Writings - Fragments - Articles - Films

Tag: Meyerhold

The Russian Fairground and its association with Russian art and theatre

At the root of early 20th century Russian theatre is the carnival. Its raucous, undisciplined irreverent voice can be heard down through the ages from Pushkin, to Gogol and Dostoevsky, but its principle appearance in early Russian 20th century theatre was in ‘The Fairground Booth’ or Balaganchik written by Alexander Blok and directed by Meyerhold in 1906. An alternative title is also ‘The Puppet Show’. Balaganchik is taken from the word Balagan which is derived from a Persian word meaning balcony.

But what was the Russian Fairground, how did it become the mainstay of what amounted to a revolution in the Russian Theatre.

Konstantin Makovsky – Open-Air Festival During Shrovetide on Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg

In the 18th and 19th centuries, fairground performances were a common form of popular entertainment which also had their roots in the medieval Russian entertainers Skomorokhi who travelled around the country performing folk dramas and satirical pieces. Their performances were a commentary on the lower classes of Russia (See Tarkovsky – ‘Andrei Rublev’ and the punishment of Skomorokhi).Their message had a political charge. They were banned in 1648 by the then Tsar who feared that they were making Russian peasants more socially and politically aware. The fairgrounds showcased entertainers such as acrobats, clowns, puppet showman, tumblers and performing animals. One of the favourite characters was Petrushka; ugly and provocative, and acting the fool and cruelly ridiculing all around him. He personifies the ambiguous atmosphere and underlying menace of the fairground. He was always on the verge of breaking taboos, ridiculing figures of authority and meting out murder, mayhem and violence to those around him especially his wife. This ambivalence between form and content has always been a characteristic of Russian popular culture where laughter and tragic, serious and funny inhabit the same hemisphere so to speak.

The characters of this Commedia dell’Arte also became popular at the fairgrounds and it is believed that either Petrushka was the forerunner of Pierrotor maybe the other way around. However, it has to be said that Petrushka is of a different nature than Pierrot in many ways, although there is probably a lot of cross-pollination.

After the Napoleonic wars, Russian aristocrats divested themselves of French entertainment. At the same time, the fairground was frequented by aristocrats to demonstrate a national consensus and ‘narodnost’. Nicholas 1st made many visits to the fairgrounds.

Konstantine Somov – Harlequin and Columbina

However, this began to change and the rich began to move away from such entertainments. In this context, the Russian craze for serf theatres also declined. Abandoned by their owners, the serf actors gravitated to the fairgrounds in cities and towns. By the 1850s the European Harlequinades were complete with shows or pantomimes of a Russian hue, celebrations of famous battles or historical events. This brought a new public and the harlequinades began to cater for the demands of this new public. The audience became more plebeian after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and industrialisation brought more and more people in larger numbers to the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. At this time, entertainment changed with new industrial technology and mechanical attractions, roller coasters and large-scale pantomimes with large mass casts.

Detail from painting Boris Kustodiev Fairground Booths

We can imagine the scene of large crowds thronging and jostling with each other to see the latest spectacle or freak show and ride on a new-fangled attraction. In the background, the loud hum of the bustling crowd and the shouts and cries of hawkers and spectators, the aristocratic and the squalid rubbing shoulders in the same space. The many balagans or booths and entertainments created a kaleidoscopic cacophony of confused sound, blending into an almost Stockhausen type of symphony which could make a child’s head spin with delight and fear. Devil’s and clowns together would shout down from the balagan, competing with each other to entice the crowds into their theatre.

A description from the time gives a flavour of the atmosphere on the Field of Mars in St. Petersburg.

The Field of Mars roars and hums, hums and groans, bathed in a sea of lights all the colours of the rainbow and flowers……And the sounds? This is not sounds, it is a chaos of sounds. It is a gigantic, miraculous formless chaos. A barrel organ squeaks, a trumpet roars, bells clang, a flute sings, a drum hums, conversations, exclamations, shouts, laughter, cursing, song. There is a holiday carousel decorated with flags, lit up, decked out, illuminated. And here is a barker with his linen beard, the classic barker, that eternal jester, but a jester who holds the whole crowd in his hands, a jester who has power over them and, with a single word, forces the crowd to laugh, to laugh until they cry.

Here we have the cacophony of a new urban industrial environment with all its new social elements colliding in this brash, chaotic gathering.

Interestingly, commentators have noted that this description could be taken straight out of Gogol’s description of Nevsky Prospect in his story of the same name.

Alexander Benois Set design for opening of the ballet Petrushka 1911

The balagan theatre on the surface seemed crude and primitive with noisy interjections from the crowd who were completely involved in the performance. The balagans were pure theatre with little reference to any literary refinement. Both funny and frightening, they were grotesque and were not true to life as conventionally understood. The dramatic conventions of the fairground were staged in line with a popular view of the world, which seemed strange to the educated liberal intelligentsia. The balaganfairground was a space where different types of people could exist side by side, in some sense it united people often with contradictory characteristics and backgrounds. Those who worked the fairground were not easily classified and seemed outside the normal run of social strata in a kind of class unto themselves, (much like the kabukiin Japan).

Reproduction of the set design for Blok’s “Balaganchik” by Nikolai Sapunov 1906

The life of these entertainers was hard and uncertain and in many cases it was a matter of simple survival. They were drawn from the bottom end of profession. The simplest acts were those which could be performed impromptu by acrobats, dancing bears, clowns, street musicians. The smaller shows were the most daring, and bore the spirit of carnival. It is to this pressed and squeezed aggressive type of show that Peterushkacame from. The ballet Petrushkathe Puppet morphed from the Italian Punchinellabut the Russian version can be traced possibly back as far as the 16th century with glove puppets and marionettes at Yarmarki(street fairs or markets). Vulgar with its mangled caricatured deformed figure, grotesque and sinister, violent with a squeaky voice unnatural voice.

The Petrushka show could transcend time and space. At various parts of the fairground and in various cities, Petrushka would be everywhere at once, and existed outside of time and space and yet could change and transform with the passage of time – he was both eternal and temporal simultaneously

The carnival atmosphere of the balagans provided material for artists and writers as diverse as Gogol, Dostoevsky, Benois, Dobuzhinsky and Somov. The carnival coincides with what is known as The Silver Age in Russian art with its all subversive overtones. The Silver Age liked farcical form because of the improvisational possibilities it provided. In his article on theatre, Blok argued for a theatre of action and passion which could be found in popular theatre. He saw in this a theatre of the future.

The theatricality of farce and the marionette quality of the balagan destroys the illusion of closed theatrical space underlined by Harlequin’s leap into a painted square of a window – into the void. In many ways the reality of the world of the fairground booth becomes more real than the that of the author, certainly fuller – by contrasting the theatrical illusion of farce with the reality of the author which in some way is no less an illusion. Here we are confronted with what constitutes reality and illusion where everyone’s perceptions of reality are confused but somehow valid, including that of the authors.

Bakhtin reminds us that carnival retains a wealth of assets invaluable to art with its ambivalence and capacity for transformation. In his book on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin outlines the main advantages of carnival as an aesthetic category.

Katcheli 1803 John Augustus Atkinson

Bakhtin states that carnival is not essentially a literary or artistic phenomenon as such but is a syncretic pageantry, which can be defined roughly as the attempted reconciliation or union of different and opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion in the context of an elaborate public spectacle illustrative of the history of a place, institution, or similar. It is often given in dramatic form or as a costumed procession, masque, allegorical tableau, forming part of public or social festivities of a ritualistic nature. It is complex and varied in form with different expressions dependent on the epoch or time in history. It has an entire language of symbolism, and this entails sensuous forms from large complex mass actions to individual gestures, and as a language has given expression to a unified carnival sense of the world throughout all its forms and appearances.

Alexander Blok

Importantly from the point of view of the play by Alexander Blok: ‘The Fairground Booth’, Bakhtin notes that this language cannot be translated in any full or adequate way into a verbal language. In other words, it’s not a text and cannot be rendered as a text in words and phrases or sentences. However, it can be transposed or rendered into a language of artistic images that has something in common with its concrete and sensuous nature both in literature and the theatre especially. Bakhtin does not describe it wholly in these terms as he is essentially concerned with literature. It is Meyerhold and Blok who harness the language of carnival for theatre, where carnival is a pageant without footlights and without division into performers and spectators. In carnival, everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. It is neither contemplated or in a strict sense performed. The participants of carnival live in it and live by its laws; they live a carnivalistic life with its own mores and reality. In this sense carnival life, because it is drawn away from the normal everyday life, is life turned inside out, the reverse side of the world.

Vsevolod Meyerhold

 

 

For Meyerhold, carnival portended a theatre which was not dominated by the word and text but by movement and gesture and a breakdown of the naturalistic view of performance. It enabled the possibility of breaking out of theatrical conventions of the time, and the creation of new dramatic forms based on the very essence of theatre. The most popular and well-known version of such a spectacle in Russian culture is the ballet ‘Petrushka’. Here the elements of dance, theatre, balagan, Russian music and folklore and many of the concerns of modernism like the role of puppets and humans in art, come together in Stravinsky, Benois and Fokine’s ballet which was championed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.

This article was originally published in

Russia Knowledge

Biomechanics

Biomechanics was an acting technique developed by Vsevolod Meyerhold in answer to the problems of a changing theatre in the early 20th century. It coincided with a search for a more authentic acting experience. Russian theatre between the 1870s and early 1900s consisted of a series of classic plays which relied heavily, one could say exclusively, on the text and literature for their content. Productions were staged in the form a strictly realistic and naturalistic character. Meyerhold and others began to understand that theatre was an independent art form in itself with its own aesthetic and quality and should not be a slave to the written word and subjected to the tyranny of the text and the author of that text. Theatre for Meyerhold was a unique art form which should be “theatrical” and used all the possibilities of theatre, such as gesture and movement, as legitimate means of expression equal to that of the text. In other words, Meyerhold wanted to breakdown the usual hierarchies of theatre with the text, and the actors’ declamation of the text at its apex. Meyerhold’s contention was that the audience always understood that what they were seeing on stage was an illusion and not real life. He wanted to develop a new kind of theatre which would reflect the conditions of life which were literally appearing on the streets of Russia’s cities at the beginning of the twentieth century; speed, movement and mass culture.

Related to this was the problem of theatrical space itself. Meyerhold became interested in how the three-dimensional character of the actor could relate to and harmonise with the two-dimensionality of the set design. At that time set design often consisted of a series of painted backdrops in front of which the actor moved around, speaking text in a largely static set piece environment. Meyerhold began to experiment with the stage space and proscenium, stage design and the actors’ relationship to that space and to each other. He eventually concluded that theatre needed a new kind of actor and theatre based on movement and dynamism as the paramount factor in each production rather than the text.

To this effect Meyerhold mined history and other theatrical forms to further his aims. He became particularly interested in Eastern theatre, especially the Chinese Opera and Japanese Kabuki Theatre. Both these theatres relied on movement and gesture as part of their expressive character. Kabuki is based on dance, mime and movement consisting of a presentation of the action as a series of poses. Kabuki theatre was heavily influenced by the Japanese puppet theatre Bunraku. In Kabuki, the actors move from pose to pose with gesture creating meaning and substance. Meyerhold was not interested in the exotic content of Kabuki but wanted to use the technology of Kabuki theatre to create a new theatre for Russian and Soviet audiences and biomechanics was the product of that development. 

