TSQ Library TÑß 34, 2010TSQ 34

Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

Steinberg-coverArkadii Shteinvberg. The second way

Anna Akhmatova in 60sRoman Timenchik. Anna Akhmatova in 60s

Le Studio Franco-RusseLe Studio Franco-Russe

 Skorina's emblem

University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Jacqueline Romeo

Vera Kommissarzhevskaia:
The American Tour

I've waited now so patiently… for, my Lord,
I know miracles don't come every day.
Then this crisis broke over me, and such a certainty
filled me: now the miraculous event would occur.

-Nora in A Doll's House

Nora Helmer's description of her marriage to her husband, Torvald-a marriage in which she had placed all her hopes-uncannily prefigures Vera Kommissarzhevskaia's hopes for her tour to America in the spring of 1908. This new "marriage" was, in many ways, a response to her disastrous one with Vsevolod Meierkhol'd only a few months before.[1] America caught her on the rebound, but it was an ill-fated match. Broadway was to become Torvald, the stern pragmatist, in sharp contrast to Kommissarzhevskaia's Nora, the hopeless idealist.

In an interview with the New York Times a day before her premiere in Ibsen's A Doll's House at Daly's Theatre on Broadway, Kommissarzhevskaia said:

In my work I strive for a combination of symbolism and realism… I am always searching for the new form, the new dramatic idea and the new inspiration. I search and I search. That was why I opened my own theatre in St. Petersburg-to hunt for the new form and keep on hunting. That is one reason why I have come to America-to New York. I try to discover the new things and am always looking for progress... ("Russia's Foremost Actress" 4)

In Russia, Kommissarzhevskaia was one of many caught in the crossfire of an aesthetic revolution (which mirrored the contemporaneous political one). The greatest contentiousness was between the proponents of realism/naturalism (so-called objectivity) and those of symbolism (subjectivity). The debate surrounded the correct answer to the following question: What is truth? Kommissarzhevskaia certainly didn't know.[2] In reaction to her failed attempt with the "evil genius" Meierkhol'd to discover the "new form," she went to America to see if it could be found there. Conveniently, she also saw it as a way to recover from her financial woes.

The impulsive marriage between Kommissarzhevskaia and Broadway was consummated upon shaky ground. While still on honeymoon, the American press began to fixate on her seemingly unpronounceable name. One interviewer commented that "in spite of a name that would seem to indicate a portentous and rather ferocious person, Mme. Vera Komisarzhevsky[sic]… is the most delicate and fragile appearing of women." Later in the interview, he asked her: "Why didn't you call yourself Mme. Vera instead of Mme. Komisarevsky[sic]? …It took the American public two years to learn how to pronounce the name Nazimova" ("Russia's Foremost Actress" 4).[3] Divorce seemed imminent, as the groom struggled over the pronunciation of his bride's name.[4]

However, this premonitory "divorce" did not begin with the American press. Russian critics were condemning her trip from its inception. Catherine Schuler, in Women in Russian Theatre, reports that I. Osipov, a staunch advocate of Kommissarzhevskaia, berated the press for not making the day of her departure (10 January 1908) one of the most historic in Russian theatre. "Just as Savina[5] once bore the standard of Russian art into Western Europe," she writes, "so Kommissarzhevskaia would bear it to America" (Schuler 181). Instead, the newspapers chose to ignore the event and took the opportunity to deride Kommissarzhevskaia for her "mercenary" tactics. Apparently many saw her trip as self-promotion, not art.[6] "Although this was probably true," continues Schuler, "the intolerance in Russia, especially within the intelligentsia, for self-promotion and commercial success was so great that critics would have castigated a self-styled aesthete like Kommissarzhevskaia for demonstrating commercial savvy or acknowledging profit as a motive" (Schuler 239).

