Revolutionary politics and revolutionary theatre
Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre
By Edward Braun
347 pp., $32.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Vsevolod Meyerhold believed that revolutionary art and revolutionary politics belonged together. A Bolshevik and avant-garde theatre director, the internationally renowned Meyerhold called for "an October in the theatre!" after the Russian Revolution of October 1917.
Meyerhold staged plays which tackled grand themes of revolution in a bold cinematic-circus style. This blew away the standard pre-revolution fare of genteel, introspective plays, put on for the elitist bourgeois and idle rich who consumed theatre as so much cultural fodder.
Meyerhold's "bio-mechanical" style synthesised drama, movement, music, colour and lighting. Sirens, factory whistles, cannon blasts, searchlights and bells all had a role to play as much as the actors.
Decorative scenery was replaced by large-scale, mobile geometric constructions. He hung the auditorium with placards, bombarded the audience with leaflets during the interval, and leather-clad motorcyclists rode onto stage with the latest news from the civil war fronts. It was a style born of the storm and stress of revolution and great class conflicts.
Meyerhold tore down the barriers between stage and audience, between theatre and life. Such a dynamic theatre was bound to confront the suffocating Stalinist nightmare that gradually engulfed Russian society, and Meyerhold, intransigent in defence of artistic independence and communist principles, was murdered on Stalin's orders in 1940.
Edward Braun's book follows the career of Meyerhold, born in 1874, who, from a middle class upbringing, soon discovered a taste for acting and socialism. Outraged at police repression of a student demonstration in 1901, he wrote an account for Lenin's exile newspaper, Iskra. Meyerhold also became dedicated to the social responsibility of theatre and to its accessibility to the working class.
In the repressive artistic climate of tsarism, however, Meyerhold initially detoured through an abstract Symbolism, which was a protest against the absence of beauty in bourgeois life and art. Symbolism's rejection of the material world, however, resulted in social disengagement. Meyerhold's experimentation was often reduced to mere aesthetic extravagance and a preponderance of form over content. His ornately dressed, lavish productions for the state theatres rarely challenged the social function of theatre in tsarist Russia.
1917 changed all that. The "social awareness of youth had not declined with the passage of time" for Meyerhold. While the rest of the tsarist theatre world looked on the still fragile Bolshevik power with watchful neutrality or overt hostility, Meyerhold declared his support for Bolshevism and joined the party. Meyerhold soon staged Mystery-Bouffe, a brash allegory of international socialist revolution by the Bolshevik poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: this was Meyerhold's declaration of war against the caution and routine of the established stage.
Meyerhold was put in charge of theatre in the new soviet state by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the cultivated and liberal Bolshevik commissar for education and the arts, only to be removed once his "leftist" fervour threatened to run amok by discarding all plays from the pre-revolutionary past as bourgeois trash in favour of the proletarian, non-professional and Red Army theatres.
Many of the leading Bolsheviks were far from being cultural radicals, their approach to art being to disseminate to the working class the good and the challenging from the bourgeois epoch. Where they differed from Stalin was in not proscribing any form of art — despite Trotsky's reservations on Meyerhold's "biomechanical" theories and the critical coolness of Lenin and Lunacharsky, Meyerhold's new, independent theatre received state subsidies, and its performances attracted huge crowds. Mystery-Bouffe ran to 154 performances to 120,000 workers.
Meyerhold was presented with a new challenge after 1920, following the introduction of the New Economic Policy — the temporary reintroduction of free enterprise in limited sectors of the economy to stimulate growth after the stagnation of six years of imperialist war, civil war, foreign intervention and blockade. The NEP also gave temporary licence to bourgeois values, an underworld of crooks and social parasites, and pockets of capitalist decadence where dreams of the old regime and Western cultural fashions briefly resurfaced.
This was an inviting satirical target for Meyerhold. He used hyperbole and caricature to ridicule these "pathetic remnants of the past". Often his knockabout carnival style reduced audiences to helpless laughter.
Yet Meyerhold managed a subtly dialectical treatment of capitalist culture. Jazz, for example, was seen by some Soviet purists as a symbol of Western decadence, but he used Soviet Russia's first live jazz combo and "lascivious foxtrots, shimmies and tangos" as a legitimate, and more entertaining, cultural form than the marching ranks of Red Fleet sailors and Young Communists of the prevailing, rather wooden concept of communist cultural virtue.
Meyerhold, ever the modernist, also presented classics from the 19th century but liberally adapted and updated them for a modern proletarian audience. The heroic, placard theatre of the new Soviet repertoire was often laid aside for a more disturbing exploration of individual and society in complex post-revolutionary times.
Meyerhold's return to the classics was, in part, caused by increasing state interference from the mid-1920s, when Stalin was consolidating his control of the party in the interests of the material privileges of the growing state bureaucracy.
Meyerhold had to discard or rewrite many plays whose satirical edge could be seen as hovering over the necks of the Soviet bureaucrats. The productions of Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, which ridiculed bureaucrats and censors, received orchestrated and destructive reviews. Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930 in despair and protest at Stalin's killing of the revolution. Visiting dignitaries were now taken to the Bolshoi Ballet and the Grand Opera instead of the Meyerhold State Theatre.
Meyerhold sought refuge in the classics, but the '30s were a period of "literature in uniform" — tight censorship, direct state control of artistic policy and mandatory allegiance to the principles of "socialist realism" (glorification of the latest Stalinist agricultural, industrial or economic policy). All theatre directors hastened to swear fidelity to the new line in a display of craven hypocrisy and self-humiliation — all, except Meyerhold, who, despite the usual, ritualistic curses against "the judas Trotsky" and praise of "Stalin, the friend of toilers throughout the world", was unrepentant and stout in defence of experimentation, modernism and artistic independence.
Meyerhold was a late victim of Stalin's 1937-38 great purges, which claimed hundreds of thousands of victims, and the show trials of "old Bolshevik" leaders like Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. This revolting spectacle of, as Trotsky put it, "periodic capitulations, acts of self-humiliation, slander, promises, indulgences, persecutions and horrifying examples" served to eliminate, intimidate or demoralise the "old Bolsheviks", who still represented the socialist and egalitarian ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Meyerhold's persecution began with the closure of his theatre in 1938. After directors rallied to him at a theatre director's conference, he was arrested by the political police, the NKVD, on wildly fabricated charges of spying for foreign intelligence agencies and plotting to assassinate Stalin.
The 66-year-old Meyerhold was savagely beaten, and interrogated for 18 hours at a stretch, until a forced confession was extracted, which he valiantly repudiated at a closed trial. He was shot in a Moscow prison in February 1940; his wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, was brutally stabbed to death by agents of the NKVD in her flat soon after. Meyerhold, the greatest of Soviet Russian theatre directors, departed, a victim and opponent of Stalinism.
Braun's book tends to get bogged down in the technical details of Meyerhold's productions. It fails to fully integrate developments in the political course of the Russian Revolution with their effects on the Soviet theatre. But he does convey the artistic achievements of Meyerhold and a malign sense of looming tragedy. The unity of revolutionary politics and revolutionary art was Meyerhold's great quest. Their negation is Stalin's everlasting shame.