Moscow Art Theatre – a Russian institution
It’s strange to think that a Russian theatre company that started life as the dream of playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski should prove hugely influential in the acting world and the development of modern American theatre and drama. But that’s precisely what happened during the last century.
The Moscow Art Theatre (or MAT) was founded in 1898 by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko as a venue for naturalistic theatre, in contrast to the melodramas that were Russia's dominant form of theatre at the time. They both wanted to reform Russian theatre, turning it into high-quality art available to the general public.
On 22 June 1897, the two men met for the first time at the Slavyanski Bazar for a lunch that’s believed to have started at 2.00 pm and did not end until 8.00 am the next day. While Stanislavski’s approach to theatre revolved around the acting process, Nemirovich-Danchenko was far more concerned with the literary, intellectual angle. These differences proved complementary, and they agreed to initially divide control over the theatre, with Nemirovich-Danchenko in charge of the literary decisions and Stanislavski in charge of all production issues.
Stanislavski interviewed all his actors, making sure they were hard-working and devoted, as well as talented. He made them live together in common housing for months at a time to foster community and trust, which he believed would raise the quality of their performances. Stanislavski's system of training actors through the acting studios he founded became central to every production the theatre put on – a system which had a huge influence in the development of method acting.
The theatre's first season included works by Tolstoy, Ibsen and Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until it staged Anton Chekhov's four major works, beginning with The Seagull in 1898, that MAT achieved fame. This production was so successful, the theatre adopted the seagull as its emblem.
But its popularity was relatively short-lived, so the theatre went on an international tour in 1906, which started in Berlin and included Dresden, Frankfurt, Prague and Vienna. The tour was a huge success, gaining the theatre international acclaim, although internal strife persisted, leading Stanislavski to abandon his duties as a board member and relinquish all his power over policy decisions.
The theatre continued to thrive after the October Revolution of 1917 and was one of the foremost state-supported theatres in the Soviet Union, with an extensive repertoire of leading Russian and Western playwrights. Even Vladimir Lenin granted his support. A significant number of MAT actors were awarded the title of People's Artist of the USSR, and many became nationally known and admired thanks to their film roles. However, government support diminished under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, the subsidies it had come to rely on were withdrawn and the theatre was forced to survive on its own profits.
Further blows followed. Stanislavski's heart attack onstage during a production of Three Sisters in 1938 led to his almost complete withdrawal from the theatre, while the Stalinist climate began to suppress artistic expression and controlled more and more what could be performed. A ‘red director’ was appointed to ensure the MAT’s activities were not counter-revolutionary and served the Communist cause. Plays had to be officially approved, and the Theatre’s artistic integrity began to decline.
It was not until autumn 1970 that Oleg Yefremov, an actor, producer and former student of the Moscow Art Theatre Studios, took control of the theatre and began to reform it. By then, the company was made up of just 150 actors, many of whom were out of practice. Yefremov began to reinstate Stanislavski’s traditions, including emphasising the importance of the studio and system, as well as interviewing every single candidate with special emphasis placed on work ethic.
In 1987, the theatre split into two troupes: the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre and the Gorky Moscow Art Theatre. The former is located just off Tverskaya Street, within walking distance of Red Square.