Vera Komissarzhevskaia

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Komissarzhevskaia, Vera Fedorovna


Born Oct. 27 (Nov. 8), 1864, in St. Petersburg; died Feb. 10 (23), 1910, in Tashkent. Russian actress.

The daughter of F. P. Komissarzhevskii, she took lessons in theater arts from V. N. Davydov. She made her debut during the 1888–89 season in an amateur production in St. Petersburg. In 1890–91 she appeared in Moscow in plays staged by the Society of Art and Literature, playing Betsy in L. N. Tolstoy’s The Fruits of Enlightenment, among other roles. Komissarzhevskaia worked in N. N. Sinel’nikov’s troupe in Novocherkassk and in K. N. Nezlobin’s troupe in Vilnius. A successful performer in comedies and a singer in vaudevilles, she proved her dramatic talent as an actress in the role of Rose in H. Sudermann’s Battle of the Butterflies and Larisa in A. N. Ostrovskii’s The Dowerless Girl. Invited to join the Aleksandrinskii Theater in St. Petersburg in 1896, she became one of the brightest exponents of the new artistic trends of her time.

Rebellious and imbued with the quest for a moral ideal, Komissarzhevskaia’s art reflected the mood and hopes of the prerevolutionary years. Her performance as Nina Zarechnaia in A. P. Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896) marked a new period in her own development and in the artistic development of the Russian theater as a whole. In Komissarzhevskaia, whose acting was distinguished by its special dramatic depth, thrilling quality, and subtlety, Chekhov saw a kindred artist who possessed new means of expressiveness on the stage.

Striving to develop her theme of protest and to be actively involved in life, Komissarzhevskaia dreamed of founding a theater with a progressive, contemporary repertoire. In 1902 she left the Aleksandrinskii Theater, and after spending two years touring the provinces, she opened her own theater in St. Petersburg in 1904. There she appeared with great enthusiasm in plays by Gorky (Varvara Mikhailovna in Summer People and Liza in Children of the Sun) and Ibsen (Nora in A Doll’s House). Through her art she affirmed the value of the human personality and rejected the base bourgeois morals.

Komissarzhevskaia became the favorite actress of the democratic intelligentsia. She organized concerts and read from such works as Gorky’s Song of the Falcon and Song of the Stormy Petrel. The proceeds of these concerts went to the revolutionary circles and the student movement. Komissarzhevskaia’s experiments in the symbolist theater, into which she ventured with V. E. Meyerhold in 1906 and 1907, led to bitter antagonism between her and the director. Her only new and significant role of the period was that of Beatrice in Maeterlinck’s Sister Beatrice.

After breaking with Meyerhold, Komissarzhevskaia toured North America (1908) and subsequently, the cities of Russia (1908–10). Despite the success of her professional tours, she entered a period of doubt, groping, and despair. Dissatisfied with the state of the contemporary theater, she made the decision to leave the stage in 1909 and devote her time to training a new type of actor and creating a new type of theater through a studio-school. Komissarzhevskaia did not succeed in these plans. She died of smallpox while on tour.


Markov, P. V. F. Komissarzhevskaia. Moscow, 1950.
V. F. Komissarzhevskaia. Pis’ma aktrisy. Vospominaniia o nei. Materialy. Leningrad-Moscow, 1964.
O Komissarzhevskoi: Zabytoe i novoe, Vospominaniia, Stat’i, Pis’ma. Moscow, 1965.
Dubnova, E. “M. Gor’kii i teatr V. F. Komissarzhevskoi.” Gor’kovskie chteniia: K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia pisatelia. Moscow, 1968.
Rybakova, Iu. Komissarzhevskaia. [Leningrad, 1971.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Chapter 2 provides a synopsis of early twentieth-century thought as a backdrop for a discussion of gender transgression in the Ballets Russes and Meierkhol'd's production of The Little Showbooth, and images of the 'femme fatale' (Ida Rubinshtein) and the 'femme fragile' (Vera Komissarzhevskaia).