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.

First Encounters of an Outsider with Boris

Tim Vasen, Director


Tim Vasen teaches acting and directing in the Program in Theater and Dance at Princeton University, and has also worked exten­sively in actor training at the Yale School of Drama and New York University’s Graduate Acting Program. This is his testimonial to the Boris project.


     In the winter of 2006 Simon Morrison offered me a unique directing oppor­tunity, perhaps the most interesting and challenging I’ve yet faced. The task at hand: to create a production of one of Russia’s best-known plays, almost completely unknown in the U.S., in a brand-new English transla­tion that was at once coherent for the American audience who had never seen it and provocative for the visiting Russians who could recite it from memory; one that stood on its own as a piece of theater in the spring of 2007 in Princeton and at the same time brought to fruition an unfulfilled collaboration between a great director and a great composer working together under Stalin’s shadow in 1930s Moscow; to honor a nineteenth-century telling of a sixteenth-century tale with twentieth-century music and twenty-first-century stagecraft; to introduce Pushkin, Prokofiev, and Meyerhold to the undergraduate actors and singers and dancers and musi­cians who would make up the hundred-strong company; to create a design with a group of graduate architecture students that would allow space for this massive project, enable this complex story to be told, and echo the major contributions Meyerhold made to the art of scenic design while hon­oring his spirit by making something entirely new. Whew. This would re­quire more than “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” Lucky for me, I had a lot of help. The Boris Godunov Project was collaborative to its very core, and the best part of my job was that I got to work directly with everybody, in­cluding the three Russian masters whose vision and material called forth our hardest and best work.

     What I’m shooting for when I direct a play is that the production be­come a free-standing edifice that resists summation, simplification, or in­deed any kind of translation into another medium. This is why I hate watching videotapes of theater. The Olympian perspective has always eluded me; the best I know how to do is approach anything as a series of small steps. Here are a few.


1. Almost Complete Ignorance

     January 2006: I’m sitting in someone’s rehearsal, ostensibly supervising tech, but actually leafing through a pile of pages Michael Cadden has handed me—it’s the page-proof of [Chester Dunning’s] The Uncensored Boris Godunov, and at first it takes me a while to find the play—which I initially think is about 500 pages long, but all that extra stuff turns out to be essays and the Cyrillic text. Finally I get to the play. I figure if I can’t get through a play without reading footnotes, there’s trouble somewhere, so I plow ahead, trying to follow all of the scenes and characters and Slavic names. Hmmm. Feels a little like Danton’s Death meets the Henry VI plays—all over the place, passionate, fascinating, hard to follow. I actu­ally can’t believe that the Pretender gets away with it in the end.… At this point I don’t even know that I’m going to spend the next year as the direc­tor, and I have no sense of the huge scope of the project, but I’m in­trigued—there’s more here than I can get from a first reading. This is usually a good reason to direct a play.

     Well before I began to understand the play and its place in the Rus­sian canon, it was clear to me that this is not our masterpiece—it’s liberat­ing to direct one of the world’s great plays in a community for which it’ll be brand new. There’s a lot to learn to even make sense of it, but at least we’re not encumbered by centuries of performance tradition. We have nothing to measure ourselves against other than the material itself. On the other hand, Pushkin wrote for an audience, imaginary or otherwise, that was intimately familiar with the history involved, and used a drama­turgical shorthand that must’ve been mystifying even to his contempo­raries. A century later, Meyerhold’s abstractions were a brilliant solution to the problem of twenty-five different locations, partly because all the lo­cations were well known—nobody in a Russian audience needed to be shown what the Kremlin looked like, or what a boyar was, or what the backstory and the sequel were. This allowed the playwright and his direc­tor tremendous freedom. How could we make a production that honored that freedom, and at the same time told the story clearly enough that an American audience had even a prayer of understanding what was going on?


2. Becoming Slightly Less Ignorant

     It had to begin with my own education, in Caryl Emerson and Simon Mor­rison’s offices, and then in Moscow. It was a mind-opening experience, see­ing the scale of tsarist Russia, the eerie parallels with the Stalin era, the intimate connection between medieval icon painting and the creative ex­plosion of the Soviet 1920s, but I think the most important moment was a quiet one, a visit to a relatively unobtrusive apartment building with my indefatigable guide, Maria Ratanova. From my Notes, 7/21/2006: “We rang the street-level bell—no answer. Then three women in black, back from the funeral of an actor, walk up behind us and open the door. They run the museum, of course. A moment from Bulgakov—the mysteries of Moscow. In the 1930s, this yellow room was the epicenter of Russian culture—Mey­erhold, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein (who learned montage from things Meyerhold did on stage). Then M arrested, and his wife murdered in the corner. Now it’s being re-assembled as a museum—everything is packed and wrapped. There’s the set model for [Sergei Tretiakov’s 1926] I Want a Baby—I have no idea what the play is, but that’s about the coolest set I’ve ever seen. ‘Meyerhold was a cos­mos’—Natasha, who runs the museum and should know.”

     Standing in Meyerhold’s apartment, staring at the parquet floor con­templating my ratty sneakers after Natasha informed me that I was standing where Mayakovsky would recite poetry, I had a bit of a conver­sion. When I signed on to the project, it was with the understanding that I would direct it, not try to reproduce Meyerhold’s staging (even if that were possible), and I had held him somewhat at arm’s length. There was no way I could do the production he never finished—it would be out of context, for the wrong audience and in the wrong time—but I felt a keen sense of re­sponsibility, and deep interest, in taking in whatever I could, and seeing how it worked in the here and now. This was probably the single best deci­sion I made during my year with the project.


3. Making an Acting Company

     Another pivot point: in the spring of 2006 we had our first general meet­ing, and the scope of the project was laid bare: the orchestra, the glee club, the library exhibit, the symposium. Someone asked me if I knew who would play Boris and the Pretender, and many in the room were surprised when I responded that it would depend on who auditioned. Should we get professional actors for the most important roles? I had taken for granted something that was more radical than I knew at the time—that we would create a cast using only the students that came in to audition. There could be no ringers, no professionals, no recent graduates, however talented. . . . Most big projects like this would never get off the ground without at least an idea of who was going to play the lead roles. For the students, this would be a massive, unprecedented commitment, and everyone had to enter into it voluntarily and (I hoped) enthusiastically.

     In auditions, I probe for skills the students may not know they have, by making people move and speak in irrational ways. Those who can han­dle being asked to do the speech again while pretending to be under sniper fire, or while walking only on the tops of whatever furniture is in the room, or while completely drunk are the ones I invite into the company. I aimed for a roughly equal number of men and women. The first week: scary e-mails, dropouts. Then a rough doubling scheme; then a rough reading with about half of them. Then a better doubling scheme, then an­other dropout after the first rehearsal, and a few re-arrangements during tablework. Everybody gets at least one substantial part; the rest is about necessity and the occasional artistic impulse.


4. Design

     Notes. “9/15/06—first architecture seminar, amid rainstorm and construc­tion noises—all this abstraction is about to become concrete—ready to build, to not be so precious.” The middle phase, the least glamorous part, is where all the important work actually gets done. Despite my initial re­sistance, this feels right, since the entire project, following Pushkin, is about multiplicity of perspectives. The set that resulted [the “bungees”] was the most challenging, interesting, and creative design I’ve ever worked with, and more importantly served both Pushkin’s play and Meyerhold’s conception, allowing us to give the audience all the informa­tion they needed to follow the leaps and bounds, to create and destroy space at will, and to give physical expression to the workings of fate and the inner lives of those bound by it.


5. Godunov, Stalin, Meyerhold—Models for Leadership?

     Directors and dictators have more in common than either might want to admit. We’re both in the business of organizing the chaotic world into something that reflects our sense of How Things Should Be. Somewhere in my notes during the fall of 2006: “totalitarianism produces really good staging—or really precise, anyway.” I think we were looking at North Korean mass games in the architecture seminar, and I’d been struck by the massive socialist realism canvases I’d seen in Moscow. There is a terri­fying seductiveness to an ordered universe—just look at Leni Riefenstal’s gorgeous footage of Nazi stagecraft. At this point, my superficial under­standing of Meyerhold emphasized the precision of his staging. But I don’t think I’d last a week as an all-knowing master, arranging the universe to my liking. I usually find the universe as it is more compelling than any­thing I can pre-arrange in my head.

     To save my sanity when I’m directing something, I force myself to be honest about what I don’t know. If you’re a tyrant running a country, you probably don’t have that luxury because there are always people around waiting to kill you and take over at any sign of weakness. It was impor­tant to me to give the students as much autonomy as they could handle—the sense that at every turn, as many perspectives as possible were being explored. I’d been heading in this direction for a long time anyway, but between Meyerhold’s repositioning of the actor as the central communi­cator (in place of the director), and Caryl Emerson’s suggestion of Push­kin’s tragicomic historical worldview, with the brutal end fixed but the means open and unknown, I came to see this kind of collaboration as the only way I could do justice to this subversive, unruly, and deeply reward­ing play.


6. Rehearsal Bits

     One of Meyerhold’s most powerful ideas was to stage every scene that Pushkin wrote—some had been lost to censorship, some to performance traditions. As with Prokofiev’s music, the complete text came to me as a given, so I assumed that everything in the play was essential, and our job was to discover its purpose. A case in point. Pushkin’s brief scene 7, “The Patriarch’s Palace,” seemed irrelevant until I began rehearsing it with Max Staller [Father Superior] and Nadia Talel [Patriarch]. We quickly developed a strong physical power relationship, with the Patriarch howl­ing, and marching in time to her booming staff, and the Father Superior shuffling along in double time behind, bent in half as he delivers the bad news about Grigory Otrepiev’s escape from the monastery and reinvention as the heir to the throne. Our work on this brief scene taught us a physical approach to the rest of the play.

     Working with Rebecca, our motion consultant and choreographer, what I jotted down in my notebook: “For every thought supported by a feeling, there’s a muscle change: the workout, the archer, the balancing, Laban. Strong, light, quick, sustained, direct, indirect.” The economy of Boris: there is no filler: not textual, not physical, not musical. Everything is there for a reason. “When building the battle, harness the actors’ crea­tivity, as Rebecca’s exercises do—the stimulation of structure—freedom to interpret—in a group. This produces a really rich field.”

     One of the most documented moments from Meyerhold’s aborted re­hearsals was scene 8, “The Tsar’s Palace.” In the manuscript, Pushkin had titled it “Boris and the Soothsayers” and Meyerhold ran with it, planning a cacophony of chants, rattles and hums to accompany and in fact over­shadow Boris’s “I have attained the highest power” speech. My first reac­tion was to see this as the equivalent to a Western director, trying to be new and different, having Hamlet recite “To be or not to be” while facing upstage and riding a unicycle. Meyerhold is quoted as regarding this speech as one of Pushkin’s less successful, which I didn’t agree with, but I was obeying my own decision to try every idea of Meyerhold’s we had on record, so off we went. Andy Brown, the senior who played Boris, has a very strong voice and is well able to hold his own onstage, so I asked five or six actors who happened to be in the room at the time to improvise a gang of fortune-tellers literally attached to the Tsar as he tried to com­municate with the audience about the perils of power (Figure 5. Scene 8, Boris and Soothsayers). All of us immediately sensed that this would work—another moment of synthesis: “Boris + soothsayers. Damn. Meyer­hold’s idea is good. It elevates the monologue, puts pressure on Boris—he must reach us through the throng—this screen of bullshit. But part of him also believes the bullshit, thinks it might save his life.”

     “They are at their best when there is a strong physical idea—some­thing to organize/channel energies. All types should have a common rhythm, walk, gestural language—boyars—ecclesiasticals—the narod—Poles. This play is more-than-average interesting, when on its feet. (Or is it just that we know so much, now?)”

     “3/16 stumble-through—now I know what Meyerhold meant about Pushkin’s verse needing to be light—the play is impatient, does not sup­port weighty, ponderous delivery. Seize the moment before it passes—our attention focuses on you for a second, and then it moves on. The impor­tance of change: physical, vocal, rhythmic, perspectival—it’s the play and the production.”

     The accidental birth of something I really liked: At first I wanted to be able to get the orchestra in place at intermission without being seen, so I tried to bring in the main drape. But it was going to hit the lights, so we gave up on the curtain, figuring we could do it all behind the downstage scrim and upstage blackout curtain, which was true. But now the image of a classical curtain was in my head, and it seemed appropriately rebellious, that an audience coming in to see an unfinished Meyerhold project would be greeted by a stodgy curtain with the implied promise of a naturalistic set lurking behind. So I asked Steve Lauritano, our projection artist from the architecture class, to project a slide of a curtain instead, which looked great and made me laugh, because it was another collision of the past and the present. Then during one run-through there was a mistake in the cue sequence, and the lights came up on Sam Zetumer as Shuisky, pulling a single bungee cord taut while contemplating the empty throne, but the im­age of the curtain was still there, with Sam perfectly framed in the middle of it. He let the cord go, it sliced through the air, the curtain image melted away and the scrim flew up. Not what I “intended,” but this became one of my favorite moments. It’s hard to start a play well, with a theatrical ges­ture that immediately establishes the world of the production. This felt as close to my own sense of “good” as it gets—and was entirely a result of compromise and accident.

The Actors on Their Biggest Anxieties, Best Moments, and Steepest Learning Curves

Testimonials from the Company


     As Tim Vasen confessed, the “task at hand” was intimidating, a challenge of more than extra-curricular proportions. To increase the chances of its success, Princeton sponsored seven academic courses in connection with the BG project.

     In Fall 2006, a graduate design seminar in the School of Architecture generated the set. In Spring 2007, a half-dozen of those students enrolled in a follow-up course to design and build the props and computer projec­tions. Beginning in February there were full-credit courses in Theater and Dance (for the company), an undergraduate background seminar offered in English through Comparative Literature, and a graduate seminar in Russian through the Slavic Department, both of which covered the Time of Troubles, Pushkin as dramatist, Meyerhold and the modernist stage, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films (as model for the politics and staging of Boris, and also as receptacle for some of the orphaned music). Other Russian Boris Godunovs were sampled, in opera, screenplay, and film. In March a six-week on-line Alumni Studies course was launched to educate spectators, with a special invitation to the family members of the one-hundred-plus student actors, musicians, dancers, designers, and directors involved in the project.

     The statements below are excerpted from testimonials that the acting company (six women, seven men) wrote as part of their course require­ments for THR 329: “The Boris Godunov Project.” (Figure 6. Cast photo) Most begin with anxiety and end in exhaustion, with moments of triumph experienced along the way. These reflections constitute, in my view, the meat of this forum: what it meant for these undergraduates—none of them Russian majors, and most without a single prior course in the field—to embody Pushkin’s characters on stage, step by step, scene by scene, taking clues from the playwright, from Meyerhold, from the director, from the elastic set, and from one another. In the mid-1820s, Pushkin had in­dulged in a little fantasizing over who might play his leading lady—but he could not have contemplated this.

     The selections are grouped under five rubrics: Applying Meyerhold to Pushkin; Non-traditional Casting; Getting Muscles under Control; Getting Bungees under Control; Getting a Hallucination under Control (Case Studies: Evil Monk and Slaughtered Tsarevich). A closing coda comments on Prokofiev’s music.


Caryl Emerson


Applying Meyerhold to Pushkin

1. SAM ZETUMER,class of’09 [Prince Shuisky, Father Varlaam, com­pany], major in Mathematics 

     According to Meyerhold, the actors, knowing the tone of each scene, then direct their own scene. As long as the actors preserve the intention of the author as conceived by the director, they have a generous amount of freedom as far as the staging is concerned. This Meyerholdian idea affected me in many ways. First, I felt more comfortable providing suggestions and soliciting advice from people other than the director. Second, I felt freer to add to the tone of a scene. For example, I enjoyed adding a sort of playful rapport with the audience during scene 11 (“The Tsar’s Palace”) when I entered on Tsar Boris’s lines: “And Shuisky too I cannot fully trust — / He’s slippery, but courageous, shrewd…” In my reply, “So he didn’t know” (concerning Boris’s knowledge of the pretender), I nodded and winked as I exited, along with the hint of a smile. These gestures and inflections allowed Sam the actor to communicate to the audience about the character, revealing Shui­sky’s thoughts to the viewer while withholding them from Boris.

     I was amazed by the degree to which Soviet ideals permeated Meyerhold’s conception of movement in theater. He describes the actor as a craftsman and a scientist, who has calibrated his move­ment in pursuit of energy, efficiency, and crispness. This is theater of the precision and clarity found in the idealized Soviet factory. It is not an art of moods. I was somewhat disappointed, however, by the degree to which I felt Meyerhold utilized physical stereotypes. For example, in his treatise The Set Roles of the Actor’s Art, Meyerhold divides up major theatrical character tropes into twenty-one categories that are distinguished by the actor’s appear­ance. While I do acknowledge that people prejudge those with smaller eyes as more mischievous and those who are taller as more heroic, to make these prejudices the basis of the distinction between one character and another seemed to me superficial. I was expecting “movement styles” to distinguish one character type from another. Perhaps Meyerhold believed that an actor’s native gifts for movement were tied to the fixed shape of the body, which determined the plasticity of the actor and the communicability of his message. If so, this prejudice is not unfounded.

     With such definitions of plasticity and biomechanics, I tailored my character development to the historical facts and content of Boris Godunov. The characters I have acted in the past usually have conflicting emotions. But Boris Godunov is a historical drama, one unknown to most Americans. Thus my characters needed simple, readable emotions. Also, characters would often compose larger images: crowds, mobs, drunken boyars. It would be distracting if each had a different personality projecting its own internal conflict; the audience would not see a crowd. I wanted the audience to know exactly what my character’s intentions were the moment I stepped on stage. These considerations (that the charac­ter development and method must be tailored to the work at hand) further relaxed my methodology. I was less dogmatic about know­ing the precise objective or the meaning of a certain hand gesture. Sometimes the objective was not important for the clarity of my characters. Sometimes all I needed to do was twirl my staff around, crouch really low, and people would understand that Shui­sky is a creepy, calculating, self-centered prince.

