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Theatre for Young People in Soviet Russia, 1918-1939: Ideology, Aesthetics, and Cultural Education

Manon van de Water

Résumé

This essay discusses the rise of professional theatre by adults for children and youth in Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1939, the Interwar Years. Focusing on the two cultural capitals, I demonstrate how the agents in the field in Russia constructed the field as an artistic phenomenon, geared towards young people’s aesthetic and cultural education, and how it became coopted as an ideological instrument of the totalitarian regime in the late 1920s and the 1930s under Stalin, culminating in the condemnation of Nikolaj Bakhtin’s cultural education methods and the arrest and exile of Natalia Sats in the late 1930s1.

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Texte intégral

Soviet Theatre for Children and Youth: The Revolutionary Experiment

  • 2 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii teatr dlia detei: Stranitsy istorii 1918-1945, Moskow, Iskusstvo, 1971, p.  (...)
  • 3 Aleksandra Gozenpud, “Teatry dlia detei”, in: N. Zograf et al., Ocherki istorii Russkogo Sovetskogo (...)

1Soviet theatre for children and youth was “born in Soviet Russia in the time of the October Revolution”, according to Lenora Shpet, the most authoritative Soviet historian in the field2. Alexandra Gozenpud goes one step further, claiming that “In the very first months after the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the first theatres for children in the history of world theatre were organized in the Soviet nation.”3 Soviet rhetoric insists that professional theatre for children and youth, performed by adults, was a Marxist idea which came to full realization after the 1917 revolution. While one can point to simultaneous moves to create a theatre specifically for children and youth elsewhere in Europe and the United States, especially under an educational umbrella—professional theatre by adults for children and youth as we know it today started as a Soviet phenomenon in an attempt to offer access to theatre productions to children of all ages and backgrounds. In its first decade it was part and parcel of the artistic experimentation that went on in the theatres of the 1920s in Russia. Between the rise of Stalin and WWII, it increasingly developed into an instrument of the totalitarian regime.

  • 4 Gene Sosin, Children's Theatre and Drama in the Soviet Union (1917-1953) [PhD Dissertation, Columbi (...)
  • 5 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 18.

2In the capital, Petrograd, shortly after the October Revolution in January 1918, Anatolij Lunacharskij, head of the newly established Commissariat of Enlightenment or Narkompros (Narodnyi Komissariat Prosveshcheniia), created a special department for theatre, the TEO (Teatral’nyi Otdel), with a subsection for children’s theatre4. Lenora Shpet calls Lunacharskij the “good spirit” of children’s theatre, who not only understood and recognized the importance and possibilities of children’s theatre, but also took an active part in the founding and sustaining of children’s theatre in those early years5.

  • 6 Ibid., p. 21-23.
  • 7 Aleksandr Briantsev, Vospominaniia, statii, vystupleniia, dnevniki, pis'ma, Moskow, Verossiiskoe Te (...)

3The children's theatre section of the TEO established the Petrograd Children’s Theatre, a touring company for the children of Petrograd and surroundings, which offered a program of fairy tales, children’s songs, and pantomimes. The leader of the theatre, N. A. Lebedev, introduced the performances, and the audience filled out questionnaires at the end. For unknown reasons, the theatre did not resume after the summer season but “from that moment the attempts to create a special theatre for children follow each other in persistent succession.”6 At the end of 1918, the children's theatre section of the TEO initiated a special four-month course of study in children’s literature and school drama for teachers and other persons concerned with the education of children and youth. The program was conducted by Nikolaj Bakhtin, later the lead pedagogue at the Lentiuz (Leningrad Theatre of the Young Spectator), N. A. Lebedev, the director of the Petrograd Children’s Theatr, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Aleksandr Briantsev, the future founder and director of the Leningrad Theatre of the Young Spectator7.

  • 8 Natalia Sats, Deti prichodiat v teatr, Moskow, Iskusstvo, 1961, p. 35-39.
  • 9 Natalia Sats, Nash Put’: Moskovskii Teatr dlia Detei i ego zritel’, Moskow, Moskovskii Oblastnoi Ot (...)
  • 10 Ibid. I am very aware that “first” is a big claim. However, decades of international research in TY (...)
  • 11 Quoted in Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 4.

