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The Presidential Library’s materials show that the theatre was more than a source of aesthetic emotions for the Russian public

2 December 2019

"There is no other country, where the theatre has played such a role as in Russia”, a rare publication entitled The History of the Russian Theatre (1914) edited by V. Kallash and N. Efros reads in part.

In commemoration of the Year of Theatre, the Presidential Library has digitized rare materials dedicated to Russian theatre. They are available as part of the electronic collection The Year of Theatre in Russia on the library’s portal. The archival papers of “The Directorate of Imperial Theatres of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” fonds, which are housed in the Russian State Historical Archive, make up the core of the collection.

The collection currently comprises over 1,000 items. It includes The Drama Album for Theatre and Music Lovers Published in 1826 by A. Pisarev and A. Verstovsky (1826), archival papers On Prohibition of Performing the French Play The Glass of Water in Russian (1842), the book by V. I. Pokrovsky Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov (1911) and M. A. Yakovlev’s M. Yu. Lermontov as a Playwright (1924), the work by M. D. Zagorsky Pushkin and Theatre (1940), a postcard set Photographs of Imperial Theatres. The Chronicle of Mariinsky Theatre (2001) and thesis abstract by M. V. Anestratenko The Synthesis of Arts in Musical Theatre in the Late 19th – Early 20th Centuries. Origin of F. I. Chaliapin’s Methods of Work on the Role (2016).

The history of the Russian theatre can be traced back to ancient times. Slavic rites and festive occasions were accompanied by songs, dances and spells and involved dressing-up. You can find out more about it in the books Theatre in pre-Petrine Rus’ by A. Arkhangelsky (1884) and A Brief Course in the History of Russian Theatre (1936) by V. Vsevolodsky-Gerngross, etc.

Theatre aroused genuine interest in the mid-17th century, during the reign of Alexey Mikhailovich. But back then the performances were intended just for the nobility.

The above-mentioned book The History of the Russian Theatre (1914) and the study The First Public Theatre in Russia (1917) by A. Kiesewetter, Priv.-Doz. at the Moscow University, highlight that the great reformer Peter I did not neglect the emerging theatre in Russia.

According to the study The History of the Russian Theatre, during the first decades of the 18th century the idea of ​​a theatre available to people was supported by the general public and attempts were made to democratize the theatre.

A public theatre in Yaroslavl, which was founded by the merchant F. G. Volkov, became the first professional theatre in Russia. In 1752 its actors staged performances in Tsarskoye Selo. In 1756 the theatre in Yaroslavl was officially named the Russian Theatre of Tragedy and Comedy. Sumarokov’s plays made up the core of the theatre’s repertoire.

Theatre art in Russia flourished under Catherine II: the empress invited foreign troupes and set up the Directorate of All Court Theatres, which existed until the end of the Romanovs' reign. The tradition of home theatres was later developed by the Russian nobility: between the 2nd half of the 18th century and the 1840s there were more than 170 serf theatres, 53 of them were in Moscow.

According to the book entitled Serf Actors (1925) by N. Yevreinov, the first theatrical performance was given by serfs in 1744. The Ballet of Flowers ​​was staged at the court theatre on the occasion of the engagement of Peter III (Pyotr Fyodorovich), the heir to the throne, to the German princess, future Catherine the Great.

Count P. B. Sheremetev had three theatres: one was in Moscow and two in Kuskovo and Ostankino estates near Moscow. The Kuskovo Theatre was as large as the Maly Theatre, but more beautifully decorated and luxurious.

D. Korovyakov’s work About the Theatre: Sketches of Theatre Art and Literature (1894) spotlights special features of theatre art, which was developing in Russia.

The development of theatre marked the appearance of a new literary genre - theatre criticism. The collection of documents features the papers On Requesting the Permission from the Publisher of Severnaya Pchela to Print Criticism and Reviews of Plays Staged at the Court Theatre (1825).

Great theatre theoreticians and practicians appeared in Russia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. K. S. Stanislavsky and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the public theatre -  Moscow Art Theatre.  

After the October Revolution all theatres in Russia came under control of the State Education Commission. In 1919 theatres were nationalized. Some theatre professionals did not want to cooperate with the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Europe. The Presidential Library’s collection also comprises several issues of Zhar Ptitsa (The Firebird), a magazine of Russian émigrés published in Berlin. It focused primarily on theatre and visual arts.

During the Soviet epoch, the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theatre under the direction of G. Tovstonogov enjoyed great success. The postcard set The Gorky Academic Bolshoi Drama Theatre. Actors on Stage (2017), which spotlights the “golden age” of the Bolshoi Drama Theatre, features photographs of leading actors.

20 years after the death of Stanislavsky, Jean Vilar, one of the greatest actors and directors in France, wrote: “Thousands of theatre-goers who go to theatres in New York or Moscow, in Rome or Paris, in Barcelona or London in the evening are unaware that what they admire on the stage – from acting to the details of the production – is the result of the lessons given by Stanislavsky. It is impossible to imagine and understand the achievements of the 20th century theatre art without assessing the contribution made by Stanislavsky”.