Princeton's «Boris Godunov», 1936/2007

Caryl Emerson


     On April 12, 2007, after half-a-year of intense collaboration between Mu­sic, Slavic, Theater and Dance, and the School of Architecture, the Berlind Theater at Princeton University “premiered a concept.” The communica­tions and publicity staff of the university, which prefers to work with clear-cut snappy labels for things, initially found this idea difficult to grasp. Qualifying it as a “premiere” was the fact that the dramatic text was Pushkin’s uncut, uncensored original 1825 version of Boris Godunov (all twenty-five scenes), rehearsed (incompletely) by Vsevolod Meyerhold, with music that Sergei Prokofiev wrote in 1936 specifically for this play but which had never been heard in its proper context. The Princeton pro­duction was still a “concept,” however, and not a revival or a historic resto­ration, because like so much else prepared for the Pushkin Death Centen­nial of 1937, this musicalized play never got to opening night. It remained a partially rehearsed torso. This Pushkin Review forum hopes to capture some of the excitement of Princeton’s creative-restorative project, which Simon Morrison (a professor of Music and Princeton’s Prokofiev scholar) and I co-managed for much of 2006–07. For me it was the culmination of thirty years’ thinking about Pushkin’s play, topped by that unprecedented dream come true: seeing and hearing the whole play live, and alive, in more dimensions than Pushkin could have ever dreamed of on stage.

     First, some background to the original collaboration. In the spring of 1936, Meyerhold accepted a commission to produce Boris Godunov for the Pushkin Jubilee. He persuaded an initially reluctant Prokofiev, just repa­triated to Moscow from Paris, to provide a score. Twenty-four pieces of music were eventually composed, the acting company did extensive table­work, and Meyerhold passionately—even obsessively—rehearsed half-a-dozen scenes. This was the director’s third attempt to put Pushkin’s drama on stage. The first was a studio workshop in set design in 1918–19, from which provocative sketches survive; the second was the Vakhtangov Theater in 1924–25, from which several memoirs survive. By 1936, Meyerhold’s excitement was at fever pitch: at last he could provide prac­tical evidence that “Pushkin was not only a remarkable dramatist but also a dramatist-director and the initiator of a new dramatic system.”[1] But by May 1937 the Boris rehearsals had dwindled to nothing and the production was abandoned. On December 17 of that year, Kerzhentsev’s article “An Alien Theater” (“Chuzhoi teatr”) appeared in Pravda, denouncing Meyerhold’s repertory as “presenting classic plays in a crooked formalist mirror.”[2] In early January 1938 the Meyerhold Theater was closed, construction on his new building near Mayakovsky Square was halted, and although the director’s career temporarily stabilized and even rallied, the rest is part of the familiar chronicle of the Terror consuming its greatest talent. On June 20, 1939, Meyerhold was arrested on charges of Trotskyite espionage with British and Japanese intelligence. After torture and forced confession (followed by a recantation of the con­fession), he was executed by firing squad on February 1, 1940. Prokofiev left no record of his response to this loss of his collaborator and did not refer to Meyerhold again in his diaries.

     Prokofiev had accepted three large-scale orchestral commissions for the Pushkin Jubilee: incidental music for a stage adaptation, by Sigiz­mund Krzhizhanovsky, of Evgenii Onegin for Tairov’s Moscow Chamber Theater; the score for a filmed version of The Queen of Spades, to be di­rected by Mikhail Romm; and this commission for Meyerhold’s staging of Boris Godunov. Prokofiev also composed three Pushkin Romances, and he briefly considered setting Mozart and Salieri. Neither the theatrical pro­ductions nor the film were ever realized, apparently for reasons unrelated to the music. Tairov, Romm, and Meyerhold were censured for creative transgressions of a more general sort during this increasingly cautious year, and these three experimental projects unraveled.

     The surviving rehearsal transcripts of the abandoned Boris suggest that Meyerhold wanted the acting to be energetic, with overlapping scenes and minimal barriers between auditorium and stage. The play would be saturated with music, both of the “diegetic” sort (music heard inside the story space) and a more flexible “mood music” illustrating thoughts or fan­tasies. One of Prokofiev’s major anxieties throughout his work on the Jubi­lee scores was to avoid the sound of the canonized “operatic Pushkin” (Mu­sorgsky for Boris Godunov, Chaikovsky for Evgenii Onegin). Prokofiev’s practice was to compose discrete musical modules that could be repeated and recombined at the director’s discretion. In November 1936, the com­poser completed a piano score that contained drunken singing, ballroom dancing (a polonaise and mazurka), a reverie, and an amoroso in the style of film music. These vibrant and gaudy show pieces were punctuated by two laments (one for Ksenia, another for the Holy Fool—both to Pushkin’s words), a sing-along for blind beggars, three behind-the-scenes choruses, and four songs of loneliness. Russia, musically, is an a capella place; people hum or moan rather than sing to elaborate orchestral accompani­ment. The battle music for scene 17 is a musical equivalent of the maca­ronic mix of three languages in Pushkin’s text, a percussive clash of three differently tuned ensembles: one for Boris’s “Asiatic” troops and one for the Pretender’s Polish/“Western” forces, both interrupted by German mer­cenaries. In the Berlind Theater, these local brass bands were stationed in different parts of the hall.

