Gondla: an intro

In June 1916, the Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev (Gumilyov) arrived at a sanatorium in the Crimea for treatment of a lung disease. In the army since the start of the war (he volunteered in August 1914), Gumilev had been twice promoted and twice decorated for bravery in action. Appreciating the opportunity, he spent the prescribed month in the Crimea writing Gondla, a play in verse about an Irish bard who converts a band of Icelandic vikings to Christianity under most unusual circumstances.

Gondla was published in 1917. In 1920, a troupe of young men and women calling themselves simply “Theatrical Workshop” staged it in Rostov-on-Don. (Rostov fell to the Bolsheviks in January 1920.) The artist Yuri Annenkov was impressed and, once in Petrograd, shared his impression with Gumilev. In June 1921, Gumilev traveled to the Crimea again and made a stop in Rostov. The theatrical season was over, but the Workshop actors happily performed for Gumilev, who was delighted and promised to have them transferred to Petrograd.

The poet kept his promise. By the end of 1921, Theatrical Workshop had moved to the former imperial capital. However, Gumilev did not live to see their new productions. He was arrested in Petrograd on August 3, 1921, and executed three weeks later for his alleged role in a conspiracy to overthrow the Bolshevik government. There is no consensus on whether he played any part and whether the plot itself was not manufactured by the Cheka.

In January 1922, Theatrical Workshop performed Gondla in Petrograd. Apparently, the authorities then banned the production, as it was based on the work of an unrepentant counterrevolutionary. The troupe carried on for a few months but fell apart for want of large-scale interest; most members went on to careers in the theater.

In early 1922, Petrograd was in a terrible shape, teetering on the brink of hunger and going without heat and other comforts. In March 1922, Konstantin Vaginov wrote (in the poem The Youth) of the city as it appeared to a young man just back from the civil war:

Packs of white people are gnawing on a horse in the moonlight.

Yet there were twenty other theater enterprises active in Petrograd apart from the Rostov transplant at the beginning of 1922. Mikhail Kuzmin wrote of the Workshop’s bold move north:

Undoubtedly, risk is associated with any undertaking. To open a twenty-first theater in Petersburg, a cabaret, a restaurant, a coffee house, or merely a small grocery or bookstore – everything is risky. But not every risk has courage in it, and not all courage is glorious.

The opening of the theater on Vladimirsky is an act of most glorious and rare courage. Indeed, to move from Rostov-on-Don with the troupe, the belongings, with a strictly literary (but not popular) repertory, with stage decorations by well-known artists (Arapov, Saryan, etc.), without any tacky “hits” – to move and open the season with a Gondla: only dreamers in love with the art were capable of that. Dreamers, that is, full of energy and daring.

I meant this post as a follow-up to the previous one and to Marina Warner’s post on Alla Demidova’s reading The Poem Without a Hero. That Gondla production from 1920-22 was largely a reading too, according to Annenkov and Kuzmin, but stood out for the young actors’ mastery of declamation. Next post: Kuzmin’s view of the January 1922 performance.

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