4In March 1918, Moscow became the new capital of the Soviet Union, and all government offices, including the Narkompros, moved to Moscow. There Natalia Sats was already active as head of the children’s department of the Theatre-Music Section (Temusek) of the Department of Public Education of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. Sats—a precocious 15-year-old, capable of grasping the opportunities emerging in tumultuous times—had a natural affinity for organization and some good connections: her father, Ilya Sats, was a composer who wrote, among others, the music for Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, directed by Konstantin Stanislavskij at the Moscow Art Theatre, her mother, Anna Shchastnaia, gave voice lessons to the actors of the MAT and the Vakhtangov Theatre. Similarly to the Petrograd Children’s Theatre, Sats organized a series of programs for children in the 11 districts of Moscow, from children’s plays to music concerts to circus acts all performed by established professional artists8. The ideological thought behind this was that all children, regardless of class or socioeconomic background, should be able to see the best artists and performances for free—they were the first children in the world who were offered this opportunity9. The program reached out to children who, in the period of “economic dislocation”, could not come to the theatre without transportation or proper shoes. However, the dire infrastructure also made touring to children very difficult, and the lack of plays, ballet, or music appropriate for children became palpable. While the outreach performances were not stopped, Sats wanted to establish a theatre specifically for children, in a special house. In October 1918, on the first anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, the Children’s Theatre of the Moscow Soviet, a government-supported children’s theatre of puppets, ballet, shadow and marionettes, opened at 10 Mamonovskij Alley. It was the first state-supported, professional theatre by adults for children with its own house in the world10. Lunacharskij visited one of the performances, Maks i Morits [Max and Moritz], and was reportedly appalled by the quality of the production and the vulgar slapstick. At the same time, he was impressed by the enthusiasm of both Natalia Sats and the performers: “We have to use all this energy and love for the cause and create an experimental children’s theatre, under the control of the pedagogical section of the TEO and the school department of the Narkompros.”11

  • 12 George E. Shail, The Leningrad Theatre of Young Spectators [PhD Dissertation, New York University, (...)
  • 13 10 Mamonovskij Alley, later 10 Sadovskij Alley, now again Mamonovskij Alley. The theatre has been h (...)

5Lunacharskij appointed a special commission to plan and organize a state-subsidized theatre for children and youth under the auspices of the Narkompros12. Natalia Sats was one of the six members of the directorate of the theatre, which had Lunacharskij himself as permanent chair. Lunacharskij also appointed an artistic committee which included, among others, Konstantin Stanislavskij. The theatre was to be housed on the premises of Sats’s Children’s Theatre of the Moscow Soviet13, which itself was to be absorbed in the new children’s theatre.

  • 14 Gene Sosin, Children's, op. cit., p. 42.

6The rapidly emerging leader of the First State Theatre for Children was Henriette Pascar, member of the directorate, and ideologically diametrically opposed to Sats. In an interview with Gene Sosin in 1951, Pascar calls Sats “an ambitious little girl” and “l’enfant russe” who “did little things to please the government.”14 Sats, on the other hand, accused Pascar of being “very much in love with power” and criticized her lack of political direction and the religious elements she introduced in her plays.

  • 15 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p 46-47.

7Ideologically, Pascar’s views did not match the revolutionary spirit of the newly established Soviet state. Pascar wanted to create a “festive corner of comfort and beauty, a world of bright colors, and happy sounds, a world of fairy tale heroes” which would direct “a radiant beam into the soul of the contemporary child.” She maintained that in these harsh times (the time of the civil war, immediately following the revolution) “children left their enchanted kingdom” and needed to be returned to that world15. She considered fairy tale plays, filled with music, dance and magic, perfect to offer the children a chance to escape from reality and delve into a world of fantasy and imagination.

  • 16 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 683.
  • 17 Here she wrote on her experiences in Moscow: Mon Théâtre à Moscou, Paris, Les Éditions G. Crès et C (...)

8Although Pascar, in 1921, became the sole director of the First State Children’s Theatre, her essentially escapist concept for children’s theatre could not endure in the new Soviet state. At the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923, a resolution was passed which urged all Soviet theatres, including the theatres for children and youth, “to formulate in practical terms the question concerning the use of theatre for the systematic mass propaganda of ideas related to the struggle of communism.”16 Pascar was dismissed after she refused to accept the concept of children’s theatre as a tool or instrument for the education of children and youth in the principles of communism. She had to flee the Soviet Union to escape retribution and joined her family in Paris17. Jurij Bondi, a student of Meyerhold, took over.

9With the dismissal of Pascar, the official ideological direction of theatre for children and youth had been made clear. Theatre for young audiences in the broadest sense had to educate the young Soviet citizen in the principles of Marxism-Leninism. This marked the start of ideologically-correct plays, be they based on fairy tales, folk tales, classical literature, or newly written contemporary plays. The form these plays took, however, was still open and thus directorial experimentation continued.

  • 18 Socialist realism became the official doctrine for all the arts and literature in the Soviet Union (...)
  • 19 Gene Sosin, Children’s, op. cit., p. 70-78.

