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The Silver Age Actress as Unruly Woman Starring Lidia lavorskaia as Madonna

  • Catherine Schuler


“And as for ‘art,’ well, philosophers differ. But it's widely believed by wise people that art and ego sit uncomfortably together.” Joseph Sobran, The National Review, 1991.

Just when Madonna, the performer one critic recently referred to as a “schlockmistress,” seemed doomed to a future as the subject of scholarly articles on pop and post-modern aesthetics, she's in the news again with a coffee table best seller on the joys of sex with anything that moves and some things that don't. Madonna, the high priestess of American pop culture, has constructed a multi-million dollar performance empire, the success of which rests primarily on her extraordinary ability to behave outrageously and market it. Though pre-pubescent females are Madonna's most ardent and uncritical admirers, her concerts and films attract a heterogeneous crowd of men, women, gays, and straights–most of them under thirty. In spite of (or perhaps because of) her immense popular following, the press loathes her. Mainstream critics deplore her dissipated lifestyle, sexual athletics, and public exhibitionism, while avant-garde critics regard her performances as trendy schlock rather than legitimate art. This has little effect on Madonna except to increase curiosity about her (and therefore sales of the book and videotapes) among ordinary citizens who might otherwise be completely indifferent to the Madonna phenomenon.



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1 Tsiantar, Dody and Hammer, Joshua, “Risque Business at Time Warner,” Newsweek (2 November 1992): 101.

2 The opinion that Madonna is “singularly mediocre” does not necessarily reflect my own, but the sentiments of one outraged reader of Newsweekx who wrote to the editors after the magazine published a cover story on Madonna, sums up the opinion of at least one segment of the general public and the mainstream press: “Shame on you for pandering to the ego of a woman as undertalented as she is overexposed.” See Rivera, Sally, “Mail Call,” Newsweek (23 November 1992): 14.

3 Although Madonna has access to a range of media that nineteenth century actresses could not even dream of, one must remember that the rise of the mass-circulation press in the nineteenth century helped to make Sarah Bernhardt the first international superstar. In Russia, mass-circulation newspapers became widespread and very popular in the 1860's. Because these newspapers tended to pander to the prurient interests of their readers, it is probably not coincidental that the rise of starring actresses parallels the rise of this industry. After all, even today nothing sells more papers than scandalous revelations about prominent entertainers. For more information about the mass-circulation press in Russia and about the love/hate relationship between the Russian press and Bernhardt, see McReynolds, Louise, The News Under Russia's Old Regime: The Development of a Mass-Circulation Press (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

4 I am using the term “legitimate” rather narrowly here. It refers to the Imperial theatres and to progressive “art” theatres like the Moscow Art Theatre and Kommissarzhevskaia's Dramaticheskii Theatre. Stanislavski was particularly hostile to lavorskaia. In a letter to his wife, Maria Lilina, Stanislavski reveals that Lidia Borisovna has been begging him to help her stage La princesse Lointaine but, he says: “I remembered … your advice–while conducting theatrical business do not get mixed up with the kind of woman who will entangle me in gossip in the public's eyes. lavorskaia, of course, is the most notorious example of this type.” See Stanislavski, Konstantin, “Pis'ma k zhene,” in O Stanislavskom (Moscow: VTO, 1948): 73.

5 Shchepkina-Kupemik, Tatiana, “N.S. Butova and L.B. lavorskaia,” 3, unpublished memoir, TsGALl, Moscow. Shchepkina-Kupernik, Mikhail Shchepkin's great-granddaughter, was a notable playwright, translator, and author of numerous stories, essays, and memoirs during this period.

6 Negorev, N., “Zametki,” Teatr i isskustvo 26 (June 1902): 495–96.

7 Ibid., 495. “Iavorskaia's career is marked by this striving for notoriety at any cost.” The qualities of a real stage artist, he complains, are completely absent. She is lazy and undisciplined, her voice is harsh and unpleasant, she has no range, and her creativity consists of “roaring and throwing herself around the stage.”

8 Efros, Nikolai, “L.B. lavorskaiaKultura teatra 7–8 (September-October 1921): 65.

9 Iavorskaia publicly supported the English suffrage movement, but perhaps more importantly, she was part of a circle of “new women” that included writers, actresses, professors, journalists, editors of newspapers, and critics. Shchepkina wrote that before this group appeared, there were two types of Russian women: respectable society women (mothers, sisters, etc.) and prostitutes. Both in their own way, Shchepkina declared, were tedious. The “new women” were respectable, like mothers and sisters, but more importantly, they were good comrades and the intellectual equals of men. Shchepkina-Kupernik, Tatiana, Dni moei zhizni (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1928): 285–86.

