Moscow Art Theater Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The founding of the Moscow Art Theater marked a watershed in Russian theater. Rejecting artificiality and stereotype, the founders sought artistic truth in production and repertoire, reaching a new height in naturalism and realism with the plays of Anton Chekhov and the ensemble acting of the company.

Summary of Event

On June 21, 1897, Konstantin Stanislavsky, a member of an affluent merchant family, and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, an aristocrat and small landowner, met in the Slaviansky Bazaar restaurant in Moscow. They talked for eighteen hours about the state of Russian theater, adjourning to Stanislavsky’s country house in Liubimovka for breakfast. The result of their conversation became the foundation of the Moscow Art Theater. Moscow;theater Russia;theater Theater;Russian Stanislavsky, Konstantin [kw]Moscow Art Theater Is Founded (Oct. 14, 1898) [kw]Art Theater Is Founded, Moscow (Oct. 14, 1898) [kw]Theater Is Founded, Moscow Art (Oct. 14, 1898) [kw]Founded, Moscow Art Theater Is (Oct. 14, 1898) Moscow;theater Russia;theater Theater;Russian Stanislavsky, Konstantin [g]Russia;Oct. 14, 1898: Moscow Art Theater Is Founded[6345] [c]Theater;Oct. 14, 1898: Moscow Art Theater Is Founded[6345] Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vladimir Chekhov, Anton Morozov, Savva

As a young businessman, Stanislavsky, whose childhood had been filled with performances in his family’s house, divided his time between his office and acting in amateur companies. Chairman of the Society of Arts and Letters, he assembled a company of amateurs and professional actors and, between 1888 and 1896, acted in and directed a great range of plays; but he envisioned a more organized theatrical enterprise.

Educated at Moscow University, Nemirovich-Danchenko was a prize-winning dramatist (his play The Worth of Life was awarded the Griboyedov prize in 1896), a drama critic, and a teacher of acting at the Philharmonic Dramatic School. Like many of the intelligentsia, he was dissatisfied with Russian theater. No formal theater existed in Russia until 1672, when Czar Alexis commissioned two Germans to produce plays in his palace. During the next two centuries, imperial theaters were established in St. Petersburg and Moscow, subsidized and controlled by the court, a monopoly that existed until 1882.

Private theaters also existed, as landowners and aristocrats conscripted serfs and trained them to be actors. With the emancipation of 1861, many former serfs migrated to the cities to work in factories and industry, where they formed amateur dramatic circles. However, the visit of the German Meiningen Players in 1885 astonished audiences with their realistic attention to the minutiae of life, as well as revealing the shortcomings of Russian enterprises.

Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, each of whom had gained more than decade of theatrical experience, felt that reforms were necessary in the Russian theater. They deplored the lack of artistry and accuracy in scenic design and costume, the lack of discipline in acting companies, and the general behavior of audiences. In their marathon conversation, they had agreed to create a theater that would be an educational institution for both actors and audiences and that certain stage conventions of the eighteenth century, such as stereotyped intonations and gestures, false pathos, and declamation, would be eliminated.

Furthermore, they agreed to assemble a pool of actors, with no stars, who would be guided by a director. Finally, they agreed upon an equal division of responsibility: Nemirovich-Danchenko for the literary content, Stanislavsky for the production form, with each holding veto power. One fundamental disagreement emerged in later years: Nemirovich-Danchenko felt that the production should serve the playwright; Stanislavsky felt that all aspects of the production—text, setting, costumes, props, actors—contributed equally to the totality of the work of art. Financing such an organization would be a problem, but after months of unsuccessful fund-raising, the producers enlisted Savva Morozov Morozov, Savva , a wealthy Russian industrialist who became a major investor and later a shareholder in the theater.

The company, which included fourteen actors from Stanislavsky’s Society of Arts and Letters and twelve from Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Philharmonic Drama School, began rehearsals of three plays in June, 1898. Because the Hermitage Theater was unavailable that summer, they secured a barn in Pushkino, outside Moscow, where they lived as a community, bound by an artistic and ideological unity, as only the young, dedicated, and enthusiastic can be. The choice for the opening was a play by Aleksey K. Tolstoi Tolstoi, Aleksey K. (1817-1875), Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch, a romantic, historical play that idealized sixteenth century Russia and had been banned by censors for thirty years.

