Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Theater Artists

Konstantin Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) plaque, Moscow

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Moscow, damn it, is fabulous. You’re out for a mindless stroll and all of a sudden you run up against this: one of the first theaters Stanislavsky ever performed in. No big deal, just a run-down three story structure. Just a place where the founder of the Moscow Art Theater got his start. I had no idea this was here. It’s located off the main paths most culture consumers in Moscow take. If you’re heading to the Russian Academy of Theater Arts or the Mayakovsky Theater or the Theater at Nikitsky Gates – you miss this little street – Nizhny Kislovsky Lane. If you’re going to concerts at the Conservatory or the Tchaikovsky Music School, you are most likely to take another route. All these places are within spitting distance of the building you see here, but few are going to bring you into contact with the place bearing a plaque that reads, “City Estate, 19th century, Main House 1860. Here from 1860 to 1892 was located the famous Moscow theater of P.F. Sekretaryov (‘Sekrataryovka’), on the stage of which K.S. Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) performed.” Boom, how about that? This is the place, ground zero, where Alexeyev became Stanislavsky. It was while performing here that he assumed his now-famous pseudonym.
Pyotr Sekretaryov was not your run-of-the-mill citizen. His last name came about because his father was secretary to Grigory Potyomkin and Catherine the Great. He, meaning Pyotr, occupied one of the most beautiful homes in Moscow located at what is now known as 5/2 Gogolevsky Boulevard. But he liked to spend his money for the public good, and, being a fan of theater, he kept a rare-at-that-time private theater here at 6 Nizhny Kislovsky Lane. The theater’s story, at least as told on Russian Wikipedia, is quite interesting. It seems that Sekretaryov’s brother-in-law was active in finding private spaces where banned plays by the great Alexander Ostrovsky could be performed by a small group of amateur performers – many of whom were quite famous individuals, including the great philanthropist Savva Mamontov. That apparently prompted Sekretaryov to open his own space. Here is a paragraph lifted directly from the article on the theater:
“On his piece of land Sekretaryov erected a new theater building. Despite its small size (the journalist Vlas Doroshevich called it a ‘tobacco box’), the two-story auditorium included an orchestra, balconies, boxes, a gallery, an orchestra pit and backstage wings. The entry for the actors and the stage were located in the right side of the facade, while the spectators entered by way of an entrance on the left [you can see that door in the top photo and the second photo immediately below – JF]. The first floor had a coat check room and a kitchen, and the second floor had a dance hall and cafeteria.”
The third story that we now see atop the building was added later.

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Ah, but isn’t there, in this life, always more than meets the eye? It certainly is true of this little place. Because just about as Sekretaryov was preparing to give up his little endeavor, the Society of Art and Literature moved in as renting tenants. If you don’t recognize that name immediately, let me explain – that is the organization headed by Stanislavsky (with help from his friends) which led more or less directly to the founding of the Moscow Art Theater.
But the miracles do not end there, for, from 1917 to 1924, this very space was used by the now-famous Habima Jewish Theater, where one of the pedagogues was none other than Stanislavsky’s star pupil Yevgeny Vakhtangov.
None of this, by the way, is mentioned anywhere on the building itself. The walls here guard all these riches in mute silence. But that, too, is not the end of the interesting goings on at this address. The future famous actor Modest Pisarev performed on this stage when he was young and, in fact, his future career was apparently kick-started when he ran into the great actor Mikhail Shchepkin in the theater’s foyer.
In 1881 Yakov Bryusov – father of the future poet Valery – staged an amateur show here. Like virtually everything that was performed here, it was without a poster advertising it, without programs and without tickets for purchase. This was the rule at Sekretaryovka, because so often the works offered were not permitted to be performed publicly by the censor. This goes for, among others, Ostrovsky’s A Profitable Post. My understanding is that this was not quite an “underground” theater hiding from the authorities, but a location where well-heeled and well-placed noblemen and aristocrats could dabble in art, especially that which was outside the officially accepted fare.
If there is anyone out there with nothing to do, I highly recommend a book or, at least, an article, detailing the extraordinary cultural heritage of this unassuming building. I have gone through dozens of websites, encyclopedias and books to glean the skimpy information provided here. There is nothing, for example, about this place in the five-volume Soviet Theater Encyclopedia. The two-volume Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia has nothing either. Even my seven-volume, Soviet-era History of the Russian Dramatic Theater does not mention Sekretaryov by name. All the websites crib from one another, rehashing the same finite number of facts, just as I have done. I would love to see some original research on this place.

