FOR A RUSSIAN HISTORIAN IT WOULD BE NATURAL TO JUXTAPOSE THE YEARS OF IBSEN'S BIRTH AND DEATH (1828-1906) WITH THOSE OF LEO TOLSTOY, WHO WAS ALSO BORN IN 1828, AND WHOSE LIFE, STRENUOUS AND ACTIVE, ALSO CONTINUED INTO THE FIRST DECADE OF THE NEW CENTURY. IN THE DAILY OPERATIONS OF RUSSIAN CULTURE THESE FORMIDABLE PERSONALITIES, CONSTITUTIONALLY INCLINED TO CLAIM POWER OVER HUMAN MINDS, LOOKED LIKE ADVERSARIES.
TOLSTOY LAMPOONED THE STORYLINE OF "THE MASTER BUILDER", NEGLECTING TO MENTION THE TITLE OF THE PLAY AND ITS AUTHOR'S NAME (IN "ON SHAKESPEARE AND HIS DRAMAS", A PERSUASIVE TRACT WITH ALL THE TRAPPINGS OF AN ACADEMIC WORK AND A HINT OF MISCHIEF - ALMOST A LAMPOON OF ALL PROFESSORS).
In Yasnaya Polyana Ibsen was appointed the principal opponent among "the new ones" - the role occupied by Shakespeare among "the old ones", so he was in good company. Chekhov would join them in due course - as is well known, Tolstoy told him: Shakespeare's plays are bad, but your play is even worse.
Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko drew up tentative lists of plays desirable for their nascent theatre company independently of each other, and Ibsen was chosen by both. There was no other playwright whose works the Moscow Art Theatre, in the first years of its existence, produced so obstinately. There were five premieres in the first five seasons, and nine before 1912 - but only two of the productions enjoyed success, "An Enemy of the People" and "Brand". The company's persistence in asserting its choice appears all the more commendable when you remember that the theatre-makers knew Ibsen was out of favour not only with Tolstoy, the figure most important for them, but with Chekhov too.
Stanislavsky remarked tellingly about Chekhov: "He disliked Ibsen as much as he loved [Gerhart] Hauptmann" \ It was not only in Russia that Ibsen was evaluated through comparison with someone or something, viewed through a specific lens.
In the Russian theatre world Ibsen's name began to turn up quite early, and in different contexts from those found in Europe, where his plays were produced at Free Theatres. In Paris Andre Antoine produced "Ghosts" and "The Wild Duck", having previously staged Tolstoy's "The Power of Darkness" and Hauptmann's "The Weavers"; in Berlin Otto Brahm opened his Freie Buhne (Free Stage) company with "Ghosts", followed by Hauptmann's "Before Dawn"; in England, Ibsen was likewise affiliated with a theatre tradition sharply focused on social problems accompanied with naturalist aesthetics.
In Russia Ibsen's works reached the stage at approximately the same period as in Germany and France, even earlier - Maria Savina chose "Nora" ("A Doll's House") for her benefit performance at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg on February 8 1884. At the Maly Theatre in Moscow Glikeria Fedotova played in "The Vikings at Helgeland" at her benefit on January 14 1892: the value of the performance was greatly enhanced by the presence of both the theatre's divas (Fedotova as Hiordis, Yermolova as Dagny). Thus, the cream of the company's talent was on stage, but a reviewer expressed regret that the ladies were dressed in gorgeous fur wraps out of style with the Nordic legend. Unlike "Nora" in St. Petersburg, this performance was warmly received. The St. Petersburg production did not cause a scandal - it proved a quiet failure little noticed by critics.
It would be fair to say that Ibsen's audiences in Russia were those who read widely: there were more opportunities to read about Ibsen than to read Ibsen's works, and since the 1880s such magazine articles were published in larger numbers than translations of the dramas themselves.
"Nora" ("A Doll's House") was sent to St. Petersburg by Ibsen himself, at the request of his good friend the actress Antonina Abarinova: it was not the original text but a rendition from German. From this Pyotr Veinberg created a Russian version of the play, which was published in the third and fourth issues of "Izyashchnaya literatura" (Fine Literature) magazine of 1883. The production with Savina was based on this text. According to the respected St. Petersburg theatre scholar Alexander Chepurov, Abarinova's surviving archive contains more than one letter by Ibsen.
Later, both individual plays and the collected works of Ibsen would be published in translations from Norsk-Dansk, and something that can be called "the German lens" would hold for a long time.
