Monday, January 28, 2008

Theatricality as Estrangement of Art and Life In the Russian Avant-garde

Theatricality as Estrangement of Art and Life In the Russian Avant-garde

Silvija Jestrovic

"We, too, will show you life that's real—very! / But life transformed by the theater into a spectacle most extraordinary!" writes Vladimir Mayakovsky in the prologue of his famous Mystery Bouffe. This transformation of life "into a spectacle," both on stage and in reality, is one of the most distinct features of the phenomenon of theatricality. It is to some extent the metamorphosis of the real, the habitual, the ordinary into the theatrical. The parallel between theatricality and the ideas of the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism has often been pointed out, particularly in relation to the Formalist concept of literariness. 1 Nevertheless, the affinity between theatricality and the phenomenon of making the familiar strange, central to Russian Formalism, has rarely been addressed. In 1917, Russian Formalist scholar Victor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie to describe the artistic strategy of presenting the well-known as if seen for the first time. The term is translated into German as Verfremdung, which became the cornerstone of Bertolt Brecht's anti-Aristotelian dramaturgy of estrangement. The traditional means of estrangement in theater are epic devices central to Brecht's strategy of breaking theatrical illusions. Theatricality, however, can be present in the context of illusion without a self-referential aspect, but whenever theater's conventions and processes become its own topic, theatricality turns into a conceptual approach, often expressing its potential to make the familiar strange. This was the case with Meyerhold's, Tairov's and Evreinov's concepts of the theatricalization and re-theatricalization of theater in the Russian avant-garde. Moreover, these directors practiced the strategy of distancing the familiar using devices of theatricality in ways much closer to the notion of ostranenie as elaborated by Russian Formalists than to Brecht's Verfremdung. Thus theatricality functions as a distancing device when it foregrounds what is immanent to theater, calling attention to the fictionality and incompleteness of the representation. Brecht's concept of Verfremdung, Shklovsky's ostranenie, as well as practical and theoretical works of the Russian theatrical avant-garde suggest that there are several variants of the notion of distancing the familiar. Likewise, there is more than one concept of theatricality.

Patrice Pavis defines this phenomenon as "the specific enunciation, the movement of words, the dual nature of enunciator (character/actor), and his utterances, the artificiality of performance (representation)" (395). In this view, theatricality is a special kind of theatrical stylization through which its aesthetic and self-referential function is foregrounded. Roland Barthes's definition stresses the extra-textual—the visual and auditory aspects—as immanently theatrical:

It is theater-minus-text, it is a density of signs and sensations built up on stage starting from the written argument; it is that ecumenical perception of sensuous artifice - gesture, tone, distance, substance, light - which submerges the text beneath the profusion of its external language. (26)

Barthes's definition is closer to Artaud's and Evreinov's vision of theater as everything that cannot be expressed through only words and dialogue. For Evreinov, whose work in many aspects parallels Artaud's vision of theater, theatricality is almost an anthropological category and an organic part of being human. Theatricality is inherent in humans as the will to play, claims Evreinov, echoing in a way Nietzsche's will to power.

In her study on theatricality, Elizabeth Burns recognizes two sets of conventions involved in this phenomenon: the rhetorical, which is immanent to the theatrical performance and its production; and the convention whose function is to authenticate the performed, in other words, to establish "a connection with the world of human action of which theater is only a part" (32). Theatricality in real life, according to Burns, combines the rhetorical grammar with authenticating conventions. Making a crossover between theatricality as immanent to stage performance and as an aspect of real life, Burns prefigures the contemporary notion of performativity. Michael Sidnell defines performativity—a term borrowed from speech act theory—using Coleridge's notion of ipseity—a performative attribute to self-realization:

In performance theory—still in its incipience—the performative in the given sense is what is never merely rehearsed, even in rehearsal; the quality which, in its ingenuous form, actor training seeks to sublimate; that is the kind of ipseity that the rude mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream cannot but enact in all its uniqueness. (98)

Sidnell points out that theater is a place for playing out the ambivalence between discourse and performativity asserting further that:

The WHAT of the theatrical performance may be understood as an inescapably citational, decentered and discursive text (whether or not it has been scripted); on the other hand, it offers itself as a unique act (whatever its textual or discursive citationality) determined by the pragmatics of its social context, and, as such, instantiating its authors or subjects. (107)

It could be asserted that performativity, having its distant roots in both literariness and theatricality, works in two directions. As an extra-artistic, non-rehearsed, immediate quality, it enters a work of art and becomes only partially aestheticized in the process. On the other hand, it is also present as an artistic, fictional, constructed aspect that wittingly or unwittingly enters into everyday behavior, altering the relationship between reality and representation.

