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zur deutschen Version English language selected Petruschka
Plot and dramatic structure

The scenario for Petruschka was conceived jointly by Igor Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois. The events of this “burlesque in four scenes” (as Stravinsky called the ballet in the score) fall into two layers that overlap in complex ways and are combined in the work’s final tableau.

The setting

Petrushka is set in St. Petersburg’s historic Shrovetide Fair, which was held in front of the Imperial Palace. Stravinsky, who was born in 1882, knew about the wild goings-on at the fair only from hearsay, but Benois, who was twelve years older, had witnessed them first-hand in his childhood. In his memoirs he recalled “Butter Week,” a grand event held every year just before Lent:

“Of course the elements of which the Russian Carnival consisted have much in common with those to be found in the rest of Europe. Still, the Russian Fair did not resemble those one saw in Paris, Vienna or Rome. The ‘elements in common’ consisted of covered stages on which all kinds of plays were produced, enormous swings and merry-go-rounds, and innumerable stalls selling sweet-meats. Yet even these ‘general European’ elements were transformed into something peculiarly our own. The whole atmosphere was different; the gaiety more intense, the revelry more spontaneous and whole-hearted.” 1

Stravinsky and Benois created an impressive portrait of these dizzying revelries in Tableaux I and IV of their ballet.

Konstantin Makovsky (1839–1915): Shrovetide Carnival on St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square, 1869
At St. Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair (Tableau I)

“Admiralty Square, 1830. A sunny morning in winter.”

In Tableau I, the stage is filled with market vendors, barkers, street musicians, dancers, gypsies, and a crowd of carousing visitors. Before the curtain goes up, the music begins with the cries of the vendors and the singing of a horde of drunken revellers. 

The bustle of the fair forms a frame around the Petrushka story. This story draws on elements from Russian folk theater and Italian commedia dell’arte, blended together in an original way by Benois and Stravinsky. The transition to the second layer of plot in Tableau I is marked by the entrance of a crotchety old Charlatan. 

When the revelries reach a climax, the Charlatan raises the curtain of a small theater. The expectant crowed sees three seemingly lifeless puppets on the stage. But the Charlatan breathes life into them by playing on his enchanted flute.  Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor stretch their limbs and strike up a wild Russian Dance with ungainly movements. 

Alexandre Benois: Draft set design for Tableau I of Petrushka, 1911 (akg-images/Erich Lessing, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020)
The dramatic structure of the two layers

The events in the plot reflect a dramatic device common to Russian ballet and opera. In Tableaux II and III, we are spirited away from the human world of the Shrovetide Fair to the secret realm of the puppets. In Petrushka, however, this contrast between a realistic world and an imaginary world is ironically fractured. The human beings who throng to the fair are represented by the corps de ballet. They almost always appear in groups and do not develop personal traits. In contrast the puppets, once they are brought to life, behave like sentient individuals, despite their inanimate nature. They are represented by solo dancers and take on human traits as the drama progresses.

The secret realm of the puppets (Tableaux II and III)

Petrushka, the ballet’s title figure, is the most emotional of the three puppets. The Charlatan kicks him rudely onto the stage at the beginning of Tableau II. 

In Stravinsky and Benois’ vision, Petrushka, the hero of the Russian Carnival, comes to resemble the stock pantomime character, Pierrot. Not only is he angry at being dependent on his master, he suffers from his ugliness and social isolation. 

A tragic love story then ensues. It is based on the age-old romantic triangle between Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbina, all familiar from Italian commedia dell’arte. In the ballet, the role of Columbina is taken by the beautiful Ballerina. Stravinky’s music leaves us in no doubt about her simple-mindedness. 

Petrushka loves the beautiful Ballerina, but she is repelled by his appearance and runs away. Instead of Petrushka, she turns to his diabolical rival in Tableau III. In the ballet, this male adversary is not the sprightly Harlequin of commedia dell‘arte, but a Moor – handsome, virile, exotic. 

The Moor and the Ballerina come together and dance a bizarre waltz in the Moor’s room.  Suddenly the jealous Petrushka appears, livid with rage, and attacks his rival. But the warlike Moor is stronger and throws Petrushka rudely out the door at the end of Tableau III.

Illustration from the original Petruchka programme, Paris 1911
Petrushka’s death and resurrection (Tableau IV)

The beginning of Tableau IV transports us away from the mysterious puppet realm inside the theater and back to the hustle and bustle of the fair. Various visitors and attractions are portrayed in a series of dances: the wet nurses (rehearsal nos. 170ff.), a peasant with a dancing bear (nos. 188ff.), a worldly-wise merchant with two gypsy women (nos. 196ff.), and the coachmen and grooms (nos. 213ff.). Once the latter have danced with the wet nurses (nos. 223ff.), a group of ghastly masqueraders appears (nos. 234ff.), causing the crowd to join the dance with their wild gesticulations.

Suddenly, just as the merrymaking reaches a climax, a scream is heard (no. 251).  Petrushka rushes out of the Charlatan’s little theater, pursued by the Moor brandishing his saber. But Petrushka can’t escape his adversary’s wrath. After a desperate struggle, he is struck down by a single blow from the Moor’s saber and dies in the snow beneath the gaze of the horrified onlookers (nos. 258ff.).

The Charlatan manages to convince the enraged crowd and the police that the dead body is only a lifeless puppet. The revellers disperse, and the old man is left alone in the dark. Suddenly Petrushka’s ghost appears on the roof of the theater. He threatens the terrified Charlatan, who flees in panic. 

Alexandre Benois: Figurine of the Charlatan, probably 1911 (Sotheby’s/akg-images © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020)

1 Alexandre Benois: Memoirs 1 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1960), p. 26.