One way of understanding biomechanics as an acting technique is by comparing it to Stanislavsky’s experiments in theatre. Stanislavsky was primarily concerned with how to make  the actors experience on stage truthful and realistic given that the actor is playing a role which is not themselves. His solution was for the actor to concentrate on their inner world of emotions and psychology, drawing on their own inner experiences both past and present to bear on the role by externalising them within the context of a role or character. The idea being: how would this person/role react in a given situation based on the biography and psychological makeup of that character? This allowed the actor the potential to portray a character which was truthful and realistically convincing to the audience. What was known as the ‘fourth wall’ was established to separate the world of the audience and the world of the actors on stage as if they were two wholly different spaces separated by an imaginary boundary across the proscenium arch.

The main difference, crudely speaking, between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold was that Meyerhold worked from the external to the internal rather than the other way around although both were concerned with the authenticity of the actors’ experience on stage. Both were interested in the physical elements of actors potential.

Meyerhold on the other hand was dissatisfied by this approach; believing it did not solve those theatrical problems posed by a new century. Meyerhold instead started from external elements, that is the actor’s body, so that they would feel comfortable using dynamic movement and gesture and use their bodies as an expressive instrument for exploring new theatrical forms, reaching out across the proscenium arch as a new approach in how the stage space could be used. To this end he designed a series of physical exercises which would help create new theatrical forms around the director’s vision, not mechanically or slavishly but radically transforming the theatrical space into a territory for dynamic movement and more importantly rhythm – rhythm was all for Meyerhold. Rhythm in the theatre created form. The main difference crudely speaking, between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold was that Meyerhold worked from the external to the internal rather than the other way around although both were concerned with the authenticity of the actors’ experience on stage. Meyerhold was a former pupil of Stanislavsky and their positions were less distant than at first would seem. Both understood the importance of movement in theatre.

There are certain philosophical and aesthetic aspects which are worth mentioning in relation to biomechanics.  In her book The Director’s Prism the author Dassia Posner explains that Meyerhold paid attention to the fictional world of theatre and the constant co-presence of the real, (the actors and spectators  bodies and experience in time) and the fictional world (the world being presented). Actors are always themselves and their character. The actor is unable to forget themselves and solely be the character they are playing. Anybody who claims they are Napoleon we consider mad. It is the same for actors; to forget who they are would be impossible and maybe even dangerous. They need their experience of their own individual self to inform a role, yet they must inhabit a character which is not themselves.  This state of perpetual duality is a constant given in theatre, an oscillation between two worlds and, if fully acknowledged, could be harnessed to creative purpose rather than being a problem. The collision of perceptual planes was at the heart of Meyerhold’s experiments. In his early productions, Meyerhold began to reach out across the fourth wall to the audience (using asides and direct appeals to the audience with jokes or commentary) in an explicit recognition of this duality, emphasising it by drawing attention to it. One of the ideas behind this approach was the linking of art with life, an important aspect of the new theatre.

 

A mass theatre for a mass audience began to take shape.

 

This process coincided with the materialisation and embodiment of the cultural space and ideas. Dance and movement gave form and content to ideas, demetaphorising them. Contemporaneously, the development of mass technology and movements of mass labour changed the character of culture. In turn this very sense of a mass culture challenged the idea of what an individual could be in such an environment, calling into question the very sense of an autonomous, independent individual as the driving force of culture, an assumption upon which Stanislavsky founded his theatrical ideas. There was a tendency towards breaking down the straightforward representation of art and its associated quality of mimesis, a key feature of naturalistic theatre. Meyerhold was one of the first to harness these changes to form a new type of theatre. A mass theatre for a mass audience began to take shape.

The first outing for Biomechanics was Meyerhold’s production of The Magnanimous Cuckold written by the Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynk where it was revealed to the public for the first time. Biomechanics became linked with the futurist and constructivist projects of LEF (Left Front of the Arts) and many of the avantgarde projects of LEF provided the ideas and inspiration for the set design. The artist Lyubov Popova designed the set, a gigantic three-dimensional machine-like construct of various integrated planes with moving parts and ramps leading up to and around the structure, which was set on a bare stage. Konstantin Rudnitsky in his book, Russian and Soviet Theatre, explains what the word biomechanics meant to some, when it first appeared. For several commentators it stood for the mechanico-technological reconstruction of everyday life. The human body was re-conceived as a machine. Humans had to learn how to control that machine. It was theatre’s function to demonstrate the fine tuning of human mechanisms and the stage actor must become an automaton, a mechanism, a machine. The actor must master the culture of industrialised gesture, a geometric order.

