Princeton's «Boris Godunov», 1936/2007

Afterword: The Fate of the Jubilee Pushkin on the Stalinist Musical-Dramatic Stage

 Caryl Emerson

 

     Early in the Boris Godunov seminar, Leeore Schnairsohn (a second-year graduate student in Comparative Literature) commented in one of his cri­tiques on the openness or “eternal present” implied in Pushkin’s famous final stage direction, narod bezmolvstvuet. He had been struck by the am­bivalence, or better multi-valence, of that silence. An aggressive prompt to cheer the new tsar had elicited no response. But perhaps that silence was the response: “the absence of a positive gesture leaves open the question not only of whether the people’s silence is action or inaction, but also whether their gesture is fulfilled or still nascent.” Schnairsohn took Belin­sky’s reading of Pushkin’s mute closing gesture one step further, suggest­ing that one effect of such a sudden stoppage or bewildered silence is to “bring the audience’s present moment in line with the drama’s, because bezmolvstvovat´ is precisely what the audience has been doing all along, and now suddenly it’s the same silence, the same moment, on both sides of the curtain.”

     In the final moments of the Princeton production, after the successful double murder high up on the scaffolding, this radical equalization of on- and off-stage audiences was achieved by turning the glare of searchlights directly into the hall from the back of the blood-red, bungee-filled stage. It was a Meyerholdian moment — although not, of course, unique to his modernist theater. From today’s perspective, our knowledge of post-1936 events in Stalinist Russia lends this indictment a meaning it could not have had in its own time. Throughout the final public-square scenes, be­ginning with the ominous, wordless rhythmic chanting of the male chorus and reinforced by a pulsating orchestra, horror had been growing apace with powerlessness. When Tsar Boris, already two scenes dead, reappears in company costume as a bullying Guard on the Pretender’s side, history begins to blend with symbols of arbitrary, interchangeable violence. And when Lily the Holy Fool reappears as a beggar asking the imprisoned Godunov children for alms, the logic behind these twenty-five scenes of multiple casting is driven home: the Boris Tale, like all reality in Push­kin’s poetic shaping of it, deals in functions and parallel structures as much as in human beings. People are precise and unrepeatable as them­selves; they believe they are free. But their fate moves only one way and the cumulative effect of their movements will reveal a magnificent pat­tern. Part of the shock of Pushkin’s abrupt, non-sentimental endings—Book Eight of Evgenii Onegin as well as the final scene of Boris Godu­nov—is that the author simply “takes his leave” once the symmetry has been realized. He walks away, with the benumbed heroes, readers, and spectators on their knees and in the spotlight. They must do something: but what?

     For a long half-minute, the audience endured discomfort under that scorching light and the company remained frozen on stage (the 1830 end­ing). Then the play delivered its authentic, original 1825 end: rhythmic clapping on stage and an ever louder, more strident “Long Live Tsar Dmitry Ivanovich!” In some of our performances, the audience joined in, clapping and chanting; in others, the hall continued silently to “watch.” The Guard who was also Tsar Boris initiated the cheer. A total blackout put an end to it. What was the mood of that crowd in 1605, looking toward the Kremlin? Cynical and opportunistic? Manipulated and naively opti­mistic? Genuinely optimistic that once the traitors and pretenders were purged, Russia would recover her former glory? From our present-day perspective, similarities between the texture of this power-savvy, sym­metrical 1825 ending and the black comedy of 1936–37 are easy to see.

     The mortality rate of the Pushkin Jubilee projects was high. Only recently, however, have the finer details of those lethal years begun to emerge. One piece fell in place during the keynote address that opened the scholarly symposium on the day of the Boris premiere, April 12, delivered by the Canadian-Russian scholar Leonid Maximenkov and titled “Meyer­hold and his World (1929–1940).” One might have expected a tribute to the great director’s innovations in the sphere of theater, cinema, and dance—but Maximenkov took those accomplishments for granted. Also routine would have been some commentary on Meyerhold as an angry closet dissident—the director who, during rehearsals of scene 10, “Shui­sky’s House,” had dangerously improvised on Afanasy Pushkin’s speech on the tyranny of Tsar Boris, or who had instructed Prokofiev to provide music for the final chorus that was “anxious, threatening,” but that never­theless made it clear “this undisciplined crowd would solidify, consolidate itself, and fight against its oppressors, whoever they may be.”[1] Maximen­kov did not repeat the martyrology of Meyerhold’s tragic Stalinist-era fate, however. He debunked that legend. Relying on hitherto unseen video footage gathered from Moscow film holdings and previously classified documents from Moscow government archives, Maximenkov, in less than an hour, rewrote fifty years of research on the most important figure in twentieth-century Soviet theater culture. Document by document, he re­vealed that Meyerhold, an ethnic German, perished by firing squad in 1940 not because he was a Kremlin outsider, persecuted by party hacks in the Stalinist cultural apparatus, but because he was the ultimate Kremlin insider, an intimate in the halls of power, with advance knowledge of Stal­in’s rapprochement with Hitler on the eve of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The signing of that duplicitous pact enabled the Second World War, and those who knew too much of its prehistory were on some pretext put away. With a sinking heart one realizes that such a discovery would not have surprised Pushkin.

     Stalin appointed Meyerhold a member of the All-Union Pushkin Com­mittee, whose task it was to supervise the artistic, political, and pedagogi­cal content of the Jubilee. Priorities changed by the month. In December 1935, a newly-expanded Committee resolved that the focus be changed from “Pushkin, victim of tsarism” to a more optimistic message that stressed poetry, the Russian language, and a radiant future for Russian culture. Academic Pushkinists were brought in to dilute the Party bureau­crats and watchdogs. But the rising tide of arrests, international tensions, and a cautious, better-safe-than-sorry mentality registered on this Jubilee as on every other state project. By the summer of 1936, most of the cre­ative commissions had been cancelled or had faded away, including the Prokofiev collaborations over Boris Godunov and Evgenii Onegin. The Pushkin Commission spent its time debating monuments, exhibitions, commemorative plaques, postage stamps, the size of publication runs, book distribution to schools and libraries, the renaming of streets, fac­tories, and farms in Pushkin’s honor, and even the possible transfer of Pushkin’s sacred remains to Moscow.[2] Maximenkov has uncovered the astonishing fact that during February 1937, the actual centennial of the duel and death when creative activity should have been at its peak, liter­ally nothing on or by Pushkin was being performed in any Moscow the­ater. Pushkin bezmolvstvuet. Is “the gesture fulfilled, or still nascent?” This blank spot imposed an obligation on the future.

     Our attempt at Princeton to acquaint twenty-first-century college students with the challenges of the collapsed Stalin-era Boris Godunov was one response to this obligation. But to the delight of its collaborators, Princeton’s Boris turned out to be the beginning, not the end, of Pushkin Jubilee resuscitations. I close on a mention of one project-in-the-making, a mounting of the Pushkin-Krzhizhanovsky Evgenii Onegin, reunited with Prokofiev’s music, and scheduled for its premiere at Princeton in 2010–11.[3] Although the cancelled Onegin and the abandoned Boris share certain traits (most importantly, music by Prokofiev), the collaborative Onegin was more thoroughly lost. Before it reached rehearsal stage at Tairov’s Moscow Chamber Theater, the playscript was subject to intense criticism from the Pushkin Commission and State Repertory committees; once can­celed (December 3, 1936), the project disappeared, both from domestic memory and from surveys of Soviet-era drama. Reasons for this silence are several. Tairov’s Kamernyi Teatr has not enjoyed the fame and schol­arly attention of Meyerhold’s. The ethnically Polish, Ukrainian-born Rus­sophone prosewriter-playwright who adapted Pushkin’s novel-in-verse for the stage, Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950), was only marginally visible during his life and died in obscurity. (His other­worldly stories boomed in the mid-1990s and are now available on a fine Russian website and increasingly in translation.) Finally, the only edition we have of Prokofiev’s Onegin music (1973) was prepared for print by Elizaveta Dattel´, a cautious, and at the same time careless editor, who disapproved of Krzhizhanovsky’s treatment of Pushkin and unceremoni­ously removed him from the credits, even though Prokofiev had written all his music directly in response to this play.

