Announcement of my new book “Blok Meyerhold and The Fairground Booth” which was published a few weeks ago. The book is now available on Amazon. Blok wrote the play The Fairground Booth in 1906 in the wake of the 1905 revolution which was seen as a precuser to the 1917 october revolution. As Blok himself said it seemed he “dragged it up out of the police department of his soul”. The play itself was received with a mixture of derision and delight when it was first perfromed by Blok and Meyerhold in 1906.
Blok and Meyerhold’s production of the The Fairground Booth was one of those seminal plays which changed the whole direction and context of theatre in Russia. Meyerhold’s subsequent innovations had an impact not simply on the course of Russian theatre but also to a large extent influenced the direction in which other directors developed their ideas and work. The Fairground Booth was a prototype for the explosion of theatrical innovations spearheaded by Meyerhold but it also inspired such directors as Tairov and Vakhtangov.
This book is not intended as an interpretation of the play as such but is written with the aim of creating a context in which this enigmatic and often overlooked play can be understood and enjoyed.
Over the next few months I will be adding material to this blog as a suppliment to the book. Many of the themes in the book such as the theatre within a theatre and Blok’s other plays and their significance for theatre will be addressed as part of a continuing flow of information connected with this book. If you wish to purchase the book more details can be found here or by clicking on the thumbnail on the righthand side of the blog.
The garden is sometimes thought of as an image of paradise, an image of nature in its most pure and innocent state endowed with human meaning by human artifice, a symbol of innocence and harmony best summed up in the image of the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise before the fall. The image and the mythology of the Garden of Eden and its two original inhabitants Adam and Eve holds the potential for a return to this state sometime in the future.
The name derives from the Akkadian edinnu taken from a Sumerian word edin meaning ‘plain’ or ‘steppe’, closely related to an Aramaic word meaning ‘fruitful, well-watered’
The garden itself could be understood as a symbol of harmony and repose. A landscape which delights with its beauty and feeds us with its fruits, representing a microcosm of the earth itself. Such an image has been celebrated in art throughout the centuries in both its pristine form before the fall and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve, from artists like Bruegel to Bosch and Thomas Cole.
Other cultures like the Japanese have created gardens as mythological metaphors of a state of Nirvana, such as the gardens of the Heian period which embodied the paradise of Pure Land Buddhism, an earthly realm to the west which could be reached by souls through meditation and good works. The gardens they built came to personify the state which could be attained in order to achieve rebirth into a higher state of being.
The world of Art movement in the early twentieth century employed the motif of the Garden Paradise to express the concerns and anxieties they felt about sweeping changes taking place in Russian society at this time.
The World of Art Movement (Mir Iskusstvi) was a group of Russian symbolist artists who sought to establish high standards of aesthetic excellence. Its members like Benois Baskt, Somov and Dobuzhinsky, were unhappy with the anti-aesthetic nature of modern industrial society and sought to consolidate all Neo-Romantic Russian artists under the banner of fighting Positivism in art.
Like the Romantics before them, the miriskusniki promoted understanding and conservation of the art of previous epochs, particularly traditional folk art and the 18th-century rococo. However, this was only on the surface. Their work took on an ironic turn in its attitude to nature and history which could no longer be depicted or understood artistically as a facsimile or copy of reality. Many of their works depicted nature in its man-made and modified state – nature as a modified artifice. They took the classical motifs and subjects of gardens estates and parks and applied to them their own contemporary questions and concerns. Dobuzhinsky, Baskt. Somov and Benois took part in the group’s activities which became part of what is known as the Silver Age of Russian art in the early 20th century. The Garden Estate or park became a constant subject of artists of this period but with a crucial innovation. Something in the garden was not right. Paradise was undergoing a transformation, it was falling into a state of decay and the art of this group reflected the general feeling of unease, a creeping sense of impending disaster or doom which accompanied the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in Russian society. This feeling was accelerated with the revolution of 1905, a kind of dress rehearsal for what would come later.
There were no thunder clouds gathering on the horizon in their work but there in the garden could be detected an unease an sense of deterioration in the fabric of the park, something hidden behind the facade of harmony, difficult to express but palpable – a specific aroma associated with a dying epoch and themes of the past. These artists had no real love for ancient Russia and they chose historical themes and images of Western Europe; from the Versailles of Louis 14th, images from Hoffman, Goethe and the commedia dell’arte as well as a scattering of Russian life from the age of Peter the Great, the 18th century, Pushkin and the Petersburg of Catherine the Great, Alexander and old Russian Estates. However, the work was by no means historical or wedded to accurately or realistically portraying the past and its idealised beauty.
