London Theatre Blog is pleased to welcome Moscow based film maker Michael Craig as a guest author to the site. Michael moved to Moscow twelve years ago to make films and write. Over the past few years he has been working on a documentary series about the Russian avant-garde with locations in Russia, Germany and Japan. “Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde” became the fourth film in this documentary series.
In search of a new theatre
Meyerhold was primarily concerned with integrating the two dimensionality of set design with the three dimensionality of the actor’s body. It was a deliberate attempt to move away from the naturalistic presentation of theatre in which the set merely served as a backdrop to the actor’s text-based performance. Meyerhold was in search of a new kind of theatre; one that could widen its emotional potential to express new thoughts and ideas and reflect the times in which he was living.
In the early 1900s Meyerhold was still involved with symbolist drama but had begun to experiment with specific elements of the stage; improvising with the proscenium and playing with light. In his production of Alexander Blok‘s The Fairground Booth in 1906, he put some of his new techniques to test. The simple but archaic theatre included elements of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, traditional Japanese theatre and characteristics of the old theatres of Spain and England. The most significant development was Meyerhold’s use of a theatre within the theatre, demonstrating the potential of a deliberate display of theatrical illusion. The scenery was non-realistic and sets were raised and lowered in full view of the audience. The Fairground Booth enabled Meyerhold to explore a form which challenged the theatrical conventions from inside the dominant symbolist framework of the day.
The beginnings of Biomechanics
The production of Mikhail Lermontov’s play Masquerade marked a significant step in the development of Meyerhold’s ideas. The decor of the production by Alexander Golovin was designed as an emotional codex which would reflect and in many cases set the mood or atmosphere of the play as it progressed through its various stages. The colours of the curtains and backdrops were designed to lead the viewer from one stage of the production to another so that it became an intricate part of the actors’ performances on stage – highlighting and emphasising their emotional content and psychology. The rising and falling of curtains was not simply a device for opening and closing an act, their graphic input became part of the dramatic process and helped develop the action of the play itself.
To use a musical analogy, the curtains were meant to play the role of an overture with additional orchestral interludes. This was the beginning of breaking up the hierarchy in Russian text-based theatre. Here the abstract graphic element of set design began to play a more equal role in the production as a whole and with this the first seeds were sown of a new acting technique which Meyerhold would name ‘Biomechanics’.
The influence of Constructivist design
Meyerhold’s production of The Magnanimous Cuckold became his boldest experiment in this process. Meyerhold was already developing the acting technique of Biomechanics, a series of exercises to develop and release the emotional potential of the actor through movement. He enlisted Lubov Popova to design a set for the performance. The result was a machine-like moving structure with platforms and whirling wheels against a plain curtain backdrop. The actors’ performances formed a dynamic, pulsating spectacle, moving in unison and integrated with the rhythmic movement of Popova’s constructivist structure. The result was an organic unity on stage between actor and set.
This production sparked a trend in collaborations with constructivist artists to design theatre sets. The most well known was Alexander Tairov‘s production of G.K. Chesterton‘s The Man who was Thursday designed by the artist Alexander Vesin. He built a structure with lifts and moving walkways which, it would seem, befitted Chesterton’s literary creation. However the set itself was a disappointment. In many cases it appeared clumsy and actors found it difficult to perform within Vesin’s labyrinth-like and reputedly cumbersome design. Part of the reason why Vesin’s design did not succeed as intended is because the implications of Meyerhold’s innovations had not been entirely understood. The structure was abstract and constructivist in character, but it was also a fairly concrete object and in some sense representational and functional. It was a space in which actors could interact with each other and a world which bore resemblances to emerging forms of the time. In some sense a return to naturalism, albeit of a contemporary or constructivist/urban/industrialist character.
Popova’s machine was completely different in character. It was machine-like but far from the common structures of the day. In present day terms we might refer to it as an installation. It was abstract, it blurred meaning, and had no function other than to be an object in the production. This suited Meyerhold’s desire for the crossing and re-crossing of the borders between tragedy and comedy, pathos and farce and hence embodied his experimentation with theatrical form.
The blurring and crossing of borders can be found in Japanese artistic and theatrical forms; as can the emptiness of the stage which like a monotone Japanese landscape painting depends on what is taken out, giving the audience a chance to use their own imagination to fill the void. In this sense, while wanting to stimulate and lead an audience, Meyerhold did not want to control their emotions.
Meyerhold’s interest in Japan
To further understand these developments in Russian theatre, it’s important to note Meyerhold’s interest in the traditional performing arts of Japan, particularly Kabuki and Noh. One of the principal characteristics of Noh, and a paradox in a theatre of masks, is that the theatrical process is “unmasked” in full view of the audience. Stage technology is revealed and incorporated into the “work of art”, so that the process becomes an important medium for preserving and relaying information about the play.
This appealed to Meyerhold who proceeded to turn his theatre inside out, rejecting the play as an art form wholly based on text. The theatre that Meyerhold wanted demanded a new type of actor with a new style of acting, and Kabuki with its emphasis on dance and physical movement served Meyerhold’s purposes well. The rhythm of dance was important to the futurists and avant-garde artists because through rhythm a new life could be presented and a new type of person would embody this rhythm for a new future era where movement speed and dynamism were optimum. Biomechanics with its visual/graphic potential was meant to be a living synthesis of this transformation.
A ‘return’ to classical drama?
By the time Meyerhold put on his version of The Government Inspector it was heralded by the authorities as Meyerhold’s return to classical drama. Lunacharsky, Commissar of Enlightenment (Narkompros) had earlier criticised Meyerhold’s experiments but welcomed Meyerhold’s return to traditional theatre. However, looking at the photographs and designs of this production the innovations which Meyerhold had pioneered were still apparent. Meyerhold had not abandoned his experiments and they continued to inform his work as much as before. As he himself commented, “Just because we are not rushing about the stage waving red flags does not mean that theatre is not revolutionary”.
Moreover the revolutionary quality of the production was borne out with Meyerhold borrowing techniques from cinema. In some scenes, several events take place simultaneously and the action spills over from one side of the stage into the other in a torrent of movement uncharacteristic of earlier classical productions. Meyerhold went even further. In the final scene where actors are required to freeze in still poses to dramatise the ossified and static nature of the world portrayed in the production, Meyerhold substituted the actors with specially designed mannequins.
The graphic quality is unmistakable with echoes from Bunraku (puppet theatre of Japan) puppets and the dramatic poses or mie of Kabuki actors. Meyerhold’s vision was bold and radical in its strong integration of the graphic component into the production and emphasises his ability to transcend the boundaries of theatrical form. In this case, instead of real people playing the role of frozen mannequins, real mannequins played the role of people. Whatever Meyerhold’s intention, watching rows of lifelike figures gaze into the auditorium, transformed like idols from an another era, must have made for an eerie climax.