10 See Ezhegodnik imp. teatrov, 1892–93: 369; Iur'ev, Iuri M., Zapiski (Leningrad-Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1945): vol. 2, 352; and Shchepkina-Kupernik, , Dni moei zhizni, 275. According to the Ezhegodnik, Iavorskaia did well with her examination piece in 1893, but was not invited to continue in the Aleksandrinskii's training program. In their memoirs, Iurev and Shchepkina suggest that she didn't finish because she and her “mentor,” Davydov, one of the stars of the Aleksandrinskii stage, disliked each other intensely. It is interesting that Davydov retired from teaching after 1893 (perhaps she was just too much for him). Iavorskaia never mentions Davydov or her experiences at the school in any interviews, which suggests that the experience was not a pleasant one for her. As Shchepkina noted, however, Lidia Borisovna quickly recovered from the blow of her dismissal and immediately went off to Paris where she studied with Edmund Got, one of Sarah Bernhardt mentors.

11 Iavorskaia's first critical success was with Sofia Kovalevskaia's Bor'ba shchast'e, but she was praised more for her daring choice of plays (this was her benefit performance) than for her acting.

12 Shchepkina, 8; see also Iurev, 463, and Kugel, Aleksandr, “Iz moikh vospominania,” Zhizn’ iskusstvo 33 (1924): 89.

13 The quote is from Shchepkina's unpublished memoir, 9. In Dni moei zhizni, she calls the Korsh the “theatre for digestion” because it specialized in mindless nonsense (274). Early reviews of Iavorskaia's work in Artist suggest the degree to which the Korsh Theatre had declined since its founding in 1882. For example, in a review of Trudovoi khlebe (Artist 10, 1893), the critic complains that the performance was thrown together and that “the actors, especially the men, were poorly prepared to go onstage.” (23) He also notes the absence of the unifying influence of a strong director: “All the actors play any way they want to and often their knowledge of the text is shaky.” (23) Later, the critic complains about sloppy production values and the apparent inability of most of the actors to handle foreign pronunciations. (25) In a review of Teshcha (Artist 31, 1893), another critic complains about the blandness of Korsh's repertoire and the fact that he prefers to revive old plays rather than take risks on new playwrights. (163)

14 Because she so frequently performed roles made famous by the French actress, Iavorskaia was nicknamed by critics “little (malen'kaia) Bernhardt”. Although many Western European actresses performed in Russia, often to great acclaim, many Russian critics responded with marked hostility to the two major stars of the French stage, Bernhardt and Rejane. For these critics, Bernhardt and Rejane were not great artists, but cunning publicists whose skill lay in dressing beautifully and masterminding public relations coups. Calculating technicians of stage art, they suffered in comparison to Eleonora Duse, whose gentle femininity and emotionally stirring performances engendered panegyrics from (mostly male) critics. Although Iavorskaia borrowed freely from Duse's repertoire, her sympathies were clearly with the French: she wore French fashions, imitated French acting styles, and, perhaps most damning in the eyes of critics, had a flair for publicity that rivalled Bernhardt's own. In later reviews, critics often disparagingly called her the “Parisian touring star.”

15 Al'tshuller, A. la., “Tip vo vsiakom sluchae liubopytnyi,” in Chekhoviana, (Moscow: Nauka, 1990): 146. In contrast to critics like Negorev, who claim that Iavorskaia was “lazy and undisciplined,” Shchepkina wrote in her memoirs that during her tenure at the Korsh, Lidia Borisovna rehearsed constantly, read huge quantities of plays, and spent all of her free time at the theatre. In a letter to Shchepkina, she wrote: “Sometimes I'm bored, but art compels me to forget and forgive. I forget myself in the theatre. I study … I try not to miss anything interesting.”

16 Ibid., 142–43. Shchepkina says that a “light flirtation” developed between Chekhov and Iavorskaia. Always the pragmatist, Iavorskaia begged Chekhov for a play for her first benefit at the Korsh, claiming that, as a “timid debutante,” she needed a “name [that would] awaken the interest of the Moscow public.” He turned her down, and instead she turned to Sofia Kovalevskaia, who gave her the heretofore unproduced A Struggle for Happiness (Bor'ba za schast'e), with which Iavorskaia had unexpected success. Interestingly, Chekhov later gave her The Seagull (Chaika) which she read with a group of friends during a literary evening at her salon in Moscow. Unimpressed by the play and indifferent to role of Nina, she took no steps to produce it. Nina, of course, later became the signature role of Vera Kommissarzhevskaia, one of Iavorskaia's principal “competitors” in St. Petersburg.

17 Ibid., 146. Chekhov is referring here to her French schooling.

18 Shchepkina, , Dni moei zhizni, 276282. Iavorskaia was at the pinnacle of her popularity at the Korsh, but according to Shchepkina, her colleagues, especially the actresses, disliked her so intensely and mocked her so mercilessly that working there was almost unbearable. Shchepkina also suggests that, because the Aleksandrinskii Theatre had refused to hire her after she auditioned for them (she was still a student in the Aleksandrinskii's own school), Iavorskaia was desperate to prove herself in St. Petersburg. Therefore the temptation to move to St. Petersburg and shove her stardom in faces of those who had rejected her was too great. Her move to St. Petersburg, where the critics reacted to her almost from the beginning with undisguised hostility, proved to be fatal. One can only wonder if her legacy would have been quite different if she had stayed in Moscow.

