Vital Signs

The Last Kulak in Europe

In the autumn of 1909, a troupe of Sicilian actors, led by Giovanni di Grasso, arrived in St. Petersburg to satisfy a refined craving of the Russian intelligentsia, then widely shared in fashionable circles throughout Europe, for the experience of the primitive.  Still, only a hundred or so spectators turned up to savor art at its most unspoiled, and, on that wet November evening, the main hall of Conservatory Theater was nearly empty.  But in the audience was a reviewer by the name of Rozanov, and, as luck would have it, at least in my view, Vasily Rozanov was the most interesting and original thinker of the 20th century.

From the moment the curtain went up, wrote Rozanov, everyone on that stage was in a state of continual agitation.  In contrast with the theater art of Russia and the rest of civilized Europe—where, over many a decade of culturally deadening stratification, acting had became, with notable exceptions, a job, a chore, and a profession—here were amateurs in the purest sense of the word.  They literally shone, wrote Rozanov, and all one could think of, while watching them act their parts in the play, was sunlight.  “How much sunlight!”

The title of the play was Feudalism, and, since I intend to address the subject of feudalism here, I will take the liberty of translating a long passage from Rozanov’s essay.

“These...

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