The Crimson island. Portrait of a Performance
To this day, the fate of The Crimson Island remains surrounded by a number of unsolved mysteries. The Kamerny Theatre signed a contract for the play on 30th January 1926, but it was only three years later, on 11th December 1928, that the premiere took place. Between these two dates, a convoluted story unfolded between Bulgakov the playwright, Moscow’s theatres and the authorities.
Bulgakov borrowed the concept and storyline of the play from his earlier parodic feuilleton «The Crimson Island», which was published in the newspaper Nakanunye on 20th April 1924. Throughout the spring of 1926 the director Alexander Tairov tried to meet with Mikhail Bulgakov in order to discuss the new play. Despite his best efforts, Tairov only received a finished copy of The Crimson Island on 4th March 1927. This he had to present to the Central Repertory Committee, without whose consent the play could not be staged.
It seemed as if it would be impossile to get the play past the censors, firstly because of its subject matter: Bulgakov had written a play about censorship and complete freedom, presenting the latter as a prerequisite for writers to be able to work. Secondly, hidden behind the mask of the character Sava Lukich stood the easily recognisable member of the Central Repertory Committee, Vladimir Blume. To his fury, Blume was at once able to identify himself as the utterly despicable hero. There could be no talk of receiving permission from the Central Repertory Committee for a play which so scathingly satirised that selfsame committee. And yet, a miracle occurred: on 26th September 1928, an unexpected announcement appeared in the newspaper Izvestia reporting that the play The Crimson Island had been approved. A new contract was signed with Bulgakov and, with great skill and tact, Tairov managed to guide the play through the second dangerous cordon of censors: the theatre’s so-called «Artistic council». Rehearsals began immediately.
The premiere took place on 11th December 1928 and immediately provoked a storm of criticism in the newspapers and journals, the most vicious of which came from the aforementioned Blume and the proletarian core of the theatre’s «Artistic council», who were incensed that a play written by the author of «The White Guard» had been performed. Nevertheless, and this is the second mystery surrounding the play, the run continued through to the end of the season and the play was only removed from the programme in the summer of 1929. The script was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime and was first printed in the USSR only in 1987.
The materials on exhibition give visitors the opportunity opportunity to rediscover this almost forgotten and most mysterious play by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Among Mikhail Bulgakov’s documents, a silhouette of the writer was preserved in his private photo album. It is cut out of black paper, dated the 27th of July 1928 and signed «H.X.» Behind these enigmatic initials lies the artist and silhouettist Nina Khlebnikova (1890?–1942). A friend of the Russian engraver and watercolourist Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva and well acquainted with contemporary academicians and artists, writers and poets, Khlebnikova was herself a remarkable silhouettist and poet (a collection of her verse has survived, entitled The Falterings of the Heart). In 1931 she moved from Moscow to Leningrad, where she worked as a translator and bibliographer.
Her works were assembled into thematic albums, which she completed both of her own accord, as and when she came across interesting subjects, and working on commission for organisations, as was the case with the album «Silhouettes of Collective Farm Workers» (1930), which was commissioned by the Historical Museum. Besides this, she also completed several albums containing the silhouettes of writers (including, among others, Anna Akhmatova, Vsevolod Ivanov, Yury Tynyanov and Konstantin Fedin) and academicians. In the 1930s her work was periodically exhibited in Moscow and Leningrad: silhouettes and, later, engravings, which she took up during those years.
The history of Khlebnikova’s acquaintance with Bulgakov still remains largely unknown. Recently, however, valuable materials were found in the Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum which revealed unexpected connections between Bulgakov’s silhouette, Nina Khlebovnika and the Kamerny Theatre. While looking through the theatre’s documents, research associate Elena Shpartko discovered nineteen silhouettes of actors associated with the theatre, among which were a silhouette of the director Alexander Tairov and the very same silhouette of Mikhail Bulgakov. They had all been involved in staging a performance of Bulgakov’s play, The Crimson Island. This portrait of Bulgakov, completed in 1928, together with the eighteen other portraits which were made in 1929, comprises a unique theatrical album dedicated to The Crimson Island.
For their help in preparing the exhibition we would like to thank the Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum, the Russian State Library of Arts, the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, the Manuscript Research Department and the Department of Russian Literature Abroad of the Russian State Library.