A few minutes in the foyer were sufficient to convince me that the first performance of the Dostoyevsky drama would be witnessed by a gathering of "intellectuals." There were no gorgeous uniforms, no elaborate gowns. Less than a dozen persons were in evening dress. Yet the orchestra chairs were five roubles ($2.50) each.
A warning bell sent me hurrying to find my seat. I was just in time for the doors were being closed. A few moments later--promptly at eight o'clock--the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose. There was no overture. In fact, there is no orchestra pit in the Moscow Art Theatre. When music is needed it is played under the stage.
The Possessed proved to be a succession of detached scenes from Dostoyevsky's novel of the same name rather than its dramatization. The Moscow Art Theatre is equipped with a double decked revolving stage which enables scene to follow scene with only the darkening of the auditorium for a few moments to punctuate the intervals. Unlike most revolving stages it moved noiselessly.
The acting was magnificent. Although I did not understand a single word that was spoken I was able to follow the story of the play. What higher praise can be accorded actors!
I expected an outburst of applause at the end of the act but when the curtain fell the greater part of the audience silently left their seats for the foyer--promenade. Applause is never accorded the artistes at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nor ar curtain calls ever allowed. Realism and naturalness above everything else are striven for.
During the second act M. Stanislavsky, one of the directors of the theatre, took me behind the scenes to see the double decked revolving stage in operation. There I met three Russian priests who were watching the performance. Priests in Russia are forbidden to attend theatrical performances but many of them visit the Moscow Art Theatre and witness the performances from the wings, safe from the public gaze. M. Stanislavsky showed me through the dressing rooms which are so arranged that the male and female players do not meet until they reach the stage made up for their parts. They have separate green rooms and separate exits. In no theatre in the world is the comfort of the actor given so much attention.
At the end of the second act I was presented to Madame Knipper, the widow of the famous Chekhov, who was enacting the leading role in the new play. I also had the honor of shaking hands with Mlle. Koreneff and M. Katchaloff, two other leading players. A first night in most playhouses is a nerve-racking affair--neither players nor managers have time for idle conversation. But at the Moscow Art Theatre a first performance after three months of rehearsals runs as smoothly as clockwork.
Never has the old adage, "Great oaks from little acorns grow," been better exemplified than by this unique theatre. Beginning as an amateur theatrical society, without funds or wealthy members, it has become in little more than a decade one of the foremost theatrical organizations in the world. Its home is the best equipped playhouse in Europe. And its productions are the most perfect given on any stage. And its influence is already so great that no one interested in theatrical affairs can afford to be ignorant of it, or to ignore it.
The Moscow Art Theatre was the first playhouse in the world to have a double decked revolving stage. Prof. Max Reinhardt adopted the idea for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and later the idea was copied by the designer of the New Theatre in New York (later renamed the Century Opera House).
But it is in the conduct of the theatre and its productions that this playhouse is the most interesting. It is a co-operative organization owned by thirty-one actors and actresses, who appear on its stage. The entire organization consists of 360 men and women who devote their time exclusively to the artistic, financial and operating side of the playhouse. In addition to its two directors, who have practically equal responsibility, there is a governing board that passes on all important matters. After ten years' service an actor or actress becomes a shareholder, and there is a pension system for superannuated players, as well as funds for cases of emergency. Every player is given ten weeks' vacation with pay--their services being contracted for by the year. Thus it will be seen that from the actor's standpoint the Moscow Art Theatre is about ideal.
Only three new productions are made each year. However, a repertory of twelve is given, former successes being repeated as often as the receipts warrant. At least three months are devoted to the preparation of each play. Consequently only finished productions are given. While the theatre is the home of the Russian drama, the dramas of other countries are not neglected. Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Hauptmann are almost as much in evidence as Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol and Chekhov.
It is very difficult to obtain a seat for a new production at this unique theatre. For the first ten performances of each new play every seat is subscribed for, which, of course, gives the theatre working capital. The expenses of the organization are about $350,000 a year, but as its receipts are always over $400,000 it is very prosperous. However, it makes very little money in Moscow, where a full house means only $1,500. Its season in Petersburg, where it plays in the Imperial Mikhailovsky Theatre (the Royal French Theatre) means $4,000 a night, and in Kiev, Warsaw and Odessa it plays to enormous business.
The third act was on before M. Stanislavsky and I returned to the auditorium. Of course he was able to pass the closed doors and he sat with me until the final curtain fell.
"Is it a success?" I asked as we emerged to the brilliantly lighted foyer.
"I think so," he replied simply, "but we will know in the morning when we see what the critics have to say."
Moscow is one of the few cities in the world that takes its dramatic critics seriously.