19 Aleksandr Kugel' (1864–1928) was a theatre critic, publicist, playwright, and director who, with his wife, Zinaida Kholmskaia, founded and edited the most influential theatre journal of the period, Theatre and Art (Teatr i iskusstvo). They later co-founded The Crooked Mirror, one of the most interesting pre-revolutionary cabaret theatres. Along with Nikolai Efros, Kugel was without a doubt the most authoritative theatre critic of the period.

20 Kugel, “Vospominania,” 33: 8.

21 Iavorskaia was not the first starring actress to create a scandal by marrying into the aristocracy. The legendary grand dame of the Aleksandrinskii Theatre, Maria Savina, was also persuaded that she could overcome class prejudices and be accepted into an aristocratic family. In a period when the status of actresses was only slightly above that of prostitutes, this was a tragic misjudgement. Starring actresses, who were much admired by their largely aristocratic public, were often “kept” by male members of the aristocracy. Marrying one, however, was a very different matter. Iavorskaia and Bariatinskii did, however, remain married until 1917. They formed a working partnership; together, they founded the ill-starred Northern Courier (Severnyi kur'er), and Iavorskaia regularly produced her husband's plays, several of which were quite popular, at the Novyi Theatre.

22 See Efros, 64; Negorev, 495; and Kugel, Aleksandr, “Teatr Lit. Art. Kmzhka,” Teatr i iskusstvo 19 (May 1898): 353354. It is difficult to establish the extent of Iavorskaia's authority at the Society. It is clear that she enjoyed more power than other actors in the company, but less than a legitimate actress-manager or regisseur. Efros observed that when she joined Suvorin's theatre, she became the “lawmaker.” Negorev also suggests that the theatre's repertoire and general management were largely under Iavorskaia's control. By 1898, Kugel was complaining that the original purpose of the theatre (“to acquaint the public with new theatrical and artistic movements”) had been largely subverted, and that the Society was now simply a “pretext for a theatrical enterprise.” Given Iavorskaia's ambition and Suvorin's relative passivity in regard to managing the theatre, one might legitimately speculate that Lidia Borisovna had become a surrogate theatrical entrepreneur, transforming the Society for Art and Literature into a vehicle for her own tastes and talents. Given the subordinate position of women in nineteenth century Russian society, it is also likely that critics and colleagues were threatened by Iavorskaia's power and apparent autonomy.

23 When it was to her advantage, Iavorskaia could be quite charming and, once she was in the company, Suvorin was quite taken with her. Because Suvorin was, according to Kugel', a parvenu, he was vulnerable to Iavorskaia's charms: “Iavorskaia, whose uncle was a former minister, belonged to the beau monde and, as an actress, she imitated it brilliantly…. Suvorin, who quite justifiably saw neither visible talent nor artistic truth in Iavorskaia, nonetheless quickly dismissed his own biases and voluntarily gave the actress free reign.” See Kugel', , “Vospominaniia,” 33: 8.

24 Kugel', , “Vospominania,” 33: 9, and Suvorin, A.S., Dnevnik A.S. Suvorin (Moscow-Petrograd: Izdatel'stvo L.D. Frenkel', 1923): 169266. Suvorin's diary indicates the growing friction between him and Iavorskaia. Suvorin was also disturbed by the fact that another of his actresses, Zinaida Kholmskaia, was the co-founder with her husband, Aleksandr Kugel', of Theatre and Art. To have two of his actresses competing with him on literary grounds was apparently more than Suvorin could bear.

25 The Smugglers (Kontrabandisty) was the work of S.K. Litvin-Efron, a joumalist for the conservative The Russian Herald (Russkii vestnik), and Victor Krylov, who wrote enormously popular potboilers primarily for Maria Savina.

26 Aleksandr Kugel' claims that he ignored the ban and wrote about it anyway, but I have not been able to locate any reviews or articles by Kugel' in Teatr i iskusstvo. Negorev and Vladimir Linskii, however, both published articles on the performance. Negorev confirms that this scandalous production resulted in an unprecedented riot and Linskii focuses on the comlete absence of artistic and literary merit in the play. See, Negorev, N., “Khronika” 48 (December 1900): 867 and VI. Linskii, “Kontrabandisty” 3 (January 1901): 5456.

If there was a ban, it appears that it did not extend to Suvorin's own paper, the reactionary and decidedly antisemitic Novoe vremia. On 24 November, a brief mention of the production appeared in Novoevremia. What is odd about this article is that, in contrast to the memoir literature, it suggests that the disturbance amounted to nothing more than a little whistling, a few catcalls, and an occasional piece of rotten fruit tossed at the stage. Indeed, the author claims that the actors managed to finish the performance. Novoe vremia is the only source that downplays the violence, but given the ideological bias of the newspaper and Suvorin's intimacy with ministers and state bureaucrats of all sorts, this treatment is hardly surprising. On 25 November, Novoe vremia published another article entitled “Sowers of Antisemitism” (Seiateli antisemitizma) in which the Jews themselves are blamed for fanning the flames of antisemitism by staging demonstrations like the one at the opening of The Smugglers. See, “Teatr i muzyka,” Novoe vremi, (24 November 1900): 4, and Syroshiatninov-Sigma, S.N., “Seiateli antisemitizma,” Novoe vremia (25 November 1900): 3.

