Meyerhold and the theatre theatrical


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Oliver M. Sayler. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1920.

This article was originally published in The Russian Theatre Under the Revolution. Oliver M. Sayler. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1920. pp. 202-20.

MEYERHOLD and Yevreynoff,--these were the two names that lured me from the comparative safety of Moscow to the uncertainties of Petrograd during those anxious days of February, 1918, when the gray hordes of the Germans were swarming on unimpeded toward the capital. The stages of Moscow are the Russian theatre in microcosm,--with two exceptions. The Art Theatre with its unique tradition and its unrivalled record; the Small State Theatre with its roots firmly grounded in the classic past; the Great State Theatre with its remarkable equipment of youthful genius in the Ballet; the eager enthusiasm of artistic revolt under Tairoff and Balieff and Kommissarzhevsky in their widely divergent institutions,--these stages and the theories of the men who dominate them seem, after several months of intimate contact with them, to tell the whole story of the contemporary Russian theatre.

Still, there were two exceptions. No one in Moscow could deny it, no matter how partisan was his interest in his own city's playhouses. The exceptions were so exceptional that their fame had travelled before the war to far-off America alongside that of Stanislavsky and the Art Theatre and the Ballet. Meyerhold stood out in these rumors as the uncompromising foe of Stanislavsky and realism, the defender and the practitioner of the theatre theatrical. Yevreynoff emerged dimly in the guise of a proponent of a new way of conceiving the theatre, monodrama. From my first consultation with Tardoff and my first visit to Stanislavsky's dressing room, these two names were spoken with respect wherever Russian artists gathered. Under the spell of the Moscow theatres, I had lingered in the Kremlin city almost four months. But a visit to Petrograd was essential, Germans or no Germans!

Mid-February, about a week before I finally made my mind up to go to Petrograd, the Kamerny held a kind of all-night fair, attended by almost the entire futurist colony of Moscow and many of the artists and poets and players, such as David Burliuk, "the father of Russian futurism"; Aristid Lyentuloff, who paints Kremlin cathedrals standing on their ears; and Vera Holodnaya, the brunette Mary Pickford of the Russian movies. Vassily Kamyensky was there, a handsome fellow in curly golden hair and a Roman stripe coat who has written a novel or two and several volumes of futurist verse. He is Yevreynoff's biographer, too, and from him I found that Nikolai Nikolaievitch had exchanged the black bread and the alarums of life in Petrograd for the well-fed peace of Sukhum-Kale in the Black Sea. But Meyerhold remained at his post, and besides I might trace out the trail of Yevreynoff in his absence.

My first evening in Petrograd, less than five hours after my arrival, found me at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the state-endowed home of the drama in the capital corresponding to the Small State Theatre in Moscow but not so conservative in its traditions. "Revizor" or "The Inspector General", Gogol's imperishable satire, was the play, and although Meyerhold was absent, my note of introduction to him from Tairoff readily admitted me. Obviously, the theatre was having a harder struggle against the difficulties of life in the capital, for the audience was inferior in numbers and in self-possession to those of Moscow. Obviously, too, Meyerhold had nothing to do with this production of "Revizor", for it was a rather ordinary example of realistic staging dignified only by the superior humors of Uraloff, the bluff comedian who a decade and more ago had played the same rôle of the town-bailiff in Moscow as a member of the Art Theatre company. Meyerhold, it appeared, was one of several régisseurs at the Alexandrinsky, and to make sure of seeing his work I must seek him out in person.

Running down a busy individual in Petrograd, with every one disconcerted by the German menace and with the necessity of establishing myself in reasonable safety in a strange and turbulent city was a harder task than working out diplomatic relations with the Moscow theatres after the Bolshevik Revolution. At noon of the third day, I found my quarry busy with a rehearsal at the Marinsky, for he sometimes turns for variety's sake from drama to the opera. Could I come back that evening? -- he would have more time: this was the note hurriedly pencilled on his card. And so while the plaintive melodies of Puccini's "La Bohème" drifted into the inner rooms of the régisseur's loge, I sat and talked for the first time with Vsevolod Emilyevitch Meyerhold.

It is easy to see at a glance why the theatre theatrical is the artistic gospel of Meyerhold. There is nothing theatrical about the man himself,--unless it be the huge, soft white collar around his slender neck, a matter of careless comfort as much as anything. He is too intense and earnest in his belief in the theatrical to toy with it. His acceptance of realism as a dramatic method during his collaboration with Stanislavsky in the early years of the Moscow Art Theatre was not the act of a dilletante any more than the advocacy of the opposite today. His revolt against the sterility of the Russian theatre of the nineteenth century was just as sincere as his revolt against the first means by which he hoped to correct the fault. He simply found that a certain honest cynicism in his nature refused to countenance the attempt to create illusion by the faithful and accurate representation of life.

