Elena Yushkova, PhD. Russia

(published in the “Yaroslavl Pedagogical Journal”. 2003, ¹ 3 (36), pp. 51-56, translated from Russian)

To deprive the dramatic theater of verbal forms of expression - this idea was developed by Russian theater practitioners throughout the 20th century, although it became popular only for a short time.

Searching for maximum expressiveness, theater directors at the beginning of the 20th century such as Vsevolod Meyerkhold, Alexander Tairov, and Mikhail Chekhov developed this idea in different ways, and after half a century - pioneers Gedryus Matskyavichyus and Vyacheslav Polunin created “the theater without words”. The art theorists Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrey Belyy, Sergey Volkonsky, Maksimilian Voloshin and others also imagined this kind of theater.

If the dramatic play is deprived of speech, which is one of the main tools of expressiveness; something should be developed to replace it, determining new stylistics. Experimenters of the 20th century found an equivalent, which was not inferior according to the degree of semantic saturation to word, but rather exceeded the capabilities of verbal expression. This component was “the plastic of an actor,” and the theater, using it, later became known as a “plastic/plastique theater”.

It is interesting that the term itself flashed throughout criticism at the beginning of the 20th century, but not relative to the work of that time of theater directors. It was used in the periodical “Apollo” in 1915 by Yuliya Slonimskaya, who wrote about French ballet master Noverr's creative work [1.p.41].

Subsequently, the definition of the plastique theater was given by the director who created this kind of theater in Moscow in the 1970s, Gedryus Matskyavichyus. In an interview with the author he formulated this concept of the theater by relying on his own experience. Plastique theater uses “the expressive means of drama, plastics, dance, pantomime, circus and variety” [2], but not words, “because the language of plastics is so rich that the need for words disappears” [2]. Enlarging this definition, it would be possible to add, that the plastic theater relates to the synthetic, time-spatial artistic creation using dramaturgy, music, choreography, depictive art and, certainly, basic components - the plastic of the actor.

Plastic/plastique (from the Greek. plastike - sculpture) is the “volumetric expressiveness of human body generally in the static and the dynamic” [3]. If painting and sculpture are turned to the plastic in its static aspect, then the theater (including ballet) uses its dynamic characteristics. Plastic in the theater (or gestureness), as it is considered by semiotic P. Pavi, is “the system of different body characteristics (solid actions)” [4.p.101]. On to his definition, the solid actions are based per unit of motion, as a gesture. Gesture is “the movement, most frequently volitional and controlled by an actor, accomplished for certain value” [4.p.99].

Gestures together with the mimicry, the movements and the views are considered by famous scholar M. Kagan the primary forms of the actor's art [5.p.303]. In his opinion, these art forms were conceived in the process of the primeval hunt, called “orkhestiks”. Orkhestiks was preserved in the Ancient Greek culture and gradually, in the process of development, the syncretic art was divided, on one side was the dance, which had non-figurative nature, and on the other side was the art of the actor without words - depictive, or mimetic in its essence.

“The artistic language of this kind of art is based on the reproduction of the real forms of the vital behavior of the human being, his everyday motions, gestures, mimicries, that is has a depictive nature” [5.p.305], - wrote M. Kagan in his work “Morphology of art”.

At the beginning of the 20th century the plastic and the rhythm, despite their clearly expressed materiality, became something almost mystical in the interpretation of philosophers and aesthetes. They began to be considered as the manifestation of the god within the human being. Plastic was connected with the mysteries of antiquity, with the magic rites of the ancient cults, in which it often had special meaning with the religious source. In plastic the theorists and practitioners searched for the connection to the earliest sources of humanity, relying on the fact that the human body stores within itself this information, which had disappeared from the consciousness of people.

Plastic (always, but not only as a stage element) is tightly connected with the concept of rhythm. Rhythm is the universal category, inherent to many arts, both temporary and spatial, from the music to the painting (rhythm is very important in literature, especially in poetry). In theater, rhythm is one of the most important components of any performance, and some scholars (particularly, Gordon Craig) considered it as a fundamental component of theatrical art. Rhythm (from the Greek Rhythmos - order, proportionality) is the method of organizing the work, the alternation of its different elements. As the means of stage expressiveness, “rhythm is the visualization of body in space, the writing by the body and the introduction of this body into the stage and imaginary space”, “the interrelation of the movements” [4.p.292].

Ruling dominant influence at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, who had enormous impact on the Russian symbolists, wrote about the godly characteristics of the rhythm in his work “Human, too human” (1878): “With the help of the rhythm, the human request had to be more deeply imprinted in the memory of the gods… With the rhythm it was possible to reach everything: to contribute to work magically, to force any deity to appear, to approach you, to listen, to prepare someone’s future on his/her discretion, to discharge its soul from any surplus…” [6.p.563].

