Readers of last month's interview [q.v.] with Meyerhold and Brecht may have been surprised by each man's practicality. Certainly the end-product was biased through the choice of quotations from each man. But even so, such quotes were easy to locate in works chock-a-block with similar quotes and ideas. These men knew the theatre and were practical men of the theatre. Their ideals were based in a sense that theatre in a vacuum might be something, but nothing they wanted to be part of.
In the USA we tend to think of theatrical idealists as "pie-in-the-sky" dreamers. We tend to think of the theatrical idealist as the pampered jade involved in deep intellectual inquiry. And most importantly the USA theatre idealist is supposed to eschew the very notion of money or box office success. Popularity is the very antithesis of the ideal in the mythic world of theatrical idealism in the USA. Indeed some theatre idealists might even look down at the audience. The audience isn't good enough for their work.
These notions would be very strange to the theatrical idealists of the early 20th century – men like Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and Brecht. These men wanted theatre to achieve the highest ideals of artistic expression, but they wanted that art to reach people.
Even during his lifetime Stanislavsky attained a reputation as a kind of dreamer. But people forgot that he was an immensely nuts-and-bolts guy. He ran the family business in the years before the Revolution and evidently did a fine job in the midst of political turmoil – not an easy thing to do as any businessman will tell you.
Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko dreamed of a new kind of theatre. A theatre in which theatre fully expressed itself in artistic terms. But prior to their famous lunch at the Slavyansky Bazaar Nemirovich-Danchenko had been among other things a member of the Board of Directors of the Maly Theatre. Stanislavsky had been a successful actor-manager in Moscow. And, to quote Stanislavsky, at their first meeting the two men agreed, "The poet, the actor, the tailor, the stage hand serve one goal, set by the poet in his play." And, "Today Hamlet, tomorrow a supernumerary, but even as a supernumerary you must be an artiste." And, by the way, didn't the Moscow Art Theatre do that play by Chekhov first?
No, people tend to forget that the first play that the Moscow Art Theatre produced was Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich by Tolstoy (no, not that one) – a play you've never read and will never see. It's a costume drama set in age between Ivan the Terrible and the Time of Troubles. Given that costumers are probably just finishing storing away the "Christmas Carol" costumes for next year's remounting, most readers will instantly realize why Tsar Fyodor was first out of the box. It was a spectacular, historical costume drama with great effects. In the first year of the M.A.T., Tsar Fyodor was given 57 times, often at more than 100% capacity (SRO and extra seats). (Evidently, some schools sent the kids to see the show as an educational enhancement – again something familiar to theatre practitioners today.) A production of Hedda Gabler was the second most popular show of the first M.A.T. season. Chekhov's Seagull was third with only 18 performances in that first season. Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko knew what would sell tickets and acted accordingly.
(Now, I'm not arguing that the M.A.T. production of Seagull wasn't important to the M.A.T. artistically, to the theatre historically, or to Stanislavsky in thinking about acting – but that's a different essay for a different time. But if you want to go ahead and argue anyway, please send a note on the blog [q.v.]. . . .)
Further, as we look at the careers of Vakhtangov and Meyerhold and Brecht – these are men who deeply wanted to speak to everyday folks. We regularly see evidence that these men wanted everyday people to see their shows. We read of Vakhtangov making sure his students understood that they took care of the audience member from the moment they walked in the door – the coat checker is as important to the theatre-going experience as anything going on on stage. We have reports of Brecht asking the theatre cleaning staff if they understood a bit of action on the stage. These guys wanted their work to be artistic – but popular as well.
So, I'd like to throw my hat in the ring with the idealists. I want theatre that meets the very highest attributes of artistic expression. But I don't want it in a vacuum. I want it to be shared by people. If I haven't reached my audience, it's not their fault.
And, by the way, some money wouldn't be bad either.
[The information about the first Moscow Art Theatre season comes from Nick Worrall's book The Moscow Art Theatre published by Routledge in 1996.]