Moscow Art Theater

views updated May 29 2018


Celebrating its centennial anniversary in 1998, The Moscow Art Theater (MAT) represents a twentieth-century bastion of theatrical art. MAT insured the dramatic career of Anton Chekhov, introduced European trends in stage realism to Russia, and solidified the role of the director as the artistic force behind dramatic interpretation and the united efforts of designers. MAT also significantly reformed the procedures by which plays were rehearsed and set new standards for ensemble acting that ultimately influenced theaters around the world. The majority of its productions created realistic illusions, replete with sound effects, architectural details, and archeologically researched costumes and sets.

Following the 1882 repeal of the 1737 Licensing Act, which had made Russian theater an imperial monopoly, playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (head of Moscow's acting school, the Moscow Philharmonic Society) and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky (founder of the renowned theater club, The Society of Art and Literature) founded MAT as a shareholding company. Nemirovich instigated their first legendary meeting in 1897. The enterprise opened in 1898 as The Moscow Publicly Accessible Art Theater, its name embracing the founders' idealistic hopes of providing classic Russian and foreign plays at prices that the working class could afford and fostering drama that educated the community. The first company comprised thirty-nine actorsNemirovich's most talented students, notably Olga Knipper, later Chekhov's wife; Vsevolod Meyerhold, the future theatricalist director; and Ivan Moskvin, who still performed his popular 1898 role of Tsar Fyodor on his seventieth birthday in 1944joined with Stanislavsky's most successful amateurs, including his wife Maria Lilina and Maria Andreyeva, the future Bolshevik and wife to Maxim Gorky.

Within a few seasons, financial difficulties and lack of governmental funding forced the founders to raise ticket prices, to drop "Publicly Accessible" from their name, and reluctantly to accept the patronage of the wealthy merchant Savva Morozov. In 1902 Morozov financed the construction of their permanent theater in the art nouveau style and equipped it with the latest lighting technology and a revolving stage.

Following the 1917 revolution, MAT's realistic productions attracted support from the liberal Commissar of Enlightenment, playwright Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Lenin (who was said to have especially admired Stanislavsky's performance as the fussy Famusov in Alexander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit ). In 1920, MAT became The Moscow Academic Art Theater, its new adjective betokening state support. At this time, Lunacharsky also intervened on behalf of the destitute Stanislavsky in order to secure for him and his family a house with two rooms for rehearsals.

During the 1930s, Stanislavsky strenuously objected to the appointment of Mikhail Geits (1929) as MAT's political watchdog and to governmental pressure to stage productions with insufficient rehearsal. Believing in Stalin's good intentions, Stanislavsky naively appealed to the Soviet leader, winning a pyrrhic victory. Stalin placed MAT under direct governmental supervision in 1931, changing its name to The Gorky Moscow Academic Art Theater one year later, despite the fact that none of Maksim Gorky's plays had been staged since 1905. Under Stalinism, MAT received special privileges denied other artists, in return for public proof of political loyalty. Because of its past dedication to realism, MAT's history could easily be seen as constituting the vanguard of Socialist Realism. Stalin thus turned the company into the single most visible model for Soviet theater, and Stanislavsky's system of actor training, purged of its spiritual and symbolist components, into the sole curriculum for all dramatic schools. Press campaigns ensured this interpretation of MAT's work, even as Stanislavsky's continuing evolution as an artist threatened the view. Given Stanislavsky's international renown, Stalin could not afford the public scandal that would result from his arrest. Instead, Stalin "isolated" Stanislavsky from his public image, maintaining the ailing old man in his house, the site of his internal exile (19341938).

Nemirovich and Stanislavsky administered the theater jointly from its inception until 1911 when Stanislavsky's experimental stance toward acting and his growing interest in symbolist plays created unbearable hostility between them. Thereafter, Nemirovich managed the theater until his death in 1943, and Stanislavsky moved his experiments into a series of adjunct studios, some of which later became independent theaters. Stanislavsky continued to act for MAT until a heart attack in 1928, to direct until his death in 1938, and to influence MAT from the sidelines, as he had in 1931. He administered MAT only in Nemirovich's absence, most notably in 1926 and 1927, when Nemirovich toured in the United States. Among the theater's subsequent administrators, actor and director Oleg Yefremov (19272000) had the greatest impact on the company. He had studied with Nemirovich at the Moscow Art Theater's school, and founded the prestigious Sovremennik (Contemporary) Theater in 1958, and spoke to the conscience of the country after Stalin's death. He reinvigorated MAT's psychological realism in acting while he relaxed its history of realistic design. When he took charge of MAT in 1970, he found an unwieldy company of more than one hundred actors. In 1987, with perestroika ("reconstruction") occurring in the Soviet Union, Yefremov decided to reconstruct the company by splitting MAT in two. Yefremov retained The Chekhov Art Theater in the 1902 art nouveau building, and actress Tatyana Doronina took charge of The Gorky Art Theater. While Yefremov focused on reviving artistic goals, Doronina made The Gorky a voice for the nationalists of the 1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Art Theater and all of Russia's theaters struggled to survive. Not only did the loss of governmental subsidies create extraordinary financial instability, but the traditional audiences, who looked to theater for subversive political discussion, deserted theaters for television news. In 2000, Yefremov's student, actor-director Oleg Tabakov, took reluctant charge of the theater's uncertain future.