Another one of his works (“The birth of tragedy from the spirit of music”) became a kind of the Bible for the idol of the Russian artistic intelligentsia - the dancer Isadora Duncan. She was attracted by the theory of the Dionysian and the Apollonian sources in the art, asserting the fact that “the day, when you did not dance, is the day lost” [7.p.16], and also she was impressed by Nietzsche’s hero - the dancing Man of wisdom.

Free dance, created by Isadora, aimed to embody the highest spirituality through the physical body of a dancer, and precisely the search for the highest spirituality was the obsession of the Russian elite in the epoch of the “Silver Age”. Although the basic tools of Isadora were only plastic and rhythm, her performances became the center of the stormy discussions of philosophers, poets and critics in Russia. In Isadora’s art they found the embodiment of “spiritual corporality” [7.p.86], something “unspoken” [7.p.89], overcoming the inertness of materiality and the flight of the elevated soul.

Mystical value to plastic and to rhythm was given by the Russian followers of Rudolf Schteiner. Among them was the poet and theorist of symbolism, Andrey Bely. Schteiner also had a great impact on the Mikhail Chekhov's system, where the plastic of an actor was of paramount importance, although it didn’t have any mystical sense. For Chekhov the body of the actor/actress was just a main tool, even if he/she played in the drama theater.

Since plastic and rhythm expressiveness was such an ancient means, it provoked the theater practitioners (especially in the crucial epochs) to search for the highest meanings in it. Rituals and mysteries, magic, contained in the dramatized motions of our ancestors, - all these things made it possible to affirm that with the help of plastic and rhythm the human being can approach a level beyond the grasp of the mind (first of all within himself) and be immersed into the depth of something unconscious. The artists of the “Silver Age” had a real cult of antiquity, in which they searched for the forgotten means of the knowledge in the depths of the human soul.

In this atmosphere the outstanding directors of the beginning of the 20th century were searching for new theatrical language. V. Meyerkhold created the theory of the “plastic statuesqueness” [8], which later turned into his version of the comedy of masks.

The theory of “organic silence” was propagated by A. Tairov [9]. There were many admirers of “free plastics”, pantomime, Jacques-Dalcroze’s rhytmics (propagandized in Russia by S. Volkonsky), and also of the ancient (medieval or antique) theater, where the plastic played a special role.

In the 1910s in Russia there was set an enormous quantity of the pantomimes and mimodramas, and also many articles, dedicated to these problems, were published. In the 1920s interest to plastic, despite the change of the regime in the country, remained: Meyerkhold created the “biomechanics”, M. Chekhov worked out the theory of psychological gesture. And only from the 1930’s, when strengthening of the verbalization of the art was caused by political requirements, plastic was moved to the backyards, it was extruded from the theatrical practice as too conditional, and therefore – the dangerous language.

Plastic theater disappeared in Russia for many years thanks to the ruling ideology. Fortunately, the classical ballet was preserved, which for some reason was considered to be valuable for the general public (the masses), although generally it wasn’t a democratic kind of art too.

During the years of the supremacy of the “socialism realism” the art in Russia was converted into agitation, propaganda and splint. Its main aspiration was the modeling of the new reality, distant from bourgeois and contradicted to it. The reality, in which there was no space for ambiguity and refinement.

Plastic theater, deeply connected with the philosophical and the aesthetical issues, was maximally conditional art, and the conditionality had been corroded by the most severe methods. Indeed it presupposed the ambiguity, which could hide any anti-totalitarian and freedom-loving thoughts. Conditional theater gave the spectators something beyond the strict canons of totalitarian art, even secret knowledge, which was considered as a sedition. Therefore, after falling into the discharge of decadent arts it had disappeared from the Soviet theater for many years.

A way to revive the genre proved to be long and thorny, but nevertheless in the 1970s the authoritative theatrical publications proclaimed that the plastic theater had existed. Its creation began in Russia from the revival of pantomime. In the opinion of Anatoly Rumnev (actor of the theater of Tairov, and later a theorist), the starting point was the VI World Festival of Youth and Students, which took place in Moscow in 1957. At the festival an International Competition of Pantomime was conducted. In 1961 into the Soviet Union arrived French mime Marseille Marso. After his tour this kind of art began vigorously to develop. In the 1960s many theater studios appeared. Among them - “Nash Dom” (“Our house”) by Mark Rozovsky, where the pantomime was directed by Ilya Rutberg, “Rigas pantomimas " under Robert Liger’s management, the theater of Modris Tenisson in Kaunas, the studio of pantomime in Odessa and many others.

The following decade, the 1970s, was marked by criticism “happy landmark… of self-consciousness and self-assertion" [10.p.18] of the pantomime. Then books on its history and theory began to appear. In the same decade plastics began to make the first attempts to enlarge its resources, to add to its palette other depictive means.

Created in 1975, the performance by Gedryus Matskyavichyus “Overcoming” was the starting point of the completely new theater - Plastic/plastique Drama. That performance was dedicated to sculptor Michelangelo and an epoch of the Renaissance.