The prototypes for this process comes from such academic and classical painters as Antoine Watteau, The Embarkation to the island of Cythera, Cythera being the birthplace of Venus and Daniel Chodowiecki’s ‘The Merry Party’ in the 18th Century Rococo, a style almost excessively emphasising decorativism. They are idealised landscapes in some way but contain the seeds of the future world of the group’s preoccupations and aesthetic.
Benois in his paintings of Versailles eschews heroes and personages, his real heroes are works of art; statues, fountains and the huge massive stones of the palaces which tower theatrically over the people in the painting. The atmosphere is gloomy, and muted, grotesque in an Hoffmannesque fashion. The statues have more significance than the hunched figures in the paintings and in liberating his landscapes from historical associations they are often theatricalised.
There was a trend to theatricalise nature in his paintings. Usually there is a tendency for theatre to draw from nature but in these paintings nature is mimicking theatre in a peculiar reverse aesthetic, setting up a dualism in our minds eye which has the effect of ‘deposing’ reality, pulling it out of joint.
This trend was most obvious in the paintings of Konstantin Somov, whereby the garden paradise is completely subverted. The statues are almost waiting to come to life gazing down at the characters in the painting, commenting on them as it were. The commedia dell’arte figures we see are real people almost photographic in their realistic portrayal. But everyone is in costume from some other century.
Courtesans, Somov 1903
It is difficult to know if this is a masquerade in the present or a masquerade from some other time or century or epoch. Once again, this blurring of fantasy and real life creates a dualistic tension which unnerves the viewer even if only subconsciously. Occasionally a contemporary figure will appear as in the painting of Harlequin and Death, when a couple in modern evening dress embrace and kiss on the lawn in the middle distance but they are framed by a gigantic Harlequin and a Death in the form of a skeleton which is definitely a skeleton and not a character in masquerade. Draped in a sable cape decorated with drops of molten silver it is a parody of an ermine cloak, normally associated with royalty and kings and queens. The cape, a kind of dark photographic negative of white ermine with black flecks, is a parody of the regalia of a king or queen but dressed in an infernal motley. The molten silver drops are like the fallen stars of the apocalypse which would befit death.
In other paintings the unease is underlined by the background figures which seem to be up to something, but we don’t exactly know what. We become interested in their conversations or activities. Strangely it is the background which often draws our attention in all its alien vagueness. We want to know what is going on in the dim recesses of the painting once we have dealt with the glaring theatrical figures which have been thrust in the foreground. They want to command us to see them but eventually we want to look elsewhere. The play on perspective again draws our own perception sideways, pulling us up short as to what is going on. Apparently Somov, according to his sister’s diaries, had a vision defect which effected how he saw perspective and this no doubt contributed to the kind of feeling and emotion in his paintings. There is a sense of extreme vitality and life, combined with a deathlike fixed theatrical dream, a theatre set where puppets are in the foreground and real people are milling about in the background and yet the puppets are imbued with an excess of energy which appears unnaturally frivolous.
Somov parodies the grand classical themes of art; great stately gardens, idealised nature and beauty but degraded and purposely grotesquely trivialised. The garden, the classical paradise is presented as a place where frivolity and death live side by side, each mocking the other, intensifying the feeling of a world separated from reality, of things taken out of context and deliberately ironic and self-mocking. This feeling is underlined in one of Somov’s drawings for a book by Sergei Sudeikin. The scene is a Chinese garden. In the centre of the drawing a gigantic skeleton stalks through the scene. On the left Harlequin and Columbina are moving out of the drawing, a sad spectacle, with Columbina leaning on Harlequin’s back perhaps sobbing. They are being escorted by a grotesque figure who may even be pushing them forward. On the left a female figure is flying into the scene. The whole drawing is reminiscent in its various components of classical paintings of the Garden of Eden with Gabriel escorting them from paradise at the point of a sword. Again, there is an echo of the apocalypse with death taking centre stage in this carnival version of the fall.
