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 and Ilya Levin and 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 get into the dreariest and most uncomfortable theater in Paris. As much as anyone else, André Serban, for all his vagaries, gave new life to the theater in New York in the 1970s. For better or worse, Bayreuth for several recent seasons belonged almost as much to a young French director, Jacques Chéreau, as it did to Wagner. Ariane Mnouchkine in Paris, Sarah Caldwell in Boston, and Susan Sontag in the hinterlands of Italy caused hardly less of a stir.

This development has a complicated and a multinational family tree, but no matter where we part the branches of that tree we shall come upon the lanky, angular, huge-nosed, and disjointed figure of Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold.

Meyerhold was born in a sad little town some way to the southeast of Moscow in January 1874. (His parents on both sides were German, by the way. He had no Russian blood, wholeheartedly as he came to identify himself with Russia.) As a law student in Moscow he made no mark, but when he turned into a drama student, an actor, and a director there was never any doubt of his supreme abilities. From the moment that he entered the Moscow Art Theater in 1898 until the day of his death in 1940 he was the most inventive, the most provocative, and the most controversial figure in the Russian theater.

He had of course a great senior in Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky made him welcome in the Moscow Art Theater, directed him in the premieres of The Sea Gull and Three Sisters, invited him to take part in his experimental theater-studio in 1904-1905. When Meyerhold felt it necessary to strike out on his own, Stanislavsky took it well. When Meyerhold felt it necessary to attack Stanislavsky’s theater in public, he still spoke of Stanislavsky himself as “our beloved master” and as “a maître des grands spectacles, with the theatrical range of a Michelangelo.” And when Meyerhold was in deep trouble in 1938, with his theater shut down by the police and every door closed against him, Stanislavsky saved him for the time being by offering him a job as his assistant.

We could say of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold that each saw in the other the necessary alternative without which the art that they both served would have lost its equilibrium. What Poussin was to Rubens, what Ingres was to Delacroix, what Brahms was to Wagner, and what Turgenev was to Dostoevsky, Stanislavsky was to Meyerhold. For forty years the supposed polarization between them was fundamental to the development of the Russian theater.

But in their posthumous reputations there was until lately no parity whatever. The theater that Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded in 1898 still continues, with much of its repertory intact and its tradition by no means obliterated. Stanislavsky never fell out of favor with the Soviet authorities, and there have long been directors the world over who feel—with however scant a justification—that they are doing what he would have done.

After Meyerhold’s death, on the other hand, it was as if he had never been. It was not enough that he was done to death in a Soviet prison, and that his wife was foully murdered—most probably, as it now seems, by agents of the police. All trace of his long activity was obliterated. The new theater that was being built for him was remodeled and turned into a concert hall. In these acts of extermination, no detail was too tiny to escape notice. In his Moscow Rehearsals, first published in 1936, Norris Houghton gave us an authoritative account of Meyerhold’s methods in the last years of his life. But when Mr. Houghton revisited Moscow some twenty-five years later and asked to see the copy of his book in the Lenin Library he found that every reference to Meyerhold had been cut out with very sharp scissors.

For this reason there was for many years an evident disparity between our knowledge of Stanislavsky and our knowledge of Meyerhold. The unity of tone, the perfection of nuance, the self-evident rightness and naturalness that were the mark of the Moscow Art Theater at its best were easy to enjoy, even if they were anything but easy to duplicate. In Stanislavsky’s work there was a consistency that would have made it relatively accessible even if he himself had not been at such pains to explain it. Meyerhold was quite another matter.

Meyerhold was the complete professional, and he was never the same, year by year, month by month, or week by week. There was virtually nothing that he could not do in the theater. He knew exactly what he wanted, and exactly how to get it. He had an extraordinary and distinctive speaking voice. He was a prodigious mime. He knew how to set the stage, how to light it, how to make silence seem louder than speech, how to enroll the best painters of the day as equal partners, and how to make color work for him as it had never worked in the theater before. He re-invented himself, throughout his life, in such a way that there is no one production by which he can be judged.

He could adapt, moreover. When it was necessary for him to produce twenty-seven different plays in a short time, as he did in the season of 1904-1905 in Tbilisi (then called Tiflis), he went ahead without complaint. If he had unlimited time, as he did at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg before the revolution, he was happy to spend five or six years, on and off, on a single production. Where he himself was concerned, he would risk anything. What other director could have appeared as Pierrot in Michel Fokine’s ballet Carnaval, under Fokine’s own direction, and got away with it? (“He was a man from a different world at the first two rehearsals,” Fokine wrote later, “but by the third rehearsal our new mime had matured, and in the performance gave a marvelous image of the melancholy dreamer Pierrot.”)

He could deal with difficult actors, too. When he produced Molière’s Dom Juan at the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1910, he taught the whole company to walk in a new way, with a casual dance rhythm, a melodic walk, and an ease and a lightness that were to permeate the whole production. Not until a late stage in rehearsal did he find that the vital role of Dom Juan’s servant, Sgnarelle, was to be played by a popular favorite who was too old to learn his lines and too frail to walk more than a step or two. Undeterred, Meyerhold devised two pretty screens, one on either side of the stage, behind which prompters could tell the great veteran what to say. He rearranged the production in such a way that Sgnarelle’s immobility seemed a master-stroke of sly cunning. As for the old man’s rare and carefully harbored moments on his feet, Meyerhold directed them in such a way as to cause “such animation in the house”—to quote one observer—“that it seemed like the advent of a holiday.”

This was the man who had been a prized friend of Anton Chekhov, had called on Tolstoy, was venerated by Sergei Eisenstein, thought that Pushkin the dramatist was better than Shakespeare, had no praise too high for the art of Buster Keaton, and decided toward the end of his career that what he really believed in was “a simple laconic stage idiom which evokes complex associations.” He nurtured his productions with everything from bio-mechanics and Russian Constructivism to the frescoes that Sir Arthur Evans had just uncovered in the Palace of Minos at Knossos. Yet he said in the 1930s that “the idea of a director’s theater is absolute nonsense and must not be believed in. There is no director—that is, no good director—who would rank his art above the interests of the actor as the chief person in the theater.” Decidedly, no one formula will do, where Meyerhold is concerned.

For this reason, studies of Meyerhold were in very poor shape in the 1940s and 1950s. Even when he was drawn into the climate of adulation that marked the Westerner’s rediscovery of the Russian avant-garde during the 1960s there was little to go on beyond a handful of prehistoric black and white photographs that grew ever fainter with continual re-use. What was Meyerhold without color, without movement, without speech, without the direct physical contact between actors and audience, and without the astonishment, the outrage, the night-long discussion that had always followed his new productions?

Surviving eyewitnesses were fewer and fewer, memories were ever less reliable, and in Meyerhold’s own country the conspiracy of suppression had done its work all too thoroughly. No copy is known to exist, for instance, of the filmed version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, for which Meyerhold wrote the script in 1915, and in which he played the part of Sir Henry Wotton, while the part of Dorian Gray was played by an actress, Varvara Yanova. Yet there were those who thought it as daring, and as original, as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which dates from four years later.

But the name of Meyerhold did not die altogether. It was difficult to write on Mayakovsky and not say how closely he and Meyerhold had collaborated on the production of his plays. Sergei Eisenstein was known to have preserved some of Meyerhold’s papers at great risk to himself. In the West there were people who remembered—however faintly—that Abel Gance, the creator of Napoleon, had been directed in Paris by Meyerhold in the year 1913 in a particularly appalling play by Gabriele D’Annunzio. Others recalled the evening at the Théâtre de Montparnasse in 1930 when Meyerhold and his company were acclaimed by an audience that included Picasso, Louis Jouvet, Paul Eluard, Charles Dullin, Jean Cocteau, and André Derain. There were even one or two people who knew that if his wife had not been against it Meyerhold would have tried to work in New York as of November 1930, and might conceivably have stayed there.

But fundamentally these were the preoccupations of a dwindling minority. Few people knew, or cared, that what passed for modernity in our Western theaters was an anthology of Meyerholdiana, from the arena stage to the exposed rear wall of the theater, and from the intrusion of the actors into the auditorium to the use of absolutely any enclosed space as a theater. Meyerhold had been everywhere before us, and when Peter Brook put his actors through a course of specially devised physical exercises some would remember the biomechanics with which Meyerhold in 1922 had aimed to raise his actors to a new level of physical readiness and adaptability.

In Novy Mir in 1961 Alexander Gladkov published his “Meyerhold Speaks,” a long series of notes on what Meyerhold had said to him in friendly conversation between 1934 and 1939.* One or two of these may indicate the vivacity, the concision, and the freedom from parti pris that made people hang on his words:

An actor’s creativity—or for that matter anyone else’s—is the act of a clear, happy mind and a healthy, unclouded will.

Observation! Curiosity! Attention! Yesterday I asked several of our young actors what sort of street lamps there were in front of the theater, and none of them gave the right answer. This is awful! When you read the classics you should start by reading those which can teach you to be observant. Gogol in Dead Souls is wonderfully observant.

Read Ibsen’s plays carefully, and you will see that there is as much action in them as in an American Western.

I forget who said that “art is to reality as wine is to grapes,” but it’s a brilliant remark.

I consider that the day of gunpowder in art is not yet over, and that tears make the powder damp. That is why I dislike sentimentality in art.

The enemy no. 1 in Russian theater companies is the Oblomov complex. What we need is constant discipline, to be kept on our toes, to put more energy into our work. The first purpose of the theater, as of music, is to stimulate us to live more fully.

A light touch adds an electrifying quality to tragedy, to comedy, to kitchen-sink drama, to everything. That is why vaudeville is such great training—a splendid school for comedy, and even for tragedy.

In Pushkin’s day the art of the director did not exist, but he brilliantly foresaw it. That is why Pushkin’s dramas are the theater of the future.

A director has to specialize more widely than anyone on earth.

An audience in a hurry is the enemy of the theater.

Have no respect for the margins of books. A book that I have written in is ten times more valuable to me than a new one.

I think it was Scriabin who said that rhythm was “time bewitched.” What a brilliant remark!

It would be difficult to read those remarks and not feel oneself in the presence of a free and independent spirit. The more remarkable, therefore, was the rehabilitation of Meyerhold that got under way in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and culminated in the publication of a two-volume set of his collected writings in 1968 and of Rudnitsky’s extensive survey in the following year. In the English language, Edward Braun’s Meyerhold on Theater appeared in 1969 and is still the best short guide to the subject. With Rudnitsky, and with the recent Meyerhold at Work, edited by Paul Schmidt, the English-speaking reader can consider himself in luxury.

After reading what is now available to us in English, we may well decide that on the long roster of creative people who were beaten down by the Soviet regime Vsevolod Meyerhold is the one who most consistently held his own. Where others fell silent, turned to hack work, or were forced into exile, Meyerhold did nothing that he did not want to do. He remade the theater as he thought best, and not as someone else dictated. He made artistic mistakes now and then throughout his long career, but they were the mistakes of a headlong, uncalculating spirit. For forty of the most difficult years in human history he was true to himself alone. As he lived, so he died. “I am sixty-six years old,” he said to the court that presumed to “try” him, “and I want my daughter and friends to know some day that I remained an honest communist to the end.”

It is legitimate to speculate on what aspects of his career may have passed through his mind when he lay in prison, a carefully chosen victim of the purges, after the obliteration of his theater. He knew about prison, both at first hand—as a captive of the Whites in southern Russia just after the revolution—and in his imagination. As early as 1905, when he directed Maeterlinck’s Death of Tintagiles in Tiflis, he said that the queen’s castle in the play “represents our prisons, and Tintagiles the youth of mankind…. And someone ruthlessly puts these young people to death. … On our island thousands of Tintagiles suffer in prisons….”

Meyerhold never liked to be pinned down. If he had a great official theater at his disposal, he told people that the real life of the theater lay with jugglers and tumblers and the improvisations of the fairground booth. Himself a performer like no other, he was ready to forego all his natural advantages and impose upon his actors (as in Strindberg’s Crime and Crime in 1912) “an overall metallic coloration and an external frigidity created by an image of concealed emotion coupled with energetic sound.” There was no refinement of luxury and subtlety and artificiality that he would not permit himself when the production required it; but he was just as happy with the unisex blue denim overalls and anti-naturalistic scenery that he apotheosized in the 1920s.

Himself the most gifted and influential man of the theater that our century has produced, he never saw the theater as a closed world sufficient unto itself. He took from music—his production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was dedicated to the pianist V. V. Sofronitsky—and from painting. Not only did he rely on painters—on Golovin, above all—for his sets, but he took from painters in a more general way. “Böcklin landscape and Botticelli poses” was how he summed up one of his productions, and as early as 1911 he seems to have based one of his most hallucinatory stage-pictures on Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café.

His career never followed a straight line. Whether or not he agreed with his fellow director Tairov that “propaganda theater after a revolution is like mustard after dinner,” he directed the accepted Soviet playwrights as rarely as he could. In his later years he preferred the great classics that can always be re-interpreted. Next to them, he chose plays like Olesha’s A List of Assets (1931), where he could make the meaning jump every which way and an interpolated scene from Hamlet could suggest to the audience a whole treasury of implications. (Even in time of great tribulation, Meyerhold held fast to Shakespeare. When Alexander Gladkov asked him about the show trials of 1937-1938, all he said was “Read and re-read Macbeth.”

Meyerhold was under attack all his life. He had more ideas than he could ever put into practice. His work could not come into being at all without the cooperation and the loyalty of other people. It would have been a miracle if he had never boiled over, never changed his mind or heart, and never thought that friend had turned into foe. Konstantin Rudnitsky somewhat plays down this aspect of Meyerhold, and it is one of the virtues of Paul Schmidt’s anthology that he quotes at length both from Meyerhold’s students (among them Sergei Eisenstein) and from actors like Igor Ilyinsky whose names are linked with some of Meyerhold’s greatest triumphs.

Almost without exception they suggest that—as Eisenstein puts it—“there was something both of Lucifer and the Wandering Jew in the crumpled face of my teacher.” Leonid Varpakhovsky, Meyerhold’s assistant in the 1930s, said that “Meyerhold’s friendship turned eventually and quite regularly into its diametrical opposite, and the rejected friend had to suffer in succession his indifference, coldness, dislike, hostility and hatred.”

And yet they one and all remembered how Meyerhold had turned their lives around, just as he turned the art of the theater around and changed it forever. How did Eisenstein begin his notes on Meyerhold? By saying, “It is time for me to confess that I have never loved, never worshiped, never adored anyone as much as I have my teacher.” And how did he sum him up later? As “a creative genius and a perfidious man.”

For this aspect of Meyerhold, and for many an unguarded reminiscence, Paul Schmidt’s Meyerhold at Work is an indispensable appendix to Rudnitsky. Reading them side by side—with pencil in hand, as Meyerhold would have wished—we count ourselves lucky to be living in 1982, when so much of the truth can be said, and no longer in 1942, when the very name of Meyerhold had been suppressed.

  1. *

    Meyerhold Speaks” by Alexander Gladkov can be found in English translation in the anthology called “Novy Mir,” 1925-1967, edited by Michael Glenny (Jonathan Cape, London, 1972).