Evidently, according to Schuler, this had less to do with Kommissarzhevskaia's apparent opportunism than with the common prejudice toward the United States (long before the Cold War) among the Russian intelligentsia. Valery Semenovsky's "America as Russian Idea" relates a literary example of Russian bigotry. "In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment," Semenovsky explains, "[when] Svidrigailov decides to put an end to his life, he remarks that he is going to America. His 'going to America' is a synonym for suicide…." Semenovsky uses Dostoevsky as the spokesperson for the Russian attitude toward America at the time. Many Russians, especially the elites, saw America's individualism and pragmatism as inimical to the Russian concept of the "human brotherhood" and the "Russian Messianic idea" (Semenovsky 196).[7]

To Kommissarzhevskaia's credit, she ignored such prejudices, at least initially (perhaps demonstrating some affinity to American pragmatism after all). In her March 1 interview, she explained:

I know what people may say about the commercialism of the drama in New York, but I do not believe it. They told me all about that when I made my plans in Russia. They said that certain forms of art would not be appreciated here. But I know that there must be people interested in the new drama we are searching for. Surely there must be societies here who are interested in such matters. And after all there are very many Russian people, too. ("Russia's Foremost Actress" 4)

Unfortunately, that pragmatism was short-lived. It soon became apparent that Kommissarzhevskaia's trip to America was based more on blind faith, or a romanticized vision, than on practicality.

In many ways, Kommissarzhevskaia was a product of her time and place. Advancement for women in the Russian intelligentsia after the 1870s tended to occur through social activism. Unlike their sisters in the West, who seemed too individualistic even for most Russian feminists, the Russian image of the New Woman was "framed in the rhetoric of individualism," but also tempered by "modesty and dedication to serving society" (Schuler 10-11). They became "intoxicated by lofty ideals of suffering and self-sacrifice in the name of social justice" and displayed "a moral zealotry almost unknown in the West" (Schuler 6-7). The Russian New Woman movement found no greater advocate than in the person of Vera Kommissarzhevskaia, as all the above attributes could be found in her personal and professional life. This was the reputation that preceded her trip to New York.

Before her arrival, a half-page spread in the New York Times touted the Russian Duse[8] in the most hyperbolic terms: "Foremost Russian Actress, Idol of Her Countrymen, Appears in New York This Month." The press release claimed that Kommissarzhevskaia:

…has done more than any other Russian actress to elevate the Russian stage during the past ten years. Her theatre in St. Petersburg, where the masterpieces of Europe are given artistic presentation, has become the pride of the intelligent Russian people, and artists regard it as a great honor to play under her direction. ("Foremost Russian Actress" SM7)[9]

Her failed marriage to Count Murav'ev at age 16 and his subsequent marriage to Kommissarzhevskaia's sister were reiterated in detail in order to convey the tormented beginnings of this Russian icon.[10]

Later, the writer (who was obviously Kommissarzhevskaia's American press agent)[11] quotes a Russian source to legitimize his claim of her magnanimity. After Kommissarzhevskaia's performance in Odessa in Hermann Sudermann's Magda,[12] "one of the best Russian actors" apparently delivered an address to her in the name of the Odessa artists:

…all that is great and sacred in a human being, all that beautifies his soul, and these you reproduce on the stage in wonderfully artistic forms. The sufferings of the women you impersonate, their joys, their sorrows, their protests, and spiritual beauty are understood by every one. Your images are, therefore, near and dear to every human heart. (qtd. in "Foremost Russian Actress" SM7)

There followed extensive excerpts from the Russian press, all enumerating Kommissarzhevskaia's "abundance of nervous power" that "electrified the audience." Her performance was met with "no end of ovations," as "it is impossible to remain unmoved by the gamut of suffering which she has brought out in the Sudermann heroine" ("Foremost Russian Actress" SM7). In what is portrayed as a typical conclusion to one of her star turns, the audience refused to leave the theatre, while the applause continued and the stage was strewn with flowers. "Suddenly," the writer explains:

…the people who filled the theatre stood up on their chairs. Some one in the front rows made a speech in which he said that the St. Petersburg stage looked gloomy without Mme. Komisarzhevsky [sic], and he told her with what love and interest all intelligent theatre-goers watched her triumphal march through Russia. "You are ours!" he exclaimed. "We have applauded your first successes, we have woven your first laurels," and when he uttered in an agitated voice "Remain with us!" The audience burst out in wild applause. Flowers and caps were hurled upon the stage.… Mme. Komisarzhevsky [sic], almost overcome with agitation, went behind the scenes, but somehow the people felt that she would say something, and all waited with bated breath. Finally she came out on the stage, again walking with difficulty, and in a voice choking with emotion she said, "Ladies and gentleman: I am yours! I am yours!" And, indeed, she decided to remain.("Foremost Russian Actress" SM7)

With her deification in Russia complete, it was now time for her to concentrate her sacred powers on the West. Would she represent for Americans what she did for so many Russians, i.e. be the embodiment of "every nerve" that "belongs to the ideas and feelings that agitate modern society" ("Foremost Russian Actress" SM7)?

