Tag Archives: Konstantin Stanislavsky

Anna Sten home, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

Anna Sten, the star that wasn’t. At least that is the impression one gets by reading up on this Kiev-born actress who actually had a pretty remarkable career. She was discovered by Konstantin Stanislavsky, performed in film for husband Fyodor Ozep, Yakov Protazanov, and Boris Barnet in the USSR in the 1920s before having an impact in Germany, again with Ozep, in the early 1930s, and then moving on to Hollywood where Samuel Goldwyn famously or infamously planned on making her the “second Garbo” in the mid-1930s.
Sten (1908-1993) can be found under a host of different names. Her maiden name was Fesak, but she also appeared at one time or another with the last names of Stenska and Sudakevich. Her mother was a Swedish ballerina; her father a Ukrainian theater producer. In addition to the numerous names under which she was known, she also had a large number of birth years to choose from. Although most sources now use December 3, 1908, as the correct birthdate, some documents claim the year was actually 1906 or 1910.
Sten (the name came from her first husband Boris Sten [Bernstein]) got her feet wet in cinema in Boris Barnet’s classic comedy Miss Mend (1926) where she played an episodic role. But she obviously made an impression on the director for he chose her to star in his next film, The Girl with the Hatbox (1927). This was followed by several starring roles in films that, to one degree or another, left a mark on the history of Soviet cinema. They include Ozep’s The Earth in Captivity and Protazanov’s The White Eagle, both made in 1928. The White Eagle, especially, is historic for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s performance as an imperious dignitary. It is one of the few examples of the great director captured on film. In one of the most memorable duets in early Soviet film, the great Moscow Art Theater actor Vasily Kachalov played opposite Meyerhold as a star-crossed governor. Sten played the governor’s wife.
Ozep and Sten (who were a married couple between the years 1927 and 1931) went to Germany in the early 1930s to ply their careers there. Ozep’s film The Murderer Dmitry Karamazov (1931) was a major release in that year. (He also released a French version called Les frères Karamazoff.) Over the next year she played leads in three more German films, including Robert Siodmak’s Storms of Passion (1932) where she starred opposite Emil Jannings.
But it was Sten’s starring turn as the femme fatale Grushchenka in the two Dostoevsky adaptations that attracted serious attention in the cinema world. Variety raved about her.
Anna Sten brilliantly performs Grushchenka on screen. With her a new heroine has arrived in the German cinema. She is Russian by origin, but at times she appears to be a double for Marlene Dietrich. That should not be taken literally; we are talking only about external similarities, the correspondence of her appearance, face and figure to the standards of continental beauty.” (I’m quoting this excerpt back from the Russian where I found it on the kino-teatr film website.)
This is the moment when Samuel Goldwyn entered the picture. Smitten by Sten’s beauty and presence on screen (to say nothing, perhaps, of the review in Variety), he resolved to put her under contract in the U.S. and to make her the next great foreign star in Hollywood.

On one level it is clear that Sten never became the star that Goldwyn envisioned. The name Sten is hardly an equivalent of Garbo, Dietrich,  or Bergman. And yet one also wonders how much of a “failure” she was? Perhaps she was more a victim of a system trying to plug her into slots that did not suit her?
Whatever the case may be, Sten starred in three consecutive Hollywood films that were intended to make her a star, but did not. The first was Nana (1934), based on the novel by Emile Zola, which was considered a major flop. It was followed by We Live Again (1934), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection that was directed by the Russian emigre director Rouben Mamoulian. Next up was The Wedding Night (1935), a comedy directed by the legendary King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper in his debut. Her next film, A Woman Alone (1936) was made in England by her third husband, Eugene (Yevgeny) Frenke. They were married in 1932 and remained together until his death in 1984. This was, however, the end of Sten’s attempt to become a major Hollywood star. She was tagged with the weighty moniker of “Goldwyn’s folly” and did not make another film until 1939.
In fact, Sten worked with some regularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s, performing in 11 films over that period (albeit, with a seven year hiatus between 1948 and 1955). She made her last appearances on film in 1962 and 1964. Four of her last six performances were in television projects.
As is fitting of a star – or is it a non-star? – with three birth years and at least four names, there is a bit of confusion surrounding this house where Sten apparently lived in the early 1930s. I say “apparently,” because the Movieland Directory, which puts her here in the 1920s, is clearly mistaken. Sten did not live in Hollywood until the early 1930s. Perhaps this house at 601 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills was a temporary place of residence before she settled into a more stable existence with her new husband Eugene Frenke. This house, which Movieland Directory posits as Sten’s first Hollywood address, was, indeed, built in 1921. Judging by its appearance today it has undergone a facelift or two since then, but it is clear that this very structure was there to shelter Sten when she arrived in Hollywood around 1932 or 1933.
A final tidbit. The flop of Nana, which premiered February 1, 1934, had such resonance that its star even made her way into Cole Porter’s 1934 song, “Anything Goes”:

