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Prominent Russians: Evgeny Vakhtangov

February 1, 1883 – May 29, 1922
Ebgeny Vakhtangov Evgeny Vakhtangov

Evgeny Vakhtangov was a renowned Russian theatrical director who fathered an absolutely new theater trend in Russia and founded the celebrated Vakhtangov Theater located in the very heart of Moscow. 

Early years

Evgeny was born on February 1st in the city of Vladikavkaz in the Caucasus to a Russian-Armenian merchant family. His father, Bagration, was a prominent tobacco manufacturer and hoped his son would help run the family business. Bagration was extremely strict and occasionally rude and even cruel to his son; Evgeny was brought up in an atmosphere of fear and austerity.

While still a schoolboy, Vakhtangov took an interest in theater. This interest grew into a true passion and Evgeny made up his mind to dedicate his entire life to it. Although Bagration was set against his son’s immersion, Vakhtangov Junior spent much time rehearsing and participating in different plays that were staged in various Vladikavkaz theaters.

After finishing the gymnasium, Evgeny began his studies at the Moscow State University in the department of Physics and Mathematics and very soon he joined the University theatrical coterie. But the studies at the department, unlike the coterie, were not of much interest to Vakhtangov, so in a year’s time he transferred to the law department, trying his luck in a different field. 

During his second year at the university Evgeny started his career as a director having staged a wonderful students’ performance called “Pedagogues”. The play’s first night took place on January 12, 1905 and was a great success. All the money the young men managed to collect was donated to the poor.

Marriage and severance with father

The already lacking and cold relationship between Evgeny and his father ended for good after Evgeny married his school girlfriend Nadezhda Botsurova, who Bagration seemed to hate biliously.

Evgeny Vakhtangov Evgeny Vakhtangov

When the couple’s son Sergey was born soon after, Bagration became truly furious. He wouldn’t speak to his son and refused to see his grandson. He regretted giving his son a good education and decided the best and only thing he could do was to cut Evgeny off without a penny, which he did without the slightest compunction. The marriage was the defeat of all Bagration’s hopes and plans, as he had dreamed of marrying his son to the daughter of his friend, a well-known millionaire at the time.

During his studentship Evgeny used to come to his native Vladikavkaz from Moscow and tried to set up his own theater there. There were not too many buildings available for rent in Vladikavkaz, so the young Vakhtangov had hoped his father’s factory could house his theater. 

In 1904 and 1905, young Evgeny took part in illegal political meetings organized by youth groups. The young men gathered at factories and plants together with revolutionaries and spread proclamations and leaflets. On the day of the December uprising in 1905, Vakhtangov was one of the many that barricaded Moscow side streets and helped the wounded to the best of his ability.

In the summer of 1909, Vakhtangov was appointed head of the Vladikavkaz drama studio, where he staged several well-known plays, among which were Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and “At the Gate of the Kingdom” by Knut Hamsun. This soured the relations between Evgeny and his father even more, if that was possible – Bagration foamed at the mouth when he saw advertisements with his surname being posted throughout the city – he was sure performing was the least fitting trade for a man; besides, it caused much damage to the reputation of his factory.

Evgeny decided to spend the next summer of 1910 in Vladikavkaz, where he arrived accompanied by his wife and son. This time Evgeny staged a musical comedy that was a success both in Vladikavkaz and in Grozny.

Theater had always played a major role in Evgeny’s life, but it also managed to set him and his loved ones apart. Not only did his father refuse to speak to Evgeny, but his wife Nadezhda believed her husband spent far too much time at the theater. The couple even separated several times and lived apart. Vakhtangov seemed to understand his wife had a point but couldn’t overcome himself. In one of his letters to Nadezhda, he wrote, “You won’t be happy without me just as I won’t be happy without you. We are so wonderfully in love, but do so many stupid things and I know I’ve spoiled so much… Let’s make a fresh start! Help me, Nadya, support me! Without you I’m nothing! I’ve only just understood: now that we’ve found each other we can’t separate. I love you. Your Zhenya…”

Soon after Vakhtangov transferred to the law department, he left it just as he left the mathematical one and entered the Adashev Drama School in Moscow, which he successfully finished in 1911. Upon graduation, Evgeny immediately joined the Moscow Art Theater.

