© | Cameron Wiggins  

On December 30, 1906 the premiere of a short play at a new theatre caused quite a sensation among the cultured elite of St. Petersburg. The play, The Puppet Show (Balaganchik), was written by one of Russia's finest poets, the symbolist Alexander Blok, directed by an avant-garde star on the rise, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and performed at the newly-relocated theatre of the famous actress Vera Kommissarzhevskaya.

The lyric drama, which Blok referred to as a “fairy play,” divided its audience into the rapturous and the sorely offended. Russian theatre scholar Konstantin Rudnitsky has even compared the production of The Puppet Show to Picasso's bombshell cubist painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; both were watershed moments in modernist culture.

What was it that made the production so powerful? Drawing on sources as disparate as the sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell'arte and the Russian symbolist movement of the fin-de-siecle, Blok's drama engaged with the distant past and the immediate present in a playful mockery of the conventions of the theatre.

Here we will explore not only the play itself, but also the vibrant social world of the actresses, writers, and artists involved in its production. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the magical and ephemeral world of The Puppet Show extended into their own love affairs, soirees, and late-night strolls through the snowy and enchanting city of St. Petersburg.