‘The art of the actor is the art of sculptural forms in space’

Meyerhold may not have entirely agreed with some of his contemporaries’ ideas, but in relation to biomechanics he put it like this: ‘The art of the actor is the art of sculptural forms in space’. In other words, the art of the actor is utilising their body as an expressive instrument from without and with movement. Any movement, the tilt of the head, the turn of the body, the smallest of gestures, even the fluttering of eyelashes should ideally involve the whole body of the performer who possesses musical rhythm and quick reflexive excitability. He compared the actor’s body to a musical instrument. Meyerhold continues: Biomechanics allows the actors to perfectly control his or her body and movements, firstly to be expressive in dialogues; secondly to be master of the theatrical space; and thirdly, in integrating with the crowd scene and the grouping, to impart to it energy and will. Every movement must not simply be realistic, or lifelike (many bodily movements in real life are simply accidental or fortuitous) but deliberate, reduced to essentials and more especially important – responsive to the movement of the partner.

These ideas had come about in a discussion about the role of actors and puppets in theatre and in particular Gordon Craig’s notion of the ‘‘über-marionette’as a replacement for the traditional actor. There is not consensus about the precise meaning of the term ‘über-marionette’.Is it a life-size marionette? A masked dancer? Or simply a metaphor for an actor who exerts perfect control over his body and emotions? Craig’s work on this subject would appear prophetic but it was Meyerhold who had a methodological intention working towards a specific system of exercises which would transform the actor into a controllable object on the stage.

The Magnanimous Cuckoldwas a far sighted and maybe even prophetic departure from the old theatrical aesthetics. As Rudnitsky describes it: When the actors first stepped onto Popova’s machine they found themselves in a completely unfamiliar environment, cut off from all help. They stood on the bare, inclined planes and ladders, with no decor, costumes or makeup to fall back on. The rest of the stage was empty. Every movement, whether it was intended or not, took on a sculptural form and meaning. Therefore, they had to strive for the most subtle expressiveness of outline and gesture, moving with the ease of dancers and dexterity of acrobats. The performance took on a circus-like athletic character. The gracefulness of the sculptural images enhanced the ease of each line’s delivery with a sonority and clarity of intonation.

In my film Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde, we created several experiments to see how the biomechanics exercises may have looked. We worked with two actors and projected the images of the movements onto a white background so that they resembled marionettes almost like those of Eastern shadow puppets to give the effect of sculptural forms in space or the sense of an uber-marionette. The film helps to explain visually some of the ideas behind Meyerhold’s experiments and their graphic quality as well as some of the broader principles of Meyerhold’s work in theatre. 

The Magnanimous Cuckold heralded a complete break with the theatrical past

The Magnanimous Cuckold heralded a complete break with the theatrical past, a process which began with Meyerhold’s collaboration on The Fairground Boothwith Alexander Blok. Biomechanics was part of the process of introducing new forms of theatrical presentation based on dynamic movement and a move away from the previous older theatrical hierarchies, which were the text and the actors’ rendition of the text were paramount.

 

This article was originally published in Russia Knowledge  http://www.russiaknowledge.com

The Moscow Garage and Meyerhold Film -Reprise

Excellent news about the film “Meyerhold Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde”. The film has been selected as part of the “100 years of performance” in Moscow along with films byYoko Onoand other film makers, which is being held at the Garage in Moscow. The exhibition is a 100 year history of theatre using film and video installations.The Garage is a new venue for modern art in Moscow. It is a converted bus garage which was designed by the grat Russian avant-garde architect and artist Konstantin MelnikovContinue reading

© 2022 Michael Craig

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