps the best acting in Europe. Its actors are not taken from regular theatres, but are preferably trained from youth by the Art Theatre members. A school, or "Studio," has been established for this purpose, and to make possible experiments in new methods of staging. There are no curtain-calls, no matter how successful the production has been. And the audiences are requested not to applaud at any time during the course of the play.

 

The managers of the theatre are very receptive in their attitude toward new ideas, as the invitation to Gordon Craig to produce Hamlet proves. But, on the other hand, they never accept a new idea hastily. Indeed, thoroughness is a marked characteristic of their work. The Hamlet production was in preparation intermittently for at least three years, and there were 150 rehearsals of The Blue Bird.

 

The theatre is organized on the repertory plan. It produces on an average fifteen plays each year, of which three or four may be new. But on account of the necessity of being self-supporting, the best productions may be kept on the stage for several weeks. The theatre seats only about 1,100 people, a happy medium between the little theatres and huge commercial theatres in this country. Its stage is properly equipped for art production, with revolving stage and other modern improvements.

 

The organization of the company is cooperative. The actors receive comparatively small salaries, but after five years with the theatre they share generously in its profits, which now are large. Many of the players could earn a great deal more with other theatres, but prefer the artistic advantages of a company in which they have a personal interest.

 

The administrative system is a model for art theatres everywhere. A board of directors, composed of artists and men of affairs specially interested in the theatre, controls the general policy. The purely artistic activities are placed in the hands of the famous director Stanislavsky, to whom the actors and other workers on the stage must be obedient, and there is a business secretary who has charge of administrative matters aside from the producing of plays. The audiences also feel a cooperative interest in the theatre, since nearly all the seats are sold under a yearly subscription plan. Incidentally, they cost less than seats at the American theatres.

 

Altogether, it is probable that your little theatres can learn more from the Moscow Art Theatre than from any other in the world.


Design by Egorof for the Moscow Art Theatre's production of The Blue Bird. The first drawing represents "The Land of Memory", the second represents "The Cemetery." (From Jacques Rouches's L'Art Theatral Moderne.)

 
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