by Mihai Lukács
The Soviet director Vsevold Meyerhold employed theatre to consciously help the post-Revolutionary effort in the 1920-1930s Soviet Union and to manifest solidarity to workers and to the communist ideals. Radical changes in his (before and after the Revolution) theories prove the politically motivated development of his theatre-making: by rejecting the pre-Revolutionary theatre and its bourgeois baggage based on oppression and inequality, the former theatrical knowledge was abandoned and un-learned, while at the same time new subject positions and a revolutionary theatre could emerge.
By connecting his theatrical explorations with the popular scientific ideas of the time, Meyerhold developed a style: he revealed his poetics by connecting science, art, politics and labor productivity. For example, Ivan Pavlov’s ideas of chain of reflex responses, as he developed them in the lab experimenting on dogs, were thoroughly explored by Meyerhold, not in the lab but in the rehearsal room, not on dogs but on his own and actors’ bodies. The premise was the long domino line of responses considered by Pavlov “the foundation of the nervous activities of both men and of animals.”
Frederick Winslow Taylor, on the other hand, offered the popular theory of efficiently executed, rhythmically economical actions in order to increase the productivity in American factories. The work of laborers was broken into simple and connected tasks and with a maximum speed for each task to be executed. High productivity was an obsession for the Soviet state as well as capitalist economies and became an obsession for the Bolshevik Meyerhold. In one lecture from 1922 he militates for a radical “Taylorization of the theatre” in order to perform in one hour what was performed in four hours.
Biomechanics is the fusion of these two theories in theatre, where the actor works as a dog, in an efficient and productive way. In order for this type of theatrical work to be effective, the actors requires two skills: “(1) the innate capacity for reflex excitability, which will enable him to cope with any employ within the limits of his physical characteristics; (2) ‘physical competence’, consisting of a true eye, a sense of balance, and the ability to sense at any given moment the location of his centre of gravity.” Biomechanics was supposed to offer the method for the process. Even if the actors were not working in factory conditions, Meyerhold developed his methods in an open solidarity with industry workers: performances were supposed to be effective and were treated as finished products, they were made to “hit the mark” and communicate important messages, like a well-organized industrial unit producing goods without any waste and to specification.
The usage of the language of science and industry was not an accident: the new language used for theatrical thinking was expressing the conscious theoretical change in response to the Revolution. Meyerhold rejected any type of psychological or humanist understanding of theatre and, in the line of post-revolutionary science, put all his efforts into transforming theatre into a post-human laboratory. First, he moved away from a psychological individualism: “theatre built on psychological foundations is as certain to collapse as a house built on sand.” His exploration of biomechanics was full of technical flaws but nevertheless, “a theatre which relies on physical elements is at the very least assured of clarity.” The technological understanding of theatre made Meyerhold emphasize the physical training of actors and put a strong focus on the bodies, which were conceptualized in a Pavlovian way: the actor was supposed to become a lab dog so “thoroughly trained that he could respond immediately, as if by reflex action, to the needs dictated by his part”, and technological: “in future the actor must go even further in relating his technique to the industrial situation. For he will be working in a society where labor is no longer regarded as a curse bus a joyful, vital necessity.”
Meyerhold often went with his students to the zoo to study and imitate animals, because the need for change did not jut relate to forms of acting but also to methods for actors to train the body in a completely different way from that done at that time. By agitating the animal, certain dispositions in the body can emerge and new actions can be performed on stage. By identifying with the animal and disturbing the body/mind relation, the actor gets stimulated by objects and situations and forms desires and movements that can move beyond the limits of the learned theatrical behavior.
Meyerhold understood acting not as a form of artistic relaxation, but as a form of work which needed methods that can be applied “to any form of work with the aim of maximum productivity.” By focusing on the theatrical unity of time, space and corporeality, he wanted to focus paradoxically on the social and political Soviet experience and to offer analyses and solutions for daily problems. That was the primal purpose of biomechanics, which can be summarized in these technical terms: “a gymnastics based upon: preparation for action-pause-the action itself-pause-and its corresponding reaction.”
In constructing the performing event, directors like Meyerhold depend on the actor in a corporeal way, they are bodily-connected partners: their work together is the process of what Donna Haraway calls “becoming with.” The post-revolutionary director and actor co-work through each other’s body: “we make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love.”
What one can identify in Meyerhold’s theories on the body of the actor is precisely the tension between a controlled use of the body (and identity) and the control by others (who have more access to power and produce subjects and passive bodies) of the actor’s body. This tension and obsession over an impossible totalizing control is worked out on the exteriority of the body to the point that control becomes superfluous or in Meyerhold’s own words: “I don’t know how to stage the play but one thing I do know, there is no need for discussion. What we need to do is get up on the stage and act.”
