“One genius actor is not theater; it is a monster, a miracle. To prefer one good actor over a good ensemble is to deny the very essence of theater; the concept of theater includes the notion of the collective.”
A pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov succeeded by the early 1920s in reconciling the naturalistic acting techniques of his master with the bold experiments of Vsevolod Y. Meyerhold. His departure from naturalism in the direction of greater theatricality gave rise to some of the most original productions of the Russian post-Revolutionary theater. In 1920 he took charge of the Third Workshop, which was a subsidiary studio of the Moscow Art Theatre, and gradually led that company toward a “fantastic realism.” He made use of masks, music, dance, and boldly abstract costume and scenery design in pursuit of a theatre that would offer the popular audience dreams, fantasy, and satire rather than a mirror of itself.
As director, simultaneously, of the Habima Theatre, Vakhtangov found in Jewish folklore a further field for the exercise of whimsy and grotesquerie. The Dybbuk, S. Ansky’s tale of demoniac possession, was a particular success (1922). While far less extreme than Meyerhold, Vakhtangov did not hesitate to realize bold new interpretations. In his brilliant production of Carlo Gozzi’s Chinese fairy-tale Turandot, he introduced commedia dell’arte techniques and had actors dress and make up on the stage and stagehands change sets in view of the audience. The production of Turandot, which was begun when Vakhtangov was fatally ill, was nevertheless infused with the gaiety, charm, and optimistic humanity that were characteristic of his work. After the dress rehearsal he was confined to bed, and he died three months later at age 39. The Third Workshop was renamed the Vakhtangov Theatre.
The symbolist revolution in drama that we all know from Konstantin’s little play so rudely interrupted in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” had a rich heritage in the work of Gordon Craig, Meyerhold, Marina Tsvetaeva, Grombrovich in Poland and his successors, Maurice Maeterlinck, right into Tadeuz Kantor and on into Beckett. Worth getting to know this tradition.