Note: Click on photos to enlarge.
Valentin Pluchek (1909-2002) was not served well by the Russian tradition of artistic directors running their theaters as long as they think they can. Even by the time I met Pluchek in 1989 there was a sense he had overstayed his welcome. He was 80 – a very fit and able 80, I will say – and much of what happened at his Satire Theater by that time had the feel of old-fashioned. There were times when “moribund” would have described some of the shows he did. And yet he continued on as artistic director there for another 11 years, until he was finally pushed out, after 43 years, and put out to pasture. He died two years later. I remember all of this and I remember how difficult it was to watch. Yes, he needed to step down. But what an ignominious way to go – just shoved out. I’m not saying I could have done it better – I’m saying it was a tragedy, at least for this man whose life was really quite extraordinary.
Pluchek began life as a homeless kid – by choice. He didn’t like his step-father and so he ran away and ended up growing up in orphanages. Now that already says something about character. He studied painting as a kid, and showed talent, but he was also drawn to the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and the avant-garde theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold. As such, at the age of 17 in 1926 he signed up to study acting under Meyerhold. Three years later he began studying directing with Meyerhold and, for good measure, became a member of Meyerhold’s acting company. He played bit parts in the Master’s famous productions of Gogol’s The Inspector General, and in Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and The Bathhouse. Unable to stage anything in Meyerhold’s theater – because nobody but the Master staged anything there – he began working on the side a lot, even creating his own company, but he stayed with Meyerhold until the end. The closing of the Meyerhold Theater in 1938 cut Pluchek loose. Joining with the playwright Alexei Arbuzov, he created another new theater – the Arbuzov Studio – which fell apart at the beginning of World War II. He banged around for several years after the war, not quite sticking anywhere. Then, in 1950, he was invited to do a production at the Satire Theater. The show was successful enough that he was invited back. Between 1953 and 1957 Pluchek staged three of Moscow’s biggest and most important hits – Mayakovsky’s The Bathhouse (1953), The Bedbug (1955) and Mystery-Bouffe (1957), following the latter of which he was named chief director at the playhouse. These productions not only resurrected Mayakovsky’s reputation in theater – his plays had been semi-banned since his suicide in 1930 – but they also served to return Meyerhold’s name – if only quietly – to the cultural consciousness. Meyerhold, arrested in 1939 and murdered in 1940, had been wiped clean from the Soviet cultural record.
Throughout the remainder of the 1950s on through the 1970s, Pluchek’s Satire Theater was one of the hottest tickets in town. He attempted in 1982 to resurrect another name connected to Meyerhold when he staged Nikolai Erdman’s long-banned The Suicide. But his production was shut down virtually before it could open. By the time he revived it in friendlier times, 1988, as Perestroika began, the show was no longer what it once was. The lead actress, Tatyana Vasilyeva, who, by all accounts was stunning in the role of the wife Masha, was no longer with the theater. The rest of the cast was older, times had changed, styles had moved on, etc., etc. It’s an old theater story. Still, the legend of the attempt to revive The Suicide remains as, perhaps, Pluchek’s last great theatrical effort. The one that actually did get staged in 1988 exists as a TV film and, alas, is there for everyone to see what a weak effort it was.
I met with Pluchek for a couple of hours in 1988 in his office in the Satire Theater. He was smart, quick-witted, friendly and energetic. I took a liking to him right away. He had known Erdman personally and hung out with him some, although he was never a friend. For a couple of years (1932-33) he played the role of Valerian in Erdman’s The Warrant. Pluchek provided me with much insight into Erdman’s style and texts – he was a real scholar, I would say. For those who are interested, I published the interview we had in Russian in the journal Sovremennaya dramaturgiya (1997) No. 1: 231-4.
One of my favorite stories from our talk was the one about a time the Meyerhold Theater performed on tour in Leningrad. This would have been 1929, because he talks about the premiere of The Bedbug as just having taken place in Moscow. Anyway, the performance ends and there is the proverbial wild applause with everyone calling for the author. But the author is nowhere to be found. Mayakovsky has gone missing. Pluchek heads back to the European Hotel where everyone is staying. Being an old street kid, he heads directly for the basement where all kinds of losers, street urchins and pool sharks gather to play for money. When he walks in the door, who does he see but Mayakovsky and Erdman leaning over a table. Pluchek calls out to Mayakovsky: “Why weren’t you at the theater tonight?” Mayakovsky, in his bass voice, answers back: “I need money. Right now I’m going to beat this fop here (indicating Erdman). I need money more than I do fame.”
As I say, it’s a damn shame that Pluchek’s reputation took several hits over the last couple decades of his life. I rather suspect it’s time for someone to return to his extraordinary career in its entirely and give it another look.
Pluchek incidentally was Peter Brook’s cousin. Their fathers were brothers. Their paternal grandfather was an architect in what was then Dvinsk in the Russian empire, and now is Daugavpils in Latvia. Google photos of Pluchek and you will see the extraordinary resemblance he has to Brook.
The building you see here is located a few doors down from the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya Street. Pluchek lived here from 1970 until his death in 2002. The actual address is 2/6 Bolshaya Bronnaya. It was also home to a large number of other famous Russian directors and performers. We’ll return to them another time.