How much does cultural embodiment influence the ways actors use their performing practices?


The richness and depth of Russian culture has always attracted theatre makers as a source for their creativeness on stage. Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis has been familiar with Russian culture and language since his childhood[i]. Among his various performances those based on the Russian literature take a special place. The Government Inspector (Revizor) by N. V. Gogol, Oblomov by I. A. Goncharov,  The Idiot by F. M. Dostoyevsky, Platonov by A. P. Chekhov, Sonya by T. Tolstaya, Shukshin’s Stories (Rasskazy Shukshina) by W. M. Shukshin – this is far from the full list of his experience staging Russian literature. In 2011, Hermanis was engaged to the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz to stage “Eugene Onegin” in Berlin. Being aware of the fact that there is probably no classical piece more read than “Eugene Onegin” in Russia, Hermanis had to consider that the most famous Pushkin’s work lacks popularity beyond the Russian border. Though the opera of the same name by P. I. Tchaikovsky is rather popular all over the world (and for some decades has been a ballet as well), Western theatre producers have not yet staged Pushkin’s novel in verse the way it has been in Russia. The dramaturge Carolla Dürr, who advised and supported the rehearsal process of “Eugene Onegin” at the Schaubühne, shared in a discussion with the Friends of the Schaubühne that the main purpose of the production by Hermanis is to “introduce the most important Russian literature classics to the German audience” and to reveal the everyday and social life in Russia of the 19th century alongside Russian national traditions which had been described by Pushkin and which still remain unknown among the Germans[ii]. So the focus of Hermanis’ performance is on the way of life in Russia in Pushkin’s lifetime. The stage set and costumes were custom-made with historical accuracy for the performance: costumes were made of the original materials in the costume workshops of Berlin; some elements of the sets were brought from Russia, while the others were designed in the workshops of the Schaubühne.


The issue of performing practices used in the performance opened perspectives for cultural embodiment. Five actors embodied the main characters of the novel and were its narrators as well as historians who allowed the audience to the backstage of Russian and European everyday life of the 19th century. It was the actors themselves who embodied the “encyclopaedia of Russian life” in the sense of V. G. Belinsky on stage. Further I will focuse on the cultural embodiment presented in the performance through the roles of historians which actors took parallel to the roles of Pushkin’s characters.


However, the text spoken by the “historians” revealed essential difference between the origin of customs and traditions described in it. Practices describing the cultural embodying in the Schaubühne production were supposed to refer to solely Russian reality. But in fact, the checked list of references revealed the description of the Western medieval traditions which were other than Russian. That is why it is important to make a clear difference between what was initially Russian way of living (e.g. bathing, fortune-telling during the twelve holy nights, providing guests with festive meals, etc.), and what was the influence of the European fashion (dandyism, dueling, speaking French instead of Russian, etc.) .


The following texts come from the performers who embodied historians and refer to the video of “Eugene Onegin” made by the Schaubühne. In my analysis of the literary script of the Schaubühne production I differentiate between 1) the national Russian customs which were established throughout the centuries, 2) manners which emerged in Russia through social, political or economical events, and 3) European influence on social traditions in the 19th century described in Pushkin’s work. So for my analysis it is remarkable to maintain that the actors while taking parts of historians did not clarify for the audience that 50 % of the texts they spoke about supposedly Russian customs and traditions referred in fact to French and other European authors who depicted manners of their countries (compare the list of references at the end of the article). In the table below I give English translation of performers’ texts and provide them with comment concerning the origin of the described manners, customs and traditions.




[i]He was born in 1965 in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Soviet republics the Russian language was one of the official languages, and Russian literature belonged to the school curriculum there.

[ii]The meeting of the Friends of the Schaubühne with the dramaturge Carolla Dürr and the set designer Elena Zykova took place in November 2011, two weeks before the premiere. As I belonged to the Friends of the Schaubühne, I could attend the meeting where I had a chance to go into detail with the dramaturge in private after the main discussion.