Vakhtangov's "Princess Turandot"

Eugene Vakhtangov’s Production of Princess Turandot

Even a rabbit can be truthful.

—Eugene Vakhtangov

 Five years after the Soviet Revolution, Russia was involved in civil war that caused deprivation, destruction, and famine. Mass transport was running irregularly; people often had to walk to and from work. During these times, Eugene Vakhtangov decided to direct and produce one of Gozzi’s brightest and most optimistic comedies, Princess Turandot.  Rehearsals would begin after the actors and their director finished performing in other plays, and often run all through the night. Actors recall walking home at three or four in the morning and feeling uneasy about the partisan warfare that escalated in Moscow during that time (Amaspuriants, 11). Vakhtangov, however, was able to make his students forget about the war, as well as lack of food, and concentrate on the objectives that he set before them. The actors had to communicate with the audience, improvise, throw around puns, and then, totally forgetting about the audience, earnestly live the sublime spiritual lives of their characters. The actors had to coordinate being actors and being characters at the same time, while also being simple and sublime.

 Vakhtangov’s ideal wasn’t easily accomplished. There is a record of one rehearsal at which actors did a great job forgetting about their roles and effectively communicating with the audience, but then were unable to get back into the roles. Time after time, Vakhtangov reminded them not to mix the actor and the character, but the realistic school of acting, which they so far had been a part of, didn’t allow them to live and act in two dimensions simultaneously. Either the characters would win over actors, or actors would win over characters, making actors unable to demonstrate a real feeling on a spur of the moment.  Knowing that Vakhtangov was dying, the actors were pushing themselves to the limit, but the limit often was very close. At one of these rehearsals, Vakhtangov got up and headed to the door.  “Please don’t go,” pleaded one of the actresses, with tears in her voice. Vakhtangov turned around and said: “This is how you should feel your lines.” The rehearsal resumed (Lazarev 267–68).        

 Eugene Vakhtangov had extensive training in the realistic school of acting. He was an exemplary student of Konstantin Stanislavski in the developmental years of the Moscow Art Theatre and the Stanislavski system. Vakhtangov was one of the best products of the Stanislavski system and, in recognition of this, he was promoted to head of the Third Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre.

 Despite his strong connections with the Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavski himself, Vakhtangov broke away from the realistic depiction of life on stage celebrated at the Moscow Art Theatre. He considered that Moscow Art Theatre fell into two pitfalls: either naturalism or mood (Vakhtangova, Vendrovski, Zakhava 256.) “To feel the role is the ABC of theatre, but to play with this feeling, to change it around, is the art of the theatre,” used to say Vakhtangov during rehearsals (Amaspuriants 53).  In his attempt to resurrect theatre on stage as well as in his search for theatrical truth, Vakhtangov turned to commedia dell’arte and began penetrating into a new, yet to be discovered, theatre.   

 Constantly building on the artistic scholarship that emanated from both Stanislavski and Meyerhold, Vakhtangov’s aim was to combine their ideas, bringing theatricality and realism closer together. In his search for a “perfect” theatrical form, Vakhtangov came up with the concept of “fantastic realism,” which he considered somewhat redundant since he believed that in any real art, realism is always enhanced by fantasy (Vakhtangova, Vendrovski, Zakhava 260.) “The correct theatrical means, when discovered, gives to the author’s work a true reality on the stage. One can study these means, but the form must be created, must be the product of the artist’s great imagination—fantasy. This is why I call it ‘fantastic realism.’ It exists in every art (Simonov 146).” Despite this description, the term created confusion: fantastic was often thought of in terms of “unreal,” when what Vakhtangov meant was “imaginative.”