There would remain the tradition of viewing Ibsen through Wagner, through Nietzsche, through Ibsen himself, through Haupt-mann, through Ibsen's echoes in the world of the European "new drama", through the experiences of the "free theatres", and through the reverberations in the Symbolist theatre. Moreover, Henrik Ibsen's plays as easily yielded to the attempts to highlight their strain of social criticismas they did to befogging in the spirit of Ibsen's successor, the Symbolist movement. Ibsen was also included into cultural contacts between Russia and Scandinavia, close and vibrant at the turn of the 20th century.
The Swede Strindberg's nervous innovation and misogyny would spotlight and edge out the cult of Valkyries. Nicholai Roerich, suggesting that people who were interested play on his Nordic name, attempted to paint from memory - from primal memory: his favourite themes were long-ships under dim-red sails, timber walls above the chill of the rivers, with a distressing message wending its way to our [contemporary] lights. God knows who among this lot was our kin -maybe everyone ("In the pre-Aryan cradle/Tongues Slavic and Germanic ring," wrote Osip Mandelstam). The almanach "Fjords" offered to the Russian reader more and more new names. Knut Hamsun's "Hunger" was read as early as 1892 - he was ahead of Gorky in addressing the themes of "my universities", nomadic life, and the lower depths. Later his "Pan" would gain a strong hold, with closeness to nature revealing in the hero his equally natural disharmony; the human being is dangerous not only in his social interactions but also in and of himself.
Critics and scholars writing about Scandinavian authors (and there was much writing on this topic) invariably linked them with Ibsen contextually, and this provided yet another lens, tuning, or leading astray, the eye.
Meanwhile, the editors of the "Niva" magazine (published by Adolf Marks), targeted at the general, "mass" reader, assumed that its subscribers would be pleased to receive a four-volume edition of Ibsen's play as a supplement. That was not the first publication of Ibsen, but the "Niva" subscribers were truly pleased nevertheless. A good cover, the volumes accurately stitched up - the subscribers' families would read them one generation after another, and in the past I have come across several copies, which obviously had been read and were not at all tattered.
Marks released a collection of Ibsen's oeuvre in the translations of Peter (Pyotr Gotfridovich) and Anna Hansen. This couple deserves to be remembered - their translations remain the best today.
The destinies of "Russian Ibsen" on the stage are strange.
In the formative years of the "director's theatre" in Russia, after the Moscow Art Theatre opened and Vsevolod Meyerhold embarked on his career, Ibsen, the playwright who is always mentioned as a pioneer by anyone discussing the "new drama" as the foundation of "the director's theatre", never had his name linked to a single case of altogether successful directing.
During its first five seasons the Art Theatre produced five plays by Ibsen - the company would never again be so loyal to another writer. Yet, these performances were not great accomplishments in terms of directing, as the theatre's productions of Chekhov, "Tsar Fyodor" and "The Lower Depths" were, in the same seasons.
All this in spite of the fact that Stanislavsky as an actor probably experienced the best hours of his entire life at the Art Theatre when he played Dr. Stockmann - a feeling of the bliss of freedom and lightness. "Dr. Stockmann in my repertoire is one of those few felicitous roles which lure with their inner strength and charm. When I first read the play, I understood it at once, at once began to live it and at once managed to play the part at the very first rehearsal."
The playwright whose complex ideas and formal techniques could not be elucidated without debate, was introduced onto the Russian stage by actors, or rather actresses.
The actresses' gravitational movement to Ibsen could be warped. Nemirovich-Danchenko in his novel "The Fog" captured the exterior of this trajectory: modernism, decadent sinuosity. In one episode in the novel a man visiting the heroine, an actress named Ancharova, looks around her house: Japanese textiles, a cockatoo, the woman's pet - a kangaroo, without whom Ancharova does not sit down to lunch - a vial of poison brought from India, antique pistols (her father's, she says, but the guest does not believe her), everything looks as if it is borrowed, and indeed the pistols are from Ibsen: "I want 'Hedda Gabler' for my next benefit performance. How I like this woman with green eyes. I guarantee to you that I shall have green eyes."2
"Hedda Gabler" was performed in Kazan in 1890; no description of the performance is available. A reviewer tells that the audience was apathetic.
The work was published in "Moskovskaya illustrirovannaya gazeta" (Moscow Illustrated Newspaper) in summer 1894. Nemirovich-Danchenko was worried by the fact that the playwright (apparently a great one) who had not yet been aptly rendered on stage was already more or less well-known; he was looking for an approach equally helpful in steering clear of the beaten tracks and in passing round modernist myths with their incipient cliches. He set to produce, at the Philharmonic College, a play that was no myth - "Nora"3.
The actors at the Philharmonic College used the old translation from the German, but, trained by their teacher, the young people who were assigned the roles experienced Ibsen as spontaneously as their junior fellow students, trained by the same teacher, experienced Chekhov. The graduation performance was duly appreciated as the first true Ibsen. The production was repeated at the Maly Theatre, with Nora played by Nina Litovtseva. Signing a contract for a provincial tour, she would take the part with her, playing it in different cities, and at her teacher's request sent a photo taken in Ryazan: Nora with a tambourine in the Neapolitan dress in which she dances a tarantella on the last evening. The picture carries the inscription: "...a keepsake from a student truly grateful to him".
The Philharmonic College's production featured an actor who was to be remembered forever and would represent stiffly entwined Russian themes, but not in productions of Ibsen. Ivan Moskvin - the future Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich, the future Mochalka in "The Brothers Karamazov", the future Protasov in "The Living Corpse" and also the future unbelievable, untameable roughneck Khlynov in Ostrovsky's "An Ardent Heart" - started out, at the age of 22, playing Dr. Rank incisively and obsessively, having grasped everything and afraid of nothing.
Straightforwardness was part of the lessons Ibsen taught to actors and non-actors - a straightforwardness that consisted in fearlessly spotting and speaking up about things difficult, ambivalent, full of pain, evil.
Nemirovich-Danchenko had his share of missteps. At the Art Theatre he did not start from Ibsen: he put aside "Ellida" ("The Lady from the Sea") and directed "Greta's Fortune". The plot has a young maiden brought up without any knowledge of the carnal married off; on her wedding night she tries to escape and nearly goes mad... Nemirovich-Danchenko commented on this creation of an Austrian woman writer known by her pen name Emil Marriot: "A very simple but very compelling three-part drama in the vein of the so-called 'Norwegian' literature. There is du Ibsen as well as du Tolstoy here."4
The performance was appalling, and Maria Roxanova, the lead performer, was shattered by the fiasco. An ability not to dwell on failures was a blissful trait of Nemirovich-Danchenko's. Let's ignore these attempts to do du Ibsen - the playwright is well worth being addressed directly, being perceived spontaneously.
With Stanislavsky, this spontaneous perception generated impulses, and the imagination became activated nearly against his will. The drama "When We Dead Awaken" in the Art Theatre's third season was Nemirovich-Danchenko's responsibility, but Stanislavsky could not resist the urge and developed half of the first act's directorial script.
His vision of the performance included sudden dissections across the dusty reality - a spa of the sort imagined by anyone when you pronounce "a spa". And the dissections. A solemn slow passage. A tall woman in white walks straight ahead with a vacant look in her eyes. A sister of mercy dressed in black walks in her steps, like a shadow, detached and at a distance from her. The passage is accompanied by a sound, distant and low-pitched.
Whether Irene is seen by others, and if she is, in what manner -these things do not matter to Stanislavsky. She is seen by Rubek. "As if he's seen a ghost." "Joy", as noted in K.S.'s copy of the script. Has seen a ghost and rejoices. This one is from Pushkin. "Invocation":
Come, like a distant star,
Like a light sound or breath,
Or like a terrible apparition,
I do not care: come here, come here!
The gap in the surroundings will close up as if there was no dissection; and ringing in full blast, bicyclists will drive by, and the jealousy of Rubek's wife will be revealed in her catty little remarks, and the hunter Ulfheim, impudent by nature, will also try to look even more so, as happens sometimes. But there is already a field in place where this "distant star" or "terrible apparition" can materialise.
Stanislavsky identified the sounds, the lighting, the gestures, and as in "Invocation", it did not matter what happened with and to these two people. The meeting is supplied with the intensity of the rhythm and the disunity of these figures addressing each other.
Sending his jottings, Stanislavky commented that he would not feel hurt if they proved of no use. Nemirovich-Danchenko took a different approach to the play. He was obstinately digging out the realities of the heroes' previous relationship, which were but slightly dislocated in the insulted woman's imagination. It seems that he found some common traits between Irene and Nina Zarechnaya. What did Treplev say about her? "An aching, breaking nerve. She has one strange fancy... she repeats in all her letters that she is a sea-gull." Nemirovich-Danchenko's script has a note: "see my article". The article about "When We Dead Awaken" was printed in "Russkaya mysl" (Russian Thought) magazine5. Leo Tolstoy, holding a negative view of the play, did not change his mind after reading it: "If the play were such as it looks in your retelling, it would have been a good one"6. Tolstoy is correct, and Nemirovich-Danchenko's account of the play is not commensurate with it. Nor do Stanislavsky's jottings encompass everything.
Approaches were made from several directions.
