Theatre in revolutionary or non-revolutionary

To see Meyerhold's theatre in revolutionary or non-revolutionary light one must take a close look at the origins of his ideas in reaction to the social and artistic agendas. 'When Meyerhold left Moscow in 1902 to form his own company he was deeply concerned with the role of the theatre as a reforming influence in society.' (1979 p.145) He was distraught with this new emergence of theatre as more of a tool than an art form but little practical measures could be employed by Meyerhold to stop this as any attempt in political involvement would have been squashed by the nervous local authorities. 'After the events of 1905 they became more vigilant still, but in any case by that time Meyerhold was preoccupied exclusively with symbolist drama, which had no true bearing on the urgent problems of the day, whatever metaphorical significance might be attached to it.' (1979, p.145)

Meyerhold was principally concerned with the integration of the three dimensional actor body with that of the two dimensional set. The artistic aesthetics were to be held in higher regard to all else in his works. He wanted to remove himself from the naturalistic style of performance where the sets only function was to provide an illustrated background to the actor's script-based performance. This anti-realist movement Meyerhold helped envision proclaimed itself rapidly under a variety of slogans. Russian symbolist poets such as Vyacheslav Ivanov and Valery Bryusov expressed a great urge to move away from the conventions of naturalism, as well as director Nikolai Evreinov who like Meyerhold was influenced by the philosophies ofSchopenhauer,NietzscheandBergson, the aesthetics of symbolism and thecommedia dell'arte(particularly in its use ofmaskandspontaneity). What all of these directors and poets expressed was a desire to move away from what Valery Bryusov coined the 'unnecessary truth' of the realistic stage founded in Russia by the works of Stanislavski. They disregarded Stanislavsky's reproduction of real life as something that shouldn't be regarded as theatre or even art. 'Common to all was the conviction that if theatre was to be retrieved from the dead end they held Stanislavsky to have lead it, a return must be made to the original sources of theatre, to those eras when it was above all theatrical and was unencumbered by literary, psychological, and social excrescences.' (1968, p.142) Meyerhold was seen to cast his net the widest in his desire for an original take on theatre. He wanted one that could convey new ideas and thoughts, which could expand on its emotional potential, and be able to reflect the times he was living in. His new ideas almost always came in fruition on a small scale through subtle experimentation. This subtle experimentation started in his earlier days when he was still predominantly involved in symbolist drama; crucially characterised by its emphasis on the idea of an internal life, full of dreams and fantasies.

He began his new thought process by looking at the ancient Greek approach to theatre, which contained the original forms of symbolism and dance. Amongst his writings, in 1907 he noted: 'If it anticipates the revival of the dance and wishes to attract the active participation of the spectator in the performance, is not the stylised theatre leading to a revival of the Greek classical theatre?' (1968, p.142) He also took close interest in Asian theatre - Chinese, Japanese and Indian - and the traditional puppet theatres. English Modernist Theatre practitioner Gordon Craig's innovative lighting and puppetry works also influenced Meyerhold's practice. In the midst of his experimentation with the symbolist aesthetic, Meyerhold staged a performance of Blok's The Fairground Booth, the first clear attempt by both he director and playwright to try and embrace the otherwise absent spirit of Carnivalesque; a mode of theatre which subverted and liberated the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and chaos. The Fairground Booth became one of the first real representations of the shift within Russian symbolist theatre and drama. The play juxtaposed the absurdist caricatures from the commedia dell'arte - Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot - against 'The Mystics,' a group of symbolist characters who waited on the eventual coming of eternity. Julia Listengarten notes in her writings that 'in The Fairground Booth Meyerhold subverted the aesthetic of a static theatre with its flat settings and stylised poses that he had himself been exploring since his production of Maeterlinck's The Death of Tintagiels (1894) in 1905.' (2000, p.73) Edward Braun, the collaborative author of Meyerhold's seminal piece 'Meyerhold On Theatre' comments on the juxtaposing contrast's and savage physical movement present in The Fairground Booth: 'Depth and extract, brevity and contrast! No sooner has the pale, lanky Pierro crept across the stage, no sooner has the spectator sensed in his movements the eternal tragedy of mutely suffering mankind, than the apparition is succeeded by the merry Harlequinade. The merry gives way to the comic, harsh satire replaces sentimental ballad.' (1969, p.137)