The ultimate irony is that this production, which was probably the most famous event in the history of the Society for Art and Literature, was actually erased from a brief history of the Society published in 1915 to mark the theatre's twentieth anniversary. See Dolgov, N.N., Dvadtsatiletnie tealra imeni A.S Suvorina, 1895–1915 (Petrograd, 1915).

27 There is some disagreement about the order in which the play was offered to Suvorin and the Imperial theatres. Gorin-Goriainov claims that the play was offered to Suvorin first while Linskii (cited above) suggests that the authors sounded Suvorin out on the project only after the Imperial theatre directorate turned it down. Because Krylov wrote regularly for the Imperial theeatres and because Linskii's article was published immediately following the event, I am inclined to believe his account.

28 Gorin-Goriainov, B.A., Akteri: Iz vospominaniia (Leningrad-Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1947): 80; Zhurnal zasedaniia direktsii literaturno-khudozhestvennago obshchestva, 6 December 1900, manuscript, TsGALI, Moscow. The Zhurnal is a particularly invaluable source of information about the theatre riot and its consequences. It includes the minutes of the Society's meeting, statements by the director, Evtikhii Karpov, and several of the actors, and a petition from the actors demanding that Iavorskaia be fired.

29 In a weak attempt to convince the public that Sons of Israel and The Smugglers were not the same play, Suvorin rather disingenuously placed the following notice in The New Times: “It has been reported in a certain newspaper [probably The Northern Courier] that Krylov's and Efron's Sons of Israel is being produced at the Society for Art and Literature. This is not true. The play that is being produced is Krylov's and Efron's The Smugglers, which sketches the morals of Russian Jews living on the Western border who are in the business of smuggling. The Society for Art and Literature took the play under this title which reflects exactly the play's contents.” “Teatr i musyka,” Novoe vremia 16 (November 1900): 4.

30 Gnedich, P.P., Kniga zhizn: vospominania, 1855–1918 (Leningrad: Pridoi, 1929): 257.

31 Gorin-Goriainov, 85. Iavorskaia's note reads: “Dear Evtikhii Pavlovich! Having reread with great attention Sons of Israel, I've reached the conclusion that my principles will not permit me to perform in it. It seems to me that this play excites nationalist hatred and for that reason will awaken the worst instincts of the crowd. I am sincerely sorry, but I must refuse this role. Although you sent it, I think that, in the depth of your soul, you sympathize with me.”

While it is true that lavorskaia consistently supported liberal positions, the enmity that existed between her and Suvorin suggests that her motives for turning the role down were not purely ideological. Indeed, it is ironic that when Suvorin first proposed to produce the play two years earlier, several of the Society's actors refused their roles, but lavorskaia was not among them. A cynic might even suggest that her refusal to participate in the production was motivated more by a desire to get Suvorin's goat than to exercise her right to express deeply felt political convictions.

32 Kugel', , “Vospominanii,” 33: 9.

33 Suvorin, who studiously avoided all emotionally charged confrontations, had already disappeared to Moscow. He lived to regret this action, which resulted in the death of his brother-in-law, A. P. Kolomnin. Kolomnin, who was left in charge of the theatre, was so disturbed by the riot that he died suddenly the next day.

34 Gorin-Goriainov, 90.

35 Gorin-Goriainov, 90, and Zhurnal zasedaniia.

36 Kugel', Aleksandr, “Iz moikh vospominanii,” Zhizn' iskusstva 38 (1924): 6. Both during and after the production many arrests were made. Kugel' suggests that the police themselves promoted the riot. “It seemed that it would have been simpler to stop the performance and clear the auditorium [the actors attempted several times to continue it on police orders]. Instead, a double performance took place, and the police themselves created disorder and excess while dragging out demonstrators—that is, by doing things that would create the noise and scandal required for a demonstration.”

37 In my sources the numbers vary between one and six hundred arrests.

38 It is ironic that lavorskaia was fired for breach of contract since, like many starring performers, she worked on the basis of a verbal rather than a written contract. The Society's directorate deftly maneuvered around that minor obstacle by censuring her for doing what surely would have been a breach of contract if a contract had ever been written, signed, and sealed. The particulars of her “hearing” are in the Zhurnal zasedaniia and Suvorin's Diary (Dnevnik). The whole story of the The Smuggler's scandal will probably never be clear, and Kugel’ suggests in his memoirs (vospominaniia) that Russian antisemitism was a powder keg waiting for a match: lavorskaia happened to be the unlucky one who threw it. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Suvorin, who was tired of Iavorskaia's demands and journalistic escapades, wanted to get rid of her and close down The Northern Courier. By making lavorskaia the scapegoat for this affair, he achieved both. lavorskaia proclaimed her innocence in a note to Suvorin. She declared:

”…with all my soul, I wished the play to fail and be hissed off the stage–and that's all. All the rest of the stories about me are pure slander” (Zhurnal zasedaniia, 2). It is interesting that after lavorskaia was dismissed, a fire broke out at the Society for Art and Literature. In the Diary, Suvorin implies that lavorskaia set it in retribution for her treatment, but the rumor was apparently only hearsay (266). It is fascinating, however, how she was blamed for virtually everything surrounding the The Smugglers affair.

39 Negorev, 495.

40 Shchpekina, unpublished memoir, 16–17. Accoring to Shchepkina, Iavorskaia was more stunned by the closure of The Northern Courier than by her dismissal from the theatre: “She loved the newspaper more than anything else in the world, she sacrificed for it, sold her gems, took any kind of dodge in order to procure the means to sustain it, slept in the editors office, and was the soul of the paper.”

41 Crying that Iavorskaia's new enterprise was simply further evidence of her boundless egotism, many critics dismissed the Novyi from the beginning as yet another attempt at exhibitionism and self-aggrandizement. There is evidence, however, that Iavorskaia had few choices after the The Smuggler's affair. In 1897, after debuting unsuccessfully at the Imperial Mikhailovskii Theatre, she was not invited to join the company. The trend in Russian theatre at the beginning of the century was toward ensemble production, but because Iavorskaia's reputation was based on personality rather than craft, it was unlikely that any of the new, progressive art theatres would hire her. Finally, if The Smugglers increased her popularity with the theatre-going public, it further damaged her reputation among her colleagues. Many actors simply did not want to work with her, and, as she remarked to Shchepkina after being fired from the Society, she was a woman with nowhere to go. See Shchepkina, unpublished memoir, 17.

42 There are many extant reviews of Novyi productions. They suggest that most were in the Meiningen style, and critics often praised the attention to detail shown by directors and designers. Although critics did not especially care for the production, when the Novyi staged The Power of Darkness (Vlast’ t'my),” the director and designer travelled to Tolstoi's home in order to get “instructions from the author” and “draw the designs from nature.” See Review of Vlast' t'my by Tolstoi, Leo (Novyi Teatr, St. Petersburg) Teatr i iskusstvo 39 (1902): 699. The Novyi was occasionally innovative. When Popov produced “Antony and Cleopatra” in 1903, he did the text in its entirety (an unprecedented action, according to critics), and he introduced a staging innovation not seen before in Russia, which allowed scenes to be changed with astonishing smoothness and speed. See Review of Antonii i Kleopatra by Shakespeare, (Novyi Teatre, St. Petersburg) Teatr i iskusstvo 89 (1903): 707. If Iavorskaia was not personally responsible for designing and directing Novyi productions, surely she deserves credit for seeking out and hiring creative directors and designers.

43 “Uchastie peterburgskikh teatrov v obshchei politicheskoi zabastokov,” Teatral'naia rossiia 44–45 (1905): 1269. On 9 January 1905, tsarist troops fired into a group of unarmed workers who were marching peacefully on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. This day, known as Bloody Sunday, marks the beginning of the 1905 revolution. In response to the massacre, strikes broke out all over Russia. Many theatres wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with striking workers by cancelling performances. In St. Petersburg, representatives from all the theatres met to discuss the advisability of joining the strike. The Imperial theatres declined to participate, but many others, including Iavorskaia's and Kommissarzhevskaia's, did cancel performances.

44 Skarskaia, N.F. and Gaideburov, P.P., Na stsene i v zhizn (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1959): 272.

45 Shchepkina, unpublished manuscript, 2 and Efros, 63. These issues are discussed in greater detail below.

46 It seems to me particularly difficult to evaluate Iavorskaia's acting technique and style because so much of the existing criticism was written by male critics who were horrified by the lack of traditional feminine modesty exhibited by French actresses and their Russian imitators. Indeed, a similar problem arises with the response of Russian critics to Sarah Bernhardt and Rejane, who were compared unfavorably with more typically Russian types like Glikeriia Fedotova and Maria Ermolova. Clearly many women admired and imitated the European and European influenced actresses, but few of them wrote for daily newspapers, theatre journals, or other publications that reviewed theatrical productions (Zinaida Kholmskaia, one of the few that did, was Kugel's wife and apparently shared most of his views). For that reason, we are left with very biased views on many Silver Age actresses, especially those who were heavily influenced by Western European trends.

47 “Ilzvestnye aktery ob izuchenii roli,” Biblioteka teatra i iskusstya 2 (1914): 54.

48 A review of Chad zhizni is particularly interesting in this regard. The reviewer praises Iavorskaia's artistic taste and suggests that sincerity and spontaneity are the most compelling aspects of her performance. This kind of praise is completely absent from later review where her acting is usually described as artificial, mannered, and excessively “French.” See Review of Chad zhizni by Markevich, (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 31 (1893): 168.

