Serf Theater

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Serf Theater


a type of private gentry theater in Russia, whose company was formed by a landlord from among his serfs. Arising in the late 17th century, these theaters became widespread in the late 18th century and early 19th, particularly in Moscow and its environs. There were more than 170 serf theaters by the early 19th century. Alongside primitive domestic theaters, there were serf theaters that had at their disposal a well-equipped stage, elaborate props, and skilled serf actors trained by masters of the Russian and West European stage.

One of the richest serf theaters belonged to the Counts Sheremetev. Founded at the end of the 1760’s by P. B. Sheremetev, it rivaled the court theater by the end of the 18th century under the direction of N. P. Sheremetev. Of the Sheremetevs’ eight serf theaters only the Ostankino Theater in Moscow, now the State Museum of Serf Art, has survived. Its repertoire included operas by C. W. Gluck, A. Grétry, E. I. Fomin, and M. A. Matinskii. The company consisted of more than 200 persons, including some who have entered the history of Russian art—the composers and musicians S. A. Degtiarev and G. Ia. Lomakin, the master instrument-maker I. A. Batov (the “Russian Stradivari”), and the actresses T. V. Shlykova-Granatova and P. I. Zhemchugova.

Other famous theaters were those of Prince N. B. Iusupov in Moscow and at the Arkhangel’skoe estate near Moscow (now a state museum). The theater owned by A. R. Vorontsov, one of the most progressive learned men of his day, occupies a special place in the history of the serf theater. Most of the plays staged at the theater were written by Russian playwrights, including D. I. Fonvizin, la. B. Kniazhnin, A. P. Sumarokov, and I. A. Krylov. The actors received salaries.

In the history of the serf theater there were many tragic episodes, as may be seen from M. S. Shchepkin’s Notes and Letters, N. S. Leskov’s story “Artist of the Toupee,” and A. I. Herzen’s story “The Thieving Magpie.” Dependence on his master’s will made the life of the serf actor especially difficult.

The serf theaters promoted the spread of theatrical art, established, through their actors, the realistic, democratic trend, and laid the foundation for the Russian provincial stage.

In the 19th century, with the development of capitalist relations, the character of the serf theaters changed. Some landlords transformed their theaters into profitable enterprises, for example, S. S. Kamenskii in Orel and N. G. Shakhovskoi in Nizhny Novgorod.


Kashin, N. P. Teatr N. B. Iusupova. Moscow, 1927.
Elizarova, N. A. Teatry Sheremetevykh. Moscow, 1944.
Mikhail Semenovich Shchepkin: Zapiski, pis’ma. Sovremenniki o M. S. Shchepkine. Moscow, 1952.
Solov’ev, I. A. Ostankino. Moscow, 1958.
Aseev, B. N. Russkii dramaticheskii teatr XVII-XVIII vv. Moscow, 1958.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The legacy of the serf theater (where talented performers were still treated as property), and the lack of financial support accorded the Russian theaters themselves, made it difficult for Russian performers, male and female, to attract the respect their talent deserved.