The utopian purpose for Meyerhold was that his so-called joyful experiments would become the propriety of all and theatre would finally dissolve into everyday life. His literary adviser, Ivan Aksyonov, explained it later: “the theatrical performance was to be given up in favour of a free play of workers at rest who spent part of their leisure time in a game that was perhaps improvised next to the temporarily abandoned workplace.”
Meyerhold was only a part of a dedicated group of directors, playwrights, stage-designers and actors who actively tried to apply in theatre the Leninist ideas of “complete overthrow of the status quo and the installation of a new, utterly different regime.” But even when criticized from an anticommunist perspective, Meyerhold stands alone: “Meyerhold, the major director-producer of the early Soviet drama, was an extremist in translating Communism into theatre.”
Meyerhold’s earlier experimentations with circus, commedia dell’arte and popular forms of theatre were combined with Marxism and avant-garde aesthetics coming from constructivism and futurism. The role of theatre in the Soviet Union grew stronger in the 1920s, being perceived as an efficient propaganda tool (in the situation of a large population unable to read and with no talking pictures invented). Meyerhold used this opportunity to experiment his own Theatrical October. Bolsheviks conceptualized theatre as a political laboratory: social experiments, designs and analyses could be first tested on stage.
The new theatrical worker could emerge only through radical transformations: “The psychological make-up of the actor will need to undergo a number of changes. There must be no pauses, no psychology, no ‘authentic emotions’ – either on the stage or whilst building a role. Here is our theatrical programme: plenty of light, plenty of high spirits, plenty of grandeur, plenty of infectious enthusiasm, unlaboured creativity, the participation of the audience in the corporate creative act of the performance.”
Actors don’t need to identify with the characters, to show empathy for their role or even to have emotions in their activity “but to consciously comment on the character by remaining clearly distinct from it.” For Meyerhold, corporeality and movement are not produced by emotionality but are its source: through biomechanics, the actor can achieve those “correct postures and moves” that miraculously will “lead naturally to an emotional state in the actor and, by extension, affect the audience.” Provoking emotions through gestures might seem a cold, detached or unengaged exercise, but through Pavlovianism, Meyerhold introduces another aspect: spontaneity. When Meyerhold expects actors to become Pavlovian dogs, the focus is precisely on the theatrical usage of “Pavlov’s studies of conditioned response behaviour, the origin of behaviorism, a reflex-like realization of an impulse.” The scientific element of Meyerhold’s theory of acting gave a “different method of articulation.” Biomechanics becomes a modern form of acting “as technically precise as the miracles of technology” while the theatre as machine makes the most of this “representative symbol of modern life,” in line with the Soviet struggle to construct a coherent form of scientific socialism.
The direct results of Meyerhold’s experiments were two productions presented to the public in 1922, Fernand Crommelynck’s The Magnanimous Cuckold and Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Death of Tarelkin, two grotesque farces with bitter endings. The constructionist artists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova designed the props and the machines for acting, which were placed on the bare stage. During performances, actors were using and moving the enormous constructions dressed in working uniforms, employing acrobatic skills and precise coordination in struggle with the mechanical environmental opponent.
The biomechanical experiments from these two productions did not have the expected success with the Soviet audience and didn’t fit the “current tasks of Soviet society.” By employing utilitarian production aesthetics, where props were called constructions and the biomechanical acting a laboratory of the new man, Meyerhold was looking actually for a political legitimating theory. A major characteristic of the Russian avant-garde was the socially useful function of any artistic endeavor. And it was dogmatically respected by Meyerhold, together with a modernist deferral in the face of the actual failure of the experiment, a utopian projection into the future when a classless communist society could benefit from the avant-garde visions.
Meyerhold’s next performance, Tretyakov’s The Earth in Turmoil, from 23 February 1923, in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Red Army, had an immediate political goal: direct agitation. Lyubov Popova’s design was not abstract and technical but used real machine guns, motorcycles and other objects. Meyerhold explained the new direction: “the assembler attempts to achieve not an aesthetic effect, but an effect that is indistinguishable from what the spectator experiences in real phenomena such as maneuvers, parades, street demonstrations, etc. Costumes and things (great and small) are exactly as in reality; their nature as products is in the centre – no decorative embellishments, no theatrical tricks.” By emphasizing that everything on stage is “exactly as in reality,” Meyerhold was aware of the theatrical function of the event, the real objects had a direct agitation function exactly by expressing something beyond their everyday function.
Even if actors’ actions are real, difficult and acrobatic and not signs for fictional actions, the theatricality of the performance is given by the parade or exhibition style. Helen Krich Chinoy observed a remarkable connection between different aesthetics based on a rather new element at that time: “The personal distillation of the director was the modern substitute for the whole complex of social and theatrical factors that had once made theatre the great collective art. Reinhardt illustrates this process in its baroque, Wagnerian aspect. Vsevolod Meyerhold illustrates it in its constructivist, Marxian aspect.”
