PRINT January 1978

The Russianness of “Petrouchka”

THE STUDY AND REVIVAL OF Slavic traditions and a preoccupation with peasant culture affected the arts in Russia from the 19th century onward. Significantly, the intelligentsia of Moscow had fostered the revival of things Russian on an earthier level than did the St. Petersburg intelligentsia, who had emphasized aristocratic and urban aspects of the Russian past. This tendency to favor the more politely attractive elements of Russian traditions at the expense of the rest was marked in the group of young men that included Benois, Filosofov, Somov, Nouvel, Diaghilev and Bakst, who met in St. Petersburg for informal discussions on various topics of art from about 1890 on, and who continued to work together on Diaghilev’s later ventures. While this group cultivated interests in foreign artistic trends, as well as in those Russian arts which they considered esthetically valuable, they seem not to have developed a coherent and definite point of view until the late 1890s. This viewpoint, which focused on the Russian aristocratic past and its closeness to foreign culture, appears to date from the group’s exposure to certain Moscow artists and artistic activities, particularly the opera company organized by Savva Mamontov.

Mamontov was a wealthy Muscovite whose tastes in and knowledge of European art were much more sophisticated than the ideas of the young members of Benois’ group. Mamontov sponsored such artistic experiments as a private opera company in Moscow, and the study and revival of Slavic and folk arts at his country estate of Abramtsevo. Many avant-garde movements which developed in Russian painting, sculpture, architecture and drama, just before and after the Revolution, were in one way or another connected with Mamontov, or grew from innovations which he had encouraged. According to Benois, he and the members of his circle first realized that they had something to learn from Moscow when Mamontov’s opera first appeared in St. Petersburg, in 1898. If nothing else, the group learned how to obtain financial support for some of the projects they had thought about, and how to reconcile their personal preferences with the ideas of their patron.

From this time on, Diaghilev and his friends developed an interest in reviving the Russian past and in demonstrating that Russians were not crude barbarians, that Russian aristocratic culture was fully the equal of the European. It was with this attitude that Diaghilev and his circle produced The World of Art (Mir iskusstva), the first Russian journal of the arts, with the financial backing of Mamontov and Princess Tenisheva, another sponsor of native Russian arts and peasant crafts. Mir iskusstva was published from 1898 to 1904, and was accompanied by annual exhibitions of Russian and foreign artists. The same artistic attitude was responsible for Diaghilev’s exhibition of Russian portraits in St. Petersburg in 1905 and his exhibitions, concerts, operas and ballets in the West. The ballet programs presented by Diaghilev in European cities from 1909 on also showed in early years the imprint of the Mir iskusstva group, and only later did the aristocratic themes largely vanish.

Although the group gave less weight to Slavic and folk arts than Mamontov himself probably wished,there is little doubt that the exposure to Mamontov and “homegrown Russian” Moscow art served to crystallize the artistic philosophy of Diaghilev, Benois and the other young men. From 1898 on, the Mir iskusstva group concerned itself with Russian culture—albeit still aristocratic and urban rather than peasant —and apparently adopted some other ideas from Muscovite art as well. These included artistic unity and the notion that every aspect of a dramatic creation must contribute to the total effect. Dancers must dress in historically accurate costumes and must not interrupt the action to take bows; virtuosity must be integrated into the story rather than being a meaningless display; music, story, settings and choreography are equally important and one must not outweigh another. And similar principles must be applied to all forms of art.

An interest in the Slavic past and in folk culture grew gradually in the group, probably encouraged by the financial backers of Mir iskusstva, and later in response to the tastes of Western audiences. Quite clearly, the Slavic revival in ballet, along with Diaghilev’s other innovations in the dance, were only for export: from the first the group found broader acceptance in the West. The exotic short ballets in Diaghilev’s programs abroad were rarely performed on the stage of the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, where the usual presentation was one of the ballets of Petipa and his predecessors, elaborately staged, full-length spectacles like La Bayadère, Le Corsaire, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and The Sleeping Beauty.1 The group continually collided with the bureaucracy within the theater, and the atmosphere of the imperial court was such as to stifle experiment and change. Even if Diaghilev had not been forced by circumstances to look for employment outside Russia, the sympathies and Western orientations of the group would no doubt have led them to follow the same course. They looked to the West, to aristocratic Western culture, for their artistic identity, and saw themselves accepted as highly civilized barbarians. “Our wild Russian primitiveness, our simplicity and naiveté had proved to be more progressive, more elaborate and more refined than all that was being created in Paris—the most cultured of cities!”2

Out of this milieu came Petrouchka. The ballet was the product of a group of St. Petersburg intellectuals whose tastes and sympathies were aristocratic. Petrouchka represented this group and mirrored its attitudes, its conscious and unconscious ideas and beliefs. Yet the ballet told a wider story. Like the whole of Russian aristocratic culture, Petrouchka was a game of make-believe, a masquerade whose actors dressed up in romantic costumes and moved gracefully through tastefully designed settings. Traditional and novel, native and foreign, aristocratic and peasant, superficial and profound—these dichotomies characterize not only Petrouchka but pre-Revolutionary Russia at large. The ballet’s creators were probably the least politically concerned people to have lived through events of historic importance, but they nonetheless managed to capture Russia at a particular moment, to diagnose correctly their country’s illness and to predict its future demise. Perhaps that is the ballet’s ultimate fascination, and its sadness, depending on where one’s sympathies may lie.