49 Review of Trudovoi khlebe by Ostrovskii, (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 10 (1893): 24. The critic went on to note that everything about her–her beautiful face, expressive eyes, and the pleasant timbre of her voice–predicted a successful career.

50 Reviews of Twelfth Night and Teshcha (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 31 (1893): 162–163. The reference to “other Moscow actresses” is probably directed at Maria Ermolova, who specialized in heroic types and could not, by her own admission, play unsympathetic characters convincingly.

51 Review of The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas fits (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 34 (1894): 244–246. The reviewer notes that scenes involving repentance were difficult for Iavorskaia and that she was a bit too healthy in the final act.

52 Review of Madame Sans-Gene by Sardou, (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 42 (1894): 237. Although this production was immensely popular with audiences, this critic concluded that Iavorskaia was not really suited to heroic roles. Roles that required strength and “temperament” were not her forte and she should begin to cultivate her type–the ingenue of light French comedy.

53 See note 5 above for the citation and note 38 for the Bernhardt problem. It bears repeating that the Russians had a very ambivalent attitude toward the French. On the one hand, fashionable, aristocratic society admired and imitated everything French, but as Russian nationalism strengthened in the final decades of the nineteenth century, actresses like Iavorskaia and Kommissarzhevskaia were subjected to intense scrutiny and negative criticism by Slavophile critics.

54 A.V. Amfiteatrov, one of Moscow's leading critics, saw this potential and urged Iavorskaia to abandon success that was gained by “tawdry publicity.” See Chekhoviana, 147. In his memoirs, E.B. Krasnianskii observed: “If Lydia Borisovna had arranged her life differently, she probably would have left a more valuable and significant mark in the annals of theatre. See Krasnianskii, E.B., Vstrechi v putis stranitsy vospominanii (Moscow: VTO, 1967): 24.

55 “Ekzamenatsionnye spektakli shkoly peterburgskikh Imperatorskikh teatrov,” Artist 28 (1893): 172.

56 In her third year at the Korsh, critics began to reproach her for being unable to settle comfortably into a particular type. In a review of Rostand's The Romantics, one critic observed that Iavorskaia has played everything from grand coquettes to purely lyrical roles to straight dramatic, but that her strength clearly lies in “delicate, but not particularly deep French comedy.” The writer implies, of course, that she should not venture outside her type. See, Review of The Romantics by Rostand, (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 45 (1895): 210.

57 Krasnianskii notes that Iavorskaia was famous for her “boldness” on stage. At that time, it was still considered a mistaken piece of naturalism to play with your back to the audience, but Iavorskaia didn't allow obsolete conventions to stop her. Krasnianskii suggests, however, that although this innovation was very successful with the public, Iavorskaia did not do it to advance the cause of realistic acting, but because she had a very attractive back. See Krasnianskii, 24.

58 Review of Uriel Akost (Korsh Theatre, Moscow) Artist 46 (1895): 151.

60 Ibid., 151.

61 It is interesting that the St. Petersburg critics took opportunities to slam Iavorskaia even when she was not in a Novyi production. For example, one critics noted in a review of Chirkov's In the Courtyard Leading to the Wing (Na dvore vo fligel) that “Madame lavorskaia did not perform because there was no suitable role for her in the play. One must regard this as one of the play's merits.” See Review of “Na dvore vo fligel” (Novyi Teatr, St. Petersburg) Teatr i iskusstvo 52 (1902): 1008.

There are too many abusive reviews and anecdotes about Iavorskaia's eccentricities to list each one separately, but for information about her onstage antics, see especially Velizarii, Maria, Put' provintsial'noi aktrisy (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1938): 216228; Al'tshuller, A. Ia., ed. Vera Fedorovna Komissarzhevskaia: pis'ma aktrisy, vospominaniia o nei, materialy (Leningrad-Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1964), 155; and Shchepkina's and Skarskaia's memoirs. Velizarii's anecdotes about Iavorskaia's improvisations are especially entertaining: “The text that had been given to her was apparently insufficient because during performances, she tried to extend her most effective scenes by improvisation. It reached the point of absurdity when lavorskaia herself lost the thread of the scene and finally muddled all of us who were on stage with her.” Calling the Novyi an “insane asylum,” Kommissarzhevskaia said quite straightforwardly that Lidia Bonsovna's management policies consisted of caprice and large quantities of champagne. Shchepkina acknowledged the problems at the Novyi, but categorically denied that lavorskaia drank heavily. She claimed that if Iavorskaia's performances suffered during this period, it was because her every waking hour was consumed by the exigencies of theatre management.

62 London playbills and undated articles and reviews from the London Times are located in Iavorskaia's archive at TsGALI.

