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Vsevolod Meyerhold and His Unconventional Theatre

It is no secret that the turbulent soviet times produced many controversial phenomena. But if anything is true, during those years many innovative concepts and streams in art were invented by the creative geniuses of the time.

One of them was Vsevolod Meyerhold, a prominent figure in Russian theatre during the reign of Bolshevik party. The technique of his own making – Biomechanics – became a ground-breaking system that characterised the heyday of soviet theatre.

Born in a small town of Penza, in the family of a liquor factory owner, Meyerhold had no connection to theatre whatsoever for quite some time. He attended a gymnasium, though not very successfully for he had to try 3 times to complete the school curriculum before he actually graduated. Later on, he moved to Moscow and attended law school. And during his student years, the future director finally found his passion for performative arts.

Another grand figure in the theatre world at that time was Konstantin Stanislavsky, and young Vsevolod saw a play “Othello” staged by the master. The performance impressed Meyerhold so much that soon he left the law school in order to attend the Theatre and Musical School of the Moscow Philharmonic Society. He was tutored by Stanislavsky himself and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who later invited him to join the troupe of the new Moscow Art Theatre.

At that time Stanislavky was working on his special technique of naturalistic performance, where actors were encouraged to search deep within themselves for the motivation for character’s feelings and emotions. This system is now considered to be one of the breakthroughs in the history of the theatre arts, but not everyone would agree with it. Meyerhold, having acted in many plays in Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavsky’s tutorship, was unsatisfied with it. Young actor found too many flaws. Soon, Meyerhold decided to change the focus of his creative work and switched from acting to directing. 

As a director he was drawn to bold experiments in the area of non-realistic performance and presentational acting. Biomechanics, that was eventually developed by Meyerhold as a complete system of training for actors in 1913-1922, dealt with visual presentation of a character through one’s movement. An actor’s body was perceived as a medium of communication that transmits emotions through every step and gesture. Such method was quite taxing on human body, that stayed in constant strain during the whole play. This is why all of Meyerhold’s actors had to be physically fit, they had additional training in ballet and gymnastics. Each action one performed on stage had to be precise and deliberate and required actors to possess balance and perfect coordination.

Vsevolod Meyerhold’s experiments were seen as genius by some, and too bizarre to be taken seriously by others. At first he was offered to come back to Moscow Art Theatre, but soon his ideas started to seem a bit too much for Stanislavsky. Later young director went to St. Petersburg and staged more than 10 plays in Vera Komissarzhevskaya’s theatre until he, once again, had to leave because of the dissidence with Vera.

It should be said that the public’s reaction was ambivalent. Every performance, every experiment of Vsevolod Meyerhold, was rather controversial and so were the reviews. Part of the audience was thrilled to see such unusual and fresh way of performing, part was scandalised by the nonsense they saw on stage.

The method peaked the interest of Vladimir Telyakovsky, who offered Meyerhold a position in Alexandrinsky Theater. This particular theatre had a reputation of a very conservative establishment and few expected this collaboration to actually work out. Although, contrary to many disbeliefs, Meyerhold had worked in Alexandrinsky for about ten years, staging numerous plays employing his Biomechanics.

After the revolution, this director was one of the few who actually welcomed the new order of things. Meyerhold was inspired by the ideas of revolution and joined the Bolshevik party. He grew more extravagant in his artistic endeavours, formed a new theatre “RSFSR-1″ that he used as his own playground for performative experiments. By working with new government, Meyerhold managed to contribute extensively to the evolution of the cultural life and, in many ways, shaped the soviet theatre. But despite his many achievements and efforts, the soviet government turned it’s back on him. Vsevolod was arrested and executed by firing squad in 1940.

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