What did you say?
Alexander Herzen

“Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive today to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on?” — 1847

- Alexander Herzen

Valentin Smyshlyayev (Валентин Смышляев, 1891–1936) was a Russian and Soviet theatre director and actor, critic and educator. He worked in the Moscow Art Theatre (MKhAT-1 and MKhAT-2) and at the Proletkult, which aimed at propaganda and enlightenment of the masses. His first production was The Mexican by Jack London directed together with Sergei Eisenstein in 1921.

Smyshlyayev was a follower of the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold. He attempted to combine these two theatre trends and to forge a new “synthetic theatre”. Despite working on the cutting edge of Soviet experimental theatre, he often based his work on the classical tradition and drew heavy influence from the history of the world theatre. In his educational work as well as his theatrical practice he strove to shape ancient Greek tragedy into the form of vanguard theatre.

Smyshlyayev, for example, staged Prometheus Bound (MKhAT-1, 1925–27, not finished) and Oresteia by Aeschylus (MKhAT-2, 1926). Deeply committed to the democratisation of his art form and the classical texts with which he was working, he experimented with the use of vast numbers of actors, redefining and bringing to the fore the important role of the chorus. There were many dances and declamations: the actors’ movements were designed with precision to illustrate the sometimes other-worldly words they were reciting.

In his Oresteia Smyshlyayev boldly attempted to translate the spoken word with the movements of the body. The sounds of words, or “akusmas”, were given corresponding “kinemas” (movements). But the idea was too difficult to implement in practice. Contemporary critics called the production an “attempt to ‘renew’ MKhAT through ancient tragedy.”[1] It was felt that the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.

In the early 1920s Smyshlyayev directed the Belarusian Studio in Moscow. His students there would form the Belarusian State Theatre-2 in Vitebsk, many becoming the core of Belarusian theatre and cinema for decades. Under his guidance the Studio staged  Euripides’s Bacchae (in Belarusian) in Vitebsk, 1926–27. Their production of the tragedy focussed on the power struggles between mortals and immortals, between reactionary and progressive world views. His was a sophisticated Marxist interpretation of Euripides’ play, exploring the complex conflicts between the old order of things and the new, and between religious and secular power. Even so — or perhaps, more accurately, for this very reason — it met with ideological resistance from the local authorities in Vitebsk and was staged only for one season.

Smyshlyayev was an active member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party before 1917. He left the party, however, not long after it became the Communist Party of All Russia (later the Soviet Union, CPSU), for which perceived act of disloyalty he was persecuted throughout the 1930s.[2] He died of a heart attack in 1936.

This profile was written by Hanna Paulouskaya

[1] Tatsyana Bandarchyk, “Na pershay vyarstse… [On the first mile]”, Litaratura i Mastatstva [Literature and Art] (November 29, 1966) 2–3, (December 2, 1966) 2–3.

[2] Praskovya Bubnova-Rybnikova, Glavy iz semeynogo romana [Chapters from a family novel], Moskva: Nyudiamed, 2003, 36.

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