Johann Gottfried Gregory: The Origins of the Russian Theater

Moscow, Russia. It was the last third of the 17th century. Tsar Alexis of Russia was in power. A time of art development and baroque aesthetics. In Russia, it was also the heyday of the most important art—the theater. But few know the origins of Russian theater involve a Lutheran pastor, Johann Gottfried Gregory.

Johann Gottfried Gregory was born in Merseburg, the capital of the Duchy of Saxe-Merseburg. He arrived in Moscow in 1658. Gregory served as a parish teacher in the Lutheran Church of St. Michael’s school in the New German Quarter. He became the pastor of this church in 1662-1669, then a pastor of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in 1670-1675. In the 1660s, he founded a school for Orthodox and Lutheran children. He also founded a home theater to present plays of spiritual and moral content. But that was only the beginning…

“To play a comedy and this comedy must act from the Bible Book of Esther and for that action to arrange a Chorina again.”

Tsar Alexis wanted to bring culture to Russia. In 1672, they rebuilt the Chorina Comedy, a historic theater in Moscow. It was necessary to find literate people able to organize a performance in a short time. Alexis looked to the German Quarter in Moscow where educated foreigners lived. Having learned about the pastor’s theater, Alexis ordered Gregory to write and perform a comedy.

gregory002Gregory sought help from another parish school teacher, George Hüfner. They gathered “children of different ranks of service and trade foreigners, 64 people altogether” for the first performance. Gregory called the play Ahasuerus Action. He wrote it about Jewish queen Esther of the Persian king Ahasuerus in a short time. In the narrative, Ahasuerus seeks a new wife after his queen, Vashti, refuses to obey him. He chooses Esther for her beauty. Conspiracies and court intrigues await the heroes on their way to happiness. Gregory wrote the first Russian play in verse form in German then translated it into Russian.

They staged the play at the Chorina Comedy on October 17 (27), 1672. Its duration was 10 hours without intermission. Legend says the tsar watched the performance clear through without getting up. The set design of the play was the rich, baroque decorations of the Palace and luxury costumes. After the performance, Alexis rewarded Gregory and his assistants generously.

In 1673, Johann Gottfried Gregory’s school taught 26 philistine children “comedy work.” His repertoire consists of “funny, joyful comedies.” Theater had appeared in Russia! It was a small court theater, in which German actors entertained the tsar. The first Russian professional theater came into being 4 years before Alexis’s death. German pastor and playwright Johann Gottfried Gregory led the way for the eventual Russian theatrical culture. Danke, Pastor!

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is candidate of philological sciences specializing in the first Russian drama and theatre of XVIIth century. She’s also a film and TV critic by calling. You can find her essays on her Lumiere page and on her blog.

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