Sunday, 20 March 2016

Vsevolod Meyerhold - Biography

Alexander Golovin's portrait of Meyerhold


Vsevolod Meyerhold was a Russian and Soviet actor and theater director, and the creator of a new acting system called “biomechanics”. It is hard to overestimate his role in the development of the Russian theater.

Meyerhold’s birthname was not Vsevolod, but Karl Kasimir Theodor. He was born in a Lutheran German family which lived in the Russian city of Penza. His father owned a liquor factory and was rather rich, though strict: he controlled the children’s expenses and was never generous with pocket money. He was not much interested in any of the arts, while his wife organized musical evenings regularly and was fond of the theater. Karl and his siblings shared her interest and often participated in amateur plays.

In the gymnasium, Karl was not a high achiever: he had to repeat a year three times to get a certificate of completion. He graduated in 1895, and attended the law department of the Moscow State University. Same year, he did two things that shocked his family: he converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and changed his name to Vsevolod.

A year later he married his childhood love Olga Munt. In those days, students had to receive special permission from the governor to marry, and Meyerhold was persistent enough to write letter after letter to the authorities until he succeeded.

The same year, he went to see Othello as staged by Konstantin Stanislavsky. This simple experience changed Meyerhold's life: inspired by Stanislavsky's talent, he left the law department and attended the Theater and Musical School of the Moscow Philharmonic Society. His tutor, the theater director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, appreciated Meyerhold’s talent, erudition, and energy. When Nemirovich-Danchenko decided to found a new theater together with Stanislavsky, Meyerhold was among the first students who were invited to join the troupe. Meyerhold accepted the invitation, and in 1898 after graduating joined the newly formed Moscow Art Theater.

The newly created theater was headed by Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky. In those days, Stanislavsky was working on his acting system based on deep character study and realistic acting, which nowadays is world famous.

Meyerhold had been Stanislavsky’s apprentice until 1902. That year, after playing twenty parts on Moscow Art Theater's stage, Meyerhold announced his rejection of Stanislavsky’s methods, left the troupe and turned from acting to directing. Together with Aleksandr Kosheverov, another actor who left with him, Meyerhold organized The New Drama Fellowship in the city of Herson, Ukraine. His first performances resembled those of MAT, but soon he started experimenting, looking for a new theater style and a new expressive means. Nemirovich-Danchenko called Meyerhold's ideas "the muddle, created by a man who discovers several new truths, pushing another one every day", or also "nonsense", “hell knows what” and "scrambled eggs with onion".

As opposed to Stanislavsky, Meyerhold was usually indifferent to the psychological side of acting, but he was fascinated by its visual side. He made the actors work on body movements, not on character study, and assured them that “buffoonery and clowning are necessary for an actor, and the simplest simplicity should include the elements of the clown”. His performances resembled marionette theater shows. The suburban Herson did not appreciate Meyerhold's innovations, and The New Drama Fellowship had to go on tour as often as possible. The troupe had earned a certain reputation.

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