Produced by Serge Diaghilev at the Theatre du Chatelet on June 13, 1911, Petrouchka was at once one of the great successes of the Ballets Russes. Small wonder, for Diaghilev had gathered together a glittering roster of artists to create and perform the ballet. Stravinsky composed the music and wrote the scenario together with Benois, who also designed the scenery and costumes; Fokine was the choreographer, and the principal dancers were Nijinsky as Petrouchka, Karsavina as the Ballerina, Orlov as the Moor, and Cecchetti as the Charlatan.

From 1906, Diaghilev had served as “Russia’s artistic ambassador to the West,” organizing an exhibition of Russian art for the 1906 Salon d’Automne, his concerts of Russian music in 1907, and his 1908 season of Russian opera, plus his Russian ballet, all in Paris. Of the first season of Russian ballet in Paris, in 1909, Benois wrote:

Every participant in the “Russian season” . . . felt that he was bringing to the entire world all that is Russian, all that comprises his greatest pride . . . Russian spiritual culture, Russian art . . . .

. . . I . . . felt that Russian barbarians had brought to “the artistic capital of the world” . . . all that was best in art at that moment in the entire world. . . .

. . . Not Borodin, and not Rimsky-Korsakov, and not Chaliapin or Golovine, or Roerich, or Diaghilev were victors in Paris but all Russian culture, all the inimitable features of Russian art, its great sense of conviction, its freshness and spontaneity, its wild force.

_Finally, the extraordinary refinement of Russian art [which] . . . left far behind the sophistication of Paris. . . .3

Petrouchka illustrates very well indeed the views put forth by Benois, views we may take as more or less common to Diaghilev and his collaborators. The ballet is a blend of old Russia and timeless love, set to Stravinsky’s music—which even Parisian ears found shockingly novel. The story takes place in the St. Petersburg of the 1830s, during the carnival of “Butter Week,” the three days before Lent. Amid the excitement of the fair, the tale unfolds. Three puppets—Petrouchka, a Ballerina and a Moor—come to life and dance on stage at the command of the Charlatan, while behind the scenes of the puppet theater the drama continues. Petrouchka falls in love with the Ballerina, who, in turn, is captivated by the Moor. The drama bursts into real life as the Moor pursues Petrouchka out of the puppet theater; then, in the midst of the fair, the Moor stabs Petrouchka, who falls to the ground dead. To quiet the crowds, apprehensive at this all-too-human performance, the Charlatan holds up Petrouchka, now a lifeless puppet. But as the Charlatan carries his puppet back to the theater, Petrouchka’s ghost appears menacingly above the tiny stage. In fright the Charlatan drops the puppet and runs.

As fascinating as the story of the ballet are the legends around and about it. In fact, no two people concerned with Petrouchka’s creation tell quite the same story. Stravinsky considered Petrouchka largely his own creation; not only was the music his, but, according to his autobiography, he and Diaghilev had sketched out the story, the characters and the setting in Switzerland during the autumn of 1910.

While he [Diaghilev] remained in Switzerland we worked out together the general lines of the subject and the plot in accordance with ideas which I suggested. We settled the scene of action: the fair, with its crowd, its booths, the little traditional theatre, the character of the magician, with all his tricks: and the coming to life of the dolls—Petroushka, his rival, and the dancer—and their love tragedy which ends with Petroushka’s death.4

Stravinsky praised the dancing of Nijinsky and “my faithful interpreter Karsavina” and described the choreography as “Fokine’s finest creations.” As for the designs, “The beauty of the ballet was greatly enhanced by the richness of the artistic setting which Benois had created for it.”5

Benois, however, saw the matter rather differently. He had received a letter from Diaghilev to the effect that

Stravinsky had composed and played to him [Diaghilev] a sort of Russian Dance and another piece which he had named Petrouchka’s Cry and . . . both these compositions were, in every sense of the term, works of genius. They had both had the idea of using this music for some new ballet, but no story had as yet been devised. They had only conceived the idea of representing the St. Petersburg Carnival and of including in it a performance of Petrouchka, the Russian Punch and Judy show. “Who else but you.” wrote Seriozha, “could help us in this problem?”6

Benois went on to describe how he decided upon the characters, and then worked out the story and setting with Diaghilev when the latter arrived in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1910. After Stravinsky’s arrival in December, Benois was able to hear the music and to develop the scenario in greater detail. But the music and the story were not completed until the spring of 1911, in Rome, where Benois joined Stravinsky and Diaghilev in their preparations for the coming Paris season. Benois’ costumes and scenery, designed during the winter and executed in St. Petersburg, reached Paris somewhat later in the spring. Also in Paris,

We had now to think of the programme and to decide the question of who was to be considered as the author of the newly-born work.

