Vera Komissarzhevskaya presence, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.

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I am stretching things here today but you’ll see why soon enough. Vera Komissarzhevskaya (1864-1910) has very little to do with Voronezh. The great actress of the late 19th-early 20th century was born and lived in St. Petersburg. She became a star on the stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater after she joined that company in 1896. She made history when she founded her own theater, the Dramatic Theater, in 1904. She famously invited Vsevolod Meyerhold to work with her in 1906 and, in the course of a single season, he staged  an insane number of productions there – thirteen. Although several of them went down in history and provided cachet for Komissarzhevskaya forever more, the two did not hit it off. After sending Meyerhold packing she invited the poet Valery Bryusov to collaborate with her, but that didn’t last long, either. In the spirit of the time, Komissarzhevskaya occasionally barnstormed around the country, playing  provincial venues, and that is how the Komissarzhevskaya-Voronezh connection arises.
She spent seven days in Voronezh, from May 16 to 22 in 1903, putting on six performances: Ignaty Potapenko’s The Magical Fairy Tale, Hermann Sudermann’s Homeland and Battle of the Butterflies, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Savage Girl and Without a Dowry, and Alexei Suvorin’s The Question. She clearly made a serious impression on the city. Despite the fact that she only made one trip there, the city fathers saw fit to name one of the local central streets after her, as you can see in the photo at the top. I noted in a recent post about Mikhail Lermontov that Voronezh seems to have a thing about people passing through. And I say that as a great compliment. A city can be so busy with itself, and so ignorant of everything going on around it, that it hardly takes notice of its place in the world. Voronezh is not like that. It does take note of brief but noteworthy encounters, and it sees itself as a part of the greater whole of Russian culture. That impresses me.
The rest of the photos here are of the city’s main drama theater, now known in full by one of those horrid official monikers – The Voronezh State Academic Theater named after Alexei Koltsov. It’s an old theater that dates back to 1787 or 1802, depending upon your source.  The building you see in these photos has little in common with whatever existed then, just as it has little to do with what the theater looked like when Komissarzhevskaya performed here.  At that time it was called the City Winter Theater. In fact, the physical plant even has little to do with what the theater looked like in the mid-1930s when the exiled poet Osip Mandelstam (see yesterday’s post) worked here briefly as the theater’s literary manager.The arched windows and the basic box are still the same. Much of the roof line is gone, however, and the rather cliched columns in front have been added. The excellent site tells the story of the theater and provides some excellent old photos.
But here I must digress from Komissarzhevskaya for a moment to finish up a thought about Mandelstam. It is fascinating what the “institution” of exile in the Soviet period did for provincial theaters. Exiled great writers often found employment and some safety by taking jobs as literary managers or consultants at local theaters. It is a job that the playwright Nikolai Erdman held in Tomsk when he was in exile there from 1934-36. I have no idea what actual work Mandelstam did for the theater – if any – but my heart is warmed by the notion of theaters providing shelter to great artists.

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Komissarzhevskaya was one tough cookie. An absolutely fabulous letter that she wrote to a producer or manager Yevtikhy Karpov has come down to us, and it deserves to be aired in full in English. It concerns a series of performances that she plans to give in St. Petersburg in the near future. The Suvorin to whom she refers is Alexei Suvorin, a minor writer who ran his own theater in St. Petersburg and was a good friend and publisher of Anton Chekhov. My wife Oksana Mysina, an actress who has had plenty of memorable encounters with producers and managers, read this letter and howled with delight. “This should be included in the education of all young actresses!” she said. Here is the letter, translated from a site that publishes Komissarzhevskaya’s archive:

“It’s all wrong and you tell Suvorin that you mixed everything up because I am not to blame here. 
1) I will not perform before September 15.
2) I refuse to play less than four plays.
3) I will provide two plays myself and you give me two more. As for the money, I did not say That for Suvorin’s sake. For you I said the word ‘or’ because I Thought you yourself would decide what was best for me, and that you would say so.
In all good conscience I cannot ask for more than 300 rubles, but I do not have a single acquaintance who would fail to tell me that this is very little. Since I take 300 rubles in the provinces, 300 rubles would be too little from Suvorin, whose take is 2,400 rubles. I also have in mind that in Petersburg I have to perform 15 shows for them, which means I live there for two months. I had thought that, taking all that into account, you would do what is best and so I turned the affair over to you entirely.
I read your
Happiness again [a footnote tells us that this may refer to a play by Izabella Grinevskaya (thanks to a reader for that first name!) based on Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel The Foundling], and it’s no good. Boring. I’ll send you Fairy Tale. And then, what does your phrase ‘if there is a good box office take’ mean? If I’m receiving a percent, then I depend on the take, but if I am receiving a set sum, I couldn’t care less what the take is – I get my sum. I bring this all out in the open because you have 75 managers there and my conditions must be clear: Please pass this all on to Suvorin. If he doesn’t want to, that’s his business. And I already see how poorly you think of me. I finish up here [Voronezh] tomorrow. We made 800 rubles on the turn here. [“On the turn” is a phrase I don’t know how to translate. It’s a phrase that had to do with the way money was paid out for benefit performances in the old Russian system of touring actors and shows.] The first city was terrible, too much – six shows. We now head for Saratov – all sold out, all six shows. I rented the Hermitage [probably meaning Moscow] on the 2nd and 3rd. For the Holy Week I’ll be with Masha in Znamenka. Easter week I’ll be in Samara and then three shows in Orenburg, four in Simbirsk and beyond that I don’t know the dates, but Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod remain. Write me about Chernyshov, are you taking him on? Well, goodbye. Your letter, in essence was horrible! Christ be with you.”

Following are some excerpts from reviews of the Voronezh tour, drawn from the Gallery of Chizhov website:

“There was something special, something inexpressibly pleasant and touching in the actress’s performance. From her very first entrance her tender figure and her tense, subtle face with sad eyes grabbed the attention of the spectators. This was not just attention paid to an exceptional actor, but rather more like attention one would pay to a near and dear person. […] With every gesture, every intonation, one thinks everything must be precisely like this and not otherwise. […] The ticket prices were very high, but the theater was filled.” – Voronezh Telegraph, review of The Magical Fairy Tale.

“Anyone who saw the previous performance would have been amazed by the change in everything about the actress. What happened to the pale, oval face, the sad eyes, the nervous grace of the body? Her face now smiles entirely, her manners are loose and wildly graceful as she purses her lips or jerks her shoulders. The audience enjoyed every minute.” – From a review of The Savage Girl.

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