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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 509-510

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Book Review

The Russian Theatre After Stalin

The Russian Theatre After Stalin. By Anatoly Smeliansky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. xxxviii + 232. $59.95.

Accounts of theatre history are normally provided by those separated from it by time or distance; seldom does one get the opportunity to read about history from someone intimately involved in the making of it. Anatoly Smeliansky's The Russian Theatre after Stalin is one of those rare books written by an insightful practitioner who, as a former member of the Moscow Art Theatre, was intimately involved in the theatre of Russia throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Smeliansky's text provides an authoritative account of contemporary Russian Theatre and, since theatre was (and still is) such an integral part of Russian society, an inside look at many of the political battles waged in and around the Russian stage after Stalin's death in 1953.

The text is arranged into three major sections. The first of these, entitled "The Thaw," provides a description of the "meltdown" or theatrical revival that took place in the years immediately following Stalin's death. Included are profiles of important actors and directors of the period (1953-1968), discussion of production content and style, and supplementary observations of the continually changing political landscape of post-Stalinist Russia. Smeliansky notes signs of life which "sprouted through the ashes," following the "conflictless" period of Stalinist theatre, citing the impact of plays by Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dosteyevsky that helped to reestablish the previously nonexistent moral conscience of Russia. He also notes the accomplishments of Moscow's Sovremennik and Taganka Theatres, both of which broke from firmly entrenched Soviet stage traditions. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the initial section is the description of important productions such as Yuri Lyubimov's 1963 staging of The Good Person of Setzuan at the Taganka Theatre, which marked a return to formalistic modes of production previously abandoned in favor of Stalin's prescribed socialist realism. Smeliansky's discussion of "The Thaw" presents the reader with a Russian theatre dealing with topical issues, misgivings about the future, and new "politically altered" approaches to plays by Shakespeare and Moliere and other classics.

Following the meteorological analogy, the second section of the text, "The Frosts," refers to the reactionary events in the theatre of Russia that followed the Prague Spring of 1968 and the subsequent invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. In this section, Smeliansky chronicles the work of Oleg Yefremov, Anatoly Efros, as well as works by Lyubimov and other important directors. Additionally, he places into context a series of politically subversive stagings at the Taganka theatre--Aleksandr Vampilov's previously banned Lenin commentary Duck-Hunting, Lyubimov's icy Hamlet (banned on several occasions in the USSR by Stalin), and Anatoly Efros's ironic The Marriage--which tended either to define current political states or to anticipate changes in the post-Stalinist political climate. The author details the malleability of many Russian classics (e.g. The Three Sisters) noting important productions that deviated from the "fourth wall" realism mandated during Joseph Stalin's reign. The second section ends with a description of three major productions staged by world renowned Georgy Tovstonogov at two major Soviet theatres--Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector and Tolstoy's The Story of a Horse at the BDT in Leningrad, and Sergey Mikhalkov's Balayakin and Company at the Sovremennik in Moscow--which, by exposing the fear, lies, and human sacrifice of Stalin's forced collectivization, anticipated the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

Abandoning references to climate in section three, "The Black Box" compares Russian Theatre from 1985 to 1997 to the black box of an airplane, which [End Page 509] objectively records the events that take place on a journey. In this section Smeliansky discusses the events which sprung from Mikhail Gorbachev's paradoxical glasnost and how those events were recorded by Russian Theatre. The initial discussion of this final section centers on the split of the Moscow Art Theatre into the Anton Chekhov and the Maxim Gorky...


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