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Nathan Thomas

A Second Look

It always starts with the lunch.  Everyone always starts with the lunch.  But it didn’t start with the lunch.  It never starts with the lunch.

What should it start with?  Probably it should start with the play.

Anton Chekhov was enormously famous as a writer, in the highest ranks of esteem.  He had travelled to Siberia and reported on the prisoners there.  He had helped organize relief during time of famine. He had helped improve sanitation and built schools and donated books to libraries.  He was funny.  He was beloved.  He had humanitarian street cred.  He was single and highly available.  He knew folks in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.

So, his new full-length play with a one-word title – the name for a common lake bird -- was going to be shown in St. Petersburg.  It was going to be a benefit night, a night when a portion of the profits would go to the featured actress of the evening.  The audience expected a good time.  It was October of 1896.

The play received just a few rehearsals, unthinkable to us now, but not terribly unusual at the time.  Not all of the actors showed up to all of the rehearsals. One of the leads, a lovely young woman named Vera, came down with a terrible fever, but went on anyway.

Not a huge success.  But not a failure either.  Having been to the rehearsals, Chekhov wrote his brother to say that young Vera “acts amazingly.” 

But after the premiere on the 17th, Chekhov writes at least three letters the next day on October 18, 1896. He writes his friend and sometime publisher Suvorin that he “shall never  either write plays or have them acted.”  To his brother Mikhail he writes, “The play has fallen flat [. . . .] The actors played abominably.”  But to his sister, with whom in many ways he was closest, he writes, “Yesterday’s adventure did not astonish or greatly disappoint me. . . . I don’t feel particularly bad.”  Then he adds, “When you come to [my house] bring Lika [the woman on whom Nina may have been based] with you.”

Complains to his buddy, kvetches to his brother, and probably comes closer to the truth with his sister.  Not quite the tragedy it was made out to be.

Meanwhile in Moscow the son of a military man and an illiterate mother with a long last name, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, had gone into show business like many other young folks with limited prospects – a risky business that might provide the means to get ahead somehow.  And the show business can reward the person who can use their wits.  And Nemirovich-Danchenko had wits to spare.

He wrote plays, so he made a name for himself. And the name gave him an entrée to teaching students at a Moscow arts school in an effort to enhance the acting in Moscow theatres – primarily the Maly Theatre.

As a teacher he got lucky.  In the mid-1890s he got one of those magic groups of students in which the majority of them seemed fated to become household names – Olga Knipper, Vesvolod Meyerhold, Ivan Moskvin, just for a start.  What was a teacher to do?

Well, like many a man who lives by his wits, Nemirovich-Danchenko cast about for someone with some money.  He figured with his smarts and the right person’s money and his students who were ready to graduate and a few others, he could make a go of it.

Luckily the son of one of the wealthiest manufacturing families in Russia lived in Moscow, and he loved the arts.  He acted occasionally with a small group of dedicated folks.  He even produced and played Othello in a fairly acclaimed mounting of the play. Nemirovich-Danchenko had his mark.

In June of 1897 Nemirovich-Danchenko invited the wealthy boy from the Alexiev family to get together at some point for a chat.  After some notes back and forth, they arranged for a business lunch on June 22, 1897 at a downtown hotel restaurant. 

It was the lunch that changed theatre.

It seems pretty clear that Nemirovich-Danchenko’s goal was Alexiev money for his schemes with as little interference as possible.  As it happened, though, Alexiev was up for something different.  Alexiev thought a combination of the best of his dedicated group of folks and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s students would make something.  And so they talked.

And they talked.  And they talked.  And they talked. 

The business lunch went into breakfast the next day.  And that meeting laid out the basic outline of what was to become the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky, the stage name by which Alexiev was known, and Nemirovich-Danchenko were to serve as co-directors with veto power in certain areas of the concern.  And so it was.

Nemirovich-Danchenko had graciously given up a playwriting award in deference to Chekhov’s play that hadn’t done so well up in St. Petersburg. And he had shared the play with his students, who seemed to really understand and appreciate the play. Also, Chekhov’s sister lived and worked in Moscow and hung out with the young artsy crowd.

Chekhov had some idea about Nemirovich-Danchenko’s students.  He had, of course, known the great writer Tolstoy for some time.  Therefore, into this mix of people came a gentle fellow who had been a follower of Tolstoy’s philosophy and had done a variety of jobs and had a variety of adventures – Leopold Sulerzhitsky.

The new concern was set to open in the fall of 1898 with a costume history play called Tsar Fydor Ivanovich that concerns a weak-willed ruler who seems fairly hapless in the face of challenges.

As the new concern was getting off the ground, neither Alexiev nor Nemirovich-Danchenko were in a place where they could give up their “day job.”  Thus, Alexiev worked at the family factory.  Nemirovich-Danchenko still worked at the art school.

Except he didn’t quite.

Time was at a premium in getting the new plays ready for presentation.  So Nemirovich-Danchenko enlisted the assistance of one his star graduates – Meyerhold – to take over the actual instruction of the students at the school. Which apparently Meyerhold was happy to do.  Meyerhold was the son of vodka distillery worker from the borderlands.  He’d come to Moscow to read law, but changed his mind to try the show business.  He’d done very well as an actor in class, was assessed as one of the brightest minds in his cohort.  And he and his teacher got along enormously well.

However, things turned a little sour. Nemirovich-Danchenko, like many teachers, believed that acting students benefit from actual production.  And he also believed the students would do well to act with the Moscow Art Theatre company. 

It looked good on paper.  Meyerhold and the students became concerned, however. Nemirovich-Danchenko continued to pull his full, regular salary – even though he wasn’t really working with the school’s students.  The students were beings used as extras, but since they were students, they weren’t paid the usual extra fee of 40 rubles per performance.  To the students and Meyerhold, it was as if Nemirovich-Danchenko was exploiting the students.

A couple of weeks before opening as Treplev in Chekhov’s The Seagull in December of 1898, Meyerhold had a meeting with Nemirovich-Danchenko about the school.

Meyerhold brought up that the students were dissatisfied. Nemirovich-Danchenko said, “Don’t pay any mind.”   The upshot was that the students were upset at the lack of lessons with the Moscow Art Theatre actors, Nemirovich-Danchenko didn’t have time enough to help, and Meyerhold felt stuck in the middle as an M.A.T. actor who was also serving as their teacher.

In retrospect, it seems less surprising that over time Meyerhold’s and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s relationship fell apart. In later years Meyerhold would refer to Stanislavsky as his teacher – not the other guy.

The Seagull, of course, famously became the moral victory and the story that people remember from the first season of the Moscow Art Theatre.

It appears that Nemirovich-Danchenko was having an affair with Olga Knipper, his erstwhile student and now his leading lady.

Now it may seem that Nemirovich-Danchenko was just a skeevy guy.  Well, he did have his faults.  But people who knew him had a great deal of respect for his talent, his artistry, his smarts, his abilities and capacity for work.  Honest. 

By 1902 Meyerhold left the Moscow Art Theatre. He came back briefly in 1905, not a good year to start a new enterprise in Russia, due to the upset caused by the calamitous war with Japan.  But mostly he was gone to seek his fortune.

Olga Knipper married Chekhov.  They never had a child, despite interest and some earnest attempts.  And then he died, of tuberculosis and complications stemming from his ailments. In the end, about the only thing that could abate the pain was heroin.

Stanislavsky met the stalwart Sulerzhitsky. Sulerzhitsky fell in with Stanislavsky’s many plans and schemes and assisted with the creation of the Studio that brought a new generation of actors to the world’s attention – Mikhail Chekhov, Evgeny Vakhtangov, Richard Boleslavsky, Alice Koonen, Maria Ouspenskaya, and others.  Yoga entered the world of actor training.

And a lot more happened.  But that’s another story for another time.

You see, it could have gone another way. Chekhov’s play could have gotten another rehearsal or two, or the benefit night could have been shifted to another night. It could have been a hit.  Or conversely, he might have meant it that he was going to give up theatre altogether.  In either case, no Moscow Art Theatre production.  Alexiev could have given Nemirovich-Danchenko the cold shoulder as one would do to someone who was caging for your money.  Or Nemirovich-Danchenko could have done what many had done in the past and taken a troupe on the road.  Again, no Moscow Art Theatre either way.  There were other possibilities. 

Meyerhold could have been an excellent lawyer. Sulerzhitsky could have stayed in Canada with the Dukhobors. 

It started in multiple places in different ways.

Everyone always start with the lunch.  But it didn’t really start with the lunch. 


Braun, Edward.  Meyerhold: A Revolution in the Arts. Iowa City: Iowa City Press, 1995.

Chekhov, Anton.  The Letters of Anton Chekhov. Constance Garnett, trans., 2011.

Ladouceur, Jacqueline.  Constructing the Revolutionary Performer: Democracy and Dictatorship in the Theatre of V.E. Meyerhold, 1898-1922. Yale Dissertation, 2004.

Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vladimir.  My Life in the Russian Theatre. London: Butler and Tanner, 1937.

Rayfield, Donald.  Anton Chekhov: A Life. London: Faber and Faber, 2013.

Senelick, Laurence, trans and ed.  Stanislavsky: A Life in Letters.  New York: Routledge, 2014.

Stanislavsky, Constantine.  My Life in Art.  Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, No Date.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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