Theater Scholarship

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Theater Scholarship


the study of the theory and history of stage art. Theater scholarship was established as an independent discipline during the 20th century as a result of the overall development of the theater; it is a social science that has links with philosophy, sociology, aesthetics, psychology, and the history of culture and mores.

Theater scholarship is concerned with all aspects of the theater, including dramaturgy, acting, directing, stage design, theater architecture and education, theater management, and the audience. Until the late 19th century, theater scholarship was primarily philological in nature and was devoted mainly to dramaturgy and acting. At the turn of the 20th century, when the theater’was undergoing revolutionary changes, theater scholarship became broader and encompassed staging techniques and directing.

The earliest works on the theater date back to the ancient Greek and Roman periods. The fundamental theoretical work on the classical poets and dramatists was Aristotle’s Poetics. This treatise, which formulated the theory of drama and staging, had an important influence on later aesthetic thought. The emergence and development of theater scholarship in Western Europe were related to the high level of the theater during the Renaissance. The earliest historical and theoretical works on the theater were published in the late 16th century in France, England, and Germany.

The systematic study of the history and theory of the theater began in the 17th century, when the first works of theater scholarship were published. R. Flecknoe wrote the first history of the English theater (1664), and an unknown author used the dialogue form in writing a history of acting in the 17th century (1699). The first history of the French theater was written by S. Chappuzeau (1674). The Italian theater was the subject of works by L. Riccoboni, an actor who lived in France and who was the first (1736) to study Molière’s comedies from the viewpoint of Enlightenment aesthetics. Riccoboni also wrote commentaries on various European theaters (1738). The development of theater scholarship was related to the social and educational importance attributed to the theater by the theorists of the Englightenment, who believed that man must be liberated from religious dogma and feudal superstitions.

During the 18th century in England, books on the history of the London theaters were written by B. Victor (1761). Studies on the theater were summarized in C. Dibdin’s History of the Stage (vols. 1–5, 1797–1800). Memoirs and biographies about actors were the sources for D. E. Baker’s Theatrical Biography (vols. 1–2, 1782). Extensive information about the theater was contained in the General History of the French Theater Since Its Origin (vols. 1–15, 1745–49) by C. Parfaict and F Parfaict.

The 18th century witnessed a growth in the development of theater scholarship. The aesthetics of Enlightenment realism in the theater were established by D. Diderot, G. E. Lessing, L.-S. Mercier, J. M. R. Lenz, J. G. Herder, J. W. von Goethe, and F. Schiller. During the French bourgeois revolution of the late 18th century the function of the theater changed; the theater was regarded as a powerful ideological weapon and a means of educating the citizenry. Theorists of the theater linked the theater with public life. Continuing the traditions of Enlightenment aesthetics, they evaluated dramas by means of sociopolitical criteria; this later became the most common approach to the study of the theater.

A new period of theater scholarship emerged with the establishment of romanticism. Theater scholarship had previously concerned itself primarily with collecting facts. In contrast, the romantics, who were oriented toward the past, defined the specific ideological and aesthetic features of various periods of theater history. This new approach was established in A. W. von Schle-gel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (parts 1–2, 1809–11), which defined the ideological and aesthetic features of the theater of the classical and medieval periods, the Renaissance, and the period from the 14th to 18th centuries from the romantic viewpoint.

Early in the 19th century, the classical tradition in the theater was opposed by the romantics, who espoused the poetics exemplified by Shakespeare. This conflict was reflected in a number of polemical treatises, including Stendhal’s Racine and Shakespeare (vols. 1–2, 1823–25) and Hugo’s preface to his play Cromwell (1827).

During the second half of the 19th century, the opposition between the realist and antirealist trends in the theater was intensified. Marxist philosophy had a decisive influence on the development of progressive theater scholarship. K. Marx and F. Engels determined that art is conditioned by social and class relations and discovered the objective laws governing the development of art; these laws apply fully to the theater as well. Topical disputes about the theater stimulated the study of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance theater.

