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I have tried to photograph the Okhlopkov plaque and the Mayakovsky Theatre several times. I have never liked what I got, now matter what the time of day, no matter what the season. The plaque is an awkward one to get, right there on the corner of Maly Kislovsky Lane and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. There are a bunch of street signs in the way, traffic is always humming, people parking where they shouldn’t be, narrow sidewalks leaving no space, electrical wires making a mess of sight angles from a distance, the light and shadows playing nasty tricks.
Or maybe this place is just jinxed. One of the times I was photographing here, I noticed somebody shooting me. When he dropped his camera from his face I recognized my friend, the playwright and journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky. We exchanged pleasantries and went our own ways. Later that day he posted a photo of me on Facebook that made my usually steely nerves begin wobbling like water. Until then I hadn’t known that the beer belly of a person taking a photo increases three times in size – even if you don’t drink beer. Jinxed, jinxed, the place is jinxed!
Consider this: Vsevolod Meyerhold took this theater over in 1922 when it was called the Theater of the Revolution, but was gone by 1924, when he moved on to create his own Meyerhold Theater. It was actually here that Meyherhold first expected to stage Nikolai Erdman’s The Warrant, but when he bolted and went out on his own, he took Erdman’s play with him (it eventually premiered in 1925). The theater was run by Alexei Popov from 1931 to 1942. When Nikolai Okhlopkov (1900-1967) took it over it was renamed the Moscow Drama Theater and the year after Stalin died, that is, in 1954, it was renamed the Vladimir Mayakovsky Theater. Okhlopkov remained in charge of the playhouse until it killed him in 1967. Okay, so I’m pushing the jinx thing.
Okhlopkov had been an actor in Meyerhold’s theater, so there was a certain justification in his being named to take over the Revolution Theater. Moreover, during the time that Erdman’s The Warrant was performing as one of Meyerhold’s most popular productions, and as Erdman was sitting down to write his next play for Meyerhold (it would be The Suicide), Okhlopkov undertook to make a film of Erdman’s filmscript Mitya. This was in 1926. But that is hardly the end of the connections. As Anna Kovalova writes in the excellent introduction to her anthology of Erdman’s film scripts (Nikolai Erdman/Film Scripts), in 1925 “it was expected that V.E. Meyerhold would direct [Mitya], and Mitya would be played by Erdman himself. Later, N.P. Okhlopkov was assigned to direct, and he ended up playing the lead role…”
Okhlopkov, seemingly out of his league, had a hell of time making Mitya, and he begged Erdman to come south where the shooting was taking place to lend a helping hand. Erdman did travel down as soon as he could, but the problems remained. Again quoting from Kovalova’s essay: “The press noted that the creators of the film got carried away with models of American lyrical comedies in which the main hero, usually someone of uncertain means, constantly becomes the victim of curious circumstances.” Many years later the film director Sergei Yutkevich wrote about the innovative nature of Mitya in his memoirs, but by that time not only was the film long forgotten, it could never be seen again. The only copies had been destroyed. These days we only have the screenplay to judge it by. I found an incomplete copy of it when I was trawling the archives in the late 1980s, but Kovalova came up with the whole thing and published it in her book. It’s hilarious, touching, subtle and – as everything Erdman ever wrote – incredibly well-suited to performance.
Why do I linger on this obscure, early episode in Okhlopkov’s life, you ask? Well, here’s why. Because when Stalin died in 1953 and the so-called Thaw got underway a couple of years later, Okhlopkov did what appeared to be a wonderful thing. He reached out to Erdman and offered to stage The Suicide, banned since 1932, and the main cause of Erdman’s arrest and exile in 1933. He payed Erdman an advance and asked for the play script. This was an extraordinary move on the part of Okhlopkov. It would mean the rehabilitation of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest playwrights (Erdman had abandoned writing for the theater, focusing exclusively on writing his own screenplays or doctoring those of others). But it was not meant to be. Okhlopkov, having re-read the play, got cold feet. A few other famous “friends” of Erdman also put in their two-bits that the play was “not right for the times,” that it “needed work,” and other such nonsense.
That’s when things took a turn for the bizarre. Rather than just quietly let things drop, Okhlopkov pulled a nasty, petty move. He demanded that Erdman return the advance on the grounds that Erdman “did not deliver the play” they had agreed upon. Erdman, who was an extraordinarily calm, even-keeled man, figuratively hit the roof. Fury turned to farce, though, when Okhlopkov’s Mayakovsky Theater sued Erdman and sent authorities to his apartment on Tverskaya Street to confiscate his furniture until such time as he would pay up. Erdman wrote a scathing letter to the court, but, as far as I know, he lost that battle. Okhlopkov, after figuratively pulling the rug out from under his old friend’s feet, got his money back. What I don’t know for a fact, but what I strongly suspect, is that following this ugly incident Erdman and Okhlopkov never communicated again.
And so, having somewhat clumsily wended my way through this story today, I finally think I have come to understand why my pictures of Okhlopkov’s plaque never come out. I don’t like the guy. He begs Erdman for help in dire times and Erdman comes to his side. Then he goes and sticks a knife in his old friend’s back 30 years later. And that, folks, is why I can’t get any decent photos in these environs. The place isn’t jinxed, but I have no love for it. And, as anybody knows, you can’t do anything of value without love. These photos are the best I’m going to get.