All through the ten days that remained of my association with him, the artistic abstemiousness of the man stood out emphatically among his characteristics. His friends are not so much among those who talk about art as among those who practice it. He has particular regard for Miklashevsky, the leading Russian authority on the Italian commedia dell' arte, and a profound respect for Yevreynoff, whose revolt against realism in the theatre has taken a different course than his own. And his constant companion in leisure as well as in work is the artist, Alexander Yakovlevitch Golovin, who has designed the scenery for almost all his productions in the state theatres in Petrograd during the last decade.

Once while the anxiety over the German advance was at its peak, I spent the evening at his home in a modern but modest apartment house out in the Sixth Rota in the southern part of the city. The front stairway was locked and barred and under guard for the night, and after satisfying the watchman I made my way upward through a rear entrance to the four or five rooms where he and Mme. Meyerhold, a practical consort, have their home. Fred Gray, a former correspondent of The London Daily Mail who had been decorated with the St. George's Cross for bravery at the front, was present with his Russian wife. And so was Golovin, one of the gentlest artist souls I have ever known. Spread out on a table in a small studio lined with book shelves were the artist's designs and the producer's plans for some future production of Stravinsky's first lyric drama, "Le Rossignol", which other European capitals had heard under Diagileff but which Petrograd had been denied by the conservatism of the Tsar's court. Around a simple board in the living room we sat informally over our tea and the bread with which Mme. Meyerhold honored my visit, and we talked of the hardness of life and the uncertainty of the times but most of all of the certainty of the theatre and the persistence of art through the most bitter ordeals. I must remain, they all agreed, at least until I could see the revival of Molière's "Don Juan", the production by which in November, 1910, Meyerhold introduced a new tradition in the state theatres.

A Dress rehearsal of "Don Juan" was scheduled for Saturday morning, March 2, preparatory to the public disclosure the following Tuesday evening. I decided to attend as a precaution against the possible necessity of flight before Tuesday. Until the actors came, Meyerhold and Golovin waited with me in the greenroom of the Alexandrinsky amid the relics and memorials of almost a century of the Russian stage, for the theatre was built from Rossi's designs in 1832 and named after the wife of Tsar Nicholas I. The more I saw of Golovin, the more I was charmed by his spirit, as beautiful and simple as the soul of a child. Meyerhold's spirit is equally fine, but he is more aggressive and he takes the lead in their collaboration. When the rehearsal finally began, he pushed it through with assurance and precision, often leaping up on the extended apron and playing a part himself as an example for the actor. In between the acts, we adjourned briefly to the refreshment room for a glass of tea and a shaving of black bread in lieu of a sandwich. When the rehearsal was over and we emerged in the Nevsky Prospekt, a score of shots rang out in the block opposite the small shops of the Gostinny Dvor where a long queue waited with mixed patience for permission to leave the city. It seemed like a far cry from Molière and the good will of the artists to the seething excitement of out-of-door Petrograd. I do not wonder which was the real Russia, the Russia which will live on into the generations ahead.

"DON Juan" in rehearsal was antic and jolly. In performance, it was sheer joy,--the joy of the theatre as theatre. You face Meyerhold's stage with no illusion that it is not a stage. Of course it is a stage! Why pretend it isn't? There it is, under the full lights of the auditorium, curtain removed and apron extended twenty feet beyond the proscenium arch. It's a play you shall see, a play, you who love the theatre for its own sake! No cross-section of life here, no attempt to copy life! No illusion here, to be shattered by the slightest mishap or by a prosaic streak in the spectator's make-up. It's a play you shall see, and you'll know it all the time, for you'll play, too, whether you realize it or not. The audience is always an essential factor in the production of drama, but never does it enter so completely, so keenly into the psychological complex as in the theatre theatrical. The give and take between audience and actor is dynamic and almost incessant.

Into this theatre and to this stage, Meyerhold brings a play from out of an epoch which produced its drama in almost identically the same spirit of disillusioned make-believe. "On the extreme west," he writes in commenting on his production of "Don Juan," "in France and Italy, Spain and England, and on the extreme east in Japan, within the limits of one epoch (the second half of the sixteenth and the whole of the seventeenth century), the theatre resounds with the tambourines of pure theatricality. . . . The academic theatre of the Renaissance, unable to make use of the greatly extended forestage, removed the actor to a respectable distance from the public. . . . Molière is the first of the masters of the stage of the era of Louis XIV to bring the action forward from the back and the middle of the stage to the forestage, to the very edge of it. . . .

