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Vsevolod Emil'evich Meyerhold

Vsevolod Meyerhold, USSR Actor, stage director.

Background

  • Meyerhold, Vsevolod was born in 1874 in his parents’ estate in Penza.

  • Education

    • Pupil of K. Stanislavskii and V. Nemirovich-Danchenko.

    Career

    • The eighth child of a wealthy German-Jewish family. At his birth, given the names Karl Theodor Casimir. His private tutor, the populist Kaverin, was responsible for his first revolutionary ideas.

      At the age of 21, joined the Russian Orthodox Church, and at his baptism given the Christian name Vsevolod, in honour of his favourite writer Vsevolod Garshin. Actor at the Moscow Arts Theatre, 1898-1902. Later worked in Moscow, Petersburg, and in various provincial theatres.

      In 1918, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Appointed by A. Lunacharskii to be in charge of all Moscow theatres. Head of the Petrograd branch of TEO, a theatrical section of Narkompros.

      Met the actress Zinaida Raikh, at the time the wife of the poet Sergei Esenin. After their divorce, married her and made her a leading actress in his theatre. On 8 November 1920, given his own theatre in Moscow—RSFSR Teatr-I, at 20 Sadovaia Street.

      His production of Emile Verhaeren’s poems. Dawn, elicited a letter to Pravda from Lenin’s wife, N. Krupskaia, who said that it was an ‘insult to listen to this pompous jabbering’, and called his theatre a ‘mad house’. Other Soviet newspapers reacted in more or less the same way.

      After Krupskaia’s article, the Party Central Committee closed the theatre. Meyerhold started to teach at the State Directors’ Workshops. In April 1922, produced, at the Sohn Operetta Theatre, Le Соси Magnifique, a farce by the Belgian, F. Crommelynck.

      The play was accompanied by a strange orchestra of unknown instruments of all shapes and sizes (the first jazzorchestra in the Soviet Union). In the lead was Igor Il’inskii, who produced a kind of Charlie Chaplin performance. The audiences were delirious and the play had a huge commercial success.

      The newspapers at First bubbled over with enthusiasm until there appeared an article by A. Lunacharskii in Izvestia, which called the play pornography. Immediately, other newspapers started to call Meyerhold a ‘sadist’, a ‘mad kangaroo who has escaped from the zoo’, and, more kindly, a ‘dark genius’. His next play, The Death of Tarelkin, based on the work of the playwright A. V. Sukhovo-Kobylin, was his First serious confrontation with the cultural authorities and with the press, which was already party-controlled.

      In 1923, he was given another theatre, Teatr Revoliutsii, later TIM (Teatr Imeni Meyerkholda). His production thereof V. Mayakovsky’s play Mystery Bouffe pleased the authorities and marked the beginning of Soviet propaganda theatre. His prestige rocketed.

      Proclaimed his conception of ‘Theatrical October’. Became intoxicated with his power and turned into a militant. Accused the great stage director A. Tairov of counter-revolution on the theatrical front, and of bourgeois aesthetism, charges which could have led to Tairov’s arrest, and even threatened him with theatre purges.

      Fulminated against MKHAT but did not dare mention the name of the theatre’s founder—K. Stanislavskii. Turned the classical play by A. Ostrovskii, Forest, into a kind of American music-hall romp. His production in early 1925 of The Mandate by N. Erdman was an indirect satire on Stalin and his entourage, and according to foreign press reports, nearly caused a political demonstration at its premiere.

      Received much praise from Kamenev and Bukharin, which was later turned against him when he was arrested. Erdman’s second play. The Suicide (Samoubiitsa), received permission to be staged from Stalin himself after the intervention of M. Gorkii, but after 6 months of rehearsal, it was stopped by Kaganovich (obviously on Stalin’s orders).

      From this moment on, relations between Meyerhold and Stalin became tense. Staged Mayakovsky’s fairy-tale, Klop (The Bedbug), a witty satire. A hostile reception greeted his next play, Khochu Rebenka (I Want a Child), by S. M. Tretiakov, which dealt with family relationships in Soviet society.

      By 1928, his revolutionary enthusiasm had vanished completely. In 1930, the First performance of Mayakovsky’s second play, Bania (The Bath), was attacked by the press, which accused him of slandering Soviet reality. In 1932, went on tour to Paris and Berlin, and according to the actor M. Chekhov, the writer’s nephew, was fully aware of what his fate would be if he returned to the Soviet Union, but nevertheless refused to stay in France.

      This was his last trip abroad. In his theatre, he was besieged by foreigners wanting to see him. Retained a most unproletarian life-style, wearing Savile Row suites and expensive leather gloves.

      It was during this period that he introduced a pompous ceremonial on the lines of a royal household. Whenever he appeared at rehearsals, his deputy would call out ‘Be Upstanding! the Master is Coming!’ He moved about the theatre always accompanied by a massive entourage consisting of assistants, advisers, beautiful secretaries, stenographers writing down every word he said, and a young girl interpreter from Intourist for the benefit of foreigners. Had a special man (I. Varpakhovskii) to record all his productions for posterity.

      In the black years of his life, 1936-1938, attacked by every newspaper and magazine in the country, endlessly accused and pressurized. Continued to reject official plays. Found some spiritual calm in his work Boris Godunov.

      His theatre was closed on 8 January 1937, as a ‘theatre alien to Soviet art', and he was literally thrown onto the street. Nobody, even his ardent admirers, could help. Only Stanislavskii, the father-figure of the Soviet theatre, extended a helping hand to his rebellious pupil.

      Accepted Stanislavskii’s invitation to teach at his studio, and for several months was left in peace by the press. Unfortunately, Stanislavskii died soon thereafter on 6 August 1938. Invited to the All-Union Directors’ Conference in June 1939, and on the third day of the conference, asked to speak.

      The applause was continuous as he appeared on the stage. In a strong and brave speech, he condemned the persecution of the Russian theatre by the Soviet regime. Allowed to finish his speech, but 2 days later, on the night of the 17 June 1939, arrested.

      The last time for many years his name was mentioned in the press was on that day when I. Altman, editor-inchief of the magazine Teatr. attacked Meyerhold for his speech. In Jan 1940, his biographer and friend N. D. Volkov received a post-card written in pencil and signed by Meyerhold. This was the last authenticated piece of news from him, and the stamp on the card indicated that it had been sent from one of the many Siberian camps.

      To this day, the exact circumstances and place of his death remain unknown.
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