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    A fire in the basement Essay (1137 words)

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    A jolt of energy, imagination, color and creativity hit the San Francisco and New York theatre communities this past season, and it came from an unexpected quarter: the Soviet Union. Not from the new Russia, jittery and vibrant with the ongoing process of perestroika; not from the twilight of old Russia, where Chekhov and Stanislavsky pointed to a new dawn; but fresh from the formative years of the Soviet Union, back on the far side of stagnation, even before Stalinization.

    The points of impact were unusual, too: museums. The Palace of the Legion of Honor, a constituent of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, mounted “Theatre in Revolution: Russian Avant-Garde Stage Design 1913-1935” last winter, and the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York displayed the exhibit through mid-June. It travels on to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles (July 7-Aug. 30) and to the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio (Dec. 5-Jan.

    31, 1993). This is an exhibit of works that have never been on display in Moscow, which less outside of the Soviet Union. In fact, these works have been in storage in the bowels of the Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum in Moscow since the ’30s, when Stalin launched a crusade to enshrine Socialist Realism in the pantheon of Soviet ideals, and concomitantly decreed that all manfestations of “bourgeois formalism” should be squelched. The thrust of the artists represented is anything but bourgeois; in their idealistic adherence to abolishing old forms and creating new kinds of theatre, they followed the traditional avantgarde mandate: epater les bourgeois.

    To the charge of formalism, however, they had no defense. Their various creeds–cubofuturism, suprematism, constructivism and the like–were expressly designed to leave realism in the dust. The very freedom of their imagination was anathema to the Stalinists, and the campaign to exterminate their energy was soberingly successful. Though we may know the names of a few of the artists represented here–Boris Erdman, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin–and the directors they collaborated with–Alexander Tairov, Evgenii Vakhtangov, Vsevolod Meyerhold–their designs have come to our attention primarily through verbal descriptions and a few faded photos.

    Many of the artifacts of their earlier work were destroyed, sometimes by the artists themselves for reasons of personal safety. In some instancesmost notably, Meyerhold’s–the artists themselves were liquidated. The designers exhibited here were young; their average age in 1917 was 24. Their nationalities were diverse: Ukranians, Georgians, Armenians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles and not a few Jews, as well as Russians Women figure prominently in their number; if there is a star of the show, it is surely Alexandra Exter, who frequently collaborated with Tairov at his Kamerny (Chamber) Theatre; her dynamic, hot-color variations on cubist motifs seem to seize the eye to every turn.

    Reinventing the human form 

    Whatever their politics, their aesthetic orientation was wholeheartedly revolutionary. The shape of the stage, the relationship to the audience, the function of decor, its dimensionality, its fixity–even the shape of the human bodyall were up for reconsideration.

    The touchstone for the exhibit–and its earliest work–is a geometrical rendering by Malevich of a setting for Victory Over the Sun, a 1913 spectacle written in a factitious “transrational” language called zaum, the plot of which (according to the exhibition’s admirable catalogue) “involved the capturing of the sun by a group of futurist strongmen and its enclosure in a square container for obscure futurist ends. ” The rendering itself is reckoned as the first purely abstract work of fine art and the first proclamation of the suprematist movement. Once the heavenly spheres had been revolutionized, if only imaginatively, the other givens were bound to follow. The functions of scenery was quickly and thoroughly revamped; the flat stage floor backed by a fixed, two-dimensional canvas, was branded a thing of the past. The playing area sprouted upwards, with platforms and ramps swirling in every direction. With the injection of futurist ideas, dynamism became part of the stage picture; scenic elements were built to move before the spectators’ eyes, liberating the stage from the fixity of the painter’s canvas–most famously for Meyerhold’s 1922 production of The Magnificent Cuckold, represented here by Popova’s maquette.

    Representational painting yielded to geometrical or abstract forms. A vivid sense of color transcended the mundane. The wealth of costume renderings reflects the continuing preoccupation with reinventing the human form, which can be seen in part as an extension of the notion of inventing a new Soviet human being. Meyerbhold’s research in biomechanics has been well documented elsewhere, but here it is put into a palpable context; throughout the exhibit are sketches that blithely and fancifully deny the givens of the human body.

    Unfettered imagination 

    How do actors fit into these costumes? How do they move in them? And how do these abstract scenic designs translate into concrete playing platforms on which actors can function? Three-dimensional models and sepia photographs provide some clues, but often questions are left hanging in the air.

    What comes through loud and clear, though, is the wit and vigor of unfettered imagination. Around every corner is a new discovery. Agit-prop, railroad art and advertising for the GUM department store suddenly become exciting. In the silent film Aelita, Exter and other stage designers set the international style for science fiction for decades to come. The members of the satirical Eccentric Theatre were among the first to bring an avant-garde sensibility to vaudeville and the circus, their humor strikingly conveyed by the racy costumes of a brilliant designer predominantly known for other things: Sergei Eisenstein.

    Much of this profusion of energy was in synch with early idealistic strains of Communism; in 1920 Meyerhold was part of the system, serving as head of the Theatre Department of the Commissariat for the Enlightenment. But the enshrinement of Socialist Realism entailed the emasculation or outright suppression of every creative strain in this exhibition. For all these artists, turn-of-the-century realism, for all its glories, was the foremost example of the old form, the superseded model. Now, though, Chekhov, Gorky and Stanislavski became the supreme icons of Soviet theatrical art. The unstated irony embedded in this exhibit lies in the influence of Soviet theatrical art on our own, for it was precisely at the moment of Stalinist repression that American theatre artists turned to Russia for inspiration, and to seek the tools to revolutionize our own theatre. At that time, in the face of the evident breakdown of capitalism in the Depression, we sought our inspiration in the idealism of the Left.

    Unhappily, we found its embodiment in the figure of Stalin; it was not entirely by chance that our new theatrical icons were his. Our eyes were closed to what Stalin suppressed. By the time we opened them, there was nothing left of this post-realist art to see; it was under wraps in the basement.

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