Cover image for Stage Fright: Politics and the Performing Arts in Late Imperial Russia By Paul du Quenoy

Stage Fright

Politics and the Performing Arts in Late Imperial Russia

Paul du Quenoy


$78.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03467-6

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05878-8

304 pages
6" × 9"
19 b&w illustrations

Stage Fright

Politics and the Performing Arts in Late Imperial Russia

Paul du Quenoy

“In this lively and stimulating book, Paul du Quenoy explores the relationship between politics and the performing arts in late imperial Russia. Drawing on a wide range of published and unpublished sources, the author challenges the assumption that the performing arts were closely engaged in the broader political struggles of the late tsarist period and suggests that apathy was more common. The result is a thought-provoking new perspective.”


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  • Table of Contents
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In June 1920, assessing the international significance of the revolutionary era that had brought him to power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin adopted a theatrical idiom for one of its most important events, the Revolution of 1905. “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905,” he wrote, “the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.” According to Lenin’s statement, political anatomy borrowed in a teleological sense from the performing arts.

This book explores an inversion of Lenin’s statement. Rather than question how politics took after the performing arts, Paul du Quenoy assesses how culture responded to power in late imperial Russia. Exploring the impact of this period’s rapid transformation and endemic turmoil on the performing arts, he examines opera, ballet, concerts, and “serious” drama while not overlooking newer artistic forms thriving at the time, such as “popular” theater, operetta, cabaret, satirical revues, pleasure garden entertainments, and film. He also analyzes how participants in the Russian Empire’s cultural life articulated social and political views.

Du Quenoy proposes that performing arts culture in late imperial Russia—traditionally assumed to be heavily affected by and responsive to contemporary politics—was often apathetic and even hostile to involvement in political struggles. Stage Fright offers a similar refutation of the view that the late imperial Russian government was a cultural censor prefiguring Soviet control of the arts. Through a clear picture of the relationship between culture and power, this study presents late imperial Russia as a modernizing polity with a vigorous civil society capable of weathering the profound changes of the twentieth century rather than lurching toward an “inevitable” disaster of revolution and civil war.

“In this lively and stimulating book, Paul du Quenoy explores the relationship between politics and the performing arts in late imperial Russia. Drawing on a wide range of published and unpublished sources, the author challenges the assumption that the performing arts were closely engaged in the broader political struggles of the late tsarist period and suggests that apathy was more common. The result is a thought-provoking new perspective.”
“Solidly based on broad reading in Russian printed sources and archives, Stage Fright is a well-documented rebuttal of the conventional wisdom reflected in many works on late imperial Russia.”
“Grounded in extensive research in archival, primary and secondary sources, Stage Fright is an important contribution to recent studies of Russian theatre and its conclusions will spark fruitful debate. It should be read by anyone interested in the relationship of politics and the arts.”

Paul du Quenoy is Professor in the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut.


List of Illustrations



1. “An Aspiration to Novelty”: Contours of the Performing Arts in Late Imperial Russia

2. “Such a Risky Time”: Arts Institutions and the Challenge of Politics

3. “Politics Are Death”: Imperial Theater Performers

4. “Our Theater Will Not Strike!”: Private and Popular Theater Performers

5. “You Dare Not Make Sport of Our Nerves!”: The Audiences

6. “A New Bayreuth Will Save No One”: Russian Modernism and Its Discontents

“Art Must Be Apolitical”: A Conclusion




In June 1920, assessing the international significance of the revolutionary era that had brought him to power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin adopted a theatrical idiom for one of its most important events, the Revolution of 1905. “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905,” he wrote, “the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.” Political anatomy, according to Lenin’s statement, borrowed in a teleological sense from the performing arts.

