Meyerhold – Constructivism and Biomechanics
Vsevolod (Karl) Emilevich Meyerhold was born Penza in central Russia (800km from Moscow) in 1874. The son of the owner of a vodka distillery, he was an inspirational Russian and Soviet actor, theatre director, producer and the creator of the Biomechanics system of actor training.
Meyerhold started off working with Konstantin Stanislavsky as an actor in the Moscow Art Theatre from 1898 until 1902. He played the part of Treplev in The Seagull and Baron Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters. He then became a director for realistic style Moscow Art Theatre productions from 1902-1904. Stanislavsky appointed him to lead the Moscow Art Theatre’s Moscow Theatre-Studio to explore more experimental theatre forms and training methods. Meyerhold's experiments from this period (1905-1906) which included the beginnings of Biomechanics, never made it to full scale production. In 1905, strikes and the Moscow Bloody Sunday Revolution combined with personal and artistic differences with Stanislavsky to force the closure of the Theatre-Studio.
Moving in autumn of 1906 to St Petersburg, Meyerhold became Director of the Theatre of Vera Kommissarzhevskaya in Petrograd. He directed productions using his new Constructivist principles and developed Biomechanics further as a system for training and rehearsing with professional actors and amateur actors. Notable productions included Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (where only seven feet separated the actors and audience and Meyerhold employed hieroglyphic two-dimension sculptural-style actors movements), Andreieff's The Life of Man, Blok’s The Fairground Booth (which Meyerhold did as grotesque farce using commedia techniques and masks) and Wedekind's Spring Awakening (where he played with a more cinematic flow between scenes with no scene changes which was revolutionary since this is an episodic play).
Meyerhold worked from 1908 until 1917 at the Imperial Theatres of St Petersburg staging plays and operas. He started to develop his concepts of the curtain-less set, extending staging out into the audience, keeping the audience lit or partially lit during performance and using ‘proscenium keepers’ who would set props and set items (an idea he got from a kabuki troupe that visited Moscow during this period). He continued using a mystico-symbolist style integrating Commedia techniques with jarring, angular, grotesque style of physical acting. Some of his productions during this period tried to synchronize the movements of the actors to music and lighting changes in an almost mathematically precise way.
The Soviet Revolution and Meyerhold’s own leftists beliefs meant that after the revolution his ideas were seen as able to reinforce the cause of the Bolshevik revolution. His first post-Revolutionary Soviet production was Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe which was an anti-capitalist farce which had actors dressed in identical factory uniforms using acrobatic movements against abstract sets. In 1918, he moved back to Moscow working at the New Theatre and the Theatre of Revolution. He started to more fully develop his concept of Biomechanics and developed exercises for a new proletariat actor who would 'act after a day in the factory or the fields'. It is during this period from 1919 until 1934 that Meyerhold had his most productive period.
Meyerhold’s production of Crommelynck’s The Magnificent Cuckold (1922) used a Constructivist set with moving wheels, cogs and a windmill along with Biomechanics physical acting and acrobatics. He wanted to bring circus and acrobatic skills back into serious theatre because he saw these as the key to a true proletariat theatre of the people. Footage of the rehearsals is evident at:
1922 also saw Meyerhold's production of The Death of Tarelkin, where besides using sets by constructivist artist and designer Varvara Stepanova, he manipulated his actors to create machine like synchronized robotic movements.
Meyerhold's 1923 production of Earth Rampant attempted to eliminate the divide between the audience and the stage with ramps which allowed real army vehicles to move between the stage and the auditorium. His1924 production of Ostrovsky’s The Forest dispensed with the five act structure and restructured the play as a more cinematic collection of 33 montaged scenes. D.E. (Give Us Europe) used the style of an agit-prop review. His 1925 production of Faiko’s Bubus the Teacher introduced Meyerhold’s idea of ‘pre-acting’ where the actor demonstrated physically his transitional attitude to an event in a mimed or pantomime manner before giving his or her actual response.
Around 1931, Meyerhold’s productions and techniques started to fall out of favour with Stalinists and his 1930 production of Mayakovsky’s The Bathhouse is considered by many to be a satire of the Soviet and Stalinist elite. Mayakovsky committed suicide soon after this production. By 1935, Stalin had declared an official ban on Formalist arts as bourgeois and announced Social Realism as a true proletariat art form. In early 1938, Meyerhold’s theatres were closed and Stanislavsky invited him back to work with him at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre (albeit under strict instructions to direct Social Realist work). Stanislavsky died in August 1938.
Meyerhold’s work continued to have Constructivist elements and on June 20, 1939 while planning and starting rehearsal for an adaptation of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov with music written by Prokofiev, Meyerhold was arrested in Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg). On July 15, 1939, his actress wife Zinaida Reich was found dead in their Moscow apartment with almost a dozen stab wounds to her body. The caretaker of the building saw two men get into a black government-style car. Soon after, Meyerhold was violently tortured and forced to admit he was a spy working for the British and Japanese jointly. He later withdrew this confession. After a sham trial, where Meyerhold was accused of leading anti-Soviet Trotsky-supported groups, he was sentenced to death. On February 1st 1940, Meyerhold was killed by firing squad. In 1955 in a de-Stalinization purge, the Soviet government cleared Meyerhold post-humorously of all charges. In 2000, Meyerhold and Stanislavsky were depicted together on a Russian postage stamp.
