The Followers (1922-1939)

After the death of Vakhtangov many had some doubts as to the survival of the Studio. On the third of September a new art committee was formed. Zaslavsky, Zakhava, Turaev, Kotlubay, Orochko, Tolchanov, Laudaskaya, Elagina, Glasunov and Basov became the members of it.


Vakhtangov’s followers one by one tried their hand in stage directing.  

Boris Zakhava’s debut (Ostrovsky’s comedy “Truth is Good, but Happiness is Better”) opened a new self-reliant life at the Studio. The first show took place on the 8th of March 1923. Zakhava called it with a bit of diffidence somewhat a “student” work. The performance was superficial and unripe and though it abounded in funny tricks neither the audience nor critics liked it. The failure of the first performance had heated the air in the Studio.

In order to improve the situation Nemirovich-Danchenko designated thirty-year-old Yury Zavadsky to be the manager of the Third Studio. He considered Zavadsky to be “the most convincing figure for public opinion.”

Staged by him Nikolay Gogol’s “Marriage” was the second premiere at the Studio after Vakhtangov’s death. The performance was a failure and it was soon taken off the repertoire which aggravated the difficult situation. After lengthy talks Zavadsky was compelled to leave his post.

At this critical time at the Studio appeared Aleksey Popov, Evgeny Vakhtangov’s friend. They had worked together at the First Studio attached to the Moscow Art Theatre. But he too was to be supervised by the board of the Studio.   

Popov’s first work as a stage director was the “Comedies of Merimee”. He took four little plays-parodies from “Clara Gazul’s Theatre” (Th??tre de Clara Gazul). His admirers readily proclaimed the performance a continuation of the “Turandot” line.

The next premiere of was expected in December, it was the first large work of Ruben Simonov based on the old-fashioned vaudeville “Lev Gurych Sinichkin” written by Dmitry Lensky. Again the show had close resemblance to”Turandot” – it was a light and festive old fairy-tale cunningly hinting at the present.

The XII Congress of RCP (b) passed a resolution on propaganda, agitation and press demanding from theatres a revolutionary repertoire. Popov had to give up the idea of staging “The Uncle’s Son” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. He had long ago planned doing it together with Vakhtangov and Mikhail Chekhov.

A play, dedicated to the Revolution, was absolutely necessary and Popov decided to adapt for the stage “Virinea” written by Lydia Seyfullina.

 “Virinea” was in fact one of the first performances from the famous pleiad of revolutionary shows - the very first and therefore unexpected. At the time when the form was inventive, eccentric and blazing Popov found another approach and created a simple, clear and restrained performance.

The next season of 1926-1927 began with the play “Zoika’s Apartment” by Mikhail Bulgakov. The actors were marvelous, Mansurova with her devilishly lifted eyebrow personified Zoika, Simonov played a shifty adventurer Ametistov, Tolchanov – a wizened ugly Chinese Gan-dza-lin and Goryunov as an insidious Cherub. 

The season of 1937-1928 gave two ideologically significant performances: “Badgers” – the first notable work of Boris Zahava and “The Break” staged by Popov.

NEP was on the way out. Since the spring of 1928 the Government began to speak about “the inner enemy” louder and more often. At that time Vakhtangov’s Studio was rehearsing the play “On the Blood” (staged by Simonov), an adventurous chronicle about the break-down of the SR party terror during the first Russian revolution.

At the special request of the Studio Yury Olesha made an adaptation of his famous story “Envy” and entitled it “The Plot of Feelings”. In the psychological tangles of this ambiguous and paradoxical play one hears the yearning for dying “individual” feelings (love, jealousy, envy) and anguish born by a steadily approaching colossal “kitchen-factory”.  The play was staged by Aleksey Popov. Its vividness, rhythm and dramatic merits were established matchless, while Aleksey Popov was recognised as the best director.

In March, 1930 Valentin Kataev’s “Avant-garde” was released. It happened to be Aleksey Popov’s last performance in this theatre and his first complete failure. The relations between him and the administration of The Theatre had become so tense that he couldn’t work there any longer.

On the 12 of May the Literary Newspaper informed the readers: “Due to disagreement on questions of artistic and ideological guidance stage director Aleksey Popov is no longer works at The Evgeny Vakhtangov Theatre.”

