Dmitri Trubotchkin
Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts (GITIS)

An important reason for performance reconstruction activity in the Russia of the 1910s to 1920s derived from a somewhat accentuated interpreter's position towards classical antiquity. In Russian vanguard theatre from its very beginning, this position was the one of 'fresh glance' to add an exotic, archaic, even barbarous vision to a classical play.

After Tynianov's terminology, I would mark such approach as ostranenie, which means 'alienation', Verfremdungseffekt, or, to put it literally in Russian, 'making something strange'. The aim of ostranenie was to break automatisation in reception of the object through coming to some untrivial point of view. In the beginning of the twentieth century this approach became very important in production of ancient plays. Regarding the ancient classics, ostranenie could be described as a sort of interpretation that gives preference to African mask over "white clothes", to ritual dancing over royal deportment, and to the statuesque qualities of oriental traditional theatres over abstract heroic dignity.

A good illustration in Russia was a production of Phaedra in Tairov's Kamerny Theatre, Moscow.[1] On the whole, Tairov staged only two plays which originated from Greek mythos: Phaedra in 1922 and Antigone in 1927. (In 1947 a revival of the production of Phaedra was proposed, but for reasons which are unclear, it never materialised.) Tairov always wrote about them as antique plays, although both of them were adaptations. The first one was made by its translator V. Briusov from the texts of Racine (basic) and Euripides, the second, by S. Gorodetski, from the text by Gasenklever. Both adaptations reflected Tairov's ideas of the performances.

The première of Phaedra on 8 February 1922 was a shock for the theatre-going public, as it broke all possible expectations. Tairov's main idea was to 'return Phaedra to Hellas', and it was evidently intended to combine three positions: (1) 'classics' as material for interpretation, (2) a 'fresh glance' as the condition of using classics in the modern repertoire, (3) 'antiquity' as the solid ground for theatrical experimentation. This combination produced a very specific play.

The text was changed with the idea of archaisation. The audience could hear that the Latin names of the gods, used by Racine, were changed for Greek ones, and French figures of speech and politeness were cancelled. Those who knew original Racine's text, noticed that the fabula itself was partly 'corrected' to bring it into accordance with Euripides' play.

'Fresh glance' added disharmony and sharpness to the world of classic tragedy. The floor of stage was composed of separated planes, each at slightly different angle, and, in general, the floor was not straight but inclined (cf. image 1); the set was constructed in a rough cubist manner; a sort of column was built, but its huge size (cf. image 2) fully corresponded to the rest of the set and had nothing to do with the notorious 'white column' - that widespread negative symbol of old classic performances; the colours of the set and the actors' make-up were combined by contrast, half-tones and half-shades were generally avoided.

Dramatic events were also corrected to stress their sharpness. For instance, in Tairov's performance Phaedra mortally wounded herself, piercing her heart with a dagger, and crept to the stage, bleeding, to die in front of the audience (cf. image 3); while in Racine's play the queen took poison, and in Euripides' play, she was first reported to have hanged herself and then shown dead on the ekkyklema.

'Antiquity' was represented by the text itself and some expressionistically Greek touch in costumes: great helmets with crests worn even by women (cf. image 4; image 5; image 6 et al.) and long clothes covering the body.

Regarding costumes, there is an interesting detail which, to the best of my knowledge, has not previously been commented upon by critics, namely: the actors' footwear was obviously reminiscent of kothournoi, but were in fact Japanese geta on double wooden platforms, rather elevated and uncomfortable for European feet. Those were worn by every actor (cf. especially image 1; image 7; image 3).

The geta were by no means the only element to form, so to speak, the 'Japanese aspect' of the performance. Another 'Japanese' element was the costumes of maids Aenona and Panopa: both, but especially the costume of Aenona, recall Japanese traditional theatre (cf. image 1; image 2; image 7).

Being cumbersome to wear and too uncomfortable to move quickly in, the high-raised geta and the large helmets naturally created certain peculiarities in movement. Characters moved onstage rather slowly, and their movement was made even more complicated by the inclined stage. Therefore, the only rapidness one could expect was that of emotional gestures and changes in pose.

Actors naturally needed to take some pauses in the course of action, so the general movement tended to be discontinuous, broken. It was arranged through alteration of moves and static poses (cf. three characteristic poses of Phaedra that stuck in the memory of public and critics: image 4; image 5; image 6).

This kind of movement was supported by the structure of the play, divided into rhythmic sections: at the end of each section characters fixed their positions and created, just for a moment, a sort of static picture of action (image 1 is a good example of this). It is difficult now to ascertain the frequency of static pauses and the length of the rhythmic sections, but they were clearly unequal and did create a breathtaking course of action.

It would be correct to describe the movement in the Phaedra production as 'statuesque', meaning the statue-like quality of poses. This statuesque quality stands rather far from the notorious 'white statue' - another negative symbol of old classic performances. The statuesqueness of Tairov's Paedra is close to that of traditional theatre in the Orient. Inter alia, this reveals the general interest in the Orient shown by vanguard theatres in different countries.

To conclude, the 'archaisation' of Tairov's Phaedra and its 'Japanese aspect' together created a sort of universal traditional and style (Tairov prefered to call it 'monumental') which was free from any references to one specific country, nationality or time. That style, based on the idea of ostranenie, was an impressive way to expose pathos as the primary interest of tragic action - pathos in its universal meaning for every nation and every period of time. Pathos in this play was embodied by the genius of Alisa Koonen who was called 'the last great tragic actress of Russia' many times for her Phaedra. Not surprisingly then, her tragic 'attitudes' shown in this performance have made their way into many Russian textbooks on theatre.

I would like to illustrate the pureness of the Phaedra production's 'traditionalistic', 'monumental' style and its breathtaking effect on audiences with the words of G. Boissie, taken from his review published after Tairov's first performance in Paris during the Kamerny Theatre's 1922 European tour: "Passing Racine, passing all Sorbonnes and all tombs, you suddenly come face to face with mythos".

Dmitry Troubtshkin

[1] This article is illustrated with seven original photographs of Tairov's Phaedra taken in 1921 and 1922, some of which have never previously been published. They were digitised for this publication by the Bakhrushin Museum of Theatre, Moscow in April 2001, generously funded by a grant made available by John Barsby. This article was slightly revised in October 2002.