Larionov as Avant Garde Playwright

Keith Tribble, Oklahoma State University

Although Mikhail Larionov is celebrated for nonobjective rayonnist paintings, neo-primitivist set designs and outrageously witty forays into art criticism, Larionov as playwright has not before been the object of study. However, in the elaborate, original comic pantomime with songs entitled Karagez, the Guardian of the Honor of his Friend (written in 1924 in Russian in the style of the Turkish shadow theater for the Paris puppet theater of Julia Sazonova) Larionov showed himself to be a literary creator with a flair for bawdy caricature and farcical intrigue. Many qualities of Larionov’s neo-primitivist painting also inform his venture into play-writing: an archaeological interest in naive folk art, mythology and ethnography, presented in a coarse style in which earthy humor plays a humanizing role.

In the early twentieth century several writers created parodic theater pieces in the style of the Turkish shadow theater centered around the folk hero Karagez (Martinovich, 1909; Evreinov, 1916). Larionov’s partner Natalia Goncharova wrote that the shadow puppets could be folded flat, transported easily, and the animal skins of which the puppets are made indicate that this is the theater of a nomadic tribe. As in the commedia dell’arte the dramatis personae was peopled with stock characters who reappeared from one shadow play to the next, primarily the crafty and lascivious Karagez and his faithful straight-man Hadjivat. While the puppets performed behind a white scrim, the public saw only their projected shadows. The shadow puppets were probably the first manifestation of theatrical symbolism, which explains the interest of Russian modernists in them.

Larionov knew shadow puppets from his travels in Turkey in 1907-1909, recorded in some sharply linear gouaches. Larionov manifested an interest in the historical archaeology of Karagez. His archive reveals the Turkish texts of classic Karagez plays and a long article about the Karagez theater from a 1904 French periodical with watercolors representing the principal figures. His interest in the ethnographic roots of the genre links him with such futurist writers as Khlebnikov. But Larionov appears only to have made a very general use of this material to give him the flavor of the genre.

The roughly sketched text reveals much of Larionov’s fertile imagination and his exploitation of the possibilities of the shadow play genre. The frequent transformations of the main character are an earmark of the genre, easily achieved by puppets, but impossible on a stage with human actors. The verbal play and linguistic deformation characteristic of futurist and avant garde writing are largely absent from Larionov’s text. In their place we find depoeticization in the form of coarse, vulgar vocabulary and conventionally unpoetic imagery. Larionov showed a penchant for the grotesque satire, not unlike Maiakovskii and the dadaists.

Although it has never been staged in its entirety, the remaining sketches for the two planned productions, two incomplete and unpublished drafts of the scenario and the published musical score would be sufficient for an enterprising modern-day puppeteer to reconstruct the lively and racy shadow play.