The Fateful Mammoth

One of his best roles was in the drama by Alexander Dumas “Edmund Kean, or the Genius and the Libertine”.  In the case of Mamont Dalsky this formula governed his entire life: genius and debauchery, debauchery and genius. 

 

Today, the famous tragic actor Mamont Dalsky (1865–1918) is best remembered in connection with Alexei Tolstoy’s novel “The Road to Calvary”, rather than with the history of theatre.  Here is what Tolstoy writes about him: “A man of wild temperament, handsome, a gambler, a calculating madman, dangerous, majestic and cunning. When the Revolution began, he saw in it an enormous stage for tragedy and wanted to be the one to perform on it the main part in the new version of “The Bandit Brothers”.  He brought together isolated groups of anarchists, took over the Merchants’ Club and declared it the House of Anarchy.”   

Dalsky lost people’s lives in card games; Dalsky confiscated alcohol from the bourgeois; Dalsky led groups of militants to rob the homes of the merchants…  All of that was happening when he was already in the twilight of his career.  And that career began in small provincial theatres.  Back then he was a drop-out student with a rather memorable appearance: tall, with authoritative gestures and an insolent smirk.  

Dalsky was an excellent actor; he was soon noticed and invited to the Alexandrinsky Theatre.  There he became a star. He played the parts of temperamental, unruly characters: Rogozhin in “The Idiot”, Othello… Many years later, Leonid Utesov remembered: “Dalsky was performing a tragedy by Strindberg, titled “The Father”.  The protagonist, a cavalry captain, was arguing with his wife in decent, polite tones, without ever raising his voice, but at the last moment lost his self-control and, as the wife turned to leave, he suddenly grabbed a lit lamp from the table and threw it at her back. This contrast stunned the audience. I, too, was    amazed.”

He carried himself in an arrogant and obnoxious manner.  Maria Savina, the legendary prima donna of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, would tell him, “Hello, young man!” Mamont would reply, “Hello, old lady!” He did not recognize the authority of directors, was rude toward actors.  It got to the point, where the company declared a boycott against him.  They gave him the silent treatment.  But Dalsky couldn’t care less.  “I am right, even if I’m wrong, because I am Mamont Dalsky,” he used to say.

He was eventually fired with no severance pay at the request of the company: he had a falling out with everyone.  Dalsky began touring all over Russia, working for different private non-repertory theatres.  He was surrounded by shadowy characters, became involved in various risky operations with oil fields, furs, gold mines.  Dalsky was fabulously rich at one moment and dirt poor the next. He would rent luxury suites with a telephone and a bathroom, invite guests, serve them expensive cognac and French champagne.  And the next day he would borrow three rubles from an acquaintance because he had no money for dinner. 

His adventurism was fueled by drinking. Once he was invited to perform at a student concert ball.  When the agent booker came to get Dalsky, he found the latter to be dead drunk and with no desire to go anywhere.  “Do not despair, young man,” said Mamont.  “I will send a friend of mine in my place.  Come on, where is he?..”  A thin, lanky young man walked in at that point.  Dalsky ordered him: “Fedka, get dressed quickly.  You’re going to the concert in my place; sing them something.”

That man was young Shalyapin.

The last time that Dalsky was seen on stage was in 1916. He no longer performed in theatre, but he did find a different occupation.  After the February Revolution of 1917 he suddenly joined the anarchists.  Although, it wasn’t really sudden.  He exhibited anarchistic tendencies and ideas as far back as his youth.  One time he was asked:

“How can one live in a country, where nobody can consider themselves free?”

“Well, I do know one free man,” Dalsky said.

“And who is that man?”

“Me!”

After the Revolution, it became clear that he wasn’t alone.  The anarchists were an impressive political force.  They stormed the WinterPalace together with the Bolsheviks; they enjoyed the support of the people. In Moscow they were occupying the Merchants’ Club building (presently, the Lenkom Theatre).  There were outright thugs among them, but the backbone was made up of ideological folks.

Nevertheless, he managed to stand out even in their midst.  He wrote articles, made speeches (primarily denouncing the old theatre).  There is an account from the painter Korovin, describing how Mamont burst into his home with a group of armed sailors.  “Dalsky stood on one knee and cried grandiloquently: ‘Here he is!  He is ours.  You must come with us to a millionaire that set up a museum in his house and examine the paintings – whether or not they have any value.” There are lots of similar stories.  For example, the one, where Dalsky offered prisoners to wager their lives in a game of cards.  Or where he sold confiscated opium… He was a flamboyant character; there were some incredible rumors circulating about him.  Some people truly believed him to be the head of the anarchist party. 

His death was absurd, the result of a fatal accident.  He jumped onto a step of a streetcar, lost his balance and fell down.  The streetcar driver hit the brakes, but it was too late: Dalsky was crushed to death.  

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  • Play on words.  Dalsky’s first name, Mamont, means “mammoth” in Russian.

 

 

Yan Shenkman

 

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