Who is who in Theatrical Novel. The mysteries of Mikhail Bulgakov’s most vexed book

June 28
Culture

On 26 November 1936, being in one of his nastiest moods, Mikhail Bulgakov took to writing his funniest and at the same time the most acerbate works. He wrote two variants of the title on the front page – Memoirs of a Dead Man and Theatrical Novel, double-underlining the former. Bulgakov was unable to finish the novel as he was working on The Master and Margarita at the time and was engaged with the Bolshoi Theatre. Years later, 25 years after Bulgakov’s death, when the novel was cut short in the middle of a phrase, Novy Mir magazine finally published the novel and opted for the neutral second variant of the title. However, the reaction to it was far from neutral — many theatre people were able to recognise themselves in the novel’s characters, and not everyone found it humorous.

The bad year: what else happened to Bulgakov in 1936

Why was Bulgakok in such a bad mood when he sat down to work on Theatrical Novel? Troubles began back in 1930. The writer was banned and no one would publish his works. The Crimson Island play was terminated at the Central Theatre of Working Youth where he was a theatre director at the time. The Day of the Turbins show was banned at the Moscow Art Theatre as was Zoika’s Apartment at the Vakhtangov Theatre. Critics considered them to be reactionary and in support of White Army issues. Bulgakov “accepted the victory of the people not with joy but with the great pain of submission,” one of the articles claimed. In despair, he wrote a letter to the USSR government in March 1930 asking the powers that be to determine his fate – either let him emigrate to his brothers in Paris or give him an opportunity to work in Moscow. Joseph Stalin personally telephoned Bulgakov and advised him to take a position at the Moscow Art Theatre. Stalin, unlike Bulgakov’s critics, liked the play The Days of the Turbins and deemed it useful. “A show of the crushing power of Bolshevism” – is how Stalin assessed the The Days of the Turbins a year before his telephone call with the writer. At that time he also instructed the theatre to reinstate the show, which had been removed from the theatre’s repertoire. The show had been running at the Moscow Art Theatre since 1926.

The Day of the Turbins play, 1926

Mikhail Bulgakov worked at the theatre as an assistant producer until 1936. He staged Nikolai Gogol’s the Dead Souls and even played the Judge in the Charles Dickens’ play, The Pickwick Club.

He wrote The Cabal of Hypocrites, a comedy about French playwright Moliere, for the Art Theatre as early as 1929, but censors returned it to him two months after first reading it. After Stain’s and Maxim Gorky’s interference in 1931, the play was rehabilitated. But censors demanded that the title be changed into Moliere and all references to Soviet reality be deleted. Ultimately, in the spring of 1932, director Nikolai Gorchakov began rehearsals, which ended only in 1936. During this period Bulgakov was regularly asked to rewrite one scene or another. The play premiered in February, and already by March the writer and his wife read an anonymous devastating review in Pravda called “Brilliant on the outside fake on the fake.” His show, which had been in production, for four years was staged a mere seven times, with each performance having been a colossal success.

Moscow Art Theatre is a cemetery for my plays,” Bulgakov would say bitterly. In the summer of that year he left the Art Theatre for good and took the position of librettist and translator at the Bolshoi Theatre. In the autumn of that same year he decided to write Theatrical Novel, mainly to amuse himself. Upon coming home from work he would rush to his desk and would zealously write about the misfortunes of the poor writer Maksudov. The poor man got caught in the grindstone of a theatre run by two old-timers who had not spoken to each other for years. This theatrical life, full of intrigue, drove the hero of the novel to suicide.

It was written four years before Mikhail Bulgakov’s death. By double-underlining the title Memoirs of a Dead Man in 1936 he had no idea that he too would be gone soon.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Ordinary people: characters and their prototypes

Bulgakov referred to the Moscow Art Theatre as Independent Theatre. Its two directors, Ivan Vasilyevich and Aristarkh Platonovich are apparently references to the Moscow Art Theatre founders Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Both of them are invisibly present in the theatre: Ivan Vasilyevich guides from his house in Sivtsev Vrazhek Pereulok (in reality, Stanislavsky lived his last years as a hermit at his place in Leontyevsky Pereulok) whereas Aristarkh Platonovich is travelling around India.

Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, left, and Konstantin Stanislavsky, right

The tale of poor Maksudov largely mirrors the history of Bulgakov’s cooperation with the Art Theatre. The name and the plot of the novel that Maksudov is rearranging into a play, The Black Snow, has an ironic reference to The White Guard while incessant demands that the playwright moderate the scenes remind us of the four years of the Moliere overhaul. However, the author did not hide himself in the image of Maksudov – he haunts readers under the name of Bombardov.

A man of about my age, thin, tall, came up to me and introduced himself: Pyotr Bombardov. Bombardov used to be an actor with the Independent Theatre, he heard something about my play and that, in his view, it was a good play. For some reason I befriended Bombardov from the very first moment.”

Yelizaveta Telesheva, left, and Pavel Markov, right

In the Independent Theatre Maksudov is first dealt with by playreader Misha Panin (“I liked Misha a lot,” the character notes) and director Yevlampia Romanovna – a royal lady with a royal face and diamond ear-rings.” They ask him to make a stage adaptation of the novel. These characters stand for Moscow Art Theatre playreader Pavel Markov and actress Yelizaveta Telesheva. This is what Markov wrote in his memoirs about getting to know Bulgakov:

“When we had read this multidimensional, complicated novel written in a peculiar manner, many of us, young actors of the Moscow Art Theatre, were overwhelmed and conquered by Bulgakov’s talent. He willingly and enthusiastically responded to our proposal to stage The White Guard.

It was poet Pavel Antokolsky, who advised Art Theatre’s company to look at Mikhail Bulgakov. He was a stage director of the Vakhtangov Theatre at that time where Zoika’s Apartment was running with success. Antokolsky is mentioned in Theatre Novel as Grisha Aivazovsky, a playreader of the Cohort of the Teammates Theatre and Maksudov’s admirer.

Pavel Antokolsky

How do people know whom Bulgakov had in mind when developing his characters? Later, after her husband’s death, Yelena Bulgakova and her son from a previous marriage made a list of prototypes based on their reminiscences of conversations with the deceased writer. Meanwhile, some of the prototypes did not need a list – they understood everything themselves much too well. For example, Lidia Koreneva, a leading Moscow Art Theatre actress, was in fury as she called Yelena Bulgakova after reading the Novy Mir magazine: how dare she authorise the publication? Koreneva, aged 80 back then, recognised herself as Lyudmila Pryakhina, the principle actress of the Independent Theatre, Ivan Vasilyevich’s favourite and a somewhat over-excited and hysterical lady.

Lidia Koreneva

“A fat striped cat, probably mad with fear, bounced into the room. He dodged past me towards a net curtain, clawed into it and began to climb. The curtain could not bear its weight, and large holes were spreading along it. Continuing to tear the curtain apart, the cat climbed to the top and from there looked back furiously. Ivan Vasilyevich dropped his lorgnette as Lyudmila Pryakhina ran into the room. On seeing her, the cat tried to move higher up but ran into the ceiling. The animal fell from the round curtain-rod and hung on the curtain, frozen… I will not move an inch, Pryahina shouted out squeakily, till I get your defence, my teacher!”

Bulgakov did not like Koreneva and she responded in kind. One of the main digs on her in Theatrical Novel was a scene in the theatre office: Lyudmila Pryakina resolutely refused to give her date of birth. The writer here made fun of Koreneva’s passion to play the part of young heroines. In 1929, aged 44, she went onto the stage as a 20-year-old Zinaida from Uncle’s Dream. The actress played the young beauty for a long time. Actually, she is hardly to blame since Stanislavsky himself refused to find a substitute for her. After the death of the genius who favoured her (Koreneva was a friend of Stanislavsky’s wife), her position in the theatre began to change. When she was forced to retire in 1958, Koreneva felt insulted to the core of her being. She swore to never enter the Art Theatre again, and she kept her word.

The cat in the above abstract appears for a reason. Stanislavsky’s striped, whiskered pet was known to everyone at the Moscow Art Theatre: his master admired the grace of his kitty whom he called Cat Catovich and always held him up as an example for the actors. That’s what he writes about the cat in his autobiography, My Life in Art:

“When the beautiful cat jumps, plays around or bursts to grab my finger, he instantly passes from complete calm to a lightning motion which is hard to grasp. How thrifty he is at using his energy! How well he distributes it! While preparing for a move or leap the cat does not waste his strength on needless strain.”

Poliksena Toropetskaya, Aristarkh Platonovich’s wily secretary who forces Lyudmila Pryakhina to reveal her age, is the image of Olga Bokshanskaya, Nemirovich-Danchenko’s secretary. Bulgakov did not like him whereas he was well-disposed towards Olga Bokshanskaya. She was his adored wife Yelena’s elder sister.

Yelena Bulgakova, left, and Olga Bokshanskaya, right

Both the sisters felt affection for theatre since their childhood. In 1918 they applied to the Moscow Art Theatre, and only one of them, Olga, was hired as secretary. She quickly became a legend there. Thanks to her professionalism, she was appointed personal secretary to Nemirovich-Danchenko whereas her personality features ensured her a high position in the theatre hierarchy. It was she who took dictation and typed the first manuscript of Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art, and later her brother-in-law’s The Master and Margarita. Bokshanskaya was sharp-tongued and knew all the Art Theatre’s secrets. Bulgakov rendered many of her stories in Theatrical Novel. The writer could not also ignore her ability to type quickly and without mistakes or typos during dictation, all the while being engaged at the same time in other things.

“We were writing to the accompaniment of ringing of the telephone. They distracted me initially but later I got so used to them so much that I even began to like them. Poliksena was handling all the callers with incredible agility. She would immediately shout, “Yes? Speak quickly,, comrade, for I am busy! Yes?” The person on the other end of the wire was bewildered by such a reception and would be immediately brought to order.”

Moscow Art Theatre, 1902

Olga Bokshanskaya spent most of her life at the Art Theatre, which offered her a chance for a brilliant career and also personal happiness. She married actor Yevgeny Kaluzhsky, Vasily Kaluzhsky’s son, one of Stanislavsky’s disciples who made up the first company of the would-be Moscow Art Theatre. He is hidden under the guise of actor Stroyev in Theatrical Novel, a character who appears only in one scene. Actually, Kaluzhsky would normally play only small parts on the stage of his home theatre.

“Meanwhile Stroyev who had been carried away in a conversation in Toropetskaya’s reception area, was already rushing to the auditorium jumping over several steps.”

When the Theatrical Novel’s main character, Maksudov, first came to the Independent Theatre, amicable actor Bombardov took him on a tour of the portrait gallery of the theatre’s actors. One of the stories narrated by him stands out — the one about late Major General Klavdy Komarovsky-Echappar de Bioncourt, commander of Her Majesty’s Royal Life Guards regiment who once came to see a show and after that quit everything and decided to become an actor.

Alexei Stakhovich

“They looked on and saw the general wipe his eyes with a cambric handkerchief. After the show he headed to Aristarch Platonovich’s office. An usher said later that the general, upon entering the office, said in a desolate and fearful way, ‘Teach me what I should do!’ Well, after that Aristarkh Platonovich and he locked themselves in behind the door...”

The real story of Echappar de Bioncourt’s prototype, Major General of the Russo-Turkish War Alexei Stakhovich, was much more prosaic. In 1902 he became a stakeholder at the Moscow Art Theatre and in 1907 a member of its board of directors. He resigned the same year and three years later joined the company. He wasn’t a brilliant actor but he had a fantastic stage presence. “It was an aristocrat mask, a living line of character,” theatre figure Vadim Shverubovich wrote about him.”He knew everything throughout – whether to hand a kerchief to the lady, pour some wine, he spoke perfect French better than Frenchmen…” Bombardov echoed.

The portrait gallery features a certain “lady in sable furs.” Bombardov swiftly lays her exhaustive profile, “Margaita Tavricheskaya, an actress of our theatre, was considered one of the oldest, or one of its founders. She is famous by the fact that in 1880 the late Ostrovsky said ‘well done’ after seeing her acting debut.”

An attentive reader of Bulgakov, especially a theatre-goer, would easily recognise Olga Knipper-Chekhova in this narrative. She debuted at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 as Tsarina Irina in the show Tsar Fyodor. Alexander Ostrovsky couldn’t have seen her debut as it happened ten years after his demise. But there was another writer among the audience, Anton Chekhov. A friend of the theatre’s, he often attended rehearsals, so it was not the first time he saw Knipper on the stage. Coming back from one of the run-throughs, nearly in love, he wrote to Alexei Suvorin, “In my view, Irina is beautiful. Her voice, nobility, heartiness – it’s so good that my throat is itching …” They would marry less than two years later.

 Olga Knipper-Chekhova, left, and Anton Chekhov, right

Source: mos.ru

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