My enthusiasm for Stravinsky was so great that I was ready to efface myself completely out of reverence for his genius; the initiative of the whole enterprise, indeed, belonged to him—I had only helped to endow his enchanting music with tangible, scenic form. The subject of the drama, the characters and development of the action and most of the details were mine, but all this seemed a mere trifle in comparison with the music. So when Stravinsky at one of the last rehearsals asked: “Who is the author of Petrouchka?” I answered: “Of course it is you.” But Stravinsky would not agree to this and protested energetically, saying that it was I who was the real author. Our combat de générosité ended with both of us being named, and here again out of reverence I insisted on his name being placed first. My name appeared a second time in the score, for Stravinsky dedicated Petrouchka to me, a fact which touched me deeply.7

Fokine also had his version of the relative importance of each of Petrouchka’s creators.

I became acquainted with the marvelous music of this ballet when it had already been composed by Igor Stravinsky and the story for it had been completed by him and Alexandre Benois. I joined my collaborators after the main characters of the story and the primary lines of its development had already been created by them. Nevertheless, when I say “my” ballet “Petrouchka,” when I add that it was one of the most successful and outstanding of “my” compositions, I feel that I am perfectly justified in doing this.

One could call it a musico-dramatic composition by Stravinsky which assumed an exceptionally important place in the field of modern music; and one could say that it was one of the greatest works of Benois. One could also classify “Petrouchka” as a Fokine production which was one of the most complete demonstrations of his application of ballet reforms.8

One cannot help wondering what the truth of the matter was. All those concerned at least agree that Stravinsky’s composition, which later became scene ii of Petrouchka, came first. According to Beaumont, Stravinsky and Diaghilev together decided to set the ballet in St. Petersburg in the 1830s, during the Butter Week fair, because they knew of Benois’ fondness for this period. Benois was largely responsible for the scenario, but out of respect for Stravinsky he had the latter’s name put first in the credits. The scenery and costumes were of course also the work of Benois. Although Beaumont gives no references, his explanation makes sense, especially since Benois had recently quarreled with Diaghilev, and the temptation of working in one of his favorite styles was perhaps intended to lure Benois back into the fold. Benois’ expression of the modesty of his endeavors compared to the greatness of Stravinsky’s music is more or less in agreement with Stravinsky’s own attitudes, and from here it would have been only a step to Stravinsky’s autobiography, in which Benois’ contribution was confined to the designs.

Thus the creation of Petrouchka seems to have proceeded in the following stages: Stravinsky wrote the first compositions in Switzerland in the fall of 1910, and Benois began the scenario in St. Petersburg not much later, after he had received Diaghilev’s letter.

Benois seems not to have heard any of the music until Stravinsky came to St. Petersburg in December 1910. After Stravinsky left Russia, the two did not meet again until the spring of 1911, and, according to Benois, he continued to develop the scenario while Stravinsky was composing the rest of the music. Neither was completed until later in the spring of 1911, in Rome. And while Fokine mentioned that Diaghilev had arranged for him to hear the music of the ballet at some undetermined time before he began the choreography, he also wrote that he began to stage the ballet in Rome and completed it only in Paris. Fokine must have based his choreography on the largely completed musical score and scenario which awaited him in Rome. Although the total integration of all aspects of a work of art was a stated ideal of the members of Diaghilev’s circle, this ideal apparently did not move the creators of Petrouchka to work together on the ballet from beginning to end. And while the story, music, dance and designs of the ballet were indeed well integrated, the means by which this was achieved were anything but ideal.

In all fairness to Stravinsky, his music does seem to have been the single most significant contribution; notonly was his work of this period highly original, but he managed to integrate Russian themes and rhythms with Western European structure. A latecomer to Benois’ and Diaghilev’s group, Stravinsky best expressed their ideals and gave the other artists an inspiring framework in and around which to work. The Soviet musicologist AI’shvang has given us an interesting if subjective analysis of Stravinsky’s music for Petrouchka, as well as an interpretation of its place in Stravinsky’s musical career and in the arts of pre-Revolutionary Russia.9 According to AI’shvang, the St. Petersburg setting for the ballet was a facade, since the story was drawn from the commedia dell’arte—a lovers’ triangle with Pierrot the sad hero represented by Petrouchka, his rival Harlequin by the Moor, and Columbine by the Ballerina.