Nevertheless, the spectators, mainly workers, were perplexed and offended by the strange staging and the non-linear narrative. Soviet critics followed them by asking for simple plots, characters that are convincing and easy to identify with, a positive treatment of Soviet heroes and life as it is.
Meyerhold’s exploration of theatricality could not answer the high demands of socialist realism, the only artistic approach possible after 1934. As the Charter of the Writers Union described it at that time: “socialist realism, as the basic method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, requires of the artist a true, historically concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development. In this respect, truth and the historical concreteness of the artistic depiction of reality must be combined with the task of the ideological transformation and education of the workers in the spirit of Socialism.”
The new actor of the realist theatre was first of all a political activist, able to recreate the language and every-day life of the working class for spectators ready to emulate it: under the social mask on stage there was the visible face of the worker. This new direction had the pretense to create a new socialist consciousness where the revolutionary avant-garde presumably failed by only confusing spectators. The decline of the old artistic leftists in the 1930s (with their two icons, Meyerhold and Mayakovski, who committed suicide in 1930) was brutally manifested in the closing of Meyerhold’s theatre and his arrest. These directions were not forms of lack of official favors but were generated by a growing hostility towards modernism that was seen by important figures like Gorky, for example, as a manifestation of the corruption and decadence of Western capitalism. Meyerhold was a direct victim of the major campaign of the mid-1930s against modernism in all branches of art, the modernist theatre was fit only for “the perverted tastes of the bourgeois audience” and was perceived as a dangerous trend in Soviet culture, emerging from the demonized “same source as leftist grotesquerie in painting, poetry, pedagogy and science”, the same obsession with novelty and shock which inevitably “leads to alienation from genuine art, from genuine science, from genuine literature.”
Nevertheless, the impact of Meyerholdism in Russian art was impressive. Years after Meyerhold’s death, Vasily Toporkov remembered the 1930s in these terms: “many of our theatres were still in the grip of a reactionary formalism. In search of the greatest expressiveness and in an attempt to present ‘ideological trends,’ they got lost in paths of vulgar sociology, presenting the authors’ concepts in sharp forms of exaggeration which were called by the then-fashionable name grotesque. There was a kind of directorial orgy. ”
In a Pravda article, signed by B. Romashov and published on 26 February 1949, the “nest of bourgeois aesthetes” of the time is viciously attacked in nationalist terms: “the anti-patriots eat away at the healthy organism of our literature and art like larvae” and “these emasculated decadents, who slight Soviet literature, have their own genealogy, their mark, their own primogenitor.” The emasculated source of decadence is exposed in a surprising act of remembrance: “his name is Meyerhold, and cosmopolites pray to this evil figure of a typical cosmopolite and anti-Soviet agent.”
 Ivan Pavlov. Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. Translated by G.V. Anrep. New York: Dover Publications, 1927, 11.
 Edward Braun. Meyerhold on Theatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969, 199.
 Samuel Leiter. From Stanislavsky to Barrault: Representative Directors of the European Stage. London: Greenwood Press, 1991, 56.
 Braun, Meyerhold on Theatre, 197.
 Robert Leach. Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. Bern: Peter Lang, 2003, 121.
 Braun, Meyerhold on Theatre, 198.
 James Roose-Evans. Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook. London: Routledge, 1989, 28.
 Donna Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 16.
 Jean Benedetti ed. The Moscow Art Theatre Letters. London: Methuen, 1991, 222.
 Quoted in Lars Kleberg. Theatre as Action: Soviet Russian Avant-Garde Aesthetics. London: Macmillan, 1993, 69.
 Robert Leach. Revolutionary Theatre. London: Routledge, 1994, i.
 John J. Von Szeliski. “Lunacharsky and the Rescue of Soviet Theatre.” Educational Theatre Journal 18, no. 4, Special International Theatre Issue (December 1966): 415.
 Braun, Meyerhold on Theatre, 170.
 Leiter, From Stanislavsky to Barrault, 57.
 Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe. Theatre and Consciousness: Explanatory Scope and Future Potential. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2005, 67.
 Jonathan Pitches. Vsevolod Meyerhold. London: Routledge, 2003, 32.
 Leiter, From Stanislavsky to Barrault, 56.
 Kleberg, Theatre as Action, 69.
 Quoted in ibid., 71.
 Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, eds. Directors on Directing: A Source Book of the Modern Theatre. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1963, 53.
 Lynn Mally. Revolutionary acts: amateur theater and the Soviet state, 1917-1938. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, 100-101.
 John E. Bowlt. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988, 297.
 Mally, Revolutionary Acts, 9.
 Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, 297.
 Mally, Revolutionary Acts, 9.
 Vasili Toporkov. Stanislavsky in Rehearsal: The Final Years. Translated by Christine Edwards. New York: Routledge, 1979, 76-77.
 Quoted in Brooks, Jeffrey. Thank you, comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture From Revolution to Cold War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, 216.