     Examining one particular gesture might clarify what is meant by “tailoring the method for the content.” In scene 4 (“Palace in the Kremlin”), Shuisky denies Vorotynsky’s accusations that he has been plotting against Boris:

This is no time for reminiscing,
I would advise you rather to forget.
The fact is: I was testing you, my friend,
The better to discern your secret thoughts;
Here come the people, though, to greet their tsar.
My absence might be noted and remarked on;
I’ll follow them.

These actions were accompanied by hitting Vorotynsky’s hand away, two steps forward, cupping the back of his (her) head with my hand, and turning my other hand into a needle aimed at Vorotynsky's head. The immediate objection was to “boil the informa­tion out of Vorotynsky’s brain,” a goal which I think the hand-needle accomplished quite nicely. But boiling the information out of his head does not really fit Shuisky’s grand objectives. Being ag­gressive with his actions will not force Vorotynsky’s obedience. Showing this much strength at a crucial political moment reveals too much of Shuisky’s power. The real Shuisky, or even a Shuisky using the Stanislavsky method, would not act this way.

     Still, being this aggressive and metaphorical with one’s ges­tures does communicate a great deal beyond Shuisky’s immediate objectives. The fact that Shuisky does not like to be touched, but feels within his rights touching another person, shows his self-entitlement. By cupping Vorotynsky’s neck, Shuisky controls one of the most vulnerable places on his body. It gives him power not only over Vorotynsky’s movements, but also over his body, and (with the needle) his mind. Shuisky, at that moment, owns Voro­tynsky. It is a very powerful image that embodies the Meyerhold­ian Shuisky, but not necessarily the real Shuisky.

     The needle-hand also forces the audience to use its imagina­tion. Meyerhold strove to do precisely this. He believed that thea­ter should entrance the audience, but that viewers should also be active: “We intend the audience not merely to observe, but to par­ticipate in a corporate creative act.” A highly symbolic action gains force from being unrealistic, but still makes sense to an attentive audience. (Figure 7. Scene 1, “Palace in the Kremlin,” Princes Shuisky and Vorotynsky)


Non-Traditional Casting

2. ROGER QUINCY MASON,class of’08 [Pimen, Blind Old Man, Mni­szech, Ksenia’s Nurse, company], major in English, certificates in Theater and Dance, African-American Studies

     Pushkin’s identity as a black man navigating through nineteenth-century Russia was the impetus for my interpretation of the char­acters I portrayed. I grew to identify with the dissonant, cynical voice of Pushkin, interpreter of history and politics, as filtered through the characters he created for the stage. Pushkin’s life and work exist in a realm of dualities: the paradox of his identity as a Russian cultural hero and as a racial other; his biraciality as a child of a Russian nobleman on his father’s side and African nobil­ity on his mother’s side; and his aesthetic as a writer who is both favored by the Russian court but in Boris Godunov who speaks against the tyranny of the court on behalf of the welfare of the people.

     Of all the characters I portrayed, I consider Pimen to be the most vehement example of Pushkin’s Africanism in the world of Boris Godunov. Pimen is an authoritative historian, a chronicler of Russian courtly intrigue, who realizes his power as an interpreter of history and desires to set history right through his chronicle. I remember the excitement I felt when rehearsing the monologue about the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and his son, Feodor. In an act of Africanist subversion, Pushkin seemed to situate the monologue in the middle of the scene as a celebration of a golden era of tsar­dom long since past in Russia. But then I began to listen to what I was saying more closely. Ivan emerged as a tyrannical ruler who, on his deathbed, appealed to the church for forgiveness. However, his religiosity was not genuine. […] By accusing Ivan of dishonesty and a cruel manipulation of the church for his political advantage, Pushkin packages this description in celebratory language, and litters the speech with historical irony. (Figure 4. Scene 5, Pimen’s monologue)


3. KELECHI EZIE, class of‘08 [Tavern Hostess, Basmanov, company], major in History, certificate in Theater and Dance

     One of the major challenges of Boris Godunov was playing a male character. Not only was I to play a man, I was to play Basmanov, general of the tsar’s army.[…] Trying to approximate my voice to a male register or to look even remotely masculine in my army jack­ets was futile. These superficial attempts to reach a self-imposed image of masculinity did not bring me any closer to a true embodiment of the character. Although I did focus on engaging my dia­phragm and accessing my own low register, I eventually aban­doned the idea that I needed to register on the audience as a man.

     Strength and power are not masculine characteristics. Neither is weakness, fear, or vulnerability. Emotions are not gendered. It is not our gender that makes us who we are, it is the choices we make and how we react in times of extreme pressure. Armed with this realization, I decided to devote my energies to conveying the emotions and the conflict that Basmanov faced. Within the space of three scenes, Basmanov must move from the trusted com­mander of the Godunov dynasty to a traitor. If I could accomplish this transition, then the gender of the character would be a terti­ary consideration.

     I believe this approach to gender inversion worked, because Boris Godunov functions simultaneously as a piece of historical writing and as an allegory for any time of change. Each character was either derived from, or reminiscent of, an actual historical fig­ure, the memories of which resonated strongly with members of a Russian audience. American audience members unfamiliar with the story of Tsar Boris and the Pretender were just as easily trans­ported into the world of the play, because pain, fear, loyalty, and betrayal are states accessible to us all, in some form. (Figure 8. Scene 23, “Field Headquarters,” Basmanov) 


4. NADIA TALEL, class of ’10 [Patriarch, Rozhnov, company], major in Slavic

     When Russian news reporters came to see a dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov, one of them asked me what it was like for me as a young woman to play the Patriarch. What acting techniques did I use? What tricks did I use to get into character? The role of the Patriarch was certainly the most challenging part I had ever played. And the fact that I was playing not only a man but also the highest spiritual authority in Russian culture made me nervous and presented me with unique challenges when seeking to speak the truth as this character. Over the course of my research on the role of the Patriarch in Russian society, our rehearsals, and our table-work, which analyzed every word of Pushkin’s, I came to a number of important realizations as to how I should approach this role.

     As I examined the Patriarch, I impatiently kept asking myself: “I sort of understand how I can play a young male soldier [in the battle scenes], but how is it even possible for me to play the Patri­arch: a character who is so entirely a male Russian cultural and religious symbol?” Yet I came to realize that the Patriarch is a mixture of masculinity and femininity, distanced authority and matter-of-fact practicality. Moreover, precisely because the Patri­arch is a Russian cultural icon, he is beyond the realm of male or female, or even of secular-sacred.

     Pushkin hints at the double-sided nature of the Patriarch throughout the play. In scene 7 (“The Patriarch’s Palace”), in which the Patriarch is interrogating the Father Superior, we sense a different, more frightening side of the Patriarch. By casting scene 7 in prose, Pushkin indicates that the Patriarch should de­liver his lines in a fashion that is more unofficial and off-the-record. Indeed, the Patriarch does not strike us as a “religious” character in scene 7. He lashes out at the Father Superior and speaks in a very secular fashion, saying things like “Damn!” and “I’ve had it!” and repeatedly loses his temper as he mocks the Pretender: “I shall be tsar in Moscow!” When the Patriarch says “An instrument of Satan!” he comes close to embodying Satan himself in all of the grotesqueness he exhibits in that scene.

     Conversely, Pushkin writes the Patriarch’s next scene, scene 17 (“The Tsar’s Council”), in verse, indicating that the Patriarch has resumed his official position. When the Patriarch begins to advise the council in this scene, he begins by saying, “May the almighty bless us…,” thereby resuming his “angelic” nature. How­ever, during the second half of the Patriarch’s speech, beginning with “A cursed unfrocked monk, son of the devil,” the Patriarch’s grotesque nature comes back into play, only in a slightly more offi­cial manner. It is interesting that Pushkin separates his text here into prose paragraphs, indicating a shift in intention or attitude. I noticed throughout the course of rehearsals that my voice would shift between saying my lines in a very high pitch and in a very low pitch. I felt that these changes in intonation were in harmony with the Patriarch’s double-sided nature of 1) a more official, holy, distanced character and 2) a more unofficial, unholy, grotesquely political character. The Patriarch represents both the religious and the secular, the angel and the devil. He originates in a strange, mystical realm and is therefore neither male nor female. I played with all these concepts when seeking to become the Patri­arch. (Figure 9. Scene 22, Patriarch blesses the dying Boris)


Getting Muscles under Control

5. ANDY BROWN, class of’07 [Boris Godunov, company], major in Com­puter Science, certificate in Theater and Dance

     The tablework for this show was excellent, but I find that re­searching a role by reading does very little for me. It’s partly the way that I learn, but there’s also some kind of gap that prevents information that one reads from settling into one’s body. In our background lectures, we discussed the concept of a boyar, “a Rus­sian noble,” etc., and my immediate reaction was always to seek the details that stood out for me, which I could grab and use to in­form my performance. “Boris was elected from a bunch of equals… His bloodline was partly from Asia… The boyars were not used to being subordinate … it was Tsar Ivan the Terrible who forcefully took their power away.” All of a sudden the coronation scene meant something much more than “We have a tsar!” It was our first opportunity to show the tension between boyar and Boris. Finding the nervous energy to play the first king in a new line was not so difficult. As the “replacement” Boris [the first casting choice, also a senior, had withdrawn from the show because of senior thesis pressures], I felt obliged every day to prove (mostly to myself) that I could do the role, and I felt the nervous energy of responsibility that drives me whenever I am the leader of a group.

