Rituality—which is pageantry of a kind—imbued the entire Chechen life. It was manifest in religious festivals, in wartime, at youth parties, and during music and dancing contests. It is no less characteristic of traditional Chechen etiquette.
As we know, Chechen life, as the life of other land-tillers, was accompanied by the festivals of seasons, sowing and harvest.
Winter festivals—Solstice and New Year—were especially merry and picturesque. On Winter Solstice, ritual bread was baked—a tiny loaf for every member of the household and a huge cake shaped as the solar disk. The small loaves were divided among neighbours, while the large was sliced for the family. Young people built a snow fort symbolising the Palace of Sun. All villagers took part in destroying it on the solstice day to help the sun to leave its winter lair and come back to the world of the living. An oak branch mounted on the snow ruins was adorned with fruit, nuts and lit candles as the congregation appealed to GIura-nana, Mother of Cold, and Iaьna-dada, Father of Winter. The worshippers implored the Mother of Cold, who personified evil, not to send bad frost and not to destroy livestock. After children picked the tasty things off the oak branch, fire was set on a log stocked from the previous year as an adult worshipper appealed to the Father of Winter, good incarnate. Embers of the holy fire were taken home.
Islamisation of Chechnya turned these rites into comic theatricals, in which fancy-dressed young people impersonated the Mother of Cold and the Father of Winter while their fellow-villagers addressed them jocular requests—all that to the accompaniment of singing and dancing.
Chechens saw New Year in on December 25. At the start of the celebration, the fire in the hearth was fed not with usual firewood and sticks but with a gula, uncut tree trunk, mostly oak. The gula tree was cut down two days after the New Year village bonfire. The tree was carried into the house, butt first, while the branches stayed outside. The time before fire consumed a greater part of the tree, so that the door could be shut, was sacral. All neighbours came together in the gula house to sing and dance, and wish each other happy New Year. They also jumped over the gula repenting past sins to protect themselves from trouble the next year.
Zhukhurg fancy-dress performances were obligatory at that time. It was no mere amateur clownery but sophisticated impromptu theatricals. Professional zhukhurg companies, widespread in the Middle Ages, performed at fetes. The place name Nakh Lovzacha (a site for martial games, sports, fetes and public worship) exists in many parts of the Chechen highlands.
Guisers of the New Year and other festivals were usually young. Men performed the most often, though girls were welcome to join in certain localities. They sported fur coats turned inside out, felt masks on the face, and cattle horns on the head. Many wore beards and smeared their face with soot or flour, depending on the character impersonated. Thus dressed, the merrymakers walked from yard to yard to sing ritual and comic songs, bless the household, and perform short pantomimes. They had felt bags, known as bIegIag laьzhdig, with them for gifts.
Girls were the New Year guisers with Chechens living in Georgia. The birik, heroine, wore a felt mask, a beard of fleece, and a fur coat inside out. Masked girls of her retinue walked around with sticks and bags. The procession made a horrific noise, screaming: “KIorts, kIorts!” as they walked from house to house with good wishes, and begged for gifts. If they found the lady of the house stingy, the birik collapsed on the ground, rolling, and cursed the woman, wishing her no litter of her livestock and poultry. Women tried to tear a tuft of the birik’s beard because, according to local superstition, a hen who sat on the tuft in spring laid many eggs.
Staginess was present in New Year’s fortune telling with a mutton shoulder blade, mirrors, knots and bread.
The festival of Mekhkan Nana, Mother of Earth, was celebrated in early spring before sowing. It started with the election of the prettiest girl, who was dressed up, and wore on her head a flower garland made by other girls in moonlight. The girl, who impersonated the Mother of Earth, led a ginger cow-heifer on a rope. The animal had a fireplace chain round its neck, and red ribbons on its horns. The villagers followed with wine, bread and cheese, singing canticles as the procession walked round the village to the temple, which the priest circumvented thrice as he performed magic rites, after which the cow was sacrificed to the awakening Nature.
No less colourful and scenic were the festivals of spring solstice and the first ploughing, guota yodu de. A procession of ploughman, seedman and oxen went to the field before sunrise. Ritual ploughing followed public worship, after which the seedman dropped the first seeds into the first furrow with prayer. Then the gathering sprinkled the ploughman and the seedman with water, and wished each other good harvest.
