Yury Lyubimov, 1917-2014

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By the time American Theater magazine asked me to write about Yury Lyubimov following his death, I had written so much I was going to have trouble pulling anything new out of the hat. So I resorted to something I did only rarely – I cobbled together a new piece out of two others I had written for The Moscow Times and NITEnews, adding in a few new things as the opportunities arose. The photo above ran with the piece in AT. The original web publication can be accessed here

American Theater magazine
Fall 2014

By John Freedman

Yury Lyubimov, Russian director of 117 productions, the founder of the world-renowned Taganka Theater, died in his sleep October 5, 2014, in Moscow. 

Lyubimov was born September 30, 1917, a week before the Russian Revolution began. He died five days after his 97th birthday. Early on he was a successful actor, playing key leads at the Vakhtangov Theater, including Cyrano, Romeo, Treplev and Mozart (Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri). But he took his first steps toward greatness in 1964, when, at age 46, he was named artistic director of the moribund Theater of Comedy and Drama on Taganka Square. He reinvented it as the Taganka Theater, bringing along a whole course of young actors who had studied under him at the Vakhtangov Theater’s Shchukin Institute. 

Two hands won’t count Lyubimov’s productions that changed Russian theater history. An abbreviated list surely begins with the first, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan (1964) and might continue with John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1965), Listen! (1967) after the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1971), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1976), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1979), Yury Trifonov’s The House on the Embankment (1980), and Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (1982, revived in 1988).

Lyubimov’s team gained legendary status almost immediately. His lead actor Vladimir Vysotsky, was not only a performer of great power, he was a great singer and songwriter whose songs Lyubimov incorporated into his work. Other Taganka actors gaining national fame were Alla Demidova, Zinaida Slavina, Veniamin Smekhov, Felix Antipov, Alexander Trofimov and Valery Zolotukhin. Lyubimov’s designer David Borovsky (1934-2006) was one of the greatest of the age. Borovsky created the famous ragged curtain that swept across the stage in Hamlet, a metaphor for history sweeping people away. 

Lyubimov’s productions spoke truths that spellbound audiences could not hear publicly anywhere else. Influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theatricality and radical politics, Lyubimov transformed the Taganka into what many called the “conscience of the Soviet Union.” Arthur Miller said the Taganka “renewed his faith” in theater.

Taganka actors stepped to the edge of the stage, looked spectators in the eyes, and pronounced their lines in a personal, though declarative way. This gave otherwise innocuous phrases the power of sedition. It shattered the “fourth wall” and encouraged audiences to become accomplices in the sometimes risky business of Lyubimov’s shows.

The brash style and challenging content of Lyubimov’s productions caused frequent problems with Soviet authorities. Alive (1968) and Vladimir Vysotsky (1981) were banned. Several shows were subjected to withering criticism before opening. Eventually, the authorities tired of Lyubimov’s fierce independence. Following his production of Crime and Punishment at London’s Lyric Hammersmith in 1983, one Soviet official famously said Lyubimov had “committed his crime” and it was now time to come home “for his punishment.” 

With the death of Soviet General Secretary of the Communist Party Yury Andropov in February 1984, Lyubimov lost a closet defender. Andropov, head of the KGB from 1967 to 1982, had maintained a long acquaintanceship with the director. Within a month of Andropov’s death Lyubimov was fired from the Taganka and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. 

For four years Lyubimov worked all over the world, frequently staging operas in Italy – he staged four at La Scala – but also working in Paris, London, Stuttgart, Vienna and, in the United States, in Washington, D.C. at Arena Stage (Crime and Punishment), and in Chicago at Lyric Opera (Lulu). Both U.S. shows, mounted in 1987, were critical and commercial hits. 

Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika policy, Lyubimov returned to Moscow in the 1988/1989 season. Over the next two decades he staged 30 productions at the Taganka alone. Some critics suggested he had lost something since the great early decades. Others, perhaps more insightfully, saw him spiritually grow younger and more ironic in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1997), Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (2000), and Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (2007). Still, the period following Lyubimov’s return was marked by almost constant strife among the company. In 1993 the Taganka split in two, the breakaway venue calling itself the Commonwealth of Taganka Actors. A rancorous conflict between Lyubimov and his actors in 2011 caused the director to leave the Taganka and never return. 

Yury Lyubimov was a man of contrasts, great instincts, tremendous insight and prodigious talent. He was a walking theater in and of himself. He turned the simplest of human exchanges into theatrical performances. He loved a controversy; he never feared a scandal. To him it was all theater, something to be played, something to be given form and enhanced meaning. 

Memorial services were held October 8 at the Vakhtangov Theater, where Lyubimov staged his first production in 1959, Alexander Galich’s Does a Man Need Much, and his last dramatic production, Dostoevsky’s The Devils, in 2012.

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