     I also appreciated that the first day, after the necessary intro­ductions and the explanation of the set and costumes (both very exciting—and the set especially was the big reason behind aban­doning my instinct to drop the show), I appreciated immensely the fact that we were up on our feet right away. The walking drill, where you walk around the room and try out different things, has always been a favorite of mine. It’s also a great way to make eye contact with everyone in the room. But I also simply love to move. I’ve always been a dense person; even before I filled out, I was skin and really dense bones. I love the water because I feel weightless, and when I’m walking, if I’m not being lazy and engage my mus­cles, then I can feel weightless on land. It’s just rare that I remem­ber to put that kind of energy into my posture and movements out­side of the studio/stage/etc. But I certainly felt it that first day. I glided into the open spaces in the room. I moved in harmony with the water in my cup as I jumped over the cane [one of the choreog­rapher’s routine body-motion exercises]. Efficiency of movement does not mean bounded movement, however. It does not mean rig­idly cutting out everything extraneous and then forcing your body to comply. Efficiency of movement is much more of a Zen concept. It means minimizing energy, as in, for example, the way one pro­grams an animation: you know the figure’s starting pose and cre­ate a series of checkpoints towards an ending pose, then you perform calculations at each frame in between to minimize the energy between checkpoints. In the real body, this translates to knowing exactly what muscles to engage and fully engaging them, but also trusting your control of these muscles and not trying to put bounds or limits on their movement or on the physical mani­festation of your idea. This concept mirrors all of acting for me.


6. MAX STALLER, class of ’08 [Father Superior, Semyon Godunov, Father Czernikowski, Captain Margeret, company], major in Molecu­lar Biology

     I stand on the stage forty minutes before curtain, staring at the empty house while the crew blasts rock music and collects the bungees for the opening of the act. I exhale, raise my right hand to the side, look at it, begin to rotate it: first only fingers and wrist, then adding the forearm, the elbow, then the shoulder, finally the scapula and the back. The twisting begins in the little finger, wrenching my entire arm until I am staring at the ceiling; then the thumb leads my body through the reciprocal twist and I am looking at the floor. Now the hand decides it is time to explore; I watch it as it descends through my front space, rises over the shoulder, falls deep into my back space, before circling around again. Each cycle accelerates as the hand probes deeper into the fore and aft regions of space. The movement now comes from the hips, focused through the hand. The rest of the world begins to blur, but the hand remains sharp. And then, when the dizziness becomes blinding, just as the hand begins to fly away, I let go, let the momentum dissolve to stasis. I close my eyes until I can tell which way is down, until the prickling and tingling in my right arm has given way to alertness and readiness. I look left, raise the second arm and begin again.

     Meyerhold wrote that “for a moment of synthesis, you must pay weeks of analysis.” Rebecca Lazier [the choreographer] started movement exercises with us during the first class, but it was the matinee of closing day when the first exercise alone could tran­scend me to that other place. Rebecca told us to think of the pelvis as the origin of all movements, taught us how to keep our pelvis directly below our upper bodies as we moved so that we might go from a sprint to a stop in one step. She taught us how to push each other from the pelvis, to resist force from the most stable position. While holding a cup of water, she had us jump and land without spilling. That first day I skidded to a halt and spilt a lot of water, but I knew that The Boris Godunov Project was going to be differ­ent from anything I had done. I knew I would learn something. But I did not yet know how much I would love the process. Warm­ing up alone before the Saturday matinee crystallized the previous nine weeks of learning to use my body.

     The first time I began to understand these ideas was while working with Tim on the role of the Father Superior in scene 7. We built this character from the outside in, starting with his bent shape and shuffling. After that it was so easy! I did not need to feel the character’s emotional distress; assuming his bent shape brought so much physical distress that the supplication and fear of the Patriarch followed easily. All that matters is what the audi­ence sees, how the character looks, so sometimes all we need to do is “assume the position” and the emotion reads. Reflecting back, the Father Superior was the breakthrough. To be able to access this universe of physical theater, I had to develop a new relation­ship with my body. Rebecca had us explore three pairs of oppo­sites: lightness and strength, wideness and narrowness, sustain and quickness. We would embody each idea individually using our movements, posture, and focus until eventually we practiced all possible combinations. The warm-ups forced new combinations of movements that I had never thought to explore, but once I had tried them, they entered the physical vocabulary I used on stage.

     Physicality quickly became the best tool I had to distinguish characters. Semyon Godunov and Father Czernikowski each em­body the most oppressive aspects of their respective societies. Semyon Godunov headed the Russian secret police, and historians consider him to have been the most hated man in Russia at the dawn of the seventeenth century. To a Russian audience, Czerni­kowski represents all the ugliest parts of Jesuit activities: he killed, undermined governments, and manipulated wars to spread Catholicism. While both these men carry out essentially the same task of destabilizing the enemies of their two regimes, they did so in very different ways, reflected in the style and content of their text. Semyon Godunov speaks openly of arrest, spying, and inter­rogation, consistent with the very visible role of the secret police in Russian society. In contrast, Czernikowski speaks about deceit and concealment, mirroring the secretive techniques of the Jesu­its; he is not the face of evil, merely the shadow behind it.

     Semyon Godunov stood up straight and stiff, very proud and open about his work, while Czernikowski was bent and glided around the stage indirectly. Czernikowski’s bungee lean added a serpentine image of Jesuit coils around the Pretender. Both char­acters spend an extended time hovering on the edges of the scene, but Czernikowski takes a very indirect path to his post and stays partially concealed, while Semyon Godunov stands at attention in full view. In Poland, at least in Pushkin’s view, spying was more discrete.

     In Boris Godunov, I put seven distinct costume layers over my company uniform, the cast record. What really surprised me was how each costume limited my physicality in a different way. At first I thought this limitation was a disaster, but then I realized that the way a costume limited my movement could help me. It focused my physical creativity in a specific direction, allowing me to go further down that path. The best example was the boyar robes, where the flowing material swallowed small gestures. For scene 17, “The Tsar’s Council,” during the story of the blind shep­herd, Becca [First Boyar] and I had to develop an arsenal of gestures and postures to complement the boyar robes and read to the audience. The two boyars hardly speak, but their physical re­actions give the audience a window into their thoughts. We had practiced using robes with large sleeves, which turned arm ges­tures into broad waves of fabric. The final costumes lacked sleeves, however, killing the broad arm sweeps, but suddenly, the angle of the elbow could be seen and this angle became a new method of expression. While playing a dozen distinct characters, costumes played a vital role in aiding the physical development of each char­acter in a unique direction.[…]

     The example of the servant in Shuisky’s house illustrates the balance between a realistic backstory for a character and the sty­lized way this story must sometimes be conveyed to the audience. As I imagine him, the servant was a man whose body, after a lifetime of standing rigidly straight, rebelled until his shoulders rounded forward, the left hanging slightly lower than the right. His spying is motivated more by the prospect of financial gain than out of any malicious disloyalty to his master; he realizes Shuisky will not reveal incriminating information in front of a ser­vant, but trifling details are handsomely rewarded. He covers his eavesdropping by polishing a candlestick for the third time; when noticed, he leaves at his normal slow pace. In part because he does not speak and in part because he appears so fleetingly, the stage representation of this servant became a caricature. The audience saw an old man bent forty-five degrees, holding his arms behind him for balance, nodding zealously at every mention of the Tsar in the Boy’s prayer. At the prospect of interesting news, he leaned in to listen until he was nearly falling over. When caught, he melted under his master’s gaze before scampering away. There was a host of possibilities, and the ones I chose were intended to be a bit more comical, but the extremity of the choice was necessary to tell a rich story quickly. While spying is a recurring theme in the play, this is the only instance where the audience witnesses the act. The physi­cal intensity of the lean was necessary to draw attention to the eavesdropping, motivating the next line: “What are you gaping at? Eavesdrop on your masters, that’s all you’d ever do if you could” (scene 10).


7. PETER SCHRAM, class of ’09 [Kurbsky, Guard, company], major in Politics, certificate in Theater and Dance

     I had seen a few examples of Meyerholdian theater, understood his concepts, and I was engaging in exercises to put my body in the correct place. But I didn’t fully understand how the ideas would be translated into an acting style. For me, the breakthrough arrived early on when we were able to see pictures of the Meyerhold re­hearsal processes during one of our dramaturgy sessions. The pic­tures were just snapshots of the acting process, and yet they seemed carefully designed, with perfect body placement, facial ex­pressions and costumes, as if they were models put into place by a photographer. As someone who has seen his share of mediocre the­ater photographs, these were remarkable and reminded me of the last place that I had seen photos taken of a performance that looked that good: photos of Charlie Chaplin acting in his movies. Remembering that, my understanding of embodied theater became more complete; I could see what was done in Chaplin’s movies and do it onstage. For my role as Guard, I stole movements heavily from the depictions of men trying to oppress “the Tramp,” like the murderer in The Gold Rush and a foreman in Modern Times. For my other parts, I borrowed from the elderly as depicted in Chap­lin’s works, and when I was part of a crowd I drew on Chaplin’s factory workers.


