Music, Blok, Gogol and “The Tempest”

fairground Booth collage 2

In an article by James David Jacobs about Shakespeare and music he writes

“The Tempest stands at the crossroads of theatrical history: between the Renaissance and the Baroque, between the Elizabethan theatre of the imagination and the Jacobean spectacle, between the primacy of the word and the primacy of sensory entertainment”.

Similarly The Fairground Booth was written and performed at the threshold of a new epoch in 1906 in Russia.

The common link between these plays is music. It’s no coincidence that at the same time these upheavals were taking place in England, the art form known as opera was being born in Italy (the first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, was premiered in 1607.) And it is not an accident that The Fairground Booth appeared at the junction between two epochs and the beginning of what we understand as the modern era.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Tempest is how aware it is of its own historical position, how consciously Shakespeare bids farewell to past trends and welcomes new ones, reinventing himself even at the end of his career. This is particularly evident in his use of music and sound cues, which are integrated into the text in an unprecedented way.

There are many places where the music takes over, and whole scenes are performed in mime and dance, or, most remarkably, with the characters themselves just standing there listening to the music along with the audience.

Many of the settings of Romeo and Juliet, for example, could just as easily refer to the older tragic love stories Shakespeare himself drew on when writing that play. James David Jacobs continues “But The Tempest is truly a world Shakespeare himself created, and it is no coincidence that it is the least dated of Shakespeare’s plays, the one that requires the least translation for a modern audience”.

And one of the main reasons for this is that it is the play in which he puts the most trust in the power of music“. It is on this point that I must disagree. Shakespeare was much indebted to the commedia dell’arte even to the point of using the enchanted island motif, a long time element of the commedia dell’arte. It is the musicality of the play and its improvisory quality which allows Shakespeare to freely explore themes which appear timeless.

In the course of writing about Blok and in particular the musicality of The Fairground Booth many new aspects of the play have come to the surface. Andrey Bely in his book about Gogol “Gogols Masterstvo (Artistry)” talks about rhythm in Gogol’s writing in particular about the idea of a story/song in literature. He maintains that there is no one work of Gogol which does not contain a musical principle and if we take heed of this then it opens up a whole depth of the social tendency in Gogol’s work nonetheless in a latent condition. Exploring Gogol may seem like a digression but it was with Gogol’s The Government Inspector that Meyerhold brought to fruition the lessons and techniques he had developed through his collaboration with Blok in The Fairground Booth. The Government inspector pointed the way to a new theatre in Russia something which both Blok and Meyerhold wanted to achieve.

The soul of music – is a naive, realistic interpretation of a subject and is displayed not  only in Gogol’s unsuccessful tales. Bely points out that the key to the interpretation of Gogol’s is buried in the musicality of his writing- the music of the composition. – “listening to music it is as if the soul possesses one wish only – to explode”. In the tone and rhythm and the rise and fall of sounds is encapsulated a whole way of life. For Bely one cannot easily call it rhythm but for sure it is an echo and such rhythm would never enter the head of a poet with a pen in their hand. In this is the unseen riches of sounds of the early work of Gogol, maintains Bely which speaks of everything.

But what relevance does this have in the context of a discussion of The Fairground Booth and The Tempest. Gogol was the first Russian author to explicitly embark on such an abstract and non literary, non textual approach to writing, literature and creating meaning outside of the text. It is no accident that Meyerhold shunned the historically accurate and classic approach to the play Government Inspector and turned it into a masterpiece of almost Avant-garde dimensions. Meyerhold’s Government Inspector was a direct and unreserved descendant of The Fairground Booth which will be discussed in the next section of this book. Rhythm and movement was everything for Meyerhold and it might be fair to say that he unlocked the unrevealed treasures of Gogol’s play which the author had himself perhaps intended but the acting style and understanding of theatre did not at that time exist to unlock the full scope of its satirical possibilities. In his book about Meyerhold, Edward Braun quotes from Emanuel Kaplan’s book “Meetings with Meyerhold” who describes the moment when it is announced that the Government Inspector is arriving soon and which illustrates Meyerhold’s “orchestration” of Gogol’s “score”.

