Click on photos to enlarge.
These photos of the Moscow Art Theater were taken either in Dec. 2013 (the first and last) or Jan. 2015 (all others). A lot of snow has been shoveled since the small event took place that I’m actually writing about. That would have been, I am guessing, in the late spring or early summer of 1993. It could have been a year later, because the great actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky did not die until August 1994. But I don’t think it was that late. I’m quite sure that it was not the summer of 1992 or before, because Smoktun’s great last performance as Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t open until Dec. 1992, and I’m pretty sure I had seen that by the time about which I’m fixing to tell a short tale.
I didn’t see Smoktunovsky perform all that often – just twice, in fact. I saw him in a pretty dusty production of Uncle Vanya (all you Chekhov-porn addicts out there can now cut loose – I’ve mentioned Chekhov and the Art Theater in a single entry), and I saw that fabulous production of Paul Barz’s The Possible Meeting, imagining a tete-a-tete between Handel and Bach. It is certainly safe to say that Smoktunovsky was the most revered and cherished Russian actor of the second half of the 20th century. He’d have some tough competition if we were to extend that “title” to the entire 20th century. But who cares? I mean, when we’re talking about greatness on this level – or, even if we’re just talking about popularity on this level – all methods of comparison begin to look silly and warped. The fact is that, beginning with his legendary performance of Prince Myshkin in Georgy Tovstonogov’s production of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in 1957, Smoktunovsky simply eclipsed all other actors of his time. His performance of Hamlet in Grigory Kozintsev’s film of Hamlet was another seal of greatness. That’s taking nothing whatsoever away from his contemporaries. In fact, I’ll tell you this: in that fabulous production of The Possible Meeting, I’ve always felt that the greatest of the two performances in that duel was turned in by Oleg Yefremov as Handel. Yefremov had the wisdom, the nerve and the confidence to underplay his Handel and allow him to be a straight man to Smoktunovsky’s outrageous Bach. That meant that Smoktun got all the laughs, all the sighs, all the applause – all earned – while Yefremov remained content to serve his partner, believing in his heart all the while, of course, that he was no second fiddle. That might have been one of the most courageous performances I have seen. My hat’s off to Yefremov, also one of the greats. But I’m here to talk about Smoktunovsky at the moment.
You see, one summer day let’s call it, I happened to be walking along Kamergersky Lane, on which the Moscow Art Theater stands. I was probably there just killing time. In those years I lived in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy and if I had business in town during the day and was to see a show in the evening, I couldn’t go home – it was much too long of a trip. So I would just wander the city, taking in the sounds and sights. That surely is why I was on Kamergersky Lane that day when I looked up and saw Innokenty Smoktunovsky walking in my direction from Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. I was coming at the theater from Tverskaya Street. Kamergersky wasn’t a popular foot district filled with cafes at that time, it was just a fairly nondescript little street. All the more did Smoktunovsky stand out. He was a strange man in some ways – although I want to take that back now that I’ve written it. Let me explain: By strange I mean he was unusual. He did not live like others, did not act like others, did not, surely, see the world like others. This particular day he was clearly in a kind of dream land of his own making. I stopped and watched him as he dreamily approached the theater he had worked in for approximately 20 years. He looked – how shall I put this? – extremely content with himself. You could actually see this in his expression, his gait – he looked like a man who was not only at peace with himself, but probably loved himself quite deeply. Why not, with all that talent? And so I was transfixed as I watched Smoktunovsky approach and pass me. My wonderment increased when I saw him approach one of the posters in the windows on the theater’s front wall. He stood before a photograph of himself in the role of Uncle Vanya, I think it was, and admired it fully. He smiled and rocked gently back and forth on his feet contentedly. Having extracted as much pleasure from that photograph as he could, he moved on to the next, before which he stopped again to admire his own image at length. After Smoktunovsky had admired all his photos on the theater’s front wall, he moved across the little square in front of the box office to another series of posters near the stage door entrance. There, again, he walked up to a larger-than-life picture of himself and leaned back to get a good look at it. Smiling all the time and standing before a larger image of his own self, he basked in the affection he had for that actor in the photo. Finally, having admired all the photos there were to admire of himself, he contentedly, and with a light gait, disappeared inside the stage door entrance.
It had been an extraordinary five-to-eight minute public performance of self-love. And I hardly noticed a smidgen of narcissism in it! It was not that kind of self-love. He wasn’t gloating, he wasn’t bragging. He wasn’t calling attention to himself. I think he really thought he was pretty anonymous there in his little dream world. He just couldn’t help but admire himself. There are lots of stories – quite legitimate – about how Smoktunovsky could be quite abusive of his partners and directors. Read some of his comments about Kozintsev someday. They don’t show Smoktunovsky in the best light. He can sound petty and mean. But that is not the Smoktunovsky I saw that day on Kamergersky Lane. This man was a man at ease with the world and with himself. He was a man in the throes of generous self-love. And if anybody is thinking at this point that I am being snide or facetious – shame on you! You’ve missed my whole point. It was one of my most vivid and cherished memories in the 25+ years I have spent observing Russian theater from the outside and in. I’ve never forgotten those eight minutes when I witnessed greatness come upon the image of greatness.