Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature


The Durovs

Y. Dmitriyev

Written: 1963;
Source: The Soviet Circus: A Collection of Articles, 1967;
Translated: Fainna Glagoleva;
Compiled: Alexander Lipovsky;
Photographs: Y. Savalov and others;
HTML Markup: For in February, 2002.

The Durov name has been appearing on circus billboards for over half a century.

The Durovs, outstanding satirists and clowns, talented naturalists, animal-trainers and public figures, have put great effort into establishing the Russian circus as a true art form. They were innovators who were for ever seeking new forms of expression and new themes for their acts. They wanted the circus to be not only entertaining, but educational as well.

Vladimir and Anatoly Durov were the first of the clan to become famous as circus entertainers. They were truly great artists in their field.

Born of an old noble family, they broke with it to join a travelling troupe. The life they led was difficult and full of humiliation until they reached the top. In the beginning, as they stood on the small stages of fairground booths, listening to the noise of the market crowds, travelling from city to city in third-class carriages or tramping the dusty roads, the brothers came to know their people. They adopted the bantering folk manner that had its inception centuries ago in the buffoonery of the Russian fairground jesters, dressing wisdom in the vestments of the simpleton or fool. A clown entertaining the crowds with nonsense was certainly not a person to be taken seriously. Yet this clown discussed the state of affairs in tsarist Russia in a manner that would surely have been censored had it appeared in the newspapers or magazines. Most important, the clown's words were understandable to the masses. He expressed their thoughts and emotions and did it in a funny, fascinating way. There was reason to be delighted and to respect the clown.

Anatoly was a good acrobat, a magician and a wonderful reciter of monologues. Vladimir performed as an artist, doing instant sketches. He was also a magician and a strong man and sang ditties. Animals were gradually introduced into the act, and at first they served chiefly to intensify the humour of the pointed jokes.

This is the knowledge and skill the Durovs brought to the circus, winning national acclaim within a short time.

By the 1890s they had evolved the basic pattern of their classical act. Uniformed attendants parted ranks as the Durovs made their grand entrance. They circled round the arena, heads high, greeting the applauding audience by raising their bent arms. King of jesters, but never the king's jester! The jester of His Majesty the People!

Then, taking a stand at the arena entrance, Anatoly Durov would recite a topical satirical monologue. There followed a parade of trained animals, interspersed with jests and commentary.

Until now we have been speaking of both Durov brothers, and this is only natural, for both began their careers in the circus at the same time and both, though they appeared in different circuses, strived to establish the principles of clowning which are today known as "the Durov method."

Both Durovs were very talented performers, both were truly creative artists. As time went on it became apparent that Anatoly Durov had chosen satire as his field. Words became his major weapon; he liked to recite fables in the arena, pointing up their subtler meanings, stressing the idea behind each. The various animals in his act were always of secondary importance, appearing to illustrate, stress, or add a circus flavour to his puns. He was a clown and satirist, a pamphleteer appearing with performing animals.

Anatoly Durov died on January 8, 1916.

Vladimir Durov conversed with his audiences, sharing with them the wisdom of the folk story-teller. His patient training produced amazing results, and his performing animals put on skits such as the famous "Railway Station," in which all the parts are played by animals.

Vladimir Durov enlarged his animal troupe to include an elephant, seals and other rare and interesting animals. But his major achievement in this field was his radically new approach to training animals, one that has had a lasting effect on all circus animal acts ever since.

Vladimir Durov's son, Vladimir, began his circus career in 1907 as a clown and satirist, working with trained animals. Unfortunately, he fell gravely ill and died in his prime in 1912.

Anatoly Durov's son, Anatoly, made his circus debut in 1914 in the city of Ryazan, but his real fame came in the years following the Revolution.

The Durov method became firmly established in the Soviet circus. In the first years after the Revolution the elder Vladimir Durov continued working in Durov's Corner, which he had established in 1909 and which is now a state scientific research laboratory. Durov first became interested in physiology in his youth, attending Professor I. M. Sechenov's lectures on higher nervous activity at Moscow University. It was only after the Revolution that he had an opportunity to devote himself to research in earnest. Durov evolved new methods of "painless training", based on the study of conditional reflexes in animals. All the best Soviet animal-trainers now follow this method. Durov is responsible for establishing a scientific basis for animal-training. The laboratory in which he conducted his experiments is now known as the Durov Museum and Animal Theatre and is headed by Anna Durova, Vladimir Durov's daughter.

However, Vladimir Durov was not content to limit his activities to laboratory study. The call of the circus was too strong. Durov had given fifty years of his life to the circus and could not leave it now in his old age, not even for science.

Aided by the state, he renewed and greatly enlarged his animal troupe, returning to the circus arena in the early 20s. This was a new Durov. He had been a buffoon, a clown and a satirist, but now he was a clown and a lecturer, a clown and a scientist. This clown amused his audiences while teaching and explaining things to them. In his little opening speech he would say:

Note all my knowledge and my heart
Are for the people.

Then Durov would present his amazing animals, supplementing their performance with a running commentary on their behaviour in their natural surroundings, explaining how they had been taught to do the various tricks. Vladimir Durov died in August 1934.

The younger Anatoly Durov performed with a large and varied group of animals, achieving fascinating results. At the same time, his commentary was always biting and topical. He, too, died an early death in 1928.

The Durov method in the Soviet circus as we know it today is associated with two men, Vladimir and Yuri Durov.

Vladimir Durov is the grandson of the elder Anatoly Durov and the nephew of the younger Anatoly Durov. He completed his education in Voronezh and then went on to study at the State Theatrical Studio of the Meyerhold Theatre.

Yuri Durov is another of Vladimir Durov's grandsons. After graduating from secondary school he became an apprentice in his grandfather's house, helping him out in Durov's Corner and appearing with him in his circus act.

There is much in common in the approach of the two Durov grandsons, and that is why their work is jointly reviewed here.

Both are talented animal-trainers who work with large and varied groups of animals. If we were to compare the troupes of the elder Durovs with those of today, the present would certainly be the more interesting. At various times they have included performing elephants, seals, bears, hippopotamuses, camels, horses, foxes, cocks, a kangaroo, ostriches, dogs, pigs, parrots, monkeys and many other animals and birds. However, each animal has its own way of life, character and habits. Training methods which bring the desired results when working with a seal prove futile when working with an elephant. As a rule, animal-trainers prefer to work with a single species of animal. The very fact that the Durovs exhibit a large and varied group, achieving excellent results with the group as a whole, is further proof of their great experience and talent. One must never forget that the Durov animals do not perform out of fear (one actually feels like saying that they do so from a love of art). Undoubtedly, they are encouraged by their desire to receive a tasty morsel from the trainer's hand. The animals perform in a way that makes it seem as if they and the trainer are taking part in a merry game, one that gives pleasure to them all. The trainer must present an act that is well produced and perfectly cast. And the Durovs are talented producers and actors. Their performance is sincere, uninhibited, charming and graceful, and this despite their age and impressive weight. They create an image of warm-hearted, yet slightly ironic, kindly magicians who, at a touch of their wands, can transform ordinary animals into sensible creatures. Stories we have read in our childhood seem to materialise before our eyes in the circus arena. The traditional clowns' costumes the Durovs wear recall the magicians of yore: their kindly round faces are nearly devoid of make-up and their merry, mischievous eyes are in perfect harmony with the images they have created.

Perhaps other trainers do more complex tricks, but, as a whole, you will not find an animal act more entertaining and well-presented than the Durovs'. A seal juggles several balls and cones--in other words, it is performing its usual act. But when it has finished, it begins to clap a flipper against its stomach, demanding a fish as a reward for its performance. Having swallowed the fish, it begins to clap its flippers together furiously. And one feels that it is actually interested in the acclaim of the audience that it is demanding. The elephant has nine sticks with which it does various simple sums. But then someone gives it a problem in addition. The answer is clearly ten. What will the elephant do? It breaks the last stick in two and now has ten sticks instead of nine, thus solving the problem. There is no need to say how effective this trick is.

And what about the Durovs? They do not limit their participation to instructing their charges but take an active part in the proceedings supplying the commentary, and are in turn surprised, annoyed, ironic and happy. They are playing their parts, talking to the animals as if they were sensible creatures, becoming their partners in the act. Several skits are performed, some lyrical, some comical, but all have a beginning, a climax and an end. Each is presented to reveal some aspect of the animal's nature, there is always a dramatic conflict. Thus, a stubborn pony, sitting on the edge of the arena and prodded by the circus clowns, does not want to go back to the stables despite the trainer's coaxing and shouting. Suddenly, a well-behaved elephant wearing a patrolman's armband picks the pony's reins up in its trunk and drags it off. In another skit two cocks try to out-crow each other, each extremely jealous of its own performance.

Another member of the Durov clan, Anna Durova's granddaughter, Teresa Durova, has become famous in her own right and has developed a style of her own.

The Durovs have always been one of the main attractions of any circus performance, and their contribution to the art of the Russian and Soviet circus has been great, indeed. However, the challenge of the road ahead beckons, and that is something no Durov has ever been able to resist.