If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction
Instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna shows
Anything goes.”

It must have been a bitter pill.

 

 

Advertisements

Alexander Vertinsky plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn0873

Few individuals in the history of Russian culture have lived more dramatic lives than the great singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). It all began before he was born.
Vertinsky was the second child born scandalously in Kiev to Nikolai Vertinsky, a lawyer, and Yevgenia Skolatskaya, the daughter of the head of Kiev’s assembly of nobility. Vertinsky, Sr., was married and nothing he could do would convince his wife to agree to a divorce. The situation – this was the end of the 19th century, after all – was, indeed, dramatic. Alexander’s sister Nadezhda was separated from her brother and given to an aunt in the father’s family. Alexander was turned over to his maternal aunt, a severe woman who hated Alexander’s father, was extremely strict in her dealings with the young boy, and who told him that his sister was dead. His mother died when he was three; his father, who apparently spent much of his last years sitting by his lover’s grave, died when Alexander was five. Not the easiest start in life far a young boy, although this was just a prelude.
The story that follows is packed with details that I could never have collected without the help of a few good websites, Know EverythingPeoples.ru, and Russian Wikipedia. I doff my cap to them all. (Although I should point out that the sources differ on dates occasionally, with some claiming he moved to Moscow and began his film career either in 1912 or 1913. In unclear instances, I tend to side with Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly.)
Vertinsky received a good education, at least at first, studying at the No. 1 Gymnasium for aristocrats. His classmates included the future writers Konstantin Paustovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov. But Vertinsky’s independent nature was not to be tamed. For kicks he began stealing money that pilgrims left as honors on the graves holding the remains of saints at the Kiev-Pechersky monastery. He was caught and kicked out of school, and, when he refused to quit doing it, his aunt kicked him out of her home. His saving grace was a love for theater and music. He tried out his acting chops first and, when that failed, he took up singing. A chance meeting with an old friend of his mother gave him another “in” to high society. She took him under her wing, inviting him to her house where he met such individuals as Marc Chagall, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin,  and the painters Kazimir Malevich and Natan Altman. This, apparently was an environment that began to serve and feed Vertinsky’s talent. His new benefactress helped him get a job as a theater critic and he turned out to be very good at it. He became well-known in Kiev with his notices about performances by Fyodor Chaliapin and others. He also began publishing short stories. When he had saved up enough money by the age of 24, he set out for the bright lights of the big city of Moscow. His primary goal was to make a career in literature, but first he made an astonishing discovery – his sister Nadya was not only still alive, she was an actress in the theater! Alexander began performing and directing, all the while continuing to write stories, poems and short plays, often under the influence of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. An attempt to enter the Moscow Art Theater school ended in failure when the auditioning master Konstantin Stanislavsky complained that Vertinsky could not properly pronounce the letter “r.” This hardly stopped him. He made his debut in silent film in 1913 and, when World War I began, he volunteered as a medic. There he applied some 35,000 bandages to wounded soldiers before he was wounded slightly himself and sent back to Moscow where he learned that his beloved sister had died of an overdose of cocaine. Nevertheless, Alexander wasted little time getting his career going again, continuing to act in films and making his Moscow debut as a singer in 1915 at the Miniature Theater. A crucial choice was made to dress and make Vertinsky up as Pierrot, and it stuck, becoming his own personal image forever after. His early repertoire was based on the poetry of others, but he also began slipping in a few of his own songs, too. Before long he had become a star in his own right.

