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Nathan Thomas
My Time With The Russians

Where does the culture begin and where does the artist end?  Or, where does the artist begin absent any input from the culture in which the artist lives?

It’s a curious question to ask – a particularly odd question to ask of theatre artists.  Why? We tend to be more of our time. Certainly theatre includes a wide variety of avant-garde artists.  In my experience the avant-garde generally attempts to bring the art up to date.  The forward-looking artist in theatre looks to bring theatre up-to-date to an audience today.  Auntie Manya and Uncle Vanya are yesterday’s news.

A recent discussion with some colleagues leads me to question why this seems to be ignored in books about Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, and Vakhtangov.  

I don’t deny the unquestionable accomplishments of these figures.  But it often appears that they didn’t live in a time or a place.  To be sure, writers note that Meyerhold was abducted and shot by the government.  But, even there, I’ve actually heard some folks suggest that Stalin cared so much about theatrical “realism” that Meyerhold was a martyr for stylization.

So. . . . this month a little history to put our Russian masters in perspective.  A mix of explanation, myth-busting, and maybe a little critique along the way.

1.  Konstantine Sergeeivich Alexxiev was born in 1863.  Vladimir Illich Ulianov was born in 1870.  Karl-Theodor Kasimir Meirkhold was born in 1874.  Who they?  You may recognize them more as Stanislavsky, Lenin, and Vsevolod Meyerhold.   

Along with Trotsky, Stalin, and many more folks in the period; these men changed their names.  The reasons for the name changes varied, depending on the man.  Alexiev changed his name because of the social stigma attached to being an actor.  Ulianov changed his name for political purposes.  Meyerhold lightly shifted his final (family) name and largely shifted his first name so that he could become completely Russian and marry Olga Munt.

Nevertheless, the shift in identity that comes with a name change was a part of each man.   

2.  Alexiev was part of the super-wealthy manufacturing class of his time.  Before Stanislavsky was Stanislavsky and just a little kid, his family would go on trips.  Evidently Papa Alexiev hired at least two especially outfitted railroad cars for the trip – one of which was mostly for the hired help.  Had he known T. Boone Pickens or Warren Buffet, would Alexiev have thought himself in their class?  Probably.

3.  In 1891 and 1892 a terrible famine overtook most of Russia.  Thousands died.  For a period of time the government allowed the export of grain.  That is, the government allowed its own citizenry to die of hunger before stopping the export of food to other countries.  Hard upon the famine was a cholera epidemic. In Moscow the epidemic killed as many as 50 folks a day. In a city of less than a million, 50 folks died each day of cholera.

Did the famine and epidemic have any effect on the Alexiev family? On Stanislavsky in particular?  We don’t know.  Stanislavsky doesn’t mention it in My Life in Art and Benedetti bypasses this event in his biography. The man was in his late 20s.  He himself was never the healthiest of folks.  

It seems beyond belief that this event would have no effect on him as a person and no effect on him as an artist.

4.  Meyerhold was part of a middle-class family from a sleepy border town.  He went to university, first to study law.  Then his future sister-in-law was in an acting class with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.  Meyerhold joined that group. When Meyerhold was a teen-ager, Russian universities were already becoming a hotbed of liberal-to-radical thought.  (Lenin’s older brother was involved in a university group that wanted to assassinate the tsar and was executed in 1887 when Meyerhold was 13.)  In 1901 in Petersburg while on tour with the M.A.T., Meyerhold was arrested for participating in a university student protest.

Should we be surprised, then, at Meyerhold’s political radicalism, compared to other members of the Moscow Art Theatre generally, and Stanislavsky in particular?

5.  The famous lunch between Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko took place in 1897. Stanislavsky was 34.  Meyerhold was asked to join the company along with Ivan Moskvin and Olga Knipper – student colleagues who’d studied with Nemirovich-Danchenko.  Meyerhold was 23.  Meyerhold left the M.A.T. in 1902 at the age of 28.  For years afterward, Meyerhold claimed Stanislavsky as his “teacher” and not Nemirovich-Danchenko who had been his teacher.

6.  In 1905 Russia fought a disastrous war with Japan.  This war produced multiple consequences in multiple spheres.  For example, after a rather lengthy period of colonization, a non-Caucasian army showed it could best a “European” army.

The war also led to the near collapse of the Russian government and the “revolution“ of 1905.   

Even though we know Stanislavsky primarily as a theatrical innovator, he was also an able businessman.  He invested in manufacturing equipment for the family plant. Ultimately he ran the business.   

