Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Vladimir Vysotsky

MY LIFE ON STAGE

(autobiographical reminiscences)

Translated by Alec Vagapov

The theatre I have been working at since the day of its foundation is eight years old now. It incorporated the old theatre which had the name of 'Theatre of Drama and Comedy', now simply called 'Theatre on Taganka'. There are years of joint work behind this "simple" name. A group of young actors headed by Yury Lubimov came to the old theatre building. A former actor of Vakhtangov Theatre, he is now well known among the theatre goers. He taught at the Shchukin Theatre School, and with a group of school graduates he staged the play called 'A KIND MAN FROM SESOINE'. In those days, nine years ago, it had the effect of a bomb explosion. The play had no scenery, was done in a relative manner and was very interesting from the point of view of plasticity. It had, for instance, a lot of music, in the form of songs.
The first line of the theatre, and a very big one, is poetical. The point is that the poetical repertoire of the 20's with its 'DISTORTING MIRROR', 'BLUE BLOUSE', etc., had been forgotten. So we were the first to restore the wonderful genre of poetical theatre.
It started with a play, or rather a poetical stage show, based on the lyrical writings of Andrey Voznesensky. The performance is called 'Antiworlds'. We have staged it about five hundred times already. We did it quickly, in three weeks. We played the first half of the performance and then it was performed by Voznesensky himself, if he was not away. (He is always touring, mostly around provinces such as America or Italy...). But when he returns from touring he takes part in some plays, mostly anniversary performances (50th anniversary, centenary, bicentennial etc.). He writes new poems and reads them at the theatre, so if one is in luck, one can see and hear Voznesensky recite his poems at our theatre.
Generally, we are great friends with poets.
The second poetical performance was our play called 'THE DEAD AND THE LIVING', a story about those who participated in World War II. Some of them are dead, some are living . We used literary works that deal with the war.
After that we had the play called 'LISTEN TO MAYAKOVSKY' based on the works of the famous poet. The play was written by Venya Smekhov, one of our actors.
Then there was Sergey Yesenin's dramatic poem 'PUGATCHEV' which many producers, including Meirhold, had attempted to stage but it was not easy in Yesenin's life time. The author would not allow a single word to be changed . Yesenin was a rowdy man as far as his creative work was concerned, he never allowed anyone to make changes, 'not even for a second' , he did not allow anything, so it had never been staged...
We have had it on for several years successively.
We have also started rehearsing the play based on Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem called 'LISTEN, STATUE OF LIBERTY'. We are beginning to work on a play about Pushkin, written by our producer Yury Lubimov in collaboration with Ludmila Tselikovskaya, his spouse.
As you see, we are stewing in our own juice, and when people ask me if I shall ever leave the theatre for the cinema or variety I can definitely say 'no'. That will never happen, because working at the theatre is very interesting , and no one has ever left our theatre of his or her own accord... well, if one is asked to leave he will leave, though with reluctance.
The second line of our theatre, which started with B.Brecht's play is the spirit of civic duty. It developed, very vividly, in the play '10 DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD' which has now become one of our classics. It is very popular in Moscow. The performance begins outside the building with red flags fluttering on the roof, actors going out into the street wearing uniforms of revolutionary soldiers and sailors. Many of them singing songs and playing the balalaika and the accordion; there is an underground station nearby, so people gather round wondering what is going on, and when they find out the reason there is an atmosphere of warmth, humour and joy near around the theatre building. Why? Lenin claimed once that 'the revolution is a feast of the oppressed and exploited'.
The play '10 DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD' based on John Reed's book was made as a festive performance. You come into the auditorium to be met not by ticket collectors but by the theatre actors dressed in soldier's uniforms with bayonets who collect the tickets, pin them in the bayonets and let you in. There are three boxes for visitors to use: one is black, one is yellow and one is red. If you don't like the performance you throw it into the black box, if you like it you throw it into the red one , and if you don't care you will throw it into the yellow box. Afterwards we empty the boxes and throw the tickets away calculating the pros and cons. Then comes the procedure of justification of the playbills which say 'POETICAL PERFORMANCE WITH BUFFOONERY, PANTOMIME AND SHOOTING', and we have it all on stage. Then we sing chastooshkas, four line tongue in cheek songs, and wi wind up with a rhyme sounding something like this:
Do not loiter in the lobby, come in, - and no kidding,
If you want to see the play, see it from beginning.
Everybody enters the auditorium and sits down hoping to relax. But alas, there is no relaxation. There come three armed people and open fire. Loud shots, the smell of powder in the small auditorium, it is dusty, some people get sick and are carried away. But they come round and are brought back to see the performance to the end. We never had victims for our actors do not shoot the audience, but over the audience, and with blank shots.
The play has 32 scenes, each done in a different manner. There are elements of buffoonery, circus tricks and puppetry. We learnt special acrobatic tricks so that we might be able to move about the stage somehow. Generally, the preparatory work at our theatre, and not only for this particular performance, must be of a higher level compared with ordinary theatres. I for one play the part of Kerensky, and I do some tricks, well, maybe not very complicated, yet they are circus tricks. We also have a pantomime group which does exclusively pantomimic, i.e. circus numbers. We have a lot of pantomime at our theatre.
So this line of civic duty spirit went on.
We have staged some more plays such as 'MOTHER', 'THE LIFE OF GALILEO', 'WHAT IS TO BE DONE?', 'THE RUSH HOURS' and, finally, the play 'THE DAWNS ARE QUIET HERE' which we nominated for the National Prize, a real tragedy based on a contemporary novel.
Yesterday we had the opening night of the play 'HAMLET' where I play the part of Prince Hamlet.
The theatre has much work to do yet. You know how hard it is for people to get to the theatre to see a play. It is almost impossible to get tickets. That suits us perfectly because we run on a self supporting basis, and we have to earn a lot... The auditorium is small and we always have to top the bill.
We usually come to work at 9 in the morning. We have rehearsals until 3 in the afternoon. Pantomime and movement training, for those who wish it, takes one hour, then we have five hours of rehearsal, followed by three hours of break, and then comes the night. So we have no time for personal life. If you want to have your personal life, you had better have it within the walls of the theatre, you just can't help it, there is no time for it.
The impression that all comes easy at the theatre and that there is nothing but flowers and laurels for the actors is all wrong. And I am sure that there are no people with such an impression among you, though I know that when you come to the theatre you see the most beautiful part of our work. It's when we are on stage and nobody sees the backstage, our life behind the scenes, which, incidentally, is not bad either.
One goes to the theatre to relax, engage in meditation, sometimes to make merry, sometimes to abandon oneself to grief.
In cinematography things did not go so smoothly when I started acting. It was 10 years ago. I would mostly play the parts of happy-go-lucky young men, somewhat spoilt and nice.
Now the first film that I acted in, the film called 'THE CAREER OF DIMA GORIN', I played the part of an emergency repairman. I should say that, generally, the art of cinema is a great thing. One has to get new professions for everything must be real, so one has to have some skills. We would clime those 40-meter tall bearings when laying out high voltage lines. It was really great. I learnt to drive a car in those days, so I have a piece of bread for the time when I get older losing my hair...
The first shooting day was funny. I was to play a young man who pestered Tanya Konyukhova, not the actress, of course, but the film character whose part she played. In the cab of the truck I was to embrace her, say some words, while Gorin was up in the body watching us. I refused to do it because I was a modest young man then, and I said that she was a famous actor I just couldn't do it and so on, but everybody insisted saying that I had to do it for the film, but I would not do it. At last Tanya Kornukhova said: 'Now, Volodya, come on, don't be afraid. Come on, come on, now, there you are, at last, you did it!...' And that was nice, I liked that. But after dinner comes the reckoning. Dima Gorin was to smash my face. That was all we had to do for the first shooting day. We had to act naturally , many times, take after take. The weather was terrible, he hit me in the face nine times running. He said he did it 'for symmetry's sake', each time it was the other side of my cheek, but I could not like it. When I thought that the shooting was over, it turned out that the whole film was defective and everything had to be done all over again...