Stanislavsky remarked: Ibsen should be heard several times, like new music. You do not grasp a new piece of music in its entirety when first introduced to it7. The people at the Art Theatre repeated over and over again to themselves suggestions to listen to Ibsen attentively.
They dwelled upon "Rosmersholm". It was found that in this play the writer expressed himself most eloquently. Self-disapproval was voiced: "We are turning down this work not because we have not learned yet how to engage with it but because the public rejected other works of similar kind or because the public screams 'We're fed up with mists and darkness, give us light!'"8
Olga Knipper-Chekhova, writing to her husband in the spring of 1903 from St. Petersburg, where the Art Theatre was touring, told that Nemirovich-Danchenko read out the play to several actors in her room. "'Rosmersholm' engrossed me entirely. This Ibsen is really strange. I, so it happened, had put him aside altogether, deciding he no longer was holding sway over me, but now he captivates me again."9 Stanislavsky fell for Ibsen too, repeating, that he did not have an artistic clue.
There was no clarity as to the timetable of the production. More than a year later Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote to Knipper during his vacation: "It's excellent that you're thinking about Rebecca. Keep thinking."10 In the next letter, from June 27 1904, he repeated: "There is no avoiding 'Rosmersholm'... Keep thinking about Rebecca, please do."11
The actress received these letters in Badenweiler - the postal services worked quickly then - and perhaps the letters arrived before Chekhov's death on July 2. Now "Ivanov" - the Chekhov play the Art Theatre had not produced yet - was the company's priority. Nemirovich-Danchenko was hopeful: "And maybe we'll manage both 'Ivanov' and 'Rosmersholm' in one season? The season is long and dangerous."12
The forthcoming season was 1904-1905, and was dangerous indeed. The first Russian revolution would start in January 1905. "Brand" was produced before "Rosmersholm".
The decision about "Brand" was made after the Art Theatre returned from its first international tour: the company left Moscow early in 1906, when the artillery had had a field day shooting at the barricades on the city's streets. A researcher would note: "Nemirovich-Danchenko's letters written in the summer of 1906, several months before the premiere, contain, alongside the director's musings on the Ibsen play, reactions to the crackdown on the Duma and to peasants' unrest in the south of Russia"13.
Nemirovich-Danchenko put at the foundation of the production sweeping crowd scenes, which made the Art Theatre famous. He proposed open forms, typical for oratorios and orations, and established direct contacts with the audience.
Brand appeared in the directorial script as a man whose inner tensions were balanced against the tensions among the silent hungry mob fussed over by a little bureaucrat. The victims of a great calamity are doled out relief - little banknotes against signed receipts. An explanation in the script: "The need is so great that they sit and do not see or hear anything... No loud shouts. ...Sitting motionless, in a philosophical, dreamy, focused posture." It is impossible to foresee when the rage and the stampede would break out, but sooner or later this would happen. Brand was played by Vasily Kachalov.
The words that Brand utters on the shore would dismay anyone with their indifference to individual misfortunes, their ruthlessness, unjustified rage - it would dismay anyone but these people. For this is their indifference to a devaluated life, their ruthlessness, their rage, seemingly beside the point, streaming past the causes.
Even in appearance Brand, as played by Kachalov, looked like one of those young heresiarchs who are brought forth by starved crowds and who are least of all expected to provide nourishment. He had the gait of a wayfarer: the bag on his shoulder was light, the long overcoat did not check his headlong stride. He jumped into a boat bobbing on the storm wave - no one was clinging to him in the manner the fisherwomen would cling to those ready to go on the voyage with him. There was a lightness to him: a man without luggage, one of those who have no fear - a lone head is never poor, and if it is, then it is not alone. This saying is perhaps too Russian - well, it was said that Kachalov russified Brand. Kachalov as Brand engrossed, captivated, and infected with his fervour. "Lead us then!" The future tragic actress Alisa Koonen was engaged as a bit player in the crowd scenes of the production: she says she did not remember herself and no one around her remembered themselves, and indeed there was only one desire - to be led by him.
"The Maid of Orleans" was remembered in connection with "Brand" - at least as a single performance that provoked in the audience equally powerful feelings: Yermolova as Joan was a point of reference - the way she pleaded uncompromisingly, fiercely, so that one felt compelled to run after her.
What if the Maiden of Orleans, already with an oriflamme, already having heard an earful of the "voices", was taken off the racing horse and sent off to live in a village?
An entry in Nemirovich-Danchenko's notebook reads: "For 'Brand'... The pastor's little house, rooms with low ceilings, timber walls, the ceiling is painted with white oil paint. On the windows - muslin curtains, potted geraniums or fuchsias. "Potato, gooseberry are planted. Rowan trees, birches."
