Staging the Controversial Life of Princess Dashkova: A Retrospective

Curtain Call at Princess Dashkova

By Dr Georgina Barker

Princess Dashkova was ‘a Wisp of Human Contradictions’ – according to Catherine Wilmot, who visited her in her old age. Dashkova’s exploits had made her one of the most talked-about women of the Enlightenment. Aged just 19, Dashkova overthrew the Tsar to put her friend Catherine the Great on the Russian throne. In her thirties, she lived in Edinburgh for two years to put her son through the university, and raised more than a few eyebrows with her cross-dressing. By 40, Dashkova was the head of not one but two Russian Academies – of science and of language and literature – making her the first woman in Europe to hold an equivalent office. But a few years before her death, when Catherine Wilmot recognised her capabilities, thinking ‘she would be most in her element at the Helm of the State’, Dashkova had disappeared from the world stage into obscurity – an obscurity in which she still languishes.

I first met Dashkova in 2012 when I began my PhD at the University of Edinburgh – as the serene face of the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre. I knew nothing of the turbulent life that lay behind that smiling countenance. My first inkling of it was from a poem by Elena Shvarts caricaturing Dashkova in old age, deserted by all but her pet rats, a grotesque figure that other depictions of Dashkova usually contradicted, but then sometimes surpassed in monstrousness. As my research progressed, it became clear that I had more than enough perspectives on Dashkova at all stages of her life to set aside the self-depiction in her Memoirs as a source. I would focus on receptions of Dashkova (true to my usual specialism in classical reception), presenting her to an audience as others saw her, ‘warts and all’, and giving them the information to make up their own minds about her, rather than imposing my own interpretation on the events of her life. But I needed a way to put the many facets of this composite Dashkova into dialogue. I only resolved this problem at a relatively late stage, when the script was all but written and casting was underway. I decided to place all the characters speaking about Dashkova within a fantasy salon, presided over by Dashkova herself, who would let everyone speak their piece, and only defend herself (as she did in a letter in real life) at the very end.

Princess Dashkova

Besides the basics of dramaturgy, I learned a lot about putting on a research-led public engagement event. Here is a selected list, for anyone wanting to try it!

  • Start off with a team and delegate as much as possible, or it will take over your life.
  • Decide the focus, title, and image at the same time (consistent event branding).
  • A great idea with potential for high impact is likely to generate interest from diverse supporters and/or funders.
  • If you charge for tickets, more people will attend.
  • Tea and cake is much more popular than wine and crisps.
  • Impact can be fun! Communicating your interest to a group of people who knew little or nothing about the topic is hugely rewarding. And impact actually includes (and excludes) a lot of things you don’t expect (feedback and press coverage are great; quantifiability is a bonus).
  • I can create an event like this again, with different research, and audiences will come to be entertained and learn.

Performance of "Princess Dashkova: the Woman who Shook the World"

My historical verbatim play brought Dashkova back to her rightful place, centre-stage in her beloved Edinburgh – in a venue she would have attended, St Cecilia’s eighteenth-century concert hall – with the help of some gorgeous costumes, a cast of twenty, and a troupe of musicians and dancers. According to The List,

Georgina Barker’s celebration of the life of Princess Dashkova reclaims a remarkable woman from the Enlightenment and places her life at the centre of the rationalist tumult … giving the impression of a lively, committed and passionate woman who combined social, philosophical and political intelligence. … Sumptuously costumed and offering brief interludes of Enlightenment dances and music ... the production is lively ... The Woman Who Shook the World is a great introduction to this remarkable woman.

Approximately 125 people attended on Thursday 29th November 2018, and the audience response was incredible. Afterwards, many people left comments in Princess Dashkova’s Commonplace Book:

“Nothing common about it – an uncommonly delightful portrait of an extraordinary figure!”

“Great fun, with an excellent Dashkova and ingeniously constructed script.”

“Excellent play and very informative. Really enjoyed it!”

“A fascinating event to learn about a fascinating woman! I’ll definitely be going home to read the e-book :-)”

“So much fun! I wish I had learned history this way.”

To read an e-book about Dashkova’s life through the eyes of others, or to watch a video of the performance, visit www.tinyurl.com/princess-dashkova

All images copyright Matthew Scott: www.mattscott.co.za

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