Laurence Senelick, in "The American Tour of Orlenev and Nazimova, 1905-1906," reiterates this problem of "transmitting aesthetic values from one culture to another." In theatre, he explains, much of the language barrier can be overcome "by an actor's emotional or gestural power." However, the reception accorded by an audience is largely dependent on those qualities of the performance that are most meaningful to that audience, regardless of the artists' intentions (1). In the case of Vera Kommissarzhevskaia, her emotional and gestural power was not capable of overcoming this cultural divide.

Upon her arrival in the United States, her physical appearance became as much an object of consideration as her name and her title,[13] New York's Evening World described the Russian actress as "medium height and slender," with "a countenance so full of expression and character as to make her very attractive. Added to these characteristics is a pretty pair of dimples and a smile which makes her captivating" ("Russian Actress a Countess"). The New York Times, on the other hand, was not quite as complimentary. The writer observed that Kommissarzhevskaia was not beautiful:

…in any accepted sense of the word, but in her fine and sensitive features there is an expression of the readiest sympathy and understanding… Perhaps it is her restless ambition, her nervous intensity, which has kept her so slight that her physical body seems to be a half-transparent covering for her spirit. ("Russia's Foremost Actress" 4)

Comparing her to Alla Nazimova, the only other Russian actress American audiences had ever known, the writer explained how the differences between the two would come as "a distinct revelation," Nazimova being the preferred model of Slavic beauty.[14]

Unfortunately, this revelation was further illuminated by Kommissarzhevskaia unfortunate decision to debut as Nora in A Doll's House. Only a year before, Nazimova had garnered considerable press and acclaim for her rendition of Ibsen's heroine. The result was an explicit comparison to Nazimova.[15] A less than enthusiastic drama critic complained:

As a result it would be rather difficult to imagine anything more dull for the average English speaking audience than this play acted in an unintelligible language, especially where the role of Nora is in the hands of an actress whose claims to consideration, whatever they may be, do not include the attractiveness of a brilliant and magnetic personality. ("Russian Actress Appears" 4)

Although he recognized the injustice of judging Kommissarzhevskaia's abilities on this one role, he remarked that any actress with "proper technical proficiency and experience" should be able to master the role with little difficulty. "Occasionally," he continues, as in the case of "…Nazimova in English and Russian, it has been made the vehicle for fine varied expressiveness" ("Russian Actress Appears" 4). According to this critic, Kommissarzhevskaia's performance was sorely lacking in variety, as her expression appeared "limited" and "generally conventional," conveying "arrested thought by placing her index finger upon her lips," and "mental complexities by passing her hand slowly across her forehead" ("Russian Actress Appears" 4).

To be sure, the competition from Alla Nazimova was daunting. Ironically, it was Pavel Orlenev's and Nazimova's 1905-6 tour that convinced Kommissarzhevskaia to come to America. Senelick's article explains how rumors abounded in Russia that Orlenev and Nazimova were making a fortune in America. One such rumor, according to Senelick, appears in a letter from Gorky in which Orlenev was said to be so successful that he was able to rent a theatre and offer a Russian actor $45,000 to come to America (Senelick, "American Tour" 11).[16] This promise of financial success was one reason Vera Kommissarzhevskaia was drawn to the New World.

In addition to being chastised by her home press for selling out to the commercial American market, Kommissarzhevskaia was inept at handling the kind of public relations coup, mastered by her predecessors, that would have insured her success. Orlenev and Nazimova rode a wave of political expediency and sold themselves to the American public as the image of the angst-ridden, Russian artistes. Anxious to confirm their audience's expectations, Orlenev, in particular, was fond of perpetuating the myth of "Russian masochism." He is quoted as saying: "I have a great pleasure in playing a part that I suffer. Psychical suffering develops the soul. In Russia realism is rampant because the people are suffering, and they portray what is the core of their own lives" (Senelick, "American Tour" 8). Evidently, Kommissarzhevskaia's dignity prevented her from being quite as self-promoting and self-indulgent.[17]