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Dead Show “Gravestone,” Moscow

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This, as Lewis Carroll might have said, is one of the curiouser memorial plaques in Moscow. Maybe anywhere. It lies in a corner of the Aquarium Garden just off of Triumphal Square (known popularly still as Mayakovsky Square), in front of the right side of the Mossoviet Theater. It first showed up in the year 2000, when Oleg Menshikov, the popular actor and founder of the 814 Theatrical Association, decided to mark the closing of his production of Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit with a bit of macabre humor. (Menshikov’s shows, until he took over the Yermolova Theater a few years ago, invariably played in Moscow at the Mossoviet, a venue where he once briefly was a member of the company.) Menshikov had a gravestone-like marker made up with the inscription “Production of A.S. Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, 1998-2000″ and he sunk it into the ground. Later he added other “dead” shows to the plaque – Maksym Kurochkin’s Kitchen, 2000-2002, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers, 2002-2005.
However, don’t take everything you read, especially on gravestones, to be the gospel truth. The Gamblers is actually still performed from time to time to this day.  The story on that is as follows: Menshikov is famous for being a dynamic kind of guy. He doesn’t linger long in any once place, doing any one thing. When he begins getting bored with something, he moves on. His credo is that it’s better to close a show when it’s at the peak of its popularity than it is to keep playing until audiences realize the old magic is waning. And anybody who has ever seen an old, wheezing, gasping show that should have been closed long ago will understand this well. Thus did Menshikov close both Woe from Wit and Kitchen when both were still packing audiences in like sardines in a can, raisins in a box, stars in the sky. He did the same with The Gamblers in 2005, but his friend, and one of the performers in the show, Viktor Sukhorukov, was furious. Viktor simply did not understand why anybody would stop playing a production that was so fantastically successful. And so he badgered Menshikov until Menshikov gave in and brought the show back to life. Surely there are few people capable of badgering Menshikov like that, so let’s all stand and give Sukhorukov a round of applause. Very rare instance, indeed. By the time Menshikov brought the show back, however, the news of the “death” of The Gamblers had already been impaled in stone for all of eternity. True or not: RIP – 2002-2005.

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I was present at the unveiling of the second renewing of the plaque on June 25, 2002, the day of the last performance of Kitchen. My wife Oksana Mysina played one of the leads (Queen Kriemhild) and so I was there to attend the big afterparty, which for many, who regretted that the show was ending so soon, did resemble a funeral as much as a celebration. Anyway, after everyone had had plenty of drinks and all the celebrity guests were full of smiles and laughter and had tried out a few wobbly dance steps, Menshikov called everyone out into the late-night dark of the park. The Woe from Wit gravestone was covered with a veil that, when it was ripped off, revealed the birth and death dates of Kitchen itself – a show we had seen still living and breathing just hours before.  At that time nobody knew Menshikov was susceptible to being badgered, so we all took it as final proof that Kitchen would never rise again. At least not in that incarnation. And we were right.
A few more details on this marker.
It spends several months a year buried under snow, so that in the winter few are aware of its existence. Actually, because this is a corner where snow gets dumped when it’s shoveled off the sidewalk, the marker remains buried even for some time after much of the snow is gone. These photos were taken shortly after the last snow disappeared, but well before any of the grass or other greenery began coming in this spring. It seems fitting for a gravestone to be surrounded by gloomy, raw earth and tangly dead branches…
Finally there is the lovely fact that shortly after Kitchen was added to the marker, some grim grave robber came into the park one shadowless late night and made off with the whole plaque as a souvenir. Menshikov had to have a second version made and this time, the word is, he attached it to an incredibly deep and heavy base that goes who-knows-how-far into the earth.
Still, not all is gloom and doom here, as you will notice if you click on the last photo below and take a good look. It so happened that as I was taking that picture, I entirely by accident caught a couple embracing and kissing against the neon backdrop of an American diner that stands across the park from the Mossoviet Theater. As the Latin scholars said, art is short but love is long. Or something like that…