Getting the Bungees under Control

8. LILY COWLES, class of ’09 [Maryna Mniszech, Holy Fool, company], major in Religion

     My two major roles, Maryna and the Holy Fool, were complicated to create. Ever calculating, Maryna is a scheming little devil who knows what she wants and how to get it. The main difficulty I faced playing her was that I could not reconcile Meyerholdian, over-the-top expressionism and her very understated, sneaky per­sonality. I was worried that any large physical movement could potentially jeopardize her as a serious, real character. (Figure 10. Scene 15, Maryna and the Pretender)

     The bungees on stage both helped and hindered me. At last, after spring break, we were able to get up on the Berlind stage. I remember walking in for the first time—it was both haunting and incredibly beautiful. What followed was an extremely frightening and stressful week for all of us. We played with them a lot—that was the idea for the first week or so, to interact with the bungees and see what we could make of them as entities in our new physi­cal lives. To be honest, my experience with the bungees was largely negative during those first few days. I realized quickly how loud they were—screeching across the metal tracks as they were pulled aimlessly in this direction or that. Sitting up in the back few rows and looking down on the actors on stage, I remember having a sudden feeling of panic that no one in the audience would even be able to hear the words.


9. ADAM ZIVKOVIC, class of’10 [Grigory Otrepiev, later Dmitry the Pre­tender], major in Religion

     I have been getting up on stage since I was five years old. Whether it was to play a short piano tune, deliver a small speech, or enter without even saying a word, the stage has always been my play­ground. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect for my normal playground to quadruple in size, be overrun with floor to ceiling bungee cords, or to be as crowded as a can of sardines as a full-fledged orchestra, acting company and dance troupe try to share the stage. My playground companionship had never been made up of such enthusiastic and energetic actors, nor had my soliloquies been complemented by such full, luscious and heightening music.[…]

     One theme in Boris Godunov was particularly central to my character: the continual breaking of barriers. Expectations changed with every rehearsal. Having more experience in small theaters, taking on the role of Grigory Otrepiev in a sea of medical tubing, bright-colored wigs, long-legged dancers, long-winded sing­ers, and long-bowed musicians and archers was exhilarating. I remember walking out onto the Berlind stage for the first time, be­coming entangled with almost two hundred pieces of tubing. But that barrier would soon be broken down for me. I began to envi­sion ways to use them to heighten whatever emotion I was por­traying. Again and again, however, I found myself lost among the jungle gym of physical theater. The bungee cords became a meta­phor for the entire production for me.


10. PHILICIA SAUNDERS, class of’10 [Prince Vorotynsky, Rózia, the boyar Khrushchov, company], major in East Asian Studies

     The bungee cords could represent anything the actor or an audi­ence member wanted them to be. Throughout the play, actors are seen falling, tripping, and tumbling into bungee cords. More than anything, they are a force field. Sorry to sound like Star Wars, but that’s what it feels like. In reality, bungee cords do not exist. How­ever, in this production they seem to be all around us. They are omnipresent. One might wonder, do the actors see them or not? They certainly do touch them and utilize them to heighten a mo­ment, but it’s complicated. These stretchy materials can extend almost 10 times their length. At least when rehearsal is out and actors have time to rest, they could take a “bungee ride” to release the pressure and stress along with the added tension in the cords. (Figure 11. Testing out the bungees)


Getting a Hallucination under Control (Case Studies: Evil Monk and Slaughtered Tsarevich)

11. BECCA FORESMAN, class of’10 [Shchelkalov, The Evil Monk, the Boy, company], major in French

     [Editorial note: The company knew that Pushkin had deleted scene 6, “By the Monastery Wall,” from his published version and that Meyerhold planned to restore it as Grigory’s dream on the road. In 1936, the director had specified a “shaking décor,” a steady pulse pattern in the background (Vladimir Pyast´ had been brought in as metric consultant), and an exaggerated, proto-Expressionist speaking style. Since Prokofiev did not provide any musical num­bers, the Princeton composer Peter Westergaard produced music for the scene, as well as a fine English translation in strictly pulsed trochaic octometer. On the Berlind stage, the transition from Pimen’s cell to this dream sequence was marked by a monks’ chant in the wings, a flash of laser-white light, a shuddering of bungees, and the immediate start-up of Grigory’s loud, irritated, sing-song incantation as he paced the white-on-white stage:

What a wretched life we lead here! Wearisome and tedious!
Days will come and days will go but all you see and hear’s the same:
All you see are monks in cassocks, all you hear are tolling bells.
Every day you walk and yawn, and yawn and walk, that’s all there is.
If you close your eyes and day-dream, then at night you toss and turn;
When you get to sleep at last, then black dreams rack your soul till you are
Glad to hear the morning bell and glad to feel the wake-up stick.
No, I’ll suffer it no longer. Scale the walls and fly the coop.
Wide’s the world, the road is open, let it take me where it will:
Let me simply disappear…

     The Evil Monk made his (her) entry shrouded in black, through a forest of bungees, sidling up to Grigory and speaking in a whisper. By the end, transfixed, they are mouthing each other’s words: “I’m Dmitry, the Tsarevich.” “Here’s my hand: you will be tsar.”]

     Here is Becca’s account of growing into this role:

     Meyerhold subscribed to the idea that “for a moment of synthesis, you must pay weeks of analysis.” I found this principle to be very true for the work I did for Boris Godunov, and my most memorable moment of synthesis happened with my Evil Monk character. During the first read-through, I listened to the Evil Monk scene and wondered how I was going to stretch my limits to fit inside such a malleable character: was the monk a Grim Reaper, a cor­rupted sage? How could I portray the monk as an extension of Grigory’s sinister thoughts? Studying it early on in the rehearsals, I came to think of the scene as a turning point in the play. The monk convinces Grigory to launch his plan and assume the iden­tity of the Pretender, a decision that drives all the subsequent action.

     However, I also considered the scene to be a manifestation of a deeper pulse in the play. The Evil Monk is an agent of Fate—a spirit of vengeance for the dead—who eventually kills Boris (“blood came out of [Boris’s] mouth and ears,” symbolizing the in­ner corruption boiling up inside the Tsar as a result of the pseudo-resurrection of the “blood-stained boy”). However, the new Prince Dmitry (a.k.a. Grigory) perpetuates the cycle of violence by killing another royal heir in order to attain the throne, just as Boris had done.

     The Monastery Wall scene was loaded with interesting intel­lectual issues to explore. Furthermore, it was charged with the most elemental desires and motives of human nature: greed, ambi­tion, temptation, persuasion, corruption, vengeance. During the tablework, I analyzed the scene as literature; during blocking rehearsals, I began to treat the scene as a performer. But the work still felt academic, theoretical, not related to getting the character fully on its feet and making him live. Nothing had clicked fully into place.

     When rehearsals moved onto the set, we began a “bungee work-through.” Awareness of my own body was no longer enough; I had to be aware of the hundreds of vibrating bungees around me, use them as an extension of my “body mind” (or physical expres­sion of my thoughts and emotions). I must say that this realization was largely due to Sam Zetumer’s work during the first bungee work-through; he was bold, unreserved, and had incredible intui­tion about how to link thought to movement. He weaved through and plucked at the cords like a cat while playing the crafty Shui­sky; he leaned on and rattled the bungees while playing the drunken and explosive Father Varlaam. I could see that he sensed the “thought pictures” he was making with the set; it was clear that he was feeding off his new physical discoveries to make new vocal and character discoveries. I decided it was time to throw my­self off balance.

     It was during the bungee work-through of scene 6 (“By the Monastery Wall”) that the moment of synthesis presented itself. Up to this point in rehearsals, I had been playing the Evil Monk as a human man—old, wizened, sinister, but human. As I began the scene, I stopped trying to embody a man who was filled with greed and evil and began trying to embody greed and evil themselves. I launched my character work into the abstract, attempting to por­tray a part of Grigory’s mind. I abandoned the stiff physicality of an arthritic old man and experimented with folding and stretching myself to form extreme angles; I stopped treating my rehearsal robe as clothing, instead using the fabric as a tool to obscure my face and draw greater attention to my voice and my shape in space. I intensified the gestures of my arms, using the sleeves of the robe to accentuate the angles of my limbs and the movement of my fingers. The gestures themselves were inspired by the text; for example, when the Evil Monk is extending an idea to Grigory (“Do you understand?”), I tried to display that vocal reach with a physi­cal reach.

     This abstraction of movement carried into my vocal work as well. I stopped trying to pronounce or inflect the words to mirror a realistic pattern of speech. As a natural accompaniment to the new movement I was experimenting with, I began to draw out the consonants of the text to emphasize the percussive, hissing sounds that my character was producing (‘Stop that prattle! It is not for us to ressurect the dead!’). As a result, the serpentine, sinister quality of the character increased vocally, feeding further physical exploration to match and heighten my vocal changes.