Meyerhold begun his changes by playing with the lighting and improvising with the proscenium. He incorporated the archaic elements from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, various traditional physical elements from Japanese theatre -Kabuki and Noh - and various staging characteristics of old English and Spanish theatres. The Japanese theatre of Noh prime characteristics is in its which has been recognised as a paradox in mask theatre, is that the characters involved go through a an 'unmasking' process in full vision of the audience. Another notable aspect of Japanese theatre is that stage technology is frequently revealed to the audience and incorporated into the artistic aesthetic, thus it becomes a method of relaying and preserving information about the play. "Japanese theatre exists 'in the world' not only in and of itself, but also through its scholarly interpretations" (2001, p. 133). This appealed to Meyerhold who proceeded on turning his theatre inside out, rejecting the play as something wholly literary based. 'since Kabuki is not concerned with creating a world of illusion and since the performance derives from the actor, persons who are not actors (in the sense they are not characters in the play) can appear on stage during the performance to facilitate the expressiveness of the actor...(1974, p.105) Properties can be invested with as great dramatic power in Kabuki as they are in the Western theatre, and perhaps their dramatic power is even greater, for they appear only when needed and removed immediately when they are not required. Their force is not dulled by familiarity.' (1974, p.107) The theatre he wanted was one that demanded a whole new style of acting, and Kabuki's emphasis on physicality and dance served Meyerhold's tastes well. Avant-garde artists and futurists idolised the importance of dance and rhythm as they believed a whole new kind of life could be brought into vision in theatre, and they deemed this incorporation necessary as they foresaw an era where attributes of dynamism and speed were optimum. 'Kabuki music rises about the body of the actor. It does not impose itself upon the actor, but instead gives musical and rhythmic expression to his movement, and in doing so increases the flow of theatrical expressiveness toward the audience.' (1974, p.113) With all of this, Meyerhold developed a technique of theatre within theatre, a theatre within itself; this deliberately brought forth a new form of theatrical illusion amongst spectators. Meyerhold despised plays that had significant bearing in current events, plays saturated in 'psychologism.' In 1913 he noted: 'A theatre which presents plays saturated in 'psychologism with the motivation of every single event underlined, or which forces the spectator to rack his brains over the solution of the manner of social and philosophical problems - such a theatre destroys its own theatricality.... The stage is a world of marvels and enchantment; it is breathless joy and strange magic.' (1913, p.5) His backgrounds or scenery were purposely unrealistic and his sets were raised and lowered in full vision of the audience. Meyerhold's new method of Biomechanics with its visual/graphic potential was meant to be a living synthesis of this transformation. In musical terms, the curtains present on the stage were meant to meant to signify and play the role of an overture with orchestral interludes. This served as the starting point of the removal of the dominant Russian literary based theatre. The abstract visual set design played a more of an equal role in the productions altogether. This was a first form of what Meyerhold later named Biomechanics.

'It took the outbreak of war to open Meyerhold's eyes to an alternative role for the theatre. As well as collaborating in the composition of Fire, he was responsible in the autumn of 1914 for the staging of a number of protagonist pieces.' (1979, p.146) In 1917 following the events of the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks were seen to put all theatre's under state control. The first ever people's Commissar of Enlightenment, Lunacharsky, was to have allegedly (according to Braun) invited a hundred and twenty of the leading artists of Russia to a meeting. Of the five who accepted this invitation Meyerhold was one of them. In January of 1918 the Petrograd paper Our Gazette reported sarcastically that "The ranks of the Bolsheviks have been joined by the ultra-modernistic Mr Meyerhold, who for some unknown reason has acquired the title of "Red Guard".' (1918, p.223) It has been suggested that Meyerhold was merely exploiting the Revolution in order to propagate his own reforms.' (1979,p.147) By allying his beliefs in theatre alongside the revolution which had taken place one could say that this makes his works more credible for revolutionary status. Alexander Matskin speaks justifiably of the saving grace of clarity that the Russian Revolution brought to Meyerhold's eventual relationship with the rest of the world, he continues:

'No doubt Meyerhold linked his fate with the Revolution because it to give him greater creative freedom, and there was no harm in that. After all, many Russian intellectuals, Pavlov and Stanislavsky among them, did just the same. But to brought an inner freedom as well; it broke the circle of alienation and at one stroke cut all the knots which he had struggled for so long to unravel. That was why he followed the revolution to the very limit.' (1979, p.147)

Meyerhold came to classify drama from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century in three key categories: 'The Theatre of the Decadents', the essentially literature based theatre, 'The Theatre of Real Life,' including the Chekhovian 'Theatre of Mood'; anti-theatrical theatre of the mystics and god-seekers; and 'The New Theatre' which sought to discover the theatre of the future by retracing and reclaiming the theatres past. Meyerhold's 'New Theatre' of rhythm, movement and mime made of the influences mentioned was designed to directly oppose to prevailing cult of literature and 'authentic emotions.' This 'crisis' had been precipitated, according to various accounts, by literature's stranglehold on theatre, the inadequate supply of good literature in the theatre, the tiredness of existing forms, the suffocating ego and unalloyed presence of the actor and the lack of the meaningful actor-audience relationship. As I mentioned briefly before, the lack of the participating presence of the theatre audience, characterized by famous poet Alexander Pushkin and satirized by director Nikolai Gogol, was continually confronted by twentieth-century poets Evreinov and Sologub. Each of them in their own respective ways called for the reconstitution of the audience as part of the creative process behind the theatrical experience. By declaring their own theatre practices - Sologub's 'Theatre of a Single Will' and Evreinov's 'Introduction to Monodrama' - were suddenly made unemployable. 'both argued for a mono-dramatic perspective in theatre to bring the audience into more direct psychological contact with the action on stage - there are important differences in style and emphasis. Evreinov de-mysticized Sologub and gave the laurel wreath to the director as author of the stage production, whereas Sologub gave it to the writer and made everyone else subservient..they believed that an uneasy alliance could be struck between the theatre's seemingly divergent drives toward oneness and individuation by penetrating the egoism of the self to apprehend the universatality of the soul' (1983, p.425) This belief became another composite to Meyerhold's eventual works.

The utmost and most inexorable influence upon Meyerhold's work was in debt to the Italian commedia dell'arte. The practices of the commedia dell'arte were present to Meyerholds approach to directing throughout his whole encompassing career. He treated it as a not only a source of technique but a philosophical idiom of life and expression. It served as a catalyst to his slowly forming understanding of drama and theatre. An early conclusion from Meyerhold stated that 'acting is movement': 'Movement is the most powerful means of theatrical expression. The role of movement is more important than any other theatrical element. Deprived of dialogue, costume, floorlights, wings and auditorium and left only with the actor and his mastery of movement, the theatre remains theatre.' (1969, p.147) The essence of theatre, as a result, to Meyerhold was in what we know as 'Pantomime', for in pantomime, as the name suggests, the audience is stuck in an emotional 'arrested development' with the actor himself in him using his skill and movement. Meyerhold thus coined the original proper term of 'playacting,' where the actor utilizes the aspects exclusive to theatre alone, a technique he believed was always used in theatres finest moments throughout history.

Meyerhold's increasingly versatile style in theatre sought to rebel against the standards of the nation at the current time. Meyerhold was firmly against the state regulations that came in under in under the revolution in 1905 as he felt the new policy entrenched on all forms of society, including theatre literature and the arts. In this sense one could see Meyerhold's philosophy and techniques as a revolt against the original revolutionary regime; an excuse used by some to coin his efforts as revolutionary attempt or succession. An argument against this could be that because Meyerhold's practices in theatre were orientated around returning it to its original forms and past fundamentals as I have previously mentioned. His form of theatre could be deemed as system of renewal as opposed to a system of revolutionary ideas. Therefore, as his ideas were composed of a fusion of various other practitioners' works they are not exactly 'new,' the 'fusion' may be 'new' but not the components that make it up. It seems Meyerhold's status as a revolutionary is specific to certain aspects of theatre. His Bolshevik sympathies were born out of the possibility for his artistic expression but his productions were still nonetheless deemed as something the revolution had given birth to. Lunacharsky, - also a critic noted for his liberality and perception - noted this, praising in advance Meyerhold's production of Mystery-Bouffe in 1918:

'As a work of literature, it is most original, powerful and beautiful. But what it will turn out like in production I don't yet know. I fear very much that the futurist artists have made millions of mistakes...But even if the child turns out deformed, it will still be dear to us, because it is born of that same Revolution which we all look upon as our own great mother.' (1918, p.2)

Meyerhold actions were not particularly blatant in their emergence but they were deemed effective enough. This shouldn't take away from his revolutionary attributes but could confuse them. An important quote by Igor Ilinsky describes Meyerhold's appearance upon his arrival in Moscow in 1920:

'Despite of its apparent simplicity, his appearance was somewhat theatrical, because although he was dressed modestly and without and superfluous 'Bolshevik' attributes, the style was still a la Bolshevik; the carelessly thrown-on greatcoat, the boots and puttees, the cap, the dark red woollen scarf - it was all quite unpretentious, but at the same time effective enough.' (1962, p.106)

This theatrical presence Ilinsky notices in Meyerhold's appearance is important as it helps to highlight Meyerhold's revolutionary approach to theatre; his underlying offensive struggle. This wordy final quote by Braun I have inserted into my essay wholly encapsulates the revolutionary nature of Meyerhold's works, outlining his aims and his underlying offensive revolutionary struggle I previously mentioned:

'Meyerhold's actions were no less dramatic than his appearance: he transformed the bureaucratic and ineffectual Theatre Department into a military headquarters and proclaimed the advent of the October Revolution in theatre. Taking control of the Department's organ, The Theatre Herald ('Vestnik teatra'), he initiated a violent polemic on behalf of the proletarian, provincial, non-professional, and Red Army theatres, and demanded a ruthless redeployment of the manpower and material resources concentrated in the small group of 'Academic Theatres' in Moscow. This group compromised the Bolshi, the Maly, The Moscow Art Theatre with its First and Second Studios, Tairov's Kamerny Theatre, and the Moscow Children's Theatre. There the State considered the most worthy custodians of Russian theatrical traditions and rewarded them with its financial support. They were the true objective of Meyerhold's offensive, and tirades soon resolved into an undisguised assault on their anachronistic and repertoires.' (1979, p.152-153)

In accordance to this quote I would say that Meyerhold is indeed revolutionary but in a more beguiled way. He does share the same revolutionary stature as a practitioner such as Bertolt Brecht for example when dealing with his theories; which are more of a fusion of various practitioners ideas, but his methods of achieving his vision and what he invested in theatre should be deemed so.


  • Braun, E (1979) The Theatre of Meyerhold, London, Methuen
  • Ernst, E (1974) The Kabuki Theatre, Hawaii, University of Hawaii Press
  • Golub, S (1983) Russian Dramatic Theory from Pushkin to the Symbolists: An Anthology, Vol. 35, No. 3, Oct., (pp.423-426) Maryland, The Josh Hopkins University Press,
  • Ilinsky, I. (1962) Sam o sebe, Moscow
  • Interview with 'N.M.',(1913, 24th October) Teatr, Moscow. p.5
  • Listengarten, J (2000) Russian tragifarce: its cultural and political roots, Selinsgrove, Susquehanna University Press.
  • Lunacharsky, A (1918, November 11th) Petrogradskaya Pravda, p.2
  • Matskin, A (1973) Portrety i nablyudenia, Moscow, 300 320
  • Meyerhold, V.E, Braun,E (1969) Meyerhold On Theatre, California, Metheun
  • Meyerhold, V.E (1968) Stat'i, pisma, rechi, besedy, Vol.1. Moscow.
  • Ruxandra.M, Schol-Cionca.S Leiter.S.L. (2001) Japanese Theatre and The International Stage, Boston, BRILL

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