63 Kugel' and other critics complained about the large numbers of women flocking to theatre, but trends at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia are consistent with those in Western Europe. Perhaps inspired by the rhetoric of feminism, women wanting to transform their lives gravitated to theatre because it was still one of the few professions that offered women autonomy and a modicum of financial independence. (Shchepkina suggests that during and after the 1880's many bright women who might otherwise have gone into the medical profession went into literature, art, and theatre. This was because the medical courses were closed to women during the reactionary period which followed Aleksandr III's assassination.) In Russia it was frequently argued (even by women themselves) that theatre was the only profession in which women were men's equals. For points of view expressed by critics, see Kugel', Aleksandr, “Zhenskoe dvizhenie,” Teatr i iskusstvo 15 (1897): 298299; Dymov, O., “Ona na stsene,” Teatr i iskusstvo 17 (1905): 276278: “Bez predvaritel'noi tsenzury,” Teatr i iskusstvo 32 (1905): n.p. For points of view expressed by actresses (idealistic though they may be), see “Doklad Iu. V. Tarlovskoi-Rastorguevoi,” in Trudy I vserossiiskogo s'ezda tsenicheskikh deiallei (Moscow, 1898); “Zhenshchina na stsene: Doklad I.N. Grikevskoi,” in Trudy o vserossiiskogo zhenskogo s'ezda (1909); and Kremlev, A.N., “O zadachakh stsenicheskoi deiatel'nosti zhenshchiny,” in Trudy I vserossiiskogo zhenskogo s'ezda (St. Petersburg, 1909).

64 The editors of Teatr i iskusstvo were particularly devoted to this issue. See Shabel'skaia, E., “Dramaticheskiia shkoly i dramaticheskaia shkola,” Teatr i iskusstvo 45 (1897): 807809; Shabel'skaia, E., “Vragi russkago teatra,” Teatr i iskusstvo 2 (1898): 3538; Surugin, Sergei, “Talant i tekhnika,” Teatr i iskusstvo 19 (1904): 376–77. In 1898, Iuri Ozarovskii published twelve installments devoted to the question of theatre education. Interested readers should see Teatr i iskusstvo 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 40, 43, 45, 47, 50, 51, 52 (1898).

65 Iavorskaia came under particularly heavy criticism for her emphasis on fashionable dress, and in her memoirs, Shchepkina suggests that Lidia Borisovna was passionate about theatrical costumes (Shchepkina, 20, and for an example of critics' treatment of Iavorskaia's extravagent costume practices, see the review of Lady from the Sea (Zhenshchina c moria) by Ibsen, Henrik (Novyi Teatr, St. Petersburg), Teatr i Iskusstvo 5 [1903]: 114115.). Although lavorskaia was criticized more than most, the issue of extravagant costuming was problematic for all actresses. Teatr i iskusstvo published several articles admonishing actresses for their apparent vanity in regard to costume, but as one actress observed in a “doklad” given at the first Women's Congress in 1908, the public, not actresses, was to blame for the exaggerated emphasis on costuming. If an actress did not have a splendid wardrobe, the public would not purchase tickets to see her. Even worse, no provincial entrepreneur would hire an actress who did not own a substantial wardrobe. In a sense, then, actresses were caught in a “catch 22.” See “Nechto o ‘stsenicheskoi vneshnosti’ nashikh artistok,” Teatr i iskusslvo 4 (1897): 74–75; Kholmskaia, Zinaida, “Kostium aktrisy,” Teatr i iskusstvo 47 (1898): 849; and the already cited “Zhenshchina na stsene,” 877–878. Maria Savina, the most powerful woman in the St. Petersburg theatre world and, in the 1870's, one of the first actresses to indulge her taste for extravagantly fashionable clothing both on and off stage, also got into the debate with a letter to the editors of Teatre i iskusstvo defending Russian actresses against charges that they simply had no sense of style. See Savina, M.G., “Kostium aktrisy,” in Goresti i skitaniia (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1983): 177178.

66 For example, see Kugel', Aleksandr, “Dobrie nravy i nravstvennost,” Teatr i iskusstvo 4 (1899): 7374; a three- part series by VI. Linskii, , “Stsena i besputstvo,” Teatr i iskusstvo 38 (1900): 660661, 40 (1900): 701–703, 48 (1900): 862–64; Zel'dovich, M., “Zhenskaia dobrodetel' i stsena,” Teatr i iskusstvo 34 (1904): 623625; Arsenii, G., “Chisten'kaia aktrisy,” Teatr i iskusstvo 45 (1904): 799800; “S akterskago rynka,” Teatr i iskusstvo No. 9 (1904): 188; “O moral'nom vlianii teatra,” Teatr i iskusstvo 26 (1905): 419–420; “Zhenshchina na stsene,” Teatral'naia rossia 17 (1905): 289–291; Kliuchareva, E., “Ob aktrisakh,” Teatral'naia rossia 19 (1905): 325327. Many of the articles are directed specifically at actresses because, as we shall see below, in theatre as in society, women were held responsible for the moral development and stature of the community. Actresses themselves used the notion of theatre as a tool of moral instruction and social progress as a justification for equal rights. Their reasoning is typically essentialist. A.N. Kremlev, in “O zadachakh stenicheskoi deiatel'nosti zhenshchiny,” (cited above) suggests that women are by nature better suited than men to clean up the theatre and make it a genuine instrument of cultural enlightenment (192). Tarlovskaia-Rastorgueva (cited above) also argues women are instrumental in the process of transforming theatre into a “temple of art” (khram iskusstva), because only women love the theatre with all their heart (33).