This book explores an inversion of Lenin’s statement. Rather than question how politics took after the performing arts, its main purpose is to assess how and to what extent culture responded to power in Late Imperial Russia. Although many of the most important developments in these categories happened after 1900, I am broadly interested in the period between the reign of Alexander II (1855–81)—the era of the “Great Reforms”—and the revolutionary year of 1917. This study will seek to explore the impact of that period’s rapid transformation and endemic turmoil on the performing arts, a category I have rather traditionally defined as organized expressions of creativity presented before audiences. Less traditionally, I have tried as much as possible to widen the category’s usual focus—on opera, ballet, concerts, and “serious” drama—to include newer artistic forms thriving in Russia and elsewhere, the “new institutions of amusement and leisure” that Lewis Erenberg found to be “growing into general respectability” in modern America, for example. These included “popular” theater (narodnyi teatr in Russian, so called because it was targeted at lower-class audiences), operetta, cabaret, satirical revues, pleasure garden entertainments, and, to a smaller extent because it was still in its infancy in the prerevolutionary era, film. I am interested in how Russia’s performing arts culture and the individuals and institutions that brought it into being regarded their country’s political life.

In the framework of a tsarist autocracy, where “power” was at least in theory monopolized by the ruler, the very concept of “politics” in society at large often suggested contentious approaches to reform, challenges to the prevailing order, a heightened spirit of political opposition, agitation for change, and eruptions of violence. Indeed, one of the most influential recent studies of Imperial Russia has argued that the projection and exercise of power depended on myriad representational idioms—including theatrical ones—designed to “elevate” Russia’s autocrats into what Richard Wortman has called “the monarch’s space.” To appreciate the nature and uses of performance from the other side of the throne, one major theme of this book will necessarily explore how theaters, performers, impresarios, audiences, and others active in the Russian Empire’s cultural life articulated social and political views. Another will examine how state and civic institutions with responsibilities for and authority over culture responded to these attitudes and to events as they developed. As a work of theater history, the study seeks to determine whether changes in the performing arts themselves—by which I mean repertoire selections, theories of performance, uses of the stage, and other value-laden features—shared origins in the Russian Empire’s political experience or evolved independently of it. Although much has been written about the arts in Imperial Russia, to date no scholarly work has attempted to map their political informants and meanings. That is the main task of this book.

In the early twenty-first century it is frequently argued, especially in academic circles, that culture, particularly the performing arts, is or should be imbued with some kind of social or political content. In many such milieus theater is experienced as an elite art form—a relatively expensive mode of entertainment concentrated almost exclusively in the center of large cities. Confined to this environment, it is largely both produced and consumed by intellectuals in search of what they hope will offer higher meanings, instructive truths about life and society, and, as many of them often opine, the opportunity for people unlike themselves (usually the young or disadvantaged) to share them in some meaningful way. A more radical approach, espoused by Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, and many of their contemporaries and emulators, advocates using expressive art to stimulate social change through moral messages validated by provocations to critical thought. In both cases the common understanding of theater’s purpose is less to entertain than to educate, politicize, or shock. As Baz Kershaw has suggested in reference to postwar Britain’s radical stage, “alternative theatre . . . may have managed to mount an effective opposition to the dominant culture, and may have modified its values.” This seems to be the aspiration underlying many postmodern stage productions. Increasingly audacious directors have reinterpreted classics to impute contemporary relevance in the form of a message, theme, or social comment often absent from or tangential to the original. Some newer works for the stage try to challenge audiences through irreverence, absurdity, and other departures from accepted norms. Writing about nineteenth-century Russia, the Soviet semiotician Iurii Lotman argued that the dynamism of theater and theatrical representations “offered people new possibilities for behavior” and created “the awareness that any political turn of events was possible.” He might just as easily have reaffirmed Oscar Wilde’s paradoxical yet quintessentially modern aphorism that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”

Influenced at least in part by these ideas, scholars have recently begun to study culture as a meaningful refraction of the political realities at work in modern societies. However unintentional the revelations discovered by this approach may be, their very lack of intentionality suggests an accuracy unobtainable via more traditional modes of inquiry.

