Tag Archives: Yevgeny Vakhtangov

Konstantin Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) plaque, Moscow

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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.

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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.

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Yevgeny Vakhtangov statue, Moscow

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These days students coming and going at the Vakhtangov Theater’s Shchukin Theater Institute at 10 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane in Moscow’s Arbat region pass under the gaze of the spiritual founder of their institution. That has been true since October 13, 2014, when a small crowd gathered in the school’s courtyard to attend the unveiling of a new statue honoring Yevgeny Vakhtangov, one of the great directors of the pre- and post-revolutionary period in Russia. I am sad to say the ranking official that day was Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, an odious, anti-culture figure, whom Russia will spend years, if not decades attempting to forget. Mark my word. But he was not the only person there that day, thank goodness, so we can also point out the presence of the great Konstantin Raikin, Alexander Shirvindt, Vasily Lanovoi and other first-rank actors who graduated from Shchuka, as the institute is referred to colloquially.
Speaking to the crowd, Raikin declared, “In the very difficult conditions of a totalitarian regime, Yevgeny Vakhtangov coined a phrase, ‘fantastic realism.’ With his inclination for exaggeration, for theatrical poetry, he, nonetheless, was able to preserve the world ‘realism,’ which was required as a kind of password for what was permissible.”
Actually, Raikin pushed it a bit, because Vakhtangov (1883-1922) was dead before the restriction of cultural activity became Soviet policy. Raikin is, hereby, to be entirely exonerated, however, for I have little doubt he was less interested in historical veracity than in poking Medinsky in the ribs for this clueless bureaucrat’s often oppressive actions. Interestingly, Medinsky’s most notorious action to date, the destruction of Timofei Kulyabin’s much-admired production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk, had not yet been foisted on us at this moment. That was to come just a month later.
This statue, which stands a good eight-to-ten feet tall (including the pedestal), is interesting for its sense of smallness, even petiteness. Sculptor Alexei Ignatov made Vakhtangov bigger than life, but gives us a full sense of Vakhtangov’s delicate build.
Ignatov also spoke at the unveiling and here is what he had to say, according to the same report, from which I already quoted on the Vakhtangov Theater website: “This monument has a very interesting fate. At first we thought we would erect it as a home statue, but then it became evident it was a people’s statue, and that it wouldn’t be possible to hide from people.”
Now, frankly, I haven’t the vaguest notion what Ignatov is talking about. Maybe you had to be there. Ignatov is identified in all the reports of the unveiling as a “young sculptor” who graduated from the Grekov Studio of Military Artists. I had no idea such a place existed, but you might keep that in mind when you read the penultimate sentence in this post…

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Vakhtangov’s fame is rather astonishing, considering his extremely short career. He died at the age of 29, having staged just a handful of productions. But his reputation as a brilliant pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and the huge influence of the shows he did stage, placed him in the pantheon of Russia’s greatest theater artists. He is always mentioned right along with the other great names of the age – Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov. Vakhtangov began collaborating closely with Stanislavsky in 1911; he then was working methodically (initiates will get the pun) on his acting system. Vakhtangov was one of several young actors who functioned as guinea pigs for the great man’s research. He worked in, and helped to found, the Art Theater’s 1st and 3rd Studios. As an actor he particularly shone in the famous production of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth at the 1st Studio.  He also worked at many other theaters and clubs and cabarets around Moscow, including the Jewish Habima Studio, attracting the attention and respect of many important Russian cultural figures, including Alexander Blok and Maxim Gorky. His most famous productions included Maeterlinck’s The Miracle of St. Anthony (first version 1917, second version 1921), Ibsen’s  Romersholm (1918), Strindberg’s Erik XIV (1921), Ansky’s The Dybbuk (1922) and Gozzi’s Princess Turandot (1922). The production of Turandot was, and remains, a cornerstone of what officially became the Vakhtangov Theater, when the 3rd Studio was renamed for the deceased director in 1926. Turandot, featuring its umpteenth cast, and having gone through numerous recalibrations over the years, is still to be found in the theater’s active repertoire.
The last day of rehearsals of Turandot was the last day Vakhtangov set foot in a theater. His stomach ulcers had advanced to such a degree that he was wracked with pain. For details I offer parts of an interesting account on a site called Ask Alyona. Biography:
“Vakhtangov hurried to complete his production, working day and night. The last day of rehearsals was Feb. 24, 1922. He was in very bad shape. He sat in a fur coat, his head wrapped in a wet towel. At four a.m. the lighting had been set and Yevgeny Bagrationovich shouted out: ‘The whole performance, from beginning to end!’
After the rehearsal, he was taken home in a carriage. He never came back to the theater. […] Turandot was shown to Stanislavsky and the Art Theater team on Feb. 27. […] ‘In the 23 years of the Art Theater’s existence,’ Stanislavsky said, addressing the company, ‘we have had few such accomplishments. You have discovered what many theaters have sought so long in vain.’ [Vakhtangov’s] health took a turn for the worse on May 24. He no longer recognized family members, became disoriented because of the morphine, and imagined himself a military commander… Vakhtangov died on Monday, May 29, 1922, at 10 a.m.”