     Finally, these physical and vocal changes created an “aware­ness inertia” that pushed me to experiment with the bungees. I be­came so aware of my body as part of the space that I began to use the space like I was using my body. For example, while trying to embody temptation in the first line (“True, true, your lives are wearisome”), I leaned and pulled against the bungees while drag­ging out a vowel sound. This emphasized the wheedling quality of the Evil Monk’s agreement with Grigory’s rant.[…] I describe my process of discovery in a very linear, self-aware fashion; at the time that this “moment of synthesis” was happening, however, I was not making these choices as consciously as I outline them here. Things came together and fed off one another quickly and messily; they were the cumulative result of concentration, sponta­neity, commitment, the shock of the set, Sam Zetumer’s inspiring rehearsal method, Rebecca’s biomechanics training, our readings on Meyerhold, and Pushkin’s text. (Figure 12. Scene 6, Grigory and Evil Monk)  


12. JESS KWONG, class of’07 [Feodor Godunov, Ghost of Dmitry of Uglich, company], major in Comparative Literature

     [Editorial note: During the first two weeks of spring semester, realizing the scope of the commitment and fearing for their senior theses (obligatory for all students and due in mid-April) on top of a final-semester course load, several seniors in the company dropped out of Boris. At first Tim Vasen re-cast the parts and re-shuffled the doubled roles. When Jess Kwong, a Romance languages concen­trator in Comparative Literature, took a hard look at her academic schedule and reluctantly announced her intention to drop, Vasen refused to allow it. This moment taught me, a book-bound human­ist, a great deal about the “ensemble or team arts” at a university. In a production of this complexity, after the first ten days, the course did not belong to you. You belonged to the course. You could not leave (“drop without penalty”) because you could not be re­placed. Students began to compare the Boris Project to Ivan the Terrible’s torture chamber, to prison, to Grigory Otrepiev’s night­mare. Furthermore, the usual rules of academic competition did not apply. You were not in it to beat out other students at the “A” end of a curve, but rather to learn from them and work with them (as Becca did from Sam) to bring out their best. Jess took a deep breath, dissolved the thesis she had begun (in French poetry), and devised a new topic that involved this production. She was the only member of the company who integrated the Boris Project into her final Princeton academic obligation. In the excerpt below, from the final chapter of “The Practice of Pretence: Historical, Dramatic and Performative Legitimacy in Boris Godunov,” she discusses some of her insights while playing the two murdered tsareviches.]

     In the character of the ghost of Dmitry, I appeared on stage four times throughout the play. Twice I traversed the stage during some character’s speech, once I appeared on the scaffolding from which I performed my miracles, and in the last case, the ghost of Dmitry was detected only through a small gesture made by the Tsarevich Feodor as his father Boris was dying. In all of these appearances, the position of my hands became symbolic, following the traditional, iconic representations of martyrs. I interpreted the upturned palms in terms of their religious significance as a sacri­ficial sign; the hands offered and were themselves the offering to God. The gesture brought to my mind the gospel image of Christ showing his pierced palms to the disciple Thomas as proof that he was indeed crucified and is legitimately the Son of God.

     Another aspect of the character was the fact that the dead Tsarevich could not speak, indeed, could barely draw breath. I found it much easier to sustain the specific type of motion required to cross the stage if I held my breath. I found this role the most challenging of all because unlike the other characters I played, in­stead of communicating through words, I relied upon the words of others, whose retellings of the Uglich stories furnished me with my identity. It was in this role that I had to both permeate and be permeable. In my entrances I would not simply walk on stage but rather inhabit the set itself, sometimes moving nothing, other times causing the lines to move in my wake.

     Once, without thinking, I performed the walk while I was wearing my standard costume boots and I realized the moment I entered that it was wrong. With even this slight barrier between my body and the environment, I was not the Tsarevich Dmitry. I required direct contact with the set because in that role I became a part of it.

     In scene 8 (“The Tsar’s Palace”), when I had to change from a soothsayer to the spirit within seconds, I found the transition chal­lenging until I learned to control my intake of breath. I found my­self, almost by accident, repeatedly mouthing the word “uzhas” to Boris as a soothsayer. It had not been a wholly intentional choice, but rather came about as a response to the whole feeling of the scene. It was natural, as a soothsayer, to be muttering things to Boris; it was supernatural to begin muttering the very word that was attached to Boris’s utterly immobilizing guilt. (Figure 1. Scene 8, "The Tsar's Palace.")

     In this scene, the walk across the stage was markedly different from the one in the first scene. Here, I watched Boris himself with great intensity, willing him to turn around and see me. As I walked past the area of bungees that came to be called “The Screen,” I was meant to gently touch them with my hand as I passed, so that they would tremble as if a breath of wind had moved them. As we added costumes, I realized with delight that I barely had to make a conscious effort to touch the cords at all be­cause the sleeves of my spirit robe would move them for me. This was perhaps one of the deepest moments of synthesis for this char­acter, because it meant that breath, movement, and dress had all become legitimizing elements of my identity.

     In scene 17 (“The Tsar’s Council”), I encountered difficulties with the tsarevich’s lines. Tim wanted Roger and me, as the blind shepherd and the spirit of the tsarevich, to tell our own stories during the Patriarch’s speech. In this monologue, the Patriarch tells the Tsar and the boyar council of a “miraculous secret,” that people experienced miracles at the tomb of the tsarevich, and in particular how a blind old man had his sight restored there. Our voices were meant to fade in and out of one another’s. However, I was never sure how my voice should sound in those lines. During one of our last rehearsals, it struck me that it was not really the Tsarevich Dmitry who spoke in that scene, but rather his voice refigured through several layers of voice. My voice could sound the way the old man heard it, the way the Patriarch heard the old man, or the way the Tsar or any of the boyars heard the Patriarch. It occurred to me that as long as the words were clear, my voice, along with my identity, could occupy a wide range of potentials and was not tied to a single one. (Figure 13. Scene 17, the blind shepherd’s miracle)

     In the last appearance of the spirit, I was not costumed as the spirit but as Boris’s son; the spirit enters only through Feodor’s in­nocent repetition of the sacrificial gesture. It is a small movement, but in the Princeton production it was sufficient to transfix Boris for the last time in paralyzing horror.  


A Coda on Prokofiev’s Music

13. ERBER HERNÁNDEZ, class of’09 [Afanasy Pushkin, Gavrila Pushkin, company], major in Sociology

     We first see Gavrila Pushkin in scene 12 (“Krakow: Wiśniowiecki’s House”), and it didn’t take long for me to understand how I was going to portray him. I had come to think of this Pushkin as both the Pretender’s “hype-man” and “right-hand-man.” I had decided that the audience would have to get the sense that Dmitry con­fides a lot in Gavrila, whose job was to publicly gather support for the Pretender in a way that Dmitry himself had been doing on a more personal level with all types of people.

     On March 3 I was a part of the studies on scenes 21 through 25, marking the completion of the first round of scene run-throughs. I experimented with how I would bow to the people in Red Square from atop a ladder and practiced giving my speech to them. When my speech received musical accompaniment, however, I felt empowered in a way I had never been on stage. I flirted with getting the timing between my delivered speech and Prokofiev’s music, and though I did so to some extent, my words felt like they had an emphasis behind them that would demand anybody’s at­tention. I left excited about my speech and personal scene with Basmanov, but also somewhat nervous about being in so many scenes consecutively.



     The Prokofiev score made everything fall into place. It was the perfect backdrop to weave the scenes together, and it set the emo­tional tone for the play. It was especially effective in the final scenes. I remember one particular performance in which Erber’s [Gavrila Pushkin’s] microphone shorted out, and the orchestra covered most of his speech. The audience could not hear his words as he informed us, the crowd, of Dmitry’s arrival in Moscow and accession to the throne. But the music carried the meaning of the words.[…] Even for the scenes that did not have a score, the memory of the music informed my physical presence. The sound of the snare drums helped me develop a consistent, militaristic gait for Basmanov. The imposing, macabre horns helped me to pace my death, and then remain completely still as a dead body in the bat­tle scene. The music added grace and fluidity to all of our performances.


The Editor’s Summing-up:

     Scenes 24 and 25 of Pushkin’s play—the “final scenes” to which Kelechi refers—are terrifying. Prokofiev’s music enabled not only Kelechi, as an unnamed soldier in the battle scene, but the entire Kremlin in early summer 1605 (the Godunov family at the hands of Dmitry’s men) to “pace its own death.” First a wordless but threatening chant-like refrain issues forth from the male chorus. This stalking rhythm is reinforced by the orchestra, rising to a roar, subsiding, then re-attacking. The stage with its bungees gorged with blood is bathed, like one huge gallows, in garish red light. The production came together. But there were extremely anxious moments along the way. Once resolved, these tense mo­ments became anecdotes (in the best Russian sense): a mix of technical, cultural-historical, and personnel breakdowns that were scary at the time and then became the favorite “cast stories” and jokes that everyone loved to re-tell.

     The first crisis: the orchestra and its conductor took fright at being stacked on Hollywood Squares at the back of the stage. What if the horn player lost his footing; what if the conductor, even wearing his day-glo pink wig, could not be seen around all that scaffolding? But all came round: the stacked squares were essential, since they doubled as a huge iconostasis in the Moscow scenes. Dmitry the Tsarevich performs a miracle on the upper tier, blazing forth during the Patriarch’s tale. The final double murder took place up there in the terem as well. That murder also caused a tense moment. At one point Tim Vasen wished to substitute the Tsarevna Ksenia for Maria Godunova as second victim. She’s al­ready up there, and who in the audience has ever heard of Maria? To add that name only confuses matters at the last moment. Tim sought me out in the rehearsal hall for my approval (there was always a “cultural consultant,” Simon Morrison or myself, on hand for moments like this). I was of course horrified, pointing out that there was a difference between poetic license and blasphemy. The violation—to say nothing of the murder—of Ksenia Godunova was a matter of serious historical import, and to Pushkin of serious moral import; it was not to be tampered with. The unfamiliar Maria Godunova remained in the script.

