Tuesday, June 23, 2020

P.A. Markov's The Soviet Theater

Like Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in Theater, P.A. Markov's book, The Soviet Theater, was published in the middle of the 1930s, long after Stalin had consolidated his control of the country.  Unlike My Life in Theater, Markov's book is an unapologetic advertisement for the salutary impact of the Revolution on the Russian theater.  According to Markov, the Russian Revolution overhauled a deeply flawed Russian aesthetic tradition and paved the way for a marvelously improved theatrical experience.  Following a fairly strict line of Marxist analysis, Markov argues that pre-revolutionary theater was inappropriately consumed with the narrow concerns of small and privileged economic classes, namely, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.  According to Markov, the old theater was obsessed with irrelevant, purely personal, or distracting topics.  The old theater favored light comedy and sentimental drama, and focused on petty, personal, light, and sentimental issues.  After the Revolution, the Soviet theater gained gravitas but grounding itself in the broader and deeper political and economic concerns of the Russian masses. The Revolution widened the Soviet audience, both theoretically and practically, since the Soviet Union's institutional leadership now regularly sent Soviet trade union or Party delegations to attend ideologically mature performances. 

Although the Markov asserts that the new theater could assimilate the best of nineteenth century traditions, he believed that the new theater was endowed more serious, even didactic, purposes. The day of the private entrepreneur was over. The Revolution was creating new plays, with new and better heroes (i.e., shocker workers, Young Communists, scientists, collective farmers), and a more active audience.  Now, Revolutionary playwrights wrote about the following:  "The life of the Soviet intelligentsia, the revolutionized village, scientific institutions and factories, collective farms and administrative offices," etc.  Indeed, the Revolution even interpreted class plays in new ways, highlighting economic or political "contradictions" whenever necessary.  In fact, the new theater was organically linked to the proletariat and peasantry, since factory workers and collective farmers now regularly attended the theater, and actors now regularly toured factories and collective farms in the remotest corners of the Soviet Union.  The close connection between theatrical workers and the proletariat and collective farmer economy meant that the playwrights adopted better theatrical forms too, including vaudeville, propaganda poster plays, and musical comedies.

The Revolution ensured that theater now had a higher calling than it ever had before.  It was, Markov maintained, a link a "chain of production" that was creating a stronger, more modern country.  Echoing Stalin, the new playwrights were engineers of the soul, and were no longer permitted to serve the whims of rich individuals or indeed wealthy classes.  Of course, Markov also approved of state censorship or aesthetic direction. As he explained, the Commissariat of Enlightenment "does not permit the performance of plays, which are socially insignificant or harmful, and it insists the theaters in the correct interpretation of a play."

To conclude, Markov's book defends a highly politicized theatrical movement in the Soviet Union.  On the other hand, even Markov's commitment to the Revolution, and to Stalinism, doesn't prevent him from attempting to argue that the new theater could still accommodate diversity, including Meyerhold, the Moscow Art Theater, and Tolstoy. 

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