 Vakhtangov’s decision to stage Carlo Gozzi’s Princess Turandot was based on the fact that it offered a fruitful ground for the actors of his studio to practice working within the boundaries of “fantastic realism.” He required that actors exercise the skills of immediate transformation in and out of character, keeping strong and alive the intensity of emotion and belief in the circumstances. Trying to exercise actors’ imaginations and ability of multi-layering, Vakhtangov asked his actors to play their characters as if they were playing Italian actors of Gozzi’s era, who were presenting Princess Turandot. He suggested that actors develop visible connections with each other as the actors of an “Italian troupe.” For example, Adelma, who was playing being desperately in love with Prince Kalaf, had to imagine that she was in love with the actor playing Kalaf as a member of an “Italian troupe.” In this vein, her feeling for him would’ve been “real,” even if it was theatrically acted out in the play itself. Vakhtangov also had the actress imagine that in the “Italian troupe” she was the wife of the director who always cast her in tragic roles. He created this adaptation for her in order to add willful and unrestrained gestures, queen-like movements and a certain tragic note to her character. (The story of Princess Turandot depicts Adelma as the King’s daughter, who was taken into slavery after a certain war. Queen-like gestures, as well as personal tragedy, thus were justified.) Vakhtangov instructed an actress playing Zelima, Turandot’s second servant, to play a lazy actress of the Italian troupe, who would rather sleep than act (Ladger 24).   Without knowing it, the audience was thrice removed from the reality—a unique impersonation of a Platonian critique of theatre as being thrice removed from the Truth. Thus, the audience saw actors of the Third Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1922 playing Italian actors of 1761 playing characters of Gozzi’s Princess Turandot.

 Originally, Vakhtangov wanted the play to begin in a following manner: four characteristically dressed commedia dell’arte masks would wander into auditorium and realizing that they are in the theatre, decide to put on a play using available actors backstage.  This idea was later reject and the action of Princess Turandot began with a festive march. While the curtain was still lowered, masks appeared on stage and announced, “The presentation of the fairy tale of Carlo Gozzi’s Princess Turandot begins…Parade! (Simonov 169).”  The actors participating in the production paraded onto the stage in their evening gowns. Advancing to the footlights, actors were introduced to the audience by the Masks, who made sure to add an unexpected joke hinting either at the character the actor would be playing or the actor himself; for example, “the role of Timur, Father of Prince Kalaf, will be played by an actor Zakhava. There are only three words in Russian that end in -va, Zakhava, korova, (cow) and halva.” When introducing Turandot’s slaves, Truffaldino would comment: “They are all part of the oppressed proletariat (Amaspuriants 15).”

 Devices such as these jokes, spoken five years after the revolution, offered a connecting point for the audience between the material (Gozzi’s Fairy Tale) and their lives in contemporary Russia. This naturally made the audience engaged and extremely receptive to the information presented on stage. It is important to note that the Masks never exposed their actors’ selves, as did other actors. Offering a connection to the contemporary world via jokes and political comments, the Masks were not demystified. They remained an honest theatrical element, which even though it connected the audience with the action of the play, still executed it in a theatrical fashion.       

The Masks’ jokes in the play were constantly changing, since Vakhtangov encouraged his students to find new contemporary jokes, improvising in the manner of commedia del’ arte. Describing one of his first rehearsals of Princess Turandot, in which he played Truffaldino, Ruben Simonov remembers that Vakhtangov sent the four Masks (Truffaldino, Brighuella, Pantalone, and Tartaglia) on stage, asking them to improvise:

                        “What is the theme of our improvisation?” one of us asked timidly.

                         “It’s your choice,” replied Vakhtangov…

We had not one idea, not one theme, for the improvisation. Thus passed agonizing           minutes; minutes which seemed like hours to us on the stage. …Suddenly, one of us went backstage and brought out a large basket and arranged it over his shoulder with a rope, like a bread-seller would do. He put a large loaf of bread into it, which we, not being able to think of anything else to do, began to eat. …Some sounds were uttered, some exclamations, and finally words.…One of the spontaneously spoken phrases on stage received a reaction of laughter.…Encouraged by that reaction of laughter, another Mask ran backstage and returned with a lady’s large hat, the kind that fashionable ladies used to wear long ago. The Mask put it on most awkwardly. That brought forth some rolling laughter from the audience. We began to feel better and better (Simonov 156–57).”         

Consequently, the jokes used in the productions were born in rehearsals and not composed by Vakhtangov himself. Of course, actors often would come up with “improvised” scenes at home, but these scenes were kept only if they fulfilled Vakhtangov’s strict qualifications: they had to be simple and naïve (as were the jokes of popular comedy); they had to be aesthetic and artistic; and they had to contribute to an overall context of the play’s three levels of reality (Russia of 1922, Italy of 1761, and Fairyland China). Actors playing Masks were put into an improvisation mindset and encouraged to be on track with what happened outside the theatre world in order to be able to come up with new improvisations on “hot” subjects continuously.

