Vsevolod Emilevich MeyerholdThe bio-mechanical system of Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold can be defined not only as a system for the basic grounding of actors and stage articulation, but also (although not quite finalised, is still well enough set out) of a global theatrical system. In connection with this, one should bear in mind the opinion stated by Aleksey Aleksandrovich Gvozdev, who, when speaking about a theatrical system, refers to it as the "relationship between dramaturgy, stage, actor’s performance and the spectators." Coming in between the interaction of these four elements: stage area, audience, actor’s performance and dramatic substance, followed by the theatre director with his role as an innovative power to elevate all these elements, one can find the main features of the creative work of Vsevolod Emilevich, and in the same scope, the theory of biomechanics. Among the first theoretical and practical innovations which Meyerhold introduced through his text as a theatre director, is the re-structuring of the stage, deconstruction of the stage area and the abandonment of the concept of "a box without the fourth wall". His reformation of the stage begins with the approach to style, published during his period at the Theater-Studio. This stylisation leads Meyerhold to the "arrangement of the stage with flat surfaces", specifically, to eliminate the scenery and present the actor, as a pricipal mechanism for theatrical expression, as the "setting". This is the beginning of the deconstruction of the stage space, inherited from the old theatre, the theatre called by Aleksey Gvozdev "a theatre of the Renaissance", which, apart from anything else, encourages the box-stage idea. The de-structuring of the stage made Meyerhold take an interest in theatrical systems which had abandoned the box-stage, more precisely, in the theater of the pre-Renaissance period, mainly the Spanish theater, commedia dell’arte and, certainly, the ancient theater: "If the Conditional theater prefers the destruction of decorations [...], despises ramps [...], isn’t that theater leading to the resurrection of the theater from antiquity? Yes, it is. The ancient theater, judging by its architecture, is a theatre which contains everything necessary to our contemporary theatre: it has no decorations, the space is in three dimensions. The ancient theater with its simplicity, with its auditorium in the shape of a horse-shoe, with its orchestra, is a unique theater which can be used for a varied repertoire: Fairground Booth of Blok, The Life of Man of Andreyev, the tragedies of Maeterlinck..."

The disarrangement of the stage, which in practice began in the Theater-Studio, and which was theoretically explained in the article "To the history and technique of the theater", had its climax in the constructive solution of the The Magnificent Cuckold and The Death of Tarelkin. The stage in these two performances not only resembles the renaissance box, but is also made as dynamic as possible and put completely to the benefit of the performance itself. It is stripped to the maximum extent, left with only enough elements to enable the actor to convey his art. So, in the 20’s, Meyerhold’s dreams from 1912 finally came true, when he published To The History And Technique Of The Theater: the props on stage are not mise en scene any more, but rather a supplement to the actor’s body and movement. Thus, the wings of the windmill in The Magnificent Cuckold rotate in strictly defined moments, actors vigorously pass through the meat-grinding machine in The Death of Tarelkin, the stairs in the Cuckold are a three-dimensional extension of the area used. The lighting is also subservient to the arrangement of the stage area. Meyerhold is one of the first theatre directors of the 20th century who moved the lighting from the stage to the auditorium. In addition, Meyerhold elevated the role of light and lighting to a level equal to the role of music and rhythm in the performance. "The light should touch the spectator as does music. Light must have its own rhythm, the score of light can be composed on the same principle as that of the sonata."

Disarrangement of the "box-stage" in the theatrical system inevitably includes another element, which is very important to Meyerhold – the spectator. An imaginary wall of the room no longer separates the stage from the auditorium. Actors do not play "as if they are alone"; and they are supposed to be aware of the audience’s reaction at any moment: "A specific peculiarity of the actor’s creativity (as opposed to the originality of the playwright, the theatre director or the other artists) is that the creative process is being conducted in front of the audience. As a result, the actor and the spectator are interposing a particular mutual relationship, specifically, the actor puts the spectator in the position of a sounding board, which reacts to every action upon his command. And vice versa – sensing his own resonator (the audience), the actor immediately reacts, by improvisation, to all the demands coming from the audience. Following a series of signs (noise, movement, laughter etc.), the actor must define the attitude of the audience towards the performance correctly." Thus, Meyerhold contends, the goal will be achieved – "having control over the audience, arousing even the most indifferent spectator’s emotions." The theatre director must also think of the structure of spectators and their reactions while creating the play: "A theatre director makes a great mistake if he does not take account of the audience while preparing the play..." In order to fulfil this request, Meyerhold thinks that "primarily, the spectator should be placed so that the rhythm of the play can reach right down inside him." Therefore the proscenium, as the best way of reaching this goal, is introduced. The proscenium of Vsevolod Emilevich is the bridge between the stage and the auditorium, enabling the audience to infiltrate their emotions into the play. The function of the proscenium, its redesign in fact, offered a new role to the audience, and led to the final destruction of the box-stage. According to Vsevolod Emilevich, the architecture of the Renaissance theater, by its separation from the auditorium seats, balconies and boxes, does not correspond to the essence of theater itself, since the spectator is set apart from the play. Furthermore, such separation is not suitable because of the different angles from which the audience follows the events on the stage. (This attitude, expressed in 1934, corresponds to the systems of a triangle-theater and straight line-theater, mentioned by Vsevolod Emilevich in 1912. In the triangle-theater, the spectator is outside the triangle, while in the straight line-theater, the audience is already involved within the theatrical structure. Meyerhold chose the straight line-theater, which offers many opportunities to the theatre director to emphasize the temporary nature, as a natural feature of the scenic art). In order to avoid separation of the audience from the play and at the same time, involving the audience into the play, Meyerhold suggests, firstly, "disarrangement of the box-stage. The first attack was made by those who extended the proscenium deep inside the auditorium.[...] The new theatre [...] will have no box-stage; there is only the proscenium, where the action takes place. In the ancient theatre, that place was called the orchestra. The orchestra can have a circular, quadrangular, trianglular or elliptical shape, it does not matter which. Its shape meets the demands of the composition, as decided by the theatre director, as the creator of the whole project."