The development of the historical and cultural method of art studies in the late 19th century, particularly as expounded in H. Taine’s The Philosophy of Art (1865), influenced theater scholarship during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The application of the romantic and historical-cultural methods of art studies to 19th-century theater scholarship in Europe led to the publication of general works on theater history, monographs on specific epochs and trends, and biographies of actors and directors. The most important of these works included A. Royer’s A Universal History of the Theater (vols. 1–4, 1869–70), F. Brunetiére’s The Epochs of the French Theater (1892), G. Bapst’s An Essay on Theater History: Mise-en-scene, Scenery, Costumes, Architecture, Lighting, and Hygiene (1893), A. W. Ward’s A History of English Dramatic Literature to the Death of Queen Anne (vols. 1–2, 1875; 2nd ed., vols. 1–3, 1899), F. G. Fleay’s A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559–1642 (1892), and E. Devrient’s A History of German Dramatic Art (vols. 1–5, 1874).

Beginning in the late 19th century, theater scholarship became distinct from literary studies as such. In the 1890’s, courses on theater scholarship were established at German universities, and theater research institutes were founded in Cologne and Kiel. In 1902 a society for the study of theater history was founded in Berlin. A major influence on theater scholarship during the first third of the 20th century was the German scholar M. Herrmann’s Studies in the History of the German Theater During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1914). This work laid the foundations for modern research on theater history and, even in the absence of firsthand descriptions, reconstructed theatrical productions of past epochs by studying the texts of plays, the stage area and the area for spectators, and works of art dating from the period under study. Analysis of these sources made it possible to reconstruct productions, costumes, and mise-en-scenes. During the first third of the 20th century, the theoretical foundations for such decadent trends in the theater as symbolism and constructivism were laid by the German writer and director G. Fuchs, the English director G. Craig, and the Belgian writer M. Maeterlinck.

Twentieth-century studies on the theater comprise a vast body of works encompassing all aspects of the theater during many different periods and in many countries. The results of such studies have been summarized in such works as H. Kindermann’s A History of the European Theater (vols. 1–10, 1957–74) and The Oxford Companion to the Theater (3rd ed., 1967), edited by P. Hartnoll. Fundamental 20th-century works on the theater have been written by E. Lintilhac, L. Moussinac, J. Jacquot, P. van Tieghem, and G. Cohen (France), K. Mantzius (Denmark), E. K. Chambers, A. Nicoll, G. R. Kernodle, and G. R. Brown (Great Britain), M. Herrmann, O. Eberle, H. Knudsen, W. Stammler, and R. Weimann (Germany), J. Gregor and H. Kindermann (Austria), and S. D’Amico (Italy). In the USA, scholars dealing with the theater have included G. Odell, G. Freedley, B. Clark, A. H. Quinn, J. Gassner, A. Hornblow, A. Downer, and B. Beckerman.


The aesthetics of the theater in Russia developed during the 18th century owing to the growth of the theater and of progressive social thought. The principal theorist of the Russian school drama was the ideologist and propagandist of the Petrine reforms, Feofan Prokopovich; the main theorist of classicism in Russia was A. P. Sumarokov. Progressive Russian writers asserted that the theater had a lofty civic purpose as a means of expressing progressive ideas. Of great importance for the Russian theater were the works of N. I. Novikov, which were oriented toward democratic circles. Novikov’s views on staging had an important influence on the theater of his time. In 1772, Novikov published his Attempt at a Historical Dictionary of Russian Writers, which included articles on the most important Russian dramatists, among them Sumarokov, V. K. Trediakovskii, and M. M. Kheraskov. Novikov was also the first biographer of the outstanding actors F. G. Volkov and I. A. Dmitrevskii. In a number of articles, Novikov affirmed the educational role of the theater and the importance of satire for the Russian stage. Other works on the history of the Russian theater written during the last third of the 18th century included Ia. Shtelin’s Concise Information About Theatrical Presentations in Russia From Their Beginnings Until 1768 (published 1779).

The fabulist and dramatist I. A. Krylov devoted much attention to the theory of the theater and to theater criticism. His journal Pochta dukhov (Spirits’ Mail) advocated an original, native Russian theater and opposed imitative gentry-oriented classicism and a theater catering to the aristocracy and the court. Krylov’s aesthetic principles were most fully expressed in his reviews of M. P. Pogodin’s plays Laughter and Grief and Marfa Posadnitsa. A. N. Radishchev wrote about acting, the powerful influence of the theater, and artistic integrity in plays in his philosophical treatise On Man, His Mortality and Immortality (published 1809).

The theorist of the aesthetics of Russian sentimentalism in the theater was N. M. Karamzin, an opponent of classicism and a supporter of Shakespeare’s approach to the theater. Karamzin’s Moskovskii zhurnal (Moscow Journal) printed many reviews of plays and devoted particular attention to acting. The theater section of Moskovskii zhurnal had an important influence on subsequent Russian theater criticism. Early in the 19th century, public interest in the theater increased. The Decembrists greatly influenced Russian romantic drama by interpreting classical and romantic aesthetics in a new way.

The first important theater journals were published during the 19th century, including Repertuar russkogo teatra (Repertoire of the Russian Theater, 1839–41), Panteon russkogo i vsekh evro-peiskikh teatrov (Pantheon of Russian and All the European Theaters, 1840–41), Repertuar i Panteon (Repertoire and Pantheon, 1844–45), Repertuar i Panteon teatrov (Repertoire and Pantheon of Theaters, 1847), and Panteon (Pantheon, 1852–56).

Important contributions to 19th-century theater scholarship were made by those Russian writers and playwrights who had close ties with the theater of their time and who affirmed the theater’s lofty civic function. They included V. A. Zhukovskii, A. S. Pushkin, A. S. Griboedov, N. V. Gogol, S. T. Aksakov, A. I. Herzen, I. S. Turgenev, N. A. Nekrasov, I. A. Goncharov, A. K. Tolstoy, F. M. Dostoevsky, A. N. Ostrovskii, and M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin.

Articles and statements on the theater by the revolutionary democrats, and particularly by V. G. Belinskii, were of great importance for Russian theater scholarship and for 19th-century realist aesthetics. Belinskii’s articles on major actors and his analyses of the status of the Russian theater, of acting, and of the theory of drama are fundamental sources for the study of the 19th-century theater in Russia.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of two fundamental trends in theater criticism that were related to ideological and sociopolitical currents of the time. The first trend was reflected in the theoretical works and articles of N. G. Chernyshevskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, Herzen, Nekrasov, and Salty kov-Shchedrin, which were of great importance for the affirmation of truth on the Russian stage and for the later development of Russian realist art. Representatives of the second trend, that of the Slavophiles, included A. A. Grigor’ev, D. V. Averkiev, and L. N. Antropov. New works on the Russian theater included A Dramatic Album (1850), published by P. N. Arapov and A. Rappol’t, Arapov’s A Chronicle of the Russian Theater (1861), F. A. Koni’s The Russian Theater: Its Destiny and Sources (1864), and A Chronicle of the St. Petersburg Theaters From the End of 1826 to the Beginning of 1881 (parts 1–3, 1877–84). Other works were published during this period on the Western European theater and on Shakespeare, Moliere, and Hugo.

Toward the late 19th century, theater scholarship was written mainly by literary theorists and philologists, whose works dealt mainly with the history of dramaturgy. A number of works on the theater were published in 1888, including P. O. Morozov’s Essays on the History of the Russian Drama in the 17th and 18th Centuries, scholarly works by N. S. Tikhonravov, P. A. Kulish, and V. I. Shenrok on Gogol, by E. N. Sverchevskii and A. M. Skabichevskii on Griboedov, and by N. Veselovskii on D. I. Fonvizin. Other works appearing in 1888 were devoted to the Russian actors Ia. E. Shusherin and P. S. Mochalov. Most of the works of theater scholarship published during this period were empirical in nature and lacking in broad generalizations and interpretations.

The first works of Marxist aesthetic criticism were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the principal Marxist critics of art and the theater were G. V. Plekhanov, A. V. Lunacharskii, and V. V. Vorovskii. The theater and the art of directing became subjects of intensive study. Other works linked the history of the theater during various epochs with prevailing social conditions. Important works published on the history of the theater included The History of the Russian Theater by B. V. Varneke and The History of the Russian Theater, edited by V. V. Kallash and N. E. Efros (both published 1914).

Important contributions to theater scholarship were the books and articles written by the directors V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, V. E. Meyerhold, F. F. Komissarzhevskii, N. N. Evreinov, and V. G. Sakhnovskii. Theater scholarship of the early 20th century was influenced by prevailing trends in art and reflected the general crisis of the prerevolutionary theater; examples were Evreinov’s The Theater as Such and Iu. I. Aikhenval’d’s Denial of the Theater (both 1912).

After the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, theater scholarship began a new phase of development, owing to the increasingly logical and profound studies of Marxist-Leninist theater historians, theorists, and critics. In addition, favorable organizational conditions were created for theater scholarship owing to the place of honor that the theater has been accorded in the Soviet state as an essential component of socialist art. A section on theater history was established within the Theater Division (founded 1918) of the People’s Commissariat of Education. Theater scholarship developed on a nationwide scale, and theater divisions were established in Moscow in the State Academy of the Arts and the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts in Petrograd. Theater studies were also conducted in theater museums, libraries, and archives. The concept of theater scholarship originated at this time, since it was only after the October Revolution that the study of the theater became an independent discipline.

Soviet theater scholarship has traversed a long and complex path, during which the influences of formalism, oversimplified sociologism, dogmatism, and revisionism have been overcome. Based on Marxist-Leninist aesthetics, Soviet theater scholarship has inherited the achievements of the progressive aesthetic thought of the past and, first and foremost, the principles of the Russian revolutionary democratic critics Belinskii, Cherny-shevskii, and Dobroliubov and the ideas of the great Russian writers Pushkin, Gogol, and Ostrovskii.

An important influence on the development of theater scholarship as a distinct discipline was the work of the scholars in the theater division of the Leningrad Institute for the History of the Arts. This division later became the State Academy for Art Studies, founded in Moscow in 1931. The academy was transferred to Leningrad in 1933, and since 1962 has been known as the Leningrad Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinematography.

The works written in the 1920s by the scholars in the theater division of the Leningrad Institute for the History of the Arts were influenced by oversimplified sociologism and, to an extent, by formalism, influences that were later overcome. These scholars did, however, make a positive contribution in maintaining that the theater was a specific manifestation of artistic culture. Soviet theater scholars also wrote numerous studies on the development of the Russian theater (V. N. Vsevolodskii-Gerngross and S. S. Danilov), on the theater of Western Europe (A. A. Gvozdev, S. S. Mokul’skii, and A. I. Piotrovskii), on the theater of the Orient (N. I. Konrad), on the musical theater (I. I. Sollertinskii), and on the variety stage and the circus (E. M. Kuznetsov).

The State Academy of the Arts, founded in Moscow in 1921, had a theater section. By the mid-1920’s, works on individual theaters had been published by P. A. Markov, P. I. Novitskii, Iu. V. Sobolev, D. L. Tal’nikov, Efros, and V. A. Filippov. These scholars were the first to study the Soviet theater as a new type of theater and as a socialist theater. Fundamental works of Soviet theater scholarship were Lunacharskii’s numerous articles on the theory of socialist realism in the theater, on the history of the Russian and foreign theater, and on the current state of the Soviet theater. Soviet theater scholarship has been closely linked with the theater itself, and prominent theatrical figures have written many valuable studies contributing to the development of theater scholarship; examples are works by K. S. Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Meyerhold, N. M. Gorchakov, N. V. Petrov, A. D. Popov, and B. E. Zakhava.

The elimination of oversimplified sociologism in the theater scholarship of the 1930’s resulted in a more profound approach to theater scholarship and in a wider range of subjects encompassed. In 1933 the State Academy for Art Studies published A History of the Soviet Theater, the first work of its kind. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, works of theater scholarship were published by many literary theorists and critics, among them I. L. Al’tman, B. N. Aseev, S. S. Ignatov, A. K. Dzhivelegov, G. N. Boiadzhiev, Iu. A. Golovashchenko, Iu. A. Dmitriev, N. G. Zograf, Iu. S. Kalashnikov, B. I. Rostotskii, and N. N. Chushkin. Young scholars publishing works of Soviet theater scholarship during the 1950’s and 1960’s included N. A. Abalkin, O. N. Kaidalova, K. L. Rudnitskii, T. M. Rodina, and A. Ia. Al’tshuler.

