Pierrot in Petrograd: Commedia dell'Arte/Balagan in Twentieth-Century Russian Theatre and Drama


369 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-1136-9
DDC 891.72'409




Reviewed by Rolf Hellebust

Rolf Hellebust teaches in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies
at the University of Calgary.


Douglas Clayton is known (especially from his work on the Russian poet
Aleksandr Pushkin) as a writer of wit, erudition, and probing intellect.
Reading him, one is attracted by the enthusiasm with which he divines
hidden patterns in diverse masses of literary-cultural material, ever
seeking the grand synthesis. The shame about this new book is that,
despite the handsome illustrations and striking cover design, only an
undeservedly narrow circle of readers will likely venture beyond the

A shame, because too few are aware of the vital role played by commedia
dell’arte in the revolutionary art of the early 20th century, both in
Russia and beyond. Originally a popular dramatic genre of 16th-century
Italy, commedia was interpreted and reinterpreted by succeeding
generations of European romantics and neoromantics, until Harlequin,
Pierrot, and company became emblems of an entire artistic worldview.

Clayton begins with a historical outline. He traces the Italian roots
of the phenomenon (the masks, the clowning, the improvisation), and then
follows its evolution in France and its subsequent adoption by German
romantics, by English decadents, and finally by the Russian modernists,
as part of an international commedia revival at the turn of this

Modernist commedia transcends boundaries of nation, of genre, of high
and low culture, of art and non-art. In Russia, the more exotic foreign
elements blend with the homegrown tradition of the balagan, the popular
theatre of Petrushka—which gained international renown through
Stravinsky’s ballet of the same name. Clayton takes his cue from
Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the key figures in 20th-century Russian
drama, in using the term balagan to refer to the commedia dell’arte of
the Russian avant-garde. It is the thesis of his book that the hybrid
genre of balagan, which includes plays by such seminal figures as Blok,
Mayakovsky, and Evreinov, constitutes the dominant theatrical form of
the immediate postrevolutionary period. He also finds balagan in the
cinema—in particular, in the films of Sergei Eisenstein.

Pierrot in Petrograd includes original translations of five plays and
commedia scenarios.


Clayton, J. Douglas., “Pierrot in Petrograd: Commedia dell'Arte/Balagan in Twentieth-Century Russian Theatre and Drama,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 17, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/6563.