The contemporaries of Vsevolod Emilevich reacted noisily to his interpretation of the dramaturgical material. It is the dramaturgical material, not the dramaturgy! It develops from the material shaped by the theatre director according to his own needs, depending upon the imaginary structure of the play and upon one’s own theatrical aesthetics. At this point, one can see the serious disagreement between the attitudes Meyerhold held in his early years to those of his mature ones. While in 1912, he considered that "the new theater arises from literature", ten years later Vsevolod Emilevich had no time to wait for the dramaturgy which corresponds to his theater, but "he takes over the initiative himself and uses his own theatrical methods in order to imbue a new spirit into the old body." With Meyerhold, the issue of which element had priority: drama text – theater, simply does not exist. Everything is subordinated to the theatrical expression as a whole. Therefore, without having any prejudice, in 1924 he dissects the play The Forest by the classicist Ostrovsky into 33 episodes, thus abandoning all the "rules of fine behaviour" and respect to Russian classical dramaturgy. Moscow, as well as the whole of theatrical Russia was scandalized in 1926, finding Gogol’s The Government Inspector, (sometimes titled The Inspector General) completely changed. Meyerhold remodelled the Gogol’s comedy, deleting whole scenes, makes one character out of two. The outcome was: Vsevolod Emilevich created a performance in which there are only traces of Gogol; however, the theatre director Meyerhold is constantly present. Vsevolod Emilevich, while analyzing The Government Inspector in front of his theatre staff, says: "What makes this play difficult is that, like other plays, it is directed towards the actor, not towards the theatre director." Meyerhold is quite certain about who should manage the complex theatrical mechanism Therefore, the Master, should "create (through changes in the text, amongst other things) a situation which would be easiest for the actor, enabling him to put on the performance without any difficulties." Such an approach gives the theatre director an opportunity to model the text and adjust the dramaturgical material to his own theatrical and aesthetic needs and principles. At the same time, the theatre director, while selecting the play, is no more limited by the dramaturgic or literary values of the text. Simply, it is possible to take low-quality dramatic material and re-arrange it. The limits, in this case, are set only by the creative powers of the theatre director and of the actors.

Finally, we have reached the fourth basic element in the theatrical system advocated by Meyerhold: the actor. Prior to giving a resume of Vsevolod Emilevich’s attitudes about the actor and actor’s play, we will briefly point to the specific relationship between the actor and the theatre director in Meyerhold’s theatrical concept. Very often, at different times and at different places, Meyerhold defines the actor as the main, fundamental element of the theatrical performance. At first sight, such a definition is opposed to his proclaimed attitude that the theater of Vsevolod Emilevich is a director’s theatre, a system where the theatre director is the principal creator of the play. But only at first glance. Specifically, since the actor is, to Vsevolod Emilevich, the central figure in the theater, he is the only "medium" by which the theatrical director’s ideas can be transmitted to the audience. Therefore, in one of his appeals, Meyerhold calls the actors "living representatives of the theatre director’s idea." Certainly, in order to be successful, the actor should have great natural creativity, in order to convey the theatre director’s instructions through his own creative filter. According to Vsevolod Emilevich, the task of the theatre director is "to sublimate certain elements of the play, certain characters, each part, into an organic whole, suitable to his own general idea of the complete play." On the other hand, the actor’s task, while accepting some of the theatre director’s ideas about his character, is to convey them through his own creative filter and transfer them to the audience. The main issue in this piece of work is to study this transmission, namely, the manner of the actor’s performance and the preparations for that performance.

