Arkady Raikin: Forever a Full House

Arkady Raikin was born one hundred years ago in Riga into a family of a wood sorter and a midwife.  His brilliant performances were destined to become the Soviet people's primary escape for a period of several decades.   This great artist, operating in the domain of satire, tailored his performances to Pushkin's formula -- "mercy to the fallen".  And invoked a keen desire to straighten up.  

 

From a Shed to the Alexandrinsky Theatre 

 

The age when he was born held no promise of a happy life.  The relocations and hunger during the World War I years.  After the revolution -- the severance of all contacts with relatives from Riga, which had suddenly become "a city in a foreign country".  The fear of a phone call "from there".  Later, in the Forties, the Raikins would reconstruct bit by bit the information about their relatives -- nearly all of them had perished.  One of them managed to escape after a firing squad execution in the ghetto by climbing out from under the dead bodies with a bullet hole in her shoulder.  Another spent the war lying inside a partition wall between the first and second floors of a Latvian house occupied by the Nazis.  Afterwards he couldn't walk -- his muscles have atrophied.  Raikin's father also didn't survive the war: like many other Leningrad residents that were rescued from the besieged city, he couldn't handle the trial by food and died of overeating.   

But there was also the circus tent in Rybinsk, where the six-year-old Arkady got to know all the artists.  And the makeshift theatre in a shed, and his first "role" (a murdered merchant with a dagger under his armpit). 

His first dramatic play -- Rostand's "Chantecler" at the Rybinsk Drama Theatre.  Happiness mixed with deadly envy toward a neighbor boy who got to play on a real stage.  Nevermind that his role consisted of merely whittling a stick in a poultry yard.   (Some eighty years later Konstantin Raikin would stage the performance of "Chantecler" -- a play about a creator's exaltation -- at the theatre named after Arkady Raikin). 

Lessons in visual arts with Vladislav Izmailovich, who fostered his appreciation for painting and his understanding of it.   

Yuri Yursky's theatre group and the first roles performed by Raikin the student already in professional theatres -- Scherbakov's Peredvizhnoy Theatre and the "Stanok" Theatre.

And all the treasures of theatrical Petersburg of the 1920s-1930s. 

The famous performances at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, which Raikin frequented from the age of ten, using the crowd as a cover to slip by the ushers.   Sometimes he even bought tickets with the money he'd get for selling his textbooks -- a move that was invariably followed by a punishment that very evening in the form of his father's angry yelling, a clip on the back of his head, or even of him being locked out of the house for the night.    

 

To Go Another Way

 

Meyerhold accepted him into his company... sight unseen.  While rehearsing "Woe from Wit", the master, who couldn't stand having outsiders at his rehearsals, noticed a student that was hiding in the darkness of the audience hall.  "At that moment he resembled an eagle that has just spied his prey from the mountain heights," Raikin recalls.  Meyerhold only needed to ask two questions to understand what was important about that student.   Along with the invitation to join the company Raikin received an offer to take part in the famous "The Lady of the Camellias", move to Moscow and defend his thesis already at the State Meyerhold Theatre.  But... leaving for Raikin would be tantamount to a betrayal of his class, which was about to become a theatre.  Then his class instructor Vladimir Nikolaevich Solovyev -- a famous pedagogue and director, an expert connoisseur of commedia dell'arte, Meyerhold's associate and co-author on the journal "Love for Three Oranges" -- talked his student out of joining the brilliant director's company. It was as if he had a foreboding about the impending destruction of the State Meyerhold Theatre.    

The Leningrad Theatre of Miniatures, which came into existence in 1939 in an almost spontaneous manner, became his destiny.  He brought together singers, jugglers, dancers, musicians, acrobats.  Three years later, at the height of the war, the task of directing a theatre that provided entertainment to military units from the Far East to Novorossiysk fell to its youngest member -- master of ceremonies Arkady Raikin.  

 

Those are Raikin's Words!

