- Stage Fright: Politics and the Performing Arts in Late Imperial Russia
This volume is an extraordinarily rich addition to the burgeoning English-language literature on the relationship between the stage and politics in pre–World War I Russia. Despite the title, it is overwhelmingly devoted to the theater rather than to the "performing arts" in general, thus complementing well several other very recent titles, especially E. Anthony Swift, Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia (Berkeley, 2002), Gary Thurston, The Popular Theater Movement in Russia, 1862–1919 (Northwestern, 1998), and two books by Murray Frame, [End Page 414] The St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters: Stage and State in Revolutionary Russia, 1900–1920 (McFarland, 2000), and School for Citizens: Theatre and Civil Society in Imperial Russia (Yale, 2006). Du Quenoy, a history professor at the American University of Beirut, offers an overall contrarian take on the generally accepted wisdom about his subject. Although his argument is not entirely convincing, sometimes a bit contradictory and, in a minor way, based on rather shaky knowledge about the contemporaneous relationship between government and the theater elsewhere in Europe, his book is clearly based on enormous amounts of research in Russian archival and secondary sources and is truly a pleasure to read. Though other specialists (like this reviewer) may dissent from his conclusions, this book is an absolute "must read" for all scholars and lay folk with even the slightest interest in late imperial Russian politics and the arts.
Du Quenoy's fundamental argument is that, contrary to the "consensus" portrayal of late imperial Russia as featuring a highly politicized dissenting theatrical and artistic community and an extremely repressive regime (both in general and specifically with regard to the stage), in practice the government was highly tolerant of politically charged theatrical material and in any case (as the book's promotional material states) "performing arts culture—traditionally assumed to be heavily affected by and responsive to contemporary politics—was often apathetic and even hostile to involvement in political struggles." These two points are somewhat contradictory and thus in constant tension with each other, since a nonpoliticized stage could hardly require repression, while governmental tolerance could only be demonstrated if the theater was a hotbed of dissent. Moreover, although Du Quenoy unquestionably presents plenty of evidence (albeit, inevitably, rather anecdotal) to support his argument that significant, and perhaps even the majority of, segments of the theatrical community were, at least often, indifferent to politics, whenever contrary evidence emerges (and, to his credit, he does include such material) it is treated in a rather tendentious and dismissive manner. Thus, although Du Quenoy notes that in the early stages of the 1905 Revolution, before protests had become massive, over two hundred actors published a declaration demanding an end to the special censorship of the popular theaters (which existed as a supplement to general theatrical censorship), a halt to arbitrary police cancellations of dramatic performances, and the protection of such key democratic rights as freedom of conscience, expression, and association, he maintains that these demands were "strikingly phrased more in economic than political terms" and therefore somehow did not really reflect a politicized theatrical community (145). Similarly, when a leading theater troupe voted to suspend performances in October, 1905, amidst an ongoing general strike because "any performances were unthinkable at a time when almost all of Russia had stopped and found itself in a terribly unsettled and tense condition," Du Quenoy maintains that "politics was not the major factor" involved (155). [End Page 415] The fact that Russian censorship decisions were often ignored in practice (thus, a 1901 government report found that nearly 40 percent of the repertoire of a popular theater company had been presented without censorship approval) is presented as reflecting regime tolerance, but many scholars would find this rather an indication of the government's incompetence (the same incompetence that transformed a peaceful St. Petersburg protest in early 1905 into a massive public uprising by the "Bloody Sunday" massacre of unarmed crowds).
Du Quenoy is on...