I should like to point out once more that the cinema and the theatre are absolutely different things. Different manner of playing, different work. It is more interesting to act in a film just because you see a lot of people around, many things happen, you visit many places. We all have craving for travelling since childhood. The cinema offers many possibilities for that. I have travelled almost the whole of Russia over the past ten years since I started acting in films. On the other hand, it is more interesting to act in a theatre performance because the creative process is more profound on stage. Indeed, within four hours you experience the whole life of a man, not just bits and pieces of it, now from its beginning now from its end; then everything is cut and arranged, and you see that you are not there, you say it but no one listens to you... To make a long story short, both are interesting , though they are different,.
Then I acted in the film '#713 REQUESTS LANDING'. Again I was wooing a young woman, and again Otar Koberidze was to smash my face. He comes from the East and his eyes are burning. I thought he would kill me now, and that would be the end. Two more takes and I shall kick the bucket. But I am alive, and since that time I always look through the script carefully before accepting the offer to play the part. I just want to see.. who strikes whom...
Then I played a few parts which I do not want even to think about. I remember one of them, my part in the film called 'PENALTY KICK', because I learnt to ride a horse and do the tricks such as back somersault, when the horse and I were to surmount an obstacle. It takes a lot of training, but it is fine. One has to be able to do everything. Actors usually want to do the tricks themselves. But over the past few years , particularly after Yevgeny Urbansky's death, actors are not allowed to do it. Specially trained people do it. It takes time to learn to do a trick. Yet we like to do everything ourselves, so that afterwards we could say: 'look it's me', though no one really sees if it is really me or not.
In the film 'THERE WERE TWO SOLDIER-FRIENDS' where I played the part of Brusinov, a white guard officer, in the final act the man was to put a bullet through his head, fall overboard the ship which was setting out overseas. I asked for permission to do the trick. The producer said, 'all right, I did not see it, and I don't know anything'. Fully dressed I fell overboard four or three times. The water was as cold as ice, it was March, with the temperature being minus three below zero. After that I was taken out of the water, they brought alcohol to rub it in... So before the fourth take I said: 'I can do it as many times as is needed'.
At the beginning of my story I said I played positive characters that in reality do not exist, as I recollect it now, there are no such good people in real life. I played the part of teem leader Markin in the film 'TOMORROW'S STREET'. He is such a nice man, everybody likes him, his chiefs, his friends, his wife, his children... And he is very-very positive: he lives in a tent, which is leaking, the furniture is decaying, the children are crying, his wife coughs and he says: 'I will not ask for a new flat because other people are in greater need'.
But after some time I was lucky to act in a film at Victor Turov's studio in Minsk. This man has lived an interesting life... When he was eight years old he and his mother were driven away to Germany, after he had lost his parents he returned home; it took him six months to travel all the way across Europe. He returned home and had such bright reminiscences, that he made up his mind to shoot films about the final stage of the war and about Belorussia which he loves greatly. He makes films that, to my mind, are the best films about partisans. Now two films are nearing completion: 'THE WAR UNDER THE ROOFS' and 'THE SONS GO TO WAR'. I did not act in these films but I wrote songs for them. I have written all the songs for his films ever since he invited me to act in the film 'I COME FROM MY CHILDHOOD'. I played the part of the captain of a tank who burned in his tank, was laid up in hospital for half a year and came home an invalid at the age of thirty. It was at this time that I first wrote professional songs.
Then I had the Odessa period in my life. The films were 'THE VERTICAL ROCK', 'THE SHORT ENCOUNTERS' and then there were two films from another studio, not from Odessa, but they were shot in Odessa: 'THERE WERE TWO SOLDIER-FRINDS' and 'THE INTERVENTION'. The latter has not been released yet.
I lived in trains and hotels of Odessa for almost four years. In trains I did live for at least half a year, anyway. Every night I had to travel to and from Odessa (or Leningrad), therefore I could not fall asleep at night for a long time. That is why many people think that I come from Odessa and that I have written much about Odessa. In fact, I wrote little about Odessa. I only wrote songs for my latest film 'THE DANGEROUS TOUR'. I just lived long in Odessa, so people living in Odessa think that I am one of them. Well, let them think so, if they like, I don't mind.
Many of you probably know the film 'THE VERTICAL ROCK'. I wrote the songs for the film. I continue writing about mountains and intend to write for a long time yet.
The film 'THE SHORT ENCOUNTERS' was made by Kira Muratova, producer from Odessa. I wrote all sorts of fairy tales and songs for it. The role I played there is one of my favourites. I played the part of a geologist. Unfortunately, the film was not widely shown. It was my so called 'bearded' period of life. Luckily, nobody recognised me after this film.
Then I acted in a film which reminded me of the good old days, and namely the film 'THE MASTER OF THE TAIGA' where I played the part of a negative character who was not quite honest, the team leader of timber floaters. His name is Ivan Ryaboy. After that I acted in the films 'THERE WERE TWO SOLDIER-FRIENDS' and 'THE INTERVENTION' where I played opposite characters of the same age, with the same make-up, the same moustaches. In one of the these two films I played the part of a White Guard officer while in the other film I played revolutionary Brodsky who died in Odessa in 1919. His prototype was Lastochkin, a well known underground revolutionary. Both are risky men, very interesting characters who fight on the opposite sides of the barricade and both are interesting; both die : one puts a bullet through his head, the other is shot by a firing squad, but he is calm for he has his faith, though without hysteria.
And finally, the film 'THE DANGEROUS TOUR' which I mentioned above. It is based on the famous 'Litvinov Case' of 1910 when literature and weapons were smuggled from abroad. I play Nikolay Bengalsky, a variety theatre actor. The film was on the screens recently. There were many songs written by me in the film. The song writer was not indicated in the credits... Somehow it is believed that if people do not know that the author is me then the songs are good and if they do know it, the songs are bad. So in some films with my songs in them they don't mention the author. I think it is a mistake which will be corrected. Things tend to get settled, after all. It takes time though, unfortunately. But everything comes back to normal in the end.
Now a few words about my songs. It is ten years now that I have been writing songs for films and plays. I have written thirty songs already. I not only write songs for our theatre but for other Moscow theatres as well.
Recently there was the first night in SOVREMENNIK THEATRE. The play is called 'ONE'S OWN ISLAND'.
I mentioned the songs I write for films. The film songs are more popular because the audience is bigger compared with the theatre. For instance, after the film 'THE VERTICAL ROCK' I made many friends, true and reliable ones (I had a chance to check it...), whom I sort of got in return for the songs.
How do I actually write songs? Well. I never talk about it, and it is impossible to explain it or tell people about it. I do not belong to what people call bards or minstrels or whatever. I heard the other day one of those 'bards' tell people how he sat on a river bank, how water lapped underfoot, and how he mused...
No, what I do is I sit down, and I have melody in mind, and I am in the mood of writing. Sometimes a funny thing comes out, some times it is a sad song and sometimes the it does not come off at all. There is no use talking about it.
All in all I have written over two hundred songs. I don't even know exactly how many. I never counted them. The subject-matter is heterogeneous, like life itself. I have many songs about the war, though I never served in the army.
Then there are 'mountain songs' and fairy tale songs or songs based on fairy tales...
I have a good mind to write a big series of sports songs, a whole program to embrace, if possible, all the sports. The first part, for instance, embraces track-and-field athletics, the second part includes sports games. But the cycle is not finished yet. The biggest part is taken up by humorous songs. Generally, I have many funny comedy songs. But, as you understand, it's not my wish just to laugh, pulling out my tongue. Humour will be humour, but humorous songs, too, have some message behind them, right?
When I sing on stage I find myself in an inexplicable situation. I look at the audience, and I see happy smiling faces, and suddenly I see one sad gloomy face. And some magic force draws me to this face. And when he, or she, gives the first smile it is a feast for me.
I have some lyrical songs and I regard my lyrical writings as is civic duty lyric.
I begin all my performances with war songs.