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“We are here to salute the Red Army”: Basil Dean and His Russian Adventures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 August 2013


In 1943, Britain had been at war with Nazi Germany for over three years. The USSR had become a rather unlikely British ally in 1941, and after two years of brutal conflict had begun to gain an advantage against German troops, who were demoralized by the fierce Russian winter and a lack of supplies. With this as a backdrop, on 21 February 1943, more than two thousand participants performed a large-scale pageant called Salute to the Red Army at the Royal Albert Hall in London to commemorate Red Army Day and celebrate the Soviet–British alliance against Nazi aggression. British cities such as Cardiff, Manchester, and Bristol also honored Britain's Russian allies with marches, rallies, and other celebrations. The pageant was London's contribution to these nationwide festivities. Although the audience at the Royal Albert Hall event comprised selected and invited guests, enormous crowds attended other regional events, as did prominent military dignitaries, members of local councils, local members of Parliament, and Russian military guests. This multicity event is one demonstration of how the extremes of war produce unlikely bedfellows.

Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2013 

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1. Red Army Day was the annual celebration of the founding of the Soviet Army.

2. “Salute to the Red Army,” newsreel excerpt, 1943, British Pathé films,, accessed 31 August 2012. This is the most useful visual documentation of the nationwide celebrations of Red Army Day I have found. The Salute to the Red Army pageant is featured at 2:06 through 2:47 and is, as far as I can tell, the only recorded documentation of this event.

3. Edwina Mountbatten to Basil Dean, 24 February 1943, DEA 5/3/8, Basil Dean Archive, the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

4. Dean, Basil, The Theatre at War (London: George G. Harrap, 1956), 543Google Scholar.

5. Ibid., 545.

6. Meyerhold was eventually killed by the state and his artistic legacy was erased for many years. For further details about the FTP see O'Connor, John and Brown, Lorraine, eds., Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project (London: Eyre Methuen 1980)Google Scholar; and Witham, Barry, The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar, a study of the FTP in Seattle. The Library of Congress offers many archival materials related to the FTP online, including plays and administrative records; see “The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935–1939,” For more about Meyerhold and the constructivist movement, see Leach, Robert, Revolutionary Theatre (London: Routledge, 1994)Google Scholar; and Gladkov, Aleksandr, ed., Meyerhold Speaks, Meyerhold Rehearse (London: Harwood, 1997)Google Scholar.

7. Dean, Theatre at War, 304.

8. Brendan Bracken, Ministry of Information, to Basil Dean, 24 February 1943, DEA 5/3/4, Basil Dean Archive.

9. Lt. Col. Nugent to Basil Dean, 24 February 1943, DEA 5/3/9, Basil Dean Archive.

10. For further information about these pageants, see Nicholson, Steve, “Theatrical Pageants of the Second World War,” Theatre Research International 18.3 (1993): 186–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. Agitprop refers to political sketches that became popular across Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century. Although it was more popular in Germany and Russia, Britain had its own agitprop tradition. Tom Thomas, the leader of the Workers' Theatre Movement group Hackney People's Players, provides the following description: “Agit-Prop is quite different. Unlike the ‘theatre of illusion’ it has no stage, no curtains, no props. Instead of creating illusions, it can speak to people's own experiences of life, dramatize their troubles, present them with ideas. It is mobile—it can be taken to the people instead of waiting for them to come to you. And it is the theatre of attack.” Quoted in Samuel, Raphael, MacColl, Ewan, and Cosgrove, Stuart, Theatres of the Left, 1880–1935: Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985)Google Scholar, 95. Clearly in the case of Salute to the Red Army there remains an unresolved paradox: though it resembled agitprop aesthetically, restrictions on who could attend meant it sat uneasily alongside the more egalitarian and inclusive agitprop tradition. For agitprop in Germany, Russia, and Britain, see Stourac, Richard and McCreery, Kathleen, Theatre as a Weapon: Workers' Theatre in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Britain, 1917–1934 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986)Google Scholar.

12. Nicholson, 192.

13. For more about Dean in the context of British theatre, see Warden, Claire, British Avant-Garde Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In this book, instead of categorizing Dean and other producers as members of the West End establishment, I point to their commitment to experimental, politically engaged art and connect them with more overtly polemic playwrights and companies and with innovations overseas.

14. Recent volumes include Pitches, Jonathan, ed., Russians in Britain: British Theatre and the Russian Tradition of Actor Training (London: Routledge, 2012)Google Scholar [Ed. note: reviewed in this issue]; Ayers, David, Modernism, Internationalism and the Russian Revolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012)Google Scholar; and Beasley, Rebecca and Bullock, Philip, Russia in Britain: From Melodrama to Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, in press)Google Scholar.

15. Pitches, Jonathan, “Introduction: The Mechanics of Tradition Making,” in Russians in Britain, ed. Pitches, 112Google Scholar, at 5.