"Is it not intelligible why every incident of any scene of that brilliant theatrical epoch took place on this wonderful spot called the forestage? . . .

"Similar to the arena of a circus, pressed on all sides by a ring of spectators, the forestage is brought near the public, so that not one gesture, not one movement, not one glimpse of the actor should be lost in the dust of the back stage. And see how thoughtfully tactful are these gestures, movements, postures and grimaces of the actor on the forestage. Of course! Could an actor with an inflated affection or with insufficiently flexible bodily movements be tolerated at the proximity to the public at which the forestages of the old English, French, Spanish and Japanese theatres placed their actors?"

In approaching the problem of producing a play from the old theatre, Meyerhold admits that there is no need for the exact reproduction of the architectural peculiarities of the old stages. Free composition in the spirit of the primitive stage will serve, provided the substance of the architectural peculiarities most suited to the spirit of the production is retained. What is more important, he thinks, is to determine whether the play in hand is one which can be comprehended by the contemporary spectator through the prism of his own time, or whether it will convey its idea only when the conditions and the atmosphere surrounding the original players and playhouse and audience are reproduced today. Such a play as the latter, he insists, is Molière's "Don Juan."

"Therefore," he writes in the critical essay on his production quoted before, "the régisseur who approaches the staging of 'Don Juan' must first of all fill the stage and the hall with such an atmosphere that the action could not be understood except through the prism of that atmosphere. . . . It is necessary to remind the spectator during the whole course of the play of all the thousands of looms of the Lyonnaise factories preparing the silks for the monstrously numerous courtiers of Louis XIV; of the Gobelin hotel; of the town of painters, sculptors, jewellers and turners; of the furniture manufactured under the guidance of prominent artists; of all those masters producing mirrors and laces according to the Venetian models, stockings according to the English model, cloth according to the Dutch model, and tin and copper according to the German.

"Hundreds of wax candles in three chandeliers from above and in two candlesticks on the forestage; little children filling the stage with stupefying perfumes, dripping them from a cut-glass flask on heated platinum plates; little children flitting on the stage here to pick up a lace handkerchief from the hands of Don Juan or there to push the chairs before the tired actors; little children tying the ribbons on the shoes of Don Juan while he is having a discussion with Sganarelle; little children handing the actors lanterns when the stage is submerged in semi-darkness; little children clearing away from the stage the mantles and the sabers after the desperate fight between Don Juan and the brigands; little children crawling under the table when the statue of the Commander comes on the stage; little children calling the public together by ringing a little silver bell and in the absence of the curtain announcing the intermissions,--these are not tricks created for the diversion of the snobs; all this is in the name of the main object of the play: to show the gilded Versailles realm veiled with a perfumed smoke.

"The more sharply Molière's temperament as a comedian stood out amid the Versailles affectation, the more we expect from the wealth, the splendor and the beauty of costumes and accessories, although the architecture of the stage may be extremely simple."

And why is the curtain removed for "Don Juan" at the Alexandrinsky? The play was not so presented either at the Palais Royal or at the Petit Bourbon. "The spectator is usually coldly inclined," the producer answers, "when he looks at the curtain, no matter how well painted it is nor by what great master. The spectator has come to the theatre to see what is behind the curtain; until it is lifted, he contemplates the idea of the painting on the curtain indifferently. The curtain is lifted, and how much time will pass until the spectator will absorb all the charms of the milieu surrounding the personages of the play? It is different when the stage is open from beginning to end, different under a peculiar kind of pantomime by the supernumeraries who are preparing the stage before the eyes of the public. Long before the actor appears on the stage, the spectator has succeeded in breathing in the air of the period."

Further, concerning the illuminated auditorium, Meyerhold writes: "It is unnecessary to immerse the hall in darkness either during the intermissions or during the course of the action. Bright light infects the playgoers with a festal mood. When the actor sees the smile on the lips of the spectator he begins to admire himself as if before a mirror."

Meyerhold's facile invention and his instinct for the elements of the dramatic are evident throughout the production of "Don Juan." In addition to solving the secret of the means wherewith to make the play live today with the same zest as at its original performance, he has devoted to every scene a mind alert for those eloquent but uncatalogued nuances and emphases by which a producer heightens the dramatic effect of a play. Such methods are particularly suitable in the theatre theatrical, for it lives and thrives on artifice contrived with skill and imagination. In Don Juan's scene with the peasant girls, for instance, Meyerhold has developed the amusing series of asides to first one girl and then the other in such a way that Juan describes a kind of fantastic geometric figure in his dual conversation. It is all highly artificial, just like Molière's language in the scene, but it is also highly amusing and even mildly exciting in its stimulus to our sense of gesture. By an equally adroit use of suspense, the arrival of the Statue at the feast is built up in a combined spirit of awe and droll extravagance which leaves the spectator in that baffled mood which Meyerhold and even Molière, it would seem, deliberately sought.

Golovin's scenery is responsible for a large measure of the unity and decisiveness of the impression which "Don Juan" gives at the Alexandrinsky. America and the capitals of Europe are acquainted with the artist almost solely through the fantastic and sky-searching castles of his background for Stravinsky's ballet, "L'Oiseau de Feu", in the Diagileff repertory. In "Don Juan" he works in a wholly different mood. The precision of artifice takes the place of free fancy. The whole outward investiture of costume and scenery is tapestry in texture; the note of applied design dominates the composition; and yet there is a fine freedom and carelessness in the application which enables the outward dressing to merge in spirit with the plastic action of the play.

I am not sure what is the final impression left by "Don Juan" at the Alexandrinsky. I do not think it is entirely the impression of Molière. Or of Louis le Grand. Certainly it is only remotely that of the Sicily which the playwright designated as its locale. Neither is there anything specifically Russian in the intellectual or emotional record left by the play. I suppose that record includes something of all these forces, -- filtered and fused through the creative imagination of Meyerhold, to the end that joy may be the lot of him who submits himself to its spell.

The history of Meyerhold's "Don Juan" is typical of all such productions of the Russian theatre. It was not conceived for a night or a season but for a generation. Revealed for the first time on November 22, 1910, it was played from twenty-five to thirty times during that season. Since then, it has been revived occasionally during three seasons, -- 1911-1912, 1913-1914 and 1918. The opening performance of the latest revival, which I saw, was the forty-second in order from the start. They do not drive beauty to an early grave in Russia! Nor do they disarrange a work of dramatic art any more than is necessary through the exigencies of time. Of fourteen named rôles in the play, nine were played in March, 1918, by the same actors as in November, 1910.

MEYERHOLD'S contempt for realism in the theatre and for the intimate theatre which is, perhaps, the final development of realism, is nowhere more pointedly expressed than in his attack upon the production of "The Cricket on the Hearth" at the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre. The criticism appeared early in 1915 in his occasional periodical of the theatre, The Journal of Doctor Dapertutto, under the title, "'The Cricket of the Hearth' or At the Keyhole", and it leads off with these lines from Gogol's play, "The Wedding":

KOTCHKARYOFF: But what is she doing now? Why, this door must lead to her bedroom. (He goes near the door.)

FEKLA (a woman): You impudent fellow! You are told that she is still dressing.

KOTCHKARYOFF: What of it! What's the difference? I shall only peep in and nothing more. (He looks through the keyhole.)

ZHEVAKIN: Let me look in, too.

YAITCHNITSA: Let me look in, too, only one little peep.

KOTCHKARYOFF (continuing to peep in): Why, there is nothing to be seen, gentlemen! You can't distinguish anything. Something white is appearing, a woman or a pillow. (All come to the door, however, and scramble to peep in.)

"This fragment," writes Meyerhold, "contains all that I wish to say about the public which finally has found an ideal theatre for itself." And later, after a scathing indictment of the intimate theatre and its realism as a surrender to the morbid human curiosity concerning life, he writes: "We prefer the theatre with art but without a public to the theatre with a public but without art. For we know that after all had rushed to the door and tried to peep through the keyhole, Kotchkaryoff came with the news, 'Sh! Somebody's coming!' and every one jumped away from the door. To every shamelessness there is a limit."