dscn0874 dscn0877 dscn0879

dscn0971Vertinsky’s songs reflected the age in which they were written – one of violence, uncertainty and fear. The usual characters that he wrote about found themselves alone and vulnerable before a hostile world. There was a note of fatalism in Vertinsky’s voice that, together with his unique, personal sound of deep regret and profound understanding, gave his songs enormous emotional impact. It is not surprising (I say as I leap-frog over all kinds of interesting biographical details) that Vertinsky would increasingly feel himself an outcast in Moscow in the years after the Revolution. Even though the rhetoric was not even close to what it would become in the next decade/decade and a half, it was plenty to alienate Vertinsky almost immediately. Here’s a little story worth repeating from Peoples.ru:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution Vertinsky came to the conclusion that he would never get along with the new government. His romance titled ‘What I Must Say,’ written under the impression of the deaths of three hundred cadets in Moscow, aroused the interest of the Cheka [secret police], which summoned the actor to explain his sympathy for enemies of the Revolution. Legend has it that Vertinsky responded to the Chekists indignantly: ‘It’s just a song, and anyway, you cannot forbid me to pity them!’ He received a clear and concise answer: ‘If necessary, we can forbid you to breathe!‘”
Shortly thereafter Vertinsky – who was now a nationally famous singer – set out on a protracted tour through the southern regions of the new Soviet Union, as far from Moscow as he could get. In 1920 he slipped out of the country on the good ship Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and set foot in the safety of Constantinople. He began performing there with success for the growing emigre population, but, being a restless soul, he kept moving, visiting in coming years Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Germany. When in Poland he made an attempt to return to the Soviet Union but was refused a visa. He settled in France from 1925 to 1934, where he, once again, became an enormous star. Yes, he was supported by the huge Russian emigre community, but the French, with their love of style, art and literature, took him in as well. He continued writing his beautiful, sad songs of longing, regret and stoicism, creating one of the greatest oeuvre of popular songs in the world.
In 1934 Alexander set sail for New York on the good ship Lafayette. He never felt comfortable in America’s financial capital and set off on tours that took him to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was an attempt to get him started in Hollywood as an actor, but his lack of knowledge and deep dislike of the English language were a barrier that could not be breached. There is a tale that Marlene Dietrich, seeing how Vertinsky struggled with English, suggested that he just “get a grip on himself” and learn the language. He couldn’t, however, and ended up turning down the offer to act.
Disillusioned with the States, Vertinsky set sail for China in October 1935. It was a decision that would change his life, and the history of Russian/Soviet performing arts.
He set up base in Shanghai where he continued to perform, and, even, for a short while was the owner of a cabaret. But life was getting more and more difficult, and when he unexpectedly received an invitation from the Soviet consulate in Shanghai to return home, he was intrigued. He even began writing for a Soviet newspaper. Still, the road home was not easy. His final papers from Moscow were delayed, in large part because of the beginning of World War II, and so, when he married his second wife Lidia Tsirgvava in 1942, he was still in Shanghai. Vertinsky was then 53; Tsirgvava, the daughter of a Soviet official in China, was 20. Their first daughter Marianna was born several months later. When Japan invaded China Vertinsky made still another, now desperate, attempt to return home. He wrote Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov, who immediately made arrangements for Vertinsky and his family to receive traveling papers. They were given an apartment in a prestigious building on Tverskaya Street (occasionally and exaggeratedly called Moscow’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysses) in building No. 12. You see that building here, as photographed in the fall of 2016.
Just a few months after arriving here in Moscow in 1943, the couple’s second daughter Anastasia was born. Both Marianna and Anastasia would become successful actors themselves, Anastasia, especially, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actresses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vertinsky himself found an uncomfortable mix of success and alienation upon his return to a nation that had nothing to do with the country he left in 1920. He was allowed to act in films and to give concerts, and yet, he was kept on the outside of mainstream Soviet cultural life. His songwriting muse pretty much dried up in this period. One source claims he wrote barely two dozen songs over the last 14 years of his life.
In 1956, the year after Nikita Khrushchev launched his de-Stalinization campaign, Vertinsky wrote to his wife:
Look at this whole story with Stalin. It’s false, base and disingenuous, At the convention Khrushchev said: ‘Let’s stand in honor of the 17 million people who were martyred in the camps.’ How do you like that?! Who, when and how will the ‘mistakes’ made by these scums ever be repaid? How long will they continue to  mock our Motherland? How long?

