Irena R. Makaryk
“The tsar of poets”?
The Changing Fortunes of Shakespeare in Russia
The title of my talk today is taken from the early nineteenth-century Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (1812-1848) who admitted to being “Enslaved by the drama of Shakespeare,” that unrivalled “tsar of poets.” Belinsky regarded Shakespeare as a “natural” genius who intuitively “understood heaven, earth, and hell,” and yet, at the same time, was an “ignoramus” unaware of the true meaning of his own plays.
Belinsky’s bifurcated assessment of Shakespeare as genius and idiot is not as remarkable as his reference to him as “the tsar of poets,” since, in the history of Shakespeare’s reception in Russia, he was generally little appreciated as poet until the 1940s when Boris Pasternak produced his extraordinary translations of the sonnets. Instead, for the past 250 years, Shakespeare has been best known as a playwright and, more particularly, as a writer of tragedies of great passions, larger-than-life characters, and &mdash as our symposium title reminds us &mdash of passion, murder, and mayhem.
If Shakespeare may be at all considered a “tsar,” then he is metaphorically so in his fortunes: like the tsars, he has been variously admired, reviled, misunderstood, and ignored; he has acted as inspiration, collaborative creative partner, and target of literary-critical assassination; he has been “buried” but also “rehabilitated.”
Throughout the centuries, Shakespeare’s reception has also been inextricably tied to the Russian love-hate relationship with the West, and hence his reputation on stage and page has depended as much on politics as on literary taste. Thus, to study Shakespeare in the Russian context is to have a window onto Russia. Today, I’d like to explore some of these ideas by taking us through a brief history of Shakespeare’s afterlife in Russia from its beginnings through to the period of Shostakovich’s creation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and pausing on the most remarkable Shakespeare production of the Soviet period, Les’ Kurbas’s 1924 Macbeth. The Scottish play, it should be noted, has not had a fortunate nor extensive reception history in either imperial or Soviet Russia. Some suggestions about why this might be so will be made at the end of this paper.
To begin at the beginning: Shakespeare certainly knew of and occasionally referred to Russians in his plays. His mocking reference to “a mess of Muscovites” in his early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, may be a not-so-oblique reference to Ivan the Terrible’s (1553-1584) erratic, if not inept, diplomatic efforts at the court of Elizabeth I. Despite the fact that he was still married to his seventh wife, the tsar urged his emissaries to pursue the possibility of union with an English lady &mdash efforts which failed to meet with success.
Shakespeare’s interest in the Russians was not reciprocated by the practically-minded tsar with little time for English culture. Such an interest came only seventy years later when Alexander Sumarokov (1718-1777), also known as the “father” of Russian drama, became the first translator (adaptor) of Shakespeare. The connection between the development of a native Russian drama and interest in Shakespeare reflects a larger role which Shakespeare’s works have played elsewhere around the world: that is, as an important agent in the development of a native theatrical tradition and in legitimating theatrical innovation.
Sumarokov preceded Belinsky’s view of Shakespeare as an “inspired barbarian” in whose “work there is much that is very bad and much that is exceedingly good”. Translating and adapting a French version of Hamlet, Sumarokov transformed the play into moralistic, stately, rhymed couplets. The murderer of Hamlet’s father becomes Polonius, who also plots to kill Queen Gertrude so that he may marry off his daughter, Ophelia, to the new king. But virtue triumphs: Polonius commits suicide and Hamlet marries Ophelia.
The lack of interest in Shakespeare up until the late eighteenth century mirrors the inward-looking nature of Russian politics. As Russians began to look westward, however, interest in Shakespeare increased. In his correspondence with the German-born and educated Catherine II (1762-1796), Voltaire encouraged the tsarina to turn her hand to the English playwright. She responded by adapting a German prose translation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. In her version of the play, The Linen Basket (1786), the perennially jealous character of John Ford is transformed into the Russian “Fordov,” while the resilient Falstaff becomes “Polkadov” &mdash a Frenchified (that is to say, dandified) Russian without any trace of his English ancestor’s resourceful and polyvalent wit.
Catherine also remade Shakespeare’s late tragedy Timon of Athens into a moralized play entitled The Spendthrift. Notwithstanding the tsarina’s interest in Shakespeare’s history plays, when the historian Nikolai Karamzin translated excerpts from Julius Caesar and published them anonymously in 1787, she had the text confiscated and the play barred from performance, a ban which endured for well over a hundred years. Such an interdiction was also extended to Macbeth, another play with a political assassination at its core.