This approach almost requires the arts to be territorialized by the political realm. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one of the most influential theorists on the subject, argued that modern disparities of social and political power create, define, and depend upon strategies of cultural distinction. Hierarchies of taste, in his view, function as tools that divide societies into ranked and self-perpetuating strata. Edward Said famously maintained that imperialism, one of the most nakedly political subjects in humanity’s recent experience, was not only facilitated but also perpetuated in postcolonial times by the durability of Western cultural influences. According to this argument, culture can equal and, because of its less tangible qualities, perhaps even surpass the potency of military and economic methods of control. In a related way Homi Bhabha’s literary theories locate emerging collective identities, particularly those in the colonial and postcolonial worlds, within malleable frameworks shaped by imposed political realities and their cultural artifacts.

One implication of these theoretical works is that art can offer publics a surreptitious means of resistance to external cultural-cum-political control. Mastery of quintessentially Western media permits cultural engagement or negotiation (Bhabha’s word is “hybridization”) capable of redefining real power relationships. Recent work on the performing arts in postcolonial societies has gone a step further to argue that some expressive forms, especially dramatic theater, have become open and successful fora for political opposition as well as regenerated, alternate, and often politicized identities. The historical absence of the Western-style stage from such societies carried the ironic advantage of rendering it—specifically because of its unfamiliarity and despite its cultural link to the colonizers—a rare untainted space where ideas, education, and acculturation could be explored outside the institutional legacies of imperial power persisting in civil and political establishments. Writing about modern South Africa, Loren Kruger discussed theater’s viability not simply as a new mode of entertainment and education but as “a virtual public sphere” accommodating expressions of the political. In this sense it has offered an alternative to “the irredeemable agents of a repressive state,” which, regardless of the political changes that followed from the abolition of apartheid in 1994, still remained “untrustworthy” institutions. Other studies have observed that emerging or reemerging nations create native performing arts cultures—again largely “Western” in form—with the consciously political purposes of restoring a national identity, fashioning an official new one, or advertising a state’s legitimacy and the “normality” of the society over which it presides.

Recent memories of the fall of communism have also left a strong impression of the potential for an oppressed society’s arts community to become politicized. The relatively high esteem in which cold war–era East European performers were held by their publics and governments conferred the unique ability (for intensely controlled societies with few unpoliced expressive outlets) to make influential political statements through or alongside their art. This power enabled them to play serious roles in the peaceful revolutions of 1989. Indeed, it was the Prague actors who lent their sympathy, energy, and resources to the organization of Czechoslovakia’s Civic Forum, the nucleus of that country’s first postcommunist government. Actor-playwright leader Václav Havel’s notoriety thrust him not only into presidential office but also into a prominent international role as a figure of conscience in human rights. The Polish theatrical community’s highly visible and nearly unanimous 1982 boycott of the official stage drew massive national and international sympathy to the Solidarity movement. Poland’s performing artists actively allied themselves with dissent for the rest of the decade, despite martial law, and, like their Czechoslovak counterparts, made an appreciable contribution to the country’s transition from communism. In October 1989 the East German conductor Kurt Masur’s personal renown gave him the influence to prevent the bloody suppression of dissident demonstrations in Leipzig, mass events that contributed to the collapse of the regime. Recently, Belarus, the authoritarian former Soviet republic often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has faced discreet challenges from a theatrical underground that comments on political events and has received encouragement from Havel and the British postmodernist playwright Tom Stoppard, among others.

Even the absence of politics from cultural contexts has led historians to look hard for political meanings—perhaps a natural effort if they assume such meanings must be there. Attempting to explain the presence of so many apolitical works in his subject of study, one historian of the mid-twentieth-century British stage has made the circular and ultimately unprovable argument that “to avoid political issues is to act politically.” A recent study of Russian theatrical unrest begins with the categorical observation that “all theatrical protests are political,” even when they are caused by such apolitical issues as ticket prices, aesthetic qualities, or artistic innovation. Anything that “engages with an established order,” however banal and in whatever way, thus “marks the evolution of social consciousness.” The most comprehensive history of the Ballets Russes—one of Late Imperial Russia’s most sensational artistic phenomena—introduces its subject with the uncritical assumption that the Empire’s performing arts culture formed “a microcosm of society at large, where politics, social relations, and artistic goals were inextricably linked.” A scholarly review of leisure and entertainment activities in prerevolutionary Russia insists that “by their sheer existence in an autocratic state, they were inevitably political even if they did not reveal themselves in political manifestations.” The pages that follow fundamentally question whether we should perceive cultures, Russian and others, in these ways; whether the performing arts are existentially and in all contexts political; and whether such terms as “all,” “inextricably,” and “inevitably”—absolute qualifiers now rather outmoded in historical scholarship—are appropriate to describe the relationship between culture and power.