This, it can be inferred, was inspired by conversations with Maria Germanova, who, in preparation for the role of Agnes, visited Norway. Her recollections were not used in the stage design; but all of these details - potato, geranium, rowan trees - are important.
The play was read with an amazing lack of preconceptions. What was written reached the reader. Brand lives in a poor parish where, thank God, there is neither plague nor hunger. There is a church - an architectural landmark; or maybe not a landmark but just a tumbledown house; there is a school; there are locals who enjoy respect; there is a local madwoman; and there is a priest's house, growing damp in the valley plain, with sickly geraniums.
Kachalov was capturing the changes to which Brand was subjected here: the end of headlong pace, the neck stiffening in an painlessly, noiselessly, like a dry leaf. That same Kachalov was also to play Ivan Karamazov with his revolt against harmony in which everything that is unacceptable in the world would ultimately drown and find closure. Kachalov would play both Ibsen roles - one of them excellently, the other miserably badly -before the Dostoevsky role, and they would have an impact on Kachalov's rendition of Dostoevsky.
In a report summing up the first decade of the Art Theatre Stanislavsky wrote that the Ibsen ventures "provided us with a reason to learn to convey profound thoughts in artistic images"15. This phrase is related to the issues of acting and the Stanislavsky method.
Stanislavsky's wording is accurate: Ibsen, he said, "provided us with a reason to learn". This does not mean that his teaching reached its goal, that "we" already have the skills. Stanislavsky prepared his report in October 1908, and March 1908 had seen the premiere of "Rosmersholm" with Kachalov as Rosmer and Knipper as Rebecca.
After Viktor Simov, Vladimir Yegorov was enlisted as designer for the production - the artist who had collaborated with Stanislavsky a year earlier on the Art Theatre's "avant-garde" performances (Knut Hamsun's "The Game of Life" and Leonid Andreev's "The Life of Man"). Stanislavsky had an idea to considerably narrow down "the domestic lane" of the drama - a long hard sofa (in the northern moderne style) was placed very close to the footlights, its back turned to the wall with portraits. The space above the domestic lane was empty, open to the top and fraught with the risk of being filled up - the vacant space of the white horses, which did not figure in the production.
Nemirovich-Danchenko would say that no other performance "sustained such an astonishing indifference from the public"16. Stanislavsky thought of keeping it on in the next season; Nemirovich-Danchenko, the production's director, objected. He wrote in a letter of July 5-6 1908: "'Rosmersholm'? Will bring naught to the box office, although in this case we could reconcile ourselves to this for the actors' sake. But it's precisely in the acting department that the whole venture seems hopeless to me. Kachalov will play worse than before. As for Knipper, the prospects of her succeeding in this role seem doubtful as well. She does not give herself fully to it... One can try once or twice. But I know in advance this is going to fail. And it's a pity, considering the play."17
As appeared later, the play remained a creative incitement for Nemirovich-Danchenko. When the company of the Art Theatre's First Studio contemplated the idea of producing the play again (in the season 1916-1917), the project's initiator, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, would find the staunchest of supporters in Nemirovich-Danchenko.
Prior to addressing "Rosmersholm", Vakhtangov was no more touched by Ibsen than any theatre maker of his generation. He conscientiously studied the foreword (the director's work copy of the play has notes). The writer proved to be much more interesting than the foreword. Vakhtangov in his notes mentioned that the acting nerve was feeding on thought. Should be feeding on thought, anyway. He had scribbled down this observation, made by Nemirovich-Danchenko, long ago. Ibsen was feeding thoughts whose vigour and clarity were engrossing. The Studio was accustomed to texts it had generated itself, which habit was out of place here. The undertaking presupposed an unfamiliar level of dialogue with the author, which reformulated the challenges. When the lengthy toils of the production were over, Vakhtangov, in a letter of January 17 1919, thanked Nemirovich-Danchenko for the meeting which had preceded the rehearsals. "Our first conversation about 'Rosmersholm' filled me with a charge of energy that lasted throughout the project"18.
Vakhtangov made a precis of what Nemirovich had told him at that meeting: "Spirit and soul, nerve and thought, the quality of temperament, 'the seconds that justify the whole thing', clarity of segments, the underlying message, the author's temperament and psychology, the quest for mise-en-scene, the director-ordered structuring of segments of varying intensity and many other things, important things..."19 Vakhtangov was organising the work and conducting the performance with emphatic leanness. He was writing down questions to himself - "What I would like to achieve in 'Rosmersholm'" - and answering point by point.