This commedia dell’arte theme, which Benois found so enchanting, was also popular with turn-of-the-century Russian Symbolist poets, who gave it a mystical, mysterious significance.10 AI’shvang interpreted the story of Petrouchka in Symbolist terms: two worlds—one everyday and real, the other hidden but more true—clashed when the Charlatan brought the puppets to life. The music depicted these contrasting or clashing worlds by means of different themes: the everyday world expressed like a lively musical folk-print (lubok)(the first two parts of scene i, the Moor and the Ballerina in scene iii, and the fair of scene iv), and the world outside reality (scene ii, the quarrel between Petrouchka and the Moor at the end of scene iii, and Petrouchka’s death in scene iv). Beyond the commedia dell’ arte symbolism, Arshvang saw Petrouchka as a reflection of the social reality of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Whether or not Stravinsky and Benois realized it, they depicted a world of individuals isolated from society and in conflict with it, yet powerless to play an active part in changing it. In short, the two artists, consciously or unconsciously, described their native Russia.

As to sources, Stravinsky would have known Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko, with its carnival scene in Act IV. Stravinsky, however, used popular tunes and street songs, in contrast to the folk songs and epic songs (byliny) of Sadko; Petrouchka was more abstract, emphasized things rather than people, and lacked regular harmonic movement. Serov’s Vrazh’ia sila, with its carnival, was in Al’shvang’s opinion an even more likely source of inspiration, particularly as Stravinsky’s father, a famous bass at the Imperial Maryinsky Theater, had sung in this opera. Al’shvang considered that Stravinsky’s style in Petrouchka was “Impressionist,” in the sense of considering things subjectively—as sensations—and in the sense of emphasizing a love of disparate, jumbled things. In his music Stravinsky expressed “an idea of life amidst a veritable curio cabinet of things.”

As a supplement to Al’shvang’s interpretations, it is interesting to note Benois’ explanation of the commedia dell’arte theme and of the St. Petersburg setting in Petrouchka. In his writings Benois described his childhood experiences at the Butter Week fair in St. Petersburg. While the Russian carnival had much in common with those in the rest of Europe, “The whole atmosphere was different; the gaiety more intense, the revelry more spontaneous and wholehearted.”

There was much that I loved at the Balagani [the covered stages at the fair, or the fair itself] in my childhood, but there were many things of which I was afraid. I was frightened .. . by the noise — menacing, almost, rather than gay. . . . I was frightened, too, by the enormous swing-boats. . . . There seemed to be a foreboding of evil in the strong smell of cooking pancakes and “Berlin” doughnuts, as it mixed with the rising vapours of vodka. But most of all I was afraid of the huge wooden buildings, decorated with gaily-coloured pictures, which served as enclosures for the various entertainments.11

Benois wrote at length of the covered stages on which plays were performed (balagany), and of the Harlequinades which were his special favorite. From his first acquaintance with commedia dell’arte performances on the balagany at the Butter Week fair, he “fell completely in love . . . . The charming Harlequin whom I first saw in 1874 . . . , I accepted wholeheartedly as a kind of deity—having completely lost to him both my curly head and beating little heart. . . . I consider it to have been a most wonderful beginning to my artistic life, a beginning which had the greatest significance for the whole of my existence.”12

If he was not writing after the fact, many elements of Petrouchka were drawn from Benois’ memoirs—the Russian carnival, the Harlequinade, the mysterious and rather frightening atmosphere. And Petrouchka himself, the Russian Punch, was also a childhood love of Benois, who had seen performances of travelling puppeteers. Benois’ writings show his fascination with still other things which appear in Petrouchka—ballets about inanimate figures coming to life, and ballets about the clash between real and unreal worlds. These themes would have been familiar to him from such ballets as Coppelia and Giselle, and they were utilized in his earliest ballet Pavillon d’Armide, begun in 1900–1901 but not produced until 1907.In its final version Le Pavillon d’Armide was a short ballet about the magical coming-to-life of figures on Gobelin tapestries and the fatal effect of contact with this fantasy world upon the hero. First performed at the Maryinsky Theater on November 25, 1907, the ballet was later included in the opening night program of the first Paris season of Diaghilev’s company.

Thus the story of Petrouchka was not very different in its essentials from Benois’ own earlier ballet—figures come to life, and real and fantastic worlds clash.The specific setting and the commedia dell’arte theme were ascribed by Benois to tastes developed in childhood, although the details of the fair setting were probably based on paintings of the Butter Week fair by K. Makovsky, a 19th-century Russian painter much admired by Benois. Benois based the costumes on careful study of 1830s fashions, and the Ballerina’s dress was copied from a Gardner china statuette. The general lines of the story may have been suggested by Gogol’s “The Overcoat”: like Gogol’s poor government clerk, Petrouchka suffers injustices in life but returns after death to threaten his tormentor. Another Gogol story, “The Portrait,” may have inspired the decoration of Petrouchka’s cell with a portrait of the Charlatan; in both instances the exotic figure in the portrait wields an evil, supernatural power over the powerless victims.