10Bondi believed in theatre for children with a political mission. The first play he directed, Kolka Stupin, dealt with the homeless children in Moscow, who tried to make a living by selling cigarettes and committing petty crimes. In this play, Kolka Stupin turns out to be a forerunner of the “positive hero” of socialist realism18. He refuses to join a street gang, travels to America where he works in a factory (personally experiencing capitalist exploitation), and helps American dock workers to plot a Marxist style revolution against their bosses. Kolka returns to the Soviet Union just in time to prevent a capitalist plot to blow up an electrical tower. The message this play conveys is that no matter what the circumstances, communism is highly preferable to capitalism. Kolka learns this lesson first hand, having experienced and witnessed the exploitation of the American workers. If he was at first cynical about the new Soviet regime, after his return he is ready to fight for it and dedicate his life to it19.

  • 20 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 54.

11This play is an early example of the genre of Soviet plays with a positive child hero, whose main virtue is his (or sometimes her) unconditional surrender to the communist regime. The play is deceptively realistic; apart from a pair of winged shoes and a talking statue, there are no fantastic elements or magical events. The world is unambiguously divided into “good” and “evil”: communism and capitalism. Bondi shares his idea of children’s theatre in his mission statement: “I affirm, that the one and only form of theatre necessary for children at the present time is the theatre of agitation. Every other form of theatre is a compromise... our first task is a relentless fight with the old ways, the old beliefs, the old ethics.”20

  • 21 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 72. The choice to call it the “pedagogical” instead of “ch (...)
  • 22 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 96.
  • 23 Gregory Roshal, “Early Avant-Garde Children’s Theatre—Splendid and Poetic”, in: Miriam Morton (ed.) (...)
  • 24 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 97-98.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 102.

12Bondi was not the only one who advocated and made political theatre for children. In the winter of 1922, Grigory Roshal, also a student of Meyerhold, opened the State Workshop of Pedagogical Theatre, the most politically radical and experimental Soviet theatre for children and youth in the early twenties21. Roshal was committed to political activism in theatre for children and youth and openly imitated Meyerhold in trying to find new forms of expression for the ideals and values of the new world order. As he said, “We meyerholded to our utmost.”22 Molière’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself, became a play about the persecution of art and theatre under the autocratic rule of the cruel Louis XIV in seventeenth century France. The staging was emblematic and full of playful and open theatricality23. In the company’s second play, Engineer Sempson, a scientist saves the human race from destruction by a deadly weapon in the hands of an evil capitalist cartel. During the intermissions, performers held short meetings with the audience to ensure that the political meaning of Engineer Sempson—which ends with the announcement of a new communist world order, free from the destructive exploitation of capitalism—came across24. But again, the basic set for this play was a Meyerholdian constructivist arrangement of ramps, platforms, and ladders. In 1925, on the orders of Narkompros, the Roshal’s Workshop of Pedagogical Theatre merged with Bondi’s First State Theatre for Children25 and was renamed the First State Pedagogical Theatre. In 1931, it was again reorganized as the State Central Theatre of the Young Spectator, or Gostsentiuz (Gosudarstvennyi tsentral’nyi teatr iunogo zritelia).

  • 26 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 66.
  • 28 Richard Courtney, Play, Drama, and Thought, The Intellectual Background to Dramatic Education, Lond (...)
  • 29 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 72.

13In the meantime, Natalia Sats, after the dismissal of the directorate of the First State Theatre for Children, founded a new theatre for children and youth under the control of the Department of Education of the Moscow Soviet, a different department than the Narkompros. The Moscow Theatre for Children opened in 1921, in temporary quarters, with a fairy tale production, Zhemchuzhina Adal’miny [The Pearl of Adalmina]. Sats and her partner Sergej Rozanov, defenders of theatre for children that served the political goals of the new Soviet state, favored a repertory of adjusted fairy tales as the most appropriate material for children. Each play had to convey an important political message or “social idea.”26 In The Pearl of Adalmina, this message is hard to miss. The play deals with a sensitive young princess who flees the cruelty and stupidity of the court to embrace the simpler and nobler life among “the people.” “Not everyone is sated, because not everyone works”, she tells the audience, and, “the country does not need a king; the people must rule the country.”27 In those early years of their theatre, Sats and Rozanov also tried to reconcile their repertory with the theories of Stanley Hall, which equates child development with the evolutionary stages of society. Hall emphasized the “dramatic instinct” of children, theorizing that children acquire values and ideas of modern civilization by instinctive play. Basically, they replicate the activities of primitive people in the evolution from the simple to the complex. According to Hall, children go through a number of stages, such as the animal stage, when children play a lot of games with hanging and climbing and the like; the nomad stage, when they keep pets and build outdoor houses and sometimes run away from home; and the tribal life stage during which they start to work and play in teams28. Following these theories, Sats and Rozanov developed stories about animals, nomads, tribal life, etc., which they tried to incorporate into plays about the folk art in many lands and places. Eventually Sats and Rozanov abandoned the concept, considering it too limited29.