 

Arkady Raikin did not spare his authors' pride. To him miniatures were just as much a material for further revision as the language of the streets, the party bosses' newly coined words and phrases, the System's bureaucratese language. Like fabric to a tailor. He could give the same monologue to different authors, convincing each of them that they were the only ones capable of understanding Raikin's idea. He could rewrite their texts or revise them beyond all recognition, or "sew together" a new miniature out of different "rags" -- from different authors. "Those are Raikin's words," the audience stated with confidence.  

There were many who left Raikin.  Some were never quite able to fulfill themselves outside of the Theatre of Miniatures. Others, like Mikhail Zhvanetsky, managed to demonstrate their uniqueness and competence.  

However... When Akhmatova, Zoshchenko and "a certain Khazin" were declared personae non grata in a decree about the "Zvezda" and "Leningrad" magazines, when even Zoshchenko's acquaintances began turning away from him, and he began turning away first to avoid giving them a reason to do it, when the lack of money started to become a real problem, the writer received a phone call.   

"Mikhail Mikhailovich, we need to right a wrong here.  At least inasmuch as we are capable.  I believe it is unfair that so far you have not written anything at all for us."  

Arkady Raikin used all of his artistic talent in order to appear laid back and businesslike.  It has long been his dream to have Zoshchenko become their theatre's author, but he also understood that Zoshchenko's literature ascended to a different level.  Now, however, the time for stylistic subtleties has passed -- the writer was literally being deprived of his livelihood.  And that is how Zoshchenko's miniature "Good Morning" became part of the theatre's repertoire.   

As for Alexander Khazin, he became Arkady Raikin's regular author and his theatre's literary manager.

 

Laughter Is Mankind's Esperanto

 

When touring abroad, they performed in the language of the host country.  In English, German, Romanian, Polish, Slovak.   They prepared a play in Japanese (there were plans for a guest performance in the Country of the Rising Sun, where an entire book was written about the Leningrad Theatre of Miniatures).  But... a different theatre group was sent instead.  

They even performed in Hungarian, where a basic "hello - goodbye" ("jó napot kívánok - viszontlátásra") created quite a challenge for the actors.  

Raikin ridiculed Soviet bureaucrats in English, and the British roared with laughter, recognizing their own from his descriptions. This recognition effect was so great that his miniature "Inconceivable" was even banned from being shown on British television.  

They studied all the texts in advance.  However, the hardest part began during the guest performance itself -- Arkady Isaakovich insisted on using the most contemporary words and phrases in their shows.  

Raikin's language memory was phenomenal, and spectators who went backstage after the performance would often wonder: what do you mean, you don't know the language?!  You just spoke it for several hours!  

One time his linguistic abilities were put to a brutal test.  The Ministry of Culture sent the artist to West Berlin for the International Pantomime Festival, where Raikin, in his capacity as guest of honour, was slated to give a lecture on the influence of pantomime on other art forms.   Raikin thoroughly prepared for the lecture.  When he arrived in Berlin, however, he was informed that he was invited not to give a lecture but to perform in a concert with Marcel Marceau.  He had 64 hours left to prepare for it.  Fortunately, the interpreter was very understanding and agreed to stay at the hotel to work with him, foregoing sleep.  Following the performance Raikin was recalled on stage fourteen times, but he no longer understood anything. 

The performances of Arkady Raikin's Theatre of Miniatures took place in the open air in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains, on a soccer field, and in the BBC studio for the opening of the new British television channel. Gabrovo made him the city's honorary citizen.  London ranked him among five of the world's most distinguished comic actors.  

Japan, Italy and America all waited for a visit from Raikin's theatre.  A famous American producer Saul Hurok, known for his generosity and love with regards to Russian artists, offered the officials and party bosses at all levels to bring the Theatre of Miniatures to America for a year to perform for a thousand-seat audience.   But all of his efforts at persuasion were in vain.  America that Raikin had dreamed about remained unattainable to the end of his life.  

When the authorities finally allowed him to go to the U.S., it was the doctors who voiced their opposition -- the flight could prove fatal to the 76-year-old artist.  Arkady Isaakovich took the doctors' verdict so hard that his colleagues decided that they should do as he desired.  Something incredible was happening at Arkady Raikin's performances.  Each time the audience (a thousand or two thousand people) stood up to applaud him and cried. The artists cried, too.  Everyone knew that Raikin wouldn't be coming back there again, that these were his farewell performances.

