In our inaugural piece for Calvert Reads, a new series revisiting great and under-read works of literature, both old and freshly-printed, we’re spotlighting a book which explores the history of Russian amateur and proletarian theatre in the years following the 1917 revolution: Amateur and Proletarian Theatre in Post-Revolutionary Russia.
Edited by theatre researcher Stefan Aquilina and published by Bloomsbury, this is the first collection of primary sources on amateur theatre in the first decade after the Russian revolution. Translated from Russian, the collective volume includes essays authored by researchers including Alexandr Bogdanov, Platon Kerzhentsev, Valerian Pletnev, and Valentin Smyshliaev, who trace the development of the proletariat theatres that grew “like mushrooms” after 1917 — from their heterogeneous original character, to controlled state propaganda.
With extracts from plays and articles of the era, the book gives a unique glimpse into some of the Soviet Union’s most heated post-revolutionary debates. In one chapter, we see the head of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros), Anatoly Lunacharsky, respond to calls from radicals that artists should forget “bourgeois” culture: “To discard the science and art of the past because of their bourgeois roots is as absurd as dropping machines in the factories or railways because of the same reason,” he writes.
One gem featured in the volume, the 1924 play They Tried to Hide, but Ended Up Fathers, by a little known playwright called Arkhip, criticises the issue of divorce (made significantly easier after the revolution), the status and treatment of women, and the difficulties of child-rearing. It follows a man on trial for refusing to accept his paternity. After the defendant convinces his friends to testify that they too had relationships with his former partner, the judge asks all of the men to be made responsible for the child’s welfare.
Amateur and Proletarian Theatre in Post-Revolutionary Russia is a remarkable source for those interested in early Soviet cultural history, providing nuanced arguments and insights into the minds, ways, and realities of post-revolutionary Russians. At times, it feels like time travel.
Get your copy here.