In addition to the specific avenues of inquiry outlined above, this book will attempt to test whether conditions that appear to foster strong connections between politics and the performing arts existed in Late Imperial Russia. I began this project with the assumption that a dramatic topography of that relationship would emerge during a period marked by rapid, turbulent change and pronounced social and political disorder. Revolutionary eras highlight and emphasize existing tensions, problems, and disappointments, the solutions to which are often dominated by passion and violence. By overturning or threatening to overturn established orders, they give birth to new ideas and aspirations in almost any field of endeavor. If Russia’s performing arts community was as dominated by the country’s political consciousness as scholars have traditionally maintained and as many recent theorists of the performing arts might assume, surely the connection would be easy to spot and would have reached its most fevered pitch during an impassioned and violent period. Why else do we have so many revealing cultural studies of other turbulent politics contexts, including the era immediately following the Revolution of 1917?

The last decades of the tsarist era, however, have recently emerged from a conventional historiography that largely accepted them as a mere prologue to 1917 and assumed that all roads led to that eventful year. This mindset, along with the field’s more conventional emphasis on political history, ideology, labor, and other subjects apparently more pertinent to the rise of communism, may well explain why the relationship between culture and power in prerevolutionary Russia has received comparatively less attention. If that period had been only a prelude to an “inevitable” main event, one might wonder whether its cultural milieu would be distinctive or interesting enough to warrant a full study.

Rather than explain the late imperial era as a prologue to 1917, much new literature has explored alternate paths and currents open to the Russian Empire. These works have shifted attention back to the prerevolutionary period and recharacterized it as a starting point for potential departures that might have led to different destinations. Abraham Ascher, one of its leading political historians, has referred to Lenin’s “dress rehearsal”—the Revolution of 1905—as “a critical juncture that opened up several paths.” Among other categories of material supporting this conclusion, scholars have found evidence of apolitical or nonradical professional development among the intelligentsia, significant popular support for the antirevolutionary right, and the emergence of viable parliamentarianism in the new legislative bodies that shared in the Empire’s government from 1906. Research on education, journalism, sexuality, law, professional life, business, charity, local government, and other rapidly changing elements of modern society has supported this new view of Late Imperial Russia and gone a long way toward proving that it had at least the potential to follow a more “normal” course of development. A post-Soviet study of the last dozen years before the Bolshevik Revolution has persuasively described them as “the period when the development of non-political organizations [obshchestva] achieved its apogee.” Recent work on less obvious topics, such as corporal punishment, religious sectarianism, alcohol and temperance, and arson and firefighting, among others, has set Late Imperial Russia into even greater relief as a modernizing polity entirely capable of fitting Jürgen Habermas’s definition of a transformed public sphere. An important theme of the present study, which seeks a place within this new literature, is that the performing arts both reflected and played an appreciable role in a relatively nonpolitical evolutionary process that might have spared the Russian Empire its fate rather than doomed it to destruction.

From the mid-eighteenth century Russia developed a rich and diverse cultural life centered not only in its historical capitals but also in its provincial cities and countryside. The general literature on Russian cultural history is enormous. Since 1998 two vast tomes on the subject have appeared in English, each exceeding five hundred pages. A late Soviet study of prerevolutionary dramatic theater alone filled seven volumes. But despite the size of the field, little direct attention has come to the performing arts’ nexus with politics. The mantra that Russian art and politics were/are inextricably bound together left me surprised to learn that no book-length study has yet attempted a critical examination of that relationship, especially in the politically charged and artistically explosive late imperial era. The absence of a comprehensive treatment presents the greatest lacuna that I hope this book will fill. I am particularly interested in linking cultural life to Russia’s evolving public sphere, a worthwhile endeavor since the large body of recent work on tsarist-era civil society has tended to neglect the arts. This omission suggests the value of an attempt to bridge the two fields.