Rain incantation was especially theatrical. A young man was wrapped in tree branches and belted with a rope, with a sheaf of hemp or another herb on his head, or masked in a sack with slits for the eyes. A group of adolescents accompanied him in fur coats worn inside out. One of them held the end of the rope belt in his hands as the procession walked from yard to yard. Water was poured from a jug on the kъorshkъuli (masked youth) to the shouts of: “Come, rain, come!” as he danced in leaps and whirls, sprinkling water all around as the others sang a ritual song:
Kъorshkъuli khIara yu!
DogIa lokhьa, Dela!
KhIuьrta-byьrta, shi byьrtig,
Khьekъiila khьan baba!
(This is the Korshkuli!
Give us rain, o Lord!
Khurta-burta, two grains,
And cracklings in butter!
May brave young sons
Bring ample offspring in your household, Granny!)
Jokes, music, singing and dancing also accompanied farm chores, especially the belkhi, collective work to help a fellow-villager with building a house or harvesting. The belkhi was usually an unbroken sequence of music pieces and jokes. Boys and girls improvised comic plays, inspired by dialogue songs sung by a male solo and choir to the one side, and a female solo and choir to the opposite.
Sinkъeram, youth parties, were real theatricals. Supervising the merrymaking boys and girls was the tamada, elective toastmaster, with guards who followed his orders meticulously. The party was necessarily attended by the Fool—usually the host, the Widow, the Bad Guy, who wrestled with one of the guests in joke, and the Wise Greybeard, who made comic advice to the gathering. The amateur actors were so natural that the people who had never seen such a performance took it in serious.
The Chechen wedding was very scenic with music, dancing and acting.
“The Chechen wedding travestied the Tsarist administration. The despotic toastmaster towered at the table, sporting General’s epaulettes, as two interpreters translated his orders while he spoke bastardised Chechen. Their witty misinterpretations provoked side-splitting laughter. Arrogant and imperturbable, the General ordered his guards every now and then to incarcerate a guest displeasing him in the henhouse or the stable—which not only made the guests behave but also turned the wedding into an inimitable impromptu comedy”.
Chechen funerals, especially the condolence ritual, were marked by outstanding tragic staginess.
Also theatrical was the solo performance of the illi, Chechen heroic epic songs dedicated to deeds of valour, friendship, love, loyalty and honour. The composition of the illi repeats that of the classic drama, with an introduction, setup, movement and denouement. The heroes’ dialogue renders it an especial dramatic quality enriched by psychological insights. The illancha, professional illi performer, needed not only a gift for music and recitation but also the acting gift, as the proper illi was accompanied by mimics and gesticulation. The illancha transmitted his heroes’ character and his own attitude to them through voice and diction. The audience was an active participant in the performance, sympathising with the heroes in adversity, and admiring their valour. The audience’s response was part and parcel of the performance.
A gift for music, worship of the Word, and a sophisticated sense of humour has been intrinsic in Chechens since times immemorial. That is why the Chechen theatre has been closely connected with folk culture since its inception. It is linked indissolubly with folk music, world-views and humour—and even closer with the folk theatre of the zhukhurg and tyullik.
The zhukhurg theatre of impromptu buffoon comedy bases on music, clowning, travesty dancing and pantomime performed by masked actors. Animal masks used at its inception were later replaced by human masks expressing basic emotions—joy, amazement, wrath or sorrow. Actors performed wearing animal skins or fur coats inside out. Amply interspersed by comic dancing and mimicking, zhukhurg cameo plays borrowed their plots from everyday life or fairy tales.
Zhukhurg comedies were performed during folk festivals and weddings, often accompanied by pelkho rope-dancing. Pelkho dynasties were popular in Chechnya as in the entire North Caucasus. The public perceived their skill as a miracle. Possibly, this perception was a trace of the sacral content which rope-dancing rites possessed in the pagan times. That was why the Muslim clergy fulminated against it as sinful at a certain stage of the development of Islam in Chechnya.
Another theatre, the tyullik, appeared at the turn of the 20th century, when capitalist relations were emerging in Chechnya to undermine traditional social relations, which rested on the idea of universal equality. Social gaps were widening, patriarchal links severed, and money became the yardstick of human dignity and influence—hence a profound moral crisis and formalisation of religion. The tyullik, adepts of a Sufi trend, rose against the degeneration of too many in the official clergy, who preached morals and humility while abusing basic morals, unblushingly lining their pockets, and justifying whatever trespasses of the powers-that-be. The tyullik aimed their criticism not at Islam and its values, whatever certain researchers might assume, but at bigotry and the preference of the pious form to the true religious content—all that clashed with Sufism.
The versatile tyullik repertoire included travesty songs, verse, monologues and dances. The greatest popularity belonged to performances that parodied government institutions and jibed at lazy and obtuse bureaucrats, cowardly soldiers, and hypocritical and avaricious mullahs.
Despite developed folk tradition, professional theatre had not appeared in Chechnya before 1917, though gifted amateurs occasionally made stage productions in the Chechen language. In particular, retired army officer N. Gatten-Kalinsky, of Chechen ancestry, performed in many Russian theatres and tried his hand at stage directing. After returning to Chechnya, he set up an amateur stage circle in Grozny and produced his own Chechen-language play there.
The first Chechen professional companies appeared in the 1920s, the time when the first Chechen-language plays were written—Sultan Shadiev’s and Magomed Gaisanov’s The Murid, Issa Eldarkhanov’s and Said Baduyev’s The Law of the Fathers, Danilbek Sheripov’s Alibek-Hajji of Zandak, Magomet Yandarov’s The Imam of Makazhoi, and Issa Elderkhanov’s The Old Man’s Young Wife and Sheikh Mokhsum. All those plays were only the first steps of their authors in literature, and they spoilt before they span. But, however inferior from the literary point, the plays were of historical value as the beginning of the new Chechen literature.
The Khanpasha Nuradilov Chechen Drama Theatre opened on May 1, 1931. Major stage directors—Vladimir Shatov, Alexander Tuganov and Archil Chkhartishvili—stood at its cradle.
The company staged world classics—suffice to name Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Marriage, alongside modern Georgian classics—Sandro Shanshiashvili’s Anzor, Vazha Pshavela’s Lamara, and Georgi Nakhutsrishvili’s Brave Kikila—and the latest Chechen plays, in particular, Said Baduyev’s The Golden Lake, The Red Fortress, Petimat and Tsaeba’s Wooing.
Garun Batukayev was the first Chechen stage director.
The first Chechen playwrights—Said Baduyev, Arbi Mamakayev, Bilal Saidov and Khalid Oshayev—started working as the Chechen theatre was making its first steps.
Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, later destined to become one of the world’s foremost political scientists, was one of the first Chechen Drama Theatre managers.
Graduates of the best Moscow, Leningrad, Tbilisi and Voronezh theatre institutes regularly replenished the company up to the early 1990s, and spectacularly contributed to its inimitable style as every new actor brought with him the imprint of his school and teacher. They were trained by stars of the first magnitude—Akaki Vasadze, Mikhail Minayev, Lyubov Gorkaya, Semyon Gushansky, Vsevolod Merkuryev, Irina Meyerhold, Vladislav Strzhelchik and Ivan Savelyev. Though such diversity of styles presented problems to stage directors, it was invigorating, and helped the theatre to cope with a play of manners, a farce and a classical tragedy with equal perfection. Born at the crossroads of schools, the theatre, however, retained the domination of Chechen folk aesthetics.
The first actors of the Chechen Drama Theatre—Tamara Alieva, Aset Isayeva, Yaragi Zubairayev, Khalim Musayev, Movzhdi Baduyev, Khalimat Mustopayeva, Aset Tashukhadzjieva and Zinaida Isakova—had to overcome derision with which the Chechen public had treated people of the arts since olden times. They loved the stage enough to put up with bad living conditions, and be aloof to smirks coming from all sides. The public grew eventually to respect them at the sight of their dedication to their profession.
On February 22, 1944—the day of Chechen deportation, the performance of Said Baduyev’s Petimat was stopped after Act One, as theatre manager Abdul-Khamid Khamidov announced to the audience. The company shared the fate of its people, and the theatre was re-established as late as 1958.
The company flourished again starting with the late 1960s and early 70s as brilliant Ruslan Khakishev rejoined it after graduating from the stage direction department of the Leningrad Institute of Theatre and Cinematography. A number of young actors joined the company—Yussup Idayev, Nellya Khadzhieva, Abdul-Mutalib Davletmirzayev, Magomet Tsitskiev, Dagun Omayev, Zulai Bagalova, Khamid Azayev, Zura Raduyeva, Amran Dzhamayev, Mussa Dudayev, Bakhmudzhan Vakhidov, Akhiyat Gaitukayev, Khozgh-Bauddin Israilov and Zulai Aidamirova.
That was the theatre’s most fruitful time. Abdullah Khamidov’s The Fall of Bozh-Ali won tremendous popularity. Written in fruity vernacular, with full-blooded characters brilliantly acted out, the comedy became part of folklore and its cast household names. Alvi Deniev, Abdul-Mutalib Davletmirzayev, Yaragi Zubairayev, Zulai Bagalova and Aset Isayeva were recognised wherever they were. The public associated them with their heroes. The comedy gathered full houses. Side-splitting laughter filled the auditorium. Alvi Deniev, an actor of genius, whom the press named “the Chechen Charlie Chaplin”, sent the house into guffaws with his mere appearance on the stage.
Still, the triumph of The Fall of Bozh-Ali was not enough. After all, it was a mere comedy of manners on ethnic material while the theatre could do much more. It needed new productions, new playwrights who could provide colourful and profound parts for actors of many styles—it needed a revelation.
World classics brought such revelation to the Chechen theatre. Corneille’s Le Cid, Shakespeare’s Richard III and Coriolanus, Pushkin’s The Little Tragedies, Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, Gogol’s The Marriage and The Inspector General, and Alexander Ostrovsky’s Balzaminov’s Marriage acquired new interpretations. The theatre sparkled as a newly-cut gem to win a name for profound originality.
The drama treats human passions—love, hatred, generosity, avarice, loyalty and betrayal. The classic drama alone raises them above the personal and the national to give them a universal scope. Classics are the actor’s hardest test: they alone allow him discover his own new traits and get aloof to drab reality. That is why classics are a stage company’s touchstone. Either it gets to a higher professional, intellectual and spiritual level or it is lost in clichés.
Corneille’s Le Cid revolves round the clash between personal passions and social duty. Director Mimalt Soltsayev makes the clash fatal. It is no longer a personal conflict but harsh reality that moves the world—and Rodrigo (Akhiyat Gaitukayev) and Chimene (Nellya Khadzhieva) bow to it.
Don Diegue (Mutalib Davletmirzayev) and Don Gomes (Yussup Idayev) are also quite unexpected. Brilliant Idayev as Gomes is a man of inner beauty and harmony, endowed with mercy and nobility but unable to overcome social convention. Davletmirzayev gives his Don Diegue a satirical colouring—he is a petty, vicious coward who places prejudice and bloated pride above his son’s happiness and life itself. Theatre historian Konstantin Berezin wrote that Soltsayev’s was an unusual and highly convincing treatment of one of the world’s greatest plays, staged on regrettably rare occasions.
Richard III, Soltsayev’s another production, was also triumphal. Magomet Tsitskiev and Mutalib Davletmirzayev played Richard not as Shakespeare’s abominable hunchback but a handsome man of courage and outstanding intelligence. Superior to all around, he becomes Evil incarnate for Evil reigns in this world. That is the core of Richard’s tragedy.
Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, produced by Ruslan Khakishev, was another landmark. Passions were shown in their dialectical development through excellent acting and subtle scenic movement, emphasised by superb scenography and incidental music. The play saw several productions, and casts of several generations replaced each other, but it was always a triumph.
Ruslan Khakishev named his production of Alexander Pushkin’s The Little Tragedies after one of them, The Feast during the Plague. Bringing the plots together is Mussa Dadayev as Poet, a character introduced by the director as common to all one-act plays of the cycle. The characters are larger-than-life, be it Khamid Azayev as the tragicomic Baron or Mutalib Davletmirzayev as the Duke, or Magomet Tsitskiev as Mozart, with his air of sublime tragedy. “Ruslan Khakishev’s production makes Pushkin’s The Little Tragedies one play with one protagonist, the Poet, who changes his attire, appearance and the time he lives in yet always personifies the idea of freedom and indomitable independence. Whether he impersonates young Albert, brilliant Mozart or Walsingham, who wrote only one poem in his life, the Plague Hymn, he always finds his King and his Hangman, for the conflict is not in personal antagonisms but in mutually exclusive world-views: ‘Genius and villainy are two things incompatible’.”
The theatre stayed true to folklore—suffice it to mention Vainakh Songs, compiled and staged by Ruslan Khakishev—and Chechen plays. Young authors came to the theatre in the late 1980s with plays dedicated to the tragic pages of Chechen history: Lechi Yakhiayev with The Black Plait, and Said-Hamzat Nunuyev with God Alone.
Vainakh Songs ushered in a new stage in theatre development. Professor Vladimir Sakhnovsky-Pankeyev wrote about it: “The production Vainakh Songs is another landmark in the history of the Chechen Drama Theatre. Based on two old folk songs, it is marked by austere beauty. Ruslan Khakishev amply draws on old rites and customs as he turns to the font of folk mythology and the innermost basis of grassroots ethics. Vainakh Songs, a lyrical epic, is not fettered by whatever traditional patterns of plot-building and scenic composition. The choir, in the sublime sense inherited from the Antiquity, is its protagonist.”
The political crisis of the early 1990s in Chechnya put the theatre into an extremely difficult situation.
From that time until 2005, the company worked in a state of emergency. The war destroyed the theatre building and all props. Regular funding was out of the question. No replenishment came to the company, and there were no new productions.
The company has got a new lease of life now. Young actors have brought new ideas and trends with them, though such classics of the Chechen stage as Dagun Omayev, Khamid Azayev, Bai-Ali Vakhidov and Raisa Gichayeva determine their theatre’s high professionalism to this day.
Ruslan Khakishev’s revival of Abdullah Khamidov’s Bozh-Ali was one of the most spectacular events of Chechen culture in 2008. It shows that the theatre not merely has retained its proficiency but has even made spectacular progress.
Ruslan Khakishev, the artistic director and chief producer of the theatre, has won the State Prizes of Russia and Chechnya, and the title of Merited Art Worker of Russia.
He graduated from the Leningrad State Institute of the Theatre, Music and Cinematography as pupil of stage and film star Vsevolod Merkuryev, and started his career as an actor of the Khanpasha Nuradilov Chechen Drama Theatre. His first productions ushered in a new chapter in the history of the Chechen theatre due to psychological insights, a thoroughgoing musical quality, exquisite stage movement, and the detailed perfection of character treatment.
The Mikhail Lermontov Russian Drama Theatre
The first Russian-language drama theatre opened in Grozny in 1904. Renowned Evgeni Vakhtangov made his first steps as stage director there.
Established in 1938, the Russian Drama Theatre was named after classic poet Mikhail Lermontov in 1941.
Its first production, Nikolai Pogodin’s The Man with the Rifle, was premiered in November 1938. The Kremlin Chimes, by the same author, was produced a bit later. The theatre staged Lermontov’s The Spaniards and Masquerade.
The theatre had an extremely versatile repertoire in the 1960s-70s, ranging from world classics to local authors’ endeavours.
Professor Mimalt Soltsayev, Merited Actor of Russia and Russian State Prize winner, is its chief director now.
It is hard to overestimate his contribution to the Chechen theatre. When he worked at the Khanpasha Nuradilov Chechen Drama Theatre, Soltsayev staged Shakespeare’s Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, Corneille’s Le Cid, Alexander Ostrovsky’s No Man Is Wise at All Times, Idris Bazorkin’s Out of the Gloom of the Centuries, Imre Madach’s The Tragedy of Man, and Chinghiz Aitmatov’s And the Day Lasts Longer Than a Century. Each of his productions was a spectacular event in Chechen and Russian culture alike.
 Folk histrionics resembling the Russian skomorokhi.
 A trend in Sufism, which became widespread inChechnya as Islam strengthened and was later formalised. Its adepts came down harshly on the official Muslim clergy for bigotry. Their criticism found expression in satirical verse, songs and pageants.
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