President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Boris Godunov: A Perfect Marriage of Art and Scholarship
May 9, 2007
Something truly remarkable took place on the Berlind Theatre’s stage last month. For the second time in two years, a masterpiece of Russian culture made its world premiere on our campus, thanks to the dedication and inspiration of scores of students, faculty, and staff, underwritten by our new University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts and a number of other sponsors. For much of this semester and last, Princeton became a giant atelier in which the artistic talents and scholarly energies of our University community were mobilized to stage Alexander Pushkin’s most ambitious play, Boris Godunov, in a form conceived but never realized by the great Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold.
Like our recreation of Sergei Prokofiev’s Le Pas d’Acier in 2005, Boris Godunov was a theatrical tour de force, capturing both the physics and metaphysics of Russian modernist theater and the humor and horror that lurks in Russian history. And while our staging honored Pushkin’s and Meyerhold’s vision — "from its dispassionate treatment of the past to the kaleidoscopic movements of its characters — "Boris Godunov’s production values also reflected the originality and ingenuity of director Tim Vasen of our Program in Theater and Dance, his artistic partners, and our incredibly gifted student actors, dancers, singers, and musicians.
Set in late 16th- and early 17th-century Russia and Poland, Boris Godunov chronicles the rise and fall of a powerful but tormented Russian tsar who was suspected of murdering Dmitry, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, to clear his own way to the throne; who is then challenged by a pretender to that very name; and who, amid mounting disasters, dies before his own son and heir is murdered. The history of Pushkin’s play is almost as ill-starred as the reign it documents, which is one of the reasons why Princeton’s production is so exciting. Written in 1825, Boris Godunov fell victim to layers of tsarist censorship, and Pushkin did not live to see his work staged. Not until 1866 was the ban on its performance lifted, and when it did see the light of day, many scenes were dropped.
In 1936, Meyerhold, who deeply admired Pushkin, attempted to stage the entire play and commissioned Prokofiev, then at the height of his creative powers, to write the incidental choral and orchestral music. Stalinist persecution forced Meyerhold to abandon his project after rehearsals had begun, and the greatest theatrical innovator of the 20th century was brutally executed in 1940. Though he escaped this fate, Prokofiev ended his days in comparative isolation. Only now has Meyerhold’s dream been realized; only now has the complete text of Pushkin’s original play, as translated by Antony Wood, been staged and Prokofiev’s score performed in the way it was intended — "before a live audience.
None of this could have happened without the leadership of two outstanding scholars and teachers: Simon Morrison *97 of our Department of Music and Caryl Emerson, who chairs our Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. The intersection of their longstanding interest in Prokofiev and Pushkin unleashed a storm of creative and intellectual activity that is still reverberating on our campus and beyond. Emerson devoted her dissertation to Boris Godunov and has been exploring this complex play and its historical and literary context ever since. Morrison, who rescued Le Pas d’Acier from oblivion, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Prokofiev’s prolific but, in many cases, unknown compositions. He has had the good fortune to gain exclusive access to the composer’s papers in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, yielding insights that played a crucial role in doing justice to the 24 eclectic numbers that Prokofiev wrote for Boris Godunov. (Another passage was composed by Peter Westergaard *56, a retired member of our music faculty, to ensure that a critical scene would be infused with music.)
The Morrison-Emerson partnership has not only reunit-ed Pushkin’s words and Prokofiev’s music, it also gave our production a scholarly foundation that informed every step of its staging, just as this staging has given Morrison and Emerson a new perspective on the works they study. Many of the students involved in Boris Godunov are enrolled in two undergraduate courses built around the production, one taught by Emerson and one by Vasen and Michael Cadden, who heads the Program in Theater and Dance and served as our production’s dramaturge. Add to this a graduate seminar, a six-week alumni studies course, an exhibition at Firestone Library, and an international scholarly symposium conducted in English and Russian, and you begin to have some sense of the dynamic intellectual framework in which Boris Godunov was staged.
The artistic realization of this work was equally multifaceted, drawing together the major performing arts in an intense collaboration that included a cast of 13 actors playing some
60 different parts, several solo singers, 24 members of the -Princeton University Glee Club conducted by Richard Tang Yuk, 35 musicians from the Princeton University Orchestra conducted by -Michael Pratt, and 12 dancers directed by choreographer -Rebecca Lazier. And this is just the tip of an iceberg comprising a small army of designers, costumers, and technicians whose work was also critical to the success of our production.
Nowhere perhaps is the multidisciplinary nature of this undertaking more apparent than in the set design, which represents an unprecedented collaboration between the Program in Theater and Dance and the School of Architecture. Jesse Reiser of our architecture faculty and a team of graduate students devoted a seminar this fall and many hours this spring to designing and building a set that could meet the practical and aesthetic demands of our production. Meyerhold’s Boris Godunov, in contrast, never reached this point, but I think he would approve of the abstract forest of surgical tubing that defined our stage, supplemented by projections to identify the 25 locales in which Pushkin set his play.
Only at a place like Princeton could a production on the scale of Boris Godunov be staged. The wealth of talent in our midst, our freedom to experiment, and the spirit of cooperation and joint inquiry that increasingly distinguishes our University community have allowed us to bring a marvelous work of art to life and, in the process, both teach and learn.