     Then there were the combat boots for Lily Cowles in her role as the Holy Fool. In Pushkin’s original (1825) ordering of scenes, which was retained by us in this production, the “Nikolka” scene 18, “Ploshchad´ pered soborom v Moskve,” immediately preceded the comic-macaronic battle scene, “Ravnina bliz Novgoroda-Severskogo.” The transition between scenes 18 and 19 had been pared down to fourteen seconds, and Lily was fully choreographed into the Battle that followed hard upon her exit from Red Square. There was no way she could get herself out of her rags and bun­gees (for her verigi or penitential chains, Lily wound flaccid tubing around herself, randomly whipping her back with it before and after her lament), nor pull on those high boots in time to enter with the infantry charge. Thus Tim and the costume designer hit upon the idea of sending her into Red Square to meet Tsar Boris already sheathed in those boots. I was on duty for that rehearsal, and howled stop. Holy fools had to be barefoot. Better a foot-soldier in slippers than a iurodivyi in boots. Lily was re-choreographed later in the Battle. Thanks to the flexibility and good will of our production crew, this moment too was won for the integrity of Russian culture. (Figure 14. Scene 18, the holy fool)

     Then there were the beards, which tested integrity in another direction. Alert to the status of male facial hair in pre-Petrine Rus­sia, for a brief span of rehearsals the cast was bearded. The beards were bushy and glossy; you couldn’t see anyone’s mouth. They did not add authenticity but the opposite, functioning like masks for the lower face. The Patriarch—who was convincing as she was, commanding full spiritual authority—suddenly looked like a transvestite and parody. Boris, a big blond man, resembled a little boy dressing up. Pimen’s expressive face became a cartoon. The next day the beards came off the principals, with only the comic moments and characters thus adorned (Varlaam, the Drunken Boyars at Shuisky’s House, buffoons from the public square in scene 3). We discovered that visual authenticity was a tricky busi­ness on this modernist stage.

     But the biggest anxiety, as these testimonials suggest, was also the most thrilling draw: the bungee-cord set. A week before opening night, during the brief, emotional scene 16 (“Granitsa litovskaia”), a bungee stretched and released by Peter Schram [Kurbsky] struck Adam, the Pretender, squarely in the eye. We all held our breath; the pain was intense and the rehearsal was over for the night. It reminded us that the set was a weapon. Early in the rehearsal process, the everpresent surgical tubing had proved a constraint: ballet toe-shoes got stuck in the grooves so the chore­ographer had to forego the lovely idea of a dance sequence on point; the Patriarch’s thumping staff wedged itself in once or twice, to the ruin of the rhythm of the scene. But this was all during rehearsal; worse was with a public. After the second night to a sold-out house, on Friday April 13, the Production Stage Man­ager Hannah Woodward sent around Performance Notes as usual to the cast and crew: “A good performance overall tonight with quite a few technical glitches.” Glitch #4 read: “During the Battle, a bungee wrapped itself around a light and the bungee pulled the electric in such a way that we couldn’t fly the Downstage Scrim in at the end of the battle. During the transition going into the Forest, Peter and Philicia saved the day and were able to free the bungee from the light so that we were able to use the Scrim for the rest of the show.”

     Tsar Boris had died on April 13, 1605. The bungee-noose strangling the light, we came to believe, was in honor of the 402nd anniversary of his death.



Jess Kwong and Philicia Saunders after the show (photo by Denise Applewhite).

Tragedy or Comedy? Boris the Visuals and Musico-Visuals

 Juliet Forshaw and Stacy Dubov


     In the Boris-related courses offered through the Slavic Department, one obstacle to visualizing the Meyerhold production was the paucity of designed sets and fully blocked scenes. We knew how the production was supposed to sound, and at which points Meyerhold wanted Prokofiev’s music to punctuate or accompany Pushkin’s text. But only select episodes had been staged or provided with details of costume or color. One such was Pimen bustling around his clean, cozy white-and-yellow cell (Meyerhold heavily rehearsed scene 5), but this prompt was not incorporated into the Princeton production. For his Cell Scene, Vasen and the lighting engineer chose to go with a bright metallic blue gleam on the bungees, the better to set off the Evil Monk dream in a day-glo burst of white light following Grigory’s curse.

     To gain a sense of the visual options, we sought analogues in book illustrations of Pushkin’s play (interpreted canonically as a tragedy and then more recently as a comedy), in earlier stagings of Boris (as drama and opera), in the 1986 film Boris Godunov by Sergei Bondarchuk (its battle scenes recalling a more savage, lower-tech Borodino), and also in the con­temporaneous cinema of Meyerhold’s prize student, Sergei Eisenstein. The Ivan the Terrible films were an especially rich source of visual and be­havioral prototypes for 16th-century tyrants, conspiracy, and war. In the graduate seminar we considered the series of seven sketches made by Eisen­stein in the spring of 1940—before embarking on the Ivan films but after Meyerhold had been executed—entitled “Dostig ia vysshei vlasti…,” part of his ill-starred “Pushkin Concept” and a requiem on the futility of power.[1] Equally ill-starred was another concept we discussed and juxtaposed to the canonical text of Pushkin’s: the Gippius-Merezhkovskii screenplay for Boris Godunov from the late 1920s. Its sixteen episodes, of a savage, populist texture, echo (but do not reproduce) Pushkin’s play, and are set in the borderland wilderness of pubs and bathhouses with a recurring staircase dream and a cast of familiar figures who are all spies and double agents.[2] It persuaded us that 20th-century variants on this plot were inevitably and lethally politicized.

     We include here only two examples of “interdisciplinary” student work: one from opera, the other from visual art.


Caryl Emerson


1. Pushkin’s Boris and Musorgsky’s

JULIET FORSHAW (Class of ’07, major in Music)

     Juliet Forshaw, now enrolled in a PhD program in Music at Columbia University, graduated from Princeton with a major in Music and extensive acting experience. As a singer with a good knowledge of Russian, familiar with Russian operatic and vocal repertory, she was struck by certain parallels between Pushkin’s play in its uncensored 1825 version (specifi­cally scene 6, “The Monastery Wall”) and the Jesuit Rangoni that Musorg­sky interpolated into the revised (1874) version of his Boris Godunov opera. The essay below, submitted as part of her final work for that seminar, develops this thesis.


The “Evil Monk” in Pushkin’s Play and Musorgsky’s Opera

     One of the most memorable characters in Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godu­nov is the crafty Jesuit Rangoni. He ruthlessly manipulates Princess Marina and the Pretender Dmitry into each other’s arms and into his own plot to bring Roman Catholicism to Russia by converting the future tsar. Rangoni is the only important character in the opera without an ante­cedent in Pushkin’s play—though he was obviously suggested by Push­kin’s minor character Father Czernikowski, who in scene 12 agrees to support the Pretender in return for the latter’s insincere promise to help convert Russia to the Roman faith. (Interestingly, Musorgsky appears to have made use of the Father Czernikowski character twice, in two differ­ent guises: he also turns up by name in the opera as one of the two Jesuits whom the Russian peasants attempt to lynch in the last scene.) Rangoni is drawn more literally from Nikolai Karamzin’s source history of Russia and from a sixteenth-century biography of the Pretender, both of which de­scribe him by name as a powerful papal nuncio whose support the Pre­tender only nominally obtained. Thus the character of Rangoni was based on both a minor character from Pushkin’s play and on a historical figure who had little personal contact with or political investment in the Pre­tender. His importance in the opera, when contrasted to the peripheral nature of his prototypes in the play and in the historical accounts, begs the question: what was Musorgsky’s object in creating him?

     Scholars have long explained this magnified composite of Czernikow­ski and the historical Rangoni as an expression of Musorgsky’s own xeno­phobic anti-Catholicism. Rangoni is a projection of the composer’s belief that the papally directed cadres of Jesuits were engaged in a conspiracy to bring the whole world under the Pope’s control. They claim further that Rangoni’s devious machinations serve the useful function of whitewashing the self-serving princess and Pretender into more sympathetic characters, thus allowing for a somewhat sincere love duet between them, obligatory for operas of the time. One might add that the practice of combining minor characters into composite ones is a necessary adjustment in opera, an art form that must make every effort to streamline plots and reduce the num­ber of extraneous characters.

     While correct, these explanations overlook another possible motive on the part of Musorgsky, which comes into the picture when we consider an important connection between Rangoni and yet another character in Push­kin’s play: the nameless “evil monk” (zloi chernets) who appears in the censored scene 6 (“The Monastery Wall”). It is this evil monk who urges Grigory Otrepiev to impersonate the dead Tsarevich Dmitry shortly after the pious monk Pimen plants the idea in his head. The provocative advice of this monk anticipates similar, even more forceful advice on the part of Musorgsky’s Rangoni. We do not know precisely why scene 6 disappeared from the first published version of Pushkin’s play; it appears that Pushkin himself removed it, in part for formal reasons, in part because a Russian Orthodox ecclesiastic portrayed as a traitor to the tsar would never have been approved for print. (There is some evidence that Pushkin wished to restore it in a second edition, but his death in a duel in 1837 cut short that plan.)

