There is something particularly vicious about an acid attack. In January, a masked assailant chased down the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director outside his home in Moscow and threw a jar of sulfuric acid in his face, disfiguring him and severely damaging his eyes. “I fell on my face in the snow and began to rub snow in my face and eyes,” the victim, Sergei Filin, later told Russian state television. “I was in terrible, unbearable pain.”
Someone clearly wanted the ballet company’s handsome artistic director to suffer. (Just today, Moscow police announced that a Bolshoi dancer and two other men have confessed to carrying out the attack.) For his part, Filin insisted that rivals within the company were to blame. News reports portrayed the Bolshoi as a hotbed of uncontrolled ego and tawdry scandal, fascinating both ballet enthusiasts and people who wouldn’t know an arabesque from an assemblé. Before the attack, Filin had been harassed repeatedly, his tires slashed and his email hacked. Before Filin’s tenure as artistic director, a series of directors had left after short, acrimonious stints. Indeed, since its founding in 1776, ambition, political connections, and rivalry have been the other backdrops to the Bolshoi’s productions, preserved in colorful — and bloody — tales of dead cats thrown on stage and broken glass slipped into toeshoes.
It’s tempting to crack Black Swan jokes, but for all its dysfunction the Bolshoi is not unique in the intensity of its artistic jealousies. There is a long history of violent rivalry in the performing arts, and stages in Moscow, London, and New York have seen their share of blood spilt.
In Elizabethan London, quarrels could escalate into swordfights, and the city’s theaters saw some of that action. In 1598, playwright and poet Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, killed fellow actor Gabriel Spencer with a rapier in a duel. Jonson was sentenced to hang for the murder, but in a plot twist worthy of an East End play, he escaped the noose through a legal loophole.
One of the art world’s deadliest rivalries came to a head during the 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City. Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest rose to prominence in the 1830s, becoming one of America’s first theatrical stars, beloved by his working-class fans. Forrest had some success in Britain as well, until 1845, when his melodramatic characterization of Macbeth was met with hisses from the London audience. He was convinced that his rival, English actor William Charles Macready, was behind the mortifying incident. Forrest sealed their enmity by delivering a hiss following Macready’s performance as the Danish prince in an Edinburgh production of Hamlet. (Their childish antics aside, the feud between the two actors epitomized the growing antipathy in the mid-nineteenth century between America’s Anglophile upper class and its patriotic working class, with Macready the representative of aristocratic privilege, and Forrest — who rewrote Shakespearean plays to exemplify democratic themes — a working-class hero.)
A few years later, Macready arrived in New York to play Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House. Forrest’s supporters descended on the theater and rioted. The state militia was called in, and they fired on the crowds, killing about two dozen people. Inside the theater, Macready soldiered on through his performance, then fled immediately after. He never returned to an American stage.
In more recent years, the most violent rivalries can be found in two artistic arenas with seemingly little in common: Russian theater and American hip hop. Clearly, the front lines of the Russian art world’s internecine war have been its storied ballet companies. The Bolshoi’s rival, the Mariinsky Ballet (previously known as the Kirov) in Saint Petersburg, has drawn its own share of notoriety: in 1995, its then artistic director, Oleg Vinogradov, fled to America, claiming he feared for his life. (“I spend half my salary on bodyguards,” he told the Independent.) These days, however, the country’s violent sociopaths seem to be branching out to repertory theaters. Last December, Alexey Malobrodsky, a director at the Gogol Theater in Moscow, was physically attacked. Following Filin’s attack, the Gogol’s new artistic director received a threat via text message: he’d be beaten up “in a grown-up way” if he didn’t leave the theater.
As sensational as the recent Russian headlines have been, America remains the world leader in artistic violence, thanks to the cumulative body count in the music world. Perhaps hip hop’s best-known, most baleful feud was between rival East and West Coast rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls. Not long after a trio of men robbed and shot Tupac in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio, Biggie came out with a song titled “Who Shot Ya?” that was interpreted as an admission of guilt and a taunt at his nemesis. (Biggie denied it was either.) A few years later, both rappers were killed in drive-by shootings within six months of each other. Both deaths remain unsolved.
As for Filin, he will live, and further operations may eventually restore his vision. But professional jealousy will likely continue to disfigure the Bolshoi’s art, as it does wherever the stage lights shine. It is no small irony that the play that began and ended America’s deadliest artistic rivalry was Macbeth, a tragedy of unchecked ambition and revenge. After his numerous bloody deeds, Macbeth famously observes that using violence for one’s own gain becomes a self-perpetuating act:
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
So it is in the artistic world, where ambition has a momentum of its own — and woe to those caught in its path.
In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $20?