Just before his resignation Popov began to work on a sketch play “The Tempo”, which was the first attempt of a young journalist Nikolay Pogodin in playwriting. It was in 1930 when Aleksey Popov left “The Tempo” to The Theatre. The work was continued under the guidance of a group of directors, these were Oleg Basov, Konstantin Mironov, Anna Orochko and Boris Shukin with set designer Sergey Isakov. This performance has always been widely regarded as the outstanding achievement of The Theatre.     

In April 1932 a resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union “On the restructuring of art and literary organizations” eliminated numerous groups, schools and associations in all fields of art. The campaign against “formalism” was just about to start. And at this uneven time The Vakhtangov Theatre launched Akimov’s audacious “Hamlet”. Official directors were Pavel Antokolsky, Boris Zahava, Joseph Rapoport, Ruben Simonov and Boris Shukin. Yet the actual director and set designer was one and only man – Nikolay Akimov. This performance went down in history as Akimov’s play.

 “Hamlet” was on for almost a year but it was then taken off. They needed a glaring example of “formalism” and Akimov’s play was just the thing to pin this label on.

The season of 1932-33 was the most successful in the thirties with “Egor Bulychev” and “Intervention” onstage.   

 Maksim Gorky’s play “Egor Bulychev and Others” was staged by Boris Zakhava and designed by artist Vladimir Dmitriev, who worked at The Theatre for the first time. He showed that he was capable of amazing transformations. Paying tribute to the harmonious and concordant work of the troupe, to the mature and thoughtful work of stage director, all first and foremost praised Shukin in the character of Bulychev. Some even called his acting the work of a genius.

The second release of this season was “Intervention” written by Lev Slavin and directed by Ruben Simonov in collaboration with Joseph Tolchanov.

Two successful performances of that season had revealed two notable trends in the work of The Theatre – the blazing spectacular quality believed to be the legacy of Evgeny Vakhtangov and more serious, psychological and realistic manner. The two conflicting trends were performed by the same actors and existed side by side while under the same roof were working two Vakhtangov’s studs – Ruben Simonov and Boris Zakhava.

The season of 1935-1936 opened with Aleksandr Afinogenov’s play “The Remote” staged by Joseph Tolchanov in collaboration with Isaac Rabinovich (set design). Critics pointed out that the performance made another step towards realism on the stage. These words were significant at that day. On the 6th of January 1936 the last stage of the struggle against “formalism” began.

The first performance of the season 1936-1937 was “Much Ado About Nothing” directed by Joseph Rapoport. This light and lively comedy was a quintessence of what they called Vakhtangov’s principles.

The last performance in that season echoed the tragedies of 1937. Vasily Kusa with Boris Shukin’s help was working on Vladimir Kirshon’s play “The Big Day”. The play was “a defense one”, as they called it then, on the theme of “if war comes tomorrow…” The best actors were engaged in the play, these were Boris Shukin, Oleg Glasunov, Joseph Tolchanov and Boris Shukhmin. But very soon after the premiere thirty-five-year-old Vladimir Kirshon, former head and ideologist of RAPP (the Russian Proletarian Writers’ Association), was expelled from the Communist party, arrested and in less than a year executed by shooting. The performance was panned by the critics and immediately taken off.

In autumn 1937 the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution was triumphantly celebrated. All the theatres were preparing special performances up to this date. Tireless Vasily Kuza locked Nikolay Pogodin in his study and literally under the lash demanded that he should finish “Man with a Gun” in time. Simultaneously Leniniana stepped in to the screen. Mikhail Romm was shooting “Lenin in October”. Boris Shukin was about to play the part of Lenin both in the film and on the Vakhtangov stage.   

Set designer Vladimir Dmitriev had built a long corridor from the very depth of the scene. Lenin was striding along it – swiftly, headlong, with a newspaper in his hand, deeply in thought. The audience all at once gasped, stood up, and a great ovation drowned Shadrin’s first words “Mister, can I have a cup of tea somewhere here?” Shukin had to wait several minutes till the ovation subsided so that he could answer the soldier.

The further life of The Vakhtangov theatre was becoming more and more uncertain. The success came unexpectedly. Andrey Tutyshkin together with some young actors staged Eugene Labiche’s vaudeville “Straw Hat”. This joyful performance had never been planned and was essentially the student work. But it was funny, musical and lively. The play turned put to be such a huge success that it was straightaway included in the repertoire.