The Show Must Go On: Komissarzhevskaia s 1909 Production of Stanisław Przybyszewski s Gody życia - PDF

The Show Must Go On: Komissarzhevskaia s 1909 Production of Stanisław Przybyszewski s Gody życia MICHAEL D. JOHNSON UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS S peaking from a pragmatic standpoint, before any traditional performance

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The Show Must Go On: Komissarzhevskaia s 1909 Production of Stanisław Przybyszewski s Gody życia MICHAEL D. JOHNSON UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS S peaking from a pragmatic standpoint, before any traditional performance occurs on the stage or in any playing space, certain events must have already taken place. First, the performer(s) will have chosen a piece of repertoire and its method and mode of expression, including, but not limited to, the involvement of other actors. Second, the performer(s) will have also engaged specific personnel to take responsibility for costumes and wigs, properties, sets, and lighting. Third, the performer(s) will have located a space in which to unfold the creative act, preferably before a willing audience that will pay a charge so that the company may recoup any major financial outlays and enjoy a small profit. Russian theatre history is filled with stories of productions that have met, and sometimes surmounted, obstacles such as these during the rehearsal period, and have thus become part of the Russian theatrical canon. Vera F. Komissarzhevskaia ( ), one of Russia s greatest actresses of the early twentieth century, overcame many such obstacles in her illustrious career. However, perhaps no obstacle prepared her for the rebellion that occurred within her own company as she prepared to stage the premiere of Stanisław Przybyszewski s ( ) Gody życia [Pir zhizni; Life s Banquet, 1909] in the fall of 1909, seven years after her first acquaintance with his aesthetic views. Tragically, the role of Hanka in this play would become the last new role she was to prepare before her untimely death in February The relationship between actress Komissarzhevskaia and Przybyszewski is intriguing, but has received relatively little scholarly attention. 1 American scholars devote no more than passing notice to their possible creative relationship. 2 For some theatre scholars, Przybyszewski s plays do not even exist as a part of this actress notable career. 3 However, as we shall see, Przybyszewski s aesthetics do resonate strongly in Komissarzhevskaia s life and work, dating from early spring 1902 and continuing until her death. An investigation into this 66 STUDIES IN SLAVIC CULTURES resonance will not only provide a fuller understanding of the movement of modernist aesthetics from Western Europe into Russian theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also the role played by major theatrical figures, such as Komissarzhevskaia, in the acceptance and transference of those aesthetics. Komissarzhevskaia s reception of Pryzbyszewski s aesthetics began in 1902 and is associated with his pronouncements on the soul, artist, and art, as expressed in Aforyzmy i Praeludia [ Aphorisms and Preludes ], the first section of his collection of essays, Na drogach duszy [On the Paths of the Soul, 1900]. Her conception of soul was not founded on a strict religious interpretation, but rather a psychological one. She eagerly accepted Przybyszewski s view that the true source of creative inspiration was a focus inward toward the soul, not outward toward external reality. This would lead to an interest in a character s psychological and emotional motivation. Moreover, Przybyszewski s belief in the sanctity of both art and the artist would move her to reject artistic mediocrity and set out upon new paths of artistic self-exploration, eventually breaking with naturalist theatrical conventions. The comments that Komissarzhevskaia made in defense of her own production of Przybyszewski s new play, Gody życia, provide additional evidence that this actress was conceptualizing and actively responding to if only on a personal level the Polish dramatist s prescriptions for improvements in the acting profession. These comments also provide evidence of how Komissarzhevskaia understood Przybyszewski s dramatic theories and gives us a retrospective glimpse into her possible pragmatic use of Przybyszewski s works in the development of the actor s craft, including her own. The Polish essayist, dramatist, and novelist Stanisław Przybyszewski first gained recognition in Germany, where he popularized both the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and that of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. After he moved to Kraków to become the editor of the journal Życie in 1898, the circle of young Polish writers and artists living there, as well as Russian critics of the period, began to acknowledge him as the head of the artistic current known as Młoda Polska, or Young Poland. Contemporary Russian critics, such as Pavel Kogan, soon recognized Przybyszewski as one writer who, along with Oscar Wilde and Maurice Maeterlinck, influenced Russia s young, growing modernist movement (Kogan ). 