Monday, July 22, 2013


Avant-garde directors of the early 20th century frequently pushed the theatre into non-realistic directions, but usually these directors were following leads they found—rightly or wrongly—in the plays they were directing. That was not the case with Vsevolod Meyerhold. A former disciple of Stanislavski, Meyerhold invented a non-realistic acting method he called Biomechanics. Instead of teaching actors to begin with an internal emotion that manifests in the body, Meyerhold advocated athletic physical movements that would then be mirrored in the performer's psychology. Biomechanics emphasized a kinesthetic vision in which performers practiced tension and relaxation of their bodies as a way to achieve a more full expression of emotions.

In formulating the new method, Meyerhold was heavily influenced by circus and commedia dell'arte. This was apparent in his 1906 production of The Puppet Show by Alexander Blok. A poet, Blok was associated with the Symbolist movement, but his plays fit perfectly into the extremely physical theatre envisioned by Meyerhold. In addition to directing The Puppet Show, Meyerhold also played the leading role of Pierrot in the piece. At the end of the play, the set was exposed as mere stage machinery, and Meyerhold as Pierrot was alone with the audience, the actor's body being all that was left.

Meyerhold fully embraced the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and with the support of the new government founded his own theater in 1920, which was subsequently named the Meyerhold Theatre. In 1922, he staged to great acclaim The Magnificent Cuckold by the Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck. His most famous production, however, was of Gogol's The Government Inspector. In Meyerhold's 1926 staging of the play, the small-town comedy was moved to a large city. A massive wooden screen at the back of the set facilitated quick changes in scenery, and in the most famous part of the production, fifteen doors opened in the screen out of which came fifteen people all offering bribes to the inspector.

Under Stalin, however, the Soviet Union rejected such experimentation in favor of a drab style hailed as Socialist Realism. In 1938, the government shut down Meyerhold's theatre. He was arrested the following year and subsequently executed. Sadly, much of Meyerhold's work has been lost to history, though a few people today do still try to practice his method of Biomechanics.