A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 2 - Summer 2011

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By Charles Marowitz

After the Soviet Writers’ Congress of 1934, Social Realism was instituted as the indomitable Party Line. It put an end to the breathtaking innovations which flowered in Russia immediately after the Revolution producing the most groundbreaking and original work of any theatre-capitol in Europe. In its wake, the lives of many Soviet artists were painfully derailed. The new line affected composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich whose professional lives were traumatized by the new dictum.  In the theatre, artists like Nikolai Evreinov suddenly fell out of fashion; symbolism and formalism disappeared from Soviet stages.  The finest and most innovative theatre productions, many of them by artists who had taken part in the revolution were quietly - in some cases, obstreperously - banished. The leading and most experimental director in Russia, Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold was perhaps the director most threatened by the new, Stalin-inspired party line.

Although an early  protégé of  Stanslavsky  (he played Treplyov in the Moscow Arts production of “The Seagull”),   Meyerhold set himself squarely against the master’s cult of Psychological Realism and the Theatre of the Self-Evident. While Stanislavsky continued to mount Turgenev and Tolstoy, Meyerhold embraced Maeterlinck and the symbolists. A revolutionary in politics  as well  as art, he was actively involved in the Russian revolution – even imprisoned for some months – and, after the Bolsheviks took power, put in charge of the  official bureau  which supervised  the work of  all the theatres throughout the Soviet Republic.

For about three years, he was unquestionably  the most powerful man in the Russian theatre. His  Constructivist  productions in the 20s, his advocacy of Mayakovsky (he mounted the first Soviet play, Mayakovsky’s “Mystery Bouffe” in 1918) and his dazzling reconstructions of classics such as Gogol’s “Inspector General” and Ostrovsky’s “The Forest” made him a one-man esthetic revolution in the  20s and 30s. But with Lenin’s death and the encroachment of Stalinism, his fortunes began to wane.  At the Soviet Writers Congress of 1934 at which  Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek and Maxim Gorky  proclaimed the supremacy  of Social Realism,  Meyerhold’s  knell was already sounding. It was the beginning of an official  harassment which would soon  envelop  his talented  actress-wife, Zinaida Raikh.

Criticism against Meyerhold,  both from Stalinist hardliners and resentful rivals using the  ‘new dispensation’ as a way of settling old debts, began to appear on all sides.  At a time when every loyal Soviet was displaying their allegiance to the new esthetic decree, Meyerhold was staging “The Lady of the Camelias” with all the formalist vigor and inventiveness which for many years had made his productions the most discussed and admired in the entire Soviet Union.  Other theatrical leaders got the message quickly.  There was a ‘new line’ being imposed on the arts and those who ignored, or God forbid, refuted it, would be en route to becoming ‘non-persons’.

On November 7th, 1937, the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup, even Konstantin Stanislavsky, the  internationally renowned leader of the Moscow Arts Theater,  realized which way the wind was blowing.  “From the very first days of the Great October  Socialist Revolution,”  said Stanislavsky “the Party and the government took upon themselves all responsibility for the Soviet theatre, not only in the material sense, but  also in an ideological sense, They stood on watch for truth and populism in Art and guarded us from all false movements. Was it not the Party and the government who raised their voices against formalism in the cause of genuine Art? All this obliges us to be genuine artists and to insure that nothing false or alien steals into our Art. How joyous it is to work for one’s own people, in close contact with the Communist Party led by our own dear, beloved Josi Vissarionovich  [Stalin]. He approaches all essential problems so simply, so sincerely, and solves them equally truthfully and directly. Comrade Stalin is a genuine caring friend of all that is alive and progressive, always foreseeing and predetermining everything. How much good he has done for us actors! Thanks be to him for all this.”

The writing was not only ‘on the wall’  but emblazoned in neon lights on the stones  of the Kremlin. But Meyerhold, given all the sacrifices he had made  for the Russian revolution,  felt invincible. He was, after all, an international celebrity now  contemplating  a tour to  France,  and for whom  the authorities were building a magnificent new theatre on Mayakovsky Square  seating l,600 persons  and  under the direct supervision of Meyerhold himself.

The kiss of death came on December 17th in an article published in Pravda by Platon Kerzhentsev entitled “An Alien Theatre”.   It began: “On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution only one out of the 700 Soviet professional theatres was without a special production to commemorate the October revolution, That theatre was the Meyerhold Theatre…..”   The article went on to cite a number of indefensible grievances against the director. “Almost (Meyerhold’s) entire theatrical career before the October Revolution,” wrote the critic  “amounted to a struggle against the realistic theatre on behalf of the stylized, mystical formalist theatre of the esthetes; that is a theatre which shunned real life. - - - -  In (his) production of Vaerhaeren’s “Dawn”, Meyerhold’s theatre  made a hero out of a Menshevik traitor to the working class…”  - - -  “Meyerhold dedicated his second production “Earth In Turmoil” to…Trotsky!”----“Instead of turning his attention to the ideological aspects of classical works, V. Meyerhold channeled all  his energy into the external aspects – to twisting the text, to the invention of mise-en-scene, to circus tricks and all kinds of empty distortions…” ---- “In other words,” the article concluded “Meyerhold’s work with Soviet dramatists was completely barren. During its  entire existence the theatre has not created a single Soviet play which could enter the repertoire of other theatres in the Union. Here it became wholly apparent that V. Meyerhold cannot (and obviously does not want to) understand Soviet reality….”

As was so often the case, Pravda was the tribunal that  paved the way for subversives and dissidents to be led to the gallows and,  on June 13th 1939 at the All-Union Conference of Stage Directors, the fatal blow was struck. Although two days into the Conference,  Meyerhold  was scheduled to speak, neither Pravda nor Izvestia carried any word of the speech. A year later when the official transcript of the Conference was published, there was no mention of either Meyerhold’s remarks or even his  being  in  attendance. According to Edward Braun, Meyerhold’s chief biographer: “Immediately after the Conference  Meyerhold was arrested. He is believed to have been shot in a Moscow prison on February 2nd 1940.  Shortly after his arrest, Zinaida Raikh’s mutilated body had been discovered in their Moscow flat. Of all the property in the flat only a file of papers was missing. The assailants, described officially as ‘thugs’, were never caught.”

Meyerhold was living at a time when dissent was not only fashionable but de rigueur. A giant wall built solidly throughout the 19th century was being dismantled  as vigorously as,  a full  half-century later,  the Berlin Wall would be toppled. The revolutionary spirit was strongest in Russia than anywhere else in Europe and that is why the most dynamic products emanated from there. Not only in theatre but in art, film, poetry and literature. Nor was Meyerhold the only artist breaking down the barriers.  Evgevny Vakhtangov, like Meyerhold a disciple of Stanislavsky, was also hammering away at Naturalism and in some ways  (“Turandot”,  “Eric XIV”, “The Dybbuk”) more impressively than Meyerhold – if not quite as provocatively.

When the  methods of representation are suddenly exploded as they were in the first decade of the 20th century in Russia, the flying debris lands everywhere - not only on artists but on spectators as well.  It was a period in which,  old unquestioned paradigms  being torn up by their roots, a new paradigm asserts itself in different and unexpected ways. Meyerhold’s attack on Naturalism  was the equivalent of Picasso’s attack on the prevailing values of l9th century art. In adopting a different esthetic language, he made it possible for new statements to be proclaimed. He eliminated  the concept of  theatre as ‘simple  make-believe’.  He forced audiences to interpret not  merely the  implications of story-telling  but the kinesthetic reality of actors acting.  Constructivism decreed: we can build anything we want on stage – not just chairs and tables, doors and windows. Constructivism reminded audiences of the diverse tangibility that theatre was capable of. Not so much set design but the drama of space itself encountered as it might be  in a forest or  on a mountain-top, in a  city square  or in the dreamscape of someone enveloped in  sleep. Meyerhold added to the language of performance the way new and provocative  intellectual insights add to established philosophical discourse. It was an extension of theatre into the lives of people that can only happen when their own lives are suddenly  torn asunder. It is life strangulating art and giving it CPR at the same time.

The spirit of Meyerhold is  still  alive.  It can be found in the more fruitful works of Peter Brook, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Jerzy Grotowsky, Mabou Mines, Theatre  de Complicite,  the Blue Man  Group  and anywhere and everywhere that directors and ensembles transcend the squalid  limitations of Psychological Realism. It may be a bit glib to say  that in the USSR between 1902 and 1940, the country  produced the most  innovative  and  charismatic  theatre-director of the 20th century and that the  finest  post-modern  theatre-work can be  directly traced back to his influence, but it is a statement  I  find   impossible to dispute.

What is worrying is  that the brutal  Stalinist dogmatism that extinguished Meyerhold  in l940 may well be reviving in Putin’s  2lst century Russia; a country where the  same cruel  dogmatism that snuffed the breath out of the most  fecund  theatre-artists  Russia  ever produced  is once again placing curbs on free expression, dissent and the untrammeled exercise  of  the  dramatic imagination.  Once  the state decrees that there are certain topics  that are no longer  allowed and certain criticisms which the ruling hierarchy can no longer abide, the spirit of Joseph Stalin is  immediately reborn  and the victimization of artists like Meyerhold  just around the corner.