Female protagonist in the late 1930s: ‘Tanya’ at Revolution Theatre

September 12

One theatre production stood out among all the others released at Revolution Theatre (now the Vladimir Mayakovsky Theatre) in the 1930s. The play ‘Tanya’ was written by the young playwright Alexei Arbuzov, and was dedicated to the company’s prima, Maria Babanova. It was staged by the novice director Andrei Lobanov and was written to remind a Soviet female audience that a woman is first and foremost a personality and only after that, perhaps, a man's life companion. Read this mos.ru article to find out how the most progressive production of its time was created.

A play for Babanova

Tanya’ would never have been written if playwright Alexei Arbuzov had not seen Maria Babanova on stage in 1938. He soon began writing a play about a woman who takes her life into her own hands. Arbuzov was 30 then, having written his first play, Class, at 22. It was staged in Leningrad, but was not a success. It was ‘Tanya’ that brought him popularity, not only in the Soviet Union, but also in other countries.

The plot seemed to just come to him in a flash – a story about a medical student named Tanya who was so much in love with her fiancé that immediately after her wedding she dropped out of university, forgot her friends and threw herself headlong into working on her relationship, making her home cozy and chatting with her pet crow named Semyon Semyonovich, which they rescued during the winter. But one day she looked at herself from the outside and realized she had become nothing more than an attachment to her husband. And it also turned out that he was in love with another woman. And that woman, unlike her, was building her own life without looking back at any man. So when spring comes, Tanya releases the adult crow from her balcony, watch him fly over the courtyard, and then pack a suitcase and quietly leave – to become an independent person and find who she really is.

Arbuzov drew an elegant circle, something appreciated in theatre productions at the time: Tanya, who got lost on a cross-country ski trip in Sokolniki, will at the end of the play run 30 kilometres during a blizzard to help someone else's sick child.

Maria Babanova as Tanya in Alexei Arbuzov's ‘Tanya.’

While working on the play, Arbuzov thought about Babanova, constantly keeping her in mind. And at the same time, he was dreading her reaction. Maria Babanova was not only one of the most famous actresses in Moscow, but someone with a deep understanding of theatre.

In 1922, famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold noticed and blessed her, then a young actress of the studio at the Theatre of the Artistic and Educational Union of Worker Organisations. She was cast in the top avant-garde productions at his workshop, and then at the theatre including in The Magnificent Cuckold, with set and props based on designs by Lyubov Popova; Roar, China!, based on the documentary play by Sergei Tretyakov; and Go Europe, the first Soviet production where a live jazz band was used on stage.

She had to leave Meyerhold in 1927 due to a stage rivalry with Zinaida Reich, in which the latter – the director's muse and wife – often lost. In 1938, when Arbuzov saw her, Babanova was an actress with the Revolution Theatre company. By that time, Meyerhold, who established the theatre, had long left it. Here she learned the Stanislavsky system, and the biomechanics she had brilliantly assimilated under the guidance of her first mentor was complemented with a deep understanding of role psychology.

After reading ‘Tanya’, Babanova thought the play must definitely be produced. She gave the manuscript to Andrei Lobanov who was not a well-known director then. However, by that time, he had directed Alexander Ostrovsky's Talents and Admirers, Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, Maxim Gorky's Children of the Sun, and W. Somerset Maugham's Always at Five Нигде не нашла оригинального названия, ни по русски, ни по английски. Такое ощущение что пьеса существовала только в одном этом театре. at Ruben Simonov Theatre Studio. His record also included Balzaminov's Marriage at VTsSPS Theatre, and several children’s productions. Lobanov who was enormously flatter by the offer coming from the great actress, a favorite of the public and critics, did not have to be asked twice. Babanova decided to cast Alexander Lukyanov as her partner – the stately, handsome actor was the best fit for the role of Herman, Tanya’s husband, whom she loves so recklessly. They used minimalist stage sets, recreating the atmosphere of a modest apartment of the time.

Too risky

When the production was almost ready, the team faced a difficulty: it was not approved by the censors. The concept was too progressive, and Tanya was not at all like the female characters they were used to seeing on stage. The production was smoothly described as “not fit for the times.”