  • 30 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 66.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 66. The pioneers is a Soviet youth organization for children from 10 to 15 years old, fou (...)
  • 32 Gene Sosin, Children’s, op. cit., p. 78

14In 1924 they produced Bud’ gotov! [Be Prepared!], in which they “clearly embraced the lead of Jurij Bondi at the First State Theatre for Children.”30 Instead of politicized fairy tales this was a theatre of agitation and propaganda. The new hero was the young Soviet pioneer—always prepared—the “child patriot of the new world order.”31 Be Prepared! was the first of a new genre called igro-spektakl’, or play-production in which the audience was invited to participate in several scenes. Besides active participation on stage, the audience was frequently urged by the actors to “be prepared”, to which the audience responded by shouting the pioneer slogan “vsegda gotov” or “always prepared.”32 The play-productions were staged according to the following corresponding rubrics:

  • Material—contemporary life, work and struggle for socialism in the USSR.

  • Characteristic style—constructivism:

    • Dramatic form—play of a utopic character.

    • Social idea—by tireless work and struggle we obtain socialism.

    • Production form—play-production. A revolutionary feast.

  • Decorative solutions—the expediency of machines: propellers, wheels, and movement.

    • 33 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 73.

    Music—revolutionary hymns, music of a heroic character.33

15Play-productions were taken over by other theatres and they remained popular in the Soviet theatre for children and youth until the early 1930s.

  • 34 By 1930 there were twenty theatres for young audiences, by 1932 forty two, and in 1940, just before (...)
  • 35 During the New Economic Policy (NEP), which lasted from 1921 to 1927, a partial return to private e (...)

16By the end of the 1920s state supported theatre for children and youth was firmly established, not only in Moscow but also in other cities throughout the Soviet Union34. The production practices reflected the general atmosphere of experimentation and innovation that was typical of the Russian theatre in the 1920s, encouraged by the spirit of freedom from the NEP35. The plays evolved from fairy tales, to politicized fairy tales, to Marxist propaganda plays with, as the main objective, the ideological education of the young Soviet citizen.

Cultural Education of the Soviet Young Audience

  • 36 See for instance his chapter “Theatre and Its Role in Education”, in: V pomoshch' sem'e i shkole, n (...)
  • 37 The acronym tiuz, although in use before, was taken over by many emerging theatres for children and (...)
  • 38 Aleksandr Briantsev, Vospominaniia, op. cit., p. 80.

17Although Sats, Rozanov, Roshal, and others experimented with audience research, Nikolaj Nikolaevich Bakhtin is considered the father of Soviet theatre pedagogy. Pedagogue, theatre scholar and writer, Bakhtin had been writing about the benefits of children’s theatrical education since the early 20th century, mostly from an amateur and school theatre perspective36. Bakhtin worked closely with Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Briantsev, who founded the Leningrad Theatre of the Young Spectator (Leningradskii Teatr Iunogo Zriteliia, or Lentiuz)37 in 1922. The theatre was modeled after Sats’s and Pascar’s First State Theatre for Children in Moscow38.

  • 39 Aleksandr Briantsev, Vospominaniia, op. cit., p. 82; George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 353; (...)
  • 40 Ibid., p. 737.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 738.

18As the head pedagogue, Bakhtin created a systematic program, which was soon adopted by theatres for young audiences throughout the Soviet Union39. Bakhtin developed his program around two essential elements: a full-time professional educational staff of “pedagogues” and the “Delegate Assembly”, a body of child representatives, who assured communication between the theatre artists and their audience. Bakhtin’s audience preparation was closely associated with his ideal of creating a “teatral’no-gramotnyi zritel’”, or theatrical-literate spectator, an idea which came out of his concept of children’s theatre as essential in the moral, aesthetic, and ethical education of young people40. All visits to the theatre should be a learning experience. Bakhtin wanted his audience to understand at least the plot, character, and themes of the company’s productions. Ideally, he also wanted them to have a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the theatre, including the role of director and actor, theatrical elements such as lighting, sets, and costumes, and principles of dramatic criticism41.

  • 42 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 357; p. 736.

19The educational staff had several duties: 1. directing service to the child audience during performances, including maintaining order and answering questions; 2. establishing and maintaining contact with teachers, students, and administrators at the local schools; 3. developing and preparing informative programs, curriculum guides, and other printed material for the use of teachers, parents, and youth leaders in preparing children for attendance of the productions; 4. observing, studying, and analyzing child audience reactions; 5. developing and implementing follow-up studies and techniques for the enhancement of the child’s theatre experience42.

  • 43 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 745-746.

