Tag Archives: Satire Theater

Valentin Pluchek plaque, Moscow

Note: Click on photos to enlarge.

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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.

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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.

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Vladimir Mayakovsky on Triumphal Square, Moscow

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The square where Moscow’s most prominent monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky stands had its name returned to Triumphal Square in 1992, although everyone still calls it Mayakovka. It was officially Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992. That first date, 1935, is no random number. Mayakovsky threw a monkey wrench in the ideologues’ spokes when he committed suicide in 1930. How could the great bard of the Revolution be so self-centered as to kill himself? It took Stalin and his people awhile to figure out what to do about, but they chose in 1935 to “canonize” the dead poet and to sweep his sad end under the rug. His reputation was “rehabilitated” in what Boris Pasternak called his “second death” – from 1935 on, Mayakovsky ceased to be a real poet and a real person with a real biography, that is, with lots of warts and paradoxes. He officially became The Model Poet, the Great Civic Poet, the Great Poet of the Revolution. The statue which we see here was constructed by sculptor Alexander Kibalnikov and erected in 1958. This was another loaded year on the square. Right here on this square a feisty new, freedom-loving theater was opened in 1956 and it was called the Sovremennik, or, the Contemporary. A child of the Thaw, it was a huge success with audiences, taking the opportunity to speak out in ways that most Russian theaters had forgotten could be done. There is still a nagging suspicion that the decision to erect a monument to Mayakovsky was taken by the authorities in order to demolish the building occupied by the Sovremennik and to push the theater out of the city center. The Sovremennik was given fancy digs in a beautiful new building on Chistye Prudy a couple of kilometers away. For awhile, at least, it survived the temptation to become a bourgeois theater in its classy new digs, continuing to be a cutting-edge playhouse, while in its absence on the square a new tradition of free speech arose almost instantly. Poets and wannabe poets, as well as all those who cling to both, began gathering at Mayakovsky’s feet to proclaim the newest and boldest poetry being written. The connection that this small chunk of land has to a striving for freedom has continued into our day. Beginning in 2009 small groups of tenacious protesters would gather here every time a month had a 31st day in order to mark the 31st article of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. The irony, of course, was that the authorities always threw thousands of storm troopers and paddy wagons at the few hundred protesters, scooping them up almost before they could gather and hauling them away. For a few years, in order to discourage these protests, the authorities even closed off the space around the Mayakovsky monument with chain-link fences and deep pits. Officially they were “reconstructing” the space, although for years I never saw a worker there. In fact, they were attempting to deter the protests. In 2013 the square was, indeed, rebuilt, closed to traffic, and outfitted with small plots of grass and plenty of benches for tired passersby to rest on.

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Mayakovka is one of the most culture-packed locations in all of Moscow. The Satire Theater, founded in 1924, is located here. Right around the corner in the Aquarium Garden stands the Mossoviet Theater. Vsevolod Meyerhold, who directed three of Mayakovsky’s plays, was supposed to have his new theater built here, and construction was begun on it. But when Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940, the building was turned into a concert hall, which it remains to this day. On the north side of the square across from the Satire Theater and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall once stood the first film studio and film theater in Moscow, run by Alexander Khanzhonkov. Until recently films continued to be shown there in a cinema called the Khanzhonkov House, but that was eventually closed and turned into a concert hall for pop and rock music. The famous spire-topped Pekin Hotel and restaurant are located behind Mayakovsky’s back and can be seen in several of the photos here. The Pekin is not quite as famous a meeting place for cultural figures as the Metropol Hotel near Red Square, but its walls could still tell many a story. For awhile in the mid-to-late 2000s the back rooms of the Pekin hosted a small club called Last Money (Poslednye den’gi) where my wife’s great band Oxy Rocks rocked the house many a time.

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