It is almost unknown that the Roma theatre
tradition dates back to the 1930s. The Theatre Romen still
exists as the greatest symbol of this form of Roma culture. A short overview
of the historic development of this institution can serve as a paradigm
of preservation of a national and cultural identity. The TheatreRomen
was first and foremost a product of the Russian political system. The cultural
policy of this socialist state, created by Anatoly Vassilevich Lunacharski,
was certainly only a part of the realisation of the "global goal." As opposed
to other European countries, Russia chose a different method of communication
with the Roma people. As much as the Theatre Romen served one state
ideology, it also served the Roma people.
The Minister of Culture of the Soviet Union, Anatoly
Vassilevich Lunacharski, supported the proposal of a youth party call on
the necessity of founding a Roma theatre, one that would be the first of
its kind in Russia and in the world. At the session of the People’s Commissariat
Cultural Commission on 4 October 1930 a decision on founding an "Indo
- Roma - Gypsy" theatre was passed ("Indo" referring to India,
the ancient homeland of the Roma people). Ivan Lebedev was put in charge
of the initial work. At the meeting of the Theatrical Group on 16 November
of the same year an organisation group was elected. This group was in charge
of the formation of an artistic workshop of the Roma theatre. Its members
were S. M. Bugachevski (art director), Ivan Lebedev (dramatist), G. P.
Lebedev (director), and I. D. Faily (vice-director). Someone had to write
the first play based on Roma issues and that task was given to A. V. Germano.
In a public debate of theatre actors, directors, dramatists and musicians
a conclusion was reached that the theatre should be drama and music oriented
and international by all means. On 20 December the magazine "Vechernyaya
Moskva" published an article announcing the opening of the artistic
workshop of the Indo - Roma Theatre and its audition on 25 December
of the same year.
The official opening of the artistic workshop was held on 24 January
1931. At the premises of the former Letonian Club, on the corner
of Pushkin Street and Pushkin Square in Moscow, the premiere of "Atasia
the Adadives" was held. It was directed by Moysey Isaakovich Golydblat.
In spite of everything, the efforts of the Roma theatre were appreciated
both by the audience and the critics. It was said, "They are gifted and
anything can be expected from them." The next performance on stage was
in December 1931 titled "Life on Wheels." It was perdormed in the
Romani language and was very successful. Soon after, the Theatre changed
its name and instead of the original Indo - Roma Theatre became
the Moscow Gypsy Theatre Romen (MHAT).
During the first few years a great obstacle to
the Theatre was its repertoire. The members of Romen could not perform
every play they liked. The audience wanted to see the life of Roma, their
everyday life, and their past; they wanted to listen to Gypsy music and
admire Gypsy folk costumes. Therefore Ivan Lebedev became a dramatist and
translated into Romani the work "Pharaoh’s Tribe," a play by D.
F. Sverchkov. Lebedev wrote his first original play "Ganka" in 1933.
In a few years the Gypsy dramaturgy took over the principal part in the
repertoire of the Theatre. Soon after, M. I. Golydblat, the director, started
to think about staging classical plays like the opera "Carmen" and
"Gypsies" by Pushkin in the Romani language. The critics did not
react favourably to these moves of the Roma Theatre claiming that they
did not correspond to the nature of Gypsy acting and Gypsy art by saying
the only artistic path MHAT should follow was Romen.
The Theatre was without an artistic director for some time. When Mihail
Mihailovich Yanshin, an actor of the MHAT, became artistic director, he
openly started to emphasise the weaknesses of the Theatre as well as a
need for further artistic development of this unique institution. Yanshin
became artistic director on 13 September 1937 when the famous K. S. Stanislavski
was one of the members of the Theatre board. The quality of the Roma Theatre
of those years is best illustrated by the fact that the plays regularly
guest-starred actors of the MHAT, such as V. I. Kachalov, A. P. Kotorov,
and O. N. Androvskaya. During Yanshin’s work in the Theatre twelve plays
were staged including "Song and Dance Soiree," "Makar Chudra,""The
Strange Cobbler," "Carolina," "The Song about Ursar,""Heroic
Poem," "For Your Happiness," "The Ghetto Bride,""The Daughter
of the Tent," and "Active Persons."
In May 1941 the Theatre set on a tour around the country. Romen
went on tour, and Yanshin stayed with the MHAT. They encountered
the war in Sverdlovsk. Hard times had come for all as well as for the Theatre,
but despite difficulties they continued to work. They performed in Leningrad,
Ivanov, Sverdlovsk, where their tour was quite successful. During the war
years the Theatre toured more than sixty places in Siberia, the Far East,
Central Asia and the Caucasus region receiving a warm welcome everywhere.
The tour ended in Mahachkal. Upon their return to Moscow in 1943 all members
of the Theatre were awarded the "Defense of the Caucasus" medal
for their bravery shown during the "Great War for the Homeland."
During the war, the Theatre had three plays in its repertoire, "The
Real Face," "On the Banks of the Dniestar" and "All about
After the end of the war the Theatre returned to
Moscow. Although Yanshin was no longer with the Theatre he continued to
direct until 1949. Later he became manager of the Stanislavski Drama Theatre.
Petr Savich Saratovski became the manager of the Theatre Romen. He staged
some exquisite plays in Romen including "Gypsies,""The
Daughter of the Tent," "On the Banks of the Dniestar,""Esmeralda,"
and "Love and Death." Unfortunately, apart from directing in the
Theatre, he also taught at the Academy of Music. Unable to commit himself
completely to the work of the Theatre he soon left. He was replaced by
Semen Arkadevich Barkan. This artist spent many years in theatre and staged
numerous contemporary, classical and folklore plays. The most famous plays
he staged were "The Little Markely Inn," "Gypsy Girl Aza,""Hello
Pushkin," "Hot Blood," and "I was Born in the Ghetto."
All of these received strong support from both critics and audiences. In
1951, Barkan was substituted by Nikolai Alexeevich Slichenko, the famous
actor and singer. His most important stage performances were "The Gypsies
are Travelling," "We the Gypsies," and
directed at the Theatre as well. His staging of "The Gypsies Are Travelling"
is very famous and in 1977 he staged the very complex and sophisticated
play "We the Gypsies," meeting with enormous success.
The Theatre has become one of the most prominent
institutions of Roma culture and today houses the third generation of Roma
artists. The fifty-year anniversary of the Theatre was celebrated in 1981.
The most important tour "Romen" had was by far the one made in 1982 when
the Theatre went to Japan, their first trip abroad. The Theatre came back
to Moscow in October of the same year and in 1983 toured Yugoslavia with
great success. The Yugoslav press wrote that there had been no other
foreign theatre on a tour to Yugoslavia that provoked so much favourable
reaction as Romen. The encounters with Pablo Neruda, Ana Zegers,
Eduardo de Philip, Maria Teresia Leon and Nasim Nikmet are still remembered.
It can be said that the Theatre Romen is the national theatre,
which venerated the Roma theatrical system. This institution will continue
to play a significant role in the cultural life of the Roma people and
the high quality of their artistic work will continue to be offered to
consumers of their artistic products.