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These days students coming and going at the Vakhtangov Theater’s Shchukin Theater Institute at 10 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane in Moscow’s Arbat region pass under the gaze of the spiritual founder of their institution. That has been true since October 13, 2014, when a small crowd gathered in the school’s courtyard to attend the unveiling of a new statue honoring Yevgeny Vakhtangov, one of the great directors of the pre- and post-revolutionary period in Russia. I am sad to say the ranking official that day was Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, an odious, anti-culture figure, whom Russia will spend years, if not decades attempting to forget. Mark my word. But he was not the only person there that day, thank goodness, so we can also point out the presence of the great Konstantin Raikin, Alexander Shirvindt, Vasily Lanovoi and other first-rank actors who graduated from Shchuka, as the institute is referred to colloquially.
Speaking to the crowd, Raikin declared, “In the very difficult conditions of a totalitarian regime, Yevgeny Vakhtangov coined a phrase, ‘fantastic realism.’ With his inclination for exaggeration, for theatrical poetry, he, nonetheless, was able to preserve the world ‘realism,’ which was required as a kind of password for what was permissible.”
Actually, Raikin pushed it a bit, because Vakhtangov (1883-1922) was dead before the restriction of cultural activity became Soviet policy. Raikin is, hereby, to be entirely exonerated, however, for I have little doubt he was less interested in historical veracity than in poking Medinsky in the ribs for this clueless bureaucrat’s often oppressive actions. Interestingly, Medinsky’s most notorious action to date, the destruction of Timofei Kulyabin’s much-admired production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk, had not yet been foisted on us at this moment. That was to come just a month later.
This statue, which stands a good eight-to-ten feet tall (including the pedestal), is interesting for its sense of smallness, even petiteness. Sculptor Alexei Ignatov made Vakhtangov bigger than life, but gives us a full sense of Vakhtangov’s delicate build.
Ignatov also spoke at the unveiling and here is what he had to say, according to the same report, from which I already quoted on the Vakhtangov Theater website: “This monument has a very interesting fate. At first we thought we would erect it as a home statue, but then it became evident it was a people’s statue, and that it wouldn’t be possible to hide from people.”
Now, frankly, I haven’t the vaguest notion what Ignatov is talking about. Maybe you had to be there. Ignatov is identified in all the reports of the unveiling as a “young sculptor” who graduated from the Grekov Studio of Military Artists. I had no idea such a place existed, but you might keep that in mind when you read the penultimate sentence in this post…
Vakhtangov’s fame is rather astonishing, considering his extremely short career. He died at the age of 29, having staged just a handful of productions. But his reputation as a brilliant pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and the huge influence of the shows he did stage, placed him in the pantheon of Russia’s greatest theater artists. He is always mentioned right along with the other great names of the age – Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov. Vakhtangov began collaborating closely with Stanislavsky in 1911; he then was working methodically (initiates will get the pun) on his acting system. Vakhtangov was one of several young actors who functioned as guinea pigs for the great man’s research. He worked in, and helped to found, the Art Theater’s 1st and 3rd Studios. As an actor he particularly shone in the famous production of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth at the 1st Studio. He also worked at many other theaters and clubs and cabarets around Moscow, including the Jewish Habima Studio, attracting the attention and respect of many important Russian cultural figures, including Alexander Blok and Maxim Gorky. His most famous productions included Maeterlinck’s The Miracle of St. Anthony (first version 1917, second version 1921), Ibsen’s Romersholm (1918), Strindberg’s Erik XIV (1921), Ansky’s The Dybbuk (1922) and Gozzi’s Princess Turandot (1922). The production of Turandot was, and remains, a cornerstone of what officially became the Vakhtangov Theater, when the 3rd Studio was renamed for the deceased director in 1926. Turandot, featuring its umpteenth cast, and having gone through numerous recalibrations over the years, is still to be found in the theater’s active repertoire.
The last day of rehearsals of Turandot was the last day Vakhtangov set foot in a theater. His stomach ulcers had advanced to such a degree that he was wracked with pain. For details I offer parts of an interesting account on a site called Ask Alyona. Biography:
“Vakhtangov hurried to complete his production, working day and night. The last day of rehearsals was Feb. 24, 1922. He was in very bad shape. He sat in a fur coat, his head wrapped in a wet towel. At four a.m. the lighting had been set and Yevgeny Bagrationovich shouted out: ‘The whole performance, from beginning to end!’
After the rehearsal, he was taken home in a carriage. He never came back to the theater. […] Turandot was shown to Stanislavsky and the Art Theater team on Feb. 27. […] ‘In the 23 years of the Art Theater’s existence,’ Stanislavsky said, addressing the company, ‘we have had few such accomplishments. You have discovered what many theaters have sought so long in vain.’ [Vakhtangov’s] health took a turn for the worse on May 24. He no longer recognized family members, became disoriented because of the morphine, and imagined himself a military commander… Vakhtangov died on Monday, May 29, 1922, at 10 a.m.”