Huntley Carter, New Theater and Cinema of Soviet Russia. 1923
All over Russia little cooperative groups of men, women and children are making theaters for their own use. These are the smaller organizations which have arisen from the private initiative of communists, workers, peasants, soldiers, and students without official aid. Their number is amazing. There are thousands in Moscow, Petrograd, and the cities, towns and villages throughout Russia. A glance at the pages of the Proletkult Bulletin for 1918, 1919, 1920 reveals column after column of notes on the theatrical work of countless working-class organizations scattered in all parts of vast Russia. The majority of these groups have formed theaters in clubs, rooms, cellars, in fact, every available place. Besides these there are a number of theaters established in factories. Hardly a factory but has its theater, dramatic club, or circle.
These theaters, barn, room, cellar, club, and factory, are largely the outcome of the 1917 Revolution, and a great many owe their existence to the Proletkult movement. Many belong to the Proletkult organization, and many more are influenced by its ideas. I say they are largely the outcome of the 1917 Revolution because the club theater movement actually began in 1905 about the time of the first Revolution with about 5,000 workers’ dramatic circles. This was the result of the Revolution on the workers. The movement was subsequently suppressed by the Imperial Government, but re-appeared with the 1917 Revolution, and has had a highly successful career ever since. Factory theaters are of a more recent origin.
Speaking of the Moscow Workers’ Clubs, “Russian Information” (an official Russian journal), says:
“The workers’ clubs of Moscow are under the general direction of the Moscow Provincial Department for Political Education, and the town is divided into seven districts, the clubs of each of which are directed by a district department for political education. In each district there is a theater at which companies of professional actors perform. The tickets for the performances at these theaters are distributed among the factories, workers’ committees of which again allot the tickets to individual workers. Each of the districts is divided into five areas; each area possesses a workers’ club, and in addition to these, almost every large factory or works has its own club.
“The enthusiasm of the Russian workers for the theater during the years of the Revolution is now well-known. As a rule, every club has its theater with its company of amateur actors, mostly consisting of the younger men and women. The passion for the theater never seems to wane either amongst the older workers or the young, amongst the actors or the audiences. In addition, every club has its choir, and often its own orchestra, which give frequent performances for the members.”
Generally speaking, all these small organizations conceive of the theater as an instrument of self-expression. It is a place wherein the new working class population can, in their leisure moments, play at destroying the old Tsarist Russia and building up a new Russia more after their own likeness. The organization and work are mainly on voluntary and cooperative lines. Workers, peasants, and others come together, form a dramatic group, and together they support their particular theater while co-operating in its work. The plays are mostly improvised, and many of the performances have a spontaneous cooperative character.
There are different methods of improvisation. Here is an example of one in which a group of workers took a picture and tried to “produce” it. The picture was hanging on the wall of the club room. Someone suggested they should take its subject, a woman and man holding a barricade, and dramatize it. They proceeded to analyze the picture. They inquired why the woman was at the barricade. This led to a discussion of the social relations of man and woman, the questions of labor, and the many questions arising from there. When they had fully analyzed it, unfolded it, as it were, they arrived at the material for a play. First they produced the play without words. Then words were introduced. Thus collectively they built up the play, altering it here and there as they did so, till finally they gave it a fixed form. By this time it had ceased to resemble the picture. This play is called, “Don’t Go.” It has passed into the Proletkult repertory.
Another method was followed in the case of the adaptation of “The Mexican,” a story by Jack London. The story is that of a young revolutionary, who discovers that there is no gold left in the party coffers. He thinks that the coming Revolution is in danger. He happens to read in the newspapers that a boxing match is being arranged, the winner of which is to receive 500 dollars. He determines to win, and does. With the funds so obtained he starts the Revolution. A 500 dollar revolution does not sound a big affair. The play was made in the improvised way from the story. The latter was read to the assembled company, and the acted parts and the divisions of the scenes were decided by them, while other important details were also determined. The result was highly successful. When the production took place many of the scenes actually united the stage and auditorium.
In all the Proletkult mass productions, with some of which I shall deal in the next chapter, much emphasis is laid on improvisation and, of course, co-operation. A good deal is left to the actor. In this, no doubt, some of the influence of the commedia dell’arte can be traced. The Italian comedians were given bare scenarios to be filled in as the performance proceeded. As we have seen, Meyerhold opened a studio for the study of Commedia dell’ arte ideas and methods.
The production of revolutionary episodes is as follows. The stage-manager relates to the dramatic circle the history of the movement to which the episodes belong, then selects an interesting episode, and describes striking individual figures. Soon the circle is penetrated by the atmosphere of the time, and receives exact ideas concerning the social causes of this or that movement springing from the main one. Then the circle proceeds to produce a definite episode, using improvisation for the purpose. Here there is a difference from traditional form of improvisation. Instead of the actors being left entirely to themselves, the stage-manager intervenes. He keeps the individual actors together, and directs the improvisation by indicating the path to be taken when any one leaves the right one. The most valuable portions of the scheme of the work usually belong to the actors, with the result that the play is a new one.
A good many examples of cellar and club improvised and cooperative performances could be given, but two or three must suffice. Political and revolutionary satire used to be very popular. To-day it is giving place to a gayer species of play. There are, however, many little theaters that exhibit political satire. A very good and biting example was performed not long ago in a cellar theater. It was called “The Mangy Dog.” It was a typical spontaneous cooperative performance. A great deal of the action took place in the auditorium with the aid of the audience. One saw, first of all, a sort of committee of “fat men” engaged in the purchase of human beings for cannon fodder. Military officers wearing illuminated death’s heads appeared one after the other and ordered armies of workers. As soon as an order was given, the Flesh Kings sent their servants among the spectators, from whom they selected a favorable specimen of a magnificent young proletarian to be supplied to the army. He was hauled on the stage, nearly stripped, and made to go through a sort of wartime medical examination, of muscles, teeth, general fitness, etc. Then the Flesh Kings and Generals struck a bargain for the supply of masses of men according to sample. An indignant revolutionary poet rushed on the stage, but finding he could do nothing, committed suicide, and was thrown back among the spectators. Next came a creature in a coat of many colors, who so pleased the Big Business Flesh Kings that they paid him a handsome sum in advance. The traders in human flesh were succeeded by a super-sweater got up in a gaudy dress, jewels and feathers. Having inspected the spectators through an opera glass, she selected an attractive young woman, who was hauled on to the stage, uttering piercing cries. The procuress, or whatever she was, simply tucked the victim under her arm and marched off with her. The conclusion was a tableau. The electric light was turned off, there was a peal of thunder, and the blood-red Soviet star rose above tall factory chimneys. In the light of lurid flames the ruins of the Stock Exchange were seen. The audience consisted of a mixture of soldiers and sailors.
Here is a characteristic example of another kind of improvised and cooperative performance.
A small, low, stuffy room. There is a rudimentary stage at one end, but no footlights, or prompter. A part of the auditorium is divided by a gray curtain, and the gangway on either side is hung with a gray curtain. Directly in front of the audience is a gray screen representing a wall. This is the stage, auditorium, and scene. The room is full. The stage in semi-darkness. There is intense silence. Everybody is waiting, deeply attentive. Slowly there comes the murmur of distant voices drawing near-voices of men, women, and children. Then directly through the auditorium a troop of hungry women move wearily toward the stage. Children follow. Then men appear, They move slowly, bent, and a low cry accompanies their movement. Turning neither to the right nor left, they move toward the gray wall. They are a group of men who, if bowed, are still firm and unbroken. The women crawl upon their knees with the cry, “Bread! Give me bread!” They bear babes at their starved breasts. They stretch out their white shrunken hands. They implore pity. The men utter gloomy complaints. The first rank reaches the wall. There is dead silence.
A voice begins to pray. “Great God, thou seest the sufferings of the people. Seest thou that their power is at an end?” Other voices join in, and all the men kneel to the unseen God behind the gray wall. The prayer dies away. Its last sounds merge in those of a waltz from behind the wall. It becomes dark. A brightly lighted window appears in the wall through which dancing couples are seen. Magnificently dressed forms of men and women flit by. Some of the kneeling men raise their heads. Before their eyes, beyond the window, move these gorgeously appareled couples. Amongst the crowd of dancers, lackeys move, serving out choice food and drink. The kneeling workers hear how the idle class jeer at their wan faces and ragged clothes. The men begin to complain gloomily. The bourgeoisie overhear and are afraid. But someone calms them, saying: “These workers are stupid and cowardly. They are not organized, and would not venture to attack Capital-the belief in the godly origin of the wall is strong in them.”
The complaints of the men grow menacing. They rise and move slowly forward. But it becomes dark again, and before them stands the firm wall veiled by the Unknown.
An agitator urges the men to move in a body and destroy the legendary wall. The men are willing to obey, but the demented women strive to hold them back from the struggle. But a group of courageous men throw themselves upon the wall. The scene changes to a luxuriously furnished room. There is a meeting of the head council of the world bourgeoisie they consider the situation and decide how to meet it. The unrest of the workers must be met by force. The men are about to throw themselves upon the enemy, but the wall interposes. They retreat. The more courageous advance again. Soldiers. A struggle. The women waver. But the men’s leaders press forward. The wall is destroyed. The sun rises in splendor. Upon a hill appears a stalwart worker, hammer in hand. The notes of the International burst forth. They are taken up by all present. The sun illuminates the scene as with a glow of victory. Curtain.
On the eve of last May Day, Russia’s great festival day, I visited some Moscow clubs, where I witnessed a variety of performances by the workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants. These clubs were trade union ones, and they represented different shades of political and socialist thought. One, an extreme Communist club, was more exclusive than others, and only admitted members, their wives and families. Admittance was by ticket obtained from the trade union. Generally speaking, the workers’ club performances are open free to the members of the club and their friends, as well as to other workers who are not members. And anyone who likes can participate in a performance. The trade unions have their own club performances. Everything is on a cooperative basis. The players are unpaid. They are working men and women engaged in regular employment. They improvise the plays, act them, and make the costumes, scenery and properties. At all the performances children from a large proportion of the audience. They push their way through to the front seats, and stand four and five deep in front of the stage. They are eager, enthusiastic spectators, and follow every word and movement with the closest attention. On the whole, they reveal a capacity to concentrate on what is actually taking place that would shame many an adult spectator in England.
I began my evening with the performance at a Railroad Men’s Club. The piece was called “Once in an Evening.” The story dealt with the rather hackneyed theme of a man who wants to start a Revolution and has an obstacle to overcome. In this instance it is a prison where he is spending an enforced holiday. A woman comrade is working to set him free. The Governor of the prison, who knows all about the revolutionary plot, agrees to release the man if she will consent to be his mistress. But no sooner has the agreement been made than the woman learns that the Revolution has taken place. In the end the prison is set on fire, the bold bad general is roasted alive amid communistic cheers, and everything comes communistically fight according to plan. The moral is that revolution will out in spite of bureaucracy. I next went to the club of a central trade unions group. The play was the “Passer-by.” It told us all about a peasant girl who loved a sprig of the old nobility with bad blood in him. A passer-by tells her about a new and wonderful land where there are no masters or servants or wage problems or deputies like politicians. All are equal and enjoy the fruit of their labor. It is the Workers’ Paradise. The girl wants to go there, but she cannot leave her lover behind. The lover does not want to go because he cannot take his rich mother and her considerable belongings with him. Here is a pretty fix. To solve the matter, the lover conveniently dies suddenly. The First of May motive was ingeniously introduced. The peasant girl meets workers going to work. She reminds them that it is the great festival day. They must not work, neither must their fellow-workers. All are to observe it as The Day. There is a good deal of symbolism about these May Day plays. But the whole thing is simply propaganda.
At 11.30 I arrived at a trade union memorial club. It was established to commemorate the memory of one, Gorokhov, who was killed while fighting with Mamontov’s company on November 7th. The performance and the room decorations and inscriptions were clearly designed to usher in May Day, just as a certain church service is designed to usher in New Year’s Day in England. Indeed one could trace a good deal of Communist faith. May 1st is Labor’s New Year’s Day; January 1st is Christianity’s New Year’s Day. The club room, which was crowded to suffocation, was festooned with evergreens, draped with red and hung with portraits of Lenin, Trotsky, and Marx, and with inscriptions. Some of the inscriptions ran, “We shall not surrender big industries to the sharks of the people,” “We the Youth of soviet Russia send our love to the young fighters of the whole world.” Then there were the watchwords of Lenin, “Clamp the peasant and the worker,” “Make the whole world one.”
The exhibition was an improvised revue designed to emphasize the importance of May Day and its implications. One might call it a family affair in honor of the October Communist Revolution. The scene contained a large clock, which faced the audience. Its hands pointed to midnight, and it bore the words, “1st May, all on the streets.”
The curtain rose at five minutes to twelve on a group of the old order, soldiers, priests, etc. These scampered off as the clock struck twelve. A peasant descended in a basket from an airplane with a lot of presents, including a piece of red, which symbolized the Revolution. He asked all present to celebrate The Day. They showed their readiness by standing up in memory of the fallen fighters in the Revolution. Next entered a character with a big bottle full of tears supposed to have been shed by Big Business and Bourgeoisie who have lost their trade and property. Then a quantity of paper was unfolded, revealing a little ball. This represented the large promises and the infinitesimal conscience of the Entente. Following this came a large galosh with the Entente and social democrats seated in it after the fashion of the family that lived in a shoe. From this one gathered that the Entente and Socialists were in a scrape while the Communists were out of it. And then came portentous volumes and miles of red-tape. No one was required to tell us that this was a nasty smack at bureaucracy, which requires endless means to attain a small object. The symbolism continued to unroll in this fashion. Then came demonstrations and processions of workers and peasants’ children, augmented by those in the audience. There were speeches by soldiers, sailors, and workers and by representatives of England, Germany, America, and Italy. Finally there were shots and a crash, individualistic inscriptions were torn down, revealing communistic ones. There followed transformation effects, including the union of workers of the world. Finally came the singing of the “Internationale” in which all joined as usual. After which, at two in the morning, I tramped two miles studying the street illuminations, which announced that May Day had begun. A few hours later I saw a theatrical demonstration on a vast scale. It was the parade of troops and workers’ demonstration in the Red Square. There is a further reference to it in the chapter on street pageantry.
From time to time I saw many of these little theaters at work. I found them all alike, instructive, and demanding energy and endurance on the part of the spectator. I remember on one occasion going to the Soldiers’ Club theater in the Red Square. The performance began soon after seven o’clock. Three plays adapted from stories by Gorky were given after which, at three o’clock in the morning, there was a dance, This theater, by the way, has a scenic studio, where all the scenery is designed by soldiers. In the workroom I saw scene models far in advance of anything the English stage has to show.
The factory theaters are no less active and enterprising. In Petrograd there are twenty-three factory theaters under the direction of the art department of the Gubpolitprosvet. They work also under the observance of the organizing committee of the factory theaters. There are, in addition, 160 clubs with worker-actor, dramatic, musical, and other circles.
The repertory of the factory theater is approved by a Bureau which consists of an organizing committee managing the art department and the representatives of the biggest factory theaters. The repertory is made up of classical plays and plays of the workers’ theaters. Among the classics are pieces by Ostrovskii, Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevskii, Shakespeare, Goldoni, Synge (“The Hero”), Toler, and Upton Sinclair. The club art and production circles work as one circle, their aim being to emphasize the dates of the Red Calendar (October Revolution, 9th January, International Day, and so on.) Scenery is designed and elaborated by a section known as the Independent Theater, or by the circle itself.
The club circles work not only separately, but sometimes together when districts unite for collective representations, especially summer open-air performances. They also go to the villages in summer-time to act before and with the peasants. Special plays dealing with country life are prepared for the purpose. A special center called the Independent Theater has been organized for the purpose of uniting the activities of the factory and club theaters, to collect and summarize dramatic material, to elaborate methods and to provide instructors for promoting the general work. The system of providing instructors for workers’ theaters is not altogether a good one. Some of the instructors are drawn from the academic theaters, and bring their methods with them. For instance, I once saw an instructor from the Moscow Art Theater trying to rehearse actor-workers according to that theater’s naturalistic method, for which they were quite unsuited and had no inclination.
The aforementioned Independent Theater section of the factory and club theaters has a central workers’ studio group devoted to agitational work, samples of which are represented by the members at the club and factory theaters.
Finally, mention should be made of peasant theatrical activities. In Kostroma alone there are 600 village dramatic circles. In the Nizhnii-Novgorod district there about 900. It is believed that this indicates that the peasants are working out a theater and a dramatic form of their own. Probably they would be based on religious mysticism, whereas the workers are chiefly concerned with mechanical thought and action.
Source: Huntley Carter, The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet Russia (London: Chapman and Dodd, 1924), pp. 94-103.