Nazimova was different. At one level she was anxious to capitalize on the mystique of the "exotic" Russian, yet her self-imposed exile-she refused to return Russia-revealed another level: one of reinvention. Unlike Kommissarzhevskaia, who never tried to assimilate into American culture,[18] Nazimova did seek to become an American actress, quickly and easily "compromising her artistic ideals" to the necessity of commercial demands. To make herself more marketable, she eagerly mastered English and varied her repertoire between Ibsen and the "standard romantic matinee fare" (Senelick, "American Tour" 12).[19]

While Nazimova adapted herself to American tastes, Kommissarzhevskaia perpetuated the idea of Russian womanliness regardless of character. The New York Times review of her performance in A Doll's House critiqued her style thus:

Mme. Komisarzhevsky's [sic] acting is more likely to be expressive of herself than the authors she selects. Certainly in this Nora there was at the outset far more of the self-controlled woman than of Ibsen's "little lark," with her irresponsible and evasive lightness which provides the contrast needed in the final scene to drive home the impression of Nora's awakened individuality. ("Russian Actress Appears" 4)

The critic was right to observe that she was more likely "to be expressive of herself" on stage than the character the author intended. The character of Nora-at least in the last act of Ibsen's play-went against Kommissarzhevskaia's very nature as the epitome of the Russian New Woman: devoted to art and the fundamental ideas of social service, including a dedication to family and state.[20] She would have never abandoned her children.[21]

The problem of "unintelligible" language aside (something Nazimova had clearly overcome by learning English fluently), non-Russian audiences had difficulty appreciating Kommissarzhevskaia's acting style because it was so characteristically Russian. Unlike the stereotype of "wild-eyed anarchists in beards and boots" or the characters in sensational (inauthentic) melodramas based on Russian life adapted from the French, Kommissarzhevskaia represented a more "authentic" picture of the Russian personality: one of quiet suffering, strong and controlled (Senelick, "American Tour" 2). Or, as one Russian admirer described it: "In her impersonation of a character you will not notice the details that go to formulate a character, you will simply get an impression of something finished, complete." You will not "notice her technique because she lives the part instead of acting it…" (qtd. in "Foremost Russian Actress" SM7). Such subtlety required the spectator to have some knowledge of the Russian language in order for the nuances of her performance to shine through. For Kommissarzhevskaia, the aesthetics were unable to transcend the language barrier.

In contrast, reviews of Nazimova's Nora-which premiered in English only a year before Kommissarzhevskaia's Russian version-concentrated on Nazimova's keen ability to transform herself into the very character she was playing. The New York Globe critic recognized this ability when he compared her Nora to her Hedda from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which she had been performing for the previous eight weeks. "The bare fact that she seemed another person from the Nazimova who for the past eight weeks has been appearing as the mentally distraught Hedda," he remarked, "is the best possible proof that she, unlike a number of other well-known players, is above the necessity of playing herself" ("Plays") Another New York critic made a similar observation:

It is reasonable to anticipate a great future for an actress who, despite limitations imposed by a language not yet perfectly acquired, can embody with such faithful illusion two ideals of character so widely divergent as Hedda and Nora. …The salient fact is that Mme. Nazimova practices the art of impersonation rather than the business of personal display. (De Foe)

Nazimova seemed to present a reality of character that was appealing and familiar to her New York critics.[22]

The kind of acting that Kommissarzhevskaia practiced, on the other hand, was not fully appreciated by her American, English-speaking audience, mostly because her "combination of symbolism and realism" prevented her from subordinating her personality to the role. Her success in Russia had been assured because the "cult of personality" prevailed. Her worshippers were less concerned with the characters she portrayed so long as they displayed her personality to best advantage. Her New York audience only knew her for a few weeks and, then, from only the press releases she submitted and interviews she gave. They hardly had time to develop such affection.

Ultimately, not all the blame can be laid at the American audience's feet. Kommissarzhevskaia's ignorance and parochial attitude also contributed to her demise. There is a certain naiveté mixed with arrogance when upon her arrival she proclaimed:

There is much that I do not understand, but shall try to observe. I am interested in coming to this country and try to learn about it. I do not expect to play here in the English language, and I have no intention of becoming an American actress… I shall play only in the Russian language… I closed my theatre in the middle of the season to come to New York. ("Russia's Foremost Actress" 4)

Her parochialism was betrayed by her admission that this was the first time she had traveled outside her native land. "It is the first time that I have ever been to play outside Russia," she told a New York Times reporter, "I have been striving for the new drama. I want to bring that new drama here. Also, I want to learn things here and to understand new things to add to my own art. I should like to travel through the country outside of New York" ("Russia's Foremost Actress" 4). Ultimately, it was this strain of hopeless idealism that was to do her in.