Exercises in Meyerhold’s System and Biomechanics
The bio-mechanical system of Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold can be defined primarily as a system for the basic training and grounding of actors and staging of productions. Meyerhold’s system brought revolution in the four elements of:
· stage area
· audience relationship
· actor training and performance
· dramatic subject matter or dramaturgy
Meyerhold’s first innovation introduced through his work as a theatre director, is the re-structuring of the stage. He wanted to de-construct the stage space through 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 and his ideas from the Theater-Studio were finally published in the 1920’s. This stylisation leads Meyerhold to the "arrangement of the stage with flat surfaces". He wanted to eliminate scenery and have the actor as the principle element of setting and where props become the extension of the actor’s body and movement as shown in the meat-grinding machine in The Death of Rarelkin. He saw lighting as not atmospheric but as a way of scoring the play rhythmically. "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."
Take the following summary of the action from The Magnificent Cuckold and try to create the setting and progression of action entirely through using the actors and lighting. Try to have the lighting you use create a musical or rhythmic element to the script and its execution by actors.
· A young man loves his wife so much that he thinks she will be unfaithful to him
· The young man decides the only way to appease his anxiety is for her to make love to other men under his direction
· The women of the town despise the young man’s wife and drive her out of town
Vsevolod Meyerhold, saw theatre as a kinesthetic spectacle where the actor’s outer life came first and informed the inner life or inner rhythms of the character. He thought that theatre should not mirror reality; instead that it should transcend the everyday by deliberatively exaggerating and distorting it through stylised theatrical techniques. Meyerhold revived the primordial elements of theatre through improvisation and transformation and to sharpen the senses of his ensemble of actors he mixed opposite or developed an eclectic use of forms such as Commedia dell'Arte, Kathakali, Chinese Circus, and Kabuki Theatre. He achieved this in his training by exploring the emotional, muscular and intellectual capacities of his actors, enabling them and himself to discover new rhythms in the theatrical language.
Meyerhold's approach was to create techniques so that the function of the actor's body forced the audience to look at the world primarily through a visual eye, with the verbal functioning as an adjunct. He proposed a whole new way of producing theatre and his actors trained within a system that allowed them to be constantly aware of themselves in the performance space whilst developing their bodies to carry out any action in a natural and expressive state. This is part of the biomechanical system which aimed at making the actor's body carry out a set task in the most efficient way possible. Some of the elements of the style of Meyerhold’s theatre could be seen as:
1. anti-illusionistic and non-naturalistic theatre
3. use of rhythm and music
4. use of mask or the body as a mask
5. the grotesque
7. Robotic and/or hieroglyphic-like gestures or movements
8. Use of cinematic montage scenic techniques and Chaplin-like cinematic acting
Explore the words and actions in the following extract from Chekhov’s The Three Sisters script realistically and then explore them using Meyerhold's ideas and discuss the difference. Discuss how you would create each of the eight ideas presented above.
(In the house of the PROZOROVS. A drawing-room with columns beyond which a large room is visible. Mid-day; it is bright and sunny. The table in the farther room is being laid for lunch.)
(OLGA, in the dark blue uniform of a high-school teacher, is correcting exercise books, at times standing still and then walking up and down; MASHA, in a black dress, with her hat on her knee, is reading a book; IRINA, in a white dress, is standing plunged in thought.)
OLGA: Father died just a year ago, on this very day -- the fifth of May, your name-day, Irina. It was very cold, snow was falling. I felt as though I should not live through it; you lay fainting as though you were dead. But now a year has passed and we can think of it calmly; you are already in a white dress, your face is radiant. [The clock strikes twelve.] The clock was striking then too [a pause]. I remember the band playing and the firing at the cemetery as they carried the coffin. Though he was a general in command of a brigade, yet there weren't many people there. It was raining, though. Heavy rain and snow.
IRINA: Why recall it!
[BARON TUZENBAKH, CHEBUTYKIN and SOLYONY appear near the table in the dining-room, beyond the columns.]
OLGA: It is warm today, we can have the windows open, but the birches are not in leaf yet. Father was given his brigade and came here with us from Moscow eleven years ago and I remember distinctly that in Moscow at this time, at the beginning of May, everything was already in flower; it was warm, and everything was bathed in sunshine. It's eleven years ago, and yet I remember it all as though we had left it yesterday. Oh, dear! I woke up this morning, I saw a blaze of sunshine. I saw the spring, and joy stirred in my heart. I had a passionate longing to be back at home again!
CHEBUTYKIN. The devil it is!
TUZENBAKH. Of course, it's nonsense.
Stylisation draws on the physical expressivity of the actor's movements and dialogue and Meyerhold often experimented with this through the use of tableaux.
Explore the same scene through the use of only tableaux.
Meyerhold also believed in creating strong physical stage images. Meyerhold believed that the creativity of the actor is shown in his movements which is enhanced and extended by the use of masks. Meyerhold's mask training was explored through make-up, hair, hats, scarves, eye glasses as well as Commedia dell ‘arte masks. Masks therefore enabled the paradoxical nature of theatre to be explored in rehearsals and performance.
The following exercise can be done with any sort of mask. Get the actors to put on a mask and to slowly do the following actions:
• inspect yourself completely from all angles
• explore your gestures and movements
• observe what other characters are doing but do not approach them
• extend your inspecting to look at the room you are in
• examine and explore all the windows and their functions
• examine and explore all the chairs and their functions
• go in and out of the doors
• find a place in the room and make yourself at home.
Much of Meyerhold’s work involved circus and acrobatics techniques. Take the following dramatic scene from The Three Sister and perform it using some of the text and actions using circus techniques like juggling, acrobatics and clowning techniques.
IRINA [shudders]. Everything frightens me somehow today [a pause]. All my things are ready, after dinner I'll send off my luggage. The baron and I are to be married tomorrow, tomorrow we go to the brick factory and the day after that I'll be in the school. A new life is beginning…
KULYGIN. Well, today the officers will be gone and everything will go on in the old way. Whatever people may say, Masha is a true, good woman. I love her dearly and am thankful for my lot! People have different lots in life…
MASHA [sits down]. Did you love my mother?
CHEBUTYKIN. Very much.
MASHA. And did she love you?
CHEBUTYKIN [after a pause]. That I don't remember.
MASHA. When you get happiness by snatches, by little bits, and then lose it, as I'm losing it, by degrees one grows coarse and spiteful…
ANDREY. When will they be quiet in the house? There's such a noise.
Meyerhold was committed to The Grotesque. This is the style of contrasts which allows the actors to switch the audience from an emotion or understanding of what s/he has just seen to another which is totally unforeseen emotion or action. Meyerhold used the contradictions in surprise to help disturb his audience by creating shifts and changes in the reactions to the performance. He called this changing The Pitch of a scene. Elements of The Grotesque isolated by Meyerhold were:
· The Grotesque mixes opposites: tragedy and comedy, life and death, beauty and ugliness
· it celebrates incongruities
· it challenges our perceptions
· it is naturally mischievous, even satirical
· it borrows from different (and unlikely) sources
· it always has a touch of the diabolical, the devil's influence
· it stretches the natural to the extent that it becomes unnatural or stylized
· it revels in fantasy and mystery
· it is constantly transforming things: objects, figures, landscapes and atmospheres
Explore one of the scenes from The Three Sisters using contradictory or Grotesque elements.
Biomechamics was a system of training which tries to uses every movement which an actor might encounter. Meyerhold primarily developed this for his proletariat actor who would be a worker who would work all day and only have a short time to prepare in training for performance. This system sees the human body as a machine and the actor as a machinist. Biomechanics attempts to use exercises to train actors in the most efficient and least time consuming set of exercises and movements. This is seen by many to be an outside-in approach to acting whereby the actor does the action first and then develops the intention or emotion second.
The Dactyl is an exercise which is important to most Biomechanics training.
1. Stand with your feet shoulder width part and your arms by your side
2. Slowly lean forward so you can feel your toes taking the weight and strain
3. Bend your knees and bring your arms back (like a swimmer about to dive into a swimming pool)
4. Then raise your hands above your head, straighten your legs and come onto your toes all in one swift action
5. Let your arms now bend and your elbows travel towards your hips
6. Make your arms parallel to the floor and your back bowed
7. Clap downwards and as quickly and sharply as you can twice (the body should bounce in rhythm with this double clap)
8. Return to neutral with your arms by your sides.
Braun, E. 1995. The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution and the Modern Stage. University of Iowa Press.
Eaton, K.B. The Theater of Meyerhold and Brecht. Greenwood Press. New York.
Hoover, M.J. 1974. Meyerhold: The Arts of Conscious Theatre. University of Massachusetts Press. Mass.
Leiter, S. 1994. The Great Directors. Facts on File Press. New York.
Meyerhold, V. (trans. and ed. By Edward Braun) 1969. Meyerhold on Theatre. Methuen. London.
Plays about Meyerhold
Galloway, P. 2009. Realism. MTC Press Publication. Melbourne. Aus.
Jackson, M. 2003. The Death of Meyerhold. The Shotgun Players, Berkeley, CA, December 2003.
Meyerhold and Biomechanics Video:
Exercises on video:
Notes on Rehearsals and the unrealized last production of Meyerhold – Boris Godunov.
The Dactyl and other Biomechanics exercises:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoq8_90id2o