The biomechanics, conceived by Vsevolod Emilevich, is simultaneously both a particular actor’s training and a way of an actor’s performance, whose purpose is to effect the main request made by Meyerhold on the stage, a request which he had made as early as 1905, in the theater studio, and didn’t give up until his imprisonment in 1939: the flexibility of the actor to convey his own creation through his body (consciously controlled!) and his movements. "The creativity of the actor is shown in his movements, which are, through the excitement, enriched by glare, colours and skills in order to stimulate the spectator’s imagination." The biomechanic system, according to Meyerhold, "is not a theatrical system, nor a specific kind of training; it is a part of the exercises in the area of culture." However, this training is completely integrated within Meyerhold’s theatrial system, requiring the actor to be a perfect machine using the material performed in front of the audience – his body, to the utmost limits: "The material of the actor’s art is the human body, i.e. the torso, the limbs, the head and the voice. While studying his material, the actor should not rely upon the anatomy, but upon the possibilities of his body, as a material for stage performance. "

The biomechanical way of training the actor’s body starts from the principles of tailoring the movements. The theory of Frederick Winslow Taylor for rejecting all unnecessary movements during the work, in order to reach greater productivity and effectiveness, and reduce the consumption of physical power of the worker, corresponds to Meyerhold’s experiments in the theater and to his searching for an actor who will respond to these experiments. "In the work process, it is possible not only to distribute properly the rest period, says Meyerhold in one of his speeches, but it is necessary to find such moments during work, (Meyerhold’s italics – M. P.) which will thus provide the very best use of the whole working time [...] This refers completely to the actor of a future theater." The part which Meyerhold stressed in this declaration is, in fact an improvement of Taylor’s theory. However, Vsevolod Emilevich, in his creative demands, cannot be reduced to beeing a mere imitator of the thesis "man-machine", which was very popular in Soviet Russia in the years after the October Revolution. It is quite clear that he recognizes the actor as some kind of a machine (one of the principles of biomechanics says: "the body is a machine, the worker is a machinist"), with a very important correction – he lets the actor preserve creativity in his acting. That is the idea of actor’s ambiguity. Specifically, starting from Coquelin senior, saying that the actor is both a creator and a substance to the creativity, Meyerhold says: "It seems that in each actor, when starting to play his role, there are two actors: the first one is himself, the actor who actually exists and is ready to play the role on stage – A1, and the second, who doesn’t yet exist, whom the actor is ready to send on stage – A2. A1 looks upon A2 as material which still needs to be worked upon. Firstly, A1 should consider A2 within the stage area, since it is clear that the actor’s performance depends greatly upon the size of the stage, its shape etc." Such a structured concept of the actor’s technique is linked to the need for "excitement", as a necessary element in the actor’s art. To Meyerhold, "the excitement is the capability to convey an externally received task through feelings, movements and words [...]. The co-ordinated demonstration of reflecting excitement, in fact, represent the actor’s performance." The actor-creator (A1 – using the terminology of Vsevolod Emilevich), quite consciously, using his previous knowledge, capabilities, physical abilities and, of course, following the theatre director’s own concept, shapes the material which is at his disposal -- primarily his own body. Up until now, the need for biomechanics and its principles, primarily as a method of training for an actor, but also as a principle for stage performance, has only been applied to its fullest extent in a couple of performances (in the Magnificent Cuckold and in the Death of Tarelkin). From this point of view, The Cuckold is, perhaps, the most extreme example of Meyerhold’s work, but, as Vsevolod Emilevich says, "The Generous Cuckold" "was to demonstrate the basis of the new technique of the play in a new artistic situation," particularly, to raise the actors’ performance to the absolute limits of the experiment, to test in practice the theoretical surmises of Meyerhold and his colleagues.

Biomechanics, in a way, raises these theoretical attitudes to their culminating height. Vsevolod Emilevich said, "if the tip of the nose works – so does the whole body". This continues the tradition of stressing the need for an actor "to observe himself" on the stage, in other words, stressing (once again) the actor as one who synthesises both the creation and the material from which that creation is made. This idea means that an actor has to be capable of "co-ordinating in the space and on stage, the ability to find himself in the whole course of the play, the ability to adjust and the ability to define visually the distance between actors on the stage." The actor must have these qualities in order to construct the whole performance in the best possible way and to give the theatre director (the final sublimater of the creativity of all participants in the theatre) the means by which to plan the development of the performance to the smallest detail.

One should bear in mind that the whole concept of the actor’s performance, the introduction of biomechanics into the theatre, is, as far as Meyerhold is concerned, only part of a constant effort to define a theater which will go back to the roots of the theater, which will resurrect the inherited dependence of the theatre, as a working principle. Whatever variety there was in his creative work, whatever verbal inconsistencies and contradictions there may have been, Meyerhold’s creative work has, over forty years, been directed towards one unique goal: not to let theater be the same as life.

Translation: Evdokija Zafirovska

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