 

Seventeen Percent on Creativity 

 

Arkady Isaakovich Raikin was a child of his time.  As a young man working at the Okhtinsky factory (a year's worth of work experience was required for university admission), he traveled to the Yaroslavskaya Region to fight against the kulaks.  He buried a friend, killed in the class struggle, so to speak.  He took part in inventorying church property and in a celebratory meeting, dedicated to the production of the first tractor.   

He spent almost the entire war providing entertainment to Soviet military units and hospitals, often being no more than a hair's breadth away from death.  The memory of the sanctity of that task defined his attitude both toward his audience and toward his country for the rest of his life.  

He compared the society, in which he lived, to a healthy person with a really bad toothache.   It upset Raikin to no end when someone reproached him for misrepresentations, distortions, smear campaigns, lack of positive characters and positive examples from the life of Soviet society.  He felt like a healer, whose task it was to cure the cursed "tooth" that made life impossible.    The system, meanwhile, was afflicted with cancer.  

His "surgical intervention" did not end with a stage performance nor did it begin in rehearsals.  Thus, working on a miniature about mandatory application of budgetary funds, he purposely made a trip to the Ministry of Finance in order to find out why this absurd rule was in effect everywhere.  "We will resolve your question very soon," the frightened officials reported.    

He received thousands of letters with requests for help.  Some of Raikin's correspondents even tried to give their letters literary form -- for a ready-made monologue.  It was impossible to reply to all of them, but if the tone of the letter invoked a sense of credibility, Raikin responded.  He arranged for someone to be placed in a hospital; helped someone else get amnesty.  This was not simply a matter of craving feedback, which is usually limited by an artist's level of popularity, but a thirst for knowledge of life itself with all its misfortunes, its absurdity and other "aching teeth".    

The Theatre of Miniatures was blatantly nonpartisan.  There were never enough members of the CPSU to create a party organization (the minimum required number was three).  Nevertheless, the "richness of Lenin's ideas" was likewise put to good use.  Thus, in the 1960s the theatre put forth a production of "Plus-Minus", whose authors were Zhvanetsky, Likhodeev and... Lenin.  Every satirical attack was supported by quotes from Ilyich's collected works with reference to volume and page number.

These tricks of style, however, did little to shield them from their bosses' smoldering hatred and the exhausting official performance runs ("I spend only about seventeen percent of all my energy on creativity," Raikin estimated).     And, as a consequence of all that, from the numerous heart attacks, one of which happened right in the office of Vasily Shauro, Head of the Department of Culture of the Central Committee.  

By the standards of Soviet history, however, Raikin was actually very lucky...

One time he was literally dragged out of bed and taken to a closed concert in honor of Stalin's 60th anniversary -- a concert for sullen rulers of destinies, without a single woman in sight.  On the way there he concentrated on the fact that he really needed some hot tea to soften his throat.  And so, with the life-saving thoughts of tea he began his performance for the leader of the people.  

Raikins' family archive contains Stalin's politely laconic reply to an invitation to visit another one of his performances.  But... many years later Arkady Raikin was shown a list of Leningrad residents who were to be exiled to Kazakhstan as per Stalin's orders.  Train cars, which they were supposed to be shipped in, had already been brought to Leningrad, but then Stalin died.  That list contained Raikin's name as well.  

The Communist regime gave Raikin a "worthy" farewell.   For several days the newspapers didn't report where the funeral service would take place. As Arkady Isaakovich's brother and stage partner Maxim Raikin recalls, the only people apart from friends and family that showed up at the funeral service were residents from nearby homes.  A man in plainclothes was broadcasting the speeches straight out of the funeral hall via his walkie-talkie and giving commentary on what was taking place.  In the words of one of the relatives, this was the first time that the great artist did not have a full house.  

 

Theatre Begins with a Chimney and a Tunnel 

 

To say that he gathered a full house for over fifty years is not to say anything at all.   

