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1 The Urban Theatrical Landscape 12 People’s theater had deep roots in post-Petrine Russian culture.These roots were nourished from different sources, some of which were, and still are, usually thought to be antagonistic: an authoritarian state, an emerging civil society, high culture, commercial popular culture, folk culture. Understanding the origins and development of people’s theater in Russia entails understanding the diverse currents in Russian cultural, social, and political history that came together, not without tension and never quite merging, to shape the idea of a theater that would both serve and transform the common people. From the end of the seventeenth century, when Peter the Great (1682– 1725) made Westernization an official policy, the state played a preponderant role in initiating, promoting, and regulating the development in Russia of a European-inspired culture, one of whose key elements was theater.The state founded the first public theater in Russia, established a network of state-subsidized imperial theaters, opened schools for actors, and zealously censored the texts performed on the nation’s stages. It also alternately encouraged and obstructed efforts to democratize theater by making performances accessible to the masses, a stop-and-start attitude that reflected official Russia’s highly ambivalent attitude toward the theater’s potential impact on the common people. Yet the state was not alone in shaping the development of Russian people ’s theaters; other forces were also at work. Commercial popular theatrical enterprises from fairgrounds, pleasure gardens, and city streets left their imprint on the form and content of performances in the people’s theaters, as did the imperial theaters, which catered primarily to elite audiences. Popular theatrical traditions, such as the oral folk plays passed back and forth among factories, barracks, and rural villages, also influenced audiences’ expecta- tions and attitudes toward what they saw and heard in the people’s theaters. The expansion of civil society that followed the Great Reforms of the 1860s brought new actors onto the stage, those educated Russians who began to promote people’s theaters in order to take a more active role in public affairs and contest the state’s power to regulate cultural and political life. Muscovy had no secular theater performances or professional actors until the late seventeenth century, although elements of drama were a part of Russian folk culture and had a place in the festivities associated with the harvest, marriage, Yuletide, and Shrovetide.1 Skomorokhi, a caste of itinerant minstrels, entertained villagers as well as courtiers with songs, performances by trained animals, buffoonery, and puppet shows, sometimes lascivious in content.Wealthy boyars often recruited troupes of skomorokhi for their private entertainment, for the line between elite and popular cultures was not sharply drawn in pre-Petrine Russia.2 The Orthodox church was generally hostile toward the skomorokhi and their entertainments. It condemned them as pagan sorcerers who sought to corrupt the faithful with their secular and therefore sinful merrymaking. According to the Domostroi, a mid sixteenth-century guide to household management and morality, both the skomorokhi and their audiences were destined to burn in hell. Responding to pressure from the Church, the government enacted various measures to repress the skomorokhi beginning in the sixteenth century, culminating in their proscription by the law code of 1649.3 Although the Orthodox church did make some use of theater for religious instruction, its antipathy toward secular theatrical entertainments remained strong even down to the twentieth century, for it saw them as rivaling its own highly theatrical ritual.4 The origins of both elite and popular Russian theater lie not, however, in these rudimentary dramatic traditions, but in the state’s encouragement of Westernization, which began in the late seventeenth century. Theater was an important part of the autocracy’s program for transforming Russian society by cultivating Western culture, and it was state patronage that promoted the growth of theater. In the eighteenth century, not only were the imperial theaters established to serve the increasingly Westernized elite, but the state also made some attempts to inculcate a taste for theater among the urban lower classes. More significantly for the evolution of Russian popular culture, the eighteenth century saw growing numbers of foreigners coming to Russia to seek their fortunes, including troupes of artists who began performing interludes, farces, and short skits at fairs and popular holiday celebrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Russian acting companies also appeared, performing Russian comedies and translations before socially The Urban Theatrical Landscape / 13 diverse urban audiences. In the...


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