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I fully expected some day to pull these photos out in order to share stories I have long heard about the famed actor Mikhail Tsaryov, with whom my wife Oksana Mysina studied acting at the Maly Theater’s Shchepkin Institute. I may still slip in a few of those, but today another, more solemn occasion has caused me to remember Tsaryov: On April 5, 2016, the great Martha Coigney, the 35-year head of the American chapter of the International Theater Institute, died at the age of 82 in New York. As head of the US ITI, one of the most active and valuable worldwide cultural institutions during the Cold War, Martha and her colleagues were the peace keepers and peace makers of their era. They were stubborn in their belief that culture and art can save what politics so often seeks to destroy. It so happened that Martha’s Soviet counterpart was Mikhail Tsaryov, then the head of the Soviet Theatre Union, the USSR’s mirror-like version of ITI in the US. Martha had a soft sport in her heart for Tsaryov, and she shared with me a few of her stories in a video I shot in her apartment in 2010. She began by saying, “How many Russians have I fallen in love with since I worked at the International Theater Institute? It’s probably too many to count. But one of the first ones that I met, and [who] remained a sort of touchstone in a way, was Mikhail Tsaryov” [she pronounces it “Tsarev”].
The two remained colleagues for approximately a period of 15 years, until Tsaryov’s death in 1987, just a week short of his 84th birthday.
“He was a very clear Soviet representative,” Martha told me [this transcript is edited very lightly for style and clarity]. “But he was also a wonderful older actor. He was one of the people who showed the power of theater to climb through national differences… He was completely official when needed, but he was an extraordinary friend when he would be talking about theater…. Like Margaret Thatcher said about Gorbachov, ‘We can do business together!’ Even though he was very solid on one side and I was pretty solid on the other, we didn’t let it get in the way of getting the work done, because theater was going to solve everything anyway!
“He was quite official, and he was not overly forthcoming… but one of the executive committee meetings in Paris coincided with his 80th birthday. So the French woman who was head of ITI and I planned a surprise, and at the break in the morning meeting I said, ‘There is a young person here who has an important birthday and we need to stop and pay attention to it.’ And then we all brought in a tray of champagne glasses and a couple of bottles and Tsaryov burst into tears. It didn’t show too much, but he was completely bouleversé. That’s where his heart… that’s where his identity rested. It was in his affection for theater people and his sentimentality. That’s why he said, ‘theater people know better how to make peace than anyone else.’
“The only time I saw him perform was at the last plenary session in New York, which took place the same week as the Six Day War in the Middle East. On the Friday of that week about 60 or 70 of us went over to the United Nations to watch the emergency general assembly, and the next morning Tsaryov got up in the closing session of the congress and said, ‘All week we have been discussing and arguing and deciding about theater in the world, and yesterday we went over to watch the diplomats deal with the Middle East. We watched for an hour or so.’ And he paused, like an old actor, and said, ‘We are the diplomats. We meet at what could be the end of the world. But we make peace. We are the diplomats.’ That got a huge laugh, but it was true. It really was true, and it was one of the things that… I was going to do the conference and mop up afterwards and then I was going to go do some production work. But I never left ITI because of that week. Because it was doing something the world needed. One artist at a time. Tsaryov was certainly one of those.”
Pretty amazing stuff, actually. Martha Coigney and Mikhail Tsaryov making peace as war rages around them. Sounds eerily and frustratingly familiar.
I just told Oksana that I was writing about Tsaryov and she told me about how the students at the Shchepkin Institute celebrated his 80th birthday in Moscow. On the actual day of his birthday he performed in one of his most popular shows on the Maly Theater affiliate stage (which, incidentally, stands in the courtyard where Oksana and I now live). Oksana’s entire course lined up on a stairwell near the stage entrance where Tsaryov came out after finishing the first act, and the group shouted out “Happy birthday!” Tsaryov, who was utterly surprised, responded with a generic phrase that he often used: “Oh! How are things? Bad?”
You actually have to hear Oksana tell the story live because so much of the humor is in the voice. Tsaryov, a large, classically handsome man, had an incongruously high, thin voice. Oksana does a marvelous imitation of the joyous sound the phrase makes when spoken. In any case, this phrase – “how are things? Bad?” – was something Tsaryov used frequently, at the beginning of classes or when running into a student in a corridor. It was a sign, of course, of his wry sense of humor.
A few days later there was a full-blown celebration of Tsaryov’s 80th with a concert on the main stage of the Maly Theater. Oksana joined her classmates in a circus number as well as in the singing of a song that Russians often (at least in the past) used to sing at celebratory moments. It leads to the phrase, “drink up, drink up, drink up!” And Oksana said that Tsaryov did, indeed, knock back a glass of champagne as they sang. So there we have Mikhail Tsaryov celebrating his birthday with champagne in Paris with Martha Coigney and again in Moscow with Oksana Mysina.
Because of the occasion here, I’m skipping over Tsaryov’s career almost entirely. But it needs be said that it began as he starred opposite Zinaida Raikh in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s famous 1934 production of Lady With the Camellias. One of the darkest periods of his career was his participation in the hounding of Meyerhold that followed shortly thereafter. He was one of those actors coerced into a signing a public letter condemning the great director. It was a sign of the times: No one was left untouched. When the meat grinders were set in motion, meat was ground – it didn’t matter whose or how.
Subsequently, Tsaryov – like a few other of Meyerhold’s stars – moved to the relative safety of the establishment Maly Theater. He was one of the theater’s greatest stars for decades, eventually becoming the artistic director of the theater, as well as the Chairman of the Soviet Theater Union, which is what put him in touch with Martha Coigney.
The plaque commemorating Tsaryov stands next to the entrance to the apartment building in which he lived in the center of Moscow at 8 Spiridonyevsky Lane, a stone’s throw from the famous Malaya Bronnaya Street, and one block from the famous Patriarch Ponds (where some of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is set.) The plaque reads: “Here lived People’s Artist of the USSR Mikhail Ivanovich Tsaryov.”
(Anyone interested in more about Martha Coigney can read a piece I wrote about her washing dishes with Marilyn Monroe, and another in which I briefly tell about meeting Edward Albee, and others, at her apartment in New York.)