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Asja Lacis on proletarian children’s theatre

(translation from ‘Revolutionary by Profession’)

Orel 1918/19. Proletarian children’s theatre – Programme for an aesthetico-political education.

As I finished the last exam in the studio, the Winter Palace in Petrograd was stormed, the red forces were there. From Petrograd the revolution sprung forth to Moscow. Scattered groups of country squires for several days. The studio continued to function. When I went home in the evenings, bullets whistled over my head. The revolution transformed relations between men, the conception of work, it opened up entirely new perspectives. In the studio hostile groups formed, one demanding a total change in the repertoire and teaching plans. A greater part of the teachers of the Latvian refugee school were convinced that the power of the soviets would not last long. But the left-wing writers, teachers and students “sniffed the morning air”.

From the first call of “to all! To all!”, signed by Lenin, put up on the sides of houses, I was completely for the power of the soviets. I wanted to be a good soldier of the revolution, and transform my life under its leadership, and life changed all around – the theatre went out on the street and the street into the theatre. The 'October Theatre’ had broken out.

The changing tempo in the theatres was different – some remained skeptical and hesitant for a long time. Doctor Dappertutto from St Petersburg, the tireless experimenter, was one of the first in the theatre scene to take a position for the power of the soviets. He looked to make contact with the workers in the factories, with the soldiers of the Red Army, with the Komsomol [youth clubs] – and organised a general theatre circle. He wore the uniform of the Red Army. His Petrograd production of “The Storming of the Winter Palace” provided a model for mass productions in the open air, with a thousand participants and an audience of ten thousand. His revolutionary productions - “Mysterium Buffo”, “The Earth In Turmoil”, “Trust D. E.”1, and others – led the way in early experiments (elevation of the ramp, free use of theatre machinery, speaking to the public, 'thingly’ decoration style) and brought important innovations (direct, partisan publicity, sociological characterisation, the open method of dramaturgy, the constructed stage, etc.). He was well known as the leader of the October Theatre. My directing and critical activities in Orel, Riga, Moscow, Kazakhstan and Walmiera all owed a great debt to Meyerhold. Today I see clearly how much power there was contained in his 'thingly theatre’ and in his philosophy of arrangements, and with what inexhaustible fantasies he managed the theatrical means of expression.

In 1918 I came to Orel. I should have worked as a director in the Orel city theatre, as a trail blazer. Things turned out differently.

In the streets of Orel, in the market place, in the cemetery, in cellars, in destroyed houses, I saw gatherings of neglected children: the Besprisorniki [the Unattended]. There were boys with black faces which hadn’t been washed for a month, coats in rags from which the cotton threads hung, wide long cotton trousers held together with one string, throwing sticks and iron bars. They always went around in groups, had a little leader, stealing, robbing, beating. In brief, they were gangs of thieves – victims of the world war and the bourgeois war. The Soviet regime sought to settle these stray children in educational houses and workshops. But they always broke out.

The war orphans were housed in state homes. I visited them. These children had something to eat, had clean clothes, had a roof over their heads, but they looked like old people: tired, sad eyes, nothing interested them. Children without childhood… Confronted by this, one cannot remain indifferent, I have to do something, and I understood that little childrens’ songs and dances would not suffice. In order to banish their lethargy, a purpose was needed, something for them to totally seize hold of, able to release their traumatised abilities. I wished to put such tremendous power into the theatre. I lived in a beautiful aristocratic house where, so people said, the hero of Turgenev’s 'Nest of Gentry’ should have lived. The room had a huge Gothic style window, through which one could see the huge old acacia trees all the way to the flood plain. It was as if these rooms were made for the a children’s theatre. I went to the head of the state people’s education facility, and developed my project [with] him. Iwan Michail Tschurin liked the plan. The rooms would be brought together – it was rebuilt as one room, and the walls freshly painted. We calculated for fifty children, and a hundred came.

At first I doubted whether one could develop and rouse the children through the plays. It would have been easy to find a suitable children’s play, hand out the parts, rehearse the children and complete a performance. This would have occupied the children for a long time, but it would hardly have helped their development. As soon as one rehearses a pre-existing theatre piece with children, one works from the start only towards one celebrated goal – the première. The children always felt the presence of a strange will, one which forced and directed them – the will of the directors. By this method I could not achieve my goal – their aesthetic education, the development of their aesthetic and moral faculties. I wanted that, through this, that the children’s eyes would be able to see better, their ears to hear more clearly, their hands to make useful things from unformed material. Therefore I broke up the work into sections. For the eyes, to develop their seeing, the children drew and painted. These sections were led by Viktor Tschestakow, who later went on to work as a stage painter with Meyerhold. A pianist taught musical education. Then there was technical training; the children built props, buildings, animals, figurines, etc. Other sections of my school model in Orel were rhythm and gymnastics, diction and improvisation. Hidden powers, let loose by the work process, faculties, became educated, which we united through Improvisation.

And so the play was made. Children played for children. This system of employment ran over into a sophisticated, collective aesthetic form. The bourgeois education was for the development of particular faculties, directed towards particular talents. It formed people as one-sided. To speak with Brecht: it wants to “use up” (verwursten) the individual and his faculties.2 Bourgeois society wants its members to produce commodities as soon as possible. This principal became clear throughout all aspects of children’s education. If, for instance, such a children’s theatre performed, then they have the results before the eyes – the production, the appearance before the public. Thereby the joy in the playing with the product itself is lost. The director stands in perpetually in the foreground, drilling the children. (An apt joke: what is a telegraph mast? An edited Christmas tree. - Quite easily the children would edit things in such a manner.)