Many of Somov’s paintings might remind us of modern-day graphic novels in their tasteless but excellent degree of technical and artistic skill. The question arises why – why is it garish and ‘tasteless’. Perhaps while nature is being continually rationalised, Somov’s masked figures seem to want to reassert a modicum of chaos through humour and the grotesque. They take us somewhere else and even put in doubt the very idea of a garden paradise ever having existed at all. The comic cardboard style subverts our normal associations with classical motifs making us think and approach the themes of the picture from a different angle. It is almost as if the mocking and light-hearted exposition of the subject and joking parody is done on purpose, easing the horror and pain without directly confronting it, offsetting the fear with laughter and foolishness the closer the approaching catastrophe comes. The mixing of laughter and tragedy is something peculiar to theatre. The carnival mood is like that of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The ‘Cask of Amontillado’ which takes place during a carnival and the victim is dressed in carnival motley. As he is walled up alive, drunk on the sherry, we can hear the bells on his costume tinkling merrily. Even by distancing us with the mixture of merrymaking and death our attention is drawn more acutely by the underlying contradictions of emotion, to the coldness of the killer’s revenge. The same is true with Poe’s Mask of the Red Death where ‘Death’ appears among the carnival guests who are attempting to avoid the red death plague outside the walls of the abbey by barricading themselves inside and indulging in a feast of merriment and carnival masquerade. The red death appears inside the abbey almost as part of the masquerade itself.
It is interesting to note that Dostoevsky was an admirer of Poe’s work. Dostoevsky had the prophetic vision to see the infernal texture of the future epoch. ‘The Devils’ and its preoccupation with the depth of evil and cold savagery to which human beings can descend is a prolegomena to the 20th Century. Dostoevsky’s imagery was not lost on artist like Somov and Blok.
Even Chekhov, although not a member of the mir iskusstva,in his own restrained way was expressing the destruction of a whole civilisation in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ where the sale of the cherry orchard impacts on the main characters with far reaching consequences. The garden paradise of provincial Russia, in the image of the cherry orchard, would succumb to its own mini apocalypse and was merely in the end something to be bought and sold.
Many of Chekhov’s works are centred around what is understood as the dacha which looms large in every Russian’s psyche. Chekhov used the idea of a peaceful country setting a natural and harmonious playground for his characters on the surface but turns this idea inside out.
At this time of the year everything seems to stop; work school and even the theatres close for the season. Moscow empties out and there is a mass exodus to the countryside. The dacha is an enclosed world where the outside world can be shut out much like Poe’s abbey and it seems the cares and woes of city life can be put to one side. However, with Chekhov here in the dacha the inner drama of people’s lives, seemingly buried deep in the human consciousness, rises to the surface in restrained but epic proportions. Forgotten traumas force themselves to the surface. Characters undergo a poignant disenchantment bordering at times on indifference, which then erupts into an agonising sense of loss and purposeless as the characters search for meaning to their existence. Strangely the drama of Chekhov reminds us of another Russian artist, Tarkovsky, despite his distance in time from the Silver age. The Russian countryside and natural environment plays an enormous part in Tarkovsky‘s films. The opening part of Solaris comes to mind and also, Stalker.
In Stalker the main characters travel from the gruelling oppressive city to the countryside just like Chekhov’s characters. Here, Chekhov’s gloomy indifferent countryside has turned into a dystopian radioactive nightmare known as the ‘zone’ where the normal laws of existence are no longer applicable and as with Chekhov there is no immediate relief. Relief can only be bought at a price, confronting through suffering ones inner and moral failures and deficiencies. The landscape looks the same as it does in Chekhov’s world but now is littered with the debris of an apocalyptic event.
But to return to the Mir Iskusstva. In the early twentieth century the quickening pace of industrialisation became a feature of Dobuzhinsky’s paintings, and he stands out as one of the true innovators of this trend. As well as the classical Petersburg he saw a new industrial era emerging all around him and it affected his work as the old traditional Russia seemed to be displaced by new architecture and the infrastructure of an industrialised city. The painting ‘The Courtesans’ is an early snapshot of Petersburg nightlife in this era. The female figures are muted, faded and lifeless. Not exactly victims but certainly ghostly casualties illuminated by the garish electric lights in the background which give off a ghoulish green tint.
Later, his painting ‘A Man in Spectacles’ shows a typical member of the intelligentsia, a figure almost identical to Chekhov, standing in his room facing us. Behind him out of the window can be a seen a large, what appears to be, market garden. It is tired and maybe unattended and in the far distance a dreary urban space is slowly intruding on the garden, displacing it. The man in spectacles is less like a human being and more like a dehumanised spectre, an emotion with which no doubt many of the Russian intelligentsia of the time could identify, as their world view began to collapse.
Dobuzhinsky goes further in his painting ‘The Kiss’ which shows a naked couple embracing. Behind them a modern futuristic city is collapsing in flames in a fiery apocalyptic vision
It reminds us of the famous sculpture by Rodin ‘The Kiss’. The embracing naked couple depicted in Rodin’s sculpture was originally part of a group of reliefs which decorated Rodin’s monumental bronze portal The Gates of Hell, commissioned for a planned museum of art in Paris reminiscent in style of The Last Judgement of Michelangelo in its intent. The Kiss, was originally titled Francesca da Rimini, depicting the 13th-century Italian noblewoman featured in Dante’s Inferno(Circle 2, Canto 5) who falls in love with her husband Giovanni Malatesta’s younger brother Paolo.