In its first twenty seasons (18981917), MAT revolutionized theatrical art through the production of a repertoire of more than seventy plays. The theater opened in 1898 with two major works: Alexei Tolstoy's Tsar Fyodor Ionnovich, which brought mediaeval Russia vividly to life with archeologically accurate designs, and Chekhov's The Seagull, which added psychological realism in acting to illusionistic stage environments. MAT premiered all of Chekhov's major plays between 1898 and 1904, with Stanislavsky's staging of The Three Sisters (1901) hailed as one of the company's greatest triumphs. Realistic productions, characterized by careful detailing in costumes, properties, sets, and acting choices, predominated. MAT produced more plays by Henrick Ibsen than by any other playwright, with An Enemy of the People (1900) providing Stanislavsky with one of his greatest roles. Even Ibsen's abstract play, When We Dead Awaken, was directed realistically by Nemirovich (1901). For Gorky's The Lower Depths (1902) MAT used representational detail to create a social statement about the underclass. Nemirovich especially furthered the cause of stage realism, often overburdening plays with inappropriate illusion. His unwieldy realistic production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1903) garnered much criticism.

Stanislavsky's growing interest in abstracted styles led to MAT's production of a series of symbolist plays. Notable among these were Stanislavsky's stagings of Leonid Andreyev's The Life of Man (1907), which featured stunning stage effects developed by its director, and Maurice Maeterlinck's fantasy, The Blue Bird (1908), as well as Gordon Craig's theatricalist production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1911). 1907 saw the two MAT styles collide uncomfortably when Nemirovich presented his overly naturalistic version of Ibsen's Brand alongside Stanislavsky's abstracted production of Knut Hamsun's The Drama of Life. When Stanislavsky began to apply his new ideas about acting to Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country (1909), he utilized abstraction both in the symmetrical set design and in the actors' use of static gestures in order to focus on inner states. This production caused a permanent rift between Stanislavsky and the company.

Although MAT greeted the 1917 revolution optimistically, it lost economic viability. Its first postrevolutionary production was Lord Byron's Cain in 1920, interpreted by Stanislavsky as a metaphor of the postrevolutionary civil war. MAT struggled to find the necessary funds and materials to realize the production. In order to survive financially, half of the company toured Europe and the United States from 1924 to 1926 with their most famous realistic productions, among them Tsar Fyodor Ionnovich from 1898 and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard from 1904. This tour solidified the international fame of Stanislavsky and MAT. In the late 1920s, MAT participated in the general theatrical trend toward a Soviet repertoire. Stanislavsky staged Mikhail Bulgakov's controversial view of White Russia in The Days of the Turbins (1926) and Vsevolod Ivanov's Armored Train 14-69 (1927). During the 1930s and 1940s, under the yoke of Socialist Realism, MAT's work lost its verve, its productions becoming undistinguished. In the 1970s, Yefremov reinvigorated the company by employing talented actors and revived its repertoire by staging new plays, such as Mikhail Roshchin's portrait of young love in Valentin and Valentina (1971) and Alexander Vampilov's Duck Hunting (1979), in which Yefremov played the fallen hero.

See also: chekhov, anton pavlovich; meyerhold, vsevolod yemilievich; moscow; silver age; socialist realism; stanislavsky, konstantin sergeyevich; theater


Benedetti, Jean. (1988). Stanislavsky [sic]: A Biography. New York: Routledge.

Carnicke, Sharon Marie. (1998). Stanislavsky in Focus. London: Harwood/Routledge.

Leach, Robert and Borovsky, Victor. (1999). A History of Russian Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rich, Elizabeth. (2000). "Oleg Yefremov, 19272000: A Final Tribute." Slavic and East European Performance 20 (3):1723.

Worrall, Nick. (1996). The Moscow Art Theatre. New York: Routledge.

Sharon Marie Carnicke

Moscow Art Theatre

views updated May 17 2018

Moscow Art Theatre Russian theatre, famous for its contribution to naturalistic theatre. It was founded in 1898 by Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. The original company consisted of amateur actors from the Society of Art and Literature, who were committed to adopting a more rigorous and professional approach to staging and acting. It was at the Moscow Art Theatre that Stanislavsky developed his influential method principle.

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