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Sofya Giatsintova plaque, Moscow

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This famous apartment building in Moscow was home to the actress Sofya Giatsintova for a staggering 54 years. She lived here, as the plaque says, from 1928 to 1982. Giatsintova, who was born in 1895 and died in 1982, is one of those names that constantly hovers over anyone working or studying in the sphere of Russian theater. She was educated at the young Moscow Art Theater and she began acting there in 1910, when she was 15 years old. Throughout her long career she worked at many prominent Moscow playhouses, including the Second Moscow Art Theater, the Mossovet Theater and Lenkom, where she was artistic director from 1951 to 1957 (some sources say 1952 to 1958).
The building at 12 Bryusov Lane is the very one into which Vsevelod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh moved at the same time as Giatsintova and many other famous performers. In fact, the entire street may claim the greatest concentration of actors/artists/ composers/musicians/dancers/writers of all Moscow’s streets. If you read Russian you might be interested to take a look at the Russian Wikipedia entry on Bryusov Lane – it is packed with information.
Giatsintova’s name came from her first husband, a sailor who ended up emigrating to the United States during the Russian Civil War. Their marriage was later annulled and around 1924 – I haven’t pinned down the exact date – Giatsintova married the famous actor and director Ivan Bersenev. His plaque hangs a few window-frames away from Giatsintova’s. They remained together until 1949 when Bersenev left Giatsintova for the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. Bersenev died in 1951 at the age of 62.
The big Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, published in 1998 on the occasion of the theater’s 100th anniversary, mentions that Giatsintova was born into an elite family. Her father was a professor and writer; her mother came from the Chaadayev family, hearkening back to the famous writer, philosopher and political prisoner Pyotr Chadayev.

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That encyclopedia provides one of those pithy, encyclopedia-like descriptions of Giatsintova: “”G’s lyrical gift combined with taste and a vividly cheerful talent for character roles.” She also commanded, the encyclopedia tells us, a highly “expressive” quality with a penchant for the “grotesque.” This apparently served her well in productions like Alexander Afinogenov’s The Oddball, the famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg, and Deval’s A Prayer for the Living in the 1920s and ’30s. Like everyone else at the Second Moscow Art Theater, she had to move on when the theater was broken up by the Soviet government in 1936.
Her memoirs, Alone with my Memories, published posthumously and unfinished in 1985, are considered to be of great value for the rich information they contain about her early years. Her story of over 500 pages breaks off as the Second Moscow Art Theater is ending its life. In a long appreciation-afterword to the book, the great Soviet theater scholar Konstantin Rudnitsky writes, “Giatsintova commanded an inquisitive mind, a subtle power of observation, and a lively sense of humor that joyously illuminates some of the pages of her reminiscences.” He points out how her many stories of the pain of loss and death are usually colored with a detectable smile. The book has been reprinted many times since it first appeared.
One of the sadder chapters in Giatsintova’s life occurred in 1973, following the publication in Pravda of a text damning Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Giatsintova was one of a large number of famous Soviet artists and writers who jumped on the bandwagon to demonize Solzhenitsyn. Here is the short text she wrote: “I have never read anything by Solzhenitsyn, so I cannot judge his literary talents. But in a personal sense his behavior strikes me as disgusting. In general this whole story strikes me as revolting. It’s simply terrifying that such people live in our country.”
Not one of the great actress’s best moments. It’s galling. So few were able to stay off the bandwagons – bandwagons we still see rumbling up and down Russia’s streets today.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova plaque, Moscow

