The first Russian theatre: origins and organization

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When we speak about the first Russian court theatre we need to note a special cultural-historical context which had formed in Russia by the end of the 17th century. In the history of Russia this period became the beginning of transition from the Middle ages to New time, an epoch of gradual formation of secular consciousness, an establishment of cultural communications with the countries of the West, introduction during a life of Russian people of features of the European life.

The first representatives of the Russian professional theater were skomorokhi, working in almost all genres of street performance. The first evidence of skomorokhi are from the 11th century that ensures that buffoon art has been a phenomenon for a long time to form and entered into the life of all segments of the society. On the formation of the Russian original buffoonery of art coming from the rites and rituals and «tour» of European and Byzantine itinerant comedians — histrionic, troubadours, vagrants. There was a process of mutual enrichment of cultures. Skomorokhi — as individual actors, as well as combined in a so-called «touring company» (the prototype of the combination company) took part in the village festivals and fairs of the city, lived as jesters in the royal and boyar mansions. At the feasts Ivan the Terrible liked to dress up in a jester and dance along with them. Skomorokhi in Russia were fully respected at that date.

But the decision of the Stoglavy Sobor in 1551 actually made skomorokhi outcasts. It is interesting to reflect a change in the status of skomorokhi in the vocabulary. The skomorokhi`s theatre called «pozorische» (the word had negative sense “shame” or “disgrace”, coming from the ancient «zreti», which means “see”, the term persisted until the 17th century). However, the pursuit of skomorokhi have resulted innegative connotation of the term (hence in the modern Russian language word «shame»). In the 18th century, when the theater re-entered into the context of the cultural life of Russia, have confirmed the terms «theater» and «drama» and former»pozorische» was transformed into a «spectacle.»

By the 16th century Russian church in the form of state ideology (in particular, the clergy were obliged to set up educational institutions). And, of course, church could not get past the theater, which had a powerful influence. The way of the Russian church theater was not similar to the European: it passed the liturgical drama, mystery and miracle. This is due not only to the later Christianization of Russia, but also to the difference in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions (the latter are present grandeur and theatricality of the worship). Despite the fact that the Orthodox ceremonies such as the «washing of the feet», “the donkey walk” looked quite impressive (and in the so-called “Peschnoye deistvo”, pageant which occurred in the penultimate Sunday before Christmas, even got some tricks of buffoonery «comic dialogue»), the church theater not yet formed in the aesthetic system in Russia. Therefore, the main role in the developmentof theatrical art of 17-18 centuries played a school-church theater.
Transformation began in the time of Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov nicknamed «Tishayshy». V.O. Klyuchevsky, well-known Russian historian, wrote about tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich: “He still strong rested one leg in native orthodox olden times, and another brought for its boundary“. His reign connected with the formation of a new ideology, focused on expanding diplomatic ties with Europe. Orientation to the European way of life has led to many changes in the life of the Russian court.
In 1660 the tsar, who had heard a lot about a theatrical entertainment of the European sovereigns, tried to organize the first court theatre. In «lists» of assignments and purchases for tsar to English merchant John Hebdon, Aleksey Mikhailovich ordered: “from foreign lands skilled people to make a comedy”. However this attempt has remained unsuccessful; the first performance of Russian court theatre took place only in 1672. One of the inspirers and organizers of the Moscow court theatre was a diplomat, the head of the Ambassadorial Office — boyar Artamon Sergeevich Matveev. He was the man with Western inclinations who loved theatre and music, and was the inspiration behind Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich`s court theatre which existed from 1672 to 1676. Artamon Matveev found in the German quarter of Moscow (Nemetskaya sloboda), a protestant clergyman Johann Gregory and ordered him to organize a theatre. Gregory arrived in Moscow in 1658 and took a place of the parish priest at old Lutheran church, and later became a pastor at a new church. He was well-educated man and had lived abroad for many years and had seen stage performances of the foreign countries. Gregory together with assistants was necessary to write the play, to type and train troupe and to prepare for performance. There was very much a challenge: it was necessary to think of repertoir, about scenery and suits, about music, and the main things — about the play and the place of the performance.
The place for the performance was “Komediynaya horomina” — the first theatrical building in Russia, intended for theatrical performance which was built as a summer residence of tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich in the village Preobrazhenskoe, near Moscow. And in October, 17, 1672, after the several months of hard work, performance «The Play of Artaxerxes» was played to mark the birth of Prince Peter, the future tsar, who would later be known as Peter the Great. The play has been originally written in German, and then translated into Russian. Rehearsals were spent in two languages. Played in German, but the bible theme was clear, and tsar was so admired the show, that, according to the contemporary, he watched the whole play for ten hours. Not rising from his seat.
The creators of the play and performance skillfully reproduced on the stage the biblical story: they reduced the reasoning, which was not conducive to the development of the plot, and have developed many short messages to give it effectiveness. The choice of a theme and its scenic embodiment were not accidental. The play contained clear allusions for a political life and the balance of forces of the Russian court, approved an antiquity of the Romanov`s family and «legality» of their possession of a throne. A plot in its sense indicated to the history of the second marriage of tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. King Artaxerxes marries the virtuous Esther, and her uncle, the wise Mardokhei, becomes close to the king. But Aman, a wily and wiked man, tries to destroy him. The destiny of Esther was similar to destiny Tsarina Nataliya Kyrillovna Naryshkina, Mardokhei can radily be identified with the boyar, Artamon Matveev. And it was possible to understand under Aman the imperial butler Bogdan Matvvevich Chitrovo. After the opening court theatre performance “The Play of Artaxerxes” repeatedly showed in “Komediynaia horomina” in Moscow and in the village Preobrazhenskoe.
Lit.: Ранняя русская драматургия. Т. 1. Первые пьесы русского театра. — М.: Наука, 1972.
A history of Russian theatre / ed. by Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky. — Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2002

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