- Russian Culture and Theatrical Performance in America, 1891–1933 by Valleri J. Hohman
To describe a work of art as “Russian” in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century was to associate it with artistic quality, high cultural status, and distinctively modern performance styles. In Russian Culture and Theatrical Performance in America, 1891–1933, which is part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History series, Valleri Hohman investigates how Russian performance and theatrical traditions became so highly regarded. In her well-researched study, Hohman looks outside the primary influence of Stanislavsky and his protégés to chart the work of less examined though equally important impresarios, producers, and artists who were critical in not only bringing Russian performances to America, but also in influencing and shaping the public’s reception of them. The book progresses chronologically through the development of Russian performance in America from 1891—the year that playwright Jacob Gordin emigrated to America—through 1933, when, according to Hohman, immigration policies of both the United States and Soviet Union decreased the level of cultural exchange, and Socialist Realism as a state policy took firm hold in the Soviet Union. Russian Culture and Theatrical Performance in America touches on diverse individuals, groups, and performances during this time period, but connects them all through its focus on circulation—geographically through travel, artistically through modernism, and commercially through the marketing of Russian performances to American audiences.
Part 1, “Russians in America: The Early Years,” examines the work of émigrés working in the Yiddish theatres on the Lower East Side of New York. Giving special attention to the career of Gordin, Hohman argues that his impact on American theatrical modernism is substantial: “Long before Stanislavsky’s ideas took root in the United States or Eugene O’Neill wrote his first plays, Jacob Gordin was helping to develop a modern theatre in America” (12). Gordin, an artistic collaborator with Jacob Adler, wrote several plays that broke away from formulas popular in vaudeville and melodrama, incorporating a realistic style, progressive and feminist themes, and contemporary references in his work. In this section, Hohman also considers the American tours of Russian performers like Pavel Orlenev’s St. Petersburg Dramatic Company, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, and Fedor Chaliapin. Although they enjoyed isolated successes, Hohman notes that, in general, they were tepidly received due to cultural misunderstandings and preconceptions held by both American audiences and Russian performers.
Part 2, “The Russian Invasion of the American Theatre,” charts the careers of businessman, arts patron, and theatre producer Otto Kahn and impresario Morris Gest, both of whom brought numerous Russian performing artists and their companies to the United States during the 1910s and ’20s. Hohman observes that, where the earlier Russian tours went wrong, Kahn and Gest succeeded, deploying Gest’s ambitious and bombastic publicity machine and Kahn’s wealth and business acumen to transcend the political and cultural differences between the two nations and establish Russian theatrical performance as a highly desired cultural commodity for American audiences. Arguing that Kahn and Gest deserve more scholarly attention than they have so far received, Hohman states that “[t]he contributions of Otto H. Kahn and Morris Gest do not fall neatly into any narratives on the advent of modernism in the American theatre, although they both played a major role in taking American theatre to modernism. . . . [I]t was first Kahn and Gest who took the risks, made the profits, and absorbed the losses involved with bringing entire Russian companies as well as individual artists to the American public” (58). By financially supporting tours of Russian performing artists in America, Kahn brought over many influential figures, such as dancer Anna Pavlova, choreographer [End Page 149] Adolph Bolm, and designers Nicholas Roerich and Boris Anisfeld. Gest was also pivotal in introducing Russian performance to America; during the 1920s he was responsible for bringing Michel Fokine and Vera Fokina and Nikita Baileff’s Chauve-Souris (Bat Theatre), as well as the Moscow Art Theatre, to the United States. The combined efforts of...