Other more practical and mundane matters seemed to haunt Kommissarzhevskaia's American tour as well. Had she done her homework, she would have realized that Daly's Theatre on Broadway was a completely inappropriate venue for her premiére. The location alienated her Russian émigré audience, which found the theatre too far away-most of them lived on the Lower East Side-and the ticket prices far too steep for their pocketbooks (Schuler 181). Initially, Kommissarzhevskaia had intended to attract a more diverse group of spectators, so she chose to open with A Doll's House. Hoping the non-Russian speaking audience would attend simply out of acquaintance with the drama proved to be another miscalculation. As one critic despaired: "In this play it is far more important that the auditor should know what the characters are saying than what they are doing" ("Russian Actress Appears" 4). Another, this time in regard to a performance of Ibsen's The Master Builder, exclaimed: "The fact that the players spoke the Russian tongue was hardly calculated to illumine the general murkiness of the play"("Drop" 9).

Additional setbacks plagued the rest of her run. Royalty issues over Sudermann's Battle of the Butterflies (her signature role)[23] precipitated the abbreviation of her engagement at Daly's from five weeks to three ("Demand" 7; "Russian Actress Curtails" 7). A move to more suitable haunts at the Thalia on the Bowery created yet another controversy: this time between the Hebrew Actor's Protective Union and the theatre manager, Michael Mintz. The Yiddish company, usually housed at the Thalia, resented being displaced by Kommissarzhevskaia's non-union Russian cast ("Actors" 9). A two-day appearance in Brooklyn was cut short by the police because the theatre had no license ("Stop" 1). Her misfortunes were rounded out by the theft of some jewelry from her dressing room during a charity benefit performance, although this was more than likely a publicity stunt.[24]

Finally, the biggest disappointment of all: Kommissarzhevskaia was prevented from playing in Sister Beatrice, one of the few successes she had had with Meierkhol'd back in Russia, and a part that beautifully showcased her talents. She confessed: "I had set my heart on [Sister Beatrice], and I felt just like playing it. I would have played it if there had not been a single person in the house. And when I learned it was legally impossible, I was almost tempted to play it anyhow and be arrested afterward" ("Russian Actress Calls" 9). Kommissarzhevskaia was forced to drop the Maeterlinck play after Paul Kiernan-the owner of the American rights-forbade her to perform it. Apparently, Kommissarzhevskaia was unfamiliar with copyright law. A signed statement issued by the play agent, Alice Kauser, partially reprinted in the New York Times on March 23, read:

From the outstart, Mme. Komisarzhevsky [sic] ignored the rights of the authors, announcing plays which did not belong to her and continuing to announce them after these repeated protests. Nor was there willingness to pay royalties until the fact had been impressed that refusal must entail penal as well as civil suits. ("Who Barred" 7)

The culmination of her trip would have been her arrest, except she fortunately was not "tempted" to try the American legal system.[25]

There is a certain symmetry to the fact that Kommissarzhevskaia ended her tour of America with a farewell "concert"[26] of A Doll's House. Only this time she was at the Thalia with a sold-out audience of "her own people." At last she had found an appreciative audience, albeit too late.[27] Her last performance brought forth the familiar adulation she had grown so accustomed to in Russia. At the end of the second act, the curtain fell and rose to the ovations of an enthusiastic crowd. The applause was so overwhelming that she could not even continue with the third. Eventually the stage was cleared and the formal parting began. A representative of the Socialist Party approached the actress on behalf of the audience:

He spoke of her art and her beauty and of the feeling of regret on the part of those who had seen her play that she was to leave the country. Then he presented her with a memorial with 10,000 names signed to it. It recited praises of the actress, and declared the esteem of New York's Russians for her. ("Enthusiastic Adieu" 7)

Despite her cold reception on Broadway and the abrupt ending of her scheduled engagement at Daly's, two truck-loads of tributes were salvaged from her closing ceremonies at the Thalia ("Enthusiastic Adieu" 7).[28]

As her reputation preceded her, so would it return with her. With regard to the English-speaking audiences, she had much to criticize.[29] It was appropriate that during her final performance of A Doll's House she was not allowed to finish the final act, for the last act of that play was the antithesis of her personality. In this way, she could go on pretending that "the miracle" might still happen. In her final interview, Kommissarzhevskaia, the eternal optimist with characteristic chutzpah, turned the failure of her tour right on its head. "You may consider in a way," she told the reporter:

…that our appearance was a failure, but what sort of failure? It was not a financial success, as one may have seen, but I do not come here in search of American gold… It was a failure in the sense that your public did not seem anxious to see what we Russians could do in the way of acting. That is a failure that should be on your conscience. From an artistic standpoint, my conscience is clear. ("Russian Actress Calls" 9)

Like most bad marriages, petty misunderstandings and too many expectations drove the couple to the brink. Kommissarzhevskaia's dream of discovering "new forms" in the New World, mixed with the hope that she could still turn a profit, was ultimately incompatible with Broadway's realistic vision and pragmatic values. Besides the obvious aesthetic differences, there was also Kommissarzhevskaia's inability or outright aversion to conform to her host country's preconceptions. Meanwhile America's idea of Russia was so steeped in narrow-minded stereotypes that it was almost inconceivable to imagine anything like the "Russian Duse."

As unsuited Kommissarzhevskaia's personality may have been to the rational efficiency of the American commercial theatre, it is not completely accurate to characterize her as "always having her head in the clouds." Her initial impetus for going to America was her compulsive pursuit of "new forms" (whatever and wherever they may be) and, yet, she also saw it as a way to remedy her financial situation after her Meierkhol'd debacle. Even so, her aesthetic purposes seemed to have ruled over her practical ones.

Vacillation between high ideals and pragmatism was typical of Kommissarzhevskaia even in Russia. It was not her style to "think" her way to America, giving time to preparation and planning. Like her acting and her life, she "felt" her way there instead. As Aleksandr Kugel posthumously described her: "She was inquisitive, lively, passionate. Standing still, no matter how it was reflected, was torture for her. In her the spirit of restlessness, the craving for change, questing, journeys, and discoveries wove their nest" (94). In the end, Kommissarzhevskaia could not have believed her American tour was a complete failure. As long as she was "searching and seeking," in her eyes, she would always be a success.