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If you’re a Moscow Art Theater fan, this building at 5/7 Glinishchevsky Lane is a treasure trove. It was built in 1938 and a whole gaggle of Art Theater employees moved in. At the same time the street was given the name of Nemirovich-Danchenko Street, which held sway until 1993. Writing about this building and the numerous plaques hanging on its outside walls, I could speak of any number of people – Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko himself, the actors Vera Maretskaya, Iosif Tumanov, Vasily Toporkov, Mikhail Shtraukh, Ivan Moskvin, Mikhail Tarkhanov, Alexander Kaidanaovsky, Alla Tarasova and many, many more. Some of you will notice that not all of these people were connected to the Art Theater – this building was one of those Soviet structures that went up for specific purposes, to house people from a particular walk of life. But it so happened that many of those who moved in here in 1938 were from the Art Theater. In any case, one new resident that year was Olga Knipper-Chekhova, the widow of Anton Chekhov. She lived here, as her plaque proclaims, from 1938 until her death in 1959.
The building was erected by architects Vladimir Vladimirov and G. Lutsky (I wasn’t able to ascertain his full first name) with aid from artist Vladimir Favorsky and sculptor Georgy Motovilov (see the last photo below for what I presume is their joint work). It’s an imposing building, perhaps a little too large for the tiny street it stands on, and very official-looking. I personally find I am put off by it lightly when I approach it, although I also recognize its effective compositional design. The dark marble running along the base of the building looks funereal to me, just as many of the plaques look like gravestones.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova (1868-1959) began a relationship with Chekhov in 1899, just before he sold his small family estate in Melikhovo. She actually visited that home south of Moscow once, maybe twice. I happened to be in Melikhovo with American playwright Nilo Cruz a week or so ago and our tour guide told us that it is thanks in large part to Knipper-Chekhova that the writer’s former estate is now such a respected museum and retreat. The local people, official and otherwise, were not especially interested in having the estate made into a museum. But Knipper-Chekhova threw her weight behind the project and, as I understand it, helped financially, to ensure that the museum was opened and that it survived. Chekhov and Knipper-Chekhova first met in 1898 at rehearsals of Chekhov’s The Seagull and A.K. Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. They were married in 1901 and she was with her husband when he died in Badenweiler, Germany, in 1904.
There are all kinds of words written – good, bad, insulting and indifferent – about the relationship between these two people. I don’t know a thing about that. I do know that Knipper-Chekhova carried the banner of her husband’s greatness for the rest of her life. During his lifetime she played many of the great Chekhovian heroines – Arkadina in The Seagull, Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, Sarah in Ivanov and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. There is a short video of Knipper-Chekhkova reviving her role of Ranevskaya decades later in a kind of concert performance, when she was already an elderly woman. Whatever flaws the advancement of time may have introduced into her performance, you cannot take this from her – she was extremely light on her feet, had a wonderful sense of humor and a feeling for her character that was natural and buoyant. You can see a short clip from that performance on YouTube.
Knipper was born to a German father from Alsace and an ethnically German mother in what was then called Vyatskaya gubernia. He, Leonard Knipper, was an engineer and was the administrator of a local factory. She, Anna Zaltz, was a gifted singer, who gained some fame before her marriage, although her husband would not allow her to continue performing. Olga’s father also forbid Olga to become an actress when she declared that as her life’s dream. Leonard wanted her to become a painter or a translator. She was educated in languages in her early years and was said to have been fluent in English, French and German. Things changed when Leonard died unexpectedly. This left the family in dire straights and most everyone had to go to work. Although Knipper’s mother, like her father, was against the idea of her daughter becoming an actress, she also recognized how strong that dream remained in her daughter’s head. Eventually Olga was allowed to begin studying acting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and the die was cast for history to be made.

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Alexandra Yablochkina plaque, Moscow