At the gate:
Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was Divine authority,
The highest Wisdom, and the primal Love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Dante, Inferno, 3.1–9
The garden of paradise is long gone and could never survive such a conflagration in any case. The couple in Dobuzhinsky’s painting remind us that as one civilisation falls the seeds of another are present. Dobuzhinsky, Somov and Benois as part of an educated elite would have been fully conversant with these texts and references to Dante and other writers and artists. There is no reason not to suppose that they became major influences in their work. It is more than likely that they even cued their audiences to spot the allusions and devices embedded in their work and not necessarily with any subtlety.
Dobushkinsky painted set designs for the prologue of Remizov’s The Devils Play(or The Devil’s Comedy) Remizov was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky. In Dobuzhinsky’s set design there is a close connection to Benois’s design for the ballet Petrushka as Janet Kennedy points out in one of her essays.
Dobuzhinsky’s set design is a sheet of darkness illuminated by a few stars similar to the backdrop of Benois design for Petrushka’s room. The devils guarding the door of Petrushka’s room are stylised in the same semi frightening and semi comical style as the devils which populate the underworld in Dobuzhinsky’s set. The thing that definitely links them however is the presence of a comet in some of Benois’s later designs. The comet is a sure sign of the apocalypse although it is likely that Benois used it in Petrushka more for decorative effect than anything else. It is also no coincidence that the Moor’s room is an exotic tropical jungle paradise. The two realms, the apocalyptic and ‘paradise’, sit side by side within the ballet Petrushka.
Vasily Rosanov wrote his book The Apocalypse of our Time directly referencing in the title Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Rosanov was writing after the revolution and found himself at what he thought was now at the very epicentre of an apocalypse. The garden paradise was a long way away and rightly or wrongly he drew for himself the necessary conclusions about the fate of Russia in this book.
With Lermontov in mind we know that Russian culture has a powerful prophetic strand both in its art and literature and the apocalypse was the perfect vehicle to express the forebodings and fears which confronted Russian society before the revolution as well as the anxiety felt about a coming catastrophe. In 1830 Lermontov wrote the well known poem ‘Prediction’ when he was only 16 years old presenting himself as the poet prophet as first marked out by Pushkin.
A year will come for Russia, a dark year
Where royalty no more their crown will wear
The mob who loved them once will love forget
For Blood and death will richest feast be set;
The fallen law no more will shield the weak
And maid and guiltless child in vain will seek
For justice. Plague will ride…….
It is fitting to end with Lermontov as a kind of coda to the idea of a tainted paradise. Lermontov, who was no stranger to demons, masquerades and dark carnivals, goes on to describe an apocalyptic vision of famine, war and strife in the true decrowning style of which Bakhtin often writes and is the centre of his commentaries on art and literature.
This article was originally published in Russia Knowledge under the title “The Garden Paradise“
At the root of early 20th century Russian theatre is the carnival. Its raucous, undisciplined irreverent voice can be heard down through the ages from Pushkin, to Gogol and Dostoevsky, but its principle appearance in early Russian 20th century theatre was in ‘The Fairground Booth’ or Balaganchik written by Alexander Blok and directed by Meyerhold in 1906. An alternative title is also ‘The Puppet Show’. Balaganchik is taken from the word Balagan which is derived from a Persian word meaning balcony.
But what was the Russian Fairground, how did it become the mainstay of what amounted to a revolution in the Russian Theatre.
Konstantin Makovsky – Open-Air Festival During Shrovetide on Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg
In the 18th and 19th centuries, fairground performances were a common form of popular entertainment which also had their roots in the medieval Russian entertainers Skomorokhi who travelled around the country performing folk dramas and satirical pieces. Their performances were a commentary on the lower classes of Russia (See Tarkovsky – ‘Andrei Rublev’ and the punishment of Skomorokhi).Their message had a political charge. They were banned in 1648 by the then Tsar who feared that they were making Russian peasants more socially and politically aware. The fairgrounds showcased entertainers such as acrobats, clowns, puppet showman, tumblers and performing animals. One of the favourite characters was Petrushka; ugly and provocative, and acting the fool and cruelly ridiculing all around him. He personifies the ambiguous atmosphere and underlying menace of the fairground. He was always on the verge of breaking taboos, ridiculing figures of authority and meting out murder, mayhem and violence to those around him especially his wife. This ambivalence between form and content has always been a characteristic of Russian popular culture where laughter and tragic, serious and funny inhabit the same hemisphere so to speak.