  1. Refers to the year (1906/7) in which Vsevolod Meierkhol'd was artistic director at Kommissarzhevskaia's Dramatic Theatre in St. Petersburg. The collaboration, which consisted of several failed-artistically and financially-experimental productions, proved disastrous. Maurice Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice being the notable exception. See: Hoover's Meyerhold and His Set Designers, Leach's Vsevolod Meyerhold, Meyerhold's. Meyerhold on Theatre, and Senelick's "Vera Kommissarzhevskaya: The Actress as Symbolist Eidonlon" in works cited.
  2. For more on the debate, see: Bakshy's The Path of the Modern Russian Stage and Other Essays, Paperno's and Grossman's Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism, Pyman's History of Russian Symbolism, and Schumacher's Naturalism and Symbolism in European Theatre in Works Cited.
  3. Alla Nazimova (1879-1945), Russian-born actress who had made her own tour to America only a few years before and now made the United States her home.
  4. After Kommissarzhevskaia had been playing for a week, it seems the only thing of interest about her was her name. As one reporter stated: "The most remarkable thing about her, aside from the fact that she is a real Russian countess and has money with which to finance her tour if necessary, is her name." (In fact, she was broke, but the press didn't need to know that.) From "And Her Name is Komisarzhevsky [sic]!," unidentified newspaper clipping, 8 Mar 1908. "Komisarjevsky Collection," Clippings File, Harvard Theatre Collection, Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Hereafter abbreviated as HTC.
  5. Mariya Savina (1854-1915), Kommissarzhevskaia's rival at the Imperial Alexandra Troupe in St. Petersburg.
  6. Many Russians accused Sarah Bernhardt of the same kind of shameless self-promotion.
  7. According to Semenovsky, the Russian intelligentsia felt "America [stood] for the decline of Europe, the hell of civilization beyond the bounds of spirituality" (Semenovsky 196-7). Also, it should be remembered that Gor'kii's City of the Yellow Devil (1906) had been written only a few years before. His account of his wretched treatment in New York, when it was discovered that his female traveling companion was not his wife, is described in the play through his representation of the evils of city life under the auspices of capitalism.
  8. Eleanora Duse (1858-1924), Italian actress who had toured the United States on several occasions, leaving a considerable impression on the American public.
  9. "Foremost Russian Actress, Idol of Her Countrymen, Appears in New York This Month," New York Times, 2 Feb 1908: SM7. Upon her arrival, The Evening World (New York) wrote: " Vera Komisarzhevsky [sic]-the English spelling applied by herself-known in private life as the Countess Muravieff [sic], heralded as the Duse of the Russian stage, and pronounced by the grand Duke Constantine, cousin to the Czar, as the greatest living actress, arrived this morning …," in 26 Feb 1908. "Komisarjevsky Collection," Clippings File, HTC. The press appeared to be as preoccupied with Kommissarzhevskaia's aristocratic pedigree as they were with her exotic name.
  10. The article also emphasized the Count's eventual abandonment of the sister, leaving Kommissarzhevskaia to aid her in her time of "great need."
  11. Possibly Nikolas Orlov, Kommissarzhevskaia's tour manager and a member of her acting company. He had been part of the touring company of Orlenev and Nazimova.
  12. Heimat (Homeland, 1893) in German. Hermann Sudermann (1857-1928) was a German naturalistic playwright whose popularity was on par with Ibsen's at the time.
  13. In fact, many newspaper articles made much of the fact that she was a countess.
  14. Nazimova was also 15 years younger
  15. "By opening in [Ibsen's] A Doll's House," explains Senelick, "she immediately evoked comparison with Nazimova, often to Kommissarzhevskaya's [sic] detriment" (Senelick, "American Tour" 11).
  16. In fact, due to poor management, Orlenev was losing money.
  17. She appeared to one reporter as "a timid, shrinking little woman whose greatest desire was to avoid publicity" ("New Russian" 7). Catherine Schuler maintains that Kommissarzhevskaia promoted herself as the "embodiment of the Russian artistic intelligentsia" and "the representative of the Russian feudal aristocracy" (Schuler 182).
  18. See page 4 of "Russia's Foremost Actress."
  19. By the time Kommissarzhevskaia came to America, the producers Sam S. and Lee Shubert were touring Nazimova throughout the Northeast in A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder by Ibsen, and The Comet by Owen Johnson. In addition to A Doll's House, The Master Builder was also part of Kommissarzhevskaia repertoire. See "Nazimova Is to Go on Tour Next Month" and "Nazimova Goes on Tour" in works cited.
  20. In keeping with the New Woman mystique, she made certain the press was aware of her "simplicity": "I have no cats or dogs to amuse me. My art has no time for them. I live as simply as I dress, for simplicity is my leading trait. I have many jewels-the precious gifts of my dear friends-but I never wear them either in the street or on the stage." (Supposedly, she had a necklace the Czar gave her that was worth $150,000). When seen by the reporters at Quarantine "she wore a long plaid ulster and fur boa, while on her head was a little blue straw hat, narrow brimmed, with a bunch of peculiar bird feathers of variegated hue" ("Russian Actress a Countess").
  21. The article, "Russia's Foremost Actress…" reports of "her innumerable godchildren, of both noble and peasant parentage," whom she gathers together every Christmas in St. Petersburg and has "the jolliest kind of Russian celebration." Her other noted charity is that of "aiding indigent students… No student in real need of aid is too humble to receive her bountiful assistance."
  22. American acting, since the 19th-century, had been dominated by a kind of realism that Nazimova seemed to demonstrate (Senelick, "American Tour" 15, n. 21).
  23. She was still playing the adolescent Rosie at 43. In one interview she quaintly lied about her age: "I went on the stage when I was nineteen years old," she said "and I have been playing just fifteen years. Oh, my! Now they will all know how old I am!" She laughed. "But never mind; I hope your American people will come and see me act just the same" ("Russian Actress A Countess").
  24. This was a standard story that was often planted by opportunistic press agents to raise interest in their subjects. Supposedly, two jewels had been stolen. One was a present to her father from the Queen of Greece, and the other was a gift to her from the Czar.
  25. Kommissarzhevskaia was also meant to tour several Northeastern cities, but only got as far as New Haven. See Rybokova's V. F. Komissarzhevskaia: The Chronicle of Her Life and Creations (383-404) for a description of Kommissarzhevskaia 's itinerary and a listing of American newspaper reviews of her performances.
  26. Theatrical performances were prohibited on Sunday, hence, the euphemism "concert."
  27. Kommissarzhevskaia returned to Russia with a total loss of 20,000 rubbles.
  28. Most likely this is an exaggeration.
  29. Although she was leaving with a generally unfavorable impression of the United States, she did say that she might possibly return someday ("Russian Actress Calls" 9).
  30. Works Cited

    "Actors Locked Out at Thalia." New York Times 22 March 1908: 9.