Although pantomime, dance and other forms of stage motion in this play wonderfully “got along” with each other, Matskyavichyus insisted that the new theater without any word was a kind of the drama theater.

The criticism shared this view. Work of Matskyavichyus and his actors was called the theater of “total dramatism” [11.p.23]. In the opinion of classic of Soviet pantomime Ilya Rutberg, Matskyavichyus reached “the harmony of sharp external drawing and the authenticity of internal life” [12.p.118].

The most meticulous researcher of Matskyavichyus’s creative work was a young critic, Vadim Shcherbakov, who published in the journal “Theater” in 1985 a review of the first ten performances. The main achievement of the plastic theater he considered to be the existence of the “unspoken” in it, because its aesthetics is based on the principles of the “organic silence”, proclaimed by Alexander Tairov before. The critic determined the sources of the new art - “the synthesis of mimodrama by Tairov combined with some positions of Stanislavsky's system” [13.p.28].

In the 1970s the main trend in the Soviet theater was a kind of ideological naturalism, based on socialism realism. On the stage reigned the industrial or everyday-life plays, although the outstanding directors already created the new theatrical language. Nevertheless, in the society there was a latent nostalgia on the conditional theater, which would raise eternal questions, nostalgia on the beauty. Therefore all plays, set in the plastic drama theater (over 10), had roused great sympathy of the spectators.

Gedryus Matskyavichyus repeatedly emphasized his striving for the creation of the highly-spiritual art, inverted towards the life of human soul and spirit. The plastic, which he selected as its main tool, allowed to renounce the everyday and the terrestrial life and to turn to the eternal issues.

“The human spirit exists entirely with its inherent rhythms… Here we attempt to grasp its rhythms, to reveal the concealed laws of its life… The language of plastic is so rich that the need for words disappears, especially in such theater which attempts to penetrate the depth of the human spirit” [2], - thus expressed Matskyavichyus the aesthetical program of his theater.

As the director acknowledged to the author of this article, he had always been interested in “inflamed consciousness” of the creator, in which the real world was reflected and his own world was born. And not by chance the hero in “Overcoming” was the sculptor Michelangelo, who was modeling on the eyes of the spectators his immortal sculptures, the hero of the “Red horse” was an artist, imprinted on the fabric the fragments of life, the hero “By eyes to hear - the highest mind of love” based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, was the poet, being not powerful enough to manage the images in his soul.

Plays of the Plastic Drama Theater (its final title), which were created in the next decade, no longer attracted so much attention of the press. The moment of crisis for the theater began at the beginning of the 1990s when the theater was shut down. Several years later Matskyavichyus created a new theater, “Oktaedr” (“Octahedron”), which received the severe condemnation of critics: “The performances of Matskyavichyus - passionate, original and expressive, have been left in the past” [14.p.9].

In the 1980s the plastic theater was developing extensively, searching for new resources of expressiveness. Besides the plastic drama there was the plastic comedy, represented by the ensemble “Litsedei” under the management of Vyacheslav Polunin, and the mime-company “Masks” from Odessa (leader Georgy Deliev), and “Musical-plastic buffoonery" by Oleg Kiselev (Moscow).

In the end of the 1980s the performances by Roman Viktyuk rang out, where the plastic was given a very special importance - the director attains powerful over-semantic, multi-semantic effect. “Servants”, produced in 1988, struck spectators by unreal, quivering, unsteady plastic, which was choreographed by Alla Sigalova. “This is the first bright experience of the connection of body and sound on the scene”, - writes the critic [15.p.2]. Soon Sigalova created her own “Independent Company", where she strived for the synthesis of drama and dance.

In the 1990s no one spoke about the plastic theater any more. The critics of the magazine “Ballet” wrote about a new trend, which came from the West, - contemporary dance. The plastic theater was integrated into the drama theater, which by that time stopped to be literary and ideological. In the 1990s the term “plastic theater” disappeared from the arsenal of the critics, and scientists of the theater even until now haven’t had a distinct concept of this form of the theater.

Urging to restore the historical justice towards undeservedly forgotten plastic theater, the author of the article made the attempt to glance to this romantic and bright phenomenon of the past century from the new, XXI century.

Thus, the brief history of existence of plastic theater in Russia allows us to make some conclusions:
- Plastic theater is a specific genre of theater art, which was conceived at the beginning of the 20th century, and finally formed in Russia in the 1970s-80s.
- Plastic theater is a genre, which appears in the crucial epochs, and turning to the plastic manifests a kind of distrust to the word, acknowledging its limitedness, narrowly utilitarian outlook and falsity.
- Plastic theater is the method of the philosophical comprehension of the world and comprises the concentrated expression “of the rhythms of the human spirit” (the term of Gedryus Matskyavichyus).
- The reason for the disappearance of the genre of plastic theater is due to its integration into dramatic theater and ballet.

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15. N. Kolesova. Riddles of Salomes. Theatralnaya zhizn.1992. ¹ 7.