The Russian preference for a drama of morality and didacticism prevented an easy acceptance of Shakespeare, and this cool reception was exacerbated by the Russian deference to French literary and dramatic principles. A Russian translation of Voltaire’s critique of Shakespeare published in the St. Petersburg journal Merkurii (Mercury) in 1793 provides a sense of the type of ammunition used for attacking the Bard: Shakespeare is castigated for his absence of good taste, lack of poetic justice, and ignorance of dramatic rules. He mixes the comic with the tragic. These imperfections and others, the translator suggested, were a reflection of the English national character with its natural predilection for the horrific, murderous, and bloody.
If Shakespeare, his countrymen, and his adulators were attacked, it should be noted that up until the 1830s only a tiny circle of the literate intelligentsia knew of Shakespeare, and those few who did knew of him primarily through translated and adapted excerpts of his plays. Of these, even fewer were familiar with the English language. The prevailing preference for and influence of the French contributed to the continuing practice of approaching Shakespeare not directly, but from more familiar linguistic sources &mdash French and German versions &mdash, thus presenting a play often twice or thrice removed from its source text. Thus, the first translation of Macbeth, undertaken in 1802 by poet and literary critic Andrei Turgenev (1781-1803), was a reworking from German and French sources. (His translation has not survived, but we know of its existence from his letters and memoirs.) Such a practice from other sources found its inadvertently most comical example in the work of Alexander Rotchev whose title page read: Macbeth. A Tragedy of Shakespeare from the Works of Schiller (1830), and which sparked one critic to sigh, “Poor Shakespeare! What terrible suffering you have to endure!”
Despite the growing notion that the original English should be consulted, Russian Shakespeare continued to be greeted with most success when he was presented in a romantic or melodramatic garb, shorn of double entendres and scatology, and full of idealized and heroic speeches.
Stage adaptations were not the only means of acquaintance with Shakespeare. Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russian periodicals, although mostly derivative in nature, became an important source for the dissemination of opinion about the Bard. The most frequently cited was the English journal The Spectator (translated from the German, itself translated from the French). Home grown journals such as Moskovskii telegraf (Moscow Telegraph) also published excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays, as well as illustrations inspired by the plays, and translations of critical articles.
Scholarly literary criticism also derived its ideas from foreign sources. Professor and rector of Kharkov University, Ivan Kroneberg (1788-1838), who had studied in Jena, published the first study of Macbeth. Drawing entirely on German sources, he championed the then novel idea that the Macbeths’ mutual love was one of the main causes of the Scottish thane’s murderous actions. This view was to have currency in the late 19th century, when it became a significant interpretive line for some of the first Russian stage productions of the play.
The Romantic movement with its emphasis on feeling and the growth of a native Russian theatre brought Shakespeare into greater prominence. Historical events also endowed Macbeth with a special resonance. The uprising after the Napoleonic wars, the execution of leaders of the secret revolutionary societies and subsequent increased tyranny of the tsarist police, the death of tsar Paul I and the ascension of his son, Alexander I (thought to be implicated in the death of his father) aroused a new interest in the theme of the usurper. Thus, while in prison and later in long-term exile in Siberia for his revolutionary activities, poet and playwright Wilhelm Kuechelbecker had some time to contemplate oppression and it was there that he began his translation of Macbeth and Richard III, though these were to remain, like many of his works, unpublished.
Other translations of Macbeth included that of Mikhail Vronchenko, finally permitted publication in 1837. It was of this translation that Belinsky wrote, “Vronchenko translated Macbeth and how he translated it! … You can hear the spirit of Shakespeare, and when you listen to it, you are filled with ideas and images of the tsar of world poets!” Yet, despite Belinsky’s praise, only five copies were sold; readers still preferred Rotchev’s version, taken from Schiller.
The 1830s and especially the 1840s mark a high period of anglomania and the crest of Shakespeare’s reputation as a tragedian. In a shift away from the hitherto fashionable French, the ability to read English came to be regarded as a sign of taste and true literacy. A decisive role in cementing Shakespeare’s place on the Russian stage may be attributed to Nikolai Polevoi’s translation of Hamlet (1837). Performed by Pavel Mochalov &mdash Moscow’s first Danish Prince &mdash the play yielded ten successful performances. Polevoi’s translation, still popular in the twentieth century, followed Goethe’s view of the delicate Prince, changing and adding lines to make him appear still weaker; thus, Polevoi-Hamlet’s most famous line was, “Afraid, I am afraid of man!” Mochalov’s emotional, melancholy Hamlet also toured the provincial theatres and set the trend for subsequent Russian Hamlets: weak-willed, overactive in intellect, or decadent in character.
The first poet to be deeply influenced by Shakespeare’s style was himself a great poet: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), whose taste was shaped in part by his first patron and mentor, the already mentioned Nikolai Karamzin (whose translation of Julius Caesar had been banned). Pushkin was part of a circle of Shakespeare enthusiasts, many of whom were political as well as aesthetic revolutionaries. It was Pushkin who initiated the process of more thoroughly integrating Shakespeare into the Russian cultural sphere. His work is steeped in Shakespearean echoes and allusions. Impressed by Shakespeare’s individualized characters, his “knowledge of men’s souls,” and the vitality and variety of his dramatic invention, Pushkin referred to Shakespeare as Russia’s “father.” Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov conflates two Shakespearean characters: the cunning, cynical, manipulative Richard III with the self-examining Macbeth in a complex work which mixes the comic with the tragic, verse with prose. Like Macbeth, Boris Godunov ascends the throne by way of murder and discovers that the crown brings no satisfaction, rather, hallucinations and despair. Unlike Macbeth, however, Pushkin’s hero does not wade any further into the river of blood.
Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is another major work with Shakespearean echoes, as is his poem Anzhelo, a recasting of Measure for Measure. The history plays were of special interest to Pushkin because of their concern with dynastic succession, the nature of kingship, the psychology of leadership, and the relationship between ruler and subject. Yet, for all that, Pushkin, like his contemporary Belinsky, also believed that Shakespeare was a “natural” genius who wrote his plays intuitively, carelessly, and without any conscious theory of drama.
Throughout the 1840s many more Shakespearean translations appeared; in 1841 alone, thirteen. The grand, ambitious undertaking to translate the complete plays into prose (a project not completed) &mdash was initiated at this time, as was the still active debate about which is superior, prose or verse translation.
In literary and theatrical criticism, Vissarion Belinsky continues to hold a central place. “Is there anything in Shakespeare that is not great or divine?” he rhapsodized in 1840. References to Shakespeare abound in his many articles, the most famous of which, on Hamlet, was inspired by reflections on Mochalov’s romantic stage interpretation. Hamlet, argued Belinsky, is “each one of us,” and the play is the “poetic apotheosis of reflection.” This perceived consanguinity between Hamlet and the Russian psyche has continued unchallenged to the present day.
While Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were his favourite plays, Belinsky also ventured a few thoughts about Macbeth, whom he at first typified as weak-willed, then, in a later work, as a “criminal &mdash though a criminal with a deep and great soul” whose great nature finds itself in tragic collision with his ambitious self. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, he describes as “that demon in the guise of a woman.”
Nineteenth century Russian theatrical and literary criticism gives scant &mdash if any &mdash attention to Macbeth’s “partner in greatness.” The small interest in, and low ranking of Macbeth (by comparison with Hamlet), as well as the assessment of Lady Macbeth as a “demon,” are commonplace in the nineteenth century. Such a valuation is reflected in a variety of ways, including perhaps in the play’s physical location in anthologies. In Nikolai Ketcher’s published translation (1842), for example, the Scottish play is oddly sandwiched between two comedies, The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. Perhaps Ketcher was trying to hint at a link between the women of the three works: the jealous, nagging wife, Adriana of Errors, who, in the end, is brought to a recognition of her part in the marital troubles of the play; and the head-strong, physically and verbally assertive Katherine of Shrew who is “tamed” by the “tough love” of her husband, Petruchio. Between these two viragos there is that other wayward woman, Lady Macbeth, who served as the inspiration for a story by Nikolai Leskov, which, in turn, formed the basis of Shostakovich’s opera.