20Bakhtin’s concept of the Delegate Assembly, consisting of two or more student representatives from each school, who were the main links between the company and their audience, was also widely emulated. The delegates participated in a variety of activities: they helped during performances by passing out programs, maintaining order and the like; they participated in the preparation of wall newspapers (including news about the tiuz, short reviews of Lentiuz productions and articles of general interest to young spectators) and other publications of the Assembly; they executed in-school services on behalf of the theatre, such as organizing excursions, leading post-performance discussions, writing about the theatre in school publications; and, they attended the regular monthly meetings of the assembly. In the beginning, these meetings consisted more of an extra-curriculum course in theatre arts (analogous to Bakhtin’s concept of the theatrical-literate theatre goer), later, following the changing political climate in the Soviet Union, they consisted more of group discussions on ideological content and its significance43.

  • 44 Ibid., p. 693-694.
  • 45 Miriam Morton, Theatre and Children in the Soviet Union, n.d., n.p., Tempe, Arizona State Universit (...)

21The Lentiuz also started the general practice of dividing the audience into three different age groups: between 5 and 9; between 10 and 13; and between 14 and 17 or 18. Briantsev soon started to concentrate on the two older age groups, with a special emphasis on the middle one, restricting the younger group to puppet and marionette performances44. The age groups were strictly observed. Except for chaperones, only students of the right age could attend the performance for their age group45.

  • 46 Avdeev, Lentiuz pedagogue, quoted in: George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 496.

22Audience study became an important element in theatre pedagogy. In the mid-1920s a vogue for quantitative studies captured the Soviet Union, and not only Bakhtin but also Dikanskaja at the First State Children’s Theatre, Sats, Roshal and others tried to come up with quantitative techniques to measure audience responses. They used, among others, a combination of anecdotal reporting and statistical graphic analysis, and a chronometer set at one minute and one minute and a half intervals to measure a variety of child audience reactions. The latter measure led to the elimination of background music in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because the uncontrollable weeping of the majority of the audience diverted their attention from the political message46.

  • 47 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 760.

23At the end of the 1920s into the 1930s—with the rise of Stalin, the first 5-year plans, the persecution of artists as “formalists”, and the doctrine of Socialist Realism—this all came to an end. Bakhtin was accused of “bourgeois liberalism” and “apoliticism”. The concept of the “theatrical-literate spectator” came under particular attack as “elitist” and against the party’s aim of creating a classless society47. The concept of “theatrical-literate theatre goer” did not completely disappear, though, it merely took on a new direction more in line with the party’s ideology. Instead of emphasizing the aesthetic education of young people, as the term “theatrical-literate spectator” implies, the ideological education took over.

24Similarly, quantitative research came under scrutiny, because it refuted the idea of dialectics, progress and chance inherent to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, and the theatres for young audiences started to rely more on other research methods—already in use—such as written responses, questionnaires, interviews, child art, and dramatization. The main concern was now whether the political and ideological content came across. To ensure this, pedagogues went to the schools after the performances to help teachers during evaluative classroom discussions. Nevertheless, the previous belief that there was a direct cause and effect relationship between theatre visits and subsequent behavior was impossible to prove, in part because the dominant ideology penetrated all facets of life.

Tightening the Ideological Clutch: The 1930s

25By the 1930s, the practice of theatre for young audiences as a state supported institution was firmly established in the Soviet Union, and the number of “tiuzes” was rapidly increasing. In 1930 all Soviet theatres for young audiences were placed under the jurisdiction of a newly established Council on Children’s Theatre at the Narkompros. In the spring of that year they convened the First All-Russian Conference of the Workers in the Theatre for Children. The ideas of this conference are summarized in an official publication, Theatre for Children as an Official Instrument of Communist Education, by Sofia Lunacharskaja, in which she outlines how to make the Soviet children’s theatre a tool for propaganda, agitation, and indoctrination of Soviet youth in the principles of Marxism-Leninism:

  • 48 Sofia Lunacharskaja, Teatr dlia detei kak urodie kommunisticheskogo vospitanniia, Moskow, Saint Pet (...)

Art as an amusement, a diversion of attention away from life is not for him [the Soviet child]. He comes to the theatre with many disturbing problems, with a host of needs and misunderstandings. The Theatre must consider all those needs, must shed light on those dark thoughts, disturbing the mind. It must develop and strengthen both love and hate. It must give him sustenance for the struggle, an optimistic attitude toward the surmounting of all difficulties and obstacles, and a faith in the strength of the collective and in the glorious life of emerging socialism.48

  • 49 Ibid., p. 26-30

26Lunacharskaja also gives a list of appropriate themes for plays for young audiences in the Soviet society. Among them are: the conflict between the modern Soviet child and the bourgeois attitudes of his parents; the life and work of the Soviet child in school and the pioneer organization; the relationship between pioneer leaders and members of the pioneer organizations; the evils of religion and the necessity of atheism; the events of the October Revolution and the Civil War, emphasizing the achievements of the Bolshevik Party; the revolutionary struggle of workers in capitalist nations; and the goals and objectives of the five-year plan for the industrialization of the Soviet Union and the collectivization of agriculture49.

