Dmitri Trubotchkin
Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts (GITIS)

The remarkable flare of interest towards the ancient theatre in Russia seems to coincide with the period of intensive experiments of the vanguard theatre in Petrograd and Moscow in the 1910s and 1920s. Major names to be mentioned in this connection include those of A. Piotrovsky, S. Radlov, V. N. Solovyov, K. Miklashevsky, N. Foregger, and V. Meyerkhold. Most were scholars of theatre history as well as men of theatre (directors, actors, artists or playwrights).

Within that period there was a number of both professional and amateur productions of classical plays (among which one should note no less than five different productions of Plautus' Menaechmi between 1919 and 1923). Moreover, new adaptations of classical plays were made using the 'fresh glance', among which were Tairov's productions of Phaedra and Antigone.

But the best indicators of the keen interest in ancient drama in Russia were its all-city festivals of 1918-1924. I would put their main features as follows:

  1. Ritual meaning of the event performed on the stage. The tendency was dramatically to reproduce the events of society-wide importance and concern, namely those included in the so-called 'revolutionary calendar'.
  2. Invariable using of amateur choruses in the performance and very often combinations of professional actors with such choruses. The common factor between those choruses and the classical Greek ones was their basic role in the play; the great difference was their accentuated active position in the play being far from solely perception and commentary.
  3. Use of masks for the lead actors. The tendency was to attach the comic and negative sense to masks, the heroic and positive to choruses.
  4. Use of the city-square as a place for performances and of city architecture (especially ladders and facades) as scenery. Natural scenery and existing city structures were often preferred to artificially constructed stages.
  5. The scholars of the ancient theatre (Piotrovsky and Radlov at first hand) were the directors of most of the festival performances.

Thus, we find in the Russian theatrical activity of the 1910 - 1920s the tendency to use the ancient theatre experience as a whole, including the principles of its social existence. We could mark some main points for explanation of the processes described above. The ancient theatre in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia was considered as:

  1. truly folk, being the basis for consolidation of society itself;
  2. universal, being the 'esperanto for world theatre communication' (Tairov's expression);
  3. 'conventional' (in Russian: uslovny), being in opposition to the old 'naturalistic' and 'realistic' theatre.

In general, the ancient theatre was taken as means of renewal of the old tradition, and creation of a new theatre beneficial for the new society.

The processes in Russia related above had close connections with those in the European theatre in the 1880 - 1920s period, from the interest to revival performances and folk theatre, to the experiments of M. Reinhardt, J. Cocteau and others. But some special relation to the revolutionary vanguard ideology, folk festival and scholarly historical-reconstruction, submerged into everyday theatre practice, do add some new material to the study of the ways of ancient drama in modernity.

Read about, and view images of, Tairov's Phaedra (Moscow, 1922)

Dmitri Trubotchkin
Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts (GITIS)

This article was slightly modified in October 2002.