The famous Stanislavsky

Вахтангов в роли Крафта, 1914 Вахтангов в роли Крафта, 1914

While working at the studio, Vakhtangov staged a few chamber performances - apart from being the director he also played in some of them himself. And though the public loved the performances, Evgeny was in constant search of new methods to portray the psychological state of the characters. With time, Vakhtangov strayed from the Stanislavsky method, as he got carried away by the ideas of Vsevolod Meyerhold, but this new passion wasn’t long-lasting, as it dawned on Evgeny he could develop new techniques of his own that would not resemble those already in existence. He gave his new technique a special name – ‘fantastical realism’. And based on this new ‘fantastical realism’ he created a new theater theory.

Fantastical realism

Just like Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov believed that the actor is the most important and precious element of any theater performance. But Evgeny also believed it was important that the essence of theater should be ‘theatrical’, much like another of his contemporary innovators from the Moscow Art Theater, Vsevolod Meyerhold.  Thus, Vakhtangov was able to create a world onstage where fantastic, magical, and fairy-tale events could occur (abandoning Stanislavsky’s naturalistic realism), but preserved the actors realistic psychological reaction to those events, therefore preserving Stanislavsky’s psychological acting breakthroughs. Vakhtangov started staging plays employing his signature techniques, which many theater practitioners and historians worldwide (including Bertolt Brecht) consider to be the ultimate and perfect synthesis of the opposing schools of Stanislavsky’s realism and Meyerhold’s theatricality. 

Originally, Evgeny didn’t pay much attention to set design, which was as a rule very simple and consisted of plain, common things and household items. With the help of proper lights and carefully arranged drapes, these common items managed to create the necessary impression on the audience, who could see magic castles, the sunlit meadows and imaginary cities as plainly as if the scenery were real. One wonderful example of such a performance was “Princess Turnadot” – one of Vakhtangov’s favorites.

Vakhtangov wanted to change the costumes as well, and in order to emphasize the convention of what was going on the stage, the actors dressed up in full view of the audience, thus turning from ordinary people into characters in a play in front of everyone. Vakhtangov illustrated for the first time the borderlines and boundaries of the magical change from actor to character for his public. And Vakhtangov, who was a rabid revolutionary, believed that his new manner of playing met the needs of the times, as the revolution also served as a certain borderline between the old and the new.

One Red Army commanding officer wrote in a letter home after seeing “Princess Turandot”: “I’ve just seen the performance and I’m absolutely happy! Life is wonderful and full of amazement! Long live the Soviet government!”

The “public” theater

Soon after beginning his studies at the Moscow Art Theater, Vakhtangov was noticed by Konstantin Stanislavsky – the legendary Russian theater innovator, who co-founded the Moscow Art Theater and promoted theories of realistic, psychological acting which discarded the seemingly artificial conventions of the past. He not only admitted the young man possessed a remarkable talent, but asked him to conduct classes in acting technique based on his new approach in one of the Art Theater’s studios. And it was then that Vakhtangov’s real talent was drawn out.

Театр Вахтангова (Photo from http://www.vakhtangov.ru) Театр Вахтангова (Photo from http://www.vakhtangov.ru)

After the October Revolution of 1917, Vakhtangov worked much and spent many hours at the theater despite a torturous gastric ulcer. In 1919 when the pain became almost intolerable, Vakhtangov had two operations in a row. The operations gave him relief, but the doctors kept the real diagnosis quiet – Evgeny Vakhtangov had stomach cancer.

During the last three years of his life after the operation, Vakhtangov was constantly living interchangeably through periods of terrible pain and remission. It was then that he had made up his mind to create an absolutely new type of theater in Russia – a “public theater” as he called it. He was on his feet all day long despite a clear ban from the doctors: the rehearsals took place in three different studios. Vakhtangov recollected the busy time in his diary, writing “I have to cope with everything even though I am deathly sick, and I can’t, I don’t have the right to abandon a single thing. I ought to give everything I have while there’s still time”.

