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 Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, he exclaims that after the success of the Revolution a new audience has been created, which inevitably demands new style.
In his article, Meyerhold maintains that the old style had lost all its true principles forcing the director to turn further back and take all that is eternal in the theatre and transplant it to the Russian stage. His call to revolutionize the stage came at a highly opportune time, which witnessed a newly formed socio-political climate that rejected pre-Revolutionary bourgeois lifestyle in favor of a new socialist approach that empowered the masses. Many thus reciprocated Meyerhold’s call and also felt the need for a dramatic revival, especially since the bulk of the udience was of distinctly working class background, and therefore largely unschooled and simplistic. Seizing the chance to exhibit all of his, “Doctor Dapertutto’s” (the pseudonym he was known by) ideas, of merging popular theatre, dance, music and acrobatics with the “true and eternal” theatre genres, Meyerhold thus successfully established a kind of “people’s theatre,” that enabled him to freely expand his principles of “bio-mechanics” through teaching and practice. The “people’s theatre” also appealed to Vladimir Mayakovsky who saw his own poetic aspirations reflected on stage.
In 1911 Mayakovsky joined “Gileya,” members of which were also the poets Velimir Khlebnikov and the Burlyuk brothers. Gileya articulated the Russian futurist views through a manifesto entitled A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, in which it became clear that the Futurists desired to sever all ties with the old and outdated art and aesthetic tradition, and in its place introduced “dynamism” as the foremost principle of the art of the future. This desire was a reflection of the artists’ fascination with the rapid developments in society, which they felt needed to be duly represented in art.
In contrast to Marinetti’s circle (Italian Futurism), however, Russian Futurism was primarily a literary rather than plastic movement. While it sought to discard the literatures of Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, it cherished the richness of Russian love lyrics, which were imbued with revolutionary ideals. To intensify the “dynamic” spirit of the movement, Mayakovsky and his counterparts adopted a fiercely anti-war and anti-imperialist attitude, which appealed more to the Bolsheviks than to the bourgeois political parties, and in the words of Leon Trotsky, Mayakovksy’s work “is organically connected to October.
Indeed, Mayakovsky’s poetry leaves a strong impression on the reader, as it calls for “everything anew! ” Beyond that, the dynamic “hot-headedness” of Mayakovsky’s work reveals a poet’s search for a new-fangled language and perspective, in line with the dynamism of the era, to not only educate the masses but to primarily entertain a new audience. In the spirit of the Revolution, Mayakovsky’s poetry is marked by the intricate interplay of sound and rhythm, like a “poetic montage,” a term later coined by Eisenstein. It is characterized by the creation of a series of vivid oments, functioning autonomously, which through immediacy and interplay gain richness.
This dynamic, which may be described as dialectics, is most clearly seen in Mayakovsky’s religious mystery play Mystery-Bouffe, where the “Unclean” working class struggles against the “Clean” upper class and defeats it, after which a workers’ paradise on Earth is created. Mayakovsky described his play as “…our great revolution, condensed in poetry and theatrical action,” which was directed by Meyerhold and opportunely staged on the eve of the Revolution’s first anniversary on 7 November 1918.
The “suprematist” painter Kazemir Malevich was asked to design and produce the decors and costumes. Unfortunately, there was a serious problem with the casting as the former “Imperial Court” actors refused to participate. Consequently, the production was put together in haste and failed to effectively convey its meaning. Nevertheless, the final staging and performance of the play produced a great uproar amongst critics and was described as “confused, hooligan, superb, lacking talent, talented. These contradictory views were a confirmation of the enormous impression the play had made on the public. It was new and unseen before, “serving no apparent purpose other than praising the revolution and undermining the bourgeoisie,” as some critics immediately complained. The true pungency of the play, however, was only revealed in the second staging of Mystery-Bouffe, performed in Moscow, in the “Teatr RSFSR No. 1,” in 1921, which earned it austere criticism including from Lenin himself.
Apparently, the play was so brutally “leftist” that it bordered on sheer “hooligan communism,” and thus earned the label “completely avant-garde. ” Its “pointlessness,” however, was profoundly misunderstood as the play actually had a very clear point. It established an original dramatic style, which served as the precedent of a whole new propagandistic movement, the agitprop. Mystery-Bouffe henceforth came to be considered as the first Soviet play, as it was a pioneering dramaturgic work that was shown on stage shortly after the Revolution, wildly extolling it.
As Mayakovsky describes it, “the mystery is all that is great in revolution and the bouffe is its comic aspect. The verse of Mystery-Bouffe consists of the slogans of mass meetings, shouts from the streets and the language of newspapers. The action is the movement of the crowds, the conflict between classes and the struggle of ideas – it is a microcosm of the world within the walls of a circus. ” Globality – “the microcosm of the world” – in the play is divided into two categories accompanied by a precise distinction of social and class characteristics.
In this sense, “The Clean” represent the exploiters while “The Unclean” represent the exploited. Moreover, while “The Clean” were particularly identifiable through stereotypical representations – a typical Frenchman could never be mistaken for an Australian and vice versa – “The Unclean” were a projection of the international proletariat, a unified chorus. Similarity rather than difference was the prerogative here, as Mayakovsky sought to paint “The Unclean” as the collective hero of the working class, who will create a new world, and to whom the future freely belongs.
This essentially Futurist concept overlapped with the objectives of the October Revolution, albeit the Bolsheviks resented any association with the Futurists, rendering the Revolution an intellectual potency that soon swept many of Russia’s intelligentsia, as in the case with Mayakovksy and Meyerhold. On a more technical note, the second staging of Mystery-Bouffe in 1921, broke away from the first’s lyrical pathos of “the Unclean” and burlesque eccentricities of “The Clean,” marking a departure from the naivete of revolutionary excitement.
Instead, a more constructivist approach, a systematized “bio-mechanics,” revealed a much more disciplined and “straight-line” formula of theatrical production that effectively removed the theatrical ecstasy in favor of a more emotionally controlled performance. This formula relied on situation and improvisation on the part of the actors, whose task was to have perfect control over their bodies in order to react on time and act on the audience’s demands.
Furthermore, the staging would be simple: “plenty of light, plenty of high spirits, plenty of grandeur, plenty of infectious enthusiasm, unlabored creativity and the participation of the audience in the corporate creative act of the performance. ” In the center of all collaborative parts, the director will determine and control everything and everyone. Meyerhold – Doctor Dapertutto – was given unlimited authority to exercise his fully developed by now “bio-mechanics,” an essential part of Avant-garde that had established itself as a distinct genre in Russian theatre, and which was beginning to serve as the mouthpiece of Socialist ideals.