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I think that most Muscovites who still recognize the name of Alexandra Yablochkina think of her as something of a grandmother figure. Just look at the image on the plaque commemorating the fact that she lived in this building at 4/2 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street from 1906 to 1964. I don’t know about your family, but she looks like a cross among all the grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great aunts in my own maternal line. I have no reason to do this whatsoever, but I always somehow internally acknowledge this plaque when I pass it by, as I often do. I feel like I am in the presence of someone near and dear.
Alexandra Yablochkina (1866-1964) was born into a family of actors in St. Petersburg, but was one of Moscow’s leading actresses for a very long time. She grew up partly in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, where her father performed on stage, and she herself made her acting debut in Tiflis at the age of six. Reaching adulthood, she spent one year, 1885, performing at the Tiflis Theater of Russian Drama. There’s a great little tale that goes with her childhood debut, and I quote it here from the Russian Celebrities website:
“The family’s great friend O.A. Pravdin was staging a show called A Ruined Life, which had a part for a little boy. [Pravdin] gave the role to Alexandra. However, there were problems at the premiere. When she walked out on stage and saw a house full of people the little girl was taken aback and became tongue-tied during a long phrase. She did not lose her wits, however, and blamed the prompter for the problem. Bending over the prompter’s booth, she said, ‘Please do not make noise down there. You only confuse me and I know my role without you.’ She then turned back to the actor on stage with whom she was supposed to speak and, this time, loudly and clearly spoke the difficult phrase from beginning to end. The audience greeted this with laughter and a burst of applause. After the performance a friend said to Alexandra’s mother, ‘Your Vladimir is a fine lad!’ and was amazed to learn that the role of Petya was played by her daughter Sasha, not her son Volodya.”
Yablochkina relocated to Moscow in 1886 and remained there for the rest of her life. She became a star that year when she played the role of Sofya in Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit at the Korsh Theater. She joined the troupe at the Maly Theater in 1888 and remained there until her death. She was obviously a woman of great stability and loyalty. That is also evident in her relationship to an actors’ organization in Moscow that has gone under various names over the decades, but is now called the Actors House. She became its chairwoman in 1915 when it was called the Russian Theater Society. She remained in that position until she died in 1964. By then known as the All-Russia Theater Society, it was then named after her. What we now know as the Moscow Actors House still bears her honorary name today.

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Yablochkina performed a staggering number of roles. Russian Wikipedia informs us that she played 22 different roles in just the two-or-so years she spent at the Korsh Theater, from 1886-1888. The Korsh, which was one of Russia’s very few private theaters made its living by putting up new shows all the time. Shows did not run for long, particularly if they didn’t have success. But, surely, preparing for what is an average of 11 new shows per year two seasons in a row must have been an extraordinary way for the young actress to throw herself into her profession. During that brief period she played roles in major works by Moliere, Alexander Ostrovsky, Griboedov, Denis Fonvizin, Alexander Pushkin and others.
She obviously could not keep up a pace like that for her entire life, but the list of productions she performed in at the Maly Theater over a period of 76 years is impressive indeed. The total exceeds 150! I can’t even imagine what kind of life that must have been, averaging two new shows every year for three-quarters of a century! Actually, her last performance took place in 1961 when she was 95 years old. That day she played the role of Miss Crowley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a show that had premiered Dec. 27, 1958.
Another story about another of her debuts – this time in Moscow – provides a nice snapshot in time. I quote this from the same site as above.
“I was to perform in the role of Tatyana in an excerpt from Yevgeny Onegin, Yablochkina reminisced. “When it came time to perform our scene, I began shaking and I sensed that I wanted to run home. Nervousness and fear, I remember well, seized me with such power that I had only one desire – to escape this looming trial. It felt like it would be an execution. I ran to Fedotova [her teacher, and a great actress in her own right] and begged her to let me go home. I told her I did not want to be an actress. Glikeria Nikolaevna understood my frame of mind and calmed me down. Using wise words she cooled my excited state and made me muster my courage. She led me onstage herself. I don’t recall how I spoke my monologue to the end. The curtain dropped and I heard applause. Glikeria Nikolaevna came to me, her face beaming, and said, ‘Good girl, Sanya! You’ve been christened in battle!'”

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Yury Zavadsky plaque, Moscow

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Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977) lived in this building at 15 Tverskaya Street, the very heart of Moscow, from 1940 until his death. We now remember Zavadsky as a famous director, the principal director of the Mossoviet Theater, also from 1940 until his death. But he had also been a leading actor at the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theaters, and was, according to legend, one of Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s favorite students. Marina Tsvetaeva happened to meet Zavadsky and see him on stage sometime in 1918, and she wrote an entire cycle of poems – 25 to be exact – inspired by him. Entitled “The Comedian” (as in the French, meaning “actor”), the collection bears the following dedication: “To the actor who played the Angel, or to the Angel who played the Actor – isn’t it all the same, since, by Your grace, instead of the snowy winter routine of 1919 the routine I carried out was filled with tenderness.” The first of the poems was written Nov. 2, 1918, the last of them – in March 1919. The Zavadsky Studio (1924-1936) was a well-known experimental theater in its time, and it gave starts to a number of major actors, including Vera Maretskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, Nikolai Mordvinov and Pavel Massalsky. Maretskaya was married to Zavadsky for a short while, as was the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. I’m a little confused about the dates because some sources say Zavadsky met Ulanova in 1940, some say he was married to her in the 1930s. In any case he was married to Maretskaya before he was married to Ulanova. If the exact dates are truly important to you – be my guest: research them.