The characters of this Commedia dell’Arte also became popular at the fairgrounds and it is believed that either Petrushka was the forerunner of Pierrotor maybe the other way around. However, it has to be said that Petrushka is of a different nature than Pierrot in many ways, although there is probably a lot of cross-pollination.
After the Napoleonic wars, Russian aristocrats divested themselves of French entertainment. At the same time, the fairground was frequented by aristocrats to demonstrate a national consensus and ‘narodnost’. Nicholas 1st made many visits to the fairgrounds.
Konstantine Somov – Harlequin and Columbina
However, this began to change and the rich began to move away from such entertainments. In this context, the Russian craze for serf theatres also declined. Abandoned by their owners, the serf actors gravitated to the fairgrounds in cities and towns. By the 1850s the European Harlequinades were complete with shows or pantomimes of a Russian hue, celebrations of famous battles or historical events. This brought a new public and the harlequinades began to cater for the demands of this new public. The audience became more plebeian after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and industrialisation brought more and more people in larger numbers to the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. At this time, entertainment changed with new industrial technology and mechanical attractions, roller coasters and large-scale pantomimes with large mass casts.
Detail from painting Boris Kustodiev Fairground Booths
We can imagine the scene of large crowds thronging and jostling with each other to see the latest spectacle or freak show and ride on a new-fangled attraction. In the background, the loud hum of the bustling crowd and the shouts and cries of hawkers and spectators, the aristocratic and the squalid rubbing shoulders in the same space. The many balagans or booths and entertainments created a kaleidoscopic cacophony of confused sound, blending into an almost Stockhausen type of symphony which could make a child’s head spin with delight and fear. Devil’s and clowns together would shout down from the balagan, competing with each other to entice the crowds into their theatre.
A description from the time gives a flavour of the atmosphere on the Field of Mars in St. Petersburg.
The Field of Mars roars and hums, hums and groans, bathed in a sea of lights all the colours of the rainbow and flowers……And the sounds? This is not sounds, it is a chaos of sounds. It is a gigantic, miraculous formless chaos. A barrel organ squeaks, a trumpet roars, bells clang, a flute sings, a drum hums, conversations, exclamations, shouts, laughter, cursing, song. There is a holiday carousel decorated with flags, lit up, decked out, illuminated. And here is a barker with his linen beard, the classic barker, that eternal jester, but a jester who holds the whole crowd in his hands, a jester who has power over them and, with a single word, forces the crowd to laugh, to laugh until they cry.
Here we have the cacophony of a new urban industrial environment with all its new social elements colliding in this brash, chaotic gathering.
Interestingly, commentators have noted that this description could be taken straight out of Gogol’s description of Nevsky Prospect in his story of the same name.
Alexander Benois Set design for opening of the ballet Petrushka 1911
The balagan theatre on the surface seemed crude and primitive with noisy interjections from the crowd who were completely involved in the performance. The balagans were pure theatre with little reference to any literary refinement. Both funny and frightening, they were grotesque and were not true to life as conventionally understood. The dramatic conventions of the fairground were staged in line with a popular view of the world, which seemed strange to the educated liberal intelligentsia. The balaganfairground was a space where different types of people could exist side by side, in some sense it united people often with contradictory characteristics and backgrounds. Those who worked the fairground were not easily classified and seemed outside the normal run of social strata in a kind of class unto themselves, (much like the kabukiin Japan).
Reproduction of the set design for Blok’s “Balaganchik” by Nikolai Sapunov 1906
The life of these entertainers was hard and uncertain and in many cases it was a matter of simple survival. They were drawn from the bottom end of profession. The simplest acts were those which could be performed impromptu by acrobats, dancing bears, clowns, street musicians. The smaller shows were the most daring, and bore the spirit of carnival. It is to this pressed and squeezed aggressive type of show that Peterushkacame from. The ballet Petrushkathe Puppet morphed from the Italian Punchinellabut the Russian version can be traced possibly back as far as the 16th century with glove puppets and marionettes at Yarmarki(street fairs or markets). Vulgar with its mangled caricatured deformed figure, grotesque and sinister, violent with a squeaky voice unnatural voice.
The Petrushka show could transcend time and space. At various parts of the fairground and in various cities, Petrushka would be everywhere at once, and existed outside of time and space and yet could change and transform with the passage of time – he was both eternal and temporal simultaneously
The carnival atmosphere of the balagans provided material for artists and writers as diverse as Gogol, Dostoevsky, Benois, Dobuzhinsky and Somov. The carnival coincides with what is known as The Silver Age in Russian art with its all subversive overtones. The Silver Age liked farcical form because of the improvisational possibilities it provided. In his article on theatre, Blok argued for a theatre of action and passion which could be found in popular theatre. He saw in this a theatre of the future.
The theatricality of farce and the marionette quality of the balagan destroys the illusion of closed theatrical space underlined by Harlequin’s leap into a painted square of a window – into the void. In many ways the reality of the world of the fairground booth becomes more real than the that of the author, certainly fuller – by contrasting the theatrical illusion of farce with the reality of the author which in some way is no less an illusion. Here we are confronted with what constitutes reality and illusion where everyone’s perceptions of reality are confused but somehow valid, including that of the authors.
Bakhtin reminds us that carnival retains a wealth of assets invaluable to art with its ambivalence and capacity for transformation. In his book on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin outlines the main advantages of carnival as an aesthetic category.
Katcheli 1803 John Augustus Atkinson
Bakhtin states that carnival is not essentially a literary or artistic phenomenon as such but is a syncretic pageantry, which can be defined roughly as the attempted reconciliation or union of different and opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion in the context of an elaborate public spectacle illustrative of the history of a place, institution, or similar. It is often given in dramatic form or as a costumed procession, masque, allegorical tableau, forming part of public or social festivities of a ritualistic nature. It is complex and varied in form with different expressions dependent on the epoch or time in history. It has an entire language of symbolism, and this entails sensuous forms from large complex mass actions to individual gestures, and as a language has given expression to a unified carnival sense of the world throughout all its forms and appearances.
Importantly from the point of view of the play by Alexander Blok: ‘The Fairground Booth’, Bakhtin notes that this language cannot be translated in any full or adequate way into a verbal language. In other words, it’s not a text and cannot be rendered as a text in words and phrases or sentences. However, it can be transposed or rendered into a language of artistic images that has something in common with its concrete and sensuous nature both in literature and the theatre especially. Bakhtin does not describe it wholly in these terms as he is essentially concerned with literature. It is Meyerhold and Blok who harness the language of carnival for theatre, where carnival is a pageant without footlights and without division into performers and spectators. In carnival, everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. It is neither contemplated or in a strict sense performed. The participants of carnival live in it and live by its laws; they live a carnivalistic life with its own mores and reality. In this sense carnival life, because it is drawn away from the normal everyday life, is life turned inside out, the reverse side of the world.
For Meyerhold, carnival portended a theatre which was not dominated by the word and text but by movement and gesture and a breakdown of the naturalistic view of performance. It enabled the possibility of breaking out of theatrical conventions of the time, and the creation of new dramatic forms based on the very essence of theatre. The most popular and well-known version of such a spectacle in Russian culture is the ballet ‘Petrushka’. Here the elements of dance, theatre, balagan, Russian music and folklore and many of the concerns of modernism like the role of puppets and humans in art, come together in Stravinsky, Benois and Fokine’s ballet which was championed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.
This post is a fragment from a chapter of the book which will be published some time next year. The context is a comparison between the ballet “Petrushka” and “The Fairground Booth”. Both share roots in the Russian fairground and the figures of the commedia dell’arte. To understand a play like The Fairground Booth which has no plot, no characters, no real sense of forward movement or natural time and broke from the traditions of realism and naturalism, requires an approach to Russian culture which moves beyond its surface reflections. When, as Bakhtin states, Dostoevsky’s work embodies elements of carnival, (something which is not immediately associated with Dostoevsky), then it becomes clear why it is possible to find clues to the meaning of “The Fairground Booth” in works of literature as various as “The Brothers Karamazov” and The ballet “Petrushka” and vise a versa.For those seeking unadulterated cultural forms this approach may be disappointing. However it is in this spirit, if we understand the play itself as a mask, that “The Fairground Booth” will reveal itself. The essence of this play is that it embraced contraries and opposites and did so deliberately in order to open up theatre to some kind of change or reconstitution, something which was desperately needed in theatre at the time and was pursued by Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Vakhtangov each in there own fashion. New modes of thought born of a new age called for new modes of expression. But where to find these new myths and new forms. Blok turned to the tradition of the fairground with its timeless puppets and the Italian comeddia dell’arte with its eternal masks and together with Meyerhold they forged the beginnings of a new theatre.
The examination of the ballet “Petrushka” has led us to a wider contemplation of the Fairground Booth itself. We can go a little further and examine some of the paintings and works of the artists of The World of Art movement with Benois as one of its leading figures and the author of the libretto of “Petrushka” in relation to “The Fairground Booth” in which the figure of Pierrot and the Russian version Petrushka are on some levels interchangeable. There is a painting which caught my eye partly for its apocalyptic character by Dobuzhinsky called “The Kiss”. It shows a couple embracing against a futuristic apocalyptic background, a city-scape shrouded in mist and smoke and self combustion. It is strangely alluring and threatening all in one glance. The naked couple is reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Lovers” but more in keeping with Klimt’s “The Kiss”. It is not immediately connected with carnival until we look a little further.
Such images crop up in many paintings by members of The world of Art movement and are connected with the themes of the fairground and the comeddia dell’arte. For instance there is a painting by Konstantine Somov called “Death and Harlequin” 1907, which shows a skeleton dressed in a sable cape with what looks like silver teardrops sewn into it. Harlequin thumbs his nose at Death, the female skeleton figure, (much like Petrushka thumbs his nose at the magician at the end of the ballet after he has been killed by the Moor and reappears as a ghost). In the middle distance behind Death and Harlequin is a couple dressed in contemporary evening wear, kissing passionately. Its not a great looking work of art in the style of Rembrandt for instance using richly variegated paint surfaces and is more in the decorative ornamental style which was so popular at that time then and related to The world of Art’s involvement in theatre. The scene is repeated in various guises in other paintings by Somov especially a colour sketch for a theatre curtain for The Free Theatre in Moscow in 1913. In this sketch all the elements of the commedia dell’arte are present, The devil, harlequin, Pierrot, a young woman to the side in a pose of melancholic meditation and in the centre a man and a woman trying to reach out to each other but are separated by the break in the curtain. This separation reminded me of the author in “The Fairground Booth” (who in this sketch appears perhaps in the guise of a bald bespectacled man, the only figure not in a mask) who trying to bring together Columbina and Pierrot but are separated by the set of the theatre flying away before they can renew their relationship and join together. Above the whole scene cupids and figures from Greek mythology languish in the clouds above. These coincidences are further underlined by one curious fact which is common to many of these paintings. The theme of unobtainable desire. Many times there is a couple who is estranged and alienated from one another. Something is wrong or amiss despite the merriment of the carnival and despite the passion surrounding the kiss . In all the paintings depicting carnival and the harlequinades there is an underlying disquiet or even violence, as in “Columbina’s Tongue” 1915 where Pierrot is threatened with a stick by a Harlequin like figure, who is poking out from behind the giant skirts of an over-sized Columbina dominating the entire canvas. The passion is called into question by for instance in Somov’s Death and Harlequin by the appearance of Death in the foreground. With Dobuzhinsky’s version the towering city of chimneys belching steam and the overwhelming skyscrapers leaning at odd impossible angles and the old symbols of the city are being engulfed in flames, angels are falling ( the angel on top of the column in St Petersburg on Palace Square). The white skyscrapers (white being the colour of the apocalypse) seems to be growing out of the destruction.Here an odd conjunction occurs which has been touched on earlier and Dobuzhinsky’s painting embodies this connection.
It has been argued that in his version of “The Kiss” Klimt represented the moment Apollo kisses Daphne, following the metamorphosis of Ovid’s narrative. I don’t know if this is the case or not but if we follow this logic then it can illuminate further some of the themes that have been explored earlier. Here the myth of the metamorphosis of a human being into a tree reoccurs.
In the metamorphoses of Ovid Daphne the daughter of the river god Peneus was the first love of Apollo; this happened not by chance
but by the cruel outrage of cupid. After an argument with Phoebus (Apollo), cupid shot two different arrows at cross purposes with one another. One arrow struck struck Daphne and the other Apollo. One was in love and the other would have none of it. Apollo pursues Daphne from an excess of passion and Daphne flees across the the land eventually appealing to her father to protect her. Scarcely has she finished her prayer and she is transformed into a tree for her own protection. Apollo even despite such a metamorphosis presses his lips to the wood with the warmth of his passion still aglow.
