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Alexander Ostuzhev (1874 to 1953) is one of those rare individuals whose great career in art spanned large portions of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He was a huge star at the Maly Theater by the time he went completely deaf in 1910, while some of his most famous roles were performed between 1935 and 1940 when he was in his 60s. I can measure his longevity against my own experience – he was one of the finest partners of the great Maria Yermolova at the turn of the 20th century – seemingly a million years ago – and he was a contemporary of actors who have been contemporaries of mine. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it does make time shrink incredibly, at least for me.
Ostuzhev was born Alexander Pozharov in the city of Voronezh in 1874. His father was a train engineer. The young man was a bit of a handful for everyone, getting himself kicked out of school for insubordination, and later, being fired from the Maly Theater for getting into a fight with a fellow actor. He began his life working odd jobs around Voronezh until he decided, in 1894, to try his hand at acting. He began in amateur theatricals, finding himself in demand because he had a beautiful voice and was quite a physical specimen – handsome and well-built. He did not have to wait long for his big break. Just one year later the popular Maly Theater actor Alexander Yuzhin (see my piece on Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin elsewhere in this space) happened to come through Voronezh and see Pozharov in a bit role. The fare that night was Victor Hugo’s Hernani and, despite his brief time in the spotlight, Pozharov made a huge impression on Yuzhin. In a letter to the playwright Pyotr Gnedich (quoted on the Memoria website), Yuzhin wrote:
“In Voronezh I discovered a treasure whom I believe is a major future force, and boldly for the first time I take responsibility for his entire life, extracting him from service on the southeastern railroads and bringing him to the stage. He is twenty-one years old, handsome. He has some intangible way of making you listen to him, watch him, and appreciate every sound of his voice that vibrates with authenticity and every gaze of his wonderful deep gray eyes.”
If that isn’t an account of Yuzhin falling in love, I don’t know what would be. In any case, Ostuzhev’s life had changed. Yuzhin brought him to Moscow and enrolled him in acting classes at an organization that today would be called the Shchepkin Theater Institute – back then it was the Dramatic Courses at the Moscow Theater Institute. Pozharov was given a stipend of 300 rubles while he matriculated and he was finally admitted into the company of the Maly in the 1898-99 season. It was apparently at this time that the provincial boy took the pseudonym of Ostuzhev. There are a few reasons hanging around as to why he did that. One is that the name “Pozharov” comes from the word for fire, “pozhar,” and the folks at the Maly were afraid that if his fans began shouting his name in the theater, unsuspecting patrons might actually believe a fire had started on the premises. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Pozharov’s teachers and handlers were looking for a way to calm down his hot temper and so, in place of his fiery name, gave him one, Ostuzhev, that is built around the root for “cold” or “frost” – “stuzha.” Or maybe it was just a name game of the young man enjoying going from hot to cold…
Whatever the case, Ostuzhev played no less than 16 roles in his first season at the Maly (that’s not a typo), at least four of which were major leads. By the time summer rolled around he was a star in Moscow. In 1902 he played Romeo and critics dubbed him the “perfect Romeo.”
The last great role Ostuzhev played before going completely deaf, apparently from Ménière’s disease, was the False Dmitry in a 1909 production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky. Deafness, at least at first, had little effect on Ostuzhev’s work. The following year he played three new roles – including Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. According to Kino-teatr.ru, Ostuzhev played four new roles in 1911/12, seven in 1912/13, two in 1913/14, three in 1914/15, and so on. Perhaps not the load that he carried in his first season, but, still he was anything but out of work. He was able to perform because he would show up at the first rehearsal already having completely memorized his role, as well as most of the others in every play. It is said that he was often able to help other actors during performances when they would forget their lines – because he knew them and would whisper them to them.
Still, it is the received opinion that Ostuzhev, by the 1920s, was in serious decline, at least in popularity, if not in talent. Increasingly he played smaller roles and lesser amounts.
But a fortunate meeting with director Sergei Radlov revived Ostuzhev’s career in a serious way. Radlov was not concerned that he could not communicate by voice with the actor; he would write out his directions in long letters and give them to Ostuzhev who studied the letters with the same diligence that he did roles. As a result, when Radlov cast Ostuzhev in the role of Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he unwittingly wrote a new page in the history of Russian theater. Ostuzhev’s Othello stunned spectators and critics alike, returning to him the same kind of mass popularity he had not enjoyed for several decades. The always-interesting Chtoby-pomnili website tells the story this way:
“In the opinion of the critics Ostuzhev’s interpretation of Othello gave particular resonance to the topic of offended justice. His Moor was not an unbridled, primitive savage, but a man of exquisite culture and feelings. In the very image of the hero Ostuzhev masterfully emphasized the solemnity of the commander’s appearance, his gestures and features. This made the terrible and terrifying catastrophe all the worse as a great human world collapsed because of petty intrigue. Ostuzhev’s Othello not only inspired admiration among spectators – it was a genuine triumph. Alexander Alekseevich could not hear the applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ but he saw, and felt the delight of the audience. The building of the Maly Theater was literally filled with flowers.”
Othello, however, was no mere swan song. Ostuzhev followed it up with two more of his most famous roles, helping him to fashion one of the great career “comebacks” in Russian theater, if one dares use such a word. His performance of the Baron in Alexander Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight (1936/37) and the title role in Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1939/40) were also highly acclaimed. Ostuzhev performed his last new role in the 1941/42 season, but he often took the stage during World War II to entertain Russian troops at the front lines. He died five days before Joseph Stalin on March 1, 1953.
The house pictured here today served as Ostuzhev’s home from 1905 until his death. The address is 12/2 Bolshoi Kozikhinsky Lane, more or less in between Patriarch’s Pond and Pushkin Square.