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It is our good fortune – if not Zavadsky’s! – that one of Zavadsky’s actors at the Mossoviet was the great Faina Ranevskaya. Ranevskaya – about whom I’m going to have to find a reason to write in more detail – was not only considered one of the great Russian actresses of the 20th century. Possessing a truly bitter sense of humor, she was arguably the funniest. She and others have left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes and memoirs that have been gathered into several best-selling books. Because of her relationship with Zavadsky, many stories involve him. Here is one:
“Oh, did you know Zavadsky had a terrible misfortune?”
“What?”
“He died.”
Or:
“Ranevskaya was frequently late to rehearsals, which really irritated Zavadsky. One day he asked all the actors to merely ignore her when she entered. When she did finally come in, huffing and puffing, she said ‘Hello!’ Nobody answered. ‘Hello!’ she repeated. Still no answer. ‘Hello!’ she said a third time and still got no reaction. ‘Ah!’ she said. ‘There’s nobody here! Then I’ll just go take a piss!'”
Surely one of Ranevskaya’s most immortal pokes at Zavadsky was this:
“Zavadsky once shouted at Ranevskaya from the auditorium: ‘Faina, you chewed up my entire idea!’ Faina grumbled rather loudly, ‘Well, I thought I had the feeling I’d just eaten shit,’ to which Zavadsky reportedly shouted: ‘Get out of this theater!’ Ranevskaya walked to the edge of the stage and shouted back, ‘Get out of art!'”
Ranevskaya saved some of her most barbed epithets for Zavadsky. She reportedly called him: “a reduced-price Meyerhold” and she was heard to say that, “Zavadsky will catch a cold only at my funeral”; “Zavadsky gets awards not because he deserves them but because he wants them. The only award he doesn’t have yet is ‘Hero Mother'”; “Zavadsky dreams that he’s buried on Red Square”; and “How I would love to smack the faces of everyone who fakes it, but I hold my temper. I tolerate crudeness and lies, I tolerate a pitiful, poverty-stricken life. I tolerate them all and will continue to until the end of my life. I even tolerate Zavadsky…”
I didn’t intend to turn this into a Zavadsky roast, but, hey. He’s got all that stuff about being a Socialist Hero, a Hero of Labor, a Lenin Prize winner and a People’s Artist splashed out on his memorial plaque, so he can stand a few barbs tossed off by one of the best actors he ever worked with. 

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Valentin Pluchek plaque, Moscow