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Yury Zavadsky plaque, Moscow

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Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977) lived in this building at 15 Tverskaya Street, the very heart of Moscow, from 1940 until his death. We now remember Zavadsky as a famous director, the principal director of the Mossoviet Theater, also from 1940 until his death. But he had also been a leading actor at the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theaters, and was, according to legend, one of Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s favorite students. Marina Tsvetaeva happened to meet Zavadsky and see him on stage sometime in 1918, and she wrote an entire cycle of poems – 25 to be exact – inspired by him. Entitled “The Comedian” (as in the French, meaning “actor”), the collection bears the following dedication: “To the actor who played the Angel, or to the Angel who played the Actor – isn’t it all the same, since, by Your grace, instead of the snowy winter routine of 1919 the routine I carried out was filled with tenderness.” The first of the poems was written Nov. 2, 1918, the last of them – in March 1919. The Zavadsky Studio (1924-1936) was a well-known experimental theater in its time, and it gave starts to a number of major actors, including Vera Maretskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, Nikolai Mordvinov and Pavel Massalsky. Maretskaya was married to Zavadsky for a short while, as was the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. I’m a little confused about the dates because some sources say Zavadsky met Ulanova in 1940, some say he was married to her in the 1930s. In any case he was married to Maretskaya before he was married to Ulanova. If the exact dates are truly important to you – be my guest: research them.

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It is our good fortune – if not Zavadsky’s! – that one of Zavadsky’s actors at the Mossoviet was the great Faina Ranevskaya. Ranevskaya – about whom I’m going to have to find a reason to write in more detail – was not only considered one of the great Russian actresses of the 20th century. Possessing a truly bitter sense of humor, she was arguably the funniest. She and others have left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes and memoirs that have been gathered into several best-selling books. Because of her relationship with Zavadsky, many stories involve him. Here is one:
“Oh, did you know Zavadsky had a terrible misfortune?”
“What?”
“He died.”
Or:
“Ranevskaya was frequently late to rehearsals, which really irritated Zavadsky. One day he asked all the actors to merely ignore her when she entered. When she did finally come in, huffing and puffing, she said ‘Hello!’ Nobody answered. ‘Hello!’ she repeated. Still no answer. ‘Hello!’ she said a third time and still got no reaction. ‘Ah!’ she said. ‘There’s nobody here! Then I’ll just go take a piss!'”
Surely one of Ranevskaya’s most immortal pokes at Zavadsky was this:
“Zavadsky once shouted at Ranevskaya from the auditorium: ‘Faina, you chewed up my entire idea!’ Faina grumbled rather loudly, ‘Well, I thought I had the feeling I’d just eaten shit,’ to which Zavadsky reportedly shouted: ‘Get out of this theater!’ Ranevskaya walked to the edge of the stage and shouted back, ‘Get out of art!'”
Ranevskaya saved some of her most barbed epithets for Zavadsky. She reportedly called him: “a reduced-price Meyerhold” and she was heard to say that, “Zavadsky will catch a cold only at my funeral”; “Zavadsky gets awards not because he deserves them but because he wants them. The only award he doesn’t have yet is ‘Hero Mother'”; “Zavadsky dreams that he’s buried on Red Square”; and “How I would love to smack the faces of everyone who fakes it, but I hold my temper. I tolerate crudeness and lies, I tolerate a pitiful, poverty-stricken life. I tolerate them all and will continue to until the end of my life. I even tolerate Zavadsky…”
I didn’t intend to turn this into a Zavadsky roast, but, hey. He’s got all that stuff about being a Socialist Hero, a Hero of Labor, a Lenin Prize winner and a People’s Artist splashed out on his memorial plaque, so he can stand a few barbs tossed off by one of the best actors he ever worked with. 

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