"Heroic Measures"

Vassili Schedrin
Department of History, Queens University

A note from Solomon Mikhoels to Solomon Zil’berblat, 1930. Mikhoels, whose leg was not fully recovered from trauma, is asking Zil’berblat to fill in for him onstage. Handwritten and signed by Mikhoels on November 29, 1930. 

“Because the condition of my leg does not allow me to move it to the full extent, I am asking, if it is possible, that you perform again tonight,” wrote Mikhoels to Zil’berblat in 1930. Otherwise, he continued,  “heroic measures will have to be taken to save the show.”

Once asked about the relationship between his real life and his life onstage, Mikhoels replied that when on stage, playing a role, he “extracts” an image from himself, and that image “lives onstage.” In Mikhoels’s words, “The force of life onstage is unbelievably great and, obviously, has not been studied enough. Once, when performing in Sholem Aleichem’s 200,000 I fell, severely injuring my leg. However, my role required intense dancing, singing, and jumping. I performed all four acts. I felt severe pain during the intermissions, but no pain at all while performing onstage.” Mikhoels also recalled another episode, when his eye was accidentally burnt by another actor’s cigarette on stage. Feeling a “wild pain” he nevertheless continued to perform. Mikhoels  explained, “I was focused, so I was able to set aside real physical feeling and continue living my onstage life.”

In 1943, Mikhoels and the Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer visited the United States as representatives of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to seek support for the USSR war effort. At a rally in Chicago, the enthusiastic crowd climbed on the podium where Mikhoels was speaking to cheer him and show their support. As a result, the podium collapsed and Mikhoels broke his leg. Upon his return to Moscow in January 1944, Mikhoels played King Lear at GOSET. After this performance he decided to take a break from acting, because, according to his daughter Nataliia Vovsi-Mikhoels, he did not want to appear “lame onstage.”

In 1945, more and more “heroic measures” had to be taken by Mikhoels in order to perform.  Suffering from exhaustion, he commented: “Crossing the threshold of the stage takes more effort, has become harder. I reluctantly remind myself of the moment when I have to go onstage. Once I’m onstage, I feel a relief, but before that moment it is extremely hard to make this transition. I am in an extremely bad mood. I do not like to perform anymore.”