The title of Leskov’s tale was meant to echo an earlier work by Ivan Turgenev, “A Hamlet of Shchigrov District” (1849), both tales which “Russianized” Shakespeare’s characters and suggested that deep tragedies and great collisions of the Shakespearean type could be found even in the depths of provincial Russia &mdash something also revealed in Turgenev’s “A King Lear of the Steppes” (1870).
Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1865) is Katerina Izmailova, a cunning, lusty, and unscrupulous young woman who actually bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s creation. That which Lady Macbeth only imagines doing &mdash murdering her a child &mdash Leskov’s Katerina actually carries out. While Shakespeare’s character is consumed by guilt and fades quickly from the main action after the murder of King Duncan, Leskov’s protagonist remains strong and vicious to the very end. What Leskov does, however, is to bring strikingly to the foreground Shakespeare’s questions about the nature of masculinity and femininity, as well as the alliance of murder with sexuality (as, for example, in Macbeth’s advance on the sleeping king Duncan, which he imagines as a kind of rape).
If Shakespeare’s character provided only a general stimulus for one of Leskov’s stories, for Ivan Turgenev Shakespearean characters were of more central importance, although, as a writer, he was drawn to explore less active types, as in his “Hamlet of Shchigrov District,” “The Diary of a Superfluous Man,” and in his essay, “Hamlet and Don Quixote.” To Turgenev also falls the responsibility for disseminating the image of a brooding, introspective, “superfluous” Hamlet.
The 1860s ushered in a number of “firsts.” Among them was the first successful staging of a Shakespearean comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, a play which has remained not only a staple of the Russian comic repertoire but also one of its most popular plays. The 1860s saw the first musical composition on a Shakespearean theme, King Lear by Mili Balakir’ev, which was followed by the work of other composers, including Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest). Visual artists and sculptors also turned to Shakespeare for subject matter.
Among the few women writers of this period, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia placed a Shakespeare text at the centre of her novella The Boarding School Girl (1861). A shallow provincial girl is transformed into an independent-thinking Petersburg artist by reading a copy of Romeo and Juliet (in French, naturally). Here, Shakespeare is presented as an enlightening alternative to the impossibly idealized Russian stories of heroic great men. As one of the characters observes, in Shakespeare “people behave like people … they’re not angels, or even great people. They even behave badly.”
It was in 1861, as well, that rumours circulated in St. Petersburg about the lifting of the prohibition against staging Macbeth. “Finally! &mdash Thank God!” one actress was quoted as commenting in a gossipy piece in the literary journal Sovremennik [The Contemporary]. This more liberal atmosphere was associated with the recent ascension to the throne of Tsar Alexander II, who held moderately reformist tendencies and had even bowed to pressure to emancipate the serfs in 1861. But the liberalization was exceedingly brief. In the wake of the Polish uprising in 1863, Alexander brutally suppressed all opposition and instituted severe policies of russification. Among his much lesser repressive measures was the scuttling of elaborate preparations for a public celebration of Shakespeare in 1864 to have been held at the imperial theatre in St. Petersburg.
If not in disfavour, Shakespeare was, in the next two decades, not the most popular of playwrights. A chronicle of the repertoire of St. Petersburg theatres shows that, between 1856 and 1881, Shakespearean plays (or excerpts) from them accounted for only one percent of all the shows produced. Foreign actors, however, helped expand the repertoire and kept Shakespeare before the Russian audience, beginning with the black American actor Ira Aldridge, who (in the previous decade) travelled widely throughout the Russian empire playing Aaron the Moor in his adaptation of Titus Andronicus, as well as Othello, Shylock, and King Lear (in white-face). Enthusiastically greeted by some, he was derided as a “savage” and boycotted by others. Still, Aldridge opened the theatrical trade routes to the East. In the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, other touring actors followed, some of whom returned repeatedly to Russia, especially to Moscow. Sarah Bernhardt and Tommaso Salvini were among the nearly dozen foreign actors who played Shakespeare in their native language on Russian stages. Salvini’s performance of Othello was to prove particularly significant: it was to be a major source of inspiration for Konstantin Stanislavsky, who shortly thereafter created a new theatre and system of acting which, in turn, would later be transformed in the USA into what came to be known as “method acting.”