“Then suddenly, as though on a word of command, at the stroke of a conductors baton, everyone stirs into agitation, pipes jumps from lips, fists clench, heads swivel. The last syllable of Revisior (The Government Inspector) seems to tweak everybody. Now the word is hissed in a whisper, the whole word by some…..The word Revisior is divided musically into every conceivable intonation….blows up and dies away like a squall”.

The additional information given to the audience in this episode is imparted musically and does not depend on the written words in the play. When Kaplan talks about a squall it is not a tempest as such but it is close enough for our purposes to understand that Gogol had come up with something new and Meyerhold had unearthed it but it had taken almost a whole century for the theatrical world (certainly in Russia) to catch up with Gogol. Information is not given in just what is said but is part of an energy which like electricity is passed through a conductor and is charged with a new energy it is transformed from something raw into something concentrated and reconstructed.

The play becomes an instrument, an accumulator of an energy which is transformed into another instrument and sound and rhythm is what issues from this instrument. As Bely points out, the influence of an author becomes loaded with images which depend on their possibility or capability to be modified or metamorphosed: In the consciousness of an epoch the author is defined twice over – as part of a collective which makes a certain demand and the collective itself accepting the authors proposal to cooperate with him in his own epoch and reach across time.

The similarities between Blok’s world and Gogol’s world are manifest. Gogol is full of sudden arrivals and disappearances and this is no less evident in the Inspector General which is reflected in the tragic carnival of The Fairground Booth. Harlequin’s leap through the window at the end of the pay could be compared Khlestnikov’s escape into nowhere in The Inspector General. The metaphysical space opened numerous possibilities to Meyerhold for his later work.

This becomes immediately apparent in Meyerhold’s The Government Inspector but the seeds for the Government Inspector were sown in his collaboration with Blok in the Fairground Booth. The Fairground Booth was an accumulator of theatrical energy which drew from the past and present to point the way to the future. All of Meyerhold’s and not just Meyerhold but other directors like Vakhtangov ,Tairov, Eisenstein and Mayakovsky were directly influenced by Blok’s play. We will come to the inheritance of The Fairground Booth and its vast imprint on the history of Russian Theatre as well as Opera later but for now the hints given by Andrei Bely point to a common undercurrent in both the Fairground Booth and The Tempest and why the Tempest was so important to Blok. Lying below the surface of both plays a “full fathom five” is metamorphosis – a “sea change” in what was understood to be theatre. For Shakespeare The Tempest coincided with a new epoch of exploration across continents which ushered in a new consciousness of what it meant to be human a specifically capitalistic consciousness for Blok the mechanisation of life demanded that humanity begin a a new journey and this would be reflected in theatre. In Shakespeare’s Tempest, The pearls that were his eyes are the same empty eyes reflecting out from Columbina’s white face, a “mirrored emptiness” and both images reflect the wreckage of one epoch and the beginning of another. It is no accident that one of the central metaphors of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which draws heavily from The Tempest was also used to illustrate the division between one epoch and another.

The musicality of the play is like the masks of the commedia dell’arte which also convey additional information visually,independently of the text. In the commedia certain information could still be derived from the costumes and clothing of the actors. Audiences knew what members of the various social classes typically wore, and also expected certain colours to represent certain emotional states. Regardless of where they toured, commedia dell’arte conventions were recognized and adhered to.

The Fairground carnival atmosphere of Blok’s play recalls the Petrushka perfomances. Like many branches of popular theatre Petrushka made simultaneous use of of resources which modern western high theatre more often than not kept separated. Petruska could be a drama pageant and musical all in one take. According to Catriona Kelly in her book “Petrushka”, usually the Petrushka was preceded by music on a barrel organ and cymbal’s were used to mark the hero’s entrance and other dramatic moments. More importantly from the point of view of our discussion, during the play the hero would talk against the barrel organ music and this meant that although the text was spoken it observed and coincided with music patterns and rhythm, as Kelly observes it could sound like dub poetry or rap. This would not have been and could not have been lost on Blok who as a poet would have been acutely aware of the rhythmic possibilities of the spoken word and images.