dscn0878 dscn0876 dscn0875

dscn0970

 

Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_0243 IMG_0245

This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

IMG_0259 IMG_0262 IMG_0267 IMG_0243 IMG_0256

The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

IMG_0254 IMG_0255 IMG_0258 IMG_0263 IMG_0270 IMG_4183 IMG_4184

 

Vladimir Sokoloff crypt, Los Angeles, CA

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_7778IMG_7784

Vladimir Sokoloff (1889-1962) was still another of those Moscow Art Theater comets that landed in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. He may never have been a big star, but he was highly respected, memorable in every one of his roles – no matter how bad the film – and he was always in demand among directors and producers looking for a good actor. He performed in over 115 films from the beginning of his career in Germany on through his last – Taras Bulba with Yul Brynner (another Russian-born Hollywood denizen) – in the last year of his life.
Vladimir Sokoloff was born Vladimir Sokolov in Moscow a few months after my maternal grandmother was born in Avon, IL, in the U.S. There’s no connection whatsoever; I just like taking advantage of any opportunity to remember my wonderful grandmother. Sokolov studied at Moscow University – several sources say his chosen fields of study were literature and philosophy. But he had the acting bug and he next studied  with Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, where he was admitted to the company in 1913. He jumped ship to Alexander Tairov’s Chamber Theater around 1920 and was one of the ensemble who accompanied that theater on a tour to Germany in 1923. He caught the eye of the great German director Max Reinhardt, who offered him work in Germany. Seeing as how things were chaotic and uncertain in Russia, Sokolov took up the offer. This is when he became Wladimir Sokoloff. The first name would revert to Vladimir when he moved to the States 15 years later, but the spelling of Sokoloff stuck with him for the rest of his life. He spent ten years in Germany performing often on stage and on screen, then spent another five in France, where he performed in Jean Renoir’s film of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths (1932). Presumably sensing the onset of madness and mayhem, Sokoloff made the leap to the United States in 1937. He quickly found work both in New York theatre and in Hollywood films, easily filling in the “ethnic niche” in dozens of films. He once said that he played characters of at least 35 different nationalities over the course of his Hollywood career.  The Movie Morlocks website discusses this topic concisely:
Of course, in an era when native people were rarely cast as Asian, Native Americans, Mexican or any other nationality that might have seemed logical due to conventions of the period, Sokoloff‘s busy work life might seem unfair in retrospect, but he was a gifted man, who imbued these shorthand characters with a humane weight that few others could have conjured up for the often sketchily written roles. By his own estimate, Vladimir Sokoloff believed that he had played at least 35 different nationalities, with particular emphasis on Spanish characters (Juarez, The Baron of Arizona, The Magnificent Seven) and a few Russian types such as a remarkably benign Mikhail Kalinin, one of Stalin’s closest allies in the notoriously (and later controversial) sympathetic Mission to Moscow (1943). You may have seen him as an Asian drug smuggler in Macao (1952-Josef von Sternberg), a French gardener in Till We Meet Again (1944-Frank Borzage), a sagacious inmate in Passage to Marseille (1944-Michael Curtiz), an Italian physicist in Cloak and Dagger (1946-Fritz Lang), a violent radical leader in The Real Glory (1939-Henry Hathaway) and an Old Man in Mexico whose quiet dignity and faith in The Magnificent Seven (1960-John Sturges) galvanizes the mercenaries to help his village.”

