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Introduction 1 Early in 1899, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko was summoned to the office of Moscow Police Chief Dmitrii Trepov.The policeman wanted to discuss the new Moscow Accessible Art Theater, for he had learned that Nemirovich and his partner Konstantin Stanislavsky were trying to cultivate a working-class audience by holding matinees at reduced prices and distributing discounted tickets to local factories. Most of the plays performed for workers, however, were not permitted under the stringent censorship regulations governing performances before popular audiences. Trepov was affable but adamant. Under no circumstances, he told the well-known playwright and aspiring director, could the theater continue exposing workers to plays that were not approved for popular audiences. It would have to change either its repertoire or its audience; otherwise, the authorities would shut down the fledgling enterprise. Forced to choose between their twin goals of developing a new, innovative repertoire and of broadening the theater’s audience, Nemirovich and Stanislavsky made a difficult decision. Art prevailed over accessibility, and the Moscow Accessible Art Theater became the Moscow Art Theater, a name under which it achieved world renown as one of the most influential theaters of the early twentieth century.1 The Moscow Art Theater is well remembered for its attempt to transform Russian theater by creating an entirely new style of performance, yet it is often forgotten that its founders’ original goals were social as well as aesthetic. Ever since their first famous meeting in a Moscow restaurant, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich had envisioned their theater as more than an artistic endeavor; they wanted it to be an agent of enlightenment and social transformation, a “people’s theater” that would bring art to audiences hitherto excluded from the mainstream of Russian cultural life. Stanislavsky emphasized the social importance of this undertaking in a speech to the troupe a few months before the theater opened, reminding his actors not to forget that their task was to “illuminate the benighted life of the poor, to give them happy, aesthetic minutes amidst the darkness that covers them.” The Art Theater even attempted, without success, to persuade the Moscow city fathers to grant it a subsidy, on the grounds that the theater would serve the city’s poorer inhabitants.2 In forbidding the Art Theater to hold performances for workers, Trepov was carrying out a state policy aimed at controlling popular theaters by subjecting them to special censorship restrictions that were more stringent than those for other, more elite, theaters. In Europe the censorship of most forms of theater has usually been more restrictive and longer-lived than that of literature, due to the assumption that theater’s visual impressions are especially persuasive.3 In the Russian case, a two-tiered censorship structure was introduced for the theater in 1888. Afraid that popular theaters would become hotbeds of subversion and infect the common folk with dangerous political and social ideas, the authorities allowed them to stage only plays that the censors had specifically approved for viewing by lower-class audiences , regardless of whether they had been approved for other theaters. By calling his theater an “accessible” theater rather than a “people’s” theater, Nemirovich had hoped to avoid the onerous censorship rules that applied to the latter, but Trepov was deaf to his protests. This encounter between the tsarist official and the playwright is more than a curious anecdote or footnote in the long saga of confrontations between Russian artists and the state. It allows us a brief glimpse at a forgotten side of the cultural ferment that Russia was experiencing in the autumn years of the Old Regime and reminds us that artists were concerned not only with finding new modes of expression but also with finding new audiences for their work. The middle-class actor Stanislavsky and the aristocratic dramatist Nemirovich were by no means alone in dreaming of a new kind of theater that would serve Russians of all social classes. By the turn of the century, narodnye teatry, or “people’s theaters,” were springing up all over Russia; there were more than ten in St. Petersburg alone, and many more in the provinces. They were organized by industrialists, liberal educators, temperance societies, cooperatives, and factory workers themselves . Leo Tolstoy wrote plays for the people’s theaters, Aleksandr Blok went slumming in them, Vsevolod Meyerhold made his stage debut in one, and Maxim Gorky helped found one. The proliferating people’s theaters were a vital part of the new urban culture that was developing...


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