The set design of Princess Turandot contributed to “fantastic realism,” since it was hinting at Fairyland China and easily arranged to accommodate different parts of the play.  The stage was inclined toward the audience and separated into small platforms with a sharp wooden column in the middle and gymnastic trapezes and rings, as well as ladders and balconies. Sun and mood indicated the time of day. By use of creative drapery, the stage was transformed into a street of Peking or a throne hall.

Upon Truffaldino’s command (a circus-like “Hop!”), actors began gracefully draping themselves into pieces of material, which were lying around in structured chaos in the middle of the stage, facilitating the transformation from actors to characters right on the spot. When this dress-up was finished, the actors would run up to the footlights, exhibiting their costumes to the audience. Such a beginning created a festive and theatrical atmosphere, engaging the audience in the future action and the fates of the characters of the play by establishing the connection between the audience and the actors as well as breaking the “audience’s suspension of disbelief” right from the start (Ledger 20).

A few zanni, playing stage managers, would come out and pull down a curtain with a picture of a traditional Chinese town with a name of the city “Peking” written on it in large big letters. Happy music followed, which contrasted greatly with the story of Kalaf’s misfortunes that he narrated to his old tutor, Barach, whom he met on the street of Peking. The depth of feeling exhibited by Prince Kalaf during his reflection on the horrible experience that his family had to face captivated the audience. According to Simonov, “The character of the communion between those two on the stage in that scene could be defined as a ‘communion with the audience through the partner (174).’” In the middle of Kalaf’s narrative, Ishmael came in carrying the most cursed and horrifying object in Peking: the picture of cruel, but amazingly gorgeous, Princess Turandot. Possessing a severe hatred for men, Turandot influenced her father to sign a decree according to which, anyone who wants to marry her had to guess three riddles. If he were to succeed, she would become his wife; if not, he would be beheaded.  Her portrait produced a magical hypnotic effect on any man who looked at it, making him fall in love with her. The result of this decree was highly visible: heads (represented by cushions) on spears were seen on the way to the palace (Ledger 28).

 Even more captivating, in light of Kalaf’s past misfortunes, seemed to the audience the courage and daring with which Kalaf got hold of a portrait of the cruel Princess Turandot from the ground without listening to Barach’s warning. “I have never come across a woman who could make me look twice at her, much less one who could cut me to the heart. And I mean a living woman, Barach.… I have gloomier things to think about than love,” says the Prince, while picking up Turandot’s portrait from the ground (Gozzi 135). And… How can one convincingly portray love at first sight when looking not at a person, but at her portrait? Vakhtangov warned his actors that in this moment, they should refrain from any irony; He recognized that falling in love on stage is not an action that could be accomplished in few easy steps, since something deeply personal had to be exhibited by the actor in order for the audience to believe it.

 A sound resembling that of thunder was heard and Kalaf would jump back as if he were actually hit by a lightning bolt. The lyric music followed. Staring at the portrait, Kalaf would extend his hand far out, as if being unable to handle the heat from that inexpressible beauty depicted in the portrait. Shocked and overwhelmed, Kalaf would move the portrait from one angle to another, making the audience impatient to see it. During these moments, everyone in the audience would fantasize what is depicted on the portrait and, in their imagination, draw a picture of what they personally considered to be the height of feminine beauty. After teasing the audience and giving it some time to imagine Turandot, Kalaf would finally turn the portrait to face the audience. What does it see?  A caricature of woman’s profile with a crown on her head, drawn in one pencil stroke. This connection between the real and the theatrical is possible to achieve only if the actor is extremely capable of convincingly portraying a true feeling of love before those in the audience see the caricature and are reminded once again that they are in the theatre

(Amaspuriants 29; Simonov 17-175).

 Meanwhile, the stage servants transformed the place into the palace of Khan Altoum. Truffaldino and Briguella came out on stage, scolding the latecomers in the audience, confronting them directly as to why they were late. At times, the latecomers would enter into conversation with Masks, which would make the audience part of the show and theatrically transcend the border that separates footlights and the auditorium.

