Bright Lights Film Journal

Boris Godunov in America: Notes on a Meyerhold Production Resurrected*

“My God! — cried out a querulous voice within me — is it possible that we, artists of the stage, are doomed by the materiality of our bodies to eternal servitude and the representation of crude reality?” — Stanislavsky, questioning his Realistic method after a failed 1904 production of symbolist one-act plays by Maeterlink1

“The stage is art . . . There’s a genre painting by Kramskoy in which the faces are portrayed superbly. What would happen if you cut the nose out of one of the paintings and substituted a real one? The nose would be “realistic” but the picture would be ruined.” — Chekhov, explaining to an actor why offstage sounds of croaking frogs and buzzing dragonflies would not render a 1898 production of The Seagull more “realistic”2

We too easily assume that the modern theater’s revolts against the false ideology of realism, as variously undertaken by Tieck and Gozzi, Maeterlink and Meyerhold, Pirandello and Mayakovsky, were doomed to fail for their eccentricity and obscurantism — they were a fashion lost long ago in the seemingly fleeting (yet in fact eternal) Modernist project. But those who appreciated Vsevolod Meyerhold in particular knew his intellectualism was not inherently elitist — far more than Wagner, Meyerhold sought a progressive “people’s theater” where performers and audience were symbiotic equals, not deified creators and beguiled servants. His primary villain was not reality but the conventions of realism, humankind’s greatest failure of the imagination. Like Chekhov telling one of his naturalist-minded actors that a real nose inserted into the midst of a portrait would render the image absurd, Meyerhold, like Benjamin, knew realism’s verisimilitudes produce our most potent alienations, and, like Pirandello, he knew that attempts to reproduce nature on the artificial stage were inherently symbolic (and indeed semiotic) regardless.

Hollywood — its occasional and sophomoric trespasses into the postmodern notwithstanding — has only intensified Stanislavsky’s illusion: the more outlandish are a film’s cartoonish, capitalist fantasies, the more its characters must sanctify themselves by evincing a populist aura of “believability.” Thus we, in our narcissistic scramble to identify with the familiar, fixate on what George Meredith, in his 1877 Essay on Comedy, described as realism’s “fly in amber,” or those lifelike artifacts that leave audiences “to the reflections of unphilosophic minds upon life, from the specimen [the author] has presented in the bright and narrow circle of a spy-glass.”3 If this unphilosophic mind once inhabited not only Victorianism’s bourgeois merchant but its pseudoscientific empiricist, stunned by mundane curiosities and picking through morbid minutiae, the mentality springs forth undeterred whenever today’s realist critics complain, “I didn’t find it convincing!” Such critics routinely and blithely forget, however, to inform us exactly what they expected to be convinced of — save for the illusions of realism themselves.

Were Meyerhold alive today, he would be unsurprised (and perhaps bitterly amused) to see that Stanislavsky’s psychological realism still holds sway in theater, cinema, the novel, and all the narrative arts. Those unsworn to Stoicism are unlikely to resist realist culture’s ongoing conspiracy of appearances, constantly congratulating us with the false catharses of psychological drama in exchange for our refusal to defy the idolatry of the image. We still demand to be convinced of naturalism and of our own reflections. How could Rossellini or Bresson audition their nonprofessional actors save for choosing (subjectively) those who seemed professionally nonprofessional — in other words, “convincing”? Perhaps we take consolation in remembering that the donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) was a professional donkey. “Realism is the toothbrush waiting for you at home,” Orson Welles tells us enigmatically in F for Fake (1973) — but if realism, as Welles suggests in his disquisition on illusion-versus-reality, is not merely a daily chore but the tiresome cleanliness of civility, what exactly has been scrubbed clean, save for our skepticism? Perhaps it is fitting that our current fetish of high-definition imagery, outlining and heightening every facial tic, graying hair, oily blemish, and eyelid wrinkle, should reduce realism to its proper place in the canon of caricature.

For audiences oppressed by realist dogma, saddened by the degradation of Surrealism into MTV-kitsch, disenchanted with postmodern self-congratulation, and for whom Constructivism and Eccentrism might be more revelations than historical curiosities, Princeton University’s 2007 world premiere of Meyerhold’s unrealized 1936 production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (with incidental music by Prokofiev) offers a rare opportunity to see how joyful, involving, and accessible antirealist drama can be.4 If Stanislavsky’s individualistic psychology explained the intentional “why” of an action, Meyerhold’s sociological, “post-humanistic” theater — as James Symons suggests5 — explained the “how” of action, using formalist and antirealist devices to agitate and estrange the audience into states of self-consciousness years before Brecht had fully formulated his Verfremdungseffekt.6 Meyerhold used an array of experimental gestures to heighten awareness of theatrical artifice and disillusion the Aristotelian spell: house lights remained on during productions, allowing actors, as Robert Leach claims, to interactively “draw energy from specific audience members”7; the curtain was eliminated, such that scene and prop changes become nakedly visible (a technique borrowed from the black-robed kuroko of Kabuki theater8); audience members were encouraged to participate in a scene’s final chorus or nationalistic jubilation, as was the case with Meyerhold’s agitprop production of Earth Rampant (1923); and especially in his productions of the twenties, unnatural shocks, lowbrow jokes, fairground clowning, and narrative disruptions in the manner of Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions” inhibited any Realist psychological identification with the onstage action. These possibilities, of course, are the necessary province of the living theater, against which cinema’s hermetic two-dimensionality can never hope to compete, no matter how many times a Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and, yes, even the self-flagellating von Trier address the alienations of the fourth wall. I use intentionally the word address, not break, for the cinema’s fixed material partition can at most be acknowledged, mocked, prodded, played with, disrupted — but not hurdled, let alone destroyed.

At the heart of Meyerhold’s antirealist theater was his system of biomechanics, not an acting technique per se but an actor training regimen9 whose formalist motion exercises (or “études”) and plastic, expressionistic gestures remained a cornerstone of his program until 1938, well after socialist realism had been codified and Meyerhold’s formalism denounced by the Stalinists. Devised around 1922, in the wake of Dalcroze’s eurhythmics and concurrent with German theorist Rudolf Bode’s “expressive gymnastics,”10 biomechanics used constructivist-utilitarian gestures (based on archetypal movements, such as “Shooting with Bow and Arrow,” “Slap on the Face,” etc.) to generate natural bodily rhythms and maximize and streamline an actor’s expressivity. Proposing a workmanlike Taylorization11 of bodily energies and inspired (in probably unscientific ways) by Pavlovian reflexology, Meyerhold’s biomechanics advanced Bolshevik notions of optimistically harmonizing — and even making synonymous — everyday physical labor and productive art.

Critical accounts of biomechanics, and even descriptions of Meyerhold’s own training exercises, tend to give a caricatured view of the practice: one imagines fetishized machine-age posturing and indelicately stylized robotics, or assumes that biomechanics is best suited for Keatonesque slapstick or a clunky parody of Modern Times (1936). Indeed, some of Meyerhold’s contemporaries believed his understanding of biomechanics was either superficial or wrongheaded. The Russian critic Ippolit Sokolov accused Meyerhold of exploiting “at any cost the great ideological and mnemonic power of that promising term ‘Biomechanics'” by proposing that the “purely metaphorical term” had a real foundation in biophysical science, when in fact its exercises were “non-sequential, pointless, and unsystematic,” and therefore actually opposed to Taylorist efficiency.12 Trotsky called Meyerhold’s attempt to combine the intellectuality of the theater with the social and emotional work of painstaking exercise an “abortive” and misguided endeavor predicated on “a few semi-rhythmic movements.”13 Even some of Meyerhold’s own actors expressed frustration that his biomechanics was predicated apparently on the director’s own intuition — and therefore had ironic similarities with Stanislavskian vitalism — rather than on a concrete, demonstrable blueprint.

But to at long last see — as one can in the Princeton Boris Godunov — how graceful and balletic acting grounded in biomechanical technique can be relieves one of such misgivings. The actors conquer, climb across, crawl through, slink around, erotically stalk, and nearly meld with their sets and props, their movements at once grotesquely stylized and effortlessly expressive. Furthermore, rather than indulging in the more gimmicky or fetishistic aspects of biomechanics, this loose interpretation of Meyerhold’s original 1936 plan — undertaken by project managers Simon Morrison and Caryl Emerson, director Tim Vasen and set designer Jesse Reiser — offers a more expansive textbook of his progressive ideas.

The production’s greatest coup is Reiser’s set design (created with graduate students from Princeton’s School of Architecture), an expressionist web of seemingly arbitrary — but in fact strategically positioned — vibrating cords that, stretching floor to ceiling, not only ensnare and consume unwary characters but, in the process, transfer their vibrations to all other characters who come into physical (or metaphysical) contact with the web, causing them to be likewise consumed in its rippling effects.14 While on occasion the cords literalistically represent a green-lit forest or morph into an impromptu noose, they are generally without diegetic justification, becoming a great net of destiny and portent that characters may seem to manipulate as they twist themselves into its workings, but which in fact overwhelms them by metaphysically transmitting quivering effects of pity, fear, and uncontrolled desire.

In Meyerholdian terms, these very uncinematic vibratory cords — cannily suggesting the Pavlovian reflexology that fascinated the director — bring biomechanics beyond the realm of the actor and into the scenography, creating a veritable (if malevolent) biomechanical universe illustrative of that elusive sociological “how.” As the actors enmesh themselves and one another snakelike within the fateful cords, the set design fosters what Leach identifies as Meyerhold’s “reverberative gesture,” resulting in “abrupt, puppet-like movements”15 that prompt actors to work rhythmically, musically, and efficiently within the theatrical environment. (Indeed, the utilitarianism of Reiser’s sliding, continually transmogrifying, and therefore organic set represents true principles of Constructivism far better than the mechanized clichés of factory life with which the movement was often associated.) Existing only at a sociological distance where the whole body is seen, this “reverberative” mode of performance is ideologically opposed to the cinematic close-up, which assumes the bourgeois psychologism of the introspecting human face supersedes all other, more objective meanings.

Of course, Meyerhold was never blind to the metaphysical potentialities of the cinema; indeed, since his path-breaking (and lost) The Picture of Dorian Gray (1916), which anticipated techniques of superimposition and split-screen used years later by the expressionists, Meyerhold understood fully (better than Eisenstein) montage’s liberating play with time and space, and transposed this understanding to the theater. When staging Ostovsky’s The Forest in 1924, for instance, Meyerhold “ignored the play’s original time sequence, shuffling . . . the original five acts into thirty-three episodes . . . according to the principles of montage.”16 Meyerhold pioneered creatively lit multi-tiered stage designs that, drawing the spectator’s eye to alternating sections of the stage, created an organic, “spatial” montage. Meyerhold’s cinefications, however, never sacrifice revolutionary action to revolutionary symbolism. When in a production of Nikolai Erdman’s The Mandate he positioned proletarian characters in the stage pit, linking physically the (working-class) audience and the actions on stage to remedy “theaters sunk in sweet dozing and weary psychologism,”17 Meyerhold revealed that the symbolic-imagistic meanings of the Eisensteinian clash are no substitute for the solidarity of real human interaction. Rebelling against the pre-Enlightenment cult of the image and superseding the agitation of Eisensteinian synthesis, Meyerhold’s theater activates humanity itself in performance, transforming audience into agent and spectacle into comradeship. This, then, is the root of Meyerhold’s “utopian realism,” perfectly signified by the production’s reverberative cords, whose emotive tendrils link actor to actor, actor to audience, and implicitly, audience member to audience member.

Meyerhold and Prokofiev’s Boris Godunov in Production

Princeton’s student production18 of Meyerhold’s aborted 1936 Boris Godunov employs certain of the director’s techniques — particularly unhidden changes of scenery and props and an integration of actors and décor — to a point where, as Paul Schmidt says of Meyerhold’s work in general, “one could not distinguish plot from mise en scène.”19 Pushkin’s epically sinister subject matter, however, hardly calls for the kind of blunt satire and antirealist burlesque found in Meyerhold’s earlier productions, such as Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe. Pushkin’s Boris Godunov is one of Russian literature’s most enigmatic and ironic tragedies, not a conventional story of hero against villain but, in essence, of two antiheroes whose fates are as perilously intertwined as the expressionistically corded set that here engulfs them. Yet Pushkin makes antagonist Boris Godunov — who ruled Russia in lieu of Ivan the Terrible’s feebleminded son Feodor, and who, according to Pushkin’s history, murdered Feodor’s brother Dimitri to ensure his rule — into such a pathetic, neurotic figure that he is often more sympathetic than ostensible hero Grigori Otrepiev, the monk who impersonates the rightful heir Dimitri and miraculously claims the young Tsarevich was, in fact, never murdered. For Meyerhold, Boris was “a warrior, a dirty warrior”20 literally haunted by his misdeeds, while the Pretender Dmitri, like Meyerhold’s beloved Hamlet,21 was a romantic hesitator, overwhelmed and stunted by his own ambitiousness. Yet Grigori-Dimitri is also an opportunist, well knowing his fraudulent claim to the throne will stir up a populace too illiterate to know any better. Furthermore, Boris is so pathetic in his perpetual ills and wailing torments that he is not at all the monochrome Stalin-figure one might expect in a dissident 1936 Soviet play about the legitimacy of rule.22 With two such equally vacillating and uncertain characters, Boris Godunov is like a play with two Hamlets, effectively inhibiting total identification with either and creating an aura of objectivity that not only fulfills Meyerhold’s modernism but also reflects Pushkin’s attempt to craft not a straightforward tragedy but an epic commentary on the history of tragedy (or the tragedy of history). Nevertheless, as Prokofiev’s score affords Grigori-Dmitri melodious lines and Boris mainly anxious ones, the music tends to clarify our allegiances.

Though influenced by Dalcroze’s eurhythmics, Meyerhold shunned the Swiss pedagogue’s attempts to bring the actor’s body into a synchronous harmony with musical accompaniment, and strove instead for “a contrapuntal fusion”23 of music and movement, just as Eisenstein’s intellectual montage fused synthetic meanings from juxtaposed film cells violently pressing upon one another. Knowing this, we must wonder how to interpret each instance of Prokofiev’s music — at the face value of redundant accompaniment (as in conventional film music), or as ironic counterpoint. Ambiguity first appears when choristers offstage — yet ever-visible in the wings — chant a hypnotic choir over which the Russian masses frantically debate their support of Boris’ new reign.24 One wonders whether the choruses’ intended “flow and ebb” and “two waves of sound” (as Meyerhold put it25) are meant to alternately support each side of the characters’ pro- and anti-Boris argument, or if the choruses’ total hypnotic force — and Prokofiev’s lines are hypnotic — signifies a mesmerized populace whose political outcomes are already a fait accompli.

Unfortunately, Prokofiev did not write music he and Meyerhold intended for the crucial Scene 6, wherein Grigori, having absorbed wizened Pimen’s lengthy discourse on tsarism’s murderous legacy, is visited by an Evil Monk who plants in him the notion to “become” Dimitri, seize the throne, and set history aright. If the psychic transformation in Grigori here seems too sudden and ambiguous and his inner thoughts too illegible, it is likely because Pimen’s lengthy, music-less discourse is bereft of the Wagnerian emotionality on which Hollywood scores have suckled us. One perhaps wishes in the scene unexpectedly serene, lyrical scoring to expressionistically accompany Pimen’s discourse and actualize Meyerhold’s notion of audiovisual counterpoint (even if he preferred the word “stylization” to “expressionism,” perhaps to distance himself from the Germans). Nevertheless, the ultimate absence of music here remains consistent with Meyerhold’s mandate that performers “need employ gestures only to supply what is missing from the musical score,”26 forcing us to rely on Grigori’s interaction with the “sociologically” corded set design to interpret motivation and causality.

The Meyerhold-Prokofiev Boris Godunov, as it now stands, has precious little music, only thirty minutes of brief numbers sprinkled unevenly throughout a two-and-a-half hour production (another planned but unwritten number, which Meyerhold described as “a kind of sixteenth century jazz band . . . a constant chorus from . . . male and female sorcerers . . . with a bell and rattles,”27 would have comprised a two-and-a-half minute misterioso clamor intended to accompany Pushkin’s scene of sorcerers predicting ill omens for Boris). Yet to experience the music’s extant parts in proper dramaturgical context is to appreciate anew Prokofiev’s skill as both incidental scorer and ironist. While Michail Jurowski’s recording (on the Capriccio label) captures the score’s ominous and foreboding qualities, it does not (apart from the manic battle sequence) hint at the ironies produced by Meyerhold’s intended audiovisual juxtapositions — what in Marxist terms would be the dialectical tension between the ostensible action onstage (thesis) and the music’s alienated commentary on that action (antithesis), resulting in the audience’s objectivist self-awareness of irony and theatrical artifice (synthesis).28

This irony is clear in the Polonaise and Mazurka (the latter recycled more famously in Prokofiev’s Cinderella), numbers that undergird parodic ballet sequences set amidst the Polish royalty, whose support the Pretender Dimitri seeks. What seem like conventional dance episodes in the vacuum of a studio recording become onstage amusingly banal send-ups of royal decadence and inertia, with Princeton’s young ballet corps going through intentionally galumphing, inelegant paces. The stage is then fully illuminated to reveal conductor Michael Pratt at the aft, leading a Princeton student orchestra all clad sardonically in powdered wigs, again effectively blurring the distinction between diegetic and extradiegetic music, just as the semi-visible murmuring choirs of the opening sequence had done.29 Certainly, there are moments of more straightforward humor: the drinking ditty of itinerant (and inebriated) friars Misail and Varlaam, which sounds like a brooding lament in the professional voicing of Mikhail Jurowski’s recording of the score, is here not so much sung as it is performed, as an anticlerical jape made all the more buffoonish by the cast’s undergraduate youthfulness.

The production’s greatest revelation in terms of audiovisual irony is its presentation of Prokofiev’s gorgeous Amoroso and Reverie, romantically flowing music expressing Grigori-Dimitri’s infatuation with the aloof and desirable Maryna, daughter of a nobleman whose favor he curries in his military campaign against Godunov. This is a dramaturgically complex sequence bubbling with self-effacing humor. On the one hand, the Pretender is a self-doubting boy of twenty — the least Napoleonic of conquering heroes — who in Meyerhold’s words “starts to sing about love like a nightingale” upon seeing Maryna. On the other, he begins to attain a premature sense of world-weariness and political self-consciousness, intuiting that even if the boyars suspect his fraud, they will nevertheless exploit him as a “pretext” (his word) to pursue their own agendas. At the same time, Maryna’s excessively cold reactions to Grigori-Dimitri’s overtures, and his ensuing romantic frustrations, are played for bumbling comedy, thus calling into question the sincerity of the score’s most overtly rapturous theme, and making us wonder if the Pretender’s quixoticism is more to be mocked than admired. Whereas one could argue, in the abstract, that the slow movement of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto and the slow melody in his Third Concerto‘s final movement are parodies of Rachmaninovian romanticism, here the melodic irony can only be accessed by witnessing the dramaturgy’s audiovisual incongruity.

Nevertheless, this irony can be frustrating (or perhaps ironic itself?) because the Amoroso and Reverie themes, if taken as authentic emotion, are undeniably moving when heard underneath Pushkin’s verse, as unimaginatively non-contrapuntal as that may be. One realizes again — irony or not — that Prokofiev was perhaps the unacknowledged twentieth-century master of incidental music (as his great Eugene Onegin alone should demonstrate30). So potentially poignant is Grigori-Dimitri and Maryna’s rendezvous in the fountain scene — not to mention the sadly undeveloped Ksenia’s Song, one of Prokofiev’s most haunting melodies — that I might perversely rethink the conventional wisdom regarding Prokofiev’s refusal to write film scores in Hollywood (beginning with Gloria Swanson’s invitation to Prokofiev to pen the music for Allan Dwan’s What a Widow![1930]). Of course, we take relief in his refusal. At best, we imagine, he’d have wound up a tragic Korngold (without the excuse of fleeing Nazism), and at worst he’d have prostituted himself like Vladimir Dukelsy, the promising Russian composer whom Prokofiev chided for running off to Broadway, rechristening himself Vernon Duke, and penning “tra-la-la.”31 Surely, his first Hollywood hack-jobs would have been execrable, but how might Prokofiev have revolutionized over time the practice of incidental music, cinematic or otherwise, had he accepted such offers? Might Prokofiev’s characteristically inventive modulations and understated melodrama (e.g., Egyptian Nights) have rescued us from Max Steiner’s sludgy bombast and Dimitri Tiomkin’s noxious American syrup?32

Boris Godunov‘s musical highlight — its musical coup, perhaps — is its anarchic, polyphonic battle scene, as broadly farcical a piece as Prokofiev ever wrote. Three separate (and, if you looked closely, fairly visible) military bands stationed in the balconies respectively signified the three armies that chaotically clash in the Pretender’s military campaign: Asiatic fighters in Boris Godunov’s service (whose motifs on low brass and tam-tam Meyerhold described as “warlike, stupefying”33); Western European soldiers loyal to the Pretender (a “more controlled, harmonious, civilized . . . but also warlike” theme later recycled in Prokofiev’s Soviet opera Semyon Kotko); and an army of clownish Germans (“We want,” said Meyerhold, “very funny music, something that sounds specifically German, with a comic orchestra . . . for instance, piccolo and drum . . .”). While Prokofiev’s three contentious, overlying (albeit hardly developed) themes can be likened to rhythmically colliding Eisensteinian film cells, Prokofiev claimed his aural montage was inspired by something as banal as the martial procedures of Red Square, where “the columns march and each one plays its [own] march.”34 (For Meyerhold, Prokofiev’s battle sequence succeeded for its reflection of “Pushkin’s naiveté,” the same naiveté the monk Pimen expresses in the lusty monologue that first fills Grigori-Dimitri’s head with political ambition.) As actors run amok through the theater brandishing wooden swords, the fourth wall is not ridiculed but mooted, and as they utilized the set’s reverberative cords to swing Tarzan-like across the stage to Prokofiev’s brass-and-drum discord, the battle scene engaged the more acrobatic elements of the Chaplinesque that inspired Meyerhold’s biomechanical productions of the 1920s. Once again, visual spectacle clarified Meyerhold-Prokofiev’s humor: what in a recording is mild amusement becomes in performance an absurd free-for-all only partially synchronized to the overly steady, metronomic beats of Prokofiev’s warring orchestras. Though Henri Bergson is seldom mentioned as an influence on Meyerhold, the battle’s veritable mécanisation de la vie suggests not merely a mechanistic comedy of rebounding reflex action but, arguably, a self-parody of Meyerhold’s own biomechanics.

As Tsar Boris and the play itself come to their fateful ends in the battle’s wake, the assault on the fourth wall increases in severity. In Boris’ grandiose death scene, where he lies mortally overcome by bleeding spells seemingly heaven-sent, dramatic irony gives way to tragicomic self-reflexivity, as Boris, with his final breath, pulls the stage curtain down upon his own rattling corpse. The curtain, that antiquated barrier between artist and spectator, illusion and reality, is as tyrannical as Boris’ illegitimate rule, and too must come to an undignified demise. After Grigori-Dimitri advances on the capital, and as the masses murmur again that enchanting chorus of political bewilderment first heard in the opening sequences, the Pretender’s minions murder the newly ascended Tsar Feodor and his sister Ksenia. Thereupon the actors face the audience directly, and with bloodthirsty cries exhort us to cheer the cold-blooded murder and praise the usurper35 — a cynical, Stalin-era inversion of the finale of Meyerhold’s production of Vishnevsky’s The Final Conflict,36 in which a fallen sailor climactically rises from the dead to incite the audience into pledging unswerving loyalty to Bolshevism to the campy accompaniment of a Maurice Chevalier tune.

With the Pretender’s victory, the theater’s houselights shone full-blast into the audience’s eyes, their sensibilities physically blinded but metaphysically liberated: the shadows of the stage’s psychological artifice dispelled, audience and performer could now see each other unveiled and equally. As Schmidt says,

In Meyerhold’s theater darkness is destroyed by light, the hidden chair of the analyst-observer-audience is discovered, made present; a passive, purely aural process is replaced by an active, physical transaction between two equal entities who occupy the same space.37

In cinema, the direct addressing of the audience tends either to be didactic (Vertov’s Kino Pravda [1922]), or becomes a satirical, quasi-insurrectionary gesture (as in early Godard) — the cinematic fourth wall can be broached theoretically, but the screen’s insurmountable materiality forever stands between spectator and art. In the Princeton Godunov, however, the breaking of the fourth wall transmits the desired living effect. As we experience the full sensations of the blinding lights and actors’ primal shouts, as actors and audience draw biotic energy from one another, the boundaries do begin to dissolve in what is more than a sterile or academic gesture. The constructivist mandate comes full circle, and we are “reconstructed” into a newly formulated theater of full tangibility.

But this fleeting impression, this pseudo-revolutionary moment, swiftly dissipates. Soon we remember our complacent ensconcement within the gates of Princeton (whose suburban insularity Pierre Bourdieu so mocked in Pascalian Meditations), perched at the summit of global capitalism and nearly a century removed from a geopolitical environment in which theatrical revelations could be tantamount to a Bolshevik brotherhood — or, for that matter, any kind of brotherhood. The Meyerholdian illumination of the houselights then revealed not cooperative futures but a smug audience of fur-clad parents and trust-fund sons. If Princeton’s intent was to activate a Meyerholdian self-consciousness that Pushkin’s own characters, swallowed up by the unforgiving maw of history, can never know, we logically must question the meaning of Meyerhold-in-Twenty-First-Century-New-Jersey,38 the meaning of Modernism-in-Decadence. Has Meyerhold been sterilized into a mere aesthetic exercise for bourgeois consumption, his revolutionary theatre now as impotent as the Realist-minded audiences it once hoped to free?

*This essay is a revised version of a text that originally appeared in Three Oranges Journal, No. 14, November 2007. Published by the Serge Prokofiev Foundation, London.

  1. Braun, Edward. Meyerhold on Theatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969, 19. []
  2. Meyerhold, Vsevolod. “The Naturalistic Theatre and the Theatre of Mood.” Meyerhold on Theatre, trans. and ed. Edward Braun. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969, 30. []
  3. Meredith, George. An Essay on Comedy. Ed. Lane Cooper. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918, 154. Meredith here echoes the skepticism of Schopenhauer, who claimed that the more lifelike a wax figure was, the less artistic it became. []
  4. Boris Godunov was one of countless progressive Soviet works to run afoul of the socialist realism advanced after Pravda‘s infamous 1936 attack on the “formalism” of Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. []
  5. Symons, James M. Meyerhold’s Theater of the Grotesque. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971, 119. []
  6. Indeed, Brecht was heavily influenced by Meyerhold productions he saw in the late 1920s. []
  7. Leach, Robert. Vsevolod Meyerhold. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 38. []
  8. Meyerhold, exposed to traveling Japanese theater troupes as early as 1902, was inspired by the stylized formalism of Kabuki and Noh (as well as the acrobatics and pantomime of Chinese opera), much as Artaud drew on Balinese traditions. []
  9. Alma Law and Mel Gordon go to great lengths to emphasize that biomechanics is an actor training system, not an acting technique in itself, as many Western commentators have (mistakenly) suggested. See the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Law and Gordon’s Meyerhold, Eisenstein, and Biomechanics: Actor Training in Revolutionary Russia. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996. []
  10. Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Tretyakov offer a sympathetic critique of Bode’s short-lived expressive gymnastics (Ausdrucksgymnastik) in their essay “Expressive Movement,” in Law and Gordon, ibid., 173-190. []
  11. The movement named after industrialist Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose efficient, conveyor-belt futurism and time and motion studies held some fetishistic attraction for Bolsheviks and Constructivists. []
  12. Sokolov, Ippolit. “Biomechanics According to Meyerhold.” Law and Gordon, ibid., 146. []
  13. Leach, ibid., 52. []
  14. This design is considerably different from Meyerhold’s original plan, which called for two elevated platforms with spaces in between for both mechanically mobile décors and actors to appear abruptly. []
  15. Leach, ibid., 59-60. []
  16. Braun, ibid., 191. []
  17. Braun, ibid., 128. []
  18. Because Princeton’s student production is the only present version of Meyerhold’s Boris, I overlook in my account the sometimes lacking performances and other shortcomings typical of nonprofessional efforts. []
  19. Schmidt, Paul. Meyerhold at Work. New York: Applause, 1996, xvi. []
  20. Schmidt, ibid., 110. []
  21. Though Meyerhold never staged Hamlet, it was his lifelong dream, and he once claimed elements of the play can be found throughout his work, thus creating a kind of meta-textual or “composite” Hamlet. []
  22. This is not to suggest, however, the play’s insurrectionary subject matter did not account for Meyerhold’s “voluntary” abandonment of the production. Soon after — in 1938 — the Stalinists would close the Meyerhold Theater, and in 1940 Meyerhold would be executed by firing squad after months of torture at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen. []
  23. Braun, ibid., 283. []
  24. These are Prokofiev’s original a cappella versions of the three choruses that Michail Jurowski’s CD recording (on the Capriccio label) presents only in the fully orchestrated arrangements published by Boris Tishchenko in 1973. []
  25. Schmidt, ibid., 134. []
  26. Braun, ibid., 86. As Meyerhold continued, “Richard Wagner expresses inner dialogue with the help of the orchestra . . . Just as in the musical drama the phrase sung by the singer is not a sufficiently strong means of expressing inner dialogue, so in the drama the word . . . Just as Wagner makes the orchestra tell of psychological experience, so I make sculptured movements tell of them.” Ibid., 45. []
  27. Schmidt, ibid., 136. []
  28. Admittedly, Meyerhold’s view of the synthetic interaction between music and drama developed over time. In his early essay “First Attempts at a Stylized Theatre,” Meyerhold makes the incredible claim that “the composer should concentrate on symphonies like Beethoven’s Ninth, for the dramatic theatre, where music has merely an auxiliary role, has nothing to offer him.” Obviously, Meyerhold soon abandoned such untenable ideas. Braun, ibid., 49. []
  29. Meyerhold would often place musicians onstage to achieve exactly this antirealistic effect, most famously when a pianist on an elevated stage platform played, at strategic intervals, selections from Chopin and Liszt for Meyerhold’s production of The Teacher Bubus. Inevitably, some critics at the time saw this as an arbitrary gimmick not open for clear interpretation, though Meyerhold did keep detailed records of audience reactions to gauge possible future adjustments to his dramaturgies. []
  30. In the limited terms of dramatic recitatives, to my mind only the first movement of Arthur Bliss’ Morning Heroes rivals Prokofiev’s Eugene Onegin for perfectly understated harmony between melos and text. The complete vocal score of Prokofiev’s Egyptian Nights provides further examples. []
  31. Robinson, Harlow, trans. and ed. Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998, 154. []
  32. I admit this is fanciful conjecture at best; Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bliss, Arnold, etc. wrote much film music that failed to raise the general level of conventional film scoring. Yet none of their film scores (including Shostakovich’s The Gadfly) are as evocative as Alexander Nevsky or Ivan the Terrible — though Bliss’s score for Things to Come (1936) does have remarkable moments. []
  33. Schmidt, ibid., 139. []
  34. From Igor I. Kazenin’s liner notes to Capriccio’s CD release of the Boris Godunov music. Interestingly, Prokofiev’s explanation recalls the story Charles Ives tells of his father (who conducted eccentric experiments in polyphony with multiple brass bands) as well as the genesis of the competing brasses in the first movement of Leos Janáček’s Sinfonietta, the result of the composer having heard two brass bands approach him in a fairground from opposing sides. []
  35. The censored version of Boris Godunov published during Pushkin’s lifetime carried an alternate ending, in which “The People are silent” and do not cheer. Though enigmatic, this ending is arguably more optimistic, suggesting the masses are not so much voiceless as in possession of enough free will to withhold their support. []
  36. Braun, Edward. The Theatre of Meyerhold. (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1979), 244. []
  37. Schmidt, ibid, xiv. []
  38. I say this as a lifelong New Jerseyan, I might add. []