Theodore Komisarjevsky

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Theodore Komisarjevsky
Born (1882-05-23)23 May 1882
Venice, Kingdom of Italy
Died 17 April 1954(1954-04-17) (aged 71)
Darien, Connecticut, U.S.
Spouse(s) Elfriede de Jarosy
Ernestine Stodelle
Peggy Ashcroft

Fyodor Fyodorovich Komissarzhevsky (Russian: Фёдор Фёдорович Комиссарже́вский; 23 May 1882 – 17 April 1954) or Theodore Komisarjevsky, as he is better known in the West, was a Russian theatrical director and designer. He began his career in Moscow, but had his greatest influence in London. He was noted for groundbreaking productions of plays by Chekhov and Shakespeare.

Early life[edit]

Born in Venice, Komisarjevsky was born into theatre, as his father Fyodor Petrovich Komissarzhevsky was an opera singer who had befriended Tchaikovsky and his sister, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, was an eminent actress.

Originally interested in architecture, Komisarjevsky turned to theatre in 1907, when he started staging plays in his sister's theatre.

Theater career[edit]

Two years later he joined the theatrical revolutionary Nikolai Yevreinov in establishing a new stage company whose productions were intended to combine philosophy and romance. Interested in the idea of art synthesis, Komisarjevsky dreamed about the "theatre of all the arts". He maintained that "colors, lines, and music emphasize the acting, they can give the actor's words alternate meanings, they can pervert the episodes of the performance".

In 1910, Komisarjevsky set up his own studio in Moscow. He demonstrated his ideas in well-received productions of Goethe's Faust and The Idiot. Actors entering his studio were trained also in dancing and singing, as Komisarjevsky sought to prepare a new breed of "universal actors". Some of these, like Igor Ilyinsky and Mikhail Zharov, went on to make spectacular careers in theatre and cinema in Soviet Russia.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Komisarjevsky was named Director of the Bolshoi Theatre, in which he had produced several operas.

After Lenin advised Lunacharsky to "put theatres into coffins", Komisarjevsky emigrated to Britain. In June 1921 he presented, with tenor Vladimir Rosing and conductor Adrian Boult, a season of Opera Intime at London's Aeolian Hall.[1] In the following decade he gained a formidable reputation for having introduced British audiences to Chekhov's plays.

In the 1930s Komisarjevsky was so commanding a presence in so many areas of theatre that the Encyclopædia Britannica recognized him as "one of the most colourful figures of the European theatre". His much reprinted study of theatrical dress, The Costume of the Theatre, appeared in 1932. He also delivered lectures at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, with the likes of John Gielgud and Charles Laughton among his students. Donald Wolfit, Christopher Plummer, and his own wife Peggy Ashcroft were among the many fine actors who starred in Komisarjevsky's productions.

It was at that time that he directed his unorthodox versions of Shakespearean plays and scandalised the conservative British establishment with novel interpretations of classics. His 1933 production of Macbeth in Stratford-on-Avon received much publicity, as it featured an abstract aluminium set, sparse lighting and extravagant costumes, notably a crown of saucepan lids worn by Lady Macbeth. Three years later, he won another box-office success with King Lear, with action set “outside time and beyond geography", as the director termed it.


Komisarjevsky left a lasting legacy in London in the shape of theatre buildings interiors he designed, including the Phoenix Theatre in Charing Cross Road and the Tooting Granada, the first cinema to be awarded Grade I-listed building status.

However, upon the outbreak of World War II, he chose to move to the USA. He died in Darien, Connecticut.

Komisarjevsky's second wife, dancer Ernestine Stodelle, died 8 January 2008 in Santa Barbara, California.[2]

Komisarjevsky's grandson by adoption, Joshua Komisarjevsky, was one of the perpetrators convicted for the Cheshire, Connecticut, home invasion murders in 2007.[3]


  1. ^ Boult, Adrian Cedric. My Own Trumpet (1973), p. 48, Hamish Hamilton, London.
  2. ^ "Ernestine Stodelle, 95, Modern Dancer, Dies". The New York Times. 2008-01-09. 
  3. ^ Cowan, Alison Leigh; Stowe, Stacey (2007-07-26). "Uncle of Suspect in Cheshire Home Invasion Speaks". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 

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