While Hamlet and Lear continued to garner attention, Macbeth languished, although the dark Scottish play received some serious interest from the first professional Shakespearean, the Oxford-educated Nikolai Storozhenko, who published many articles and lectures on the English theatre over a 20 year span. In his lecture series on Macbeth, he knowledgeably analyzed the play’s sources, the hero’s character development, and the play’s English stage histor. He also laid the groundwork for original Russian scholarship and helped popularize Shakespeare among both students and actors.
When repressive measures were relaxed near century’s end, Macbeth finally appeared on stage three times before the outbreak of the First World War. The success of the productions (however limited) may, in part, be attributed to an interpretation of Lady Macbeth which coincided with the stereotype of the ideal Russian woman. Rather than emphasizing her demonic qualities, Maria Ermolova focused on Lady Macbeth’s femininity and weakness; she interpreted her thirst for power and ambition as arising from an all-encompassing love of her husband that was focused on helping him fulfill his earthly desires. Such a Lady Macbeth was reprised and developed by Nina Smirnova, who played the role in the 1913/14 season. As Smirnova observed in her memoirs:
“I saw in Lady Macbeth not an inexhaustible hell, not an evil and strong woman who induces her husband to kill. I didn’t feel strength in Lady Macbeth. For me, Lady Macbeth was a woman to the very marrow of her bones, beginning with her appearance. I pictured her as unusually beautiful and influencing her husband with the charms of her womanly fascination. Yes, she wanted to be a queen, she was devoured by ambition, but she herself was afraid to kill &mdash it [the murder] had to be done for her by Macbeth. The night of the murder, she drank wine to give herself courage. After the murder of King Duncan, she became ill, was unable to bear the weight of the crime; all the rest of the murders were committed without her by Macbeth, who kept his plans secret. She broke down and lost her mind.”
Complementing the literally femme fatale Lady Macbeth, was a “macho” hero &mdash a strong-willed, moral, if ambitious, figure &mdash played by Alexander Iuzhin in a “romantic” interpretation of the protagonist which has never entirely disappeared from Russian productions.
At century’s end and into the next, there was small interest in Shakespeare. Such a turn away from Shakespeare in the last two decades of the nineteenth century may be attributed to a number of factors, including the continuing influence of the progeny of the mid-19th century polemic between “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles.” If some dismissed Shakespeare as alien and foreign, others found him “antique” and old-fashioned. Shakespeare, remarked one critic, was a “fetish of scholars and lovers of the exotic.” Few new translations emerged which might have challenged this view.
Among the most famous, and certainly the most vociferous, of detractors was Lev (Leo) Tolstoy. His essay “Shakespeare and the Drama” (1906) is an unusually spirited attack on Shakespeare which sends us back to Belinsky and Voltaire in its insistence on the necessity of a moral literature. Finding Shakespeare aesthetically and ideologically repugnant, Tolstoy castigates him for the “immorality” of his tolerant vision; his inability to create characters; the sameness and pomposity of his language; his scorn of the common people; and the arbitrariness of his plots. (It should, however, perhaps be mentioned that Tolstoy found the Russian Chekhov even worse than the English playwright.)
Shakespeare’s eclipse continued between the two revolutions (1905-1917), and into the Soviet period. There were some notable exceptions. Stanislavsky played Othello in 1896 not as a hero but as a contemporary, deeply suffering, nervous man. Much Ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night followed, then The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar, at the newly-created Moscow Art Theatre. The most famous pre-war production, however, was of Hamlet in 1912, the result of a difficult partnership between Stanislavsky and the English theorist and designer Edward Gordon Craig. Disappointed by the fact that many of his ideas about lighting and staging were ignored, unhappy with naturalistic detail, and the too-“Tolstoyan” Kachalov as Hamlet, Craig was also unpleasantly surprised by the text: following old practice, no one thought to consult the English source.
Neither the 350th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (1914) nor the 300th commemoration of his death (1916) elicited much interest in Russia. Cataclysmic events &mdash World War, civil war, Revolution, and the establishment of the Soviet Union &mdash also failed to restore Shakespeare to Russian favour. While little seen on the stage, Shakespeare nonetheless continued to influence a wide variety of writers, including Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva.
Throughout the 1920s, the place of the classics in the new soviet order became much debated. As official control grew throughout the period, world classics came increasingly under attack as “alien” elements of culture. Various writers and ideologues called for the abolition of the culture of the past and the destruction of its art. Critical opinion often echoed that of Tolstoy, attacking Shakespeare’s politics and his purported dislike of the common people.
It was in another, formerly provincial, territory of the Russian empire that the most remarkable Macbeth of the whole Soviet period was produced. In Ukraine, all performances and translations of Shakespeare into the Ukrainian language had been banned by tsarist decrees and circulars (in 1863, 1876, 1881), thus turning Shakespeare into secretly-circulating literature well before the Soviet period. After the reforms following the 1905 Revolution, the first Ukrainian stationary theatre was permitted in Kyiv, a momentous event, in importance not unlike the creation of the Abbey Theatre in Ireland. Since Shakespeare and other foreign writers had hitherto been prohibited, Ukrainian directors and actors were (unlike their Russian counterparts) eager to perform these works.
Director, filmmaker, actor, writer, theorist, and translator Les’ Kurbas staged four versions of Macbeth, the most radical of which was his last redaction, produced two months after the death of Lenin in 1924. As Kurbas noted, the director's aim should not be to revive a pseudo-classical Shakespeare; rather, the director should represent the work “as it is fractured by the prism of the contemporary revolutionary world-view.” He presented a totally modern, tragic-farcical, blood-soaked cubist-expressionist Shakespeare &mdash one unlike any other seen before anywhere in the Russian empire or, for that matter, in Western Europe.
For this production, the designer, Vadym Meller, created enormous bright green screens of stretched canvas, on which giant modernist red block letters announced the locality of each scene &mdash in partial imitation of medieval-renaissance locality boards but also recalling contemporary political posters. Their size dwarfed the actors, and diminished their usual centrality on stage, suggesting that the characters were subject to forces other than their own individual wills. Raised or lowered when needed at the sound of a gong, the screens served a variety of functions. Lowered at the same time, they indicated the simultaneity of the action in different parts of Scotland. At other times, they moved in slow, stately rhythm to underscore the emotions of the lead actors, to emphasize tension, or even to interfere in the action &mdash as, for example, when they physically blocked off Macbeth's attempt to follow Banquo's ghost (represented by a searchlight beam). Fragments of furniture, chairs, and a throne were, like the screens, lowered and raised when needed.
The most radical experiment of this production involved the creation of character. In renaissance fashion and with similar effect, actors' roles were doubled or tripled. Each role carried over associations from the previous one, contributing to the spreading of guilt in the realm, and limiting the audience's habit of dividing the characters into goodies and baddies.
Kurbas's real challenge to the actors was to display the perfection of their technique by turning their roles "on" and "off" at will. The mechanism of acting itself was openly displayed: each actor came on stage at his or her own pace, sometimes greeting the audience, and assuming a role only when properly positioned. Similarly, after performing his part, the actor exited as "himself." Thus, Liubov Hakkebush, who played Lady Macbeth, proceeded to centre stage, where she placed her candle, took off her mantle, shook her head until her long dark hair tumbled around her shoulders, and only then proceeded emotionally to "Out, damned spot!" Completing her scene as the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, she then left the stage as “herself.”
This tactic was repeated again and again in the production, thus isolating and drawing attention to key moments in the play (arias), and forcing the audience and the actor to a cerebral response. Every theatrical convention was questioned, including the idea of the tragic hero. The traditionally heroic Macbeth was portrayed as a common, unimaginative soldier who combined simplicity of character with single-minded cruelty; his doubts about committing the murder were, rather than indicative of a conscience, a revelation of his fearfulness. For his part, King Duncan was a drunken fool, and his death at first seemed, if not deserved, than at least not completely reprehensible. Both Macbeth and his wife counted on the fact that the populace would keep silent out of fear. (The resemblance to Stalin's future institutionalization of terror and the population's fearful, silent compliance seems uncanny in the whole interpretation.)
While the production intellectualized and distanced the play from the audience by stressing the banality of evil, it also simultaneously used various devices to draw it in. For example, by lighting the witches from behind, large shadows were cast on the spectators. It was to these that Banquo and Macbeth spoke directly, an effect which seemed to extend the evil heath world into the reality of the spectators.
