Meyerhold, Vsevolod

views updated May 29 2018


MEYERHOLD, VSEVOLOD (1874–1940), Russian theatrical director and producer.

One of the most innovative and influential theatrical directors and pedagogues of the twentieth century, and a central figure in the history of modern Russian culture, Vsevolod Meyerhold worked in Russia during a particularly exciting and turbulent period in the country's history. His career began in the promising decades just before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (which he embraced with enthusiasm) and ended in tragic repression under the regime of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Born on 9 February (28 January, old style) 1874 into a Russified German family in the provincial city of Penza, Meyerhold went to Moscow in 1895 to study law, but soon gravitated to the world of theater. Like many aspiring actors, he enrolled in the legendary classes taught by the director and playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko at the drama school of the Moscow Philharmonic Society.

In 1898 Meyerhold was invited to take the role of the neurotic writer Treplev in a production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull for the first season of the new Moscow Art Theater, founded by Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky. This groundbreaking interpretation established Chekhov as a successful playwright, and introduced the basic elements of what became known as the Stanislavsky "method": creation of evocative atmosphere (through sound effects, scenery, costumes, music) and psychological realism in acting style (achieved through the actor's use of personal memory and experiences). Meyerhold later vehemently rejected Stanislavsky's psychological and realistic approach, but the two men remained friends and colleagues until the end of Stanislavsky's life.

In 1902 Meyerhold founded the Company of Russian Dramatic Artists and began his prolific career as a director, which eventually included nearly three hundred productions. He began to move away from realism in several productions for the Studio of the Moscow Art Theater in 1905, and even more so at a theater in St. Petersburg founded in 1906 by the actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya. There Meyerhold began to develop a new "symbolist" theater, particularly with his staging of Balaganchik (The fairground booth), by the symbolist poet Alexander Blok, which uses the familiar masks and conventions of the Italian commedia dell'arte to create an abstract and highly artificial theatrical environment that rejects logical psychological motivation and breaks down the barrier between audience and performer.

Despite his strong avant-garde and iconoclastic leanings, Meyerhold was appointed in 1908 as an assistant to the director of the conservative imperial theaters in St. Petersburg, a post he held until the collapse of the tsarist government in 1917. In this capacity, he assisted other directors and staged his own productions, including the operas Tristan and Isolde, Boris Godunov, Elektra, The Nightingale, Orpheus and Eurydice, and The Queen of Spades. Music was an essential part of Meyerhold's work as a director. He incorporated music into his productions in unusual and aggressive ways, sometimes matching the emotional mood and rhythm of the stage action, sometimes contradicting it, in highly self-conscious counterpoint. He also worked closely with leading composers. With Sergei Prokofiev (to whom he gave the idea for the opera Love for Three Oranges) and Dmitri Shostakovich he enjoyed particularly close relationships.

Like most progressive Russian artists, Meyer-hold welcomed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the foundation of the world's first socialist state as a unique opportunity to (in Blok's words) "redo everything." But much more than most, he participated in the actual building of the new Soviet culture, by opening new theaters and institutes for training theater people in a new way of working. A Communist Party member from 1918, Meyerhold held numerous high-ranking positions in the cultural bureaucracy and engaged vigorously in the bitter ideological conflicts that raged within the Soviet leadership over the role of theater in the new utopian society.

In 1926 Meyerhold was rewarded with a state-supported theater in Moscow bearing his name. There, as he had done throughout his career, Meyerhold trained actors in his method of "biomechanics," a system that emphasized specific physical techniques related both to the non-realist traditions of commedia dell'arte and the highly stylized gestures of Kabuki. Biomechanics was also closely linked to the ideas of constructivism, which reached its peak in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and viewed humans as cogs in a giant social machine. One of Meyerhold's most celebrated constructivist productions was The Magnificent Cuckold by Fernand Crommelynck, with sets by Lyubov Popova (1922).

With Stalin's ascent to power in the 1930s, Meyerhold's position worsened, as the ideas of the Soviet revolutionary avant-garde were discarded in favor of the conservative totalitarian doctrine of socialist realism. To his credit, Meyerhold was one of the very few who refused to disown his out-spoken convictions, even in the face of overwhelming pressure and danger. In June 1939 he was arrested and charged with being a "wrecker" of the Soviet theater. He was executed in Moscow on 2 February 1940.

See alsoBlok, Alexander; Chekhov, Anton; Russia.


Braun, Edward. Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre. Iowa City, 1995.

Leach, Robert. Vsevolod Meyerhold. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Schmidt, Paul, ed. Meyerhold at Work. Translated by Paul Schmidt, Ilya Levin, and Vern McGee. Austin, Tex., 1980.

Harlow Robinson

Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold

views updated May 18 2018

Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold

The Russian director Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold (1874-1940/42) is noted for his stylistic experiments with nonrealistic performances in constructivist settings.

Vsevolod Meyerhold was born to German parents on Jan. 28, 1874, in Penza about 350 miles southeast of Moscow. Baptized Karl Theodore Kasimir, he changed his name in 1895, when he was converted from Lutheranism to the Orthodox Church. After a year of law at Moscow University, he studied drama at the Moscow Philharmonic Society, where one of the teachers was Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the future founder with Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theatre. Upon graduation in 1898 Meyerhold joined this company and in December played Treplev in the historic production of The Seagull. Never outstanding as an actor and opposed to Stanislavsky's naturalism, he left Moscow after 4 years to direct his own company.

Between 1908 and 1917 Meyerhold attracted international attention at the two St. Petersburg imperial theaters with his dazzling productions influenced by the conventions of commedia dell'arte and other nonrealistic theaters. Probably the most opulent spectacle ever seen on the Russian stage was his production of Mikhail Lermontov's Masquerade, which opened on the very day in February 1917 when the first shots were fired in the Russian Revolution.

Early in 1918 Meyerhold joined the Bolsheviks, produced the first Soviet play, Vladimir Mayakovsky's Mystery Bouffe, in September, and the following year was appointed head of the Theatrical Department in the Education Commissariat. In the postrevolutionary decade of the 1920s he became the leading Soviet exponent of antirealistic theatrical experiment. Daring constructivist productions of Aleksandr Ostrovsky's The Forest (1924) and Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General (1926) inspired a host of reinterpretations of the classics. In 1913 he had published a collection of his articles, On the Theatre. Expounding even more radical theories, his Reconstruction of the Theatre appeared in 1930.

After Mayakovksy's The Bedbug (1929) and The Bathhouse (1930) were criticized by advocates of Soviet socialist realism, Meyerhold presented The Lady of the Camellias (1934) and The Queen of Spades (1935) somewhat more realistically. Nevertheless, the official attacks on his "formalism" continued, and on Jan. 8, 1938, the Meyerhold Theatre was liquidated. On June 5, 1939, at the All-Union Conference of Stage Directors, Meyerhold made a speech apparently defending the principles he had pursued throughout his career. Immediately after the conference he was arrested. Russian sources list the date of his death in prison as 1940 or 1942.

Further Reading

Selections from Meyerhold's writings are in Meyerhold on Theatre, edited and translated by Edward Braun (1969). Each chapter is prefaced with an informative introduction by the translator. Contemporary accounts of Meyerhold's productions can be found in Alexander Bakshy, The Path of the Modern Russian Stage (1916); Huntly Carter, The New Spirit in the Russian Theatre 1917-28, (1929); and Norris Houghton, Moscow Rehearsals (1936). □

Meyerhold, Vsevolod Yemilievich

views updated Jun 11 2018


(18741940), born Karl-Theodor Kazimir Meyer-hold, stage director.

Among the most influential twentieth-century stage directors, Vsevolod Meyerhold utilized abstract design and rhythmic performances. His actor training system, "biomechanics," merges acrobatics with industrial studies of motion. Never hesitating to adapt texts to suit directorial concepts, Meyerhold saw theatrical production as an art independent from drama. Born in Penza, Meyerhold studied acting at the Moscow Philharmonic Society (18961897) with theatrical reformer Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. When Nemirovich cofounded the Moscow Art Theater with Konstantin Stanislavsky (1897), Meyerhold joined. He excelled as Treplev in Anton Chekhov's Seagull (1898). Like Treplev, Meyerhold sought new artistic forms and left the company in 1902. He directed symbolist plays at Stanislavsky's Theater-Studio (1905) and for actress Vera Kommissarzhevskaya (19061907).

From 1908 to 1918, Meyerhold led a double life. As director for the imperial theaters, he created sumptuous operas and classic plays. As experimental director, under the pseudonym Dr. Dapertutto, he explored avant-garde directions. Meyerhold greeted 1917 by vowing "to put the October revolution into the theatre." He headed the Narkompros Theater Department from 1920 to 1921 and staged agitprop (pro-communist propaganda). His Soviet work developed along two trajectories: He reinterpreted classics to reflect political issues and premiered contemporary satires. His most famous production, Fernand Crommelynck's Magnificent Cuckold (1922), used a constructivist set and biomechanics. When Soviet control hardened, Meyer-hold was labeled "formalist" and his theater liquidated (1938). The internationally acclaimed Stanislavsky sprang to Meyerhold's defense, but shortly after Stanislavsky's death, Meyerhold was arrested (1939). Following seven months of torture, he confessed to "counterrevolutionary slander" and was executed on February 2, 1940.

See also: agitprop; moscow art theater


Braun, Edward. (1995). Meyerhold: A Revolution in the Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Rudnitsky, Konstantin. (1981). Meyerhold the Director, tr. George Petrov. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Sharon Marie Carnicke