Efros: A stranger among friends

When Anatoly Vasilievich Efros died in January of 1987, the news of his death was reported in the major Soviet news programme "Vremya", and the obituaries were displayed prominently in all mainstream Soviet newspapers.  The director had to die in order to receive such honours. His life and work earned him the reputation of a persecuted, disgraced artist, who has not seen much kindness from the regime in power.   

Yet Anatoly Efros was one of the most distinguished Soviet theatre directors, who blazed new trails in related genres – television and radio theatre.  He created his own world, his own style, his own language.  Regardless of their taste preferences, all experts and theatre connoisseurs unanimously put his name alongside two other equally distinguished theatre directors – Georgy Tovstonogov and Yuri Lyubimov. Pavel Aleksandrovich Markov, a classic of Soviet theatre studies, put this triad together in his last article in the "Teatr" magazine, written just before his death.  A former literary director of the Moscow Art Theatre,  a colleague of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, a chronicler of the national theatre for half a century, he saw fit to single out these three directors as the major leading figures of theatre process in the 1960s and 1970s.  

Of the three, Efros' gift was the most intimate and outwardly unostentatious. He was first and foremost a master of psychological theatre, delicate strokes, nuances, semitones. If Lyubimov can be viewed as the successor of Meyerhold's dramatic and publicistic theatre and Tovstonogov – a follower of  Tairov's monumental aesthetics, then Efros continued the line of Art Theatre. Only, unlike them, Efros did not have his own theatre for a very long time.  When it was finally handed to him by the regime, he ended up a stranger in that theatre.  The appointment of Efros as the Taganka Theatre director in place of Yuri Lyubimov caused a scandal that he never managed to live through.

Unlike some, including Lyubimov, Efros was rather an apolitical artist; he was by no means a dissident, anti-Soviet, or even a malcontent.   He always, however, came across as somehow "socially alien", "foreign".  Writer Andrei Sinyavsky talked about his "stylistic differences" with the Soviet regime.  Efros had profound aesthetic differences, and not so much with the regime itself as with culture officials. He wasn't really persecuted.  Those were moderate times, "vegetarian".  He wasn't subjected to repressions.  Only a couple of his productions were banned (one of them was Chekhov's "The Three Sisters", where it's hard to see any political subtext), and there were also a few plays that he was not allowed to stage.    Viktor Rozov's "The Nest of the Wood Grouse", for example, which they later did allow to have staged at the Satire Theatre.

By the Soviet standards, such complications and troubles could not be taken seriously.  Moreover, Efros was allowed to take his productions abroad to international festivals, where he received awards and thus brought fame to and promoted the Soviet theatre art.  He was allowed to stage "The Cherry Orchard" in Japan, they didn't hinder his other cultural contacts with foreign countries. Things were not going so bad at home either.  Disparaging reviews were counterbalanced by positive and sometimes even laudatory ones.  He wasn't impeded from staging productions on television and from making movies, which weren't first-run but, since they were considered to be intellectual films, they could not have been box-office hits anyway.  Still, people were constantly interfering with Efros's work, doing so in a very subtle and sophisticated manner.  

By the late 1960s, he fully matured as an artist, entered his prime and earned the right for his very own home – his own theatre.  Instead, he was forced to work as just another director at the theatre on Malaya Bronnaya.   An artificial humiliating situation was created, and both Efros and Alexander Dunaev, theatre director and his nominal "boss" in the artistic department, found themselves in that situation. Though, in this particular instance, Efros got lucky.  Dunaev was a true Russian intellectual, a very decent and smart person.  He fully understood the extent of his "subordinate's" talent.    And he did not hamper Efros at all, giving him the maximum freedom possible.   