One time during a guest performance in Rostov, several of the artists in his theatre fell ill, and they were forced to cancel the show.  The next time they performed in Rostov only seven years later, and the audience that came to that performance brought its seven-year-old tickets -- none of those original tickets had been returned.  

One time, during a performance in Dnepropetrovsk the theatre hall reached critical mass and it was absolutely impossible to find out who had the tickets and who were the gatecrashers.  The audience took up a perimeter defense.  The police patrol became stuck in that spectator mass and was forced to stay and watch the program.  After the performance theatre manager showed Arkady Isaakovich "the mess" that the latter had caused.  It turned out that somebody had dug out an actual tunnel behind the stone wall. Students proved to be the more considerate of the bunch -- they climbed onto the balcony using bound-together bed sheets.   

One time in Moscow during a performance intermission at the Palace of Culture of Railway Workers a man appeared in the theatre hall, striking fear in the hearts of the well-dressed audience.  He was covered in soot, fuel oil and stains.  It turned out that this man was a visitor from Kamchatka, who had lost all hope of buying a ticket to see Raikin perform and ended up climbing inside the theatre via the roof and the chimney.  

There were quite a few such "one time" occurrences throughout his life.  

 

MKhET as an Alternative to MKhAT

 

Arkady Raikin experienced the taste and price of independence at a very early age -- even as a boy, when he stubbornly ran over to the theatre every evening, knowing that his actions would inevitably get him punished. As a young man he wanted even more independence, but it was nearly impossible to attain in a drama theatre.  "I understood fairly quickly that I needed to do something to avoid destroying my own self.  I switched to a genre that allowed me to maintain relative independence."  He paid a high price for the right to at least be the master of his own fate during the rehearsals, before the arrival of censors and committees.   No world repertoire, few A-list directors.  Ravenskikh, Akimov or Simonov were the exceptions, rather than the rule.  Arkady Isaakovich parted ways with Anatoly Efros after only the second rehearsal.  One could only guess as to how fruitful that duet might have turned out.  

He took quite a risk setting sail on his own, but time has proven that he made the right choice.  At the time when all theatres in the country were forced to adhere to the standards of MKhAT (the Moscow Art Theatre), Raikin together with Grigory Karpovsky, who was later replaced by German Novikov, created MKhEt - the Maly Art Variety Theatre - with a picture of a soaring goose-like bird on the curtain, a stream of human types and a collection of funny situations.  Many years later, when Raikin, the former MKhET member, came on stage during MKhAT's anniversary gala, the MKhAT Company actors all stood to greet him.  Furtseva was completely astonished by this display.  "How come when a representative of the Central Committee came on stage, the actors listened to him sitting down, but as soon as Raikin appeared the entire MKhAT Company stood up?" she wondered.  It was a rhetorical question.  But it seems fair to suppose that the MKhAT actors felt as if he were one of their own.  Raikin's art had that same "reality ground down to a symbol" that Stanislavski talked about.  And the vulgar everyday life was raised to the level of phantasmagoria.  And there were tears of compassion.  It's just that, as one of the great ones had said, a satirist's throat is arranged in such a way that tears break forth in the form of laughter.

 

Who Is This Guy?

 

"Remember, you have just barely become Arkady Raikin, while I have been Smirnov-Sokolsky for a very long time," the strict member of the award panel lectured the young participant of the first All-Union Competition of Variety Artists.  He was also the one who conducted a cruel experiment on the odds-on favorite participant.  During a performance where Raikin was supposed to do a number titled "Chaplin", Smirnov-Sokolsky hid (for the sake of an experiment) the act's main prop -- the cane.  In a matter of minutes the desperate contestant flew to the coat room, where he successfully begged the attendants to give him "a cane" (a rather inelegant stick), returned on stage, and performed his number. The first prize at the first competition was not awarded to anyone.   The winner of the second prize was the 28-year-old Arkady Raikin.

"What do you think," the then jury member Dunayevsky asked another jury member Utesov, "will this guy remain a hit for a long time?" 

And the latter responded, "Always." 

 

Olga Foux

Photo provided by A. Raykin's Fund For Support and Development of Culture

 

 

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