The late nineteenth century was a period of tremendous change as political empires broke up, nationalism arose, the power of the middle class replaced that of the aristocracy, and colonialism flourished. Literature emerged as the artistic medium that best expressed the social, economic, and philosophical concerns of the day, moving away from the issues and styles associated with Romanticism earlier in the century. Russian writers moved toward a new style called “realism” practiced by the major players Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. Realists sought a truthful portrayal of contemporary life, a “slice of life,” from an objective viewpoint.
The symbolist movement in Russia is known as the Russian Silver Age (1892–1917), inspired by Baudelaire’s writings protesting that poetry become known as “symbolism.” Russian writers were strongly influenced by other Western exemplars such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Poe and Mallarmé. The writer Valeri Briusov was instrumental in introducing these Western works to the Russian audience. Rejecting positivism and materialism, Russian writers experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition, and musicality in their work. Russian symbolists rejected the didactic depiction of the empirical world and conceived of a truer reality hidden by phenomenal experience. They believed that intuition was more important than objective knowledge.
The first symbolist movement cultivating both literature and artistic performance, thus broadening the spectrum, was via the Moscow Art Theatre. The Moscow Art Theatre or MAT was the first modern art theatre in Russia that united ethics and aesthetics on a sophisticated artistic level. At the end of the 19th-century, founders Konstantin Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko both wanted to reform Russian theatre to high-quality, expressive art that everyday society could access. It was paramount they endorsed free artistic expression and therefore were to eliminate the chances of the theatre being subservient to government control.
The pair set about creating a private theatre where Stanislavski managed the production process and Nemirovich concerned himself over the literary, intellectual decisions. Their differences proved to be complementary, and they agreed to initially divide power over the theatre, with Nemirovich in charge of the literary decisions and Stanislavski in charge of all production decisions. The theatre housed Chekhov’s first play, The Seagull, in 1898. The play successfully imitated an intimate portrayal of everyday life.
The MAT became the hub for the Moscow intelligentsia- a status class of educated people engaged in the complex mental labours that critique, guide, and lead in shaping the culture and politics of their society—where the audiences would stay on after premieres for a lecture on the play by a critic. After the lecture, lively topical discussions continued outside the theatre. They debated with particular passion. A reviewer in 1905 wrote “People with a deep spiritual wound go to the theatre. The theatre is the only place where a Russian citizen feels like a citizen, where he meets others like himself in the formation of public opinion”.
The Moscow Art Theatre continued to support the symbolist movement through its Chekhovian ceremonies and acclaimed Stanislavski productions. The movement was seconded by the likes of Bely, Kandinsky and Blok with whom presented art that expressed the inner self in a language of its own.