After scolding the latecomers, Truffaldino and Briguella would begin their comic interaction that would change from performance to

performance. Often, their satire would touch on the current productions of the Moscow Art Theatre, as well as prominent critics, performers, and theatre issues in general (Simonov 175).  For example, when roaring news of an international conference in Genoa was on the front page of every newspaper, Maly Theatre had just put on Schiller’s play called Conspiracy in Fiesco. These events were virtually unrelated, but Truffaldino was able to connect them in the following manner: “In Moscow they are giving a play in the Maly Theatre, ‘Fiasco of the Conspiracy in Genoa’ (Simonov 176).” This simple and naïve joke nevertheless reflected the spirit of the time.

 The second scene took place in the palace of Khan Altoum, Turandot’s father. Khan’s servants and wise men’s entrance, like all other entrances, were carefully choreographed to express sacred-like respect for the awaited Highness. When His Highness did enter, he was nothing like the audience expected him to be, due to the solemn “prayer-like” manner in which his servants awaited his entrance. He was old, shabby, and out of breath; he complained of his cruel daughter and was ready to cry at “the slightest provocation (Simonov 177).” After each statement, the royal music began and the entire escort fell down on the floor, fulfilling the old ritual of prostration in front of the Khan. Khan mourned that despite having a whole palace full of wise men, there was no one to advise him how to deal with his cruel daughter.

 “Shocked” by this injustice, Pantalone jumped forth. Then, remembering that he is playing an old man, he would start walking and talking as one. Exhibiting a state of deep thought, he would say: “Ah! Yes, yes, yes, yes.” “What did you say, P-P-Pantalone?” Tartaglia suddenly stuttered. “I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, and yes,’” repeated Pantalone. “Well said!” concluded Tartaglia, with respect (Simonov 178).

 When it was time for Turandot and her servants to enter, they did so in a dance that was staged as a parody of Isadora Duncan’s dances. Turandot came last, her face covered by a veil in order to hide her beauty. One of the wise men read a decree in Chinese and translated it to Russian, announcing that if the courageous hand-seeker does not guess three riddles, he will be beheaded (Simonov 178).

 At this moment, Vakhtangov added an interesting shade to Turandot’s character: He asked the actress playing the Princess to beg Kalaf, earnestly utilizing all of her charm and feminine powers, to abandon this idea. Exhibiting her vulnerability, Turandot said in a soft, melodic voice: “Prince, do not attempt this fatal trial. Whatever lies you have heard about me, the gods know that I am not heartless.” And then with added metal in her voice: “But I abhor your sex (Gozzi 144).” Upon hearing the Prince’s answer, her voice became sharp and, as if getting ready for a fight, she began stating the riddles (Amaspuriants 41).

In order to build intensity, the first two riddles were pronounced in the following manner: The Princess would state the riddle and then everyone, except the Prince, would repeat it after her, imitating her rhythm and manner of speech. Some time would elapse in dead silence, both on stage and in the auditorium. Once, Kalaf had given the right answer, Vakhtangov instructed the actress playing Turandot not to get angry at him, but to intensify the fight. She became even more concentrated and alert, thinking of ways to make him lose. Approaching the third riddle, Turandot’s tension, along with everyone else’s, was felt in the audience.  Grasping hold of herself and subverting everyone to her will, she increased the tempo for the third riddle, at the end of which, like an animal jumping at its prey, she lifted up her veil, causing Prince, along with everyone in the Palace, to almost faint upon seeing her beauty. “Look at my face, and dare not tremble!” said Turandot in a witch-like voice. Regaining his control, the Prince slowly repeated the last riddle. At his every word, the tension grew on stage as well as in the audience. Upon coming to a right answer, Vakhtangov instructed the actor playing Kalaf to not withhold his joy of triumph and of anticipated reward, but to let it resonate powerfully in his voice (Amaspuriants 41, 47; Simonov 180).