The goal of communist education is, on the basis of a generally high level of educational achievement, to unleash productivity, through specialist as much as non-specialist abilities. My proletarian background, as much as the tutelage of Professor Bechterew in St Petersburg, pointed me towards this principle of education, and in Orel I tried to apply it in the proletarian-aesthetic education of children.

The basis for both educator and educated was for us the observation. The children supervised things, their relations with one another, and their transformation; the tutors observed the children throughout, what had been achieved, and how they could further the productive faculties. Observation was used not only in the theatre studio, but carried through into drawing, painting and music, especially also outdoors. Early in the morning and also in the evening we went with the children outside, and made them aware how the colours change in the distance, and throughout the day, how different tones and noises sound in the morning and in the evening, and how even silence can sing…

With the children who came from the state houses to the Turgenjev-house there was no difficulty. But for a long while the Unattended did not come. The first time I went to the market to speak to them and invite them along with us, they ridiculed me, threatened me with sticks and sent me to that place for which there probably isn’t a word in German. But I came back. They got accustomed to me, and to our arguments so that, if I stayed away for a long time and then returned, they crowded all around me with lots of yelling, like for an old acquaintance.

In the Turgenev-House, meanwhile, work continued. We observed that the children soon needed to materialise their fantasies and maturing faculties in objects. I was an important stage that these needs to be satisfied so that they did not become get lost in childish fantasies. We moved on to improvisation with concrete things.

I had chosen a children’s play by Meyerhold: 'Alinur’ (after the fairly tale by Oscar Wilde, “The Star Child”)3. The children didn’t know about my plan. I gave them a scene from it in their improvisation class: robbers sitting in the forest around a fire and bragging about their deeds. In the middle of one such scene, a bit later, the first Unattended came to visit our House. The children sprang up and wanted to flee from the invaders. They looked terrifying to them: paper helmets on their heads, armed with branches and bits of tin, pikes and sticks in their hands. I spoke over the children, advising them to continue with the improvisation, and not to pay any attention to the invaders. After a while Wanjka, their leader, stepped into the middle of the playing, gave a wink to his group – they pushed the children aside and began to play out the scene themselves. They bragged about murder, arson, burglary, trying to outdo each other in gruesomeness. Then they stood up and shouted at the children with complete scorn: “That’s what robbers are like!” According to all pedagogical rules I ought to have interrupted their wild, brazen talk – but I wanted to win some influence over them. In fact I won the game – the Besprisorniki came back, and were later the active voice in our children’s theatre.

The improvised games were fun adventures. They grasped a great deal, and stimulated their interests. It was undertaken seriously – editing, splicing, dancing and singing. Scripts were learnt. So arose the knight Alinur, the figure of hellish evil, who insulted his mother and terrorised the other children. Often to perform a piece we would first discuss it, as the work pushed each section towards a synthesis. From this arose the establishment of a collective action - the moral-political education in a socialist sense – and the desire for all the children in the city to see the play. They carried the animals, masks, props and decorations through the streets and sang. Big and small onlookers joined in. In the evening lots of them followed us back to the Turgenjev House.

Our method saved us. We saw the evidence that it was correct, that the teacher has to completely step back. The children thought that they had done it all themselves – had created it through play. Ideology was not imposed on them, not was it drilled in to them, they obtained it from that which corresponded to their experiences. And we, the educators, learnt and saw much that was new: how children can easily adjust themselves to situations, revealing unexpected talents and capabilities. In this manner the performances became surprising and exciting, for in these the wild fantasies of their inventions became visible.

In Berlin in 1928 I told Johannes R Becher and Gerhart Eisler about my work.4 They liked the modern of an aesthetic education for children, and proposed to found such a children’s theatre in the Liebknecht House [the party HQ]. I was to work on a programme. In Capri (in 1924) Walter Benjamin had already become acquainted with my children’s theatre and shown an extraordinary interest in it. “I will write a manifesto” he said “to lay a theoretical foundation for your practical work.” He actually did write it. But in the first version my theses were represented in an extremely complicated manner. In the Liebknecht House people read it and laughed: this is definitely something which Benjamin wrote! I gave the programme back to Benjamin, that he should write something more intelligible. So arose the “Programme for a proletarian Children’s-Theatre” in a second version (the first is not longer to be found).

1 After the novel by Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967).

2 The use of 'verwurst’ as a particularly Brechtian word is interesting. It means literally 'to make into a sausage’, figuratively to make a use of something – although the sausage meaning is apt for a Marxist, recalling Marx’s 'sausage factory’. The only place I can find Brecht using the word is in a reflection on his first play, Baal, about an anti-heroic artist:“That isn’t to say what use Baal might have put his talents to. He defends himself against being made into a sausage (ihre Verwerstung). Baal’s art of living shares the fate of all arts under capitalism: they will feud. He is antisocial, but in an antisocial society.” Brecht, Bei Durchsicht meiner ersten Stücke, 1955.

3 From Wilde’s second collection of fairy tales, A House of Pomegranates, 1891. The story is about a poor but arrogant child who learns to be more kind, after which it is then revealed that he is heir to a kingdom.

4 Becher (1891-1958), expressionist poet, member of the KPD and founder of the Association of Proletarian Revolutionary Authors. Eisler (1897-1968) was an editor of der Roten Fahne.

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