     A challenge to the collaborators was to achieve the effect of narod bezmolvstvuet at the end, for Meyerhold was keen to attach this canonized 1830 stage direction to the full 1825 play. A hummed male chorus repre­senting the dark, menacing rumble of the crowd would swell throughout the final scenes “like the roar of the sea”—and then subside. In contrast to the bleakly a capella vocal texture of Russia (often threatening, usually lonely), musical Poland was all lyrical melody and luxurious, Hollywood-style orchestration. By May 1937, when rehearsals petered out, the score was not complete. Meyerhold had wanted Prokofiev to compose two more passages, one for the Pretender’s restless dreams (scene 6, “By the Monas­tery Wall. The Evil Monk,” was to be set as Grigory’s dream on the road), the other for the fortune-tellers who noisily besiege Boris with drums, sticks, bongos and rattles during his famous monologue in scene 8. These pieces were never composed. After the project collapsed, the composer re­cycled the extant Boris music into other works: part of the Battle music went into his opera Semyon Kotko, a portion of the Polish dances into his ballet Cinderella and the opening scene of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II, where the traitor Kurbsky is entertained at the decadent Polish court. The vocal and choral music, among the most terrifying ever com­posed for historical drama, fell away. These bits of recycled music took on the “programs” of the new contexts into which they entered, and their association with Pushkin’s play was lost. For the purposes of our restora­tion, this was unfortunate. For unlike the practice of the more “biome­chanical” Meyerhold of the 1920s, for whom palpable material (props, stage scenery and machinery, costumes, make-up) carried the concept, by the time Boris was abandoned, very few sets had been designed. There is some indication that Meyerhold was treating Prokofiev’s music as a “set,” that is, as a sort of aural scaffolding. The score provided the constraints, the cues for actors’ expressive gestures, the pacing, and in the musicalized scenes, even a psychological transcript of the characters’ inner emotions. The residue of this Centennial project consists largely of the music and the words. The project remained in that fragmented, illusory state until 2007.

     The Princeton decision to take up this “torso” and complete it was made possible by three fortuitously timed events. First was Simon Morri­son’s recovery of documents relating to the musical and dramatic struc­ture of the Meyerhold production. They are scattered throughout various archival holdings in Moscow: the manuscript of the piano score and Mey­erhold’s detailed instructions for fitting that score into Pushkin’s play in RGALI (the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art), the orchestra­tion in the Central State Glinka Museum of Musical Culture. Since the 1984 published edition of the Prokofiev Boris Godunov music is flawed and could not have been used as the basis for a production, these recov­eries were indispensable. Then a new acting English translation of Boris Godunov, by Antony Wood, appeared in 2006. (The Princeton performance was in English, with sung texts performed in Russian. But the director eventually combined several translations—including an even more recent one by James Falen—and adjusted all lines to the American stage and the comfort zone of our undergraduate actors.) Finally, a Creative and Per­forming Arts Initiative had recently been announced by the University in the wake of a huge gift marked for that purpose, and the Boris venture turned out to be an excellent flagship. No one dreamed that an amateur undergraduate student production at a liberal-arts institution without a drama school (indeed, without a dramatic arts major) would catch the attention of the national, and then the world, press.

     Only gradually did I learn that staging a complex piece like this at a university offered a director advantages and resources that few commer­cial theaters could afford today. “Courses for credit” could educate the par­ticipants over several months. The University Orchestra and Glee Club programmed Prokofiev’s orchestral and choral music into their concert repertory for the year. The final design, evolved over five months in a graduate seminar sponsored by the School of Architecture, was thoroughly modernist, complementing Meyerhold’s idea that “music was the set” by turning the stage space literally into a pluckable musical instrument, one that could be set into motion by the tremors and anxieties of the cast. It consisted of 150 movable pieces of surgical tubing (informally called “bun­gees”) fastened vertically in 25-foot-long strips from floor to ceiling and fitted into five parallel tracks in the stage floor. This tubing could be stretched taut, bunched up, snapped, whacked with a rod, coiled like a noose, and swung on like a swing to express a variety of emotions and pressures externally, in keeping with Meyerhold’s “gestural” theater. (See Figure 1. Scene 8, “The Tsar’s Palace”).

