Meyerhold and Mayakovsky: Revolution and the First Soviet Play

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Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky are two legendary names in the realm of Russian and international art frequently associated with the most turbulent period in Russian history, the beginning of the twentieth century, during which Russian society underwent a profound social and political change. This period (1900 – 1930) saw the October Revolution, the First World War, the Russian Civil War, and the beginnings of Stalinism. It is precisely during these times of turmoil that Russian Avant-garde flourished. It marked a clear break from the traditional naturalist theatre and moved towards a new and unprecedented development that came to be known as “leftist art.” The Soviet historian Vadim Kozhinov wrote in an article published in 1976, that Russian Avant-garde was closely associated with Russian Marxist aesthetics.

This “leftist art,” however, was not necessarily Marxist from the onset. The end of the nineteenth century already saw a stir in the European artistic scenes that led to the development of new movements in the first two decades of the twentieth century, which sought a way to dispense with old preconceptions of the creative process and artistic meaning. In this respect, the Russian scene was no different. While Konstantin Stanislavski experimented with ideas that resulted from naturalistic drama, and consequently fathered “socialist realism,” or the Method, Meyerhold focused on an entirely fresh perspective of theatrical staging.

By 1915, Vsevolod Meyerhold was already an established actor and theatre director. Despite his reputation as a traditionalist at the time, Meyerhold was already working on a series of new developments in the Russian theatre that were a clear departure from Stanislavki’s Method. His production of Lermontov’s Masquerade (1917) evidently shows Meyerhold’s new approach to staging, where he used his yet to sophisticate principles of “bio-mechanics.” Rudnitzky characterizes the acting style of the play as “ascetic, severe and devoid of both the sense of fatality and carnival-like brilliance.” Meyerhold introduced mime, revived from genres like Commedia dell’ Arte and the Japanese Kabuki; he also employed circus techniques to imbue a greater sense of exaggerated reality, for stronger entertainment feel. Furthermore, as a direct effect of his growing interest in Ancient and Far East theatres, physical and psychological masking became a frequent motif in his staging directions. To capitalize on the immediate experience of the play, Meyerhold weaved in elements of Russian folklore, added the acting styles of the popular traveling show, and dispensed with the concept of “forestage.” The audience was thus moved closer to the action and eventually became involved in it, as manifest in the staging of his later plays, such as Mystery-Bouffe (1918).

Beyond that, music played an equally important role in Meyerhold’s innovative staging approaches, the function of which he extracted from the Opera and applied to the theatrical stage. Operatic music provided the actors with the impulse of movement, an essential requirement of his system of “bio-mechanics.” As a result, dance, singing, and playing of music were merged with acting on the stage, thereby enhancing the idea of the theatre as a “great spectacle” that reverts to the original function of the theatre, as a mode of entertainment of the masses. In such theatrical performances, visual experience takes precedence over transference of semantic meaning, for the sole purpose of exploding the emotional excitement of the audience. Meyerhold himself claimed that theatre exists in order to entertain the public by presenting a grand spectacle, which will make it possible for the viewer to escape the illusion of “real life,” albeit will not exclude it from the reality of the play.

In fact, realistic issues are dealt with through the themes of the play, the topic and the contents of the script. In an article Meyerhold published in 1917, in the...
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