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I have Natalia Dissanayake and her wonderful book Russian Lives in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone) to thank for today’s post. The photos have been lying around in my archive for several years, waiting for a reason to be used. Surely I had a reason to take them – there must have been some Russia-connected event that took place here at some time – mostly likely a performance of the Ballet Russes. Then I happened to pick up Dissanayake’s book the other day and, as I often do, I leafed through the pages looking for interesting stories. It’s chock full of them, I’m never disappointed. And sure enough, on pages 290 to 292 I came upon the tale of Lidia Yavorskaya, about whom I knew very little other than the fact that history claims she was a model for Anton Chekhov’s Arkadina.
Yavorskaya was a star in Moscow at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and she had a good deal of success in London as well. Born in Kiev in 1871, she studied with Vladimir Davydov in St. Petersburg, and in Paris with François Jules Edmond Got, an actor of the Comédie-Française. With her parents opposing her desire to be an actress, she simply forged ahead. She married – against her parents’ will – and quickly divorced him when it became clear he did not support her either. She debuted in 1893 in the city we now know as Tallinn, Estonia, and quickly found herself playing star roles in Moscow at the famed independent (non-state) Korsh Theater. Two years later Alexei Suvorin invited her to St. Petersburg to take the lead with his troupe in the Literary-Art Circle Theater. She remained in St. Petersburg for over a decade, continuing her successes. However, she once again showed her independence by taking the brave step of leaving her position at the theater when she refused to perform in a play that she deemed to be anti-semitic. She performed for several years in a theater of her own making, the Novy, or New, Theater, where she favored cutting-edge, contemporary drama – Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus plays by her husband Vladimir Baryatinsky. According to Dissanayake, the New Theater was particularly popular with young people. However Yavorskaya and Baryatinsky struck out in 1907 on a series of tours that took them to Russian provincial cities as well as, eventually, Vienna, Paris and London. It was in 1909 that they arrived in London. According to Dissanayake:
“[Yavorskaya’s] small troupe had such success at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket Street, that people began urging the actress to perform in English. She spoke French and German fluently, but she had to put a good deal of work into her English pronunciation and, despite excellent results, she limited herself to playing foreigners. She debuted in John Pollock’s Rosamund and a one-act play by her husband, Nablotsky’s Career, at the Little Theatre on what was then known as John Street. There she also played Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, and at the Kingsway Theatre staged the first production in England of Chekhov’s vaudeville The Bear.”
So, there we have Yavorskaya at His Majesty’s Theatre, as it was known from 1901 to 1952. It is, of course, currently known as Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Life, however, interrupted what looked like was going to be a sustained period of success for Yavorskaya. Her husband, homesick, headed back to St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War I. She followed him, but was blindsided when he asked for a divorce in 1916. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted Baryatinsky’s request and forbade Yavorskaya from remarrying for some time. She, however, always the rebel, headed back to London in 1918 after getting the Russian government to remove the ban, and married the playwright John Pollock in 1920. She died a year later of throat cancer at the age of 50. She is buried in a church cemetery in Old Shoreham, Sussex.
There are plenty of opinions about Yavorskaya. One Russian site boils down many of them into a single paragraph:
“The popular dramatic actress Lidia Yavorskaya was one of the most controversial figures in the theatrical world of the early 20th century. One could not deny her astonishing work ethic and dedication, but that was combined with vanity, egocentrism and ambition. Theater critic Suvorin called her a phony creature, made of pretense and envy. Chekhov considered her an intelligent woman, but an overly loud and mannered actress. Despite this, they had an affair and it is said that Yavorskaya served as the prototype for Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.”
Other sites collect a whole bunch of catty comments about Yavorskaya by famous or semi-famous people. But if you know how to read these things, you see the limitation is stronger on the part of the writer or speaker than on the part of the individual being described. There is something mean and petty in a lot of the comments. I suspect we see more of the actress in Dissanayake’s description of her:
“She was very interesting, with big, gray-blue, ‘mermaid’ eyes, a quick smile, golden curls, a beautiful figure, light, energetic movements and a kind of snake-like grace. Those who loved her said, ‘She’s no beauty, she’s better.'”
After returning to London in 1918 Yavorskaya was very outspoken in her opposition to the new Soviet regime, even as she did much to collect money to help feed the hungry in the Soviet Union. She was the chair of the Britain-Poland-Galicia fond, and she created the Society for Aid to Russian Artists, Victims of the Bolshevik Regime.
The anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed her Lidia Miss Freedom (Lidia Svobodnitsa) for her convictions and actions.
In her final years, Yavorskaya continued to perform in London at such venues as the Royalty Theatre on Dean St., the Coliseum on St. Martin’s Lane, the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, the Scala on Charlotte Street, and elsewhere. It was at these latter two venues that she performed the title role in Anna Karenina, one of the highlights of her career.