Back in the day, the formation of repertoire did not follow the artistic principle.  Productions were supposed to be staged to coincide with important dates; they were to be based on the plays by contemporary authors, "to reflect the theme" of yet another Party plenary session or  congress.  All these unpleasant and bothersome duties Dunaev took upon himself, giving Efros the opportunity to work on pure art.  And yet the latter still felt slighted... The end result was a brutal conflict with the theatre's acting staff.  Like any talented artist, Efros had a difficult temper and imposed greater demands on the actors.  In some of them he simply lost interest altogether, didn't give them any parts, invited "legionaries" from other theatres – Andrei Mironov, Mikhail Ulyanov, Valentin Gaft.   

Efros's personality stirred up discontent and hurt feelings among the actors.  They began accusing the director of egocentrism and arrogance, often not without merit.  Anatoly Vasilievich valued himself very highly and did not see fit to hide that.   He never went as far as to be rude, but his ice-cold politeness could infuriate his opponents even more than outright rudeness. All the more so, because Efros was always first and foremost interested in strictly professional issues.  It is no coincidence that one of his books is titled "Rehearsal – my love". He adored that process, could do it round-the-clock.  He invited students to his rehearsals, which often turned out to be more interesting that the resulting productions.  

This is no exaggeration.  As a student in a theatre history department, I spent a lot of time at the rehearsals of two of Efros's productions – the first being "Verandah in the Forest" based on the play by Ignaty Dvoretsky, and the second –  an adaptation of Gogol's "Dead Souls", which was titled "The Road". It so happened that these two productions turned out to be the director's relative artistic failures.  The final productions paled in comparison with the master's fascinating rehearsals, all of which were chef d'oeuvres of sorts.  Perhaps Efros was spending too much effort and nerves during the rehearsal period, and there wasn't much left for the premieres.  At any rate, even the failure of a talented artist is more interesting and instructive than the success of an artisan.  

For the actors, however, having success in front of the audience is more important than the most refined and incredibly interesting rehearsals.  That's number one.  Number two, Efros, in his fervent enthusiasm for the profession, completely forgot about the actors' human, everyday problems – they interested him solely as artistic units.  Which invariably led to conflicts between them and the director. In the end, the company revolted, and Efros ended up out on the street.  He was betrayed by actors, with whom he worked for several decades, whom he trained, made popular and nationally known masters.   It was a critical moment in his biography.  

Cultural supervisors disassociated themselves during the conflict inside the theatre on the Malaya Bronnaya, letting the chips fall where they may.  When it was all over, they came up with a truly Jesuit solution: Efros was offered to head the Taganka Theatre which was deprived of its leadership earlier.     The Soviet regime wanted to show Yuri Lyubimov that he was not at all irreplaceable and that they could do fine without him. By the way, the same offer was made to Dunaev first, but he refused. Efros, however, consented. He wanted to work, and he naively hoped that he finally got a stage at his disposal, where he would be able to realize his artistic ideas.  That was all true, unfortunately, his stylistics clashed viciously with the acting staff that was used to completely different work methods. There arose once again insurmountable aesthetic differences, this time, with the acting staff that was trained by a no less distinguished but very different artist. 

Efros also did not take into account the political side of the issue.  This was too far beyond him; he only thought about plays, conceptions, interpretations, and other strictly artistic issues.  He was given a very hostile reception at the Taganka; he was met with hatred, as "a traitor to the common cause" – opposition to the regime. But it wasn't just the reactions on the part of some of the actors that got him down, but also the vicious attacks from the theatre community, critics primarily, who unanimously accused him of "selling out" and going over to "the enemy's camp".  And all because he agreed to take the place of Yuri Lyubimov, who was stripped of his USSR citizenship.  

Anatoly Efros never thought in such categories; he knew nothing about any "common cause" or camps; he was always by himself.   He wasn't part of any groups, didn't sign any collective letters, didn't join up with anyone.   He was a unique "piece goods", and the only one he served was Melpomene – the muse of theatre. His political indifference is what ultimately led to his ruin.  Stylistic differences turned out to be insurmountable. 

Nikolai Troitsky 

 

 

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