The greater part of my research lies in the primary sources chronicling the arts in late tsarist times. These texts articulate the thoughts, attitudes, and experiences of cultured Russians in the maelstrom swirling around them in the decades before 1917. Late Imperial Russia had a highly developed daily press that commented widely on culture and the arts, not only in the form of reviews, but also in editorial comment and reportage on the increasingly important business aspects of theater, which grew more commercial and professionalized over time. From 1862 articles and journals addressing theatrical life were exempt from the prepublication censorship that remained in place for most media until 1905. The major periodical covering the performing arts, Theater and Art (Teatr i iskusstvo, published from 1897 to 1918), dealt candidly and capaciously with the world of the stage, as did such short-lived competitors as Theatrical Russia (Teatral’naia Rossiia, published only in 1904–5). Monthly “thick journals”—more commonly associated with literature, painting, and other art forms—also offered important performing arts coverage. From 1890 to 1915 the Imperial Theaters Directorate (Direktsiia Imperatorskikh teatrov), the administration of Russia’s state theaters, published an annual Yearbook (Ezhegodnik) that featured informational articles, artist rosters, performance calendars, box office receipts, and other important sources.

Happily for students of cultural life in Late Imperial Russia, many of the era’s leading figures left detailed records of their lives and work. These individuals included not only performers active in every art form and setting but also their relatives, educators, employers, critics, audience members, foreign observers, administrators, and others with firsthand knowledge and experience of the performing arts. Some left diaries and correspondence. Many published their memoirs, either in the Soviet Union or, as was often the case, in emigration. Although many memoirists were famous and enjoyed privileges not shared by their less distinguished colleagues, I have made every effort to include accounts from more obscure figures. Some memoirists who enjoyed celebrity in later times, it should also be noted, occupied modest stations in the early phases of their careers and thus were not always living exceptional lives in late imperial times.

Any memoirs present information refracted through the prism of the author’s own biases, inaccuracies, and other sources of retrospective subjectivity. Those published in the Soviet Union were subject to state censorship and editorial control. These factors fluctuated in focus and severity over time, but nevertheless remained present and discernable. Memoirs published in emigration often betray some degree of nostalgia or even bitterness. Yet whatever their faults, recollections in both categories contain otherwise unobtainable statements about values, ideals, creative processes, social views, political attitudes, daily lives, and their evolution in times of social and political turmoil. It would be difficult to imagine an effective study of the present subject that did not use them. As Hiroaki Kuromiya has written about recollections of the much more politicized Stalin era, “the value of these memoirs appears evident to anyone who works in the field.”

Russian archives also contain useful information. File (fond) 776 of the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg (RGIA) holds the files of the Ministry of the Interior’s Main Office for Press Affairs, the principal censorship organ of the Russian Empire. Its records figure importantly in the discussions of theatrical censorship in Chapters 1, 2, and 5. File 497 holds the documentary records of the Imperial Theaters Directorate. The Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow (RGALI) holds files on individual personalities who appear throughout this study, as well as on the Russian Theatrical Society (RTO), the main professional organization for performing artists, which will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4. In addition to its impressive collection of printed materials, the State Theatrical Library of St. Petersburg holds relevant documents, as does the A. A. Bakhrushin Central State Theatrical Museum in Moscow. One major disappointment in Russian archival holdings is their paucity of documents recording the activities of private and popular theaters. Many enterprises in that category were transient and disappeared before 1917. Neither I nor, to the best of my knowledge, anyone else has been able to track down their documentary records. Since many nonstate theaters lacked permanence, and those that survived the Bolshevik Revolution were nationalized by the Soviet regime and then either eliminated or placed under state control, such records may no longer exist.