4 Despite his popularity and notoriety, this prolific Polish writer is almost forgotten today, although his distinctive synthesis of metaphysics, occultism, eroticism, PERFORMANCE 67 and aestheticism created great controversy in fin-de-siècle Russia. Przybyszewski s dramas a transitional blend of naturalism and symbolism were marked by an absence of external action and a concentration on character psychology. They frequently explored the themes of love and death, guilt and retribution, within the context of the changing sexual mores of the early twentieth century. In his essay O dramacie i scenie [On Drama and the Stage, 1905], Przybyszewski sketched the major differences between the old drama (before Ibsen) and the new drama (after Ibsen). This work had originally been serialized in the Warsaw daily Kurjer Teatralny in 1902 and was eventually published in a Russian translation. Its first Russian translation appeared as a short serialization in the influential Petersburg journal Teatr i iskusstvo in This leading trade weekly for individuals in the theatre profession, which included articles about actors, dramatists, reviews, and box office reports from throughout the Empire, would have been obligatory reading for all actors, including Komissarzhevskaia. Rejecting the detailed stage directions of naturalists such as Hauptmann, Przybyszewski preferred to think of the dramatic text as a stenogram or outline, within which the actor could explore the battle raging within the soul. It was this battle, and not external events or circumstances, which he believed to be the true source of dramatic action. Przybyszewski also advocated the use of a simple set design and the use of character-symbols an idea also advocated by Maeterlinck. Przybyszewski recognized the need for an intelligent, clairvoyant, and truthful actor or artist-creator who would be able to embody a particular role by understanding all the psychological reactions and character relationships within the play (O dramacie i scenie 14-15). 5 The most important trace of Przybyszewski s impact on Komissarzhevskaia is found in her correspondence, in a letter dating from late March/early April By this stage in her career, Komissarzhevskaia had already weathered the failed first production of Chekhov s Chaika [The Seagull, 1896] at the conservative Aleksandrinskii Theatre. Komissarzhevskaia, now a popular actress competing with Mariia Savina for the adoration of the Petersburg audience, was growing dissatisfied with the Aleksandrinskii s staid repertoire and constricting aesthetic environment. In an April 1902 letter to Nikolai Khodotov ( ), her acting partner and confidant at the time, she expressed new hope for a change in her situation. The actress 68 STUDIES IN SLAVIC CULTURES thanked Khodotov for several booklets he had presented her and professed: Я малодушна, настал момент, когда должна решиться участь моя. Да, это ведь и есть моя вера: «Искусство должно отражать вечное, а вечно только одно это душа». Значить, важно только одно жизнь души во всех ее проявлениях. ( Iz pis'ma N. N. Khodotovu ) 6 The textual origin of Komissarzhevskaia s credo, or confession of faith, signaled by her quotation that art must reflect the eternal, and the eternal is only one thing the soul, can be traced to Przybyszewski s collection of essays, Na drogach duszy. The first section of that collection, Aforyzmy i Praeludia, had recently appeared in a Russian translation by Aleksandr Kursinskii ( ) under the title Aforizmy i preliudy [Aphorisms and Preludes, 1902] (Pshibyshevskii 6-7). 7 Among other things, this work proclaimed the elevated roles of art and artist in society and the need for the true artist to reject the advantageous path of the mind, or the path of the pitiful senses (8), in order to follow the steep and slippery path of the soul, which is inaccessible to the mind (23). By the end of June, only two months after confessing that the true creative artist must reflect the soul, Komissarzhevskaia made the momentous decision to leave the Aleksandrinskii and strike out on her own as an independent entrepreneur ( Iz pis'ma N. N. Khodotovu ). 8 Her fate, as she had suggested to Khodotov in April, had been decided irrevocably. From the time she left the service of the Imperial Theatres in 1902 until her death in 1910, Komissarzhevskaia undertook several Przybyszewski roles. Those roles included that of Irena in a 1902 production of Zolotoe runo [Złote runo; The Golden Fleece, 1901] and of Bronka in Sneg [Śnieg; Snow, 1904]. 