Indeed, it was clearly not a piece the artistic council would approve in the late 1930s. The tone was not right. After the 1917 revolution, women officially gained more rights and could work on an equal basis with men; yet by the late 1920s, it appeared they had pushed motherhood into the backseat. By the mid-1930s, abortion was banned, the divorce process became more complicated, and being a divorced woman became somewhat indecent. Think of Tanya who leaves her husband without regret, no matter how difficult it would be to go it alone.

The problem was resolved by Babanova who used her influence to pull some strings. Tanya premiered on 18 March 1939. Interestingly, shortly after the premiere, the actress was elected a deputy in the Moscow City Soviet. She held the post for quite some time – there were no elections because of the war – and she devoted all her free time to addressing people’s private problems.

Three years after the premiere, in 1944, Maria Babanova was awarded the title of People's Artist of the Soviet Union.

Guided by intuition

For Lobanov, ‘Tanya’was a perfect way to try to rivet the audience's attention to the character’s change, to her inner growth. In this case, the actress was not really interested in psychology – Babanova said she was ‘playing loneliness.’ The actress loved to say, “Women should not be afraid of illusory loneliness; they need to be able to be alone.”

Her Tanya was a little like herself in some respects – she had as much determination and courage when, having just finished the Moscow Higher Courses for Women, she threw herself headlong into a completely unfamiliar element – the theatre. She was not part of an acting dynasty; she was small, thin and anemic due to malnutrition, and worse, her hasty speech was really a problem for an aspiring actress – she had a hard time. At first, she was given roles without dialog – once Babanova delivered a serious remark, it made everyone laugh. But she worked hard to improve her speech to perfection.

In particular, Tanya relied heavily on her filigree vocal technique. In the first acts, the audience saw (and heard) a young girl, naïve and funny. She spoke in a high-pitched, almost childish voice, and her love for Herman seemed infantile, albeit sincere. But later, as Tanya matured both internally and externally, she spoke in a businesslike manner, sharply, while listening attentively to her interlocutor.

That role probably motivated Maria Babanova to self-reflection. She was married when she starred in the premiere performance; but by the thousandth show in 1956 (‘Tanya’ went through two remakes and remained in the theater's repertoire for years), she was divorced.

She felt so deeply for her character that Lobanov didn’t even need to rehearse with her much – she just knew what she needed to do and how. In any case, the director believed actors had to think about and develop their characters intuitively, without much prompting.

Fifth in a row

In 1946, Alexei Arbuzov decided to rework the play that made him famous to make the character more convincing. He was satisfied with the polished final version; it became clearer how Tanya grew from a naive student blinded by love into a self-sufficient woman, and a successful doctor.

Maria Babanova as Tanya in Alexei Arbuzov's ‘Tanya.’

Tanya was Arbuzov’s fifth play, but after being shown at the Revolution Theatre, it was also picked up by other Russian theatres, and it brought the playwright great success. After that, directors from all over the country turned to other plays by Arbuzov. His Irkutsk Story ran more than 9,000 times in theatres around the country from 1960 to 1961. Newspapers said Arbuzov wrote a lot under the influence of his foreign colleagues, the American Tennessee Williams and the English playwright John Osborne.

Alexei Arbuzov also headed the literary department at the Meyerhold Theater for some time. In 1939, with Valentin Pluchek, he founded the Moscow Theatre Studio. After the war, the studio, better known as Arbuzovskaya, was closed.

Screen adaptation

In 1974, ‘Tanya’ caused a new surge of interest when Anatoly Efros made a feature film based on the play. It was the prominent director’s third project, after A Noisy Day with Oleg Tabakov and Two on the Steppes.

The film starred Olga Yakovleva, Efros’s favourite muse and star of the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya. He always gave her the best roles: she starred as Natasha in 104 Pages About Love, Nina in The Seagull, Irina in Three Sisters, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet – and the list is not limited to that. The role of Herman, Tanya's husband, was played by Valentin Gaft. The cast included Liya Akhedzhakova, Leonid Bronevoi and Nikolai Volkov. The music was written by Alfred Schnittke.

Efros admitted his Tanya was different from the one played by Maria Babanova. In the screen version, Tanya was not running from her husband in search of herself, but rather from herself and her feelings, which could destroy her life. Although Arbuzov’s plot survived (the playwright and the director wrote the script together), Efros focused on something completely different. “When I started writing the director's script, I thought with annoyance that much of the play was already outdated,” he later wrote in his book Profession: Director.

Source: mos.ru

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