  • 50 Gleb Struve, Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953, Norman, Oklahoma University Pres (...)
  • 51 Ibid., p. 253-285.
  • 52 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 524.

27In 1934, at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, the theory of “socialist realism” was launched, which became the official doctrine for all the arts, literature and theatre, including theatre for young audiences. Andrej Zhdanov, the official party spokesman, described the Soviet artists and writers as “engineers of the human mind” who had to “depict life in its revolutionary development.” Soviet literature “must not shun romanticism, but it must be romanticism of a new type, revolutionary romanticism.”50 Under the doctrine of socialist realism all Soviet artists had to conform to certain principles: strict adherence to the party line in the presentation of social and political issues; the portrayal of contemporary Soviet life under socialism in a positive light; the representation of historical events in terms of accepted Marxist-Leninist theory; the vilification of all enemies of socialism, the Soviet state, and the world wide Communist movement; and the glorification of the Marxist-Leninist utopian ideal for the future happiness of all mankind under communism51. In the theatre, this led to an endless stream of ideologically predictable plays with a mandatory “positive hero” who battled against national or international odds, only to succeed in a socio-realistic happy conclusion, in which it is once again proven that the party knows best. Some of the stereotypes created by socialist realism in theatre for young audiences include: “the endlessly patient and understanding party-minded teacher”, “the steely-eyed young Pioneer who fearlessly and relentlessly ferrets out enemies of the party line for the Soviet school”, “the school hooligan who bullies weaker children and abuses youngsters from ethnic minorities” and “the arrogant dissembler who hides his anti-social behavior (card-playing, wild parties, drinking, and the like) behind a hypocritical mask of overzealous commitment to the cause of party-sponsored in-school activities.”52

  • 53 Ibid., p. 520.

28With the institutionalizing of socialist realism, a war against “formalism” began. The term “formalism” or “bourgeois formalism” originally pointed to art that relied on form instead of social content, but soon it became “a catch phrase for any form of artistic experimentation antithetical to official support for the realistic representation of life and reality in all the arts.”53 At the end of 1934 the political terror of Stalin matured with the assassination of Kirov, chairman of the Leningrad Soviet. Stalin used this as an excuse to persecute, ban and kill thousands of Soviet citizens.

  • 54 Ibid., p. 534; p. 768.
  • 55 Komsomolskaia Pravda, quoted in Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 221.
  • 56 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 221.
  • 57 Natalia Sats, Deti, op. cit., p. 279-284.
  • 58 Gene Sosin, Children's, op. cit., p. 173-176.
  • 59 For a rare glimpse at Natalia Sats on video, and a documentary on Peter and the Wolf, see Peter and (...)

29Meanwhile, in March 1936, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of People’s Commissars established a new theatre in Moscow that was meant to be a model for the artistic, pedagogical and political functioning of Soviet theatres for young audiences54. The theatre was housed in the newly renovated theatre on Sverdlov Square (now Theatre Square), a theatre that formerly housed the Second Moscow Art Theatre, adjacent to the famous Maly and Bolshoi theatres (Gozenpud, Tsentral’nyi 25). Natalia Sats was named director of the theatre, which received the name of Central Children’s Theatre [Tsentral’nyi Detskii Teatr]. The theatre employed 375 people, with an orchestra of 28. Although it was officially hailed as a new theatre55, “the core consisted of the troupe of [Sats’s] Moscow Theatre for Children taking along its earlier established tastes, principles, and traditions.”56 Natalia Sats herself was convinced it was an endorsement of the practices of the Moscow Theatre for Children57. The theatre opened with a production taken directly from the repertory of the Moscow Theatre for Children, Serezha Strelt’sov, by V. Ljubimova. Serezha, a lonely boy of 15, suffers from depressions, despite the love and kindness of his father, with whom he lives after his mother has abandoned them. When he is unjustly accused of stealing, he tries to commit suicide by catching pneumonia on purpose, but is saved by his anemic teacher, who donates her blood. Serezha’s attitude, then, changes drastically: he learns to accept the love of his father, friends, and teacher, and even develops a sense of patriotism. “How fine it is to live in this country”, he declares at the end of the play58. There was seemingly nothing wrong with Sats’s performance during the short time she was director of the Central Children’s Theatre. She attracted famous people, such as Aleksej Tolstoj, whom she persuaded to write a Soviet version of Pinocchio, The Golden Key; and Sergej Prokofiev who composed the music for Peter and the Wolf, which had its premiere in the Central Children’s Theatre on May 5, 193659.

