Shchepkin, Mikhail Semenovich
Born Nov. 6 (17), 1788, in the village of Krasnoe, Oboian’ District, in what is now Belgorod Oblast; died Aug. 11 (23), 1863, in Yalta. Russian actor famous for introducing realism in the Russian theater.
Shchepkin was the son of a serf who managed the estates of Count G. S. Vol’kenshtein. In 1799 he was enrolled at the provincial public school in Sudzha, where in 1800 he appeared on the stage for the first time, as Rozmarin in a school production of Sumarokov’s The Quarreler. During the years 1801–03 he acted in the Vol’kenshteins’ private theater and also waited on table at the estate. Shchepkin began his professional stage career in 1805, in the Barsovs’ troupe in Kursk. In 1816 he joined I. F. Shtein’s troupe in Kharkov, the best in southern Russia, and soon became the troupe’s foremost comic actor. In 1822 his freedom was bought by subscription.
On the provincial stage Shchepkin played various roles in plays and comic operas. He was a brilliant, spirited actor noted for his humor and true-to-life characterizations. Early in his career Shchepkin had already revealed exceptional powers of observation and an amazing capacity for work; he had also made a serious theoretical and practical study of acting.
In 1823, Shchepkin was accepted into the company of the Moscow Theater, known since 1824 as the Malyi Theater. His social and artistic views developed considerably as a result of his close ties with such leading figures of Russian culture as A. S. Pushkin, N. V. Gogol, V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, and T. G. Shevchenko. Shchepkin appeared in the first productions of the plays of A. S. Griboedov, Gogol, Pushkin, I. S. Turgenev, and A. V. Sukhovo-Kobylin. He also went to great lengths to popularize the plays and to have them freed from the censor’s bans.
Shchepkin’s work in the 1830’s and 1840’s was of enormous importance. He virtually revolutionized the contemporary school of acting, bringing it closer to the realistic principles of Pushkin and Gogol. Shchepkin asserted the actor’s important civic mission and devoted his work to the moral upbringing of the public and to the criticism of social ills. Believing that the actor should not rely on momentary inspiration, he worked to determine objective rules of acting and developed a creative method based on generalized observations of life. He stressed the actor’s need to think through his artistic tasks thoroughly and to subordinate the entire creative process to a “general idea,” stating that the actor should not merely imitate, but penetrate “into the soul of the role” and crawl, “so to speak, into the skin of the character” (Zapiski, pis’ma . . . , 1952, p. 250).
Shchepkin created his best characterizations in works of the Russian satirical playwrights, seeking to portray characters that would reflect the essence of an entire social group. Overcoming the resistance of the censor, he succeeded in staging scenes from Griboedov’s Woe from Wit in 1831 and the complete version in 1832. He also played the role of Famusov in these productions; in his interpretation, Famusov was devoid of aristocratic respectability, fawning on Molchalin and hating everything new. Shchepkin created a profoundly truthful characterization as the Mayor in Gogol’s The Inspector-General (1836), raising the role to the level of satirical generalization and exposing the injustice of Nicholas I’s regime. He also created satirical characterizations of the gentry in Gogol’s plays—as Podkolesin and Kochkarev in Marriage, Uteshitel’nyi in The Gamblers, and Burdiukov in The Lawsuit, as well as the Baron in Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight.
Another side of Shchepkin’s creative art was linked with characters drawn from the common people. He conveyed a distinctive national spirit in plays by Ukrainian dramatists, for example, as Chuprun in Kotliarevskii’s The Magician Soldier and Makago-nenko in Natalka Poltavka, also by Kotliarevskii, and in the title role in Kvitko-Osnov’ianenko’s Shel’menko the Orderly. In the vaudeville The Sailor, Shchepkin penetrated the tragic soul of the old sailor. “The triumph of his art,” wrote Belinskii, “consists in the fact that he is able to interest the audience in the fate of a simple man—to cause them to weep and be disturbed about the sufferings of a mere sailor” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 8, 1955, p. 533). Psychological depth and poignancy were typical of Shchepkin’s performances of Moshkin and Kuzovkin in Turgenev’s The Bachelor and The Boarder.
One of Shchepkin’s best roles during his last period was that of Muromskii in Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Krechinskii’s Wedding (1855). He also performed roles in plays by other writers, notably Liubim Tortsov in A. N. Ostrovskii’s Poverty Is No Crime, Harpagon in Molière’s The Miser, and Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Shchepkin’s letters, remarks, memoirs, and accounts of his talks with students reveal that he had evolved a complete system of views on an actor’s creative art. His work affirmed critical realism as the leading creative method in the Russian theater. The traditions of stage realism, as established by Shchepkin, were of major significance in the Malyi Theater, which is referred to as the House of Shchepkin. Shchepkin’s heritage and ethical principles served as the basis for the realistic system of acting created by K. S. Stanislavsky.
REFERENCESM. S. Shchepkin: Zapiski, pis’ma — Sovremenniki o Shchepkine. Moscow, 1952.
Alpers, B. V. Mikhail Semenovich Shchepkin (1788–1863). Moscow, 1943.
Klinchin, A. P. Mikhail Semenovich Shchepkin. Moscow, 1964.
Grits, T. S. M. S. Shchepkin: Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva. [Moscow, 1966.]
IU. A. DMITRIEV