     This generic “bungee” set, lit up in brilliant reds and blues, was sup­plemented with minimal standardized props (a table, throne, chairs, gob­lets, weapons), all looking vaguely and sinisterly industrial: a throne that resembled a gallows, weapons of wood and metal combining a sleazy nightclub with a torture chamber. Clothing was layered. Catherine Cann, Princeton’s costume designer, created a standard company outfit derived from the blocked colors and boxy shape of a Malevich figure, over which “special effects” were draped: the tsar’s brocaded robe, a mourning gown for the tsarevna, a cassock for the monks, Prussian-style khaki for the tsar’s commanders. Dmitry the Pretender, hailing from Poland, strutted about in an anachronistic red and blue military uniform with gold epaulettes; the orchestra, stacked in tiers at stage rear for the Polish scenes, wore pink and blue wigs. The 8-person dance troupe performed the polonaise and mazurka in muslin and silk. Every member of the company played several roles, except Dmitry: since he could pretend to anything, he could only be himself. (Figure 2. Scene 14, Polonaise; Figure 3. Scene 14, Mazurka)

     Among the thirteen undergraduates who made up the acting company and filled Pushkin’s sixty-odd roles, a wide range of acting styles was practiced. Our choreographer, Rebecca Lazier, put the cast through Laban exercises as part of their daily rehearsal routine. But the on-stage behav­ior of each actor varied, from Stanislavskian-style earnestness to high sty­lization. This mix of styles was not inappropriate, since Meyerhold himself had long since abandoned strict biomechanical calculations in his stage work. After his own theater was closed, in a courageous gesture, his for­mer mentor and theoretical opponent Stanislavsky appointed him director of the Stanislavsky Opera Theater, a post he held until his arrest.

     Our acting company was academically credited as a seminar, meeting together once a week (in addition to hundreds of part rehearsals) for table work, background lectures, and collective physical exercises. Other courses dealing with Russian history, Pushkin’s drama, and Prokofiev’s music were open to all undergraduates. “Testimonials” from these courses make up the essays that follow. The University Library mounted an ex­hibit featuring Pushkin, Meyerhold, and Prokofiev, and a six-week course for alumni was offered on-line. Finally, the University hosted two schol­arly symposia, one in English for the general public and one in Russian for our invited guests from Moscow.

     This cluster of essays represents a sampling of the work that went into, and came out of, the Boris project from the Russians and Americans who worked to bring it about. Overall, we were amazed that so much translated in the performance. Who would have thought that “Shuisky” or “Uglich” would be words bandied about in undergraduate dorms? To be sure, the Russians in the audience had their reservations, both the émi­grés and the reporting teams from Moscow (there were many of both, especially after the New York Times previewed the production). The non-traditional casting especially caught their eye. “A young negro woman in the role of the boyar Vorotynsky: that’s the first thing the Russian specta­tor notices about Pushkin’s Comedy about Tsar Boris and Grishka Otrepiev,” was how Channel One Moscow (Pervyi kanal) opened its news clip on April 13. “The Patriarch here is also played by a young woman.” Vladimir Rogachev, New York correspondent for Echo of the Planet (Ekho planety), wrote in his review of May 10, 2007: “Of course, to the Russian ear the ‘music’ of Pushkin’s speech sounded quite unusual in English.… It was remarkable to see the image of the chronicler Pimen and to hear the famous phrase ‘One more, one final tale…’ performed by an Afro-American, and to behold with one’s own eyes how in the suite of the Rus­sian tsar there appeared representatives of the African continent. In Alex­ander Sergeevich’s veins there flowed African blood, of course, but he too could not have imagined that his Boris Godunov would ever be mounted in so distant and mysterious a place as America was at that time.”

     In the longer Russian reviews one could sense some cultural territori­ality. Elena Klepikova in Russian Bazaar (Russkii bazar), no. 17 (575) 26 April–2 May 2007, made special note of the fact that the “bungees” were originally a Russian idea. “Since Meyerhold often worked with architects,” she noted, “the Princeton School of Architecture was given the job of de­signing the set for the production. Elastic tubing was stretched across the entire stage, from floor to ceiling. This tubing could represent trees in a forest; it could be stretched taut and then abruptly released, like bows and arrows in the battle scene. Astonishingly flexible, it could be wound around a person who at that moment was experiencing rage or despair.… It’s worth mentioning that even this all-important tubing was not an in­vention of the Americans, but taken from Meyerhold’s own vast artistic workshop. Here’s how Victor Shklovsky describes the set design in one of Meyerhold’s early stage sets: ‘The footlights were removed. The gaping ex­panse of the stage is stripped bare. On the stage a counter-relief with downward-hanging stretched tubing, with bent iron’.…” (Figure 4. Scene 5, “A Cell in Chudov Monastery”) 

     Off camera and out of print, one of the nicest compliments we received came from the head of the Russian television crew. He noted—part wist­fully, part proudly—that “Pushkin had sold out in New Jersey.” Indeed he had.


Princeton University

[1] In this same note from 1936, Meyerhold advised his company to “always start your day by reading some Pushkin, even if only two or three brief pages.” See Aleksandr Gladkov, Meyerhold Speaks, Meyerhold Rehearses, trans. and ed. Alma Law (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997), 141.

[2] “Khronika strashnykh dnei: ‘Chuzhoi teatr’ (17 dekabria 1937),” in Ar´ye Elkana, Meierkhol´d (Tel Aviv, 1991): 366–70, esp. 367.