  • 60 Natalia Sats, Sketches from My Life, Moskow, Raduga, 1985, p. 263.
  • 61 Cf. Ol’ga Kravchenko, “Strast I nenavist’ Tykhachevskogo”, Ekspress Gazeta, 20 February 2008.
  • 62 Bobb Edwards, “Natalya Sats”, Find a Grave [online], accessed 3 September 2013, and “Ilya Sats”, Fi (...)
  • 63 Roksana Sats, Personal Interview, 21 September 2013.

30There are numerous accounts on why Natalia Sats was arrested in August 1937. Stories range from her being accused of knowledge of illegal activities of Israel Veitser, her husband at the time, who was the People’s Commissioner of Domestic Trade of the USSR60. Various sources rumor that she had an affair with the womanizer Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevskij, who was also shot with 6 others as an enemy of the people61. Others speculate that the Central Children’s Theatre became too popular with westerners as the US ambassador was in attendance the night Sats was arrested62. Her daughter Roksana says that Sats was arrested because she lent money to the wife of an already declared “enemy of the people.”63 And Gene Sosin maintains that Serezha Strel’tsov fell in disfavor because it was declared “slander against Soviet school and school child.” In the end, it may not matter, as many people at that time were arrested and exiled without any identifiable cause.

31Thus the first chapter of the development of professional Soviet theatre by adults for children in the interwar years ends. Starting as a revolutionary experiment, enthusiastically embraced, it became increasingly institutionalized and eventually more restrictive. What is important to note is that during this time theatre for children and youth followed a similar path as the theatre for adults and was in many ways inseparable from it, certainly in experimentation with forms and content and in the revolutionary spirit. Just as the doctrine of Socialist Realism stifled all the arts in the Soviet Union for decades to come, so did it in the theatre for children and youth. The notion of state supported, professional theatre by adults for children and the right of every child to an artistic experience, however, was indeed born and implemented in Soviet Russia.

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Notes

1 Editor’s Note: This essay summarizes the conclusions drawn by Manon Van de Water in her book Moscow Theatres for Young People: A Cultural History of Artistic Innovation and Ideological Coercion, 1917-2000, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 41-63.

2 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii teatr dlia detei: Stranitsy istorii 1918-1945, Moskow, Iskusstvo, 1971, p. 4.

3 Aleksandra Gozenpud, “Teatry dlia detei”, in: N. Zograf et al., Ocherki istorii Russkogo Sovetskogo dramaticheskogo teatra, Moskow, Akademii Nauk, 1954-61, p. 421.

4 Gene Sosin, Children's Theatre and Drama in the Soviet Union (1917-1953) [PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1958], Ann Arbor, UMI, 1958, p. 34.

5 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 18.

6 Ibid., p. 21-23.

7 Aleksandr Briantsev, Vospominaniia, statii, vystupleniia, dnevniki, pis'ma, Moskow, Verossiiskoe Teatral'noe Obshchestvo, 1979, p. 80-81.

8 Natalia Sats, Deti prichodiat v teatr, Moskow, Iskusstvo, 1961, p. 35-39.

9 Natalia Sats, Nash Put’: Moskovskii Teatr dlia Detei i ego zritel’, Moskow, Moskovskii Oblastnoi Otdel Narodnogo Obrazovaniia, 1932, p. 5.

10 Ibid. I am very aware that “first” is a big claim. However, decades of international research in TYA has not rendered any evidence that refutes this claim.

11 Quoted in Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 4.

12 George E. Shail, The Leningrad Theatre of Young Spectators [PhD Dissertation, New York University, 1980], Ann Arbor, UMI, 1985, p. 48.

13 10 Mamonovskij Alley, later 10 Sadovskij Alley, now again Mamonovskij Alley. The theatre has been housing theatres for young audiences since the ballet and puppet theatre first moved in in 1918. From 1941 until this day (2020) it is the home of the Mtiuz, the Moscow Theatre of the Young Spectator, now known in English as the Moscow New Generation Theatre.

14 Gene Sosin, Children's, op. cit., p. 42.

15 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p 46-47.

16 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 683.

17 Here she wrote on her experiences in Moscow: Mon Théâtre à Moscou, Paris, Les Éditions G. Crès et Cie, 1930.

18 Socialist realism became the official doctrine for all the arts and literature in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s [see below].

19 Gene Sosin, Children’s, op. cit., p. 70-78.

20 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 54.

21 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 72. The choice to call it the “pedagogical” instead of “children’s” theatre signifies the strong mission of this theatre to educate the future Soviet citizen in the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

22 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 96.

