Shchepkin, Mikhail Semeonovich

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(17881863), an actor from the serf estate who revolutionized acting styles with his realistic portrayals.

Born in Ukraine into a family owned by Count G. S. Volkenshtein, the young Mikhail Shchepkin began performing in the private theater maintained on the estate. Indeed, many nobles used their serfs' skills for entertainment, and Shchepkin represented an important source of talent for the professional stage. Especially gifted, by 1800 he was allowed to participate in amateur productions in nearby Kursk. Though still a serf, he joined several provincial touring companies as he rose to stardom. Finally, in 1822, one of his noble fans, Prince N. G. Repin, persuaded his owner to free him. Later that year Shchepkin made his debut in Moscow, and in 1824 he began his legendary rule at the imperial Maly Theater, where he dominated in comedy and drama, including William Shakespeare's corpus, for the next forty years. From his theatrical base in Moscow, he also toured the provinces and appeared on St. Petersburg's imperial stage.

Shchepkin's artistic significance lies in his influence over the transformation of acting styles, developing multi-dimensional characters instead of simulating the single stereotype. His breakthrough came in 1830, in his characterization of the fatuous Muscovite nobleman Famusov in Alexander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit. Six years later, Shchepkin's rendition of Khlestakov, the petty bureaucrat mistakenly identified by corrupt provincial officials as one of the tsar's investigators in Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General, assured the move toward realism.

His great talent, and popularity on stage, gave him access to Russia's highest literary circles, where he helped novelist Ivan Turgenev write for the stage. Ironically, though, he surrendered his place at center stage when he refused to modify his style to accommodate the next level of realism, plays written in colloquialisms by Russia's historically most popular playwright Alexander Ostrovsky from the 1860s.

See also: theater


Senelick, Laurence. (1984). Serf Actor: The Life and Art of Mikhail Shchepkin. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Louise McReynolds