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A Picture Book of Soviet Theater : RUSSIAN AND SOVIET THEATER : 1905-1932 <i> by Konstantin Rudnitsky; translated by Roxane Permar (Harry N. Abrams: $75;320 pp., illustrated) </i>

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Is “a serious coffeetable book” a contradiction in terms? Not when it is as intelligently conceived as this one.

“Russian and Soviet Theater: 1905-1932" combines a meticulously detailed and footnoted text with extensive and well-designed plates. And the plate sections, which are gathered together at the end of each chapter, provide more than the usual photographs and drawings; their captions amount to a running commentary thorough enough to serve as a thumbnail version of the text. As a result, the book can be used as either an introduction or a piece of scholarship.

The “picture book” is exquisite and comprises more than 450 reproductions. Many are clear black-and-white photographs of key scenes in the key productions discussed in the text. They typically include the entire stage and therefore show how set, costume, and blocking interact, yet they are large enough to let the eye linger on a detail.

Except for an occasional imaginative poster or the publicity photograph of a famous actor or director, the remaining illustrations consist of sketches for stage and costume designs, the sort of wonderfully inventive drawings and watercolors that have recently found their way into the world’s most self-respecting museums. Sixty-four of them (by such masters as Altman, Exter, Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich, Popova, and Rodchenko--in other words, some of the most important representatives of 20th-Century Russian art) jump out from the page in beautifully reproduced color.

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Rudnitsky’s text is noteworthy in several respects. No one acquainted with his scholarship, which ranks with the best in the field, will be surprised to learn that his sympathies lie with the avant-garde: His magnum opus (available in translation) is a detailed examination of the life and works of Stanislavsky’s pupil and long-standing nemesis, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the most inventive director of the avant-garde; furthermore, the avant-garde, which included such luminaries as Sergei Eisenstein (yes, he worked in the theater as well as in films), Mikhail Chekhov, Alisa Koonen, Alexander Tairov, and Yevgeny Vakhtangov, furnished both the theory and practice that makes the decades chronicled here deserving of so extravagant a presentation. But Rudnitsky also attempts to justify his title (Russian and Soviet theater) by discussing the non-Russian contributions to the theater scene, especially those of the more than marginally interesting Georgian, Jewish and Ukrainian stages. Cultural diversity within the Soviet Union is much less recent than the recent headlines about ideological diversity among the non-Russian Soviet republics.

Another unusual aspect of the text--and another aspect of the text connected with glasnost-- is what we might call its depoliticization. True, the years when virtually all Soviet scholarship opened with paeans to Marx, Lenin, and especially Stalin are long gone, but in a society so determinedly political as the Soviet Union, art and life go unavoidably together and art for art’s sake is heresy. Now it is the (presumably) American editor who quotes Lenin (to the effect that the theater must be “greater than a spectacle”) on the dust jacket, while Rudnitsky’s index lists only two entries under “Lenin” and only one under “Stalin.”

To some extent, Lenin’s reliance on others diffused his role in cultural politics, and Lunacharsky, Lenin’s commissar of education and an active if heavy-handed playwright himself, plays a major role in Rudnitsky’s account of the period. Stalin’s influence was all but monolithic by 1932, the year Rudnitsky chooses to close his narrative. Yet although Rudnitsky rightly characterizes the theater of the early ‘30s as returning to realism--that is, moving back to Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater and away from Meyerhold--he does not point out that the immediate cause for realism’s renewed “popularity” (and for his decision to use 1932 as a cutoff date) was Stalin’s 1932 Party decree “On the Restructuring (the Russian word is perestroika) of Literary and Artistic Organizations,” which effectively banned all literary schools other than realism.

On the one hand, we are grateful for a new Soviet theater history that places Soviet theater over Soviet history; on the other, we do need the historical context. The Soviet reader knows certain things without having to see them on paper; the Western reader--and the text appears to have been written specifically for this edition--has not had to learn to read quite so carefully between the lines.

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That said, there is much here that has been previously unavailable, and Rudnitsky has done a fine job of bringing it together. The standard conclusion would be to encourage him to write a sequel. Unfortunately, Stalinism put an end to the organic development of Soviet theatrical life, and the sequel would be a tragic one of retreat, self-denunciation, labor camps, and death. Let us therefore be thankful for what we have: a fine survey of the most exciting period in the history of the Soviet--and Russian--theater.


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