    Bakshy, Alexander. The Path of the Modern Russian Stage and Other Essays. London: C. Palmer & Hayward, 1916.

    De Foe, Louis V. "Windows of Art in A Doll's House." 15 January 1905. Clippings File: Personalities. Harvard Theatre Collection. Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

    "Demand Royalty on Play." New York Times 10 March 1908: 7.

    "Drop Maeterlinck Plays." New York Times 21 March 1908: 9.

    "Enthusiastic Adieu for Komisarchevsky [sic]." New York Times 20 April 1908: 7.

    "Foremost Russian Actress, Idol of Her Countrymen, Appears in New York This Month." New York Times, 2 Feb 1908: SM7.

    Golub, Spencer. The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

    Hoover, Marjorie L. Meyerhold and His Set Designers. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

    Kugel, Aleksandr Rafailovich. "V. F. Komissarzhevskaia." Russian Studies in History: Russian Nightlife, fin-de-siècle 31.3 (1992): 87-96.

    Leach, Robert. Vsevolod Meyerhold. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Meyerhold, Vsevolod. Meyerhold on Theatre. Trans., Edward Braun. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.

    "Nazimova Goes on Tour." New York Times 17 February 1908: 7.

    "Nazimova Is to Go on Tour Next Month." New York Times 30 January 1908: 7.

    "New Russian Actress Comes to Play Here." New York Times 27 February 1908: 7.

    Paperno, Irina and Joan Delaney Grossman, eds. Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

    "Plays and Players." New York Globe 15 January 1907. Clippings File: Personalities. Harvard Theatre Collection. Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

    Pyman, Avril. A History of Russian Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    Rosenthal, Charlotte. "The Silver Age: High Point for Women?" In Women and Society in Russia and the Soviet Union. Ed., Linda Edmondson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 32-47.

    Rudnitsky, Konstantin. Meyerhold, The Director. Trans. George Petrov. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981.

    "Russian Actress a Countess; Has No Fads, She Says." Evening World [New York] 26 February 1908. Komisarjevsky Collection. Harvard Theatre Collection. Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

    "Russian Actress Appears as Nora." New York Times 3 March 1908: 4.

    "Russian Actress Calls Us Artless." New York Times 24 April 1908: 9.

    "Russian Actress Curtails Engagement." New York Times 10 March 1908: 7.

    "Russia's Foremost Actress Won't Talk About the Situation at Home But Is Most Communicative About Her Ideas on the Drama." New York Times 1 March 1908: 4.

    Rybokova, Iuliia Petrovna. "In the Aleksandrinskii Theater." Russian Studies in History: Russian Nightife, fin-de-siècle 31.3 (1992): 50-86.

    ---. V. F. Komissarzhevskaia: The Chronicle of Her Life and Creations. St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg Press, 1994.

    Schuler, Catherine A. Women in Russian Theatre: The Actress in the Silver Age. London: Routledge, 1996.

    Schumacher, Claude, ed. Naturalism and Symbolism in European Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Semenovsky, Valery. "America as Russian Idea." Wandering Stars: Russian Emigre Theatre, 1905-1940. Ed. Laurence Senelick. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. 196-204.

    Senelick, Laurence. "The American Tour of Orlenev and Nazimova, 1905-1906." Wandering Stars: Russian Emigre Theatre, 1905-1940. Ed. Laurence Senelick. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. 1-15

    ---. "Vera Kommissarzhevskaya: The Actress as Symbolist Eidolon." Theatre Journal 32 (1980): 475-87.

    "Stop Komisarzhevsky [sic]." New York Times 24 March 1908: 1.

    "Who Barred 'Beatrice'?." New York Times 23 March 1908: 7.

    step back back   top Top
University of Toronto University of Toronto