IMG_7780 IMG_7786 IMG_7789

Sokoloff is interred in a crypt in the Sanctuary of Light section of the Hollywood Forever cemetery at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard. I have written about several other Russian transplants to Hollywood who now lay – eternally? – here in this huge city block. If you’re interested in finding this specific place, you enter the grounds, hang right at the first opportunity, then go left at the next opportunity. You will then come upon a lovely Arabic-looking vision as you see in the third photo below. From there the Sanctuary of Light hall is the second one on your left. Sokoloff and his wife Elizabeth (1895-1948) are about 2/3 of the way up the wall about 2/3 of the way back on the right.
Sokoloff maintained a healthy sense of humor as far as his professional origins were concerned. A nice little interview article called “Hollywood Glances!” published in the Miami Daily News-Herald on April 20, 1960, offers a few glimpses into Sokoloff’s own attitude to himself, his work and his teacher, Stanislavsky, who, the actor admitted (chuckling, it’s necessary to add), “tortured” him “personally.”
To hell,” he said, “with ALL the acting theories, including the Stanislavsky method. Before he died in 1938, Stanislavsky himself told me: ‘Adapt and adjust, Vladimir. No longer accept my method letter for letter. The world is changing. Acting is changing and it will change even more.”
The interview, conducted by Erskine Johnson, circles around this topic some more and I think it’s worth bringing it back out of obscurity here.
Today, playing the Wise Old Man of a sleepy Mexican village in The Magnificent Seven, on location near here, Vladimir shudders at the world’s dramatic coaches applying the Stanislavsky acting method ‘so blindly.’ 
‘It is foolish,’ he told me, his eyes bright and clear, ‘to use the same recipes of 50 years ago. You can’t play the same part as you played it 50 years ago.’
‘Audiences are different; countries are different; the world is different. All life is different. If he were alive today, Stanislavsky would be different with his method, too.’
What is Sokoloff’s method now?
‘I have learned,’ he said quietly, ‘to work by my five senses alone. It is not difficult to pretend one is eating hot soup. Yet when I appeared off Broadway not long ago in Power of Darkness, one critic said’:
‘To watch Vladimir Sokoloff eat hot soup is a revelation.’
‘I laughed. What is so difficult about it? It is just the touch, the taste, the feel. Acting is as simple as that. The five senses. If you have any talent, there is little need to study any method.'”
I’d like to see some of Sokoloff’s wisdom printed alongside the reams of reverence that get published in the Stanislvasky System industry. It might put a little perspective back into things.

IMG_7788 IMG_7790 IMG_7793 IMG_7865

 

 

Maria Sollogub’s literary salon, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

DSCN2667 DSCN2662

This is one of the nicer homes in my expanded neighborhood. Someday I’ll have to leave it behind, but it will always remain strong in my memory. It stands cattycorner across from the Tretyakov Gallery, and directly across from the famous Writers’ house on Lavrushensky Lane. (If you’re one of those, like a benighted editor I once had, who doesn’t know the word cattycorner [or caddycorner], expand your vocabulary: The Grammarist, in a lovely, long article tells us that it means “positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but … can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.” It’s a very useful word.) But I already digress.
The main structure at 3 Bolshoi Tolmachyovsky Lane dates back to 1772, while most of the decoration, added after the Moscow Fire of 1812, dates to 1814. The gorgeous wrought-iron gate and fences were originally created in the 1760s, but were not put up here until the 1820s. The wings to either side of the building were added in the years 1849-1859 by then-owner Maria Fyodorovna Sollogub (1821-1888), who is the reason for this post today. (Note that in the historical record her last name is sometimes found spelled with a single “L” but the accepted spelling for her family is with the double “L”.) Maria was born into a well-known and well-connected family in St. Petersburg. Her father was Fyodor Samarin, a military man, and her mother was Sofya Neledinskaya-Meletskaya (whose father, in turn, was something of a poet – one of his poems became the popular romance, “Whenever I Go Out to the River”). Two of her brothers had connections to what today we might call the “creative class” – Dmitry Samarin wrote essays and small books defending Slavophile views, while Yury Samarin was a philosopher and a good friend of many writers, including Konstantin Aksakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and others. In this family of learned, prominent people, Maria had the opportunity to meet many of the early great Russian writers – including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Maria was well-educated (at home) and had a sharp, inquisitive mind. She was known to her contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist. The philosopher and jurist Boris Chicherin called her “one of the most worthy women I ever met in my life” and noted her “solid, clear and fundamental intellect.” As was the rule for the time, she was groomed for marriage and one of the pretenders, if I may put it that way, was Andrei Karamzin, the son of the great historian Nikolai Karamzin. However, her authoritarian father prevailed and in 1846 she was handed in marriage to Lev Sollogub, the older brother of the then well-known writer Vladimir Sollogub, best known for his light society tales and his vaudevillian dramas. In short, Maria was – right from the beginning of her life on through into the thick of it – surrounded by literature and writers.