23 Gregory Roshal, “Early Avant-Garde Children’s Theatre—Splendid and Poetic”, in: Miriam Morton (ed.), Through the Magic Curtain, New Orleans, Anchorage Press, 1979, p. 25-27.

24 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 97-98.

25 Ibid., p. 102.

26 Ibid., p. 65.

27 Ibid., p. 66.

28 Richard Courtney, Play, Drama, and Thought, The Intellectual Background to Dramatic Education, London, Cassell, 1968, p. 26-28; p. 66-67.

29 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 72.

30 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 66.

31 Ibid., p. 66. The pioneers is a Soviet youth organization for children from 10 to 15 years old, founded in 1922. The official uniform of the pioneers was a white shirt or blouse with a red handkerchief; the official slogan was “vsegda gotov” [always prepared].

32 Gene Sosin, Children’s, op. cit., p. 78

33 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 73.

34 By 1930 there were twenty theatres for young audiences, by 1932 forty two, and in 1940, just before WWII, there were more than seventy state-subsidized theatres for young audiences in the Soviet Union. See George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 84-85; p. 681.

35 During the New Economic Policy (NEP), which lasted from 1921 to 1927, a partial return to private enterprise was allowed, especially in farming and industry. This instigated a feeling of freedom, which led to many daring, avant-garde experimentations and innovations in theatre, art, and literature. The theatre practices of directors such as Meyerhold and Tairov have become an inspiration for many theatre artists outside the Soviet Union.

36 See for instance his chapter “Theatre and Its Role in Education”, in: V pomoshch' sem'e i shkole, n.p., n.a., 1911.

37 The acronym tiuz, although in use before, was taken over by many emerging theatres for children and young people, often simply with the city’s name in front of it.

38 Aleksandr Briantsev, Vospominaniia, op. cit., p. 80.

39 Aleksandr Briantsev, Vospominaniia, op. cit., p. 82; George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 353; p. 735-748. A sign of Soviet coercive practices is that Briantsev not only omits Meyerhold from his memoirs, but also virtually ignores the contributions of Nikolaj Bakhtin whom he mentions but four times, briefly, in his book (published in 1979). Both Meyerhold and Bakhtin fell in disrepute with the Soviet regime in the 1930s.

40 Ibid., p. 737.

41 Ibid., p. 738.

42 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 357; p. 736.

43 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 745-746.

44 Ibid., p. 693-694.

45 Miriam Morton, Theatre and Children in the Soviet Union, n.d., n.p., Tempe, Arizona State University (Hayden Library: Special Collections), p. 11-12.

46 Avdeev, Lentiuz pedagogue, quoted in: George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 496.

47 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 760.

48 Sofia Lunacharskaja, Teatr dlia detei kak urodie kommunisticheskogo vospitanniia, Moskow, Saint Petersburg, Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoi Literatury, 1931, p. 21.

49 Ibid., p. 26-30

50 Gleb Struve, Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953, Norman, Oklahoma University Press, 1971, p. 261-262.

51 Ibid., p. 253-285.

52 George E. Shail, Leningrad, op. cit., p. 524.

53 Ibid., p. 520.

54 Ibid., p. 534; p. 768.

55 Komsomolskaia Pravda, quoted in Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 221.

56 Lenora Shpet, Sovetskii, op. cit., p. 221.

57 Natalia Sats, Deti, op. cit., p. 279-284.

58 Gene Sosin, Children's, op. cit., p. 173-176.

59 For a rare glimpse at Natalia Sats on video, and a documentary on Peter and the Wolf, see Peter and the Wolf. vcr. Narrated by Natalia Sats with documentary, 1986. (Albany: Suny, 1990).

60 Natalia Sats, Sketches from My Life, Moskow, Raduga, 1985, p. 263.

61 Cf. Ol’ga Kravchenko, “Strast I nenavist’ Tykhachevskogo”, Ekspress Gazeta, 20 February 2008.

62 Bobb Edwards, “Natalya Sats”, Find a Grave [online], accessed 3 September 2013, and “Ilya Sats”, Find a Grave [online], accessed 3 September 2013.

63 Roksana Sats, Personal Interview, 21 September 2013.

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Référence électronique

Manon van de Water, « Theatre for Young People in Soviet Russia, 1918-1939: Ideology, Aesthetics, and Cultural Education », Strenæ [En ligne], 16 | 2020, mis en ligne le 17 juin 2020, consulté le 10 août 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/4363 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/strenae.4363

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Auteur

Manon van de Water

Vilas-Phipps Distinguished Achievement Professor
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1220 Linden Dr., 1439 Van Hise, Madison, WI 53706
mvandewa@wisc.edu

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