For decades, Soviet scholarship insisted that the national character of the Russian theatre was unmistakable and that its origins were to be found in pagan ceremonials and the agrarian cycles of peasant life. Actually, from the very beginnings, Russian performance, as opposed to ritual, was initiated and molded by foreign influences. The wandering jesters or skomorokhi had Byzantine antecedents; the occasional Orthodox liturgical “mysteries,” as well as the first court dramas, were fashioned on Latin plays of the Jesuit academies in Poland and Ukraine. Even the earliest folk dramas can be shown to have been affected (contaminated, to use the term in its dramaturgical sense) by contact with non-Russian models drawn from the touring repertoires of the Englische Komedianten (professional companies of players from London) or European puppet shows.
What does make the Russian theatre stand out from other national theatres is its secular bias and the cross-fertilization of court and popular theatres. Theatre in the West can be shown to have evolved from two distinct strains, the professional (embodied by itinerant troupes of motley entertainers) and the amateur (represented by performances sponsored initially by Church, then by school or court). In Russia, the two strains would coexist and commingle: although professional theatre was often hampered by its governmental ties, the amateur was frequently productive of reform and fresh impulses.
The Russian Orthodox Church was doctrinally hostile to any kind of enactment and countenanced plays within its precincts only for a brief period in the sixteenth century. Amateur performance was therefore to be found under the patronage of the court, and even when its subjects were biblical, the atmosphere was secular.
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