Variety Stage

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Variety Stage


(Russian, estrada), a form of stage art. Variety shows consist of several routines by one or more performers. The routines, drawn from a number of genres, are complete in themselves and are performed independently of one another. The actors typically address the audience directly, often without assuming a role. In those cases where they do assume some role, they usually make the transformation right on the stage, sometimes putting on wigs, articles of clothing, and the like. Variety artists are known for their uninhibited style of performing and proclivity for flaunting their talents. In view of the brevity of their routines, they make extensive use of slapstick and other techniques for drawing an immediate response from the audience. They usually avoid profound psychological characterizations and try to make strong, distinct impressions.

Humor, satire, and sociopolitical commentary are of great importance on the variety stage. Performers rely largely on references to current events, often including controversial topics. The variety stage has its own specific genres, including satirical and other songs (kuplety, romansy), sketches, monologues, acrobatic dance, and magic acts.

The origins of the variety stage go back to the performances by traveling entertainers, such as the Russian skomorokh, the French jongleur, and the German Spielmänn. In Russia the performances were given primarily at popular celebrations, but beginning in the mid-18th century they were also held in temporary show booths or playhouses known as balagans. Of special note was the barker called ded-raeshnik, who attracted the public from a balcony constructed above the entrance to the balagan. Fair barkers drew crowds with satirical monologues, jokes, and aerobatic tricks. Balagan performers did sound imitations, acrobatic stunts, and magic tricks; actors appeared in one-man shows in several roles. In the second half of the 19th century the variety stage featured storytellers, singers of kuplety, and actors who appeared in farcical skits.

The evolution of the variety stage can also be traced to the divertissement, a performance given after an evening of opera and ballet or a play. Divertissements consisted of arias from operas, excerpts from ballets, and folk songs and dances. The programs of divertissements broadened in the mid-19th century, featuring appearances by solo instrumentalists, storytellers, and singers who gave renditions of kuplety and later airs and duets from operettas.

The art of the variety stage also developed in music halls, which originated in taverns and were especially common in England. Bands, choruses, and various solo performers attracted customers with topical songs, popular dances, and street ballads. The first music halls were established in London in the mid-19th century. Poets and actors performed on makeshift stages at cabarets or cafés chantants frequented by actors and artists. It was in the cabaret that the master of ceremonies first appeared. One of the first “theaters of miniatures” in Russia, Letuchaia Mysh’ (The Bat), opened in 1908, originating in a cabaret organized by actors of the Moscow Art Theater.

In the early 20th century the variety stage was enriched by jazz music. Outstanding musical groups included the jazz bands of B. Goodman, L. Armstrong, and Duke Ellington of the United States. Later vocal and instrumental groups performed folk songs with modern rhythms. Antibourgeois songs, usually also antimilitary in theme, became popular; of special note were the singers E. Busch of Germany (later German Democratic Republic) and P. Robeson and D. Reed of the United States. Other prominent singers have included J. Bekker, E. Piaf, M. Chevalier, and J. Brel of France; H. Belafonte, E. Fitzgerald, and P. Seeger of the United States; and R. Loretti of Italy. The Swiss slapstick artists Grock and Dimitri and the French mime M. Marceau are outstanding in their fields.

Variety stage dance has made use of contemporary rhythms, acrobatic stunts, and innovations borrowed from popular dance. New choreographic forms developed, for example, tap dance and precision dance. Ballet on ice is an especially noteworthy genre.

Satirical works of various genres criticized the bourgeois way of life. They won popularity in theaters for workers and students and in groups headed by progressive organizations.

Since the first days of Soviet power in Russia, progressive variety performers have devoted their art to the victorious Soviet people. They performed at the front during the Civil War of 1918–20 and in workers’ clubs and in villages. Shows featured topical monologues and songs, satirical skits, and readings of literary classics and outstanding works by Soviet writers.

In 1919 the Theater of Revolutionary Satire (Terevsat) was established in Vitebsk, and similar theaters were opened in Moscow, Petrograd, Tomsk, Baku, Kiev, and other cities in 1920. The theaters of revolutionary satire featured artists of different genres, who performed works on revolutionary themes. This tradition was continued by the Blue Blouse. Theaters of miniatures opened over the course of several years, notably the Leningrad Theater of Miniatures (directed by A. I. Raikin), the Moscow Theater of Miniatures, and the Saratov Mikro Theater. They have consistently performed contemporary works. Ideological and political content became dominant during the struggle against bourgeois ideology, vulgarity, and theatrical trash, the legacy of the prerevolutionary past. The modern variety stage is closely linked with revolutionary reality and communist party spirit. In the USSR today the variety stage has become one of the most popular of the performing arts.

Songs of the Russian people and other peoples of the USSR, as well as popular, topical, and lyrical songs, are regularly performed by groups and soloists on the variety stage. Equally popular are the dances, including folk, popular, and acrobatic dances and comedy dance routines. Stage bands, vocal and instrumental groups, and solo musicians are quite popular. Especially important are performers who stress topical humor and satire in their repertoire, including masters of ceremonies, singers, stand-up comedians, and puppeteers.

National recognition has been won by the singers L. A. Ruslanova, K. I. Shul’zhenko, L. G. Zykina, M. I. Bernes, and M. M. Magomaev. Outstanding satiric actors include V. Ia. Khenkin, N. P. Smirnov-Sokol’skii, A. I. Raikin, and the teams of L. B. Mirov and M. V. Novitskii, M. V. Mironova and A. S. Menaker, and Iu. T. Timoshenko and E. I. Berezin. Of special note is the State Variety Orchestra directed by L. O. Utesov. Moscow and Leningrad have permanent variety theaters, and music halls are found in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent. The Moscow, Leningrad, and Ukrainian ballets on ice perform regularly.

The variety stage has also developed significantly in the other socialist countries. Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic, is the home of the largest variety theater in Europe, the Friedrichstadtpalast, and of the Distel. Czechoslovakia’s Theater on Zábradlí, headed by the mime L. Fialka, and the Laterna Magika are well known. Poland has many theaters of miniatures. Numerous talented variety artists perform in Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, Mongolia, and Yugoslavia.


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