The one glaring disparity between the evidence gleaned from Benois’ and Al’Shvang’s interpretation of Petrouchka is the apparent absence in Benois’ writings of a connection between the commedia dell’arte and Russian Symbolism. Although he must have encountered such imagery in numerous aspects of Russian intellectual life, Benois makes virtually nothing of it. He refers to his fondness for the Harlequinade and mentions a dramatic performance of Petrouchka with which he had been associated a year before his work on Stravinsky’s ballet. In 1905 and 1906, Benois had also done paintings with commedia dell’arte themes, probably as part of his “Versailles” series, executed during a stay in Paris. But he did not, as far as I know, associate his contributions to Petrouchka with Russian Symbolism. Indeed, Benois generally asserted his non-Russianness and the Western orientation of his circle. Perhaps his long residence in Paris (1896–1899, 1905–1907) was responsible for his ignoring the Russian intellectual context. At any rate, what was so obvious to Al’shvang was not obvious—or else not worthing mentioning—for Benois.

Of course, objectively, Benois’ tastes as well as his artistic productions were quite at home in the St. Petersburg Symbolist milieu. Not only the commedia dell’arte story and a sense of mystery and unreality,but also a particular nostalgia for the 1830s, the style in which Benois designed the ballet’s settings and costumes, were all shared by the St. Petersburg Symbolists. Actually, Benois knew and liked many Symbolist writers and poets, and while it is probably incorrect to describe Benois’ and Diaghilev’s group as Symbolist in toto, there seems no doubt that they had a foot in the Symbolist camp.

Diaghilev, too, must be given a certain amount of credit for Petrouchka. Nijinsky often danced roles that were not the typical ballet hero, and Petrouchka’s bizarre, frustrated passion for the Ballerina might have been suggested as much by Diaghilev’s taste as by Nijinsky’s talents. At the very least, he must have encouraged the use of the Russian atmosphere to please the European audiences who had received so enthusiastically “the Russian Savages, the Scythians.”13 It was not only, or not specifically, the superior quality of Russian ballet which was appreciated in the West. The four ballets which won most acclaim in the West during the first two seasons were exotic in subject and dealt with Egyptians, barbaric nomads, a Persian harem and a Russian fairy tale. The most successful ballets of the first season in 1909 were Cléopatre and the Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor; the other ballets presented were Le Pavillon d’Armide, Le Festin and Les Sylphides. The successes of the second season were Schéhérazade and L’Oiseau de Feu, while the program included also Le Carnaval, Giselle and Les Orientates.

On the other hand, most of the remaining ballets were more familiar to Western audiences, in style if not in theme, and most of these ballets were more representative of the image which Benois and Diaghilev hoped to carry to the West—the image of Russian aristocratic culture. Giselle, which Benois had urged Diaghilev to include in the 1910 season against the latter’s better judgment, was not well received in Paris, although the ballet was considered a classic in St. Petersburg. Diaghilev’s production, mounted with great care, starred Karsavina and Nijinsky, with new sets and costumes by Benois. The intention had been to present Paris with a vision of French Romantic ballet as it no longer existed in France, but the French were rather bored. Apparently the tastes of Russian balletomanes were more refined than those of the West, for it was the exotic, shocking, spectacular or unfamiliar ballets which filled the theaters of Paris, London and Berlin.

Being probably more interested in attracting large audiences than in insisting upon his own ideas about Russia and Russian art, Diaghilev must have wanted Petrouchka to be designed to cater to the crowd—thus the dramatic story of love and death, the colorful fair setting with its show booths and real carousel, the Russian music and dances, the mysterious Charlatan and the exotic Moor, Petrouchka’s duel with his rival and his violent death (this last perhaps inspired by, and capitalizing on, Nijinsky’s sensational death scene in Schéhérazade, already so wildly received by European audiences). The native Russian flavor of Petrouchka was then probably a commercial spice added to a ballet which had been shaped by the more conventional tastes—cultivated, snobbish, rather decadent—of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg esthetes, artists and critics.

