I’m being a little prickly by doing this one today. Everybody and his uncle is writing about the unveiling today of a monument to Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko on Kamergersky Lane in front of the Moscow Art Theater. Google it, you’ll find it. I’m not doing that because I’ve been working all the day right here at this computer of mine. I’ll yet have to find the time to get down to the Art Theater and shoot the new statue (as well as the new one of Anton Chekhov which was unveiled yesterday at Moscow University), but until that happens this little post will have to do. It’s a pretty good one, actually, even if on the surface it looks rather bland. You see, you’re not going to find this information in many other places besides my blog. There is no plaque here, no statue, no reminder, no nothing, that would inform you that in the 1920s and 1930s Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko himself, one of the great members of the duo who created the Moscow Art Theater, lived in this building in Apt. No. 1. I know that because of some cool old books I once picked up at various used bookstores in the days where there used to be such a thing – I mean, a bookstore. The books are from a series of theater catalogues that give all kinds of unexpected information about theaters and theater artists for the year in which they were published. I have copies for 1927-28, 1928, 1930, 1935 and 1936. All bear similar but different titles – Theatrical Moscow, Theater Catalogue, Theater-Musical Catalogue for the USSR, etc. In addition to listing scads of details about every venue in town, at the end of each book there is what we could call a phone book for the theater community. Everybody’s listed there, with name, address and, often, phone number. Need to find Mayakovsky quick? Meyerhold? Tairov? Koonen? Erdman? Bil-Belotserkovsky (spelled with just one “l” unlike everywhere else I have ever seen)? They’re all here from the big to the small, the famous to the important. If you’re interested, Nemirovich-Danchenko’s phone in 1936 was 4-54-02.
When Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858-1943) lived in this building the street was called Gertsen, or Herzen, Street. The name now has gone back to its pre-Revolution name of Bolshaya, or Big, Nikitskaya. The house number is 50. It’s a lovely, solid, Russian-looking building that just oozes impressiveness. Look at how high the ceilings are on what appears to us to be the second floor. I’m guessing that’s the actual first floor and that our hero of the day would have looked out of some of those high, arched windows while nursing a nightcap in a crystal goblet after a long day’s work at the world’s most famous theater.
Nemirovich-Danchenko is an interesting figure who, in the West, is eclipsed in fame hundreds of times over by Stanislavsky. The latter was more charismatic, he was an actor and a director and he had that good fortune of writing a couple of books that – well – that made him one of the greatest theater gods ever. Nemirovich-Danchenko was a quite conventional playwright at the end of the 19th century and later a director who could never quite muster the respect of his partner. I wrote “partner” and realized I have to justify that quickly. According to legend the two fell out relatively soon after they founded their theater and they didn’t talk to each other for the last couple of decades of their lives. Mikhail Bulgakov created a pretty funny parody of that in his novel Theatrical Novel (Black Snow). What many in the West may not know is that Nemirovich-Danchenko’s penultimate production – Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 1940 – is considered one of the great productions not only of that era, but of that theater, of that writer, and of that incredibly storied troupe of actors.
According to the two-volume Moscow Art Theater: One Hundred Years encyclopedia, Nemirovich-Danchenko said the following to his actors at the last meeting before the show premiered: “This work on Chekhov’s play has stirred up all the problems of our [contemporary] theater art. It also made us remember the past. There was a time when Chekhov came to our young theater with the new tones of his plays. We are accustomed to calling them ‘half-tones’ but that word is incorrect. It’s just that they are different tones […]. Little by little the Chekhovian tones became cliched and offputting. That happened because they slowly began to degenerate into a crestfallen tone (‘Ah! the Art Theater!’). Let’s take care that we don’t go down that road!”
Okay, and I’ll use this opportunity to clarify something that always irks me. The proper use of the term is the Moscow Art Theater. It is not The Moscow Arts Theater. It was intended as a theater of art, that is, an art theater, i.e., a theater which engages in art, hence the Moscow Art Theater. Period. End of that discussion.