Apollo doesn’t give up stating:
Although you cannot be my bride
you will assuredly be my own tree
O laurel, and will always find yourself
girding my locks, my lyre and my quiver too…
you will adorn great roman generals….
so you will be evergreen forever…
The first thing that strikes one here is the idea of an unobtainable love which is present as a motive in the legend of Narcissus and Echo in “The Fairground Booth”, Echo and Narcissus in their different ways, yearned for the unobtainable. It is also featured in the love scenes of the three couples in the play as well as Pierrot’s final estrangement from Columbina and is present in paintings and art from the The world of Art movement. Somov was homosexual as were several members of The World of Art movement and the idea at that time of unobtainable desire must have been particularly problematic but rich in material for him as an artist. For the lovers in Dobuzhinsky’s painting however there is a difference. While they are being engulfed in the destruction they somehow stand out from it, surviving in a fiery embrace, seemingly oblivious to the tempest around them. In another painting by Somov, Italian Comedy he depicts a carnival of masks with harlequin, Columbina and Pierrot. Above them almost unnoticed is a wall of arches with one of the column of the arches appearing as if it is about to metamorphosis into a demon monster ready to devour the merrymaking mask below.
It is worth recapitulating what has been said earlier with regard to the story of Attis and Blok’s interest Cattulus’s poem abut Attis and Cybele who changed Attis into a Pine tree, which henceforth became sacred. Attis gradually becomes and acts as a female. Then again Attis (in my opinion) appears as Ariel in “The Tempest” who was preserved in a pine tree on the island and is released from his suffering by Prospero. These themes, especially those which spoke of metamorphosis and transformation were a constant preoccupation with Russian artists and writers of the early twentieth century, delving into classical antiquity to illuminate their concerns with the present and future. Sometimes they are so hidden that one could be forgiven for seeing things where they do not exist. However, as always art always invites speculation. In one painting called “The Resting Comedians” 1914 by Sergei Sudeikin who as well as being an artist was also a theatre designer and at one time worked with Meyerhold in arranging the theatre House of Interludes (1910-1911. His art included many scenes taken directly from the fairground and harlequinades. Here the scene shows a group of travelling players resting in a forest glade by a lake. On the right hand-side is a figure which could be human or could be a mannequin – half puppet, half human but either way it is embedded into the tree almost as part of the tree and in its mouth there looks to be what I can only describe as a pine cone. Metamorphosis for symbolists was the essence of creativity as has been stated elsewhere and so it is not inconceivable that this small detail referencing a human being transformed into a tree is deliberate.
So why one might ask should we concern ourselves with paintings and graphic works from this time in relation to “The Fairground Booth”. The obvious answer is that many artists especially from The World of Art movement actively participated in theatrical design and production. However there is a deeper, more direct reason. “The Fairground Booth” presents us with an ornamental world not a real world and this was a conscious attempt to subvert realism and the naturalism of theatrical practice and develop new dramas and new theatrical forms. Part of this process was questioning the foundations of theatre itself. The Fairground Booth’s other title was “The Puppet Show” (from the puppet booths of the Russian fairground) and in both the play “The Fairground Booth” and the Ballet “Petrushka” the scenes resembled a picture gallery where the figures in pictures and drawings from bygone theatre jumped from their frames and became living entities before our eyes. This phenomena is literally performed in the ballet “Petrushka” when the magician brings Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor to life with the touch of his flute and they step out of their booths/boxes/frames and dance like any living animated creature. It is a comment on the creative process itself and also raises questions about the self and the view of the actors task as an autonomous free entity. Dance and movement as a component part of the theatrical and dramatic process was a new and fresh approach in theatre.
We began with the ballet “Petrushka” and in conclusion we return to the theme of dance which permeates all these works from “The Fairground Booth” to “Petrushka” and to those works which feature in one form or another carnival motifs. In this context we can highlight what can be called the Dance of Death, stalking the epoch before the Revolution and the first world war and which haunted the cultural milieu of Europe. It also appeared in its symbolist manifestations from Les Fleurs du mal of Baudelaire to Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” which is set during an Italian carnival. Poe’s plague ridden “The Mask of the Red Death” where Death visits the ball in the guise of a masked stranger comes to mind in this instance as well. For our purposes in explaining and revealing some of the themes which inform “The Fairground Booth” the dance of death is ever present. It is Columbina who appears at the beginning of “The Fairground Booth” as Death. For the mystics she is Death for whom they have been waiting. For Pierrot she is his fiance. This double interpretation paves the way for what is to follow, a series of ambiguous and multifaceted theatrical phenomena and doubling. This enabled Blok simultaneously to tip his hat to his symbolist leanings but also criticise them in this work of self parody, a trend which intensified up to and beyond the Russian revolution but abruptly ended when it was replaced by Social Realism as the dominant artistic movement in Russia in the early 1930s. It also gave Meyerhold a chance to experiment with new forms of theatre which entered the mainstream of Russian and Soviet theatre after the revolution.