Thus, there are at least two kinds of theatricality—the one that re-theatricalizes theater, foregrounding its self-referential aspects; the other that theatricalizes life, awakening in Evreinov's terms our "will to play." I will focus here on some aspects of the relationship between theatricality and the notion of making the familiar strange, examining the concept of re-theatricalization of theater as epitomized in Meyerhold's practice, on the one side, and the theatricalization of life embodied in Evreinov's and in Russian Futurists' experiments, on the other.

Re-Theatricalization of Theater

The notion of re-theatricalization of theater, advocated by Meyerhold and other-avant-garde directors of his time, emphasizes that the theatrical stage is a place of play and artifice, which does not "copy" reality, but represents it, through immanent theatrical means. Although there are different phases of Meyerhold's art, the notion of the theatricalization of theater seems to underlie them all. Even when Meyerhold became a highly political artist of the Revolution (after 1917 and into the early 20's) he searched for acting and staging techniques (biomechanics, constructivism) that emphasize the process of stylization and theatricalization. His experiments in new theatrical forms were a quest for a new theatrical immanence—a theatricalization of theater that would fit into the emerging "brave new world." In an early note from 1914, Meyerhold describes theatricality in the manner of Russian Formalist scholars: "Theatricality presupposes an inevitability of form. [...] The theater is art and everything in it should be determined by the laws of art. Art and life are governed by different laws" (147). Furthermore, Meyerhold's theater strongly relies on anti-illusionistic representation and defamiliarization devices. His acting methodology—biomechanics—his notion of stylized theater, re-theatricalization of the theater and conventionality, are based on incorporating elements of theatrical traditions such as commedia dell' arte, Oriental theater, the circus, puppet theater, and so on. These theatrical forms have at least two things in common—the dominance of theatricality and artificiality over illusionist elements, and the dominance of performance over written text. 2 In other words, Meyerhold bases his theatrical practice on those forms and conventions that reinforce both theatricality and strategies of making the familiar strange. I will address here three aspects of Meyerhold's re-theatricalization of theater: his treatment of the dramatic text within the performance structure that at times comes close to Barthes's definition of theatricality as "theater minus text;" the strategy of estrangement that Shklovsky describes as "laying the devices bare" and that in Meyerhold's practice comes close to Pavis' definition of theatricality; and the notion that I call trans-theatrical inscriptions that in Meyerhold's practice become one of the dominant means of re-theatricalization.

Renegotiating the Status of the Text within the Performance Structure

Meyerhold shifts the emphasis from the dramatic text to the actor's body by turning to those periods in the theatrical tradition that rely on masks, by cabotinage and by improvisation. Very early in his writings on theater he is opposed to the idea of performance as a mere embodiment of the dramatic text, stating that theater is not in the service of literature. The literary text is no longer seen as the basic element without which a performance would cease to exist. For Meyerhold, the actor is the key and minimal unit that enables a theatrical event to take place, even when the performance is stripped of all other components and properties. Thus, the dramatic text is treated as material for making a performance, and Meyerhold allows himself to manipulate and rearrange the text to enhance its theatricality. In other words, Meyerhold adapts the dramatic text as a component of the performance. The controversial staging of Gogol's The Inspector General illustrates Meyerhold's treatment of the dramatic text in ways that reinforce the theatricality and artificiality of the performance.

