Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature
Sergei Eisenstein's Circus Projects
The scene was Moscow, 1922. The Civil War had just ended, leaving in its wake destruction, poverty and hunger. But in the country that had already begun to reconstruct, there was a turbulent blossoming of a new, revolutionary culture, and young writers, artists and actors now came to the forefront.
This was also a time of heated discussions.
Young Mayakovsky was a new and powerful voice to be contended with, Meyerhold was passionately defending his "Theatrical October," the biting political fables of Demyan Bedny were being quoted everywhere and Lunacharsky discussed literature and art with great knowledge and conviction.
And then, among the noisy, many-voiced crowd of enthusiasts and innovators in art at the Morozov Mansion (now Friendship House), there appeared a curly-haired twenty-four-year-old artist and producer, who had just been demobilised from the Red Army. His name was Sergei Eisenstein. Grigory Alexandrov and Maxim Shtraukh, the two youths who always accompanied him, were just as enthusiastic about art as he was. They, too, dreamed of a "new word" in art. Eisenstein and the playwright S. Tretyakov decided to produce Ostrovsky's play There's Enough Simplicity to Every Wise Man, but all that was left of the original when they got through with it was the title and the names of several of the characters.
Eisenstein described his efforts in editing Ostrovsky in an article written in 1928: "My aim was to achieve a revolutionary modernisation of Ostrovsky, i.e., a social re-evaluation of his characters, seeing them as they might appear today."
Indeed, the result was an eccentric theatrical presentation, no more, with Ostrovsky as the starting point. It was during this period that Eisenstein, seeking new roads in art, created his "attraction" theory. The essence of this theory (which he was to later refute) was the concept that a theatrical presentation should be a loosely strung series of individual emotional experiences or "attractions," with a powerful political theme as its basis.
The use of the word "attraction" was intended. There were many circus touches in Eisenstein's Wise Man. He defended this innovation in an article written in 1923: "The cinema is the school of film editing, as is, most notably, the music hall and circus. To put it plainly, to produce a good play you must first put together a good music hall or circus programme with the theme of the play as your starting point."
The Wise Man had rope-walking, acrobatics done on a pole, triple somersaults on an imaginary horse and clowning in every shape and form. If one were to judge the performance as an experimental circus review and not from the point of view of the obviously faulty "attraction" theory, it was undoubtedly worthy of interest.
The Wise Man was presented in the Great Hall of the Morozov Mansion. A tight-wire was strung at an angle from the floor to the sculptured cornice and a "Man in a Mask" walked down the wire. The man of mystery was played by G. Alexandrov, who later produced Jolly Fellows and Circus, two all-time favourite Soviet films. V. Yanukova did acrobatics on a pole high above the floor, while M. Shtraukh and I. Pyryev, both future People's Artistes of the U.S.S.R., performed below ("in the ring," according to the printed programme).
We find the following lines in Sergei Eisenstein's unpublished memoirs: "I have loved clowns since infancy and have always felt a bit ashamed of this.
"Father also loved the circus, but he was most impressed with championship riding and Williams Trucci's trained horses. I did my best to conceal my passion for the clowns and made believe I, too, was terribly interested in the horses!
"I had my sweet revenge in 1922, when I literally 'flooded' my first independent production (The Wise Man) with every shade and colour of circus clowns and straight men.
According to P. Atasheva, Eisenstein's wife, he remained an avid circus fan long after his childhood and youth were over, seeing the circus as an optimistic, joyous form of art.
Ten years passed. Eisenstein, now a world-famous producer, once again turned to the circus for his theme. We find in his archives the manuscript of a political circus review entitled The Hand of Moscow, which had apparently been written in 1932.
Following is an excerpt from the Introduction.
"The performance consists of a series of episodes which describe the fifteen years that have elapsed since the October Revolution. The first point of departure is the Armistice and the Versailles Peace Treaty. The Brest Peace Treaty is the second point of departure.
"List of Characters:
"A Guide--who accompanies a foreign tourist and recounts the history of the past years from the point of view of a complaining sceptic and alarmist. The action constantly contradicts his dire prophecies.
"The Newborn World--'Baby'--symbolising Versailles, a bloodthirsty soldier, the embodiment of 'War.'
"'Daddy'--a character that never appears on stage, but dictates its will to 'Baby's' educators, godfathers and guardians. 'Daddy' symbolises capitalism.
"Portraits of and satires on personages known to the world during the past fifteen years.
"Allegorical beasts symbolising the governments of various nations."
There follows a detailed development of the theme. On the one hand, there were the heroic events of the Revolution and life in a new Russia; on the other, there was a biting, satirical description of the capitalist world, of the enemies of the young Soviet Republic. The scene changes from the front-lines to Versailles, to the workers' quarters. Passing in review are the major international events of the preceding fifteen years. The review ends with a recital in verse of the Five Year Plan and a "parade of socialism in construction."
This, naturally, was just a draft. The actual review seemed very promising. This original, contemporary political review was to have been produced in the circus. One can only regret that Sergei Eisenstein, that great master, connoisseur and lover of the circus, never realised this project.