The company began with a reading of the play, and followed with long discussions and analyses. All production elements—visual, musical, and verbal—were to merge into an organic whole, surrounded by a wealth of naturalistic detail. Perhaps influenced by the Meiningen Company, members of the Moscow Art Theater journeyed to towns, fairs, and monasteries to seek out authentic objects from the sixteenth century.

On October 14, 1898, Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch opened, and it astounded the audience. The visual aspects—the Archangel’s Cathedral, the czar’s apartments in the Kremlin, the processions of dignitaries, the costumes of the noblemen—all presented an authentic picture of sixteenth century Russia. Less noticeable to the public but no less innovative was simple and true-to-life acting. This naturalistic approach to production was revolutionary in the Russian theater. Although the reviews were not totally positive, the public embraced the Moscow Art Theater enthusiastically and Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch was a success, both artistically and financially. Not so the other plays of the first season: The Merchant of Venice, Antigone, La Locandiera, Twelfth Night, and The Sunken Bell were critical and financial failures.

The last play of the season was Anton Chekhov’s Chekhov, Anton The Seagull. Chekhov, successful as a short-story writer, had mild success with his play Ivanov, but the first production of The Seagull at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg had been a miserable failure, and he vowed never to write another play. Nemirovich-Danchenko, however, liked The Seagull, and although Stanislavsky strongly disagreed, Nemirovich-Danchenko Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vladimir persuaded Chekhov to release the play to the Moscow Art Theater and included it in its 1898-1899 repertoire.

Playwright Anton Chekhov.

(Library of Congress)

The Moscow Art Theater was in a financial crisis; its continued existence depended upon The Seagull’s success. The opening on December 29, 1898, was a tense one for the entire company. The play’s emphasis upon trivial but significant details, the importance of subtext, and the lack of both a hero and a linear plot demanded a new theatrical language, but the theater’s company, trained in realism, rose to the challenge. Even before the curtain had closed, the audience was in a celebratory frenzy. A new era had begun in the Russian theater.


Chekhov’s Chekhov, Anton three other plays—Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard—were produced by the Moscow Art Theater in succeeding seasons. He became identified with the theater, and the theater adopted the seagull for its logo. During the decades that followed its founding, the theater had its successes and failures, while Stanislavsky became increasingly involved with the process of acting. The Stanislavsky method, which continued to evolve into the 1930’s, sought to provide the actor with conscious means to evoke the creative unconscious. Performing a physical action truthfully was a means to plumb the psychological Psychology;in literature[Literature] truth of the moment, and terms such as “subtext,” “given circumstances,” “super-objective,” and “the magic if” entered the language of actor training.

The theater altered production values throughout Europe and, after its phenomenal 1920’s tour, influenced production values in the United States, particularly with its ensemble acting. The Stanislavsky method, available in his books An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, provided the basis for actor training in the Western world. His successors, Richard Boleslavsky, Michael Chekhov Chekhov, Michael , Lee Strasberg, and Paula Strasberg, the actors of the Group Theater of the 1930’s, and their descendants in academic institutions continue to train actors using basic principles and exercises.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benedetti, Jean. “Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre 1887-1938.” In A History of Russian Theatre, edited by Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A concise description of the relationship of Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Genard, Gary. “The Moscow Art Theatre’s 1923 Season in Boston: A Visit from on High?” Theatre History Studies 16 (1996): 15-43. Includes Stanislavsky’s impressions of the United States and quotations from American reviews of the Moscow Art Theater’s productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vladimir. My Life in the Russian Theatre. Translated by John Cournos. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1968. An autobiographical, anecdotal account of Nemirovich-Danchenko’s relationships with Chekhov, Stanislavsky, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, and the Moscow Art Theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slonim, Marc. Russian Theater from the Empire to the Soviets. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1961. A thorough account of the beginnings, evolution, and eventual decline of the Moscow Art Theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanislavski, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1989. Written as the diary of an acting student learning the first exercises of the Stanislavsky method.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Building a Character. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1989. Describes external ways to achieve a physical characterization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Creating a Role. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapbood. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1989. Completes the trilogy and relates the elements of the system to specific plays and roles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. My Life in Art. Translated by J. J. Robbins. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1948. An autobiography describing the beginnings of the Stanislavski system. Lists productions of the Moscow Art Theater from 1898 to 1921.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swift, E. Anthony. Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Locates the Moscow Art Theater within the context of Russian entertainment. Includes photographs.

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Categories: History