"What I would like to achieve 1) in acting." Five sub-items of requirements for the acting. Sub-item 5: "Must know the text. And nothing more. And I insist on this and undertake to prove, if the need be." "Delicate, painstaking and imaginative analysis of the text: this is what all rehearsals must be used for".20
There are two copies of the play that can be called the director's copies. Annotations in one of them are focused on analysis of the play ("the main idea, underlying message"), commonsensical, and psycho-commonsensical, meaning of the lines. Notes on the scenic design are separate. "For all my desire to see painted sets - I cannot do that. I don't even see built scenery.
Neither Benois, nor Dobuzhinsky, nor Simov. Craig is the closest.
Heavy, sombre and sinister folds of the woollen textiles. But these are not woollen textiles from a school.
Nor abstract woollen textiles either.
This is not 'the principle of the production'.
This is fact.
This really exists.
These are the woollen textiles of Rosmersholm.
The woollen textiles soaked with centuries; the woollen textiles that had their life and history.
There is quietness and order, strictness and steadfastness in them; as well as cruelty and inflexibility."21
Ibsen proposes a house, the two-century-old residence of blameless people - army men and pastors. What is being given to Rebecca here and what is being taken away from her, considering her life force and will power. A house close to a town: the town is a small one, with one liberal newspaper, and a school, the stronghold of conservatism. Both the house and the town are facts. The white ghost horses, which appear here before the trouble, are just as real. Vakhtangov's working notes contain a separate unfaltering line: "No symbols"22.
Later, when Vakhtangov's genius would become fully shaped and expressed through masterpieces, Pavel Markov in his analysis of these masterpieces would suggest the term "two-worldness". In "Rosmersholm" the director for the first time began to engage with the motif of a person in the borderline space where the dead and the past interact with the living and the present.
At a commemorative meeting dedicated to Vakhtangov, Nemirovich-Danchenko said remarked that the director worked on "Rosmersholm" with wide sweeps. "A big symphony, with gusts that are somewhat dull and nearly inaudible and yet heavy and promising new explosions"23. Vakhtangov wrote the truth to Nemirovich-Danchenko -in his work on "Rosmersholm" he had applied Nemirovich-Danchenko's lessons. For instance, such technique as "retelling of the content".
Several pages of the notes are summarised: "Here is a brief and intentionally shallow interpretation of the play.
"I'm certain to be told: this is not an interpretation but an abstract.
"But no, this is an interpretation, although offering nothing new or special in addition to the author.
"But the author did not want anything else."24
Ibsen provided Vakhtangov with a double portion of training -in self-revelation and self-limitation as author elevates and disciplines - yet another reason to turn to him. The lessons in the correction of spirit proved very useful.
The participants in the production devoted two years of their lives to it.
Olga Knipper wanted to play Rebecca again. She described her life in Moscow during the rehearsals in her letters to her sister-in-law Maria Chekhova (her letters are currently being prepared for publication). It's a pity that lack of space prohibits a full rank of quotations here, but believe me: this life was not only an abomination but a humiliation as well.
"I reached the point when I sometimes wanted to give a bow to the audience halfway through the performance and to say: forgive me..." This line is from her letter of May 17 1918, where she mentioned several recent dress rehearsals of "Rosmersholm". "I was playing out of breath, and now Konst. Serg. [Stanislavsky] told to stop this torture. It is a torment to walk on foot so much, and at night, in complete darkness, at that. Oh well, I've complained to my heart's content, that's enough. It's time to pull myself together."
Engrossed in the project that was being steered to completion, Vakhtangov did not feel "out of breath" during the dress rehearsals. He believed in the acting technique which he preached. He repeatedly said: you should find in the part your own self such as it is when you are at home and nobody sees you. You undress yourself.
The requirement of laying one's soul bare during the sessions of delving into "Rosmersholm" was not negotiable. It concurred with the requirement to cast aside everything that was external to the actor's own individuality, to his humanity. That which was individual and human had to be revealed with the ultimate candidness. Vakhtangov's students remembered the "Rosmersholm" sessions in such terms. The requirements were at odds with the objectives of impersonation. The actor was expected "to remain himself to the end, to his mind and blood". And to reveal himself in such a manner.