But was the ballet Russian in name only? The Russian Petrouchka, it is true, was quite different—a bawdy puppet whose comic escapades delighted audiences at fairs and other forms of popular entertainment. Petrouchka has been compared to the English Punch and ultimately to the Italian Pulcinella, one of the commedia dell’ arte characters which are thought to have spread throughout Europe at the end of the 16th century. There were, however, native troupes of players in Russia as early as the 11th century—the skomorokhi or clowns, the delight of the public and the bane of the church. In the Middle Ages, skomorokhi—as masked actors, musicians, acrobats, dancers, both male and female—were professional entertainers at princely courts and popular festivals. They presented puppet shows, which, by the 17th century, included stories of Petrouchka that were partly Russian and partly commedia dell’ arte in origin. But in the 17th century the skomorokhi were banned by government edict and exiled to the Russian North; thenceforth their activities were limited to puppet shows, trained bear performances and similar amusements at fairs and other festivities.14

Skomorokhi are portrayed on Russian silver bracelets of the 12th and 13th centuries and in 14th-century Russian manuscripts.15 As Russian scholars have noted, figures similar to these Russian examples occur on objects of art from the Byzantine world and from Iran at least as early as the 11th century. In Russia their long-sleeved costumes seem to have been worn only by women, whereas elsewhere they could be worn by men as well. Similar long-sleeved costumes were also worn by commedia dell’ arte characters like Pulcinella. Were the skomorokhi and other troupes of medieval players perhaps the ancestors of the commedia dell’ arte itself? Was the Russian Petrouchka really more responsible for the commedia dell’ arte Petrouchka of the ballet than the latter’s creators realized?

The scenes on the medieval silver bracelets have been interpreted as representations of actors in seasonal festivals whose partly pagan rites ensured fertility, the rebirth of plant and animal life, and a plentiful supply of water. These rites, and the characters participating in them, recall, in turn, Russian and South Slavic epics about heroes slaying dragons which guard water.16 The dragon is sometimes replaced by an anthropomorphic villain, often with monstrous traits, who in South Slavic folklore is named Arapin and described as black. The story is furtherelaborated by the addition of a beautiful girl over whom hero and villain fight; the villain hurls a knife or dagger but cannot harm the hero, who triumphs over the monster and saves the girl. Is some such tale suggested on Russian bracelets which depict a male figure with sword and a female dancer, or a male figure with spear? Were the Petrouchka puppet shows rooted in such folklore which the skomorokhi might have performed in Russia in the Middle Ages at seasonal festivals?

These ideas may amount to conjecture, yet there is a rather amazing coincidence between the ballet Petrouchka, medieval Russian epics, and the characters of the commedia dell’ arte itself. Perhaps this is to be explained by the introduction of commedia dell’arte players into Russia late in the 16th century, and the subsequent absorption of this foreign drama into the native Russian folk theater. Perhaps, however, there is a still older connection, if the commedia dell’arte characters were themselves to some extent descendants of medieval performers like the skomorokhi.

The revival of the past was so much a characteristic of pre-Revolutionary Russian artistic endeavor that it is tempting to think that Petrouchka was deliberately linked with a Russian epic hero as well as with Pulcinella. It is also very probable that Benois and his colleagues were familiar with the history of the theater from the Middle Ages on, and they could scarcely have avoided thinking about the origins of Petrouchka in the distant Slavic past.

As far as is known, none of the artists responsible for Petrouchka made any explicit connections between Russian folk theater and the commedia dell’arte. And, taking Benois at his word, scholars like Al’shvang have seen Petrouchka as non-Russian and Western in theme (along St. Petersburg lines). Furthermore, only a few medieval touches in the ballet’s designs suggest an association with the epic hero motif in medieval Russian art. Petrouchka’s cell in scene ii is decorated with a portrait of the Charlatan, a frontally posed, bearded head done in the manner of an icon of a saint. A fire-breathing dragon not unlike the dragons on icons of St. George (a Christian version of the Slavic epic hero) decorates a drop curtain, and another winds around a variant of the Charlatan’s costume. In a later version of Benois’ designs for the ballet, the walls of the Moor’s room in scene iii are covered with palm trees and snakes, although in the original setting rabbits rather than snakes appeared.

Now even if not part of the original production, the choice of snakes as a proper setting for the Moor, together with the other elements noted above, may indicate that Benois did mean to suggest a medieval flavor, and, as the Middle Ages were not his strong point, a hint would have satisfied him. At any rate, deliberate or not, there is an iconographic and literary link between the Moor—Arap in Russian—and snakes: for Arapin and other black villains of Slavic epics were interchangeable with dragons or snakes. As in the epics, the Moor and Petrouchka quarreled over a woman and the Moor slew Petrouchka with a sword, the villain’s weapon in Slavic folklore.

