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6 The People at the Theater: Audience Reception 205 The people’s theaters aimed to transform audiences, but what in fact was their impact on the common people who attended their performances? What place did the theaters have in the lives of the urban working classes? Did they, as the Kulturträger hoped they would, civilize audiences and “soften” popular morality, or at least integrate the common people into a universal Russian national culture? Were they agents of bourgeois cultural hegemony, promoting consent to the sociopolitical status quo? Did melodramas and patriotic spectaculars foster a “culture of consolation” and undermine class consciousness? Or did they become part of a new repertoire of lower-class cultural practices, replete with symbolic meanings, providing new opportunities for working people to transgress established class boundaries , experiment with new forms of sociability and self-identity, and encounter unfamiliar ways of life? The significance of theatrical entertainments for the audiences who saw them is not easy to assess, but some inferences and conclusions can be drawn from the observations of contemporaries and from audience surveys conducted by the theaters’ sponsors. The audience surveys are particularly interesting, for they contain the firsthand comments of the workers themselves and reflect their immediate impression of what was for many their first exposure to theater. At the same time, the survey responses are hardly representative of the “silent majority,” for they were written only by workers who were literate enough to set down their thoughts on paper and who took the theater performances seriously enough to bother with answering the often detailed questionnaires. There are almost no responses from women workers, for example, due not to a lack of women in the audiences, for contemporary observers often noted that large numbers of women attended the performances, but more probably due to their relatively low levels of literacy. In 1897 only 21.3 percent of the female industrial workers in European Russia were literate, as opposed to 53.5 percent of the males.1 Audience surveys must also be handled with caution due to the tendency of any questionnaire to prompt certain kinds of answers. One survey asked about the moral significance of the plays, implying that this is important in evaluating drama and should be highlighted in the response.Another asked workers how they spent their free time before the theater opened, suggesting a before and after dichotomy, whereby viewing performances represented an improvement for those who attended, and inviting responses that previously there was little to do but drink, fight, or gamble. The workers most able and willing to answer the questionnaires were likely to be those who shared the enlighteners’ view of theater as a moral educational institution for self-improvement and would probably have been prone to respond in kind. Evidence from firsthand descriptions of audience behavior and reactions, though valuable, is equally problematic. Contemporary observers were almost invariably educated Russians who were either committed to the idea of a didactic people’s theater or shared many of the culturist assumptions of the people’s theater activists. Their accounts of performances and audience reactions are often patronizing in tone, foregrounding evidence that confirms their convictions about the civilizing power of art and the people’s receptivity to it.As Liubov Gurevich, the liberal editor and publisher of The Northern Herald and a prominent cultural critic, stated in 1896,“The crowd goes to see the high jinks of the fairground barkers, but it would also go to see serious works of art if they were made accessible.”2 The appetite of the narod for melodramas, farces, spectaculars, and variety shows was usually blamed on the organizers of the shows, who were condemned for pandering to rather than lifting the tastes of the crowd. Workers’ accounts, while representing the view from below, also have their biases. The workers who wrote memoirs or articles in the press were seldom representative of the rank and file, but belonged to the highly literate , skilled, and relatively well-paid upper stratum of the working class. They used theater attendance and interest in serious drama as a confirmation of their respectability and the ability of workers to transcend the cultural stereotypes that relegated them to the lower echelons of Russian society . Their memoirs, often written long after the Bolshevik Revolution had given them opportunities for upward social mobility and assigned lowbrow entertainments to the dustbin, usually emphasize the desire of workers for the classics or naturalistic dramas about working-class life and social conflict...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780520925878
Related ISBN
9780520225947
MARC Record
OCLC
52862196
Pages
364
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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