In her classic book Babanova, the respected Russian critic and writer Maya Turovskaya wrote about Maria Babanova: “There are good actors, very good actors and splendid actors. And then there are uncommon actors – this word defines, it does not praise – and Maria Ivanovna Babanova was one of them. The Russian stage has not known such a unique actress before or since.” Babanova (1900-1983) achieved lasting fame working for a few years with Vsevolod Meyerhold. It is pretty much common knowledge that she was the perfect actor for him, physically agile, smart, able to do several things at once. She performed brilliantly in the lead role of Stella in the master’s famous production of The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) and, as the saying goes, she woke up the next morning famous. She played in Meyerhold’s next production, Ostrovsky’s Profitable Post (1923) at the Theater of the Revolution, again drawing the highest praise. But things were not to be so easy for the actress. Before long, without wishing it, she found herself in competition with Meyerhold’s wife Zinaida Raikh, who had been installed as Meyerhold’s leading lady in life and profession. By 1927 Babanova realized she had no hopes of realizing her full potential with Meyerhold and left to join the troupe at the Theater of the Revolution (later to be called the Mayakovsky Theater). There she performed until 1975. She took the stage one more time as an invited actress in Oleg Yefremov’s production of Edward Albee’s All Over (1979) for the Moscow Art Theater. Aside from her work with Meyerhold, Babanova’s most famous individual role was probably the title role of Alexei Arbuzov’s enduring hit Tanya (1939). There was seemingly work enough for her over the years – she performed in 23 shows over a 52-year period at the Mayakovsky. But you see the nagging discrepancy. No matter how you do the arithmetic, it still comes out to less than one show every two seasons. That is hardly a full card for an actress considered one of the greatest of her generation.
The gorgeous green building at 5 Petrovsky Lane, about two stones’ throw from Pushkin Square, was Babanova’s home for most of her career. She moved in here in 1933 and remained until her death 50 years later. It is located next to the theater she would have known as the Korsh Theater or the Second Moscow Art Theater (and these days is called the Theater of Nations), while at the end of the lane one sees the cupolas of the Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery.
My wife Oksana loves to tell a story that she heard from her director Boris Lvov-Anokhin many years ago. Lvov-Anokhin was a friend of Babanova’s in the last decades of her life and spent much time with her, listening to her tales of old. One was one of those stories that any actor can use as a hard lesson in the profession. It goes this way: Babanova one day was rehearsing a second-rate play with a second-rate director. He was attempting to find out if the actress had done her “homework” and had given sufficient thought to all those Stanislavskian things – physical and emotional memory and such. So when it came time for the actress to walk out on stage, she did so. And the director, thinking something was missing and attempting to help her, stopped the rehearsal and asked, “What are you coming out on stage with?” He was probably hoping to hear some elaborate, imagined and long-suppressed tale of childhood tragedy. Babanova, probably thinking of long-ago rehearsals with Meyerhold, whom she loved and admired unquestioningly to the end of her days, looked at her director and said, “My purse,” and turned around and left the stage.
One of the stories that Babanova told Lvov-Anokhin and which, in turn, filtered down to me by way of Oksana, involved the actress’s work with Meyerhold. He never “interpreted” actors’ roles for them and never gave them silly goals to work on. Meyerhold would provide what Babanova called a “geographical and rhythmic outline (partitura)” that clearly marked out the boundaries of a scene. Meyerhold would tell her, for instance, to run quickly down some stairs, stop, pause and look around, then continue to slowly descend before turning and racing back up the stairs. By doing what the director asked for, according to Babanova, the necessary emotions and intonations of the role followed automatically.
Babanova had a unique, high-pitched voice that was often compared to a bell ringing. You can hear a recording of her singing a bit and then delivering a monologue from Tanya on YouTube.