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Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia

Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia

E. Anthony Swift
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 364
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  • Book Info
    Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia
    Book Description:

    This is the most comprehensive study available of the popular theater that developed during the last decades of tsarist Russia. Swift examines the origins and significance of the new "people's theaters" that were created for the lower classes in St. Petersburg and Moscow between 1861 and 1917. His extensively researched study, full of anecdotes from the theater world of the day, shows how these people's theaters became a major arena in which the cultural contests of late imperial Russia were played out and how they contributed to the emergence of an urban consumer culture during this period of rapid social and political change. Swift illuminates many aspects of the story of these popular theaters—the cultural politics and aesthetic ambitions of theater directors and actors, state censorship politics and their role in shaping the theatrical repertoire, and the theater as a vehicle for social and political reform. He looks at roots of the theaters, discusses specific theaters and performances, and explores in particular how popular audiences responded to the plays.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92587-8
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Note on Transliteration and Dates
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    Early in 1899, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko was summoned to the office of Moscow Police Chief Dmitrii Trepov. The policeman wanted to discuss the new Moscow Accessible Art Theater, for he had learned that Nemirovich and his partner Konstantin Stanislavsky were trying to cultivate a working-class audience by holding matinees at reduced prices and distributing discounted tickets to local factories. Most of the plays performed for workers, however, were not permitted under the stringent censorship regulations governing performances before popular audiences. Trepov was affable but adamant. Under no circumstances, he told the well-known playwright and aspiring director, could the theater continue exposing...

  7. 1 The Urban Theatrical Landscape
    (pp. 12-38)

    People’s theater had deep roots in post-Petrine Russian culture. These roots were nourished from different sources, some of which were, and still are, usually thought to be antagonistic: an authoritarian state, an emerging civil society, high culture, commercial popular culture, folk culture. Understanding the origins and development of people’s theater in Russia entails understanding the diverse currents in Russian cultural, social, and political history that came together, not without tension and never quite merging, to shape the idea of a theater that would both serve and transform the common people.

    From the end of the seventeenth century, when Peter the...

  8. 2 People’s Theater and Cultural Politics
    (pp. 39-87)

    The concept of a theater that would serve as an instrument of popular enlightenment first attracted widespread attention in the 1860s, a decade of unprecedented social and political change in Russia. Alexander II (1855–81), who ascended the throne in the midst of Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Crimean War, soon embarked on a series of “Great Reforms” that fundamentally transformed Russian society. To mobilize public support behind his reform initiatives, Alexander introduced a policy ofglasnost’, encouraging, within limits, more open discussion of social and political issues in the press and unleashing a flood of public interest in improving...

  9. 3 Censorship and Repertoire
    (pp. 88-130)

    The hand of the state, in the guise of censorship, weighed heavily on the arts in Russia, and most heavily on popular theater. Art and politics were closely linked in the minds of tsarist officials, who as a result were suspicious of any initiative to bring secular art to the masses. If theater might combat drunkenness and civilize the common people, might it not also expose them to dangerous notions with unpredictable consequences? Although all writing was subject to preliminary censorship before publication or performance, only works destined for the popular stage had to undergo special scrutiny to determine whether...

  10. 4 Theater, Temperance, and Popular Culture
    (pp. 131-180)

    Russia underwent a period of unprecedented industrial expansion during the last two decades of the nineteenth century that culminated in the industrial boom of the 1890s, which the state supported through high tariffs and orders for manufactured goods. The number of factories rose from 30,888 in 1887 to 39,029 in 1897, an increase of over 25 percent. Rapid industrial growth was accompanied by even more rapid urbanization, as peasants were drawn into the cash economy and increasingly sought temporary or permanent employment in large cities and factory towns. Migrants swelled St. Petersburg’s population from 1,033,600 in 1890 to 1,439,600 in...

  11. 5 Workers’ Theater, Proletarian Culture, and Respectability
    (pp. 181-204)

    Not content to be entertained at either at the people’s theaters or their commercial cousins, some Russian workers attempted to be producers as well as consumers of culture. Beginning at the turn of the century, workers began to form drama circles and stage occasional performances for their fellow workers, usually with advice and coaching from middle-class professional or amateur actors. Although their activities were on a small scale, amateur workers’ theaters were an important part of the movement by Russian workers to establish networks of alternative cultural and education institutions during the years between the revolutions of 1905 and February...

  12. 6 The People at the Theater: Audience Reception
    (pp. 205-231)

    The people’s theaters aimed to transform audiences, but what in fact was their impact on the common people who attended their performances? What place did the theaters have in the lives of the urban working classes? Did they, as theKulturträgerhoped they would, civilize audiences and “soften” popular morality, or at least integrate the common people into a universal Russian national culture? Were they agents of bourgeois cultural hegemony, promoting consent to the sociopolitical status quo? Did melodramas and patriotic spectaculars foster a “culture of consolation” and undermine class consciousness? Or did they become part of a new repertoire...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 232-240)

    The concept of theater for the people was a response to elite anxieties about the cultural gulf between educated Russia and the common people. The idea of a people’s theater, that is, of a didactic theater that would bring the culture of the intelligentsia to the masses, was predicated on the belief that theater was capable of transforming audiences. This belief rested on three assumptions shared by virtually all proponents of people’s theaters. First, theater, by virtue of its powerful visual impressions, was assumed to be accessible and comprehensible to all. Second, its combination of entertainment and edification supposedly made...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 241-248)

    The February Revolution of 1917 inspired new hope for the democratization of culture, hope mixed with the apprehension that the people might well destroy Russia’s artistic heritage unless they were taught to appreciate it. The end of the autocracy’s control over the popular theaters brought many changes, some of them surprising to contemporaries. The abolition of censorship, contrary to expectations, did not result in an outpouring of new plays reflecting the new freedom of expression.¹ Many of the people’s theaters were taken over by municipal governments or district soviets, but they either functioned largely as before or were used for...

  15. Appendix of Titles
    (pp. 249-254)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 255-302)
  17. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 303-326)
  18. Index
    (pp. 327-346)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 347-350)