Russia’s increasing pace of modernization and rapid urbanization made its cultural life complex and multilayered in the late imperial era. Before launching into specific elements of that culture, I will first present a chapter introducing the contours of the Empire’s performing arts community. My hope is that it will familiarize the reader with the development of the institutions and values that governed Russia’s theaters, cultural organizations, educational establishments, financial structures, professional codes, and government authorities and how they were functioning and evolving in the last decades of the tsarist era. In the process of laying out these institutional dimensions, the reader will be introduced to many of the people who controlled, shaped, interacted with, and depended on them.

Chapter 2 will seek to explain how these institutions fared amid political turbulence, especially that of the troubled period between the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. This chapter will attempt to present the problems and challenges they faced and describe their reactions to both individual instances of major national unrest and developments during the revolutionary period as a whole. I am interested in whether unprecedented political events forced them to alter their functions and structures. As I hope to demonstrate, turbulence created major concerns among impresarios and other arts administrators, who saw their audiences dwindle and suffered financially as a result. Government authorities exercising power over culture also betrayed a heightened sensitivity to political events. But unexpectedly, political challenges appear to have lessened rather than strengthened the degree of control that they could or were willing to exercise.

Chapters 3 and 4 will depart from institutional matters to present the people who do the most to bring the performing arts to life in any society: the performers. Although there was an appreciable movement of personnel between the imperial stages and the Empire’s private and popular theaters, I felt it best to look at each group separately. As state employees, the imperial stage performers discussed in Chapter 3 not only lived noticeably different and usually more prosperous lives than their privately employed colleagues but also had to address issues of state and institutional loyalty from which private and popular stage performers were free in all but the most notional sense. One actor publicly likened the difference between imperial and nonimperial artists to the distinction between two “castes.” With few exceptions, virtually all imperial stage performers remained satisfied with the status quo and resisted the politicization of their work, even after 1917.

Chapter 4 focuses on the problems and concerns of private and popular stage performers. Among these issues were the challenges of professional development, a process that most artists hoped would result in greater economic security and improved material conditions. Did they use their art and professional consciousness to promote social change, radical and reformist ideas, or a politicized civic mind? Or did they stay on the sidelines to tend to their own affairs and interests? My work will suggest that just as was the case with their colleagues on the imperial stage, politicizing their profession usually repelled rather than attracted them. Their public activities and concerns generally remained confined to securing stable working conditions and improvements in their professional circumstances.

Chapter 5 crosses the proscenium to the audiences. After a discussion of who went to the theater and why—itself a nuanced and illuminating subject for students of Late Imperial Russia—this chapter will examine how they responded to politics and its intrusion into a sphere that they identified primarily with entertainment. I am interested in learning the extent to which theater attendance translated into social and political awareness. Did repertoire selections and artistic content shape, highlight, or intensify the theatergoing public’s engagement in political life? What role did pure diversion play in audience choices and tastes? How did audiences react when confronted with politicized messages on and off the stage? I hope to demonstrate that audiences also proved reluctant to identify entertainment with revolution and, despite a few tense moments, resisted or ignored attempts to politicize the Empire’s stages.

Chapter 6 will move beyond the more tangible features of the performing arts to examine the relationship between politics and emerging theoretical concepts. This chapter will attempt to determine whether politics played a significant role in the development of Russia’s avant-garde or whether the avant-garde possessed its own momentum independent of political life. The balance of my research suggests that new aesthetic concepts developed out of sync with patterns and modalities of political unrest. Typically and, I believe, revealingly, these developments failed to resonate with great critical or popular success in Russia’s ever more commercialized and consumerized entertainment milieu. Radical cultural innovation does not appear to have been an especially prominent catalyst or result of radical politics.

A final chapter will summarize the results of these inquiries and seek to interpret their meanings for the relationship between culture and power in the Russian experience. To add perspective, I intend to explore how developments in Imperial Russia’s performing arts culture were carried forward (or, perhaps more appropriately, left behind) after 1917 and how they are being remembered (or, perhaps more appropriately, relived) in Russia today. The evolution of the performing arts in an earlier time may well contribute to our understanding of Russia’s ongoing quest for a viable civil society and to contemporary debates about the relationship between culture and power in Russia and elsewhere.

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