The wealth of dramatic methods and motives which Meyerhold opposes to realism is limited only by the bounds of the most restless fancy. Rejected as a mere means of copying life, the simplist and most homely details take on new significance as they are molded in the theatre into a new world of the imagination. From a prospectus of his Studio, which aims mainly "to develop in the actors the mastery of movement in conformity with the platform where the play goes on", I take these phrases, which indicate roughly the new implications which ordinary acts and facts may be made to assume: "The meaning of the 'refusal'; the value of the gesture in itself; the self-admiration of the actor in the process of acting; the technique of using two stages, the stage and the forestage; the rôle of the outcry in the moment of strained acting; the elegant costume of the actor as a decorative ornament and not a utilitarian need; the headgear as a motive for the stage bow; little canes, lances, small rugs, lanterns, shawls, mantles, weapons, flowers, masks, noses, etc., as apparatus for the exercise of the hands; the appearance of objects on the platform and further destiny in the development of the subject dependent on these objects; large and small curtains (permanent and sliding, curtains in the sense of 'sails') as the simplist method of changes; screens and transparencies as a means of theatrical expressiveness; gauzes in the hands of the servants of the forestage as a means of underlining the separate accents in the playing of the leading actors,--in their movements and conversations; parade as necessary and independent part of the theatrical appearance; various forms of parade in conformity with the character of the general composition of the play; geometrization of the design into the mise en scène, created even ex improviso; the mutual relation of the word and gesture in existing theatres and in the theatre to which the Studio aspires."

Naturally, the process of reconstructing the theatre theatrical has been slow and evolutionary after the first revolutionary break with the standards of realism. Even the rediscovery of the principles which guided it in its elder incarnation has been achieved by trial and experiment, and the newer principles growing out of the richer mechanical endowment and the broadened and deepened psychological horizon of our time require even more patient testing. It would be interesting, if possible, to compare Meyerhold's original revival of "Don Juan" with its aspects today, in order to see wherein he has acquired a firmer grip on the details of a technique which is still in the making.

Meyerhold as an artist of the theatre has travelled far since as a young man he originated the rôle of Treplev in Chekhov's "The Sea Gull" at the Moscow Art Theatre in December 1898, and that of Baron Tuzenbach in "The Three Sisters" in February, 1901. After his break with Stanislavsky and realism, and a series of independent productions in Poltava and other cities in the south of Russia, he became régisseur for the Theatre of Vera Kommissarzhevskaya in Petrograd from the autumn of 1906 through the winter of 1907-1908, one of the most notable episodes of the modern Russian stage in spite of its brief life. For her he produced a wide range of plays, including Youshkyevitch's "In the City"; Pshibuishevsky's "The Endless Story"; Maeterlinck's "Sister Beatrice" and "Pelléas and Mélisande"; Alexander Blok's "The Little Booth"; Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "The Marriage of Zobeide"; Ibsen's "A Doll's House"; Andreieff's "The Life of Man"; Wedekind's "The Awakening of Spring"; and Sologub's "The Triumph of Death." In the autumn of 1908, he went to the imperial theatres of Petrograd, the Alexandrinsky and the Marinsky, where for a decade he has been the most influential and distinguished of their staff of régisseurs. His productions there have been many and varied, including Knud Hamsun's "At the Tsar's Door"; Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"; Molière's "Don Juan"; Musorgsky's "Boris Godunoff"; Byelyaieff's "The Red Tavern"; Tolstoy's "The Living Corpse"; Gluck's "Orpheus"; Sologub's "Hostages of Life"; "Maskarad" by Lyermontoff and Glazunoff; "Elektra" by von Hofmannsthal and Strauss; Gluck's "Queen of May"; "The Stone Guest" by Pushkin and Dargomuizhsky; Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Snyegurotchka" or "The Snow Maiden"; and Ostrovsky's "The Thunderstorm." In all these productions of his decade and a half as régisseur, Meyerhold has commanded the services of the leading artists of Russia for his scenic backgrounds. Many moods and many men, is the story of his collaboration. In recent seasons, he has worked almost solely with Golovin, but the list of those who preceded Golovin presents such names as Anisfeld, Bondy, Sudeykin, Kulbin, Shervashidze, Korovin, Sapunoff, Bilibin, Denisoff and Dobuzhinsky.

In the controversy between the players and A.V. Lunatcharsky, Bolshevik Kommissar of Education in charge of the state theatres, which rent the peace of those institutions in Petrograd through the winter of 1917-1918, Meyerhold held aloof. He was extremely reticent in conversation concerning his political convictions, and I am not at all sure where his sympathies lie. While some of the leading artists refused to work under the new régime, Meyerhold went energetically about his tasks as régisseur as if there had been no change in governmental authority. If he chafed under the awkwardness of some of the new regulations, he was too shrewd to confess it. With his sensitive nature and his keen imagination, he combines a practical understanding of human affairs, and he knows that as the world runs today the artist should be happy if he is simply permitted to go ahead with his work, even if meddlesome officials of Tsar or of Soviet interpose in the matter of mechanism.

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