Staged in 1926, after Meyerhold's revolutionary phase, The Inspector General appeared when the emphasis again shifted to the theatricality and conventionality of theater. Meyerhold uses the dramaturgical technique of montage and restructures the play into fifteen episodes, evoking the traditional pattern of wagon staging and tableaux vivants. Furthermore, the musical structure of the performance (the influence of Adolphe Appia and Georg Fuchs) serves as the spiritus movens of the production more strongly than Gogol's own plot. Meyerhold additionally alters the dramatic text by creating a stage double of the main hero Xlestakov. The double is mostly silent, following Xlestakov, handing him props, and occasionally reminding the hero of his lines. This doubling is both intertextual and intertheatrical. It can be viewed as a reference to Dostoyevsky's novel The Double, Gogol's own short story The Nose, and as an allusion to the notion of automaton in E. T. A. Hoffmann's grotesque stories. On the other hand, the stage figure of the double, by its very mechanical nature, takes on the performative patterns of pantomime and the puppet theater. Meyerhold's The Inspector General shows that references to other dramatic or literary texts in performance are not bound necessarily to linguistic means. In other words, mise en scène has the potential to transform intertextual patterns into inter-performative codes.

The notion of doubling becomes here both a staging device, marking the divergence of the performance from the literary text, and a metaphor of theatricality. Meyerhold's methodology stresses the transformation that the dramatic text undergoes from literature to theater. This transformation of the literary/dramatic into the theatrical/ performative is established through the process of doubling and memory. Meyerhold's performance offers a re-representation (and a new reading) of Gogol's play, creating a distancing effect by violating the conventions of staging of the Russian classic and subverting the audience's expectations. It establishes a dialogue not only with other literary works, but also with preceding stage interpretations.

The estrangement effect of Meyerhold's production is effected not only by re-interpreting Gogol's well-known play against the memory of other productions, but also by stressing the conventionality and theatricality of theater. The estrangement strategy here points to the very foundation of Meyerhold's production as a crossing and mutual transformation of literary and performance codes. Meyerhold's performance thus recreates Gogol's play as an effigy, playing out the dialogue between identity and difference. The play-text is taken from the realm of the dramatic into the realm of the theatrical. It becomes an inscription into the performance structure, transformed during the process of theatricalization.

Laying the Devices Bare

In his study of Stern's Tristram Shandy, Shklovsky describes the particular defamiliarization strategy that Stern uses in this novel as "baring the device" or revealing the device of plot structure. 3 This "baring" of the aesthetic device in theater involves showing in full view of the audience the process of theatricalization. Meyerhold and others turned this notion into a dramaturgical strategy in order to re-theatricalize the theater, reminding the audience that what sets the production in motion is nothing but "a motivation of an artifice." This notion makes the very process of making a performance into a theme, and ultimately breaks the illusion. The strategy of baring the staging devices is self-referential, and although it establishes the autotextual level of the performance, it does not necessarily close the work on itself, but often opens it to other theatrical traditions and styles.

The 1906 production of Alexander Blok's Balagan illustrates Meyerhold's strategy of baring the device as a distancing effect based on theatricality. More precisely, he lays bare the devices of producing Blok's play, which makes use of commedia characters and fairground-booth conventions, by incorporating the norms of puppet theater into the performance of live actors. Meyerhold sets a little booth on the stage with its own curtain and prompter's box, creating the structure of theater within the theater. The prompter climbs into the box and lights a candle in full view of the audience. The wires and ropes of the booth are not masked, so that the audience can see the whole process. The action takes place in the booth, while the actor who represents the author occupies the main stage. Both the actors in the booth and the one playing the author are given puppet-like qualities. The author is pushed on and off stage by someone hidden who controls him. The movements of the other stage figures are restricted, imitating the economical movements of puppet theater. Meyerhold enhances the estrangement and theatricality in the production by adding to the epic devices a quality of puppetry which, as Pëtr Bogatyrëv observes, is "one of the most explicitly conventional forms of theater" (57). It always reminds the spectator that the performance is just a simulation of life, not life itself. The puppet-like quality of the stage characters draws attention to the acting process, preventing the audience from taking the actor as embodiment of the character.

The self-referentiality of Balagan is, therefore, governed by the production's theatrical links to both the puppet theater and commedia dell'arte, establishing the notion of performance about making a performance. The concept of theatricality here enables the crossing of different performative conventions, whose amalgamation takes the audience by surprise, highlighting the anti-illusionistic aspects of the production.

Trans-Theatrical Inscriptions

I define the notion of trans-theatrical inscription as a stamp that resurrects another production, theatrical style or another work of art. Trans-theatrical inscriptions have the potential to bring the theatricality of the performance to the foreground. For instance, Meyerhold's inscription of the fairground booth into his performances (mostly from 1908 to 1917) makes for an apotheosis of performance based on the mask, gesture and movement. It is a performative style that inevitably highlights anti-illusionist performance tendencies and theater's own theatricality. Meyerhold's implementation of folklore, by using the notion of the fairground booth, as well as the elements of other theatrical traditions, not only has the potential to break the illusion, but to foreground aesthetic principles that remain marginalized in mainstream culture. In other words, Meyerhold's trans-theatrical inscriptions make the inscribed elements topical, often mixing "high brow" and "low brow" art. In this process of inscribing and combining, marginalized conventions and styles are resurrected, but also modified within the body of the new performance.

Furthermore, the trans-theatrical inscriptions not only reinforce the theatricality of the work but also, as the devices of making the familiar strange, deautomatize worn-out stage conventions, enabling a more conspicuous set of conventions to emerge. The process of combination and association governs the nature of these inscriptions, yet it is not an arbitrary interplay of different performance conventions; rather, it is a way of grasping the gist of the work. The trans-theatrical inscriptions need to be precise, as Meyerhold puts it: "from the old theater one must select those architectural features, which best convey the spirit of the work" (98-99). The validity of the trans-theatrical inscriptions and combinations is determined by the framework that the actual staging material outlines. Meyerhold is able to combine the theater conventions of Molière's time with their contemporary devices in Japanese No drama in staging Don Juan only after detecting a similar striving towards stylization and theatricality in both traditions.

Meyerhold comments on his staging of Molière's Don Juan as theater of the mask: "The mask enables the spectator to see not only the actual Arlecchino before him but all the Arlecchinos who live in his memory. Through the mask the spectator sees every person who bears the merest resemblance to the character" (131). Trans-theatrical inscriptions are not only links to other performances and theatrical conventions, but also links to history. Meyerhold's re-theatricalization of theater confronts a performance with performative and ideological structures of a period in time. His notion of the "spirit of the work" can be understood as the key point in the process of theatricalization within which various trans-theatrical inscriptions and links establish the relationship with the contemporary context of the performance. Different aesthetic and ideological contexts become united through mutual transformation, enabling both the theatrical and the topical dimension of the work to come to life. In a way, it is a process of making a volatile synthesis of diachrony and synchrony. Moreover, Meyerhold's re-theatricalization of theater grants the various aesthetic forms a new life, not on the ground of permanent and unchanging significance, but on the ground of change and adaptation.

Theatricalization of Life

"Life should imitate theater, should find in it fresh new sensations, and not the reverse. "— Oscar Wilde

Iuri Lotman recognizes three ways in which art and life relate: a) "Art and extra-artistic reality are regarded as realms between which the difference is so great and fundamentally inseparable that even comparing them is impossible;" b) "Active influence is directed from the realm of art to the region of extra-artistic reality;" c) "Life serves as the region of modeling activity - it creates the examples that art imitates" (34-5). Lotman relates the first case to Classicism, the second to Romanticism, and the third to realism (33-51). He bases this article on Bogatyrëv's studies in theatricality, starting with the premise that not only does the actor undergo transformation on stage, but the whole world becomes theatricalized— things become the signs of things. Thus, it is not only possible to examine the process by which the extra-theatrical world influences that of the theater, but also the other way round. The approach of the historical avant-garde, and to some extent that of the Formalists, is the closest to a Romanticist view of the relationship between art and life. Some of the avant-garde experiments in theatricality were not only a search for new art forms, but by the same token were attempts to find an immanent artistic structure of life. The theatricalization and ritualization of certain aspects of the extra-artistic world was very deliberate. That in a way meant practicing the strategy of making the familiar strange as a life style, which was the case with Nikolai Evreinov and a number of Futurist artists. Even though avant-garde art and theory works on re-aesthetization and re-theatricalization of art, it also tends to shift and re-negotiate the boundaries between art and life.

There is a metatheatrical dimension in the avant-garde experiments, where the familiar reality is represented as theatrical. In this way the approach to life as something extra-artistic, and as real versus fictional becomes challenged and defamiliarized. As in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, metatheatricality emphasizes that the line between life and stage illusion is very thin. It tends to represent "life as a dream" (Calderon) and to show that "all the world's a stage" (Shakespeare). Metatheater is a device of establishing a dramatic and theatrical metaphor through which life is shown as an endless play, an ongoing theater of sorts. In the most radical experiments of the Russian avant-garde, shifting the line between reality and performance, between life and illusion, is no longer metaphoric. In other words, for some of the avant-garde artists, metatheater is not only a mode of dramatic and theatrical representation, but also a fact of life. The notion of theatricality, aiming to renew our sensation of life by aestheticizing the relation to reality, comes again close to Shklovsky's ostranenie, which is meant to counter-act the automatization of perception, enabling us to see the well-known in a new light. Arguing against the prevailing interpretations of ostranenie and literariness as concepts that reinforce the idea of art for art's sake, Svetlana Boym asserts:

Estrangement is what makes art artistic but by the same token, it makes everyday life lively, or worth living. It appears that Shklovsky's "Art as Device" harbors the romantic and avant-garde dream of a reverse mimesis: everyday life can be redeemed if it imitates art, not the other way round. So the device of estrangement could both define and defy the autonomy of art. (515)

Two aspects of theatricality as aesthetization of life seem to be the most prominent in the Russian avant-garde: the notion of transformation of everyday existence, which Evreinov theorized in his books The Theater as Such (Teatr kak takvoj, 1912) and The Theater for One-self (Teatr dlja sebja, 1915-1917), both meant as a kind of theater in printed form; and Futurist liminal theatrical experiments intended to influence a new community by joining art and life. The latter could be partly described as the phenomenon of carnivalization.

Evreinov, who himself claimed to be a harlequin, emphasized that the notion of transformation is at the core of theatricality as a rejuvenating principle that brings back the sensation of life. He urges us not to be ourselves, and goes back to pre-theatrical ages, claiming that primitive man came to realize that in addition to the conscious, waking I there is a second I of his dreams. It could be added that in modernism this realization, which inspired Evreinov to exclaim: "Do not be yourself," implies an even further split of I. In other words, it suggests that I is the other, thus, that the notion of self is not one closed intact unity, but a fragile formation with many faces. I in Evreinov's context can be understood as a construct, an interchangeable mask in a continuous role-playing. He views the notion of self as a theatrical or rather metatheatrical phenomenon. The intrinsic theatricality of I is played out through transformation. By doing so, one deliberately transforms I into other, turning the familiar, supposedly intrinsic self, into his/her own stranger. For Evreinov, theatricality, based on transformation, is played out more as theatricalization of real life than that of theater. However, the problem of the modern world is its abandoning of its own intrinsic and organic theatrical sense:

We were born with a concern for our daily bread and for truth and justice - but with the complete atrophy of the feeling of theatricality, the instinct for the transformation of life, the will to the creation of the fantastic. And so it happened as it was bound to happen: the more people came to neglect theatricality, the more they turned from art to life, the more tedious it became to live. We lost our taste of life. Without seasoning, without the salt of theatricality, life was a dish we would only eat by compulsion. (quoted in Golub, 52)

Evreinov's notion of theatricalizing life oscillates strangely between two very different thinkers, Artaud and Shklovsky. With Artaud he shares the idea of theatricality as a primordial and almost mystical trait that human beings have suppressed in their everyday existence. Yet there is also some affinity between Evreinov's concepts and those of the Russian Formalists, whom he read and admired. His notion of theatricalization could be understood as a quest for a practice of making the familiar strange. Furthermore, the process of transformation plays an important part in the Formalist notion of ostranenie. Through devices of ostranenie, a transformation of the commonplace occurs, so that the well-known is seen as if for the first time. The concept of ostranenie in the context of Evreinov's notion of theatricality approaches contemporary happenings and environmental theater where the everyday surroundings and routines become transformed into a theatrical space and event. Furthermore, Evreinov understands the effect of theatricality on both art and reality in the almost-Shklovskian sense of a perceptibility that has the potential to rejuvenate life. The difference between the two could be described by saying that Shklovsky's perceptibility is an artistic strategy, a possible effect of aesthetization of our perception of both art and life. For Evreinov theatricality, together with its rejuvenating potential, is at the core of human nature, thus being at the same time both artistic and extra-artistic.

Futurist experiments in the theatricalization of life are embedded in Meyerhold's and Evreinov's theatrical works. Yet they were more radical and more practical in their attempts to theatricalize art and life than Evreinov. Even though Evreinov led an eccentric "theatricalized" life, his ideas communicate more strongly in his theories. The Futurists, on the other hand, brought theater out into the streets. They themselves became jesters and wandering poets. Evreinov in his book Theatricalization of Life (Teatralizacija zhizni) described the performances by the cubo-futurist Vasil Kamenski, who promoted Futurist theatricality not only as an aesthetic approach but also as a way of living and seeing the world. Kamenski made a guest appearance in a circus in Tiflis where he rode a horse while reciting his poetry. In 1927, inspired by the legend of Russian hero Stenka Razin, he staged an outdoor spectacle on the local river. He asked his friends to dress in period costumes, decorated a procession of boats, and then went for a costumed boat ride to the bewilderment of passers-by. It is hard not to notice elements of contemporary "happening" and "walk-about performance" in Kamenski's experiment.

David Burliuk, the father of Russian Futurism, and Mayakovsky scandalized the public by appearing on a number of occasions with painted faces. So did the other Futurists who during 1913 and 1914 toured Russia dressed in colorful eccentric clothes to promote their art. These tours, in which poets like Mayakovsky, Xlebnikov, Kamenski and others took part, were meant to spread the idea of the theatricalization of life and the new Futurist approach to beauty. Barbara Lonnquist suggests that there is an affiliation between the Futurist practice of theatricality and the notion of carnivalization:

The Futurist performances in Simferopol on 7 January (svajtki) was announced as Olimpiada futurizma, and according to the poster the futurist Ignatiev held a "lecture" entitled Velikaja futurnalia. "Futurnalia" is obviously meant to recall the Roman carnival "Saturnalia" and suggested that the lecturer or whoever designed the poster perceived an intrinsic similarity between the Roman New Year festivities and the program of the futurists, which called for a rejection of the old ("brosit' parohoda sovremennosti") and greeted the new (futurist art). (18)

Futurists theatricalized reality by means of carnival. They masked their faces with paint, and shifted the boundaries between participants and the audience who were actively engaged in the events, whistling, booing and laughing. Futurist performances also abandoned theatrical institutions for the streets, recalling the atmosphere of the market place where the actors entered freely into dialogue or disputed with the crowd. These elements of carnival became means of defamiliarization, turning everyday existence, where the prevailing norms and conventions were normally acted out, into a place of play, buffoonery and freedom. Bakhtin's definition of the carnivalesque involves a sense of communal body that undermines the distinction between observers and participants. Bakhtin writes that "carnival celebrates temporary liberation from prevailing truth of the established order: it marks the suspension of hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions" (10). However, carnival brings about a temporary defamiliarization of the well-known environment and its conventions, where liberation from subscribed norms is only permitted within the duration of the carnival festivities. When the carnival is over, the prevailing order is re-established. The Futurists dreamed of a more radical change that would introduce a new life style through art. In an interview from 1913 entitled "Why Are We Painting Ourselves?" ("Pochemu my raskrashivaemsia?") Futurist painter Mikhail Larionov reveals the agenda behind their carnivalization of reality, showing that the futurist's carnivalesque theatricalization of the everyday life has a utopian quality:

The new life requires a new community and a new way of propagation. Our self-painting is the first speech to have found unknown truths. We have joined art to life. After the long isolation of the artist we have loudly summoned life and life has invaded art, it is time for art to invade life. The painting of faces is the beginning of the invasion. (quoted in Gutkin, 169)

Lotman describes the relationship between romantic art and reality:

Theatrical life represented a chain of events. A man was not a passive participant in an inchoate passage of time: liberated from everyday life, he led the existence of a historical personage - he himself chose his type of behavior, actively influencing the world around him, perished or achieved success. (56)

For the nineteenth-century Russian culture and its romantic gentry, as Lotman explains, theater was the source of revolutionary consciousness that transformed a person into a character, liberating him from customs and norms. Futurist "revolutionary gentry" being active in the period around the Great War and the Revolution saw themselves as makers of a new cultural history and innovators of new forms of behavior. They viewed both art and real life as an ongoing spectacle. Using the example of nineteenth-century Russian culture, which is to some extent applicable to the early twentieth century, Lotman explained that "it is precisely because the life of theater differs from everyday existence that the view of life as spectacle gave man new possibilities for behavior" (56).

In Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Russian culture, life is turned into art. In his novel Sentimental Journey, Shklovsky quotes Ejxenbaum who says that the distinction between ordinary life and a revolutionary one is that in the latter the sensation of things is awakened. Revolutionary life, it seemed, "made the stone stony." 4 However, Oscar Wilde's "life should imitate theater," which marked the avant-garde experiments and thinking, came through during the years after the Revolution in unforeseen, even tragic ways. At the end of 1920s, intrigues and "purges" reached their high point in the Surrealist circles, occasionally turning into show trials, which in retrospect can be viewed as early bloodless versions of the Stalinist purges. Evreinov liked to quote a story told by Oscar Wilde about the man who wandered every morning away from his village returning with wonderful stories about a faun playing on a reed pipe, dancing elves, and sirens frolicking in the waves. One day he wandered away as usual and actually saw a faun playing on a pipe, dancing elves, and sirens. When he returned that evening and the villagers asked him what he had seen, he replied: "I did not see anything." 5 This story metaphorically describes the distinction between Surrealist and Stalinist purges—namely, theatrical trials, battles and spectacles end once there is a real bloodshed.

The strategies of defamiliarizing and theatricalizing both art and life was officially taken away from artists and theorists after the Writers' Congress in 1934, when the experiments were forbidden. In Modernism to Realism on the Soviet Stage, Nick Worrall describes the cultural atmosphere of this period:

In the grimly serious climate of these years, when the revolutionary gains of the previous ten years were seen to be under threat, an attempt was made to harness all the forces of art to assist in the rapid industrialization process and the agrarian revolution based on the collectivization of a formerly independent peasantry. Anyone who was not a "realist" during this period was, by definition, an "unrealist" or in contemporary jargon, a "formalist." To be designated as such was not merely constructed as potential hostility to officially promulgated artistic tenets, but was likely to be interpreted as hostility to the communist state itself. (17)

The political and the avant-garde arsenal of devices had never been so interchangeable, and yet the divergence between the real life Grand Guingol blood bath and the theatrical one was never larger. The strategies of defamiliarization and theatricalization became appropriated by real life politics and epitomized in Stalinist purges. In this theatricalization of politics Meyerhold was executed, and many other avant-garde artists killed, arrested or forced into exile. Svetlana Boym, writing on Shklovsky's ostranenie and his experience of exile, asserts:

After the Revolution and civil war, defamiliarization turned into a fact of life, while the everyday manner of existence and the maintenance of bare essentials became exotic. Moreover the practice of aesthetic estrangement had become politically suspect. In her 1927 diary Lidia Ginzburg (literary critic and student of Shklovsky) observed: " The merry times of the laying bare the device have passed. Now is the time when one has to hide the device as far as one can." (19)

When defamiliarization turns into a fact of life it no longer evokes perceptibility; on the contrary, it blurs the perception of reality. When theatricalization of life becomes a device of political manipulation it no longer encourages our "will to play;" rather, it becomes deadly. The only solution—and it is not a simple one—for the practitioners and theorists of theatricality and estrangement, is to radically reinvent their means in order to deautomatize consciousness and counteract alienation in political, social, cultural, and artistic reality.


Silvija Jestrovic is a playwright and dramaturge with a Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama from the University of Toronto. Her articles have appeared in Canadian Theatre Review; Balagan: Slavisches Drama Theater und Kino; Body, Space, Technology Journal; and Ludus (Belgrade). She is the organizer of the Theatre and Exile Conference (March 2002, Toronto). Her play Noah's Ark 747 was performed this year in Teesri Duniya Theatre, Montreal.


1. Literariness is introduced by Russian Formalist scholars and defined as the immanent quality of literature that distinguishes it from both other artistic media and from extra-artistic reality.

2. In most of these theatrical forms the literary text is only loosely sketched (commedia, circus), opening a wide potential for improvisation (again a technique that includes both physical and verbal components and which cannot be fully transcribed). The Oriental theatrical forms, although including a dramatic plot, are highly conventionalized, and defined more strongly by performative canons than by the textual.

3. See Viktor Shklovsky, "Parodnii roman - 'Tristram Shandy' Sterna," Texte Der Russischen Formalisten. ed. J. Striedter. München: Wilhem Fink Verlag, 1969. 245-300.

4. The expression "to make a stone stony" comes from Shklovsky's definition of ostranenie: "Art exists so that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The aim of art is to offer the perceptibility of things, as they are perceived, not as they are known. The device of art is to make things strange (ostranenie), to make forms difficult (zatrudnënnaja forma), increasing the complexity and the length of reception, for the process of reception in art is self-sufficient and needs to be prolonged; Art is the device of bringing an object to life, while the object itself is not important." See Shklovsky, "Isskustvo kak priëm," Texte Der Russischen Formalisten. ed. J. Striedter, 1969. 14.

5. Evreinov, Pro Scena Sua. Petrograd: Prometej, 1914. 25 -26. Described in Golub, 1984. 54-55

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984

Barthes, Roland. Critical Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP 1972.

Bogatyrëv, Pëtr. "A Contribution of The Study of Theatrical Signs," The Prague School Selected Writings, 1929 - 1946. Ed: Peter Steiner. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982.

Boym, Svetlana. "Estrangement as a Life Style: Shklovsky and Brodsky," Poetics Today: International Journal of Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication. Vol.17. No. 4., Winter 1996. 511-24.

Braun, Edward. Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre. London: Methuen, 1979.

Burns, Elizabeth. Theatricality: a Study of Conventions in Theatre and Social Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Evreinov, Nikolai. The Chief Thing. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1926.

——. Istoriia russkogo teatra. Letchworth Bradda, 1972.

——. The Theatre in Life. Trans. Alexander I. Nazaroff. New York: Brentano, 1927.

Golub, Spencer Evreinov the Theater of Paradox and Transformation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Gutkin, Irina. "The legacy of Symbolist Aesthetic Utopia: From Futurism to Socialist Realism," Creating Life: An Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism. ed. I. Paperno and J.D. Grossman. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1994. 168-96.

Lonnquist, Barbara. Xlebnikov and Carnival: An Analysis of the Poem Poet. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1979.

Lotman, Iu. M. "Theatre and Theatricality in the Order of Early Nineteenth Century Culture," Semiotics and Structuralism: reading from the Soviet Union. Ed. H. Baran. Trans. W. Mandel, H. Baran, and A.J. Hollander. White Plains, N.Y.: International Arts and Science Press, 1976. 33-57.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir. The Complete Plays of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Trans. Guy Daniels. New York: Washington Square Press, 1968.

Meyerhold, V.E. Meyerhold on Theater. Translated and edited by Edward Braun. London: Methuen,1969.

Pavis, Patrice. Dictionary of the Theater - Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Trans. Christine Shantz. Toronto: U of Toronto P: 1998.

Shklovsky, Viktor. "Isskustvo kak priëm." Texte Der Russischen Formalisten. ed. J. Striedter. München: Wilhem Fink Verlag, 1969. 2-36.

——. "Parodnii roman - 'Tristram Shandy' Sterna," Texte Der Russischen Formalisten. ed. J. Striedter. München: Wilhem Fink Verlag, 1969. 245-300.

Sidnell, Michael. "Authorisations of the Performative: Whose Performance of What and for Whom?" The Performance Text. ed. Domenico Pietropaolo. New York, Ottawa, Toronto: Legas, 1999. 97-112.

Worrall, Nick. Modernism to Realism on the Soviet Stage: Tairov - Vakhtangov - Okhlopkov. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Above Copied from:

1 comment:

Bertrand said...

Thank you guys for posting this, I was looking for it for a while!