9 Two years later she appeared as Sonka in Vechnaia skazka [Odwieczna baśń; The Eternal Tale, ]. The latter work premiered in St. Petersburg on 4 December 1906 and has created an intriguing association of Przybyszewski s work with the third, historic season of Komissarzhevskaia s Dramaticheskii Teatr, when Komissarzhevskaia and Vsevolod Meierkhol'd ( ) joined artistic forces, she as owner-entrepreneur and he as her chief director. That season is noted for a turn from realist productions imitative of the Moscow Art Theatre to innovative productions marked by Meierkhol'd s bold experiments in non-representional staging and PERFORMANCE 69 greater theatricality (uslovnost'). These productions were accompanied by a move toward a repertoire that was more accepting of works by the rising Russian symbolists, such as Blok and Andreev. 10 However controversial some of these plays might have been, none elicited such a negative response from her fellow actors as did Pir zhizni in Evidence suggesting that Komissarzhevskaia and Przybyszewski met in July 1903 and later in March 1904 provides further substantiation that the Russian actress was aware of, or had an affinity for, the aesthetic notions that Przybyszewski articulated. This evidence also creates a strong personal subtext for Komissarzhevskaia s later defense of Pir zhizni in the face of cast resistance against its purported decadence, as she sought to exploit a play to which she thought she had obtained exclusive performance rights. Therefore, before reviewing the charges that Komissarzhevskaia s cast leveled against her choice of repertoire, let us first examine the possibility that there was more that linked these two creative individuals than just a 1902 booklet, a brief meeting in 1903/1904, or an association of Komissarzhevskaia s name with several Przybyszewski heroines. First, let us re-examine the context of a possible meeting between this Russian actress and a foreign dramatist. There is a passing reference to a purported previous meeting between Komissarzhevskaia and Przybyszewski in a press release that appeared in Russkoe slovo in September 1909 ( Teatr i muzyka 5). 11 This reference to a meeting six years earlier, thus, would link this encounter with Komissarzhevskaia s frustrated efforts to procure the performance rights to the first Russian production of Przybyszewski s Śnieg. Komissarzhevskaia most likely became aware of this play when a Polish troupe, headed by Bolesław Bolesławski, staged the work in St. Petersburg during January-February Przybyszewski directed the production himself, and the press widely reported the event. 12 On 15 July 1903, Komissarzhevskaia wrote a letter to journalist V. K. Bozhovskii ( ) in Warsaw while she was on her way to San Remo, Italy, to visit her father. She asked her friend to assist in procuring the rights to Śnieg so that she might be the first Russian actress to stage this play: Мне пришла в голову мысль, Василий Константинович, и Вы должны мне помочь ее осуществить. Устройте так, чтобы Пшибышевский не позволил бы играть «Снег» никому, кроме меня. Конечно, пока я не сыграю, а там пускай. У меня [есть] такая одна пьеса с 70 STUDIES IN SLAVIC CULTURES немецкого, которую автор дал разрешение перевести только одному переводчику, а тот дал мне право ее играть и передать кому найду нужным. Напишите мне, возможно ли это, и если да, то устройте. Сегодня в 6 ч. я на границе Италии, а завтра в 10 ч. дня на месте. Жму Вашу руку. В. Комиссаржевская (Rudnitskii, V. K. Bozhovskomu [15 iiulia 1903 g.] ) 13 Several months later, in November 1903, Komissarzhevskaia wrote Bozhovskii again, informing him that she had translated the play. She requested him to gain permission immediately from Przybyszewski for its production. She also asked Bozhovskii to telegraph the censor, evidently to inform them that she wanted a quick review of her translation so that she could begin staging it immediately (Rudnitskii, V. K. Bozhovskomu. 4 noiabria 1903 g. 168). Neither of Komissarzhevskaia s requests were granted. We do not know the exact reason for Przybyszewski s rejection of Komissarzhevskaia s offer, only that she was unable to obtain permission for her translation. 14 Thus, when Przybyszewski himself contacted Komissarzhevskaia in 1909 with the chance to stage a new play, the actress, perhaps remembering the frustration she must have felt during her attempts to obtain the performance and translation rights to Śnieg, was already in a frame of mind to accept the playwright s offer eagerly. The second piece of evidence suggesting professional contacts between Komissarzhevskaia and Pryzbyszewski is a reference made by Nikolai Khodotov in his memoirs. Khodotov speaks of a tour to Warsaw made by members of the Aleksandrinskii Theatre during Lent 1904, in which Komissarzhevskaia briefly participated. During that tour, an individual described by Khodotov as the translator and journalist Yorick introduced him to Przybyszewski, and Khodotov paid him a visit (Blizkoe-dalekoe [1962] and 294). 15 This individual has been identified as Poor Yorick, the pseudonym of Komissarzhevskaia s Warsaw intermediary, Vasilii K. Bozhovskii (Rybakova 498). Therefore, given Komissarzhevskaia s previous efforts only four months earlier to obtain the rights to Śnieg through Bozhovskii and her personal and professional relationship to Khotodov, there is reason to believe that Komissarzhevskaia herself could have met Przybyszewski at this time. At the very least, Khodotov could have spo- PERFORMANCE 71 ken to Komissarzhevskaia at length about his visit with the Polish author if it occurred before her arrival or during her brief stay. However, the fact that on her own tour Komissarzhevskaia only performed in Warsaw for three days (March 2-4) before continuing on to Khar'kov may explain why other scholars have not considered the possibility of this meeting. 16 Komissarzhevskaia s active reception of Przybyszewski s aesthetic views, even before she had any personal contacts with the Polish author, has already been suggested in our brief comments made about her letter to Khodotov in April Echoes of Przybyszewski s booklet seem to resonate even in Komissarzhevskaia s later correspondence from that year. In another letter to the young actor in early October 1902, Komissarzhevskaia gives Khodotov the following advice: Работайте, работайте: возьмите роль и чувствуйте, чувствуйте, как будто это все случилось с Вами, совсем забыв, что там другой, не такой изображен, и когда совсем уйдете в эти страдания, радости, в хаос или покой, тогда только можете вспомнить, что это не Вы, что он был другой, и делайте, что хотите и психологией и философией они уже будут на верной, настоящей, единтственной дороге. [emphasis mine] ( Iz pis'ma N. N. Khodotovu 124) 17 In this letter, Komissarzhevskaia is again echoing Przybyszewski s admonition to follow the path of the soul, not the mind. She advises Khodotov that the actor should immerse himself in the emotions of the character, for in these turbulent sentiments are where the actor can identify with the role and yet remain somehow aloof. Przybyszewski had expressed similar ideas in Aforizmy when he noted that: Прежний творец раскрывал «вещи», новый творец раскрывает свое состояние души. Первый разбирался в вещах и впечателниях, как они вплывали в его мозг, веруя в их объективность; последний, наоборот, разбирается только в чувствах, какие вызываются этими вещами. (Pshibyshevskii 17) 18 In advising Khodotov to do what you want with psychology and philosophy, Komissarzhevskaia is reminding Khodotov that a role 72 STUDIES IN SLAVIC CULTURES cannot be built solely from an external observation of the character, as proponents of naturalist theatre had done. Rather, it must be created internally, from an emotional core felt by the character over the course of the dramatic action of the play. As we shall see, Komissarzhevskaia would again refer to the need for the actor to make connections with a character s soul as reflected by the character s fluctuating emotional states in her defense of Przybyszewski s play, Pir zhizni. Although Przybyszewski is artistically present in Komissarzhevskaia s work during these productive professional years, his name is largely absent from her correspondence. 19 However, Przybyszewski s epistolary presence is again felt suddenly in late 1909, when the Polish author began a brief period of correspondence with the actress. Yet, unlike six years earlier, when Komissarzhevskaia sought to obtain the performance rights to Śnieg from its author during the summer of 1903, there is evidence that Przybyszewski himself now initiated correspondence with the actress, encouraging her to stage his newly written drama. At this time Komissarzhevskaia was again entering a risky stage of her career. Her spring tour of America in 1908 had been a financial disaster, as had the premature closing by the censors of her production of Oscar Wilde s Salome. Now she was again touring the provinces, raising money to alleviate her financial worries. Meanwhile, in dire need of financial support himself, Przybyszewski hoped to shop his new play to the actress. In a letter dated 12 July 1909 (NS), 20 Przybyszewski wrote to Komissarzhevskaia: Милостивая государыня, Я написал новую пьесу, чрезвычайно жизненную, с весьма одушевленным и драматическим развитием действия. Главная роль женщина, большого внутреннего н
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