Monument to Meyerhold

I can’t recall how I first learned about Soviet theatre visionary Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) as a young person. Perhaps by way of Brecht? For quite a while I was enthralled with reading about him, and his own writings as interpreted by others. And looking at photos of his workshops and productions. When I founded my theatre company Mountebanks and wrote my crackers manifesto in the mid ’90s (for my movement of nobody) Meyerhold’s ideas were the primary ones I drew on for the acting aspect, despite the fact that I never remotely put any of it into practice, and even resisted attending genuine biomechanics workshops at the time (biomechanics being the system Meyerhold devised), which just goes to show that I’m a dude who’s primarily all up in his head. I’ve had a few opportunities to mention Meyerhold on this blog. Today a dedicated, if brief, post.

Though of German heritage, Meyerhold was born and raised in the Russian Empire. He studied law for a time, but eventually transferred to the Moscow Philharmonic Dramatic School, where he studied under Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. It was he who pulled Meyerhold into being a founding member of the Moscow Art Theatre, where he played Treplev in the first successful production of The Seagull, the title character in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan the Terrible, and 16 other major parts.

In 1902 Meyerhold parted ways with the MAT, dissatisfied with Stanislavski’s emphasis on naturalism. Meyerhold became a leader of Symbolist theatre, drawn to more externally oriented acting systems, taking ideas from commedia dell’arte, clown, acrobatics, and other circus techniques, which would obviously be of more interest to a lover of the variety arts, like your correspondent. When the Revolution arrived in 1917, Meyerhold was well poised to be perfectly in tune with it, his techniques being easy to equate intellectually with ideas like dialectical materialism. He also took movement ideas from the industrial theories of Taylorism. He immediately became a Bolshevik, and an official in the state arts apparatus. He founded a theatre devoted to exploring his ideas in 1920, naming it after himself in 1923 (100 years ago). One of his earliest disciples was Sergei Eisenstein.

Over time, however, the Soviet Union changed. Not only did it become more repressive under Stalin, but it also quite naturally became more philistine. The official theatrical aesthetic became Socialist Realism, which was banal and bland, but readily comprehended by unsophisticated audiences. Rather than raising up the masses, the party line was to sink to their level. And so Meyerhold came increasingly under scrutiny, constantly in conflict with authorities due to his avant-garde vision, which was condemned as “formalism”, or unduly occupied with aesthetics as opposed to the propaganda being expressed. Anyone can quickly counter that more interesting work will more effectively deliver your propaganda (if propaganda you must have), and I’m sure Meyerhold did just that, but his arguments fell on uncomprehending and uncaring ears. Ironically the vastly more bourgeoise Stanislavski remained relatively safe, and tried to help his old colleague. But Meyerhold stubbornly resisted. I think it must have been no coincidence that not long after his rival-yet-protector Stanislavski died in 1938, Meyerhold was arrested, tortured, then murdered by the state, along with his wife.

Anyway, I had this Meyerhold book by Robert Leach, and a couple of other similar books (one of them by Mel Gordon) back when my brain was still forming and not yet bio-degrading. (Ha, dig that wordplay! Yeesh)

The fate of Meyerhold and many other artists was one of the countless factors that turned me against the left for a time. I’ve grown comfortable with the idea of socialism again, thanks to the way history has gone. A mixed socialism, and certainly not Soviet style communism. Because still — you do have to watch out. Any system that tortures and kills people for self-expression is unqualifiedly dangerous, and that fact must never be soft-pedalled. Though you’ll rarely hear American leftists say so, what Communist governments have done to their own citizens, in both the nature and the scale of their murder and oppression, makes the admittedly unacceptable U.S. Red Scares look like sock hops.

For more on the variety arts such as inspired Vsevolod Meyerholdplease read my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous