Vera Kommissarzhevskaya Theatre

             Ofitserskaya Street 39

 


Theatre Theatre interior
Vera Kommissarzhevskaya theatre   Theatre interior
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Dressing Room
Kommissarzhevskaya in the dressing room
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             By late fall 1906 the renovations at the new theatre were completed, and the result was something very different from the typical theatrical interior of the day. The poet Osip Mandelshtam describes the theatre in his autobiographical work The Noise of Time: “To begin with, she (Kommissarzhevskaya) discarded all theatrical trumpery: the heat of candles, the red flower beds of the orchestra seats, the satin nests of the loges. A wooden amphitheatre, white walls, gray hangings– clean as a yacht and bare as a Lutheran church.” Kommissarzhevskaya wanted benches instead of seats, but was forced to give up this idea, since the theatre could charge more for a ticket if individual seats were provided. The theatre remained unusual, however, in that there were an even number of chairs on one side of the main aisle and an uneven number on the other side. The one colorful element of the theatre was the curtain, painted by the artist Léon Bakst. The painting was called “Elysium,” but the actors simply referred to the curtain as Bakst; for instance, they would say backstage, “Bakst is up.”

 

“Elysium” Curtain lowered
Bakst's “Elysium”   A photograph of the curtain lowered
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             The new Kommissarzhevskaya Theatre on Ofitserskaya opened on November 10, 1906 with Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabbler; it was the beginning of a very successful season. Less than two months later, on December 30, the theatre presented the premiere of Blok's The Puppet Show. Rehearsals took place throughout December, at almost all of which Blok was present, often behind the curtain or in the dressing rooms backstage. He developed a close friendship with three actresses: Natalya Volokhova, Eugenia Munt, and Valentina Verigina; he brought all three of them roses on the opening night of the play.

 

             It was during these rehearsals and visits to the theatre in December that Blok's infatuation with Volokhova became public. Verigina recalls how his declaration of love was made: “Most of all, especially at the beginning, Blok talked to me, and Natalya Volokhova even thought that he came behind the scenes principally for my sake, but once, during the rehearsal for Sister Beatrice, she learned with astonishment the true reason for his frequent visits. Blok called in on us in our dressing room as was now his habit. When the interval came to an end, we saw him to the head of the stairs, and Volokhova remained standing at the top to watch him go. Suddenly Blok turned and took a few indecisive paces toward her, then stepped back again, and , finally, putting his foot on the first stair, said shyly and solemnly that he had just understood the meaning of his forebodings, his confusion of the last months. 'I have just seen it in your eyes, I have just this moment realized that it is they and they alone which bring me to this theatre.'”

 

             Blok's play was a star-studded affair; it was directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold, who also played the main role, that of Pierrot, the unsuccessful lover. The music was written by the poet and composer Mikhail Kuzmin, and the costumes and set were designed by the artist Nikolai Sapunov. Given that this was also Blok's debut as a playwright, the noise created by the premiere is quite understandable.

 

Pierrot Columbine Drawing of Meyerhold Meyerhold in costume
Costume design for Pierrot Columbine's costume Drawing of Meyerhold in costume Meyerhold sitting for portrait in costume
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             The Puppet Show is a difficult play to synopsize. It begins with tension between Pierrot, a figure of the Italian Commedia dell'arte, and a gloomy and enshrouded group of mystics. Both parties are awaiting the arrival of Columbine; Pierrot claims that she is his fiancée, while the mystics maintain that the approaching female figure is actually Death. Columbine finally arrives, only to run off with Pierrot's rival Harlequin. In the meantime a small puppet theatre onstage provides the backdrop for the masked encounters of three pairs of lovers. Harlequin returns alone, having discovered that Columbine is made of cardboard, and attempts suicide. A character called “The Author” emerges, attempting to reconcile his star–crossed lovers, but just as he is about to join their hands, the scenery is pulled up to the ceiling and the lovelorn Pierrot is left alone on the stage.

 

Set design Puppet theatre
Nikolay Sapunov's set design   19th century design for an open-air puppet theatre
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             By juxtaposing the mystics' pursuit of Death with Pierrot's longing for his fiancée and Harlequin's antics, Blok undermined the symbolist theatre and his own exaltation of the Divine Feminine. He also mocked general theatrical conventions in several ways: an actor who is injured cries out that he is bleeding cranberry juice, Harlequin jumps out of a window that turns out to be only a paper background, and the “Author” periodically runs onto the stage to protest the improper performance of his work, which he insists was “a most realistic play.” The machinery for raising and lowering the curtains was fully exposed, and the artifice of the theatre was highlighted by the presence of the small puppet theatre in the middle of the stage. Blok's play was quite innovative in its dialogue with the distant and recent past and with the principles of theatre itself.

 

             As might be expected, the play received a mixed response: some clapped and cheered, some hissed and whistled. One spectator recalled a cry of outrage from the audience: “No, you explain to me what on earth that was!” The poet Sergei Auslander, a friend of Blok's, described the curtain call in detail: “The auditorium was in an uproar as though it were a real battle. Solid, respectable citizens were ready to come to blows; whistles and roars of anger alternated with piercing howls conveying a mixture of fervor, defiance, anger, and despair: 'Blok- Sapunov- Kuzmin- M-e-y-e-r-h-o-l-d, B-r-a-v-o-o-o'… And there before all the commotion, radiant like some splendid monument, in his severe black frock coat and holding a bunch of white lilies, stood Alexander Alexandrovich Blok, his deep blue eyes reflecting both sadness and wry amusement. And at his side the white Pierrot ducked and recoiled as though devoid of any bones, disembodied like a specter, flapping the long sleeves of his loose smock.”