The Moscow Art Theatre at the end of 19th century.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko set about to reform Russian theatre. Their aim was to create a home for naturalism, in order to challenge melodrama’s dominance of theatre in Russia. They were heavily influenced by the work of other naturalist theatre companies in Europe, including André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris and the Meiningen Company in Germany. Naturalism may dominate our stages in the twenty-first century and seem like the most conventional of theatrical forms, but at the end of the nineteenth century it was seen as a highly radical approach to making theatre. As Stanislavksi recalls: ‘Our programme was revolutionary, we rebelled against the old way of acting, against affectation and false pathos, against declamation and bohemian exaggeration, against bad conventionality of production and sets, against the star system which ruined the ensemble and against the whole spirit of performance and the insignificance of the repertory.’
In order to achieve their aims, they decided to open a private theatre which would enable them to have full artistic control of their productions. Unlike the government operated Maly Theatre, the Moscow Arts Theatre was able to produce work independently and so challenge both the theatrical norms of the time and, by extension, its audience.
On the 22 June 1897, the two men met for lunch at the Slavyanski Bazar, a lunch which famously lasted more than eighteen hours. Stanislavski’s approach to theatre focussed on acting processes. Nemirovich-Danchenko wished to produce literary and intellectually focused work. Their different areas of interest combined with their fervent belief in naturalism meant that their ambitions complimented each other perfectly. The pair initially agreed to split the control of the company, with Stanislavski working on the actual productions themselves and Nemirovich-Danchenko making the literary and administrative decisions.
The original company of the Moscow Art Theatre.
The first actors to perform at the Moscow Art Theatre were all amateurs. Stanislavski recruited some of his actors from the Society of Art and Literature and others from amongst his former students at the Moscow Philharmonic Society. Rehearsals for the first season took place in a barn twenty three miles outside of Moscow. Stanislavski worked according to his own system of acting, a system which has since become the foundation of mainstream actor training in the West. The venue that Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko found for the company was an old variety theatre that had previously been home to a range of trained animal acts. It was, as Stanislavsky noted, a process of ‘turning a stable into a temple.’
Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s initial goal was to create a theatre which anyone could afford to attend. This ambition was soon thwarted when the theatre failed to obtain funding from either private investors or the Moscow City Council. The theatre became the first theatre in Russia to produce plays in repertoire, creating a cycle of productions which were continually engaging with different audiences. This gave birth to the notion of a theatre as an arts venue, rather than merely a building in which a specific production was being staged.
The final scene of the Moscow Art Theatre production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
The Moscow Art Theatre opened its doors to the public in October 1898. Its first season of shows included work by Aleksey Tolstoy and Shakespeare. The company were both praised and ridiculed by the critics for their zealous commitment to naturalism. The audience and the critics marvelled at the realistic detail used to create the sixteenth century sets, costumes and props used in their opening production of Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich. There was a less favourable response, however, to the company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, which featured a Shylock who spoke Shakespeare with a heavy Yiddish accent. Both critics and audiences members felt that his strong accent ruined the poetry of the text.
The most successful production by far was Chekhov’s The Seagull. The audience, Nemirovich-Danchenko claimed, were won over by the beautiful staging of the twilight scene in the first act, the poignancy of the relationships depicted in the play and the actors’ simple and truthful performances. The production was so successful that the theatre adopted the seagull as its emblem. Felicia H. Londre and Margot Berthold argue that the Moscow Art Theatre discovered their distinctive artistic voice through their work on The Seagull. Indeed, Stanislavski credits Chekhov with helping him to understand the true nature of acting: ‘It was Chekhov who suggested to me the line of intuition and feeling. To reveal the inner content of his plays it is necessary to delve into the depths of his soul. That, of course, applies to every play with a deep spiritual content, but most of all to Chekhov, for there are no other ways in his case.’