As a patriot and a business man, the near collapse of government surely had some influence on Stanislavsky.  In February of 1905 the government sponsored government-created-union elections in factories in St Petersburg.  (I can’t say for certain about similar elections in Moscow factories.  So I can’t say for certain that something similar happened in the Alexiev factories.)  In June Stanislavsky wrote that, “I am far too concerned about what is happening in Russia” in a letter.   In October the M.A.T. participated in a general strike.  Yet, all we know about is his work on a handful of plays.  Did the crisis lead Stanislavsky to want to branch out?  It was in 1905 that he started his first Studio.  With the help of Meyerhold.

7.  In the war years and early revolutionary period Meyerhold worked at the Imperial theatre during the day and experimented with commedia at night.  The Symbolists – like Alexandr Blok – had a good strong dose of commedia in their work.  Even early in the Revolutionary period, Meyerhold notably mounted Mystery-Bouffe by Mayakovsky – a buffoonery as the title suggests.

Vakhtangov started the war years in M.A.T. Studio productions like Cricket on the Hearth.  But he moved in the Revolutionary years to working on Chekhov vaudevilles and the production of Turandot by Gozzi.

Many writers seem to observe this as a purely artistic movement.  The audiences had nothing to do with it?  I believe it’s almost axiomatic to say that really good times inspire the theatre to tragedy.  Really awful circumstances inspire the theatre to comedy, entertainment and lightness.  (It’s not surprising that the Depression and WW II were marked by light musicals and comedies, and the optimistic post-war period brought the master dramas of Williams and Miller.)

8.  Meyerhold was a good mover.  That is, he possessed a strong kinesthetic sense as a performer.  Stanislavsky had gotten very tall very young and was always clumsy.   

Should we be surprised that Meyerhold felt more comfortable in teaching movement?

9.  Acting teachers work with the students they have.  That is, if a student has a positive facility in some area, an acting teacher doesn’t have to spend vast amounts of time stressing that area. Instead, the acting teacher works to hone the skills in that area while helping the student in other areas in which they’re weaker.  For example, a teacher with a student blessed with a brilliant voice (but who also moves poorly) doesn’t have to spend weeks and weeks of daily exercises to strengthen the voice.  Exercises are used to hone the voice as more time is spent on helping enhance movement. And so on.

The first actors of the M.A.T. included Meyerhold, Olga Knipper, and Moskvin – as mentioned above.  Early “2nd Generation” actors included Vakhtangov, Boleslavsky, Ouspenskaya, and Alice Koonen.  These folks were born in the 1870s and 1880s.

When Stanislavsky worked in the 1930s on his last projects, he worked with actors born just around the turn of the century.  A person born in Russia, say, in 1910 would be in his/her mid-20s in 1930s when Stanislavsky worked on productions of Dead Souls through to the unfinished Tartuffe.

A Russian born in 1910 would have been 4 when Russia entered WW I.  She/he would have lived their childhood through war and Revolution. That child would have also known the hunger of famine as a pre-teen in 1921-1922.

There simply had to be some generational differences between the folks who were born in the 1870s and 1880s and those who were new century babies.

So why are we shocked that Stanislavsky probably had a different set of emphases with young folks in 1932 than he had in 1898?  Yes, he had grown and learned things.  But his students had also changed.

10.  In the early 1920s Meyerhold mounted a production of Earth Rampant.  The premiere marked the 5th anniversary of the Red Army.  Meyerhold dedicated the production to Leon Trotsky, the First Soldier of the Army.  Trotsky helped Meyerhold procure equipment for the production.

As Stalin worked to concentrate power throughout the 1930s, a prime target included Trotsky-ites.  In Stalin’s view this probably included almost anyone who’d ever met Trotsky.

So, according to Edward Braun, when Meyerhold was arrested and tortured at length, most of the “confessions” centered on Meyerhold’s ties to Trotsky and “criminal” “right-wing” Trotskyists.[*]   

It should be evident that Meyerhold was executed because of his ties to Trotsky.  Indeed, evidently at a dinner party after WW II, Stalin admitted to a friend that – probably – Meyerhold didn’t have to die when he did.

So, there you are.   

The world of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, and Vakhtangov would challenge any person.  In their lives they saw enormous change, enormous tragedy, personal and family illness, social and political cataclysm.  And yet they found a way to make great theatre.

To me the achievements (and the failures) seem much larger knowing the context in which they occurred.  Art doesn’t take place in a vacuum.  Theatre certainly doesn’t.

Here endeth the lesson.

[*] Braun, Edward.  Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre.  Iowa City: U Iowa Press, 1995.  pp 300-301.


©2008 Nathan Thomas
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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