Yet in a sense it would be still more appropriate that Petrouchka should have summarized Russian culture without conscious intent on the part of its creators, that frivolous representatives of a frivolous age should have touched a deep chord of truth. Petrouchka was the story of pre-Revolutionary Russia in microcosm and the tragic heroes would be not only puppet clowns but also the dilettantes and sophisticates whose world would soon be swept away forever. Diaghilev, in a speech given in Moscow after the opening of his exhibition of Russian portraits early in 1905, had spoken of the end of the period in history summarized by the paintings which he had gathered together:

We are witnesses of a supreme historical moment of reckoning and of terminations in the name of a new, unknown culture which will originate with us but which will sweep us aside. Therefore, without fear and skepticism, I raise my glass to the demolished walls of the beautiful palaces as well as to the new precepts of the new aesthetics. And the only wish that I, as an incurable sensualist, can make is that the forthcoming struggle should not outrage the aesthetics of life and that death should be as beautiful and radiant as the Resurrection!17

Diaghilev was of course speaking in the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” January 22, 1905, and the concomitant widespread unrest in Russia. He was speaking as well of the beginning of a new period of his career; henceforth he was to work outside Russia where he would create a Russian culture for foreign consumption. At the same time, he spoke as a member of the upper classes, scarcely the kind of prophet to be credited with serious insight into his country’s fate, although he was to be proved true. He spoke, finally, as a Russian intelligent of his time, and predicted the apocalypse which was an old and frequent theme in Russian thought. Diaghilev paraphrased ideas which Herzen had expressed in 1864 to describe the new generation of political thinkers:

You shall be destroyed in the abyss . . . and upon your grave . . . there will look on, facing each other: from above a bodyguard the Emperor dressed in all his powers and all the self-willed arrogance in the world, and from below the boiling, ferocious ocean of the people in which you shall vanish without a trace.18

Herzen here criticized the Russian intelligentsia who unknowingly would bring into being a democracy that would destroy them. Diaghilev saw himself as a member of that class who would, while summing up the dead Russian past, create a new culture which would in turn sweep away its creators.

In the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, and within the traditions of St. Petersburg culture which itself was a creation imposed wholesale upon Russia, Diaghilev’s speech is quite understandable. Yet does not a similar thread run through Petrouchka? A conjurer brings to life—revitalizes—the past, in the form of puppet figures from Russian folklore, just as Diaghilev had summed up the dead Russian past for his exhibition and would sum up Russian art for the West. In a final transformation of the medieval epics, the hero, instead of rescuing the princess, loses her to the former villain who then kills the hero. The Charlatan shows the startled bystanders that this was no real drama, that the figures are empty puppets, yet when he begins to revive the clown, Petrouchka appears as a living entity outside the drama and threatens the Charlatan. “Don’t bring us back to life again,” Petrouchka seems to say. “We may be empty puppets created by you, but don’t bring us back to life.” The Charlatan who would revive the past, who would bring it back to life, is now the last villain, and the defeated hero triumphs over him at the end. In the same way, the aristocratic culture imposed upon Russia like a puppet show would be destroyed by the puppets on whom it had been imposed; the past would not be revived forever by those who pulled the strings.

As a summing-up of Russian history and thought, the story of Petrouchka was as prophetic as Diaghilev’s toast. The creators of Petrouchka expressed in the ballet ideas that inevitably reflected their time, as Al’shvang pointed out; what was true of the ballet was true of Russian society. Both were an animation of the past, whose actors were puppets magically brought to life by a powerful master; in both the puppet hero would put an end to the tragic cycle by confronting his creator and forcing him to flee. Soon the fantastic drama of pre-Revolutionary Russia would give its closing performance. When the puppets no longer accepted the empty roles imposed on them, they would sweep away the apparatus that had transformed them from heroes to puppet victims. If in Petrouchka puppets could not be human beings, neither could the Charlatan withstand a puppet who rebelled against his lot. The Charlatan’s creation, or the fact that he had created it, would in the end destroy him.

Ann Farkas

A number of memoirs and biographies of people involved in Diaghilev’s Ballets russes were useful for this article. Two books by Alexandre Benois. Diaghilev’s friend and artistic associate, are Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet_, London, 1945, and Memoirs, 2 vols., London, 1960. 1964. S.L. Grigoriev, the régisseur of the Ballets russes. also wrote a helpful memoir, The Diaghilev Ballet 1909–1929, Harmondsworth, 1960, as did Michel Fokine, Diaghilev’s choreagrapher, Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master, ed. by Anatole Chujoy, Boston, 1961. Other useful works include Igor Stravinsky, Chronicle of My Life, London. 1936: A.L. Haskell, Diaghileff: His Artistic and Private Life, New York, 1935; R. Buckle, Nijinsky, London, 1971: F. Reiss, Nijinsky: A Biography, London. 1960.

On the arts of the period, much background material may be found in A. D. Alekseev et al., eds., Russkaia khudozhestvennaia kul’tura kontsa xix-nachala xx veka (1895–1907), kniga pervaia: Zrelishchnye iskusstva, muzyka, kniga vtoraia: Izobrazitelnoe iskusstvo . . . , Moscow, 1968 and 1969: I. E. Grabar, V.N. Lazarev et al., eds., Istoriia russkogo iskusstva, X, 1 & 2, Moscow, 1968 and 1969 For recent bibliography, John E. Bowlt, “Russian and Soviet Painting,” catalogue of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1977.