16. Rudnitsky, Konstantin, Russian & Soviet Theatre: Tradition & the Avant-Garde, ed. Milne, Lesley, trans. Permar, Roxanne (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988)Google Scholar, 41.

17. van Gyseghem, André, Theatre in Soviet Russia (London: Faber & Faber 1943)Google Scholar, 13.

18. See Warden, Claire, “Hassan: Iraq on the British Stage,” Theatre Notebook 66.3 (2012): 160–80Google Scholar.

19. Dean, Basil, Mind's Eye: An Autobiography, 1927–1972 (London: Hutchinson, 1973)Google Scholar, 265. The production starred Ralph Richardson, who would be a key player in the 1943 pageant.

20. Carter, Huntly, A New Spirit in the Russian Theatre, 1917–28 (London: Brentano's, 1929)Google Scholar, xxi.

21. Ibid., 328.

22. Unity Theatre, Workers' Theatre Movement Monthly Bulletin, March 1934, THM 9/6/2/1, Theatre and Performance Archives, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

23. MacColl, Ewan, Journeyman: An Autobiography (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1990)Google Scholar, 228.

24. Chambers, Colin, The Story of Unity Theatre (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1989)Google Scholar, 134.

25. Marshall, Herbert, The Pictorial History of the Russian Theatre (New York: Crown, 1977)Google Scholar, xi.

26. Pitches, Jonathan, “Conclusion: A Common Theatre History? The Russian Tradition in Britain Today: Declan Donellan, Katie Mitchell and Michael Boyd,” in Russians in Britain, ed. Pitches, 192210Google Scholar, at 193.

27. See Jonathan Pitches, “A Tradition in Transition: Komisarjevsky's Seduction of the British Theatre,” and Daboo, Jerri, “Michael Chekhov and the Studio in Dartington: The Re-Membering of a Tradition,” in Russians in Britain, ed. Pitches, 1337Google Scholar and 62–85, respectively.

28. Basil Dean to Michael Lykiardopulos, March 1913, DEA 1/2/1125–6, and Michael Lykiardopulos to Basil Dean, March 1913, DEA 1/1/2429–30, both in Basil Dean Archive.

29. Michael Lykiardopulos to Basil Dean, March 1913, DEA 1/1/2429–30, Basil Dean Archive.

30. Basil Dean to Mr. [Dmitri] Bogomoloff, January 1926, DEA 1/2/210, Basil Dean Archive.

31. Basil Dean, “Address to Nottinghamshire Playgoers Club,” 10, typescript, January 1926, DEA 12/1/28, Basil Dean Archive.

32. Basil Dean, “Roast Beef and Caviare [sic]: Reflections upon the Theatre in England and Russia,” Soviet Union Monthly, May 1926, 90–1, DEA 12/1/31, Basil Dean Archive.

33. Reconstructing his trip involves piecing together dates, photographs, letters, and recollections. Most of the documents cited in this article are letters or talks, lectures, or articles Dean produced just before his January 1926 trip and just after returning. Dean's autobiography provides a useful overview of his theatrical career, particularly alongside his 1956 book The Theatre of War. New material is coming to light regularly as interest in Dean grows. Most recently, staff at the British Library located tape recordings of a BBC series that Dean hosted in 1969 entitled The Changing Theatre, in which he discussed his visit to Russia and his role in Salute to the Red Army.

34. Basil Dean, “Between the Public and Ourselves,” ca. January 1926, DEA 12/1/29, Basil Dean Archive.

35. Basil Dean, “The Changing Theatre,” 3, typescript, DEA 12/1/161, Basil Dean Archive.

36. Ibid.

37. Dean, “Between the Public and Ourselves.”

38. Rudnitsky, 191.

39. Dean, “Roast Beef and Caviare.”

40. Dean, “Changing Theatre,” 3.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Dean, “Between the Public and Ourselves.”

44. Otto Kahn to Basil Dean, 12 March 1926, DEA 1/1/1363, Basil Dean Archive. Because Kahn had organized the Moscow Art Theatre's 1923–4 tour of the United States, one might have assumed that he knew My Life and Art. However, he wrote to Dean that “I have not read it as yet but shall do so on the strength of your recommendation.”

45. Photograph of Alexander Tairov, [1926], DEA 9/3/57, Basil Dean Archive.

46. Tairov mounted three O'Neill plays during the 1920s: The Hairy Ape, Desire under the Elms (both 1926), and All God's Chillun Got Wings (1929).

47. Dean, “Changing Theatre,” 3.

48. Ibid., 236. Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg created simple geometrical stage designs that appealed to Tairov's aesthetic of theatrical simplicity. For further information and a photograph of the set for The Hairy Ape, see White, Christine, ed., Directors and Designers (Bristol: Intellect, 2009)Google Scholar, 131.

49. Rudnitsky, 195.

50. Worrall, Nick, Modernism to Realism on the Soviet Stage: Tairov–Vakhtangov–Okhlopkov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)Google Scholar, 15.