The director insisted: "the actor can keep 'his face' in its completeness. ...Why cannot Rosmer have the face of Chmara."25 The public remembered Grigory Chmara as the actor from the "The Cricket on the Hearth", and in this Christmas story he played the good-natured John Peerybingle; Vakhtangov knew how to open up the this actor's potential. "Chmara was capable of conveying through his acting the sharpness of mind and the darkness of a profound feeling. Geert in 'Trusting Our Fate in the Hands of God', O'Neil in 'The Sin Flood', Rosmer carried intense and hidden sentiments which only rarely broke forth. This was an actor of profound and focused pessimism."26
The pessimism profound and focused in Ibsen's "Rosmersholm" is beyond dispute, and so is the fact that it embarrassed the studio-minded director. Thus the finale was: the old woollen textiles of "Rosmersholm" and the self-assured portraits afraid of the bright light condemn to death the man and the woman who rose in rebellion and become astounded at the last moment: "What is it? Why are they so radiant and effulgent, these people under sentence of death?.. Why does he, triumphant, hug her and walk to the terrible little clapper bridge looking so released, determined and enlightened!.. The eyes of the portraits, with a look of bewilderment, confusion and fright, freeze before they realize their intention to feel victorious. And the golden and delicate sun walks over their silly, self-deceived and frozen faces brighter and bolder."27 Yet, in a set of amateur notes describing the light and colour scheme in the production this "victory of the sun" is absent.
These notes relate that when the curtain opens, there is a contrast of the woollen fabrics, dark-brown and dark-blue, with potted flowers - bright yellow and bright red. "It begins with daylight illumination, which is bright, but this is evening already, and Act I ends up with the lighting of a lamp. The stage is dark in the background, the downstage lit. There is still light for Rosmer, but for him alone; darkness is near, it encroaches as the day wanes." "In Acts II and III, it's morning. There is still light, still the bitter struggle for happiness. Act IV takes place in the late evening. One lamp dimly illuminates the room. The flowers are no longer in view. It's dark in the corner."
In Act III Rebecca "knows that her life is over. And she finishes her work, the crocheting of a white shawl - the shroud is ready. Closing the scissors, she cuts the yarn. "Act IV. Creepy gloomy darkness. Packing up for the departure; this shroud. Rebecca and the rooms are completely dark already. And only once a bright spot appears in the Rosmerian darkness. The white Rebecca with a shroud over her shoulders, but she no longer has colours, she only has light."28
Vakhtangov, as we remember, wrote down in sub-item 5 in his requirements for actors: "Must know the text. And nothing more. And I insist on this and undertake to prove, if the need be." This requirement is more serious than it seems, and not very easy to comply with. Vakhtangov strays and leads Chmara astray with this praise: "One thought - 'you have to make all people in the country happy' - this thought sparked him up and made him a Rosmer."29 This is not Rosmer's idea in the play.
Ibsen is highly articulate in his oeuvre in general, and never more so than in this instance. He constructs the scene between Rosmer and Kroll (Act I) around questions and formulas of the replies. Why does the aristocratic pastor sympathise with public opinion?
"The real task is making all our fellow-countrymen into men of nobility".
"All our fellow-countrymen!"
"As many as possible, at all events."
"By what means?"
"By emancipating their ideas and purifying their aspirations, it seems to me."
"Are you going to emancipate them? Are you going to purify
"No, my dear fellow - I can only try to awake the desire for it in them. The doing of it rests with themselves."
"And do you think they are capable of it?"
"Of their own power?"
"Yes, of their own power. No other exists."
Ibsen tightens the knots as masterfully as his Russian contemporary Dostoevsky. It is strange that these two did not read each other - they have much in common. In "Rosmersholm" the knots are made of the questions of will power, strength, freedom, responsibility for oneself, guilt. The intervention or even presence of God is not expected. There is no talk about happiness here. Nobleness and happiness have strained and cool relations. What the drama "Rosmersholm" is mostly about is the drama of these cool relations.
Inasmuch as Vakhtangov, since the beginning of his work on "Rosmersholm", assumed an obligation to do what the author wanted and nothing more, he could not steer the performance to a triumphant finish. The finale in Ibsen's "Rosmersholm" is no more joyful than in his "Brand" or dramatic epilogue [When we Dead Awaken]. In both cases avalanches carry his "ascender" heroes downhill. The Master Builder Solness, when he overcomes the fear of heights and attaches a garland to the top of his tower, will fall likewise. Perhaps for his story, with its streak of the ignominious, another word would be suitable: Solness toppled, dropped.
Let's not forget that the people at the Art Theatre reproached themselves for forsaking what was most important in Ibsen because the public shouted: "We're fed up with darkness, give us light!", not trying to convince themselves and others that Ibsen had plenty of light. Vakhtangov attempted to force himself into believing it, but that is not what one detects in Ibsen.
In Ibsen's finales a wintry black humour - "wintry" in the sense that it is unnoticeable, hides itself as if under a thick fur coat. If you read him relentlessly (and this is the sort of reading that Ibsen demands), a blast of wintry humour (if not of an infernal laughter), the rumble of which will come over at the end of "Brand": whose rumble is outroaring the avalanche? Is God a God of love? It is not a God of Love who will say here - this - about Himself. According to the principles of black humour, this, here, is said about Him by the one who tempted Brand. (We shall keep the above within brackets but shall not strike it out.)
In "Rosmersholm", wrote Pavel Markov, "Vakhtangov pushed to the limit the inner saturation of the character, containing him within an austere and tame form. ...He required a sound stage diction and through inner work awakened in the actor spontaneous unconscious sentiments and a sharpness of thought; the method he outlined in his previous productions was brought to a logical conclusion."30 Nemirovich-Danchenko talked about "the enormous results" in Vakhtan-gov's work. But he did not say that "Rosmersholm" would be a success. There were more than 200 rehearsals, but only 19 performances, including dress rehearsals (by comparison, the fairly bad "Anton Chekhov Evening" played about 150 times). Only two reviews of the production have been found, both negative.
Something happened as the result of this relentless reading of Ibsen's text. One could foresee this development after the revival of "Brand" in 1910: in the new version the movement towards the author's finale was less hidden by huge cuts in the text. Confusion reigned in the play's finale with its phantasms and sarcasms, and the incipient divergence with the Great Straight Line. The Russian stage was fond of the Great Straight Line. Ibsen gave rise to suspicion that he was a traitor. Ibsen posed to any idea he encountered too many questions.
After "Rosmersholm", neither the Art Theatre nor the First Studio (Art Theatre II) engaged with Ibsen, until the production of "A Doll's House" in June 1960 at the Gorky Art Theatre, a premiere that had nothing remarkable about it.
We forewarned: the on-stage destinies of "Russian Ibsen" are bizarre. Is it inappropriate to end the tale at this point? Ibsen's finales, as we have seen, are essentially joyless.
- Stanislavsky, Konstantin. Collected Works. 9 vols. Moscow, 1988-1999. Vol. 5-1. P. 109. (Hereinafter: K.S. Stanislavsky.)
- Quoted from: Solovieva, Inna. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Moscow, 1979. P. 138.
- In the provincial theatres, "Nora" was on and off: 1890 saw a production in Kazan; in 1891 Maria Pototskaya played the part at the Korsh Theatre in Moscow; in September 1895 the play, featuring Lyubov Yavorskaya, was running at the Suvorin Theatre in St.Petersburg, etc.
- Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vladimir. Artistic Legacy. 4 vols. Moscow, 2003. Vol.1. P. 195. (Hereinafter: Vl.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko.)
- "Russkaya Mysl" (periodical). No. 9. 1899.
- Vl.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Vol. 4. P. 451.
- K.S. Stanislavsky. Vol. 5-1. Pp. 454-455
- Vl.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Vol. 1. P. 435.
- Correspondence between Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. 2 vols. Moscow, 2004. Vol. 2. P. 218.
- Vl.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Vol. 1. P. 524.
- Ibid., p. 525.
- Ibid., p. 532.
- Bartoshevich, Alexei. "Brand". In: Moscow Art Theatre: A Centennial Anniversary. Moscow, 1998. Vol. 1. P. 48.
- Quoted from: Solovieva, Inna. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Moscow, 1979. P. 228.
- K.S. Stanislavsky. Vol. 5-1. P. 144.
- Vl.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko. Vol. 2. P. 24.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Yevgeny Vakhtangov. Documents and Memoirs. 2 vols. Moscow, 2011. Vol. 1. P. 487. (Hereinafter: Vakhtangov.)
- Ibid., p. 487.
- Ibid., pp. 451, 453.
- Ibid., p. 454.
- Ibid., p. 458.
- A verbatim record of Nemirovich-Danchenko's speech at a commemorative meeting dedicated to Vakhtangov on June 16, 1922 at the Central House of Education (held at the Museum of the Vakhtangov Theatre, Moscow).
- Vakhtangov. Vol. 1. P. 458.
- Ibid., p. 452.
- Markov, Pavel. On Theatre. 4 vols. Moscow, 1974. Vol. 1. P. 411.
- Vakhtangov. Vol. 1. P. 456.
- Museum of the Moscow Academic Art Theatre. Archive of K.-Ch. No. 8001. Recorded by Ye. Konshina.
- Vakhtangov. Vol. 2. P. 190.
- Markov, Pavel. On Theatre. 4 vols. Moscow, 1974. Vol. 1. P. 385.