Just a year before his tragic death, Evgeny founded the third Moscow Art Theater studio, later renamed into the State Vakhtangov Theater.

At the very beginning of 1921, rehearsals at the third Moscow Art Theater studio were terminated for some time. Vakhtangov still dedicated all his time to the theater where he was finalizing his work on the performance of “The Dybbuk”.

When “The Dybbuk” was finished and ready to be premiered, Vakhtangov took a ten day leave and went to a health resort, but the forced holiday didn’t bring any relief for the director – he returned to work even weaker and more tired than before. But despite his worsening health and illness, Evgeny continued to work in the theater. The actors, who were seriously concerned about Vakhtangov’s health, decided to summon a council of physicians, and the doctors’ verdict was far from being optimistic – there were only a few days left for the celebrated director. In order not to create panic, it was decided not to tell Vakhtangov anything, and thus the work resumed its natural course. But it seemed that the director knew all too well he was dying and was trying hard to finish everything that was still unfinished.

In 1921 Vakhtangov staged a play entitled “The Miracle of Saint Antonius”, in which he managed to make his innovative ideas fly. The performance was a wonderfully visual sight, in which both the actors and the director presented a united and seamless group. The director made use of masks, music, dance, and boldly abstract costume and stage design in the pursuit of a theater that would offer the popular audience dreams, fantasy, and satire rather than a mirror of itself. His departure from naturalism in the direction of greater theatricality gave rise to some of the most original productions of the Russian post-Revolutionary theater.

“Princess Turandot”

The last year of Vakhtangov’s life was marked by a new performance the director had long wanted to stage – “Princess Turandot”. The performance, apart from being Vakhtangov’s dream, also presented a new style in theatrical stage direction. With the help of the marvelous mask-characters and the commedia dell’arte techniques of Italian comedy, Vakhtangov managed to fill the fairytale with current everyday problems and burning issues.

Everything post-revolution Russia was going through at the time was discussed on the stage by the actors – they argued, disputed, agreed or disagreed with each other. Thus, they not only voiced their lines but also described people and their affairs, sometimes very ironically, harshly and even mockingly.

Late at night on February 23, 1922 Vakhtangov held his last rehearsal. When the rehearsal began, Vakhtangov already felt sick – he was running a temperature, was wearing a fur coat and had a wet towel pressed to his forehead. When Evgeny returned home after the rehearsal was over, he lied down and never got up again.

Gravestone of Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow Gravestone of Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

After Konstantin Stanislavsky saw one of the first ever rehearsals of “Princess Turandot”, he told his talented pupil he had quite a lot to be proud of and could “fall asleep knowing he had won”.

On May 29, Vakhtangov’s wife called the studio and asked all the actors to quickly come to the director. Evgeny Vakhtangov was dying – he was fainting every now and then, talking deliriously and waiting for Leo Tolstoy to visit him. Then in a minute he would fantasize he was a professional politician and would give his pupils various instructions. Then he would again ask questions about art and his rehearsals.

When Evgeny Vakhtangov died, he was surrounded by his dearest students. Seconds before his last breath he finally recovered his senses and said very calmly and quietly “Goodbye, then”.

“Princess Turandot” was Vakhtangov’s last work, and he died just a few weeks before the opening night and the overwhelming success of the work of his life.

The chief American exponent of Stanislavsky’s method Lee Strasberg was quoted as saying, "If you examine the work of the Stanislavsky method as made use of by Stanislavsky, you see one result. If you examine it in the work of one of his great pupils, Vakhtangov — who influenced our thinking and activity — you will see a completely different result. Vakhtangov's work was skillfully done, his use of the Method even more brilliant and more imaginative than Stanislavsky’s, and yet Vakhtangov achieved totally different results."

Written by Gayane Chichakyan and Anna Yudina, RT

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