Later Pierrot speaks, his voice is like the first peal of a bell. When he recounts how he and Harlequin mock Columbine when she falls as a cardboard doll into the snow filled ground, the snow falls like silver droplets. One can almost hear the soft muted ringing of the swirling snow like a mass of atomised liquid, metamorphosed into particles of sound, crystal atoms of swirling sound. There is the sound of Harlequin laughing, accompanied by the tinkling of (sleigh) bells and witnessing all of this Pierrot laughs with delight. Incidentally we have already spoken how Poe was an influence on Blok and Meyerhold and the Fairground Booth and once again the scene recalls the bells of the victim of Poe’s hero from “The Case of Amontillado” which adds a macabre brushstroke to the scene – but of a tragic comic tone.

The whole of this scene has a silver musicality and rhythm – The speech itself reads and sounds like musical accompaniment to itself, to the text and words themselves. This occurs in Shakespeare in the sense of the musicality of speech almost independent of the meaning of the words, creating a new meaning a double meaning and kind of accompaniment, not as background however, creating new layers of meaning and understanding, a separate philological context without words but which speak of things and emotions difficult to express in words alone. In this is the real greatness of theatre to conjure images and emotion from out of nowhere and from nothing so to speak and yet establish a presence which gives such images a reality and being, with gestures and the theatrical poetic of sound and gesture. It is this capacity which Blok and Meyerhold revealed the theatrical possibilities of theatre itself by returning to a theatre of the past and in so doing unmasking its potential and depth.

And so we return to The Tempest

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
(Caliban, Act III scene ii)

Shakespeare’s text, especially in the Tempest which is the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, is like the “sound and rhythm  which hums about our ears – and sometimes voices” – The text does not convey the content of the world as we see it and it conveys something more than is contained in the words and structure of the sentences and this is common to The Fairground Booth and The Tempest. This idea was a new departure for theatre at the time and it gave Meyerhold the opportunity to explore new approaches and possibilities in theatre. That is that meaning could come from something other than the text or words written on paper. something similar had already happened with Chekhov where the pauses and the gaps in the text where as important as the text itself leaving space for actors pauses gestures and looks.

Saint-Saens writes: Music begins where the words ends; it expresses the unutterable……The point is that at certain moments music becomes speech it expresses anything;the text becomes secondary and almost unnecessary.

In relation to theatre this is tantamount to heresy and certainly was so at the time but the sense of musicality in theatre created rhythm and rhythm created movement and movement implies freedom. More importantly this freedom allows a freedom to interrupt and this involves the audience, inviting them to participate directly with what is going on in the performance. They are not spoon fed a text or a message, they have to participate in order to understand what is going on and this involves a level of self understanding of ourselves and the world of being, something which every theatrical practitioner from Stanislavsky, to Artuad to Grotowski and Brook point to as the essence of theatre and its task. A straight forward narrative text is not enough in this context. This brings us back to the unfinished or open-ended quality of The Fairground Booth. Blok would have been aware of Vruble’s work as a painter. Many of his pieces seem incomplete or unfinished and this was a quality that artists applied to their work at the time. Vruble would leave part of the canvas empty or untouched or open. He maintained he did not want to make a direct copy of reality or nature but rather he wanted to establish his relationship or emotional responses to the phenomena. Something similar could be said to be happening to theatre at the time and in particular with Blok’s and Meyerhold’s intentions of allowing the audiences self understanding to take its course. The point is that in both cases, with Vruble and The Fairground Booth, it is the inner world which is referenced as much as the outer reality.  The ability for free interpretation by both the audience (viewer in Vrubles case) and the artist is emphasised.

The danger is that such a tend can be abused and be dissolved into an abstract hazy experience which can mean anything. However with Blok and Meyerhold and moreover Shakespeare this was not the case.

Another image is born from  sound perhaps indistinct and seemingly formless but it creates an emotion transparent in form a delicate organism and creates a sort of distance sometimes close some times far away, an echo if you like reflected and refracted through time and space.

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This entry was posted in Alexander Blok, art, metamorphosis, Michael Craig, Russian literature, Russian Theatre, Russian Theatre film series, The Fairground Booth, Theatre and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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