- Platon Kerzhentsev and His Theories on Collective Creation
The name Platon Kerzhentsev carries infamous tones in the annals of theatre history as he precipitated the closure of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theatre in January 1938. His attack on Meyerhold had been building since the early 1920s, but the major blow came in the wake of the work on One Life, the production that Meyerhold’s theatre was preparing in late 1937 to coincide with the twenty-year anniversary of the October Revolution.1 Kerzhentsev was particularly critical of the production.2 A second attack was made shortly afterwards in the pages of Pravda, in an article called “An Alien Theatre.” It was here that Kerzhentsev adopted a bitter tone to elucidate every shortcoming in Meyerhold’s practice. His criticisms included Meyerhold’s choice of repertoire, the distortion of the classics through formalistic approaches, the staging in a positive light of the prerevolutionary bourgeoisie, and his theatre’s detachment from Soviet life. According to Kerzhentsev, “Meyerhold’s Theatre has become a complete political failure.”3
Unfortunately, Kerzhentsev’s criticism of Meyerhold has overshadowed his important contributions to theatre theory and practice in the early twentieth century, especially his complex account of collective creation which he grounded on the social perspectives deployed by Russia’s October Revolution. This article attempts both to map and critique Kerzhentsev’s efforts to create a participatory theatre praxis based on the dominant ideologies of the early Soviet Republic. Born Platon Mikhailovich Lebedev in 1881, Kerzhentsev studied history and philosophy before joining the Bolshevik Party in 1904. His underground work during those politically fraught years landed him a period of forced exile between 1912 and 1917, which exposed him to different forms of Western theatre. Kerzhentsev’s precise whereabouts during these years are hard to reconstruct, but it is evident that prominent among the performances that he saw were large-scale and open-air productions in England and the US. He also witnessed the music-hall scenes in New York and Paris. Kerzhentsev returned to Russia immediately after the October Revolution, and was given important roles in the Soviet Government as a Party and state functionary. These roles included noncultural positions, [End Page 29] such as his leadership of the Rabkin (1923–24), the Department that inspected workers and peasants, or his service as USSR Ambassador to Sweden (1921–23) and Italy (1925–26). Cultural positions held included Chief Directorate of Political Education (1920–21), Deputy Head of the Department for Propaganda (from 1928), President of the Radio Committee (1933–36), and Chairman of the Committee for Artistic Affairs (1936–38). In this last capacity Kerzhentsev directed his last attack on Meyerhold.
Kerzhentsev was also a leading figure in early postrevolutionary debates on the nature of proletarian art and culture, to which he especially contributed through a series of theoretical writings that culminated in the publication and extensive revision of his book Tvorchesky Teatr (The Creative Theatre; 1st ed. 1918, 5th ed. 1923).4 He was also closely associated with the Proletkult movement, a group of amateur theatres, clubs, and educational societies “devoted to the cultural needs of the working class.”5 Kerzhentsev publicly defended the Proletkult, presided over various boards, and served in the editorial office of the movement’s official mouthpiece, the Proletarskaya Kultura (Proletarian Culture) newspaper.6 His contribution to early Soviet Theatre was therefore primarily channeled through the development of a theoretical framework on the nature of proletarian art, a theory that, however, also included expositions on the practical methods necessary to create devised and collective productions. This essay will discuss Kerzhentsev’s work to argue that, though rooted in the values and aspirations of the early, post-Revolution years, his theories and practices expand the possible frame of reference for understanding the emergence and development of devised performance as well as the status of the dramatic text. More than isolated moments in theatre history that, at best, only answer to the social and political developments of their time, Kerzhentsev’s theories and practices become stepping stones that lead to contemporary theatre and performance issues.
Critical commentaries on Kerzhentsev are hard to find in English, particularly because there is no...