The closest link between actor and audience was provided by a major textual addition: three mimed interludes interspersed throughout the play involving the figure of The Porter, renamed the Fool in Kurbas's production. The Fool’s last appearance, which occurred in the final moments of the play (when Macduff comes out carrying the head of Macbeth) caused a major scandal. Still wearing his Fool's makeup (the mocking, grinning face) actor Ambvrosyi Buchma came in costumed as a bishop, in gold tiara and white soutane. He then crowned Malcolm to the solemn music of an organ made ironic by the delicate sounds of the piccolo and the rougher harmonium. Just as he did so, a new pretender approached, killed the kneeling Malcolm, and took the crown. Without pause, the bishop once again intoned the same words, "There is no power, but from God." As the new king was about to arise, a new pretender murdered him, and the ritual was repeated once again.
One of the actors recorded in his diary that the concluding scene was like “an exploding bomb” whose effects were felt for days. The Kyiv audience, which had recently endured similar rapid and bloody exchanges of power (eleven between 1917 and 1920), was forced to exercise a renaissance type of activity. This production induced the spectators simultaneously to apprehend Soviet Ukraine, Shakespeare's England, and Macbeth's Scotland. Shakespeare was their contemporary. Was he also their prophet?
Reading and hearing much about this remarkable production, the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold invited Kurbas to stage his Macbeth in Moscow but Kurbas, for a variety of reasons, declined. Did Dimitri Shostakovich also know about this much-lauded production from the Soviet press before he was inspired to write his opera nearly ten years later? There, too, the satiric is combined with the tragic, the lyrical and realistic with the expressionistic. Or, was Shostakovich simply one among a few thoughtful artists meditating on the horrific events of his time? Leskov’s more domestic, rather than political story, of murder and mayhem was certainly a safer bet than a direct attempt to turn Shakespeare’s play into an opera. Indeed, Kurbas’s 1924 production of the Scottish play contributed to the loss of his position as artistic director of the Berezil Artistic Association in 1933, and, a few years later, to the loss of his life.
With Stalin’s rise to power, the Party established concrete guidelines for the roles of theatre and criticism, eliminating plurality of opinion. State controlled committees, often comprised of people with little or no knowledge of the theatre, directed the hiring of personnel and the choice of repertoire. Directors were now responsible to the state, not to audiences or critics, for the content and message of their productions.
In 1934, the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers codified socialist realism as the basic method of Soviet literature. New slogans proclaimed a “living Shakespeare,” who was “progressively” romantic, yet militant and didactic. Ironically, the Socialist Realist theatre focussed on restoring the classical heritage, providing a mythologized, idealized and romanticized theatre which stressed continuity rather than rupture with traditional forms and styles. Stalin himself favoured the sumptuousness and monumentality of the stage decor of his early youth in Georgia; thus, theatres returned to traditional sub-operatic Shakespeare. New areas of control were pioneered as writers and theatre artists were told not only what couldn’t be said, but also what could. At times, the state censor employed as many as 80,000 people. But the worse was yet to come: the Great Terror.
Throughout this dark, Macbeth-like period, translators, theatre artists, and scholars tried to survive through creative compromise, Aesopian language, capitulation, or silence. Macbeth, with its tyrannical protagonist who murders his way to power and keeps it through continuing brutality, who posts spies in every household, is unable to sleep, trusts no one, and turns the “womb” of Scotland into a “tomb,” could not be a play that prudent directors would be anxious to produce. And there was more: Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda, like Lady Macbeth, died in mysterious circumstances, perhaps a suicide, perhaps a murder (as some scholars have recently argued, because of what she knew or discovered about her husband’s actions).
Macbeth has never gained extraordinary popularity in Russia. Centuries of censorship &mdash the impossibility of speaking about the unspeakable &mdash have played their part. Soviet ideological quarrels with the genre of tragedy created further difficulties (instead, a variant, “optimistic tragedy,” was created). In a literary-theatrical tradition which celebrates female modesty, the aggressive, at times even demonic, Lady Macbeth has had little resonance. It is worth noting that, despite the fascination with Hamlet, the most frequently produced Shakespearean tragedy in Russia is Othello with its “gentle Desdemona”; of the comedies, its mirror image, The Taming of the Shrew, reigns supreme.
There may be yet another reason for Macbeth’s relatively low status. By comparison with the real horrors of the Great Terror, the murder and mayhem of Macbeth may have seemed rather small and perhaps just too obvious to merit exploration. As the poet Mykola Bazhan observed about the early Soviet period, there were lots of Macbeths walking down the streets in those days.
© Irena R. Makaryk