A recent general study of the Russian ballet is N. Roslavleva’s Era of the Russian Ballet, London, 1966. For criticism of the Ballets russes in England and the United States, N. Macdonald, Diaghilev Observed, New York, 1975. For French criticism, Comoedia illustré of appropriate years. Much material on the Ballets russes is in the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.

There are innumerable publications on various aspects of the ballet Petrouchka. For the story, Cyril W. Beaumont, Complete Book of Ballets, rev. ed., London, 1951. On Stravinsky and the ballet, I. Stravinsky, Petrouchka, Burlesque in Four Scenes . . . , New York, 1948; I. Stravinsky, Petrushka, ed. by C. Hamm, New York. 1967; Igor Glebov (Boris Vladimirovich Asafev), Kniga o Stravinskom, Leningrad. 1929, pp. 31–41. I. la. Vershinina, Rann’e balety Stravinskogo, Moscow, 1967. Mark Etkind, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Benua, 1870–1960, Leningrad and Moscow, 1965, is a rich source of information about Benois and Petrouchka; Etkind also lists designs for the ballet in Russian museums. For other designs for Petrouchka, R. Buckle, In Search of Diaghilev, New York, 1956: Prince Peter Lieven, The Birth of Ballets-Russes, Boston and New York, 1936; The Serge Lifar Collection of Ballet Set and Costume Designs, Hartford, 1965: V. Svétlow, Le Ballet contemporain, n. p., 1912. There is much material in the archives of the State Central Theater Museum named A. A. Bakhrushin, Moscow._

I would like to thank Dr. Barbara Krader for discussing with me many aspects of this article when it was originally formulated during the summer of 1971.



1. Ezhegodnik’ imperatorskikh’ teatrov’, pre-Revolutionary years.

2. Benois, Reminiscences, pp. 299–300.

3. Benois, Rech’ (St. Petersburg). June 19, 1909, p. 2.

4. Stravinsky, pp. 57–58.

5. Stravinsky, pp 61–62. But Stravinsky criticized Fokine for not providing choreography for the crowd movements.

6 Benois, Reminiscences, p. 324.

7. Benois, Reminiscences, p. 333.

8. p. 183. Probably in response to Stravinsky, Fokine criticized the music’s difficult rhythms and explained why he did not provide choreography for the crowd movements (pp. 188–191).

9. A. Al’shvang, “Balet ‘Petrushka’ Stravinskogo,” in A. Ar’shvang: Izbrannye sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, ed. by G.B. Bernandt et al., I, Moscow, 1964, pp. 300–409. For other Soviet interpretations of Petrouchka, V. Krasovskaia, Russkii baletnyi teatr nachala XX veka, I: khoreography, Leningrad, 1971, pp. 408–410, and Petrushka: Balet muzyka Igoria Stravinskogo, Moscow, 1930.

10. Other possible sources were dramas or ballets on commedia dell’arte themes. Meierhol’d alone directed a number of such plays, like Blok’s Balaganchik (1906), Petrushka by Potemkin (1908), for which see V.E. Meierhol’d, O teatr’, St. Petersburg, 1913, pp. 117–182.

11 Benois, Reminiscences, p. 28.

12. Benois, Reminiscences, pp. 30–31.

13. Benois, Reminiscences, p. 284.

14. V.P. Darkevich and A. L. Mongait, “Staroriazanskii klad 1966 goda,” Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 2, 1967, pp. 218-222. A.S. Famintsyn, Skomorokhi na Rusi, St. Petersburg, 1889. "Skomorosh’e delo na Rusi,- in N. Findeizen, Ocherki po istorii muzyki v Rossii c drevneishikh vremen do kontsa XVIII veka, vol. I, vyp. II, Moscow and Leningrad, 1928, pp. 145-170. V.N. Vsevolodskii-Gerngross, Russkaia ustnaia narodnaia drama, Moscow, 1959, pp. 115–129.

15. B A Rybakov. “Rusal’i i bog Simargl-Pereplut,” Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 2, 1967, pp. 96–111. Darkevich and Mongait, pp. 213-215. V. Stasov, Slavianskii i vostochnyi ornament’ po rukopisiami drevniago i nova go vremeni, St. Petersburg, 1887, pls. LXVII, 2, LXVIII, 1–4. 11, 19, 21. LXIX, 1–12, LXXXIX, 38–39, XC, 8, 13.

16. N. Putilov, “Russian and South Slavic Epic Songs about Contests with Serpents,” Soviet Anthropology and Archeology, VIII/1, 1969, pp. 43–69, and VIII/2, 1969, pp. 168–184.

17. S. Diaghilev, “V chas itogov,” Vesy, 1905, p. 4, 46.

18. A. Herzen, Kolokol (London & Geneva), No. 187, July 15, 1864, p. 1534.