     True, the treatment was astonishing. Its brilliance and cohesion could only have dismayed the academic purists (among Pushkin Commission members, it appears that only Sergei Bondi and V. V. Veresaev were in­trigued by it.) Krzhizhanovsky and his director Tairov wanted a real play, so their first step was to eliminate Pushkin’s narrator. But conversation still takes place on stage in chunks of the Onegin stanza, although (of course) spliced and cut to satisfy the time constraints of an evening’s per­formance. There is no paraphrasing of Pushkin. Thus this adaptation, although intermittently scored for orchestra and voices, bore no resem­blance to Chaikovsky’s operatic Evgenii Onegin. The music is still “inci­dental” (in Prokofiev’s magnificent expansion of that genre); the feel of the verbal playtext is still “Pushkin spoken aloud.” The fourteen episodes, here labeled “fragments,” are choreographed for the stage through detailed, impressionistic stage directions recalling Chekhov’s drama (Krzhizhanovsky, a theorist of theater, left excellent essays on the stage direction as a literary form and on the art of Pushkin’s epigraphs). In the adaptation, Tatiana Larina, pried free of her protective Narrator, under­goes a marvelous transformation as Krzhizhanovsky interpolates into the play other works by Pushkin: the skazka “O mertvoi tsarevne i o semi bogatyrekh,” early Lyceum poetry, some elegiac lyrics and satiric epigram­matic verse. Folklore and superstition there is in abundance, but it is closer to the cosmic, pagan sort than to the cheerful socialist-realist worker-peasants celebrated by Maxim Gorky in the mid-1930s. All major activity happens in winter, which is for this playwright the most genera­tive season of the year, linked everywhere with fidelity and fate. Tatiana’s cautionary tale and inspiration is Snegurochka rather than Snow White. And most controversially, Krzhizhanovsky places at the center of his drama, out of Pushkin’s order but with strict psychological logic, wedged in between the Nameday fiasco and the disaster of the Duel, the terrify­ing, glorious account of Tatiana’s Dream. This therapeutic and revelatory dream is told (at last) not by the salacious, patronizing Narrator but by the traumatized heroine herself.

     Now that a decade has passed since the bicentennial of Pushkin’s birth, and as more Stalin-era documents become available, Pushkinists are well rewarded by further excavating the centennial of his death. Like the open-ended silence of that famous final stage direction, the musical, dramatic, and cinemagraphic riches still buried under the ruins of that year remain in the “eternal present.” They deserve not just publicity or publication, but performance.

 


[1] Letter of Meyerhold to Prokofiev, August/September 1936, in the chapter “Meyer­hold and Pushkin,” in Meyerhold at Work, ed. Paul Schmidt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 140.

[2] I am indebted here to Leonid Maximenkov, who shared details from his two-volume documentary study of Soviet music history in preparation (based on collec­tions from five federal archives in Moscow). For a sample of this solely “bureau­cratic” activity of the Commission, see Stephanie Sandler, “The 1937 Pushkin Jubilee as Epic Trauma,” in Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda, ed. Kevin M. E. Platt and David Brandenberger(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 196–99.

[3] Thanks to the generosity of Galina Zlobina, deputy director of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), in June 2007 I received a copy of the 1936 Krzhizhanovsky playscript, together with numerous other items in his file that clarify its creative history. Only four people had worked with the playscript since it was deposited in the archival fond, and the text does not appear in Krzhi­zhanovsky’s Sobranie sochinenii (five volumes, 2001–09), edited by Vadim Perel´muter. My translation and annotation of Krzhizhanovsky’s Evgenii Onegin, together with an introductory essay, appears in Sergey Prokofiev and his World, ed. Simon Morrison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 60–189.