67 Kugel', , “Dobryie nravyi i nravstvennost,” 73.

68 See articles cited in number 38, especially Linskii's “Stsena i besputstvo.” Another three-part series of articles on women's responsibilities in general, and actresses' responsiblities in particular appeared in 1904. See Svetlov, S., “Aktery i zhizn,” Teatr i iskusstvo 26 (1904): 489–90; 29 (1904): 536–537; 30 (1904): 552–553.

69 Many Russian scholars will cringe at my use of the term bourgeois. I take it to mean “middle class” and refer interested readers to Clowes, Edith W., Kassow, Samuel D., and West, James I., eds., Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). I am not arguing that Russia actually had a large, influential middle class (though that small percentage of the population would have been most likely to support and be involved in theatre); more important is the fact many Russians aspired to a Western European bourgeois lifestyle and theatre was implicated in, and often used the rhetoric of, what I have termed “bourgeoisification.” See also Engelstein, Laura, Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992) for a discussion of Russian response to the importation of bourgeois Western European sexual ideology.

70 To extend the comparison with Madonna, one might suggest that the reactionary policies and rhetoric of the Reagan years made Madonna not only possible, but perhaps even inevitable.

71 Shchepkina, unpublished memoir, 13–14.

72 “Rusalka” is most often translated as “mermaid,” but the English term does not do justice to the Russian concept. A rusalka is one of the undead. Perhaps the most famous and fearful figures of Russian folklore, rusalki are women who drown themselves because they get pregnant outside of wedlock. They are very beautiful, often have extremely large breasts, and exude sexuality. When they return to the world of the living, it is to get revenge on men by luring them to destruction-again, usually by drowning. A great deal has been written on the subject, but for a brief, very informative essay on rusalki, see Moyle, Natalie K., “Mermaids (Rusalki) and Russian Beliefs About Women,” in New Studies in Russian Language and Literature, eds. Crone, Anna Lisa and Chvany, Catherine V. (Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1986), 221238.

73 Shchepkina, unpublished manuscript, 7. Iavorskaia had other “unfeminine” traits. Shchepkina observes that: “One of the most original (for a woman) of Iavorskaia's traits was her complete fearlessness, the complete absence of any timidity or tearfulness. … In those moments when my heart froze and my teeth chattered … she still had her vacant look and was genuinely undisturbed and happy.” (20)

74 Ibid., 10.

75 Ibid., 20. Shchepkina says that Iavorskaia had no sense of moral duty; she was not immoral, but amoral.

76 Kugel', , “Zhenskoe dvizhenie,” 299.

77 Ibid., 298.

78 “Zhenshchina nauka” is literally “woman of science,” but “female scholar” seemed a bit less awkward. See VI. Linskii, , “Stsena i besputstvo,” Part II, 702.

79 This was another three-part series. See VI. Linskii, , “Novaia zhenshchina,” Teatr i iskusstvo 7 (1903): 154156; 8 (1903): 176–178; 9 (1903): 197–198. The quotation is found in Part II, page 176. Of course, not all critics and publications were so disturbed by the New Woman. During the 1880's and 1890's, several respectable, progressive literary journal, including The European Herald (Vestnik evropy) and The Northern Herald (Severnyi vestnik), (the latter was published, I might add, by a woman, Liubov Gurevich, who did much to introduce Russians to Ibsen), published many positive articles on the New Woman and the Woman Question. For some reason, theatre journals seemed to be particularly reactionary in regard to these issues.

80 Efros, 64.

81 Kugel', , “Vospominania,” 33: 8. He compares her to Maria Savina, who was apparently such an egotist than one could not carry on a conversation with her because she suffered from a complete inability to listen to what anyone else was saying. Iavorskaia, on the other hand, was quite an accomplished listener-at least in retrospect.

82 For examples of Iavorskaia's erasure from the political history of Russian theatre between 1898–1917, see Daniloy, S.S., “Revoliutsiia 1905–1907 godov i russkii teatr,” Teatr, 7 (1955): 116126, and Istoriia russkogo dramaticheskogo teatra, vol. 7 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1987). Even more revealing is a letter preserved in TsGALI which was addressed to a certain Z. Dal'tsev. The letter, which dates from 1950, is from an author to his editor. Apparently he was writing a history of progressive pre-revolutionary theatres, made the mistake of including Iavorskaia and the Novyi Theatre in his survey, and now he finds it necessary to recant. He writes: “While searching for their predecessors in pre-revolutionary theatre, Soviet theatre artists can pass over Iavorskaia's Novyi Theatre.“

The Silver Age Actress as Unruly Woman Starring Lidia lavorskaia as Madonna

  • Catherine Schuler


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