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Valentin Pluchek (1909-2002) was not served well by the Russian tradition of artistic directors running their theaters as long as they think they can. Even by the time I met Pluchek in 1989 there was a sense he had overstayed his welcome. He was 80 – a very fit and able 80, I will say – and much of what happened at his Satire Theater by that time had the feel of old-fashioned. There were times when “moribund” would have described some of the shows he did. And yet he continued on as artistic director there for another 11 years, until  he was finally pushed out, after 43 years, and put out to pasture. He died two years later. I remember all of this and I remember how difficult it was to watch. Yes, he needed to step down. But what an ignominious way to go – just shoved out. I’m not saying I could have done it better – I’m saying it was a tragedy, at least for this man whose life was really quite extraordinary.
Pluchek began life as a homeless kid – by choice. He didn’t like his step-father and so he ran away and ended up growing up in orphanages. Now that already says something about character. He studied painting as a kid, and showed talent, but he was also drawn to the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and the avant-garde theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold. As such, at the age of 17 in 1926 he signed up to study acting under Meyerhold. Three years later he began studying directing with Meyerhold and, for good measure, became a member of Meyerhold’s acting company. He played bit parts in the Master’s famous productions of Gogol’s The Inspector General, and in Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and The Bathhouse. Unable to stage anything in Meyerhold’s theater – because nobody but the Master staged anything there – he began working on the side a lot, even creating his own company, but he stayed with Meyerhold until the end. The closing of the Meyerhold Theater in 1938 cut Pluchek loose. Joining with the playwright Alexei Arbuzov, he created another new theater – the Arbuzov Studio – which fell apart at the beginning of World War II. He banged around for several years after the war, not quite sticking anywhere. Then, in 1950, he was invited to do a production at the Satire Theater. The show was successful enough that he was invited back. Between 1953 and 1957 Pluchek staged three of Moscow’s biggest and most important hits – Mayakovsky’s The Bathhouse (1953), The Bedbug (1955) and Mystery-Bouffe (1957), following the latter of which he was named chief director at the playhouse. These productions not only resurrected Mayakovsky’s reputation in theater – his plays had been semi-banned since his suicide in 1930 – but they also served to return Meyerhold’s name – if only quietly – to the cultural consciousness. Meyerhold, arrested in 1939 and murdered in 1940, had been wiped clean from the Soviet cultural record.

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Throughout the remainder of the 1950s on through the 1970s, Pluchek’s Satire Theater was one of the hottest tickets in town. He attempted in 1982 to resurrect another name connected to Meyerhold when he staged Nikolai Erdman’s long-banned The Suicide. But his production was shut down virtually before it could open. By the time he revived it in friendlier times, 1988, as Perestroika began, the show was no longer what it once was. The lead actress, Tatyana Vasilyeva, who, by all accounts was stunning in the role of the wife Masha, was no longer with the theater. The rest of the cast was older, times had changed, styles had moved on, etc., etc. It’s an old theater story. Still, the legend of the attempt to revive The Suicide remains as, perhaps, Pluchek’s last great theatrical effort. The one that actually did get staged in 1988 exists as a TV film and, alas, is there for everyone to see what a weak effort it was.
I met with Pluchek for a couple of hours in 1988 in his office in the Satire Theater. He was smart, quick-witted, friendly and energetic. I took a liking to him right away. He had known Erdman personally and hung out with him some, although he was never a friend. For a couple of years (1932-33) he played the role of Valerian in Erdman’s The Warrant. Pluchek provided me with much insight into Erdman’s style and texts – he was a real scholar, I would say. For those who are interested, I published the interview we had in Russian in the journal Sovremennaya dramaturgiya (1997) No. 1: 231-4.
One of my favorite stories from our talk was the one about a time the Meyerhold Theater performed on tour in Leningrad. This would have been 1929, because he talks about the premiere of The Bedbug as just having taken place in Moscow. Anyway, the performance ends and there is the proverbial wild applause with everyone calling for the author. But the author is nowhere to be found. Mayakovsky has gone missing. Pluchek heads back to the European Hotel where everyone is staying. Being an old street kid, he heads directly for the basement where all kinds of losers, street urchins and pool sharks gather to play for money. When he walks in the door, who does he see but Mayakovsky and Erdman leaning over a table. Pluchek calls out to Mayakovsky: “Why weren’t you at the theater tonight?” Mayakovsky, in his bass voice, answers back: “I need money. Right now I’m going to beat this fop here (indicating Erdman). I need money more than I do fame.”
As I say, it’s a damn shame that Pluchek’s reputation took several hits over the last couple decades of his life. I rather suspect it’s time for someone to return to his extraordinary career in its entirely and give it another look.
Pluchek incidentally was Peter Brook’s cousin. Their fathers were brothers. Their paternal grandfather was an architect in what was then Dvinsk in the Russian empire, and now is Daugavpils in Latvia. Google photos of Pluchek and you will see the extraordinary resemblance he has to Brook.
The building you see here is located a few doors down from the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya Street. Pluchek lived here from 1970 until his death in 2002. The actual address is 2/6 Bolshaya Bronnaya. It was also home to a large number of other famous Russian directors and performers. We’ll return to them another time.

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