Alexander Gershkovich (+Herbert Marshall) on Nikolai Erdman


I hadn’t seen this text in ages. It was jotted down – horrors! – 31 years ago. Its origin is this: Herbert Marshall, the American theater historian who knew Vsevolod Meyerhold, came to Harvard to give a one-off lecture. Alexander Gershkovich, who wrote a couple of books about the Taganka Theater and a book about Bulgarian theater, was there in the audience. Did I know Gershkovich already at this time? I’m not sure. Judging by the date, I doubt it. This was two years before his book on the Taganka came out in English (The Theater of Yuri Lyubimov), for which, at his request, I wrote the foreword. The way I remember Gershkovich finding me is that I published a book review of his Taganka book in Russian in a professional journal and he reached out to me after seeing that. But that doesn’t quite fit with the date here – because that review ran in Slavic Review No. 3/4 (1987), i.e., he couldn’t have seen it yet when I talked to him at Harvard. Did I then first cross paths with him at this lecture? Kinda looks like it. Most likely is that he gave me a copy of his Russian Taganka book at that meeting and I wrote about it shortly thereafter. Whatever the case, I now reread his comments about Erdman with interest. I’ve never used any of these quotes directly in my work, but his memories of Erdman’s importance at the Taganka corroborate what I’ve heard from many sources, even if, perhaps, a comment like “Erdman controlled Lyubimov” (Erdman rukovodil Liubimovym“) is a clear exaggeration, the kind one is inclined to make in loose conversation to make a point. Tacked on at the bottom is a note from my conversation with Marshall, not of any importance, but there for the record. The portrait of Erdman above, from New Spectator (Novy zritel’) magazine, 1927, is a curious little thing. It is labeled “our playwrights,” at that time meaning “one of the communist playwrights, one of ‘ours’ in the battle with those nasty ‘other’ playwrights. Of course, Erdman was never an insider among any such group. Proof of that is in the photo itself – look at that bow tie! This is a dandy. This ain’t no “proletarian” writer! In fact, the axe was just about to come down on Erdman. He would start sharing early drafts of The Suicide in the next few months and all hell broke loose. 

Excerpted comments from a chat with Aleksandr Abramovich Gershkovich prior to lecture by Herbert Marshall at the Carpenter Center, Harvard University.  2.26.87

Erdman was a person who attracted artistic and talented people to him.  He served as a sort of magnet around which they gathered.

He was a key ingredient of the Taganka Theater.  In fact, were it not for Erdman, the Taganka probably would never have happened.  He was a driving force behind what went on at the Taganka.  (Erdman rukovodil Liubimovym.”)

Erdman acted not only as a benefactor and teacher for Liubimov, but for Vysotsky as well. Erdman was a sort of father figure, protector, encourager to both.

Erdman was a living link to the ’20s and ’30s not only physically, but intellectually and spiritually as well.  We knew him as a dark (temnyi) leftover from the 20s.  He was one of those without which Russian theater and culture could not have survived.  There were many who recognized that Russian theater and art could not survive without a “conventional” (uslovnyi) wing.  The roots of this — from Meyerhold — were buried deeply in a few men, Erdman was one of the most important.  Stanislavsky, of course, was an important branch, but he was only one.  Russian culture needs an avant-garde.  It is an integral part of the very concept of Russian art and culture.  Another was Leonid Varpakhovsky whose daughter lives here in Boston.  

Erdman was highly respected by everyone who knew him or knew of him.  Of course he was not one of the visible figures whose pronouncements get repeated over and over publicly.  He was known basically only to a small circle of important, influential, and talented people.  But his influence proved to be far greater and far more important than almost any “popular” figure could have had.  

I did not know him, per sé, but I used to see him around quite frequently.  I would see him in and out of the Taganka, and I attended lectures and talks which he gave.  

Erdman was never destroyed, but rather was squeezed (ego smyali).


Chat with Herbert Marshall:  I should have known Erdman, since we were both moving in the same circles for several decades, but I didn’t.  I did see a performance of The Warrant at Meyerhold’s theater.  I saw every play done there from 1930 onward, when I arrived in Russia.  All I recall of it is in my book A Pictorial History of Russian Theater.


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