     However, along with the other censored scenes, scene 6 had found its way into print by the time Musorgsky began to consider setting the play in the 1860s. The composer was committed to restoring the censored scenes as far as possible. By transforming the “evil monk” into a Jesuit (at the time a familiar gothic stage villain) and transporting him across the bor­der to the ranks of hostile Poland, Musorgsky both restored the politically correct Karamzinian hypothesis that the Pretender Dmitry owed his suc­cess to a foreign rather than Russian conspiracy, and, more importantly, salvaged the otherwise unacceptable “evil monk” for his opera. In the proc­ess he not only salvaged the character but amplified him.

     What makes the “evil monk” worth amplifying? The transfer of this character from Chudov Monastery to the Mniszech court has the effect of vastly expanding his sphere of influence. Now, as Marina’s confessor, he plays the role of evil genius with her as well as with the Pretender. In­stead of merely prodding the two to their respective ventures, as the “evil monk” does with the Pretender in Pushkin’s play, Rangoni directly mani­pulates the two for his own purposes, playing on the Pretender’s naïve be­lief in romantic love and on Marina’s superstitious fear of hellfire. Ran­goni’s manipulation of the Pretender in the opera is a striking reversal of the Pretender’s manipulation of Father Czernikowski in the play. Instead of the manipulator, the Pretender is the manipulated; instead of a bril­liant opportunist, he, along with Marina, is a puppet controlled by some­one else. Rangoni’s position as puppet master renders two of the most Machiavellian characters in the play less intelligent, less aware of their own positions, less able to decide their own fates.

     The fact that two such resourceful and enterprising characters are ul­timately revealed as mere catspaws suggests a pessimistic view towards the possibility of forging one’s own destiny. The deluded collusion of the princess and the Pretender with Rangoni’s sinister agenda mirrors the clueless cooperation of the Russian people in the even more sinister his­torical events that occur throughout the opera. On both a personal and a national level, then, Musorgsky presents a fatalistic rather than prag­matic picture of the progression of events—just the opposite of Pushkin, who wanted to show that fortune favors the bold and that people succeed or fail according to their own ability to play given situations to their advantage. The synthesis of the “evil monk” with Father Czernikowski and the historical Rangoni into the operatic Rangoni is thus an important tactic in Musorgsky’s strategy to impose his own, grimmer worldview onto Pushkin’s play.


2. Boris Godunov, the Playtext Illustrations

     In our discussions of the genre of the play—comedy, romantic tragedy, tragedy, tragicomedy—we sampled two very different styles of illustration. First were the “classical” woodcut-style images by the eminent graphic artist Vladimir Favorsky (1886–1964) that illustrate the “School Library” editions of Pushkin (A. S. Pushkin, Boris Godunov. Tragediia. Moscow: “Detskaia literatura,” 2002). (Figure 15. Scene 11, Favorsky, Boris and his children) We contrasted this canonical visualization to the “carnivalesque” sketchings of Engel Nasibulin that illustrate Sergei Fomichev’s 1993 edi­tion of Pushkin’s 1825 play (A. S. Pushkin, Komediia o Tsare Borise i o Grishke Otrepieve 1825, Paris-Petersburg: Grzhebina / Notabene, 1993). Nasibulin gives us a bare-breasted Marina kicking an orb (Figure 16, Nasibulin's Marina), a False Dmitry with his facial warts prominently displayed (Figure 17, Nasibulin's Dmitry), the Russian people in rags (Figure 18. Scene 18, Nasibulin’s narod and the holy fool), Tsar Dmitry murdered and obscenely exhibited on Red Square (a flash-forward to 1606). When the players wear masks (as Stacy notes below), this should not be understood as a simple allusion to the comic and tragic masks routine in ancient Greek drama. The most mature, seemly face is that of Pushkin himself, who is depicted, at the end, glancing back over his shoulder at the “disaster to the Muscovite State” that he has commemorated.


STACY DUBOV, Class of ’09, is an Economics major with a certificate in Russian Studies. She submitted the following discussion as part of her written work for COM 335/SLA 335.


On Favorsky’s Tragedy and Nasibulin’s Comedy

     Favorsky depicts the tragedy of Boris Godunov in the form of classical, robust figures standing monumentally in space. Nasibulin, on the other hand, portrays grotesque, awkwardly shaped puppets with distorted body parts for Pushkin’s original Comedy. Tragedy is depicted in a traditional, poetic sense, whereas comedy is personified crudely with overlapping bod­ies that lack “closed lines,” definition, and volume.

     Favorsky shows his figures as gallant and poignant. They live in their own space and do not cross over into the space of others, a trait of neo­classical art. The artist utilizes the space of the frame and elongates it by making the boyars and the narod the same height. Furthermore, he gives them a life beneath the cloak. These idealized figures, with similar expres­sions and bodies, represent not only a moment in time but also a genuine story of tragedy, battle, and perseverance. The artist is sending a political message by making people and boyars of equal stature.

     The architecture is Romanesque: every figure is framed by a rounded arch or a stained glass window; the grid-work of the paintings is hori­zontal, making the scenes feel heavy and monumental (Figure 15. Scene 11, Boris and his children). The Kremlin looms in the background only when the narod is the subject of the work. The boyars, on the other hand, are anchored by the Church. People taper off on the sides, adding to the drama of the event, and create a continuous narrative out of the piece; there is always something more to the painting than we, as viewers, can readily see. But even in this allusion to a larger scope, everything is or­ganized and calculated. There is no wayward motion or unruliness among the masses. Peasants fall in graceful swanlike patterns, while boyars stand in rigid poses.

     Nasibulin, in contrast, uses the classical Russian caricature of chil­dren’s stories and combines it with a Bosch-esque foulness to produce beautiful faces with distorted and sometimes phallic features (Figure 17. Nasibulin’s Dmitry). Particularly interesting is the juxtaposition between the delicate features of Pushkin’s face and the grotesque mirror-opposites that portray a frazzled looking, devilish form. The contrast continues in the portrayal of the boyars as evil and menacing, yet sitting in an exposed, fetal position on the ground. In a place where they are supposed to be at the peak of their power, they are feeble and angry. The artist portrays the boyars in long, flowing garments that display signature Russian floral art, with pointy boots taken from Russian folklore images. As opposed to Favorsky’s stylization, these figures look like cartoons rather than holy illustrations of Russia’s past.

     Nasibulin’s work illustrating Boris Godunov as a Comedy poses inter­esting questions about the art of pretendership. His subjects are wearing masks. Visually they stimulate us to conclude that the characters are false, are acting falsely, and know that they are doing so. Not only is there no subconscious, but the figures are willingly hiding their true natures. In this context, what does it mean to wear a mask? Are you openly admitting to being a pretender? Or (counterintuitively) are you being more honest because you are openly admitting that you are putting on a façade? In one of Nasibulin’s sketches, the left side depicts Marina primping in front of a mirror. She is concealing herself behind a mask of makeup. On the right side, the False Dmitry is donning a mask. Which one, by these definitions, is the “real” pretender?

     In the Russian context, masks are neither a neutral masquerade showpiece nor a party game, but almost always demonic. Viewed in this light, the innocent Marina hides behind a cosmetic mask while seductively eyeing the royal orb (Figure 16. Marina in her dressing room). Simultaneously, the pretender hides behind a mask that only emphasizes his warts, greedily holding onto a coat of arms. What these figures hide is not beauty, but more grotesqueness. This grotesquerie feeds the disaster and turmoil at the heart of the organism. Nasibulin, in fact, capitalizes on this ironic tension between falsehood and the grotesque. He distorts and adds limbs; he makes the narod's hands as big as their heads (Figure 18. Nasibulin’s narod and the holy fool). This use of non-idealized, contorted proportions creates a Bosch-like mystique that breeds feelings of anxiety and upheaval. In contrast, Favorsky fits the narod into a small, clustered space in his Tragedy. Throughout, we see a compact, highly structured and quiescent group, wearily looking at the viewer; some shake their heads in disbelief, while others stare off into the distance. This forlorn desperation only heightens the drama, creating an ethereal effect that adds to the solidity and monumentality of the event.


[1] See Leonid Kozlov, “Boris Godunov i Ivan Groznyi: Fragmenty k teme,” in Leonid Kozlov, Proizvedenie vo vremeni: Stat´i, issledovaniia, besedy (Moscow: Eizen­shtein-tsentr, 2005), 98–114.

[2] Tamira Pachmuss published an edition of this screenplay together with “Dante” in 1991, with an informative introduction. See D. S. Merezhkovskii and Z. N. Gippius, Dante, Boris Godunov (New York: Gnosis Press, 1991), 111–95.

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.

Download: Emerson, Caryl, et al. "Princeton's Boris Godunov, 1936/2007." Pushkin Review 10 (2007): 1 - 45.