By Andrei Malaev-Babel
278 pp. London and New York: Routledge

Reviewed by Nikolai Pesochinsky[1] (Russia)


International readers may be surprised when I say that this new book – a critical portrait of Yevgeny Vakhtangov by the Russian-American scholar Andrey Malaev-Babel – is research on someone who is of no less significance to Russian theatre thinking today than better-known names such as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevelod Meyerhold and Michael Chekhov.

Never as well-known or even as controversial as the others, most Russian theatre minds today – whether followers of realistic methods or followers of those who believe in open theatricality or even followers of those who believe in a more metaphysical art – all agree that Vakhtangov’s theatrical ideas were brilliant and need to be more deeply understood by those working in the contemporary theatre.

Even in the years after his early death at the age of 39 in 1922, elements of Vakhtangov’s method were being taught surprisingly widely and could be found even in orthodox Stanislavskian acting schools. And his influence has continued ever since. Though more mysterious outside Russia than Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, the fact is that today everyone seems to love Vakhtangov within the Russian theatre. Finding out exactly why is the riddle that this book sets out to answer.

To do so, Malaev-Babel, a director and teacher himself, starts out by examining four main theatre methods utilized almost simultaneously by Vakhtangov during one major decade of his professional career – the so-called Third Studio period. During this time, Vakhtangov clearly worked in a variety of styles: psychoanalytical, expressionistic, ritualistic, and even in what could be called “fantasy realism” based on an open theatricality and even the grotesque. In making this deep examination, Malaev-Babel’s book becomes the fullest and most profound study to date of Vakhtangov’s theatre work and personality. And I include in this statement books existing only in the Russian language.

Prior to this book, the most comprehensive analytical biography was Smirnov-Nesvitsky’s 1987 study. The earlier volume, however, was less detailed, much shorter, and focused more on biography. It has suddenly become outdated. There have also been several memoirs by Vakhtangov’s disciples, most published in the Soviet period and focused on what was then the obligatory theatrical ideology – Stanislavskian realism. One can also mention a volume of essays by Pavel Markov, a contemporary witness to Vakhtangov’s work. It was Markov’s book which really introduced the major concepts. These essays remain indisputably important and were a starting point of sorts for Malaev but in comparison, the early essays now seem to be simply resumes.

This new research, based on readings of a variety of older documents as well as on examinations of the earlier sources, is now the most comprehensive study we have. This is also the first research to utilize the recently published collection of Vakhtangov documents (edited by Ivanov and published in 2011). That work includes over 1,200 pages of original notebooks, shorthand records of classes and rehearsals, memoirs, letters and reviews.

It should also be noted here that this new volume from Routledge was itself preceded by another volume on Vakhtangov compiled by Malaev-Babel and also published by Routledge in 2011 under the titleVakhtangov Sourcebook. Indeed, the Sourcebook forms the basic background of Malaev’s new critical portrait with some material from the earlier volume extensively quoted and analyzed. (This said, only the page numbers from his own Sourcebook are used throughout the new volume meaning that one never easily knows what document the original statement is coming from).

The set of illustrations in this new book also needs to be specially mentioned here: almost one hundred images are included, many of them from Russian archives and never before published. This is important for a real understanding the elaborate visuality of Vakhtangov’s theatre, a theatre based on non-representational spatial concepts, overtly theatrical costumes, a specific type of actors’ movement, archetypal gestures and movement. Even make-up was important.

What is also to be greatly appreciated in Malaev-Babel’s new book is its continuously well-balanced analytical style of narration. The author keeps a real focus on methodological issues, on the principles of directing introduced by Vakhtangov, and on the method of acting that he developed in the various Studios he ran. Vakhtangov clearly belonged to the “Studio” generation of Russian theatre, a trend that started in 1905 when Meyerhold first attempted to create Symbolic techniques of acting at his Povarskaya Studio, and which were developed from 1913 on through other important “studios” directly associated with the Moscow Art Theatre and its affiliates, including the Armenian Studio (1918-22), and the Jewish Habima Studio (1917-22). Looked at in this light, it can be said that all his work in theatre was experimental and was devoted primarily to researching the creation of techniques of acting and directing.

There is detailed description of Vakhtangov’s early years as an actor (perhaps a bit too much, the usual case with opening sections of theatre biographies) as the author seeks to penetrate into the depths of the methodology of every type of theatre that Vakhtangov was connected with. The period in which he starts to go beyond Stanislavskian realism into sensory and subconscious levels of acting is analyzed as part of the work of the First Moscow Art Studio which, was led by a follower of Leo Tolstoy’s religious philosophy, Sulerzhitsky (later run by Vakhtangov himself).

We start to see here the unity of both the ethics and the artistry in theatre that were fundamental concepts of Vakhtangov’s vision. At the peak of this period was his production of The Deluge, in1915 (a play by the Swedish author Henning Berger with action located in the U.S. – the first images of America on the Russian stage) in which we find his method of creating a role, a method based on the revelation of latent personal motivation and a visualization of that which is hidden in a character’s nature. For instance, the pragmatic businessman was played by Michael Chekhov who, working this way, revealed a naïve and shy female secretly living deep inside him.

Malaev proves that this ostensibly naturalistic performance was also clearly theatrical utilizing a particular rhythm, a set of played gestures and a kind of mask in characterization. At this point, one begins to see Vakhtangov’s double approach to character and playing, an approach that produced real dramatic substance in his work: interior and exterior, a kind of living creation and a deeper one that lives below the surface.

The next important step in his development, according to Malaev, is his production of Eric XIV by Strindberg (1921), which expressed this duality even more. Marked by the genial acting of Michael Chekhov in the title role and with an innovative set design by Ignaty Nivinsky, the “living” side of this performance was clearly rooted in the method of the Moscow Art Theatre while the “dead” substance more closely resembled what we think of as the Meyerhold style. Both approaches were deeply rooted, utilizing the style of the mysterious and psychoanalytical theatricality of the First Studio.

One might speak here as well of the influence of Expressionism on Vakhtangov (it is ignored by the author) and probably of early Surrealism: the defocused offsetting space of the performance with broken perspectives and irregular lines, a visualization of a stream of damaged consciousness, the disrupted visions at the core of the actions. This is too exquisitely arranged and too complicated a theatrical structure to say that “Vakhtangov’s method of organizing a performance, in all of his First Studio productions, is simply an actor’s way,” as Malaev argues on page 119.

Malaev divides Vakhtangov’s work at the First Studio into different chapters. For example, we find the study of Eric XIV 70 pages after his study of The Deluge. The sections are divided by an extended study of Vakhtangov’s work in the Student-Mansurov Studio. That is to say, the author’s methodology is rooted in what he sees as Vakhtangov’s own development despite the difference of the experiments that took place in parallel but different groups.

On the other hand, there could have been another idea at work: Vakhtangov tended to create different kinds of theatre with different artistic teams. I doubt that the comic grotesque style of The Wedding orThe Miracle of St. Antony from the Third Studio would ever have worked at the First Studio or at Habima. It is certainly a matter for further discussion. And Malaev has many reasons to want to show the unity of Vakhtangov’s gradually developing theatre, its migration of artistic devices from one period and theatre group to another. The “archetypal gesture,” for example, an element that was found to be the basis of acting creation in the Stanislavsky-rooted First Studio, later manifested itself in the notion of the visual score of mythical performance at the Habima Studio.

The book also includes the most comprehensive description and analysis of Vakhtangov’s production of Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, done at the Moscow Art in 1918. A breakthrough into metaphysical, intellectual and supernatural reflections of the psychological on stage, it changed the usual style of acting by the company. Indeed, Vakhtangov continued ideas that had been started in Moscow by Edward Gordon Craig in his 1911 Hamlet. Speaking personally, I don’t fully agree with Malaev that “Rosmersholmdid not absorb the spirit of the time” (p. 113). It could certainly be associated with the suffering and deaths connected to the Revolution as well as to the futuristic metaphysics and beliefs in the “white horses” of the Revolution, as well as the positioning of intellectuals within all these mysterious realities. In any case, Malaev’s profound reading of Vakhtangov’s work in this production makes us understand it as a genuine turning point from Vakhtangov’s Stanislavskian cradle to his own “fantastic realism,” a methodology that became clear in later years.

Two chapters of the book are devoted to the history and the methodology of the Student-Mansurov Studio, a fully independent space for his experiments in acting techniques – as well as the space where he staged Princess Turandot in 1922. It’s here that Vakhtangov proposed the ultimate version of his acting theory. Its description is clear and vivid and well-rooted in the records of classes and of rehearsals.

Quoting Vakhtangov and his disciples directly and by analyzing performance in detail, Malaev explains a style of acting that goes through several thresholds of theatrical reality resulting in what can be called now a triple life: the creation of a true stage being within a living person who authentically embodies the actor as well as the dramatic character. Also mentioned here is another element that made Princess Turandot so deeply touching and so easily perceivable: a satirical element that was kept at the core of all his tragic heroes. This is a method that combined an authenticity of stage presence with an unusually high degree of clear theatricality, elements that are usually kept far apart. There are many useful examples in this book of all the elements of this from psychological gesture to emotional subtext, from archetypical gesture to fantastic realism.

Another theatre system implemented by Vakhtangov and presented in Malaev’s book in great detail is connected to the first implementation of mythical and ritualistic art in the European theatre of the 20thcentury. Vakhtangov’s participation in the creation of the Jewish national theatre (a Hebrew language theatre) in the Habima grew from his production of The Dybbuk in 1922. Based on ancient ritual, on national myth, on metaphysical consciousness, Malaev offers detailed descriptions of this Studio work and of its wonderful metaphoric performance (set, acting, ritual movement, vocalization). The description here is more thorough than in any existing source I know. It becomes immensely clear why The Dybbukreally is the start of the history of contemporary Jewish national theatre and why it continued to be performed for decades.

Within this volume, Vakhtangov’s theories of theatre are represented in relation to and compared most specifically with those of Stanislavsky, Sulerzhitsky, Craig, and Meyerhold. I would have wished Malaev to have developed the latter connection more extensively as, from 1918 on, Vakhtangov radically turned away from Stanislavskian ideas of directing and moved clearly toward Meyerholdian ones, a deep aesthetic and technological turn, from realistic to theatrical form. But this can be for a future volume. The important thing is that Malaev-Babel understands the complexity of the object of his study. He does not want to reveal artistic secrets simply with a scholar’s logic, for that would be to destroy it. He both explains Vakhtangov in this wonderful book and keeps Vakhtangov’s special mystery truly alive.


[1] Nikolai Pesochinsky is a noted Russian theatre scholar and critic. He teaches at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy and is a former member of the Executive Committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2014 Nikolai Pesochinsky
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Yevgeny Vakhtangov: A Critical Portrait