The intensive study of the heritage of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko during the 1950’s was of great importance for the development of Soviet theater scholarship. The center of such study is the Scientific Research Commission attached to the Moscow Art Theater and directed by V. N. Prokof ev. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a number of scholarly works were devoted to other prominent Soviet theatrical figures, including E. B. Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and I. A. Tairov. The study of Russian theater history is conducted at the State Institute of Theatrical Arts (GITIS), the Leningrad Scientific Research Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinematography, and the theater section of the Institute for the History of the Arts of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR in Moscow. Research on the national theaters of the USSR is conducted in the subdepartment of the theater of the peoples of the USSR at GITIS, as well as in the theater section of the peoples of the USSR of the Institute for the History of the Arts.

A fundamental trend in Soviet theater scholarship since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s has been a multinational approach to the study of the theater. Between 1961 and 1971 the Institute for the History of the Arts, in cooperation with scholars from the republics of the USSR, compiled the History of the Soviet Dramatic Theater (vols. 1–6, 1966–71). Works on national theaters of the USSR and on figures prominent in these theaters have been published by V. I. Nefed (Byelorussia), B. S. Arutiunian (Armenia), E. N. Gugushvili (Georgia), M. K. Iosipenko (Ukraine), and N. Kh. Nurdzhanov (Tadzhikistan).

The foreign theater has increasingly been the subject of studies by Soviet scholars. The subdepartment of the history of the foreign theater at GITIS collaborated with scholars of the Leningrad Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinematography and of the Institute for the History of the Arts in preparing A History of the Western European Theater (vols. 1–6, 1956–74), the first work of Soviet scholarship to study the theater’s development from the classical period to the turn of the 20th century. Studies on foreign theatrical figures have included monographs by A. A. Anikst on Shakespeare, by G. N. Boiadzhiev on Moliere, by E. L. Finkel’shtein on A.-L.-P. Lemaitre (Frederick), and by A. G. Obraz-tsovaon G. B. Shaw.

A landmark in the development of Soviet theater scholarship was the decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU On Literary and Artistic Criticism (1972). The decree emphasized that Soviet art criticism must be written from a more scholarly standpoint; it stated that Soviet theater scholarship should study the theory and methodology of non-Marxist views and of revisionist aesthetics, and that it should urge scholars to study the art of the modern period. In fulfilling these aims, scholars should treat the socialist theater as a component of world art. Of related importance is the development of theater scholarship in the socialist countries. This subject is studied in the section on the art of the European socialist countries of the Institute for the History of the Arts, in the Institute for Slavic and Balkan Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and in subdepartments of other institutes.


In the socialist countries, theater scholarship underwent rapid development after the victory over fascism and the establishment of a people’s regime. Despite the unevenness in the level of development of theater scholarship in these countries, researchers in the field are united by a common ideology and approach, and have collaborated in publishing major studies on the national and foreign theater.

Centers of theater scholarship have been established in most of the socialist countries. New approaches have been developed as a result of studying the classical heritage of each nation, the national revolutionary traditions, and the achievements of the Soviet theater. The practical achievements and the theoretical writings of such major theatrical figures as B. Brecht (German Democratic Republic), L. Schiller (People’s Republic of Poland), B. Gavella (Federated Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia), and E. F. Burian (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic) have laid the foundations of the socialist theater.

In addition to studies by individual scholars, major collective scholarly works have been published on the national theater of the European socialist countries. They include A Century of the Bulgarian Theater, 1856–1956 (1964), The National Theater (1965), A History of the Slovak Theater (1966), A History of the Czech Theater (vols. 1–2, 1968–69), The Croatian National Theater (1969), A History of the Rumanian Theater (vols. 1–3, 1964–70), and A History of the Theater and Drama of the GDR (vols. 1–2, 1972).

A new trend in socialist theater scholarship has been the publication of joint research works on art studies. These include A Discussion of Traditions (1974), The Development and Interrelationship of Russian and Czechoslovak Art (1971), and Soviet-Hungarian Relations in Artistic Culture (1975).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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