This plaque commemorating the great husband-and-wife theater team of director Alexander Tairov and actress Alisa Koonen hangs in the left-hand foyer of the Pushkin Theater. It is located next to the door leading backstage, where Koonen and Tairov would have spent most of their time when they worked here between 1914 and 1949, and when the theater was called the Kamerny, or Chamber, Theater.
Tairov (born Kornblit) is usually the fourth-mentioned of the great names of Russian directors who worked in the early part of the 20th century – Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and Tairov. Tairov was different from the others. He was something of a walking contradiction, a talented creator of light spectacle in the vein of commedia dell’arte or bouffonade, and at the same time a great lover and practitioner of tragedy and theatrical pathos. Productions such as Charles Lecocq’s Girofle-Giroflia (1922) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla (1920) were popular examples of the former. Famous stagings of Innokenty Annensky’s Thamyris Kitharodos (1916) and Racine’s Phedre (1922) were examples of the latter. Tairov discovered Eugene O’Neill for Russian theater and audiences with productions of The Hairy Ape (1926), Desire Under the Elms (1926) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1929, as Negro). It was, in part, Tairov’s love of non-Russian drama that got him in trouble in the 1930s and 1940s. The Kamerny Theater was closed by government decree in 1949 and Tairov (1985-1950) could not bear the injustice and humiliation. He died within the year.
Koonen (1889-1974) was the muse, the spark, the material, the talent that brought out the best in Tairov. He, who had acted for Meyerhold in several productions at the Komissarzhevskaya Theater in 1906-1907, found Koonen at a turning point in her life and career. Having been a highly-touted student of Stanislavsky, and playing several major roles at the Moscow Art Theater, she shocked her master by jumping to the new Svobodny, or Free, Theater headed up by Konstantinov Mardzhanov (aka Kote Marjanishvili) in 1913. That company did not last long and, within a year, many of its members made up the new Kamerny Theater run by Tairov. Koonen was, from the very first show in 1914, to the very last, in 1949, the theater’s undisputed star.
The legend is that when Koonen left the stage at the Kamerny for the last time in 1949, having performed in Tairov’s famous, 30-year hit production of Ernest Legouvé and Eugène Scribe’s Adrienne Lecouvreur, she damned the stage and the theater. Never again would it know the success and the greatness that it had known while she and Tairov reigned there. One could easily write a book about all the details of the curse, the proof, the suggestions, the eye-witnesses, the tales… And maybe I’ll do that some day. It’s a hell of a good idea. But for now suffice it to say that – whether or not Koonen did actually curse the theater – for over half a century afterwards directors, actors, administrators, priests, shamans and just-plain-crazies talked of it as if it were as real as a sharp stone in a slipper. This fed the legend and, often, directors took direct action to try to overturn the curse.
When I arrived in Moscow at the end of the 1980s the talk of the curse was very much alive. I remember Yury Yeryomin’s 1992 production of Erik (based on two plays by Strindberg), during which the theater’s firewall was lowered with a slow, screeching, rumbling racket, and then raised back up again. There was talk that he did that as reverence to Koonen – as if he were saying, “You see? We’re closing the theater off. We’ll open it back up and begin anew, this time with your blessing, rather than with your curse.” But the truth is that from 1950, when the Kamerny was rechristened the Pushkin Theater, until the early 2000s, no director, no company, no repertoire was capable of returning this space to the ranks of the city’s best venues. Despite many talented people working here, and despite the occasional hit, over the decades the Pushkin acquired the reputation of a musty, dusty, unwieldy, miraculously unsuccessful Moscow theater. That changed slowly in the 2000s after it was taken over by Roman Kozak. For the first time since the first half of the 20th century the theater gained a sense of coherent purpose. Perhaps having the curse in mind, Kozak staged his first show (Koki Mitani’s Academy of Laughter, 2001) not on the famous main stage that Koonen cursed, but on a small affiliate stage in a building located a block away. It was a monstrous success, so that when Kozak staged a beautiful, energetic Romeo and Juliet with a very young cast on the main stage, he came to that troubled space as one who had already triumphed. Still, when the tall, strong, handsome director was stricken with cancer and died just nine years later at the age of 52, there was more than one whisper that he had taken on the battle of the curse and lost by winning.
These days there is no sign of any curse at all. Under the direction of Yevgeny Pisarev, the theater has become one of Moscow’s most popular evening destinations for theater-goers.
The plaque that hangs in the foyer of the Pushkin Theater was designed by sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov and architect Roman Semerdzhiev, and was unveiled in 1984 for the Kamerny’s 70th anniversary. It was apparently intended to be placed outside, but permission was not granted. When Pisarev applied for permission to place a plaque on an outside wall of the theater for the 100th anniversary of the Kamerny in the 2014-2015 season, he again was turned down. I don’t know if the plaque in question would have been a new one, or if it would have been the one you see here. In any case, curse or not, it seems everything that happens at the Pushkin/Kamerny Theater is fraught with additional resistance from the gods.