Introduction: Russian Modernist Theater

(cont. from the homepage) Finally, Boris Pasternak studied music with the composer and pianist Scriabin and expected to make a career as a composer before he turned to poetry and prose. Collaborative projects, particularly in the area of book design, were also popular, and Russian poets and artists combined to produce some of the most beautiful books of the twentieth century.

In their intensive search for synthetic forms, it was only to be expected that the Russian modernists would find the theater, with its potential for a mixture of text, music, motion and pictorial art particularly attractive. And indeed, discussions of the theater and its function played a central role in the frequently opaque theoretical discourse of Russian modernism. As Andrei Bely put it: "The drama represents the dynamic principle of creative energy in art. The drama enshrines the synthetic principle. In the drama, we touch the massive trunk, as it were, from which the manifold forms of art spring in all directions to form a luxuriant crown." The weightiest voice calling for a revival of drama as synthetic art, however, belonged to Viacheslav Ivanov, perhaps the leading theoretician of Russian symbolism. He saw the theater as "fully capable of replacing religion and the Church for a humanity which had lost its faith," and envisioned a return to the Greek roots of theater, to its Dionysian origins. "The spectator must become an actor - a participant in the ritual act." Similar beliefs could be seen all across the theoretical spectrum: Anatoly Lunacharsky, for example, who would eventually become the first Soviet cultural arbiter and who was no admirer of symbolism, waited eagerly for the day when a "free, artistic, and constantly creative cult will transform temples into theaters and theaters into temples."

It was this belief in the power and importance of theater that drove the collaborative theatrical projects described on the web pages that follow. Here, you will be able to see production photos, set designs, costumes, directors' sketches drawn from a range of path-breaking theatrical productions. You can use this web site to search by production, by designer, by director, or by artistic movement. Whatever approach you take, however, you will be astounded at the exceptional vitality and beauty so characteristic of Russian modernist theater.

In decided to produce these pages as an accompaniment to a course I taught at Northwestern University devoted to Russian modernist theater, a kind of virtual textbook. They have subsequently been expanded and they have been completely redesigned by Michael Denner, Professor of Russian at Stetson University. I am profoundly grateful to him for all his help on this project. We expect, over the years, to add to this site, so if you have comments or suggestions, please let us know.

Andrew Wachtel
Bertha and Max Dresser Professor in the Humanities
Northwestern University