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Boris Godunov in history,  1580-1606

Pushkin’s

The Meyerholdcollaboration, 1937

In 1580, Ivan the Terrible celebrated a double wedding: his own to Maria Nagaia, who became his seventh wife, and his younger son Feodor’s to Irina Godunova. Irina and her brother Boris were wards of the Tsar, not of princely birth, and thus had escaped the bloodbath meted out by the Terrible Tsar to the powerful boyar clans. A year later, in a fit of rage, Tsar Ivan killed his elder son and heir (the royal daughter-in-law miscarried in shock and grief); the following year, 1582, the Tsaritsa Maria gave birth to a son, Dmitrii. When Ivan the Terrible died in 1584 there were thus two claimants to the throne of Muscovy: Feodor, who was feebleminded, and a two-year-old infant.
     Feodor assumed the throne with the understanding that his competent and ambitious brother-in-law Boris would rule. Boris ruled for fourteen years, with intelligence and foresight: he made peace with Muscovy’s powerful Roman Catholic neighbour to the West, Poland-Lithuania, created a Russian patriarchate, strengthened Russia’s diplomatic ties with Europe and kept in check Tatar raids from the south. Halfway through Feodor’s reign, in 1591, his half-brother the Tsarevich Dmitrii, in royal exile in the upper-Volga town of Uglich, was found dead in the palace courtyard with his throat slit. An official commission investigated and declared that the nine-year-old child, an epileptic, had stabbed himself during a fit while playing with knives. When Tsar Feodor died childless in 1598, Russia’s Rurik dynasty, which dated from the tenth century, came to an end. The widowed Tsaritsa Irina entered a convent, and Boris Godunov, already the de facto ruler, was chosen Tsar. At this moment Pushkin’s play begins.
     In the third year of Tsar Boris’s reign, 1601, a disastrous famine visited Russia, the result of the “little ice age” that lowered temperatures throughout Europe and caused mass starvation in northern countries with short growing seasons. Boris’s government, strapped for funds because of constant border wars and desperately in need of stable revenue, continued its highly unpopular policy of fastening the peasant to the soil and the townsmen to the local tax roles. The frontier Cossacks were restless, the provincial militia underpaid. Despite attempts to distribute food, punish hoarders, control banditry and maintain order, central Russia depopulated drastically. Rumours circulated that Boris was a “false” – because an elected – Tsar, who lacked God’s mandate and thus could not intercede in heaven for the Russian people. It was also maliciously suggested that Boris had ordered the death of the young Tsarevich Dmitrii in Uglich in 1591, so as to grab the throne for himself.
     Some time in early spring 1602, an unknown young man turned up in Poland, claiming to be the Tsarevich Dmitrii, miraculously saved from the attempt on his life in Uglich eleven years earlier and now intent upon reclaiming the throne of his fathers (and with it, God’s mandate for Russia). Muscovite authorities branded him a pretender and came up with an identity: Grigorii Otrepiev, runaway monk from the Chudov monastery in the Kremlin. This “False Dmitrii” won the sympathy of several Polish magnates hungry for territory and Jesuits eager to bring Eastern Orthodox Russia into the Catholic fold. In 1604, the False Dmitrii crossed over into Russia with a motley band of Polish adventurers, recruiting among the disaffected Russian border population. A civil war began. Despite substantial mobilisation and mercenaries sent against the Pretender, Tsar Boris could not capture him nor dampen his popularity; town after town declared for Dmitrii. Boris’s vicious punitive raids on these “traitor” towns only enhanced the Pretender’s reputation as a clement prince and the returning True Tsarevich.
      In April 1605, as the Pretender was marching on Moscow, Boris unexpectedly died and his sixteen-year-old son Feodor Borisovich ascended the throne. Two months later, Moscow capitulated to Dmitrii’s troops, young Tsar Feodor was mutilated and strangled, his sister Kseniia sent to a convent. The loss, violation, and murder of children are the framing motifs of this terrible period of Russian history, known as the Smuta, or “Time of Troubles”. After further pretenders, foreign invasion, lawlessness, and famine, the Smuta came to an end in 1613, with the election of Mikhail Romanov as Tsar. The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia until 1917.
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When Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, turned this plot into a historical play in 1825, he was an angry, trapped young man. Under house arrest at his parent’s estate of Mikhailovskoe near Pskov (southwest of Petersburg) for seditious behaviour, he was drawn to rebels and historical crises. The story of Boris and the Pretender was fresh in his mind: Nikolai Karamzin, the imperial court’s historian laureate, had just published two volumes of his bestselling History of the Russian State, up through the Time of Troubles. Karamzin’s version was Pushkin’s primary source. From it he accepted, as factually true, two rumours that had long been official Church and Romanov policy: that Boris Godunov was responsible for the death of Dmitrii of Uglich (who was canonised as a martyr saint), and that the False Dmitrii was the runaway monk Grigorii Otrepiev. But on other sensitive issues the poet conducted his own research. He consulted medieval chronicles and accounts by foreign mercenaries. He scoured his own family papers at his Mikhailovskoe estate. Pushkin was of exotic lineage: his maternal great grandfather was a black African and his father descended from an ancient Russian family. He was intensely proud of the fact that several Pushkins had taken part in the Troubles, on both sides of the civil war (two of them are featured in the play). By the mid-1820s, Pushkin had begun to study Shakespeare seriously (in French prose translation), and there are traces in his play of Julius Caesar, Macbeth, the Henry plays, and both Richard II and Richard III.
     Pushkin’s Boris Godunov languished in the censorship for six years, did not appear in print until 1830, and was never approved for the stage within Pushkin’s lifetime. The published version suffered severe cuts: three scenes were omitted, chunks of other scenes deleted, the order of scenes were changed, and the ending of the play – where Pushkin had written a cheer for the triumphant Pretender – was replaced (by an unknown hand) with an ominous stage direction: “The People are silent.” The play ends on an incontestably bleak note. There is some indication, however, that this silence was not to be the end; Pushkin had planned to write at least three other plays: False Dmitrii, Vasilii Shuisky, and something like a Shakespearean chronicle play. These sequels would bring the story to its destined conclusion: the inauguration of the Romanov dynasty in 1613.
     Pushkin believed that a dramatist must be “as dispassionate as Fate.” But at the same time he insisted that drama must entertain and astonish the audience. Pushkin did not number his scenes nor provide a list of characters (who knows who will play what role?). His art is lean and fast-paced, since he believed that monotony posed the greatest threat to stagecraft. Meyerhold considered Pushkin to be not only a great playwright but also a potentially great stage director, even though he had no practical experience of the theatre (except as a spectator). It became Meyerhold’s dream to stage Boris Godunov, but each of his three attempts (in 1918-19, 1924-25, and 1936-37) confronted insurmountable opposition. The scenes most intensively rehearsed, and for which we have the fullest notes, are 5, 8, 9, and 10.
     As the synopsis reveals, Pushkin structured his historical play with strict symmetry. The memory of a slain Tsarevich, Ivan the Terrible’s son Dmitrii of Uglich, is its fulcrum and ominously recurring story; the slaughter of young Tsar Feodor, Boris’s son, is its closing point. Boris first appears four scenes from the beginning and disappears four scenes from the end; within that frame, the Pretender enters and departs the play in a dream. The two antagonists never meet. The apex of action, at the precise centre of the play, is Renaissance Catholic Poland, a tawdry mass of colour, music, dance, and public Eros that bursts into the hungry, muddy, and black-and-white Eastern Orthodox Muscovy, with its cloistered women and all social classes under constant surveillance.
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Prokofiev contributed to the 1937 Pushkin Jubilee by fulfilling commissions for three large-scale orchestral works: incidental music for a theatrical production, by Alexander Tairov, of Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin (1831), a score for a filmed version, directed by Mikhail Romm, of Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades (1833), and incidental music for Meyerhold’s staging of Boris Godunov. Prokofiev also composed three Pushkin Romances, and he considered, but did not undertake, a setting of Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri (1830) for Iurii Zavadsky’s theatre.

Neither the theatrical productions nor the film were realised, for reasons unrelated to Prokofiev. Tairov, Romm, and Meyerhold – who held a post on the Pushkin Jubilee committee, which had been formed by decree on 27 July 1934 – were censured for creative and political transgressions. The three projects unravelled in succession, leaving Prokofiev, who had formally committed to them upon permanently relocating from Paris to Moscow in the spring of 1936, with almost nothing to show for his inspired labour, and leaving his co-collaborators fearing – at a minimum – the loss of their careers. Prokofiev reused some of the music of the three scores in later works; for several decades, the rest of it languished in manuscript form, un-orchestrated and unperformed. Recent recordings by Michail Jurowski for the Capriccio label have begun to give it its due.
     The collaboration between Meyerhold and Prokofiev on Boris Godunov is one of history’s great might-have-beens. The surviving rehearsal transcripts of this abandoned staging suggest that Meyerhold wanted the acting to be energetic, even muscular, with the scenes overlapping and the décor in constant motion. The barriers between the auditorium and the stage would have been eliminated, making the audience feel like a part of the action (Meyerhold hoped to stage it in his new theatre, then being constructed near Maiakovsky Square in Moscow). The actors would have moved between platforms via ramps, faces would have appeared in holes punched out in the walls, and indecipherable chatter would have been heard from the wings. The acting, like the music, was to have possessed an element of lightness, but lightness of a dispiriting, disturbing sort. Meyerhold told his cast: “With Boris it is very easy to fall into iconicity and sweetness, but this drains the blood from the images and text. Lightness does not mean bloodlessness.” (1)
     Once he had mapped out the scenes in his mind, Meyerhold enlisted Prokofiev to write music for the play, stressing the need for special acoustic effects. In November 1936, Prokofiev completed a piano score that contains a half-Eastern, half-Western military tattoo, drunken singing, ballroom dancing, a rêverie, and an ethereal amoroso. He framed these vibrant passages with their emotional inversions: a widow’s lament, a sing-along for blind beggars, three behind-the-scenes choruses, and four songs of loneliness. Musically, Russia is a world of bleak, stark contrasts, a place without musical instruments, where people hum rather than sing. Meyerhold described the final hummed chorus as follows:
     The rumble of the crowd is dark, agitated, menacing, like the roar of the sea. One should feel the people’s power growing, being restrained, an internal rage, a ferment that has yet to find an outlet. When their power has grown to the fullest, the people become organised, and nothing can stand against them. (2)
     In contrast to musical Russia, musical Poland is a world of tuneful melodies and thick, Hollywood-style orchestration. The polonaise and mazurka that Prokofiev composed for the Poland scenes are brief but lavish, intended to mock terrible behaviour with terrible beauty.      From these points alone it should be clear that Prokofiev’s Boris Godunov is an unusual example of incidental music. It offers much more than background atmosphere. It often draws attention to itself, and it tells a different story than the text. The composer conflates acoustic registers, bringing together, for example, duets and solo songs from the visible story space (what film scholars term the diegetic realm) and choruses from the invisible space beyond it (the non-diegetic realm). The juxtaposition does not serve the purposes of dialogue, however: the on-stage singing involves words (in the duets) and vocalised vowels (in the solo songs), but the off-stage singing does not. On occasion, the onstage actors appeal to the off-stage beyond for answers to their questions, but the responses that come back are unintelligible, consisting only of guttural choral outbursts. During the famous monologues, Prokofiev works with two other types of sound. The first is imagined sound, that which exists in the Tsar’s and Pretender’s multidimensional consciousnesses but which the audience is also permitted to hear. The second type of sound is harder to define, since it is displaced in time, leaking into the present from the past or the future or both. The phenomenon might be compared to metempsychosis insofar as it concerns the transmigration of consciousness or, in the case of the widow’s lament of Scene 10, the transmigration of spirit.
     On 16 November 1936, Prokofiev played through his piano score before a gathering of the actors involved in the staging. By all accounts, the music was rapturously received, with Meyerhold according the most praise to the songs and the battle music of Scene 19, a polyglot jamboree in which the Tsar’s “Asiatic” troops (represented by a quasi-octatonic pitch array), Grigorii’s “Western” troops, and some German mercenaries who side with the Tsar face off against each other. The three ensembles collide rhythmically and syntactically in a fashion redolent of the marching band music of the iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives. Meyerhold noted that, in Prokofiev’s conception, the identities of the Russian and non-Russian forces become pointedly confused. Boris’s identity crises – the concerns about his authenticity and background – have been internationalised.
     The score was not yet complete: Meyerhold wanted Prokofiev to compose two more passages, the first for the Pretender’s restless dreams, and the second for the fortune-tellers who besiege Boris in his quarters. The latter could have been improvised, since it involved on-stage noisemakers: drums, sticks, bongos, and rattles. Prokofiev did not actually believe that the scene in question needed music, but Meyerhold wanted it to exude what he called the “jazz” of the sixteenth century. (3)
     The extra music, like the staging itself, went unrealised. Meyerhold intended to premiere Boris Godunov at the very start of the Pushkin Jubilee, but tensions both inside and outside his theatre forced him to delay and then cancel the staging. His directorial plans, and Prokofiev’s score, were shelved, largely consigned to oblivion. In Stalin’s Russia, staging a play about a ruler haunted by questions of legitimacy and plagued by real-or-imagined threats was ill-advised, to say the least. But even if Meyerhold felt a chill under the collar imagining the fallout, the historical records suggest that the rehearsals for Boris Godunov ended for the most part of their own accord. Meyerhold came under direct political attack only after he abandoned Boris Godunov, and he responded to it by continuing to work, albeit with an eye towards appeasing the authorities. Only with hindsight, from knowing what came after in his career, do we see that his commitment to the production had grave political risks. On 8 January 1938, Platon Kerzhentsev, the Chairman of the watchdog Committee of Artistic Affairs, signed a decree ordering the closure of the Meyerhold Theatre. Eighteen months later the director was arrested and, six months after that, executed. Prokofiev absorbed the loss of his friend and mentor in silence.

1 From a discussion with members of the Vakhtangov Theatre, quoted in Meierkhol’d i khudozhniki, ed. Alla A. Mikhailova (Moskva: Galart, 1995), 275.

2 The quotation comes from p. 108 of Prokofiev’s annotated copy of Dramaticheskie proizvedeniia A. S. Pushkina (Moskva: Goslitizdat, 1935), which is preserved in RGALI, fond 1929, op. 2, ed. khr. 37, p. 108.

3 Glikman, Isaak, Meierkhol’d i muzykal’nyi teatr (Leningrad: Sovetskii kompozitor, 1989), 328.

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