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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Theater's Forgotten Machine Gun

Almost everyone has heard of Anton Chekhov's famous dictum that if there is a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, then it must go off in the end. But few remember Vsevolod Meyerhold's revision of this rule: "If there is a rifle hanging on the wall, then in the last act there must be a machine gun."

If Meyerhold is forgotten by many, it is not owing to the timidity of his methods. In his staging of "The Last Decisive," taken from the proletarian hymn "The Internationale," actors fire right into the audience.

Indeed, Meyerhold changed in many imperceptible but indelible ways the manner in which spectators view drama. He is central to understanding the development of 20th-century theater.

Unfortunately, he left behind few written texts. This makes Meyerhold Speaks, Meyerhold Rehearses, Alma Law's excellent translation of his writings and of the reminiscences of his amanuensis, Alexander Gladkov, essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern theater and the fate of the Russian avant-garde.

There is hardly a major theatrical figure whom Meyerhold did not encounter or with whom he did not collaborate.

In 1896 he enrolled at the Moscow Philharmonic Society Drama School under the director and playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. He and Olga Knipper, Chekhov's future wife, won medals for acting and were invited to join the Moscow Art Theater, which Nemirovich had just founded with Konstantin Stanislavsky. Meyerhold played Treplev in the historic premier of Chekhov's "The Seagull," in 1898.

He would later stage the symbolist works of Alexander Blok and produce plays by Soviet writers such as Nikolai Erdman, Yury Olesha and especially Vladimir Mayakovsky. His production of the first Soviet play ever performed, Mayakovsky's "Mystery-Bouffe," for the anniversary of the October Revolution, in 1918, used Cubo-futurist sets designed by Kazimir Malevich.

During the staging of Mayakovsky's "The Bedbug" he worked with the composer Dmitry Shostakovich and the artist Alexander Rodchenko. He commissioned Lyubov Popova to design the constructivist sets for the memorable staging of Fernand Crommelynck's "The Magnanimous Cuckold." Among his students were the film director Sergei Eisenstein.

Perhaps no other figure was as pivotal as Meyerhold in bringing together Russian art of the early 20th century.

From 1934 to 1937, Gladkov served as one of the assistants who recorded Meyerhold's words. We can be grateful to Gladkov for the many details he relates in the theater director's biography. One of the most telling passages concerns a late-night conversation between Boris Pasternak and Meyerhold in 1936. The talk revolved around Meyerhold's current position. A close aide of Stalin's had told Meyerhold that the dictator could not attend his theater because there was no official box. He suggested that if Meyerhold wished, there was a possibility that Stalin might meet him to hear him out on his needs for the theater.

This was shortly after the appearance of the infamous article "Muddle Instead of Music" and the banning of Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." Meyerhold asked for Pasternak's advice. Should he try to defend Shostakovich? Should he ask for something for his theater? Pasternak recalled his telephone conversation with Stalin in which he failed to save the poet Osip Mandelstam from persecution. He pointed out to Meyerhold that appealing to Stalin was unworthy of him, and that no good could come of it.

While the editor's introduction and Gladkov's reminiscences offer a remarkable summary of the director's rich career, no part of the book provides a better idea of Meyerhold's art than his own writings. They are pithy, brilliant reflections on the theater with informative explanatory notes by the editor based on her conversations with Gladkov from 1974 until his death in 1976.

Meyerhold's aphoristic writings are pure pleasure to read. His words about acting are of particular interest, and not for actors alone. As he wrote, "People would not love actors so much if they all didn't have a little bit of actor in themselves."

Meyerhold is perhaps best known for his principle of "biomechanics," a method intended to teach untrained actors to move properly on stage. In opposition to the methods of Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, biomechanics put movement before emotion. But biomechanics was just one of the many aspects of Meyerhold's directing.

Meyerhold was an enemy of commonplaces and warns against confusing tradition and cliches. He wrote that the voice of tragedy must be detached; tears are inappropriate. "In order to cry real tears on the stage, one must feel creative joy, internal elation, that is, the same feeling as is necessary in order to sincerely burst out laughing. ... Any other means for evoking tears are neurasthenic and pathological, hence inadmissable to art." As for comedy, the funnier it is, the more seriously it must be played. For him, the comedies of Alexander Griboyedov or Nikolai Gogol were alive, and comedy "absorbs the truth of its time" more fully than drama.

Meyerhold also considered it impossible to stage Gogol or Mikhail Lermontov without taking into account the pressures of censorship. These pressures most likely bore upon him as he made his concluding remarks before the First All-Union Conference of Theater Directors in June 1939: "In educating us, Comrade Stalin, together with our party, wants to make people in the arts worthy so that their names go down in history together with the names of the leading builders of communist society."

Such words presaged an abject end to a brilliant life in the theater.

The book brings to light many of the details of Meyerhold's death, which until recently have remained obscure. On February 1, 1940, Meyerhold was brought to secret trial, and on the following day sentenced to death, shot in a cellar and dumped along with thousands of other victims of Stalinist Russia in an unmarked grave behind the crematorium of the Donskoi Cemetery. The life of the revolutionary director thus came to a senseless, brutal end. But "Meyerhold Speaks, Meyerhold Rehearses" demonstrates that his art is still very much alive.

"Meyerhold Speaks, Meyerhold Rehearses" by Alexander Gladkov. Hrawood Academic Publishers. 263 pages. pounds 18 ($27)