DSCN2668 DSCN2669 DSCN2671 DSCN2673

That marriage not only brought Maria to Moscow, it turned out to be something of a disaster when, after a few years, Lev Sollogub lost, shall we say, contact with reality, and Maria was left to care for him until he died in 1852. The couple’s only child – Fyodor Sollogub (1848-1890) – became a costume designer for theater, as well as a sometime poet and actor.  (Don’t confuse him with the symbolist Fyodor Sologub, whose real last name was Teternikov.) He was a good friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and stood at the origins of a small theatrical organization with the bland name of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art and Literature. We remember this society today because it is the place where Konstantin Stanislavsky took his first baby steps in the theater world before moving on to found the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, Stanislavsky credited Sollogub with being one of the few people whose ideas and support helped him consolidate his thoughts on a new kind of theater.
Maria clearly loved and appreciated good company and good talk, for the “evenings” or “get-togethers” or “salons” that she hosted in her home were well-known and well attended. The Russian Field website tells us that “the Sollogub home became a popular literary-political salon, frequenters of which included Alexei Khomyakov, the Kireevsky brothers [Ivan and Pyotr], the Aksakov brothers [Konstantin and Ivan], Konstantin Kavelin, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Chicherin and others. In other words, Slavophiles and Westerners alike gathered here in comfort.”
Details about Maria’s salon are not easy to come by although I did find a description of a theater production of an early Turgenev play that was put on there. Here is a text drawn from a Turgenev website:
“The Provincial Lady was performed on the amateur stage of Countess Sollogub in early January 1851. The author ignored the first performance. But, having heard of its success, he attended the second. Countess M. F. Sollogub was the wife of Lev Alexandrovich Sollogub, a cousin of the Vasilchikovs and Countess Cherkasskaya. Visiting her home, Turgenev naturally met her many relatives, but Countess Cherkasskaya, who played the lead role in the play, disappointed the writer. In a letter to Pauline Viardot on January 5, 1851, he wrote, ‘Day before yesterday I had a great success. The actors were loathsome, especially the heroine (Countess Cherkasskaya), although that did not stop either the public from applauding excessively or me from going backstage to congratulate them heartily. Still and all, I was satisfied that I attended the performance. I think that my play will have success on the theatrical stage, since it has been appreciated, even though it was abominated by dilettantes… I received many congratulations, compliments et cetera. You know, it’s amusing to see your own work on the stage.”
In fact, Turgenev in another letter to his love Viardot (published on the Turgenev page of the az.lib.ru site), reveals that he was quite nervous about the little premiere. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote New Year’s Day 1851:
This evening one of my manuscript comedies will be played on the amateur stage at Countess Sollogub’s. I was invited to attend the performance but I, of course, will refrain from that; I am too afraid that I will play a silly role. I’ll write to you about what results.”
As such, in addition to all the interesting conversations and meetings that these walls witnessed during the years that Sollogub lived here, it was also the place of the world premiere of Turgenev’s The Provincial Lady. Sollogub sold the estate in 1882 and it became a gymnasium (high school). It is currently the K.D. Ushinsky pedagogical library.

DSCN2676 DSCN2664 DSCN2678 DSCN2660 DSCN2680

 

Konstantin Stanislavsky home and plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_5731.jpg2 IMG_5717.jpg2