51. Van Norman Baer, Nancy, Theatre in Revolution: Russian Avant-Garde Stage Design, 1913–1935, exh. cat. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991)Google Scholar, 124.

52. Dean, “Roast Beef and Caviare.”

53. Basil Dean, “The Machine Artists: Notes on a Recent Visit to the Russian Theatre,” The Sphere, 28 August 1926, 3, DEA 12/1/35, Basil Dean Archive.

54. Alexis Granowsky [i.e., Granovsky] to Basil Dean, 13 November 1926, DEA 1/1/995–1036, Basil Dean Archive.

55. Basil Dean, “The Actor and His Workshop,” 13, lecture delivered at the Victoria and Albert Museum during the International Theatre Exhibition, July 1922, DEA 12/1/16, Basil Dean Archive.

56. Dean, “Machine Artists,” 3.

57. Ibid., 4.

58. Basil Dean to Madame Boleslavsky, 15 February 1927, DEA 1/2/215, Basil Dean Archive.

59. Basil Dean, “Salute to the Red Army,” 37, typescript for the newsreel, DEA 5/4/2, Basil Dean Archive.

60. Proposals submitted by Basil Dean for a celebration of British achievement, DEA 2/21/9–11, Basil Dean Archive.

61. Dean, “Changing Theatre,” 4.

62. Dean, “Salute to the Red Army,” 1.

63. Ibid., 2.

64. The Blue Blouse groups appeared in Russia and Germany during the 1920s and performed on bare platform stages. Their works were short sketches using declamation, songs, and functional props. For further information, see Bodek, Richard, Proletarian Performance in Weimar Berlin: Agitprop, Chorus, and Brecht (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997)Google Scholar; and Leach, Revolutionary Theatre, esp. 158–74.

65. Dean, “Changing Theatre,” 4.

66. Dean, “Salute to the Red Army,” 33.

67. Ibid., 39.

68. Ibid., 40.

69. The government insisted that the band simply play the “Internationale” instead of leading the audience in song. However, cast members spontaneously sang along even though Anthony Eden was still exiting the stage in front of them. See Nicholson, 194.

70. A number of books describe the marginal yet significant British agitprop tradition. See, for example, Samuel et al.; and Davies, Andrew, Other Theatres: The Development of Alternative and Experimental Theatre in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the British Living Newspaper, see Forsyth, Alison and Megson, Chris, eds., Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, particularly the chapters by Harker, Ben and Chambers, Colin; and Paget, Derek, True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen and Stage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990)Google Scholar, which connects the British tradition to traditions in the Soviet Union, Germany, and the United States. For Theatre Workshop, see Leach, Robert, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Goorney, Howard, The Theatre Workshop Story (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981)Google Scholar; Goorney, Howard and MacColl, Ewan, eds., Agit-prop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts 1930–50 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; and Holdsworth, 'Nadine, Joan Littlewood's Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. For Unity Theatre, see Chambers.

71. The Living Newspaper was particularly popular in the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1930s. The quote is from a 1939 newssheet from the Left Book Theatre Guild. THM, Unity Theatre Archive Records, Theatre and Performance Archives, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

72. Dean, Changing Theatre, 4.

73. Dean, “Salute to the Red Army,” 4.

74. “Salute to the Red Army,” newsreel excerpt, 1943 (see note 2).

75. Dean, “Salute to the Red Army,” 20–2.

76. Ibid., 23.

77. Ibid., 34.

78. Ibid., 12–13.

79. Ibid., 14–15.

80. Lieut. Peacock to Basil Dean, 22 February 1926, DEA 5/3/10, Basil Dean Archive.

81. Dean, “Salute to the Red Army,” 37.

82. Ibid.

83. See Dean, “Machine Artists.” After traveling to Russia in 1933, André van Gyseghem, one of the founding figures of Unity Theatre, described biomechanics as a skill that “teaches the actor to use the space about him on the stage three-dimensionally” and referred to it as “a definite measurable commodity.” Quoted in Law, Alma and Gordon, Mel, Meyerhold, Eisenstein, and Biomechanics: Actor Training in Revolutionary Russia (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996)Google Scholar, 234.

84. Beverley Baxter to Herbert Morrison, 13 May 1949, DEA 2/21/9–11, Basil Dean Archive.

85. Dean, “Changing Theatre,” 4.

86. Dean, Theatre at War, 309–10.

87. Dean “Between the Public and Ourselves.”

88. Nicholson, 194.

89. Basil Dean, “The Theatre as a National Asset,” typescript, 1938, DEA 12/1/83, Basil Dean Archive.

90. In 1943, German troops discovered more than nine thousand corpses in a mass grave at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine, victims of Stalin's vicious 1937–8 purges. Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, rev. ed. (London: Pimlico, 1990)Google Scholar, 288.