Arthur Ransome
Russia in 1919

An Evening At The Opera


I read in one of the newspapers that a member of the American Commission in Berlin reasoned from the fact that the Germans were crowding to theatres and spectacles that they could not be hungry. There can be no question about the hunger of the people of Moscow, but the theatres are crowded, and there is such demand for seats that speculators acquire tickets in the legitimate way and sell them illicitly near the doors of the theatre to people who have not been able to get in, charging, of course, double the price or even more. Interest in the theatre, always keen in Moscow, seems to me to have rather increased than decreased. There is a School of Theatrical Production, with lectures on every subject connected with the stage, from stage carpentry upwards. A Theatrical Bulletin is published three times weekly, containing the programmes of all the theatres and occasional articles on theatrical subjects. I had been told in Stockholm that the Moscow theatres were closed. The following is an incomplete list of the plays and spectacles to be seen at various theatres on February 13 and February 14 [1919], copied from the Theatrical Bulletin of those dates. Just as it would be interesting to know what French audiences enjoyed at the time of the French revolution, so I think it worth while to record the character of the entertainments at present popular in Moscow.

Opera at the Great Theatre. — "Sadko" by Rimsky-Korsakov and "Samson and Delilah" by Saint-Saens.

Small State Theatre. — "Besheny Dengi" by Ostrovsky and "Starik" by Gorky.

Moscow Art Theatre. — "The Cricket on the Hearth" by Dickens and "The Death of Pazuchin" by Saltykov-Shtchedrin.

Opera. "Selo Stepantchiko" and "Coppellia."

People's Palace. — "Dubrovsky" by Napravnik and "Demon" by Rubinstein.

Zamoskvoretzky Theatre. — "Groza" by Ostrovsky and "Meshitchane" by Gorky.

Popular Theatre. — " The Miracle of Saint, Anthony" by Maeterlinck.

Komissarzhevskaya Theatre. — "A Christmas Carol" by Dickens and "The Accursed Prince" by Remizov.

Korsh Theatre. — "Much Ado about Nothing" by Shakespeare and "Le Misanthrope" and "Georges Dandin" by MoliAre.

Dramatic Theatre. — "Alexander I" by Merezhkovsky.

Theatre of Drama and Comedy. — "Little Dorrit" by Dickens and "The King's Barber" by Lunacharsky.

Besides these, other theatres were playing K. R. (Konstantin Romanov), Ostrovsky, Potapenko, Vinitchenko, etc. The two Studios of the Moscow Art Theatre were playing "Rosmersholm" and a repertoire of short plays. They, like the Art Theatre Company, occasionally play in the suburban theatres when their place at home is taken by other performers.

I went to the Great State Theatre to Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah." I had a seat in the box close above the orchestra, from which I could obtain a view equally good of the stage and of the house. Indeed, the view was rather better of the house than of the stage. But that was as I had wished, for the house was what I had come to see.

It had certainly changed greatly since the pre-revolutionary period. The Moscow plutocracy of bald merchants and bejewelled fat wives had gone. Gone with them were evening dresses and white shirt fronts. The whole audience was in the monotone of everyday clothes. The only contrast was given by a small group of Tartar women in the dress circle, who were shawled in white over head and shoulders, in the Tartar [Muslim] fashion. There were many soldiers, and numbers of men who had obviously come straight from their work. There were a good many grey and brown woollen jerseys about, and people were sitting in overcoats of all kinds and ages, for the theatre was very cold. (This, of course, was due to lack of fuel, which may in the long run lead to a temporary stoppage of the theatres if electricity cannot be spared for lighting them.) The orchestra was also variously dressed. Most of the players of brass instruments had evidently been in regimental bands during the war, and still retained their khaki-green tunics with a very mixed collection of trousers and breeches. Others were in every kind of everyday clothes. The conductor alone wore a frock coat, and sat in his place like a specimen from another age, isolated in fact by his smartness alike from his ragged orchestra and from the stalls behind him.

I looked carefully to see the sort of people who fill the stalls under the new regime, and decided that there has been a general transfer of brains from the gallery to the floor of the house. The same people who in the old days scraped kopecks and waited to get a good place near the ceiling now sat where formerly were the people who came here to digest their dinners. Looking from face to face that night I thought there were very few people in the theatre who had had anything like a good dinner to digest. But, as for their keenness, I can imagine few audiences to which, from the actor's point of view, it would be better worth while to play. Applause, like brains, had come down from the galleries.

Of the actual performance I have little to say except that ragged clothes and empty stomachs seemed to make very little difference to the orchestra. Helzer, the ballerina, danced as well before this audience as ever before the bourgeoisie. As I turned up the collar of my coat I reflected that the actors deserved all the applause they got for their heroism in playing in such cold. Now and then during the evening I was unusually conscious of the unreality of opera generally, perhaps because of the contrast in magnificence between the stage and the shabby, intelligent audience. Now and then, on the other hand, stage and audience seemed one and indivisible. For "Samson and Delilah" is itself a poem of revolution, and gained enormously by being played by people every one of whom had seen something of the sort in real life. Samson's stirring up of the Israelites reminded me of many scenes in Petrograd in 1917, and when, at last, he brings the temple down in ruins on his triumphant enemies, I was reminded of the words attributed to Trotsky:- "If we are, in the end, forced to go, we shall slam the door behind us in such away that the echo shall be felt throughout the world."

Going home afterwards through the snow, I did not see a single armed man. A year ago the streets were deserted after ten in the evening except by those who, like myself, had work which took them to meetings and such things late at night. They used to be empty except for the military pickets round their log-fires. Now they were full of foot-passengers going home from the theatres, utterly forgetful of the fact that only twelve months before they had thought the streets of Moscow unsafe after dark. There could be no question about it. The revolution is settling down, and people now think of other matters than the old question, will it last one week or two?


Chapter 11: The Committee Of State Constructions