This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 18. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 6-11.

The Religious drama in its earliest form, that of Mysteries, was introduced into Russia from Poland in the beginning of the twelfth century. As Tiechonravoff states in his Origin of the Russian Theatre, they were known under the name of Religious Dialogues, or simply as Histories, and were at first played exclusively in monasteries; nor is it till 1603 that we read of their being performed by students in the universities and public schools in Polish or Latin. The earliest Latin Dialogue that has come down to us is entitled Adam, and bears on its title page the date of 1507; the earliest in Polish is The Life of the Savior From His Entry Into Jerusalem, and was composed by a Dominican of Cracow, in the year 1533. The latter describes the closing events in Christ's earthly career so minutely that it consists of more than a hundred scenes, and four days were required for its presentation.


So far, the history of the early drama in Russia does not differ from that of other countries. But there was another class of dramatic representations peculiar to Russia, and which were as essentially popular as the Mysteries were ecclesiastical. These were exhibited in a species of perambulating booth called "Vertep," and divided into three stories; the first and third of which were occupied by the performing figures, the middle one being devoted to the machinery necessary to put the marionettes in motion. They formed the chief attraction at the large fairs held in the principal cities during the Christmas holidays, and the card-figures consisted of the Virgin, Joseph, the Savior, Angels, Shepherds, and the Magi. As might be expected in these Christmas pieces, the Nativity and the Massacre of the Innocents usually formed the subjects. To represent the latter, other characters were introduced, including Herod, Death, in the shape of a skeleton, and the Devil, who came in at the end to carry off the soul of the godless monarch.

Like the Mysteries, the Vertep plays were at first of a strictly religious character, but were gradually changed into rude satires on contemporary life and manners. In their earlier form they were patronized by the clergy, who constantly lent their churches for these performances, but later they were strictly forbidden. The severest ecclesiastical prohibitions, however, were of no avail, and they continued to enjoy popular favor till as late as the seventeenth century. Nor that the Church ever neglected the drama as a means of educating the people. It had its three annual scenic festivals, or acts. The first represented the delivery of the Three Children from the furnace of fire, and was played at Christmas both in Moscow and Novgorod; the second, dating from the fifteenth century, represented the entry of the Savior into Jerusalem, and was performed on Palm Sunday; the third, played on Sunday in Carnival week, was preceeded by religious ceremonies of unusual solemnity, and depicted the final judgment.

Very few of these Mysteries have been preserved, and those that we possess are characterized by the same peculiarities which have been remarked in a previous volume in connection with English miracle-plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There is a similar confusion of the terms tragedy and comedy in their titles, an equally profound indifference to chronology, and a like mixture of real with imaginary personages. Thus, in the so-called "pitiful comedy" of Adam and Eve, printed at Kiev about 1675, it is only the prologue that is in any way concerned with the story of our first parents; the four acts of which it is composed being devoted to the exploits of Alexis Michaelovitch, and both biblical and allegorical personages mingle freely with historical characters throughout the drama. Some of the Mysteries were written with a polemical object. The author, for instance, of The Martyrdom of Stephen, evidently a Catholic, divulges the intention with which his play was produced, when he tells us in the prologue that "Peter was undeservedly deprived of his supremacy," and further dilates on the "juggling tricks" of Sophia, who, contrary to all justice, had "usurped her brother's rights."

It is, however, to the Vertep that we trace the origin of the modern Russian theatre. As already remarked, these shows began, from about the middle of the seventeenth century, to lose their exclusively religious character, and, in place of biblical legends, represented humorous scenes, in which history and the follies of the period were broadly caricatured. This latter form of drama corresponds to the English interludes, which were most in favor a little before the time of Shakespeare. Of the verteps which have been preserved, the majority have at least one rascolnik among their personages, the word, though originally meaning a schismatic, being commonly applied to those separatists who adhered to the use of the mass-books and rituals such as they were before their revision by Nikon. The opposition made by these sectarians to the religious reform inaugurated by the government afforded an unfailing theme of satire. In one of them, the rascolnik laments the back-slidings of the age, which has so far lapsed from the pure faith that "even old believers began to wear coats in lieu of the long flowing robe, and to shave their beards," innovations sufficiently startling to justify the prediction that "before long Antichrist will appear on earth." In 1705, about which time the play was produced, an imperial decree had been issued, recommending, and in some cases commanding, government clerks to adopt the foreign mode of dress and to shave the beard. This edict was at variance, not only with fashion, but with the old Russian proverb: "Man is made in God's image. Witness his beard." Thus it provoked so much opposition that a certain priest was commissioned by the synodical authorities to write a tract, "On the Image and Likeness of God in Man," in which a number of learned arguments are adduced from the Bible and the Fathers to prove that the beard may be cut off without imperilling salvation or losing the marks of our heavenly origin. If, at this day, we are able to divest such a contest of its comic elements, we must continue to see in it the same earnestness and fervor and acrimony that have characterized like opposition to dramatic progress at many times and in many places.


As early as 1721 it was ordered that the students of all public seminaries "should play comedies twice in a year." Nor were these plays restricted to Mysteries or even Interludes, but included translations and adaptations from the work of foreign dramatists. Molière would seem to have been the favorite author, Le Médecin Malgré Lui and Les Précieuses Ridicules both being played in the same year at the Moscow academy. Among the public schools, the cadet corps at St. Petersburg enjoyed a high reputation for the zeal with which its teachers promoted the study of modern languages and literature. These efforts were not lost upon the pupils, who formed among themselves an amateur literary society, the members of which were accustomed once a week to meet and read original compositions in prose and verse. There was one pupil whose papers were considered to be of such superior merit that they were submitted by the president of the society to the authorities of the corps, and a selection from the best of them was published at the expense of the establishment. This pupil was Alexander Sumarokov, destined to become famous as "the founder of the Russian theatre."



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