“Komissarzhevskaya”

by Osip Mandelstam (1925)

I would rather not talk about me, but track the route of the age. The roar and the rhizomes of time. My memory resists all that is personal. If I was the one who had to recreate the past, I would just grimace with the strain. I have never understood the Tolstoys and Aksakovs,the Bagrov juniors, who are so besotted with their family archive and household epics. I say again – my memory is resistant, not magnetic. It is busy trying to put the past to one side, not recreate it. An educated Outsider has no need of a memory. He has only to talk about the books he has read and there, you have his life story. Where happier generations tell their tale in ballads and iambic pentameters, mine has only a diphthong. Between me and the age there is a disjuncture. The place meant for home and family archives, is a cataract, filled with the boom of time. What did my family want to say? I do not know. It was tongue-tied from birth – although it did have things worth saying. Congenital inarticulacy plagued me and many of my contemporaries. We learned not to speak, but to burble. And we found our tongues only when we began to heed the rising roar of the age and were spattered by the spume of its rip wave.

Revolution is itself both life and death, and cannot bear people speculating about life and death in its presence. Its throat may parch with thirst, but it will not accept a drop of moisture from other hands. Nature – revolution – is an eternal thirst. An eternal inflammation. (Perhaps it envies ages that made for the sheep trough in orderly file and calmly slaked their thirst. For revolution, this fear is ingrained, this terror of receiving something from other hands. It does not dare. It is frightened of getting close to the sources of existence).

But what did these ‘sources of existence’ do for revolution? Where did their round waves roll so impassively! Their waves rolled away for themselves and for themselves they converged in torrents. For themselves they sprang up at source. Revolution says “For me, for me, for me”. The world replies: “ Each for themselves, themselves, themselves” .)

Vera Komissarzhevskaya had the slender back of a school girl, a neat head and a voice made for a church choir. Bravich was Judge Brack, and Komissarzhevskaya was Hedda Gabbler. Walking and sitting she found a bore. And so she always stood. Once she went towards the blue-lit hotel window of Ibsen’s professor and just stood, for the longest time, showing the audience the slim slight stoop of her back. What was the secret of Komissarzhevskaya’s attraction? Why was she recognised as a leading force, as a sort of Joan of Arc.? Why did Maria Savina seem like a wilting dowager by comparison, who’d shopped till she dropped at the Grande Passage?

Essentially, the Russian intelligentsia’s Protestant spirit found expression in Komissarzhevksaya: its idiosyncratic rebellion against art and the theatre. There was a reason she was drawn to Ibsen, and she rose to the height of virtuosity in this proper and protestant professorial drama. The intelligentsia never liked the theatre and did its best to observe the theatrical cult as plainly and properly as it could. Komissarzhevskaya sympathised with its theatrical protestantism but went further, stepping beyond the framework of Russian theatre and into the European. To start with, she got rid of all the theatrical bling: the heat of the candles; the ridges of red seats and the silken nests of the circle boxes. A wooden amphitheatre, white walls, grey backdrops – as shipshape as a yacht and as bare as a Lutheran chapel. At the same time, Komissarzhevskaya had all the attributes of a great tragic actor, but in embryo. Unlike all other Russian actors of her time, and perhaps unlike Russian actors as I write now, Komissarzhevskaya was inwardly musical. She would raise and drop her voice as the breathing of the line required. Her performance was three quarters verbal, accompanied by the merest of necessary movements and they were very few, like folding her arms above her head. When she created a theatre for the plays of Ibsen and Maeterlinck, she was feeling out European drama, sincerely convinced it had nothing better or larger to offer.

The hot pastries of the Alexandrinsky Theatre were little suited for this ethereal, transparent little world where every day was the Lenten fast. Komissarzhevskaya’s small theatre was itself encircled by an atmosphere of non-conformist devotion. I do not think it would have started a new theatrical trend. From small Norway this pocket theatre had come to us. Photographs. Private tutors. Judges. The ridiculous tragedy of a lost manuscript. The pharmacist from Christiania whipped up a storm in a professorial tea-cup and elevated the deadly politeness of Hedda and Brack’s bickering to the heights of tragedy. Ibsen for Komissarzhevskaya was a foreign hotel, nothing more. Komissarzhevskaya erupted from the mundanity of Russian theatre, as though from a madhouse. She was free, but the heart of the theatre stopped.

When the poet Alexander Blok bowed over its funeral pile, he spoke of Carmen – ie something from which Komissarzhevskaya was very far removed. The days and hours of her small theatre were always numbered. It was a place where people breathed the unreal and rarified oxygen of a theatrical miracle. Blok poked fun at this theatrical miracle in his play “The Charlatan’s Booth” and when she played the charlatan, Komissarzhevskaya poked fun at herself. Amidst the honks and howls, the moans and the rants, hers was a strong and mature voice, very like Alexander Blok’s own. Theatre has always lived through the human voice and always will. The Charlatan’s Petrushka presses a copper contraption to his mouth to alter his voice. Better a Petrushka. Better a Carmen or an Aida, than histrionics with a pig’s snout.

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson