The stage artist with a deadly critic

May 17, 1996

In Sergei Eisenstein's flat in Moscow, still faithfully preserved, there is a photograph of Vsevelod Meyerhold, the teacher who awakened in him the hunger for theatre and cinema, the man he regarded as his second father. The two years Eisenstein spent at Meyerhold's workshops changed his life and shaped his artistic vision. Like many others who fell under the master's spell, he spoke of Meyerhold with passion: "Never have I loved, never worshipped, never adored anyone as much as I have my teacher. He was an astonishing individual, living proof that genius and maliciousness can both abide within one human being."

Meyerhold exerted immense influence over the theatre of his time and can take credit for key developments in Soviet theatre and cinema. His discovery of scenic montage as an organic expression of a reality perceived as fragmented and contradictory emerged as early as 1906-07 in works such as A Man's Life and Spring Awakening. Later, he was the originator of a pervasively cinematic element which characterised the great theatrical productions of the 1920s in particular his collaboration with Vladimir Mayakovsky. With directors like Eisenstein, Romm, Yutkevich, Ekk and Trauberg - not to mention himself - in mind, Grigory Kozintsev could declare in 1936 that "the real pupils of Meyerhold are working not in the theatre but in the cinema."

Meyerhold was named an enemy of the people by Stalin. His achievements were publicly vilified, and his theatre closed by decree in January 1938. He was imprisoned six months later, tortured and executed on February 2 1940. He was one of the last victims of Stalin's purges. The whole tragic story of Meyerhold's arrest and interrogation was described for the first time by Edward Braun in 1993 and is told here in new detail. Thanks to perestroika and the development that followed, Braun had access to secret police (NKVD) files and "Case No. 736" - that of Vsevelod Meyerhold.

Braun's achievement over the many years of his preoccupation with Meyerhold is to clear the name and the memory of one of the greatest theatre reformers of our century. His The Theatre of Meyerhold (1979) was throughout the pre-perestroika years the standard work in which a generation of students referred again and again. In Meyerhold: A Revolution in the Theatre, Braun returns to his subject with undiminished enthusiasm and fresh insights.

All the accounts of productions have been significantly expanded, and the inclusion of Electra, produced in St Petersburg in 1913, is completely new. This is not simply a revised version of a previous work, but a newly composed and proportioned book enriched with new thoughts and interpretations of previously unavailable information. While the period of Meyerhold's work with Stanislavsky was already securely documented and described, the material made available since perestroika deepens our understanding of the continuity between Meyerhold's earlier work and his later productions.

There emerges in Braun's text a far more complex and problematic figure than previously known. There was a double edge to Meyerhold's character. This could embrace great acts of generosity in creative partnerships as well as the monomania of a theatrical tyrant, all part of the same energy that made this deeply sceptical and alienated man the most charismatic theatre personality of his time. This new volume makes for exciting and sad reading, revealing more of the tragic contrast between artistic triumph and political defeat.

Meyerhold, the genius of the theatre, succeeded in his great moments in fusing theatre and life, altering audiences' perceptions of their everyday reality. Meyerhold died more than 50 years ago, but his concepts and attitudes continue to influence the stagecraft of our time. Braun has given us a definitive study of Meyerhold's theatrical genius, which will without doubt inspire a new generation of students.

Lutz Becker was an adviser to the Hayward Gallery's recent exhibition "Art and Power", on the art and architecture of the 1930s.

Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre

Author - Edward Braun
ISBN - 0 413 68770
Publisher - Methuen
Price - £35.00
Pages - 347

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