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“We increasingly live among the dead.”
The thought hardly belongs to Maksym Kurochkin, you can find all kinds of people who said it before I heard him make the comment one day at the Actors House in Moscow, probably around 1999. But it’s a fact of my own biography that the first time I was ever confronted by the notion stated so clearly was when Max uttered it during a post-performance discussion of some show I have long since forgotten. The show is gone from memory, the actors, the director, almost all of the audience around me – all familiar faces at the time – all of them wiped clean. Max’s comment continues to live on in me with that very tenacity of the dead.
It comes back to me as I post more photos of a gravesite, this one the final resting place of Maria Ouspenskaya, a Moscow Art Theater alumna who had a significant impact on American theater and film in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Ouspenskaya (1887-1949) was born in Tula, Russia. She died a rather grisly death, almost as if from one of the horror movies in which she acted – she fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand and woke up amidst a fire. The wounds that she suffered from the fire, as well as the stroke it induced, were lethal. She died a few days later. I actually went in search of the house where she died, but, as far as I can tell, it no longer exists. My guess is that – if anything was left of from the fire in the first place – it later fell victim to the widening of the 101 freeway that runs through Los Angeles.
As some, rather empty, compensation, she now lies in a peaceful setting beneath the branches of a huge tree in the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale. Her marker lies about 30 yards to the left of the right border of the cemetery’s Eventide section. She is in the first row along Arlington Road, plot 3741-6, just to the left of the tree. Visitors can look up to a sloping hill behind her, and back down across segments of East Los Angeles below her. There is a legend out there that she demanded to be addressed, and credited in films, as “Madam Ouspenskaya,” and, sure enough, that is how she is identified on her grave marker – “our beloved Madam.”
This Madam was a formidable woman, actress and teacher despite, or perhaps, because of her slight build. One source tells us she never weighed more than 90 pounds in her life. Others point out that she was demanding as hell and could be extremely hard on students. She referred to her hard nose attitude in an interview in 1941: “All through my life I have been stubborn about my dreams! Nothing could ever stop me from dreaming. If there is determination – if the wish is strong and built on a foundation of joy – in one way or another it will come true.” (Quoted in Pamela Sue Heilman’s PdD dissertation, The American Career of Maria Ouspenskaya (1887-1949): Actress and Teacher . It’s a fount of information, I highly suggest you read it if you’re interested in Ouspenskaya).
Ouspenskaya (whose name would be transliterated as Uspenskaya were it done today) studied singing in Warsaw and acting in Moscow in Alexander Adashev’s private dramatic courses. She joined the Moscow Art Theatre in 1911 and remained in the company until 1924, when she jumped ship, metaphorically speaking, and stayed in New York to play her trade there. She performed in at least five Soviet short films, although there is something fishy about the fifth, Tanya the Tavern Girl, which the iMDB site writes came out in 1929, at least five years after she settled in New York. I don’t know whether the film was just late in coming out, or if there is another explanation. Her first film was in the relatively well known screen version of The Cricket on the Hearth (1915), starring Mikhail Chekhov and the rest of the cast of the famed Moscow Art Theatre First Studio production. Ouspenskaya was a founding member of the First Studio.
Her first work in American film was William Wyler’s Dodsworth in 1936. She often played countesses or baronesses; in this case she played Baroness von Obersdorf. She spoke with a lovely Russian accent that Broadway and Hollywood loved – she was often the go-to actress for severe-looking European high society women. Her demeanor also made her perfect in the budding genre of the horror film, and, at least for armchair historians, she is now most famed for her performance opposite Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man (1941). She figures prominently in the trailer for the film which, thanks to YouTube, you can watch right now. The Classic Monsters site says this about her performance: “As Maleva the Gypsy Woman, she played opposite Lon Chaney in Universal’s most important horror movie of the 1940s, The Wolf Man. Bela Lugosi also starred as Maleva’s hapless son Bela and, despite the film being one of the strongest of all the Universal horrors, not to mention the Wolf Man himself being one of their most iconic monsters, it is Maria Ouspenskaya’s superlative performance that adds an extra finesse, making an already excellent film outstanding.” Her character Maleva was reprised in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). She was nominated for Oscars in 1937 (Dodsworth) and 1940 (Love Affair).
In her time at the Art Theater, Ouspenskaya played numerous roles both as a replacement for other actors, and creating original roles. She was one of seven Art Theater actors to remain in New York when the company headed back to Moscow in 1924. She soon began teaching and performing – with surprising frequency and admirable success – in New York playhouses. Along with Richard Boleslawsky, one of those Art Theater actors to remain in the States, Ouspenskaya helped to found and run the American Laboratory Theater in New York. Her first English-language foray on the American stage captured a rave notice in the New York Times: “The cheers for Saturday night’s audience were rather for Maria Ouspenskaya, stepping from the ensemble of the Moscow Art Theatre to play her first role in English— and to play it, to the astonishment of everyone, easily and colloquially.” Chapters Five and Six in Heilman’s dissertation, whence this last quote, provide a wealth of information about Ouspenskaya’s work in the U.S. theater.