Andrei Goncharov in MERSH


This one about director Andrei Goncharov for the Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History was an eye-opener. I arrived in Moscow (1988) at the end of Goncharov’s career. He was not doing his best work anymore. In fact, it was worse than that. As such, I never really understood why so many spoke with such reverence about him. I chalked it up to de gustibus non est disputandum and left it at that. But then the opportunity to write this small piece for MERSH came along and I decided to do it. And, in doing the research, I was fascinated to come to the realization that much of I knew about Goncharov from my own experience was wrong – or, at least, deeply inadequate. One thing that did remain was Goncharov’s place in the tradition of the Russian “tyrant director.” It’s a fascinating topic that says much about Russian theater and society, but doesn’t get much attention. 

Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History
By John Freedman

GONCHAROV, ANDREI ALEKSANDROVICH (1918-2001). Director whose strong hand and total commitment to his art made him one of the quintessential autocrats of Russian theater in the second half of the twentieth century. 

Goncharov was born in the village of Sinitsa in Moscow province. His father Aleksandr Ivanovich Goncharov graduated from the Moscow Conservatory after studying piano with Sergei Ivanovich Taneev (1856-1915). His mother Liudmila Rudolfovna Goncharova was an actress. Goncharov graduated from the State Institute of Theater Arts (GITIS) in 1941 and volunteered for the Red Army when World War II began. He commanded an equestrian intelligence battalion until 1942 when he was seriously wounded. He subsequently was appointed chief director of a traveling military theater that entertained troops at the front. From 1944 to 1949 he was staff director at Moscow’s Satire Theater where he mounted his first professional production, Belugin’s Wedding (Zhenitba Belugina, 1945) by Aleksander Ostrovsky and Nikolai Soloviev. From 1949 to 1954 he was staff director at the Ermolova Theater under his former teacher Andrei Mikhailovich Lobanov (1900-1959) and ran the Film Actors (Kinoaktera) Theater from 1954 to 1956. In 1959 he was hired as chief director at the small Moscow Theater of Drama (known as the Theater on Malaia Bronnaia after it moved to a new location in 1962), building it into a popular venue before leaving in 1965. He was chosen chief director at the Maiakovsky Theater in 1967 and remained there until his death, assuming the responsibilities of artistic director in 1987. Here he staged forty-one of the sixty-five productions he directed during his career. 

Goncharov staged numerous plays by the Soviet playwrights Aleksei Nikolaevich Arbuzov (1908-1986), Aleksandr Arkadievich Galich (1919-1977), Afanasy Dmitrievich Salynsky (1920-1993), Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich (1932- ), Eduard Stanislavovich Radzinsky (1936- ), Yuly Filippovich Edlis (1929- ) and Genrikh Averianovich Borovik (1929- ), but some of his most memorable productions were of foreign writers. His interpretations of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1959) and Friederich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1965) were among the first of these authors in the Soviet Union. He had a special affinity for Mikhail Bulgakov’s Flight (Beg), a play he staged four times – in 1967 at the Ermolova Theater, 1976 in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, 1977 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and 1978 at the Maiakovsky. He staged Sergei Naidionov’s early twentieth-century family drama Vaniushin’s Children (Deti Vaniushina) three times – in 1969 and 2000 at the Maiakovsky, and 1974 in Ljubljana. 

He reached the peak of his powers between 1970 and 1985, staging many of the most important productions in Russia. These included two productions of Tennessee Williams that were definitive for Russian theater (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1970, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1981), and two searing productions of intellectual dramas by Radzinsky (Conversations with Socrates [Besedy s Sokratom], 1975, and Theater in the Time of Nero and Seneca [Teatr vremen Nerona i Seneki], 1985). He famously softened the finale of Streetcar by having Mitch carry Blanche up the stairs rather than surrender her to the orderlies from the insane asylum. His production of The Man of La Mancha (1972) was the first full-scale musical on the Russian stage, while his handling of Maksim Gorky’s The Life of Klim Samgin (Zhizn Klima Samgina, 1981) was famous for its epic qualities and multilayered psychology. One of his greatest creations was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Ledi Makbet mtsenskogo uezda, 1979) after the story by Nikolai Leskov. In it he revealed fully his view of the contradictory Russian personality, with its tremendous capacity for love, compassion and cruelty. Unlike directors at other popular venues of the era such as the Taganka Theater and the Sovremennik, Goncharov typically focused on the human element rather than on social pathos. He rarely clashed with the Soviet authorities, but even more rarely allowed them to exploit him.

Goncharov was renowned as an authoritarian, a dictator as a director who was more apt to berate his actors impatiently in rehearsal than to coax them on. This was due in part to his training under Lobanov, whose students numbered several domineering directors, including Georgy Aleksandrovich Tovstonogov (1913-1989) and Mark Anatolievich Zakharov (1933- ). It was also due to his own intense temperament, which freely informed his bold, colorful, rough-cut productions, that they occasionally were characterized as Rabelaisian. Thanks to his talent and impeccable craftsmanship, Goncharov paradoxically commanded respect even among those who carried a grudge against him. He collected a troupe of stars including, at various times, Evgeny Pavlovich Leonov (1926-1994), Tatiana Vasilievna Doronina (1933- ), Armen Borisovich Dzhigarkhanian (1935- ), Aleksandr Sergeevich Lazarev (1938- ), Svetlana Vladimirovna Nemoliaeva (1937- ), Natalia Georgievna Gundareva (1948-2005), and many more. In the early 1990s he encouraged the celebrated actress Olga Mikhailovna Yakovleva (1941- ) to return to work in Russia after she spent several years in self-imposed exile in France following the death of her favorite director Anatoly Vasilievich Efros (1925-1987). Goncharov supported talented young directors more readily than other acknowledged dictators among the directors, who were mindful of the competition. At one time or another in the beginning of their careers, he hired, among others, Zakharov, Kama Mironovich Ginkas (1941- ), Genrietta Naumovna Yanovskaia (1940- ), Boris Afanasievich Morozov (1944- ) and Sergei Nikolaevich Artsibashev (1951- ), who succeeded him as artistic director at the Maiakovsky Theater when he died. He taught at GITIS from 1945 until 2001 and counted among his graduates two of Europe’s best directors at the end of the 20th century, Petr Naumovich Fomenko (1932- ) and the Lithuanian Eimuntas Nekrosius (1952- ). 

Works: Poiski vyrazitel’nosti v spektakle (M., 1959), Rezhisserskie tetradi (M., 1980), and Moi teatral’nye pristrastiia, 2 vols. (M., 1998).

References: Viktor Dubrovskii and Tamara Braslavskaia, comps., Ves’ teatr za 75 let (M. 1999), an encyclopedia of actors and directors at the Maiakovsky Theater, including many who worked with Goncharov, Neistovyi Andrei Goncharov (M., 2003), a collection of reminiscences about Goncharov, Teatr im. Maiakovskogo. 80 let. Spektakli (M. 2004), an encyclopedia of productions at the Maiakovsky Theater, including most by Goncharov.


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