I am always taken aback when I encounter this building at 6 Leontyevsky Lane. This is where Konstantin Stanislavsky lived from 1921 until his death in 1938. He is identified on one of the plaques on the front wall as an “actor and director.” Nowhere does it say that he was a co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, but maybe that would be superfluous. A little bit like labeling the summer sky blue. Soviet scholars, armchair or otherwise, will immediately note the curiosity of the date: 1921. This is when the Russian Civil War was still underway. Muscovites of all walks and professions at this time were being forced to give up their individual apartments as strangers, sometimes couth, sometimes un-, were moved into “spare” rooms. The word in Russian was ‘uplotnenie,’ that is, ‘packing-them-in.’ If you had a three-room apartment you could expect the state to move in at least two other families into the ‘extra’ rooms. It was the way the young Soviet government solved the housing crisis. What does this have to do with Stanislavsky’s home? Well, look at it. It’s huge. And it all belonged to Stanislavsky. I haven’t made it a point to study this topic, but the only other person I know of who received this kind of treatment was Maxim Gorky, to whom Stalin, in 1932, gifted a spectacular art-moderne home on Spiridonivka across from the church where Alexander Pushkin was married.
This building that was put at the service of Stanislavsky has quite a history. Parts of it were erected between 1650 and 1670. It was expanded in or around 1777, and then again at the beginning of the 19th century. There are not many buildings left in Moscow  that are that old. Fires and wars have seen to that. And most of the ones left are not residential structures. So this is really something. It is kept in beautiful condition, as you can see. The powder yellow is one of my favorite colors in Moscow. The first two photos in the block immediately below show the structure from the inside courtyard.  The second photo, which looks out the gate at the building across the street, shows how well the powder yellow combines with another of Moscow’s common colors – powder blue.
Russian Wikipedia tells us that just a few doors down from here, at 2a Leontyevsky Lane stood the building in which Maria Lilina, Stanislavsky’s leading lady, lived before the couple was married. According to Moscow lore, it was there that Stanislavsky popped the question and Lilina accepted. I mention that building here because it can no longer be photographed or perused. It was torn down in 2003 to make way for a modern apartment building “with an underground garage,” as Wikipedia puts it.

IMG_5719.jpg2 IMG_5726.jpg2 IMG_5727.jpg2

The first year of Stanislavsky’s life in this home must have been hectic. As I have said, there was a Civil War raging all around. Not that bullets constantly flew freely in the skies over Moscow, but as a new book called The Soviet Theater: A Documentary History indicates, there were, indeed, days when bullets flew freely enough that the Art Theater had to think about canceling performances so as not to endanger actors and spectators. That, surely, is one of the reasons that Stanislavsky and a large group from the theater struck out on a world tour in 1922. They played in Europe and the U.S., although they were in the U.S. for much of the time between 1922 and 1924. If you know anything about human nature, you know full well that Stanislavsky was using that time to decide whether he should bother coming back at all. Many in Russia assumed that he and his troupe would not return. Just imagine Stanislavsky getting up in the morning somewhere in New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, sitting down to his orange juice and scrambled eggs that were served on a crisp, white linen tablecloth and thinking – “Do I go back? Do I not go back?” That quandary lasted for over two years. “Do I bail or do I not bail?” Meanwhile, the popularity of the Art Theater’s shows in the U.S. made Stanislavsky a god in the West. It was here that he wrote and published the first of his books which have come to be looked upon in theater circles as bibles.
In the end Stanislavsky did not bail, although not all of his actors returned with him. He returned to Moscow and his still-new home at 6 Leontyevsky Lane in 1924 at about the same time that his My Life in Art was published in English.
Long before moving into this home, Stanislavsky and Lilina had three children, two daughters and a son. The first daughter, born in 1890, died as an infant. The second, Kira (1891-1977), married the great painter Robert Falk and was the first director of the Stanislavsky House Museum when it was opened in this building in 1948 on the 10th anniversary of the great director’s death, and the 85th anniversary of his birth. Their youngest child, a son named Igor (1894-1974), married Alexandra Tolstaya, the granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy.
The museum displays the rooms in which Stanislavsky and his wife lived. There is a small auditorium which, on occasion, is used for performances by contemporary companies. Actually, I say that and then recall that it’s been years since I saw a show there. I did often attend performances there in the 1990s, but it’s been a long time since then…

IMG_5730.jpg2 IMG_5735.jpg2 IMG_5736.jpg2

 

Konstantin Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_5665.jpg2

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.

IMG_5663.jpg2 IMG_5664.jpg2 IMG_5670.jpg2

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.

IMG_5669.jpg2 IMG_5667.jpg2 IMG_5671.jpg2