Artists of The Moscow Art Theatre

Aug 11, 2011

Liubov Oves
Presentation for the KTAA/OISTAT Scenography Symposium 2006, Seoul, Korea

The Moscow Art Theatre, one of the most well-known theatres in Russia, was founded by an amature actor K. Stanislavsky and a playwright V. Nemirovich-Danchenko. The Theatre was opened on October 14, 1898. The founders of The Moscow Art Theatre gathered in a restaurant “Slavansky Bazar” (“Slavic Market”) on June 22, 1897, and for eighteen hours without a break they were discussing what they do not accept in the old theatre and what the new theatre should look like.

The director theatre, that Russia yet did not know, was emerging. Much was still unclear and needed to be specified, such as principles of directing and methods of acting. The most clear was the external, entertainment aspect, as it was the most outdated, the most irritating part in the old theatre. The founders of The Moscow Art Theatre discussed even the design of the curtains. They decided it should be modest, one-color,  sliding, instead of elevating and heavily decorated as in the old theatre. Both – K. Stanislavsky and V. Nemirovich-Danchenko, were convinced that each play should have its own sets, furniture, properties, and costumes should be made specifically for the roles. Sets should be adapted to the unique conditions of life of human spirit in a certain play. The truthfulness of external conditions was meant to provoke true emotions of heroes.

The first The Moscow Art Theatre artist Viktor Simov built whole houses and apartments on the stage, arranging and furnishing even those rooms that couldn’t be seen by the audience. So, leaving the stage an actor would still be existing in a habitual for the hero environment. The artist provided all reference points for mise en scenes. Such help was necessary for inexperienced actors.

V. Simov took part in creating of the performance from the very first reading of the play, doing everything together with director, actors and composer. He was a team-player. As a painter, naturally he was supposed to be working alone, but he submitted himself to the theatre, denying any form of creative selfishness. It did not appear difficult for him. He never was a strong painter. But he became “the ancestor of the new type of theatre artists”, as K.Stanislavsky used to say. It was V. Simov that changed attitude to the profession, becoming co-director, co-author of the performance, one of the founders of the new theatre formation.

Comparing the layout of performances of the oldest drama stages (The Maly Drama Theatre and The Alexandrinsky Theatre) and those of The Moscow Drama Theatre, gives a chance to appreciate Simov’s innovations. The first ones have enormous stage space, divided to monotonous pavilions, all of them turned on spectator, with slightly narrowed walls that imitate a perspective, with constantly fixed places for windows and doors, with furniture always opened on spectator. However, V. Simov shows the variety and richness of the surroundings, unexpected angles of view, diagonal structures, communication and flow between different stage spaces.  V.Simov has broken the floor of the stage, left behind the principle of flat hanging sets, started to work on composition of the stage space. And the space resigned itself to him. He knew every inch of it and each time managed to create new unexpected compositions, depending on the character of the play and director’s demands.

In 1898 the Theatre staged its first play – a historical drama «Tsar Fyodor» by Aleksei Tolstoi. It impressed by its integrity, created by director’s will, crowd scenes living on the stage, unexpected mise en scenes, new truthful manner of acting, thoroughness, persuasiveness and beauty of the scenery.

Preparing “Tsar Fyodor”, the Theatre went to an old town of Rostov the Great, to breath in the atmosphere of the old time Russia, to buy some authentic antiquities for the play. The actors exchanged their modern hats on the old style ones. On the way back they arranged a masquerade on the ship and put on everything they have bought, covered with antique brocade, thus organizing the first improvised assembling rehearsal in theatre history.

Going deep into history, life, customs of the past and the present will become the method of work. Preparing “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare K. Nemirovich-Danchenko and V.Simov will travel to Rome, starting “The Lower Depths” by Maksim Gorky they will visit one of Moscow’s doss-houses.

At first, The Moscow Art Theatre was focused on modern drama. Trustworthiness of the Theatre performances could be found in the reality of life.

V. Simov was always interested in details of life, both modern and historical, he appreciated them, and that is why he appeared to be an ideal artist to embody plans of Moscow Art Theatre founders. Simov’s sets to “Tsar Fyodor” could really house boyars of the 16th century. While contemporaries felt at home in the sets for the plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Hauptmann.

But the method of The Moscow Art Theatre did not turn to be universal. Reliability of Simov’s sets, as well as detailed and thorough director's view, and “lived through” roles by actors, their psychological and historical correctness steadily headed to the limit - to naturalism. Simov will leave from The Moscow Art Theatre in 1912, having created scenery for 45 performances, - he felt there was no need in his work any more. Besides he was not anymore Theatre’s only artist since 1904.

Founders of Theatre start searching for a new graphic language with other artists. These will be Vladimir Egorov and Nikolai Ulyanov. “As soon as new drama appears – new forms appear too” – K. Stanislavsky wrote down at that time. He said theatre was outdated, and that comprehension of more delicate tools was needed, those available in other arts like poetry and music.

The stage space in “The Drama of Life” by Knut Hamsun (1907) for the first time was organised by the laws of life, but by laws of art, following the demands of a new style – art nouveau. This is the way Vladimir Egorov saw it. Nikolay Ulyanov represented a fair as an infinite number of identical rectangular tents-screens. When people’s black shadows started to slide behind them, there was a feeling of some dreadful trouble. Grotesque sharp human shadows, their feverish movements provided elements of expressionism.
The sets were made by two artists and thus they did not possess integrity. They managed to achieve it while staging another symbolists’ play, this time by a Russian playwright - Leonid Andreev’s “Life of a Man” (1907).

The artistic environment, the same for whole performance, was created by means of black velvet, the stage space was perceived as infinity in which all traces of life seemed to be lost. Schematical images of windows and doors, fragments of interiors with people’s silhouettes in them appeared from the black chasm. They were “painted” by colored ropes on the black velvet. Rope contours of interiors and costumes made the performance graphic, showed the connection with art nouveau style. This generalisation was emphasized also by sets partially painted on the backdrop, volumetric details on the contrary were simplified and were painted in hyphens, dotted lines, specks. A person could suddenly appear and disappear. Similar metamorphosises occurred with the stage space. Ephemerality and relativity of life, living on the edge between existence and nonexistence was embodied plastically and in color, it was emphasized by common texture of the sets, common rhythm, and the whole ornamental design. Even normally neutral floor, in the performance covered with gold and violet squares, was involved in the general ornamental design. Columns of the balls room merged with walls due to hyphens and specks covering them.

Plays by symbolism has found forms of art nouveau style again in “Blue Bird” by Maeterlinch, with sets by V. Egorov (1908). They used black velvet once again and also an almost forgotten technique of “pure changes”, carried out by means of to the lightning-fast change of tulle curtains and change of light. Light had a defining role in this performance. By its means a magic space was created. Painted canvases were perforated by hundreds of holes – for light to shine through. The woods were projected on a white backdrop. At the Fairy’s palace a huge ladder and columns turned into silhouettes. As well as M. Maeterlinch, V. Egorov personified the material world. “Water” was flowing, “Time” and “Soules of unborn” came to life. “Sugar” acquired human flash. In the performance K. Stanislavsky managed to create fairy-tale-like, irreal space, to deliver “mysterious, dreadful, beautiful and incomprehensible”.

The meeting of The Moscow Art Theatre with the great reformer of a stage, Englishman Gordon Craig was not an accident. The theatre was not able embody Craig’s ingenious plan. Only three of his episodes were staged. Yet, this was enough for the performance to become a part of the world theatre history. G. Craig suggested to read “Hamlet” as a monodrama. Every event on the stage was seen by the eyes of Hamlet. The visual form of performance was supposed to follow the shifts of thoughts and feelings of the only hero. For the first time sets had to become a constantly changing space metaphor of the hero’s inner-life. They were abstract and did not represent anything from the material world. Spiritual life was represented by 25 screens and 30 cubes. Shortly before that G. Craig did patent his own invention – a revolving stage, a stage with various faces and mimical expressions, capable of boundless metamorphosises. Stanislavsky dreamed about “a simple background for the actor”, the one capable to produce “infinite quantity of moods”. Craig’s screens seemed to make his dream come true. But when The Moscow Art Theatre decided to put aside Craig’s director ideas and stage a different, psychological performance in his sets, those did not allowed that. As a result the Theatre and actors succeeded only in the scenes where they trusted Craig, and in the others they were defeated.

The Leaders of The Moscow Art Theatre, unsatisfied with results of their search, decided to find new allies. Representatives of “World of Art” group were art cosmopolitans. They were  equally interested in the West and the East, Russia in the time of Peter I and France in the time of the Lui XIV. Deep culture and talent of various styles imitators made them to desired employees of The Moscow Art Theatre for a period of time. The Theatre required not only outstanding painters, but also experts on traditional life-style. The Theatre headed to classics. Sets by Alexandre Benois, Mstislav Dobujinsky, Nikolai Roerich, Boris Kustodiev were filled with the fine details of life, magnificent images of the past. In the sets to “A Month in the Country” by Ivan Turgenev (1909) M. Dobujinsky has recreated a fading away world of noble mansion with its charm, beauty and spirituality. But M. Dobujinsky was interested not only in retrospective view. That allowed him to create remarkable sets to Dostoevsky's “The Posessed” (1913).

The union with the “World of Art” group could not last long. The leaders of The Moscow Art Theatre were afraid  that “picture” will dominate over performances, setting aside director’s solutions and acting. Roerich’s scenery to “Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen (1912) made the basis for such suspicions.

The artist, in whom the Theatre has found a required ideal, was Vladimir Dmitriev. He was an experienced master. In the past he had the most revolutionary stage experiments with space and texture, expressionist performances. He was one of the brightest and the most convinced representatives of scenographic avantguarde. Skillful on using both - scenic grotesque and poetic element, he seemed to be a universal master. One of the most thinking artists, he also was one of the most emotional representatives of this profession. It made it possible for him to achieve on the stage of The Moscow Art Theatre the highest psychological and lyrical summits, in the profession. He was an outstanding master of color and by its means could reach the strongest drama effects. If V. Simov did have difficulties in representing the poetic world of Chekhov’s dramatic art, V. Dmitriev seemed to be specially born to embody it. V. Dmitriev and V. Nemirovich-Danchenko created one of last masterpieces of pre-war The Moscow Art Theatre – “The Three Sisters” by Chekhov (1940).

The war became a border that the founders of The Moscow Art Theatre didn’t manage to cross. K. Stanislavsky  died in 1938, V. Nemorivich-Danchenko – in 1943.

The post-war period of The Moscow Art Theatre is, from the point of view of sets design, as well as directing, of little interest. Revival of the theatre and scenography occurred in 1970-ies with arrival of the new artistic director – Oleg Efremov. A generation of artists that have cardinally updated the look of Russian stage in 1960-1980-ies, and drew attention to themselves at the International exhibitions in Prague.

David Borovsky and Eduard Kochergin are, probably, the brightest representatives.

The sets to “The Golovlevs” by Saltykov-Shchedrin " were designed by E. Kochergin in 1984. The history of Russian obscurantism described by Saltykov-Shchedrin came out in a unusual appearance. An Integrity of performance’ space has been created by the texture, similar to a sheepskin fur-coat. A house, a field, and that whole Russia seemed to be hidden inside that coat. The architecture of the house created from a violet velvet, has been edged by a white sheepskin; it’s white stripe as if a collar, went on top of walls, crept on the edge of a doormat. The top part of the “fur-coat” was faded. The bottom was still of deep violet background. Covered with numerous framed daguerreotypes, icons and icon lamps, mirrors, sconces, paintings, it imitated internal walls of a landlord house. Chairs, bureau, child’s cradle were glued to the walls. Huge folds of “fur-coat” reminded of columns of some temple. Doors framed by portieres were placed behind each rounded edge. At a certain moment the walls, with all the mirrors, lamps and paintings, were gradually pulled up, like French curtains, opening endless spaces of Russian fields covered with snow. The semicircular top of the set reminded of a huge crown. By the end of the performance the wrinkled set turns into an enormous ring-trap; while compressing towards center, it carried away all remains of material world, as if concluding the destruction of “the Golovlev’s nest”.

E. Kochergin designed sets for three performances of The Moscow Art Theatre, David Borovsky - nine.
Director Oleg Efremov precisely defined the problem facing the artist who is to design sets for “Ivanov”: “Chekhov’s dramas are usually staged play in such a crash!  There is a mass of furniture and detailed life-style. But as I see it, as if one of the main tragedies of Russian person is a vast space. It influences everything. And it influences tragically”. D. Borovsky followed Efremov’s request, and above added a landscape from himself. The old nobility house with a classical pediment was pierced by naked branches of trees as if by metastasises. Not a single chair, no furniture, no details at all.

The solution of “The Train” (1975) and other works allowed E. Kochergin to call D.Borovsky “one of the first conceptualists of the Russian theatre”, who realized the ideas of concept-art in a spatial dramatic art. “Inventions of Borovsky are similar to innovations of the world’s reformers of theatrical space, such as Adolf Appia and Gordon Craig”, - said Kochergin. And it is not an exaggeration. Recent death  of David Borovsky is a huge loss for the world theatre in which he worked. Probably, the brightest representative of the new generation of Moscow Art Theatre artists is David Borovsky’s son, Alexander. Nowadays he is the main theatre artist.

Recent staging of “Hamlet” by Saint-Petersburg staging team (director J.Butusov, artist A.Shishkin, the artist on light G.Filshtinsky) – is a frankly motion performance of sharp theatrical form, that demonstrates new vision of “Hamlet”.

A. Shishkin created an image of some northern part of the world, somewhere near the sea. Some objects similar to cans vibrate on cables fixed from one side of the stage to the other. The sets are constantly producing some beyond-the-world sounds. Huge fan is turned on and it is not hidden on the stage. Combination of an automobile dump and nordic landscape makes northern “Hamlet” very unlike all the others.

The Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Oleg Tabakov is like a well-adjusted machine, a theatre factory with several stages and a huge staff; though it can, how and again, still surprise us with a sharp scenographic solution or a new name of a stage designer.

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