What is more difficult then portraying real sorrow on stage? Portraying real happiness. But only if the actor is able to achieve it will his joy inspire the audience and his fellow actors. Vakhtangov believed that without the depth of feeling, Princess Turandot would have been an empty form. However, without the form, it would’ve been a melodrama. That’s why Vakhtangov was working on combining the festivity and theatricality of form with the depth and sincerity of content. When reviving the performance of Princess Turandot almost forty years later, Simonov would say that Vakhtangov represented a combination of Stanislavski and Meyerhold (Amaspuriants 12), and it seems that is exactly what Vakhtangov wanted to achieve in Art.

After Kalaf solved the third riddle, “uncontrollable” joy filled the stage. Kalaf was picked up by ministers and rocked in the air; Khan Altoum cried again, but these were the tears of joy (Simonov 180). Recovering from her shock, Turandot prostrated herself in front of her father, begging him to schedule another day for retesting. “I’ll die before you can subject me to this arrogant man and before I consent to become his wife. The very word ‘wife’ is enough to kill me (Gozzi, 149).” Prince Kalaf took pity on Turandot and offered her a counter riddle:

                   Who is the prince who fed his father

                   By carrying burdens and begging his bread?

                   Who is the prince who loved a princess,

                   And answered her riddles while risking his head.

                   The prince whose bad fortune gave way to his fame,

                   Yet still is unfortunate – what is his name? (Gozzi 150).

By morning, she should name him and his father. Everyone left the stage in a ceremonial dance. Turandot proceeded without looking at Kalaf and proudly holding her head. Truffaldino announced intermission.

 During the opening night of Princess Turandot, the first intermission took twice as long as it should because Stanislavski left to visit the dying Vakhtangov at home, and personally congratulated him with a historic performance.

The second act began with Adelma’s monologue. She recognized the prince because she knew and loved him long ago, when she still lived in her kingdom. Since he was in exile, he used a different name and hid his rank, but she always felt that he was noble-born and loved him for five years. She conspired to win the prince’s heart and leave this land where she is a slave together with him.

Turandot’s theme played and Adelma hid. In a particular walk (musically choreographed small steps), Turandot came in with her servants. “Who is the prince who fed his father…?” pondered Turandot; “Who is the prince who fed his father?” repeated her servants in unison, while looking at each other and noting that something had changed in Turandot. Zelima, who took great fancy in Kalaf, urged Turandot to give up her pride and marry Kalaf, while Adelma reminded Turandot about her honor. Thus, following their speeches, Turandot either sighed about Prince Kalaf or hated him (Amaspuriants 55). Vakhtangov instructed the actress playing Zelima to act as a spiritual therapist in this scene, using her words as a magic elixir to remove hatred from Turandot’s heart and pour in love and kindness, while Adelma fights with her words for her freedom, inciting the feeling of shame that Turandot has lived through when the prince guessed her riddles (Amaspuriants 52–57).

The next scene represented another comic interlude. The Masks decided to find ways to learn the prince’s name. First, Truffaldino put a scarf on his head and, acting as a young female admirer, went up to the prince, asking in a soft voice for his autograph: “Your Highness, I am an admirer of your talent.” He names many real shows that Juri Zavadski, an actor playing Kalaf, participated in. “I always carry your picture with me next to my heart,” says Truffaldino, while getting the picture out from the back pocket of his pants. When this scheme failed, Briguella came up with another: in a businesslike manner, he informed the prince that the latter has a good chance of losing his head (not metaphorically). Due to that probability, Briguella encouraged the prince to buy insurance for his head, so that if it gets cut off, the prince will be compensated two rubles and eighty-seven kopeks. In order to carry out this deal, the prince needed to fill out insurance papers and specify his name. When this scheme failed as well, Truffaldino went into the auditorium and borrowed a playbill from an audience member to check out the name of the main character. Having trouble reading, the Masks finally make it out letter by letter: Rigoletto. Apparently they were given an opera playbill. “Something about summer vacation…” says Briguella. (Leto in Russian means “summer” and Riga was one of the most popular vacation destinations.) (Amaspuriants 66). Having exhausted all means without any result, the Masks arrest Prince Kalaf (by handing him ropes which he takes in his hands) and telling him to go to prison on his own.

The third act began with zanni’s comic interlude introducing a possible ending for the play. Instead of changing the scenery, zanni pantomimed the whole play, beginning with the parade and ending with the princess guessing the prince’s name and the prince stabbing himself.  Thus, this play within a play, prepared the audience for a tragic ending, working off contrasts, since everyone in the audience hoped for a happy ending (Ledger 61–62).

The scene after the pantomime was structurally similar to the first act: On the streets of Peking, Barach bumped into Kalaf’s father, King Timur, who has also lived through a series of misfortunes: his kingdom was captured and his wife (Kalaf’s mother) died in an asylum for the poor. The meeting didn’t last long, though, because both Barach and Timur were arrested by Masks, who knew of Barach’s friendship with Prince Kalaf.

Next came the “night scene” that, due to its unique atmosphere, was considered to be the best scene in the play: “The poetic talent of Vakhtangov, which is the essence of his regisseur’s style, reveals itself most powerfully in this scene. …Apart from working with actors to bring out the inner life of the characters, Vakhtangov considered music, the rhythm of words and movements, as the stimuli of the actor’s feelings (Simonov 184–85).” The scene began with night chimes to indicate that everyone was asleep. Skorina, Zelima, and Adelma, respectively, passed before half-asleep Prince Kalaf as apparitions. Next, Briguella came in to guard the prince. According to Vakhtangov’s direction, Briguella had to be extremely scared of the dark. During rehearsals, this presented a problem for the actor, since Vakhtangov didn’t want him to play being really scared (as an actor); Briguella had to be scared in character, i.e., a slow and not extremely bright Mask, who in this play also held a guarding job. “Vakhtangov was accomplishing the necessary results by purely directorial devices… expressed by perfect silence, moonlight, and deep darkness which made the corners of the stage mysterious (Simonov 186).”  Vakhtangov asked Briguella to run from one corner of the stage to the other and finally take his post next to Kalaf, not because he was assigned to protect him, but out of fear for his own life. Soon, Briguella was sound asleep on the floor.

The first apparition that visited the prince was Skorina, Mother of Zelima and Barach’s wife. She shocked the prince with the news of his father being in town and captured, together with Barach. She didn’t withhold from him the fact that his mother died in the asylum for the poor. Shocked and overwhelmed, Kalaf lost his balance. Holding on to this moment, Skorina asked him to write a note to his father saying that he is not in danger and sign it. Kalaf started to write the note, but realizing that she wanted to trick him into giving away his name, became more cautious. Skorina left without being able to get the prince’s name.

The succeeding apparition is Zelima, who, upon Vakhtangov’s instruction, behaved as if she were infatuated with the prince. Sent by Turandot, she also needed to find out the prince’s name. Her approach was different, though. Appealing to his love, Zelima urged the prince not to put Turandot to shame and let her guess his name. Vakhtangov instructed the actor playing Kalaf (Zavadski) to play with Zelima as a cat would with a mouse. Kalaf saw her intentions, and she has to leave without accomplishing what she came for.

As in every traditional fairytale, the third attempt was the most important. The night grew darker, and just when Kalaf decided to get some sleep, he was awakened by Adelma. This is how Ruben Simonov describes this scene: “In the scene Vakhtangov possessed extraordinary skill in using such subtle means of building a scene that it involved the actor’s whole being into ‘the music of action and words’.  … The scene embodies the elemental, violent love of Adelma for Kalaf, and the unreciprocated love of Kalaf for Princess Turandot. …The scene is filled with that gamut of emotion s which the audience took in as a musical composition, in which one melody, following the other, grows, widens, joins with a new melody; then finally all the thoughts, all the melodies and feelings, fuse into one powerful and tender melody (188).” Adelma came to urge Kalaf run away with her. To strengthen her argument, she convinced the prince that Turandot had ordered that he be killed tomorrow. She offered him her love and (as he saw it) his life. Mourning Turandot’s treachery, Kalaf, nevertheless, couldn’t bring himself to follow Adelma. He considered it an honor to die from the hand of his beloved, and a dishonor to steal a servant of Khan Altoum. However, upon hearing that Turandot wanted him dead, Kalaf lost control of himself and uttered his name along with that of his father. Rejected as a woman, Adelma betrayed Kalaf and told Princess Turandot the answer to Kalaf’s riddle.

It seems that noble and sublime feelings elevated this scene to the heights of Greek tragedy, which also served as Vakhtangov’s inspiration for PrincessTurandot. In addition to other adjustments, he saw Adelma in this scene as Antigone fighting for justice. But the actors needed to be sincere (see description of the rehearsal on page 1). If that didn’t happen, the scene would lose its beauty and fall into melodrama (Amaspuriants 85).

The last scene in the play was the shortest. Turandot pronounced Kalaf’s name. Seeing him reach for the dagger so he could kill himself, Turandot stopped him and confessed that she also loved him and that she cheated, because it was Adelma who told her their names. Unable to control herself longer, Adelma professed her hatred for Turandot: “You will always be in danger if Adelma’s near (Gozzi 181).”  Kalaf pleaded on her behalf to Khan Altoum, together with Turandot, who added emphasis on the word “go”: “I ask it too, Father. … Let her GO… free (182, my emphasis).” Pitying Adelma, Khan Altoum not only set her free, but returned the kingdom he took from her father long time ago. The happy ending was thus intensified by Turandot’s proclamation to all men in the audience that having seen the nobility and courage of men, she doesn’t hate them any longer. The last words of the play deviated slightly from Gozzi’s text; In Vakhtangov’s production, Turandot said: “Let it be known, dear men, that I love you all (Amaspuriants 94).”

According to Simonov, the challenge that had to be confronted in the last scene was the depiction of so many important events happening one after another: “If the regisseur presented every episode with all its details, the finale of the play would be too long and it would be overburdened (189).” Vakhtangov worked on creating an overall joyous mood. As for details, he let the audience paint them for itself by providing hints and suggestions. “To express the thought more precisely, the audience—now in possession of all the facts—completes the play for the actors (190).”

The end of the play was similar in structure to its beginning. Upon Truffaldino’s command, the actors unwrapped the material that constituted their costumes and took off all accessories belonging to their characters. Truffaldino commanded, “Hop!” and all the actors ran to the footlights for their bows. They bade farewell to the audience and left the stage as actors, not as characters.

After the opening of Princess Turandot, Vakhtangov’s name and his directing style became extremely popular (post-mortem). His influence was evident in many studios and small theatre productions when actors would address the audience and comment on the action. However, even his faithful student, Ruben Simonov, when reviving Princess Turandot, wasn’t able to come close to that miracle that Vakhtangov was able to facilitate on the stage of the Third Studio of Moscow Art Theatre in the midst of civil war and a general deficit of food and transportation. Princess Turandot rang true in the hearts of Soviet people, since it represented a very optimistic view of the future, both of theatre and of revolution, given that one of the integral parts of accepted Soviet art style called “social realism” was social optimism, because a positive outlook on the future naturally implied a positive outlook on revolution.

It is not clear how Vakhtangov felt about the Revolution. What is clear is that Vakhtangov directed Princess Turandot, knowing that he was dying (due to illness, he couldn’t attend opening night and died a few days later). Despite the condition of his health during rehearsals (he would often rehearse with a high fever, wrapping his head in a wet towel), and the conditions of post-revolutionary Russia, Vakhtangov demonstrated that one’s imagination is never limited by circumstances. In the midst of cold, hungry, and dangerous times, Vakhtangov was able to bring a holiday of theatricality to the audience, conveying to them that one can be happy despite traumatizing conditions, by releasing the power of one’s imagination.


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Lazarev, S.N. Diagnostika Karmi. V. 2. St. Petersburg:  Leninzdat, 1999.

Ledger, Joanne. Transgression of Boundaries in Vakhtangov's Production of Turandot. Slavic Studies University of Ottawa, 1990.

Listengarten, Julia. Russian Tragifarce and its Cultural and Political Roots. PhD University of Michigan, 1996

Simonov, Ruben. Stanislavsky's Protege: Eugene Vakhtangov. Trans. Miriam Goldina. Ed. Miriam Goldina and Helen Choat. New York: DBS Publications, Inc. Drama Book Specialists, 1969.

Vakhtangova, N.M., Vendrovskii L.D., Zakhava, B.E., ed. Zapiski, Pis'Ma, Stat'i. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1939. 

©  Russian American Dramatic Arts Theatre

Great documentary on Vakhtangov's heritage: