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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 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.

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