MEYERHOLD and Yevreynoff,--these were the two names that lured me from the comparative safety of Moscow to the uncertainties of Petrograd during those anxious days of February, 1918, when the gray hordes of the Germans were swarming on unimpeded toward the capital. The stages of Moscow are the Russian theatre in microcosm,--with two exceptions. The Art Theatre with its unique tradition and its unrivalled record; the Small State Theatre with its roots firmly grounded in the classic past; the Great State Theatre with its remarkable equipment of youthful genius in the Ballet; the eager enthusiasm of artistic revolt under Tairoff and Balieff and Kommissarzhevsky in their widely divergent institutions,--these stages and the theories of the men who dominate them seem, after several months of intimate contact with them, to tell the whole story of the contemporary Russian theatre.
Still, there were two exceptions. No one in Moscow could deny it, no matter how partisan was his interest in his own city's playhouses. The exceptions were so exceptional that their fame had travelled before the war to far-off America alongside that of Stanislavsky and the Art Theatre and the Ballet. Meyerhold stood out in these rumors as the uncompromising foe of Stanislavsky and realism, the defender and the practitioner of the theatre theatrical. Yevreynoff emerged dimly in the guise of a proponent of a new way of conceiving the theatre, monodrama. From my first consultation with Tardoff and my first visit to Stanislavsky's dressing room, these two names were spoken with respect wherever Russian artists gathered. Under the spell of the Moscow theatres, I had lingered in the Kremlin city almost four months. But a visit to Petrograd was essential, Germans or no Germans!
Mid-February, about a week before I finally made my mind up to go to Petrograd, the Kamerny held a kind of all-night fair, attended by almost the entire futurist colony of Moscow and many of the artists and poets and players, such as David Burliuk, "the father of Russian futurism"; Aristid Lyentuloff, who paints Kremlin cathedrals standing on their ears; and Vera Holodnaya, the brunette Mary Pickford of the Russian movies. Vassily Kamyensky was there, a handsome fellow in curly golden hair and a Roman stripe coat who has written a novel or two and several volumes of futurist verse. He is Yevreynoff's biographer, too, and from him I found that Nikolai Nikolaievitch had exchanged the black bread and the alarums of life in Petrograd for the well-fed