The Return of Meyerhold

Meyerhold the Director

by Konstantin Rudnitsky, translated by George Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze
Ardis, 565 pp., $75.00

Meyerhold at Work

edited by Paul Schmidt, translated by Paul Schmidt, by Ilya Levin, by Vern McGee
University of Texas Press, 241 pp., $19.95

To those who, like myself, were in and out of many Soviet theaters in the late 1950s and early 1960s, nothing could have seemed less likely than that as early as 1969 there would appear a monumental book on Vsevolod Meyerhold, drawn entirely from Soviet sources and written by a distinguished Soviet historian of the theater. It was taken for granted at that time that Meyerhold was a martyr, as he had once been the hero, of Soviet theater, and that his name had been struck from the record forever.

Yet here in English translation is a book that weighs four and a half pounds, measures in all some 200 cubic inches, has 200 illustrations (most of them unfamiliar), and discusses even productions that Meyerhold himself thought too ephemeral to bear recording. Konstantin Rudnitsky was only nineteen when Meyerhold was shot in a Moscow prison in 1940 after a trial in which he was accused among other things of spying for Japan. He cannot write, therefore, as a participant, but what he has to say carries conviction from start to finish. He has filled well over five hundred crowded pages with a vast amount of first-hand contemporary material. Productions that hardly anyone now living ever saw are brought to life. Authors, actors, actresses, stage designers, composers are fully characterized. So are the officials—whether pre- or post-revolutionary—with whom Meyerhold had to deal. His forty-year professional career is spelled out for us in close detail. If little is said of his private life, and nothing whatever either of his violent death or of the hideous and never explained murder of his wife—well, doubtless there are limits to what can be expected of an authorized Soviet publication. Besides, the title of Konstantin Rudnitsky’s book is not “Meyerhold: A Biography.” It is “Meyerhold the Director.”

As such, it could not be more topical. We now have a new generation of playgoers who might well not remember that the theater once belonged to actors and actresses. They were the consecrated monsters whose names drew a full house, no matter how flimsy the play or how paltry the production. Not to have seen David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Sarah Siddons, Frédérick Lemaître, Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt, or Eleonora Duse was to have missed great artistic work, and to be that much less of a human being.

Ours is by contrast the day of the director. It was for Walter Felsenstein, and not for any of his singers, that people from West Berlin filed through Checkpoint Charlie to the Komische Oper in the 1950s. It was for Grotowski, and not for any individual performer, that Polish theater got a great name in the 1960s. People scouring the French provinces today for what is strongest and most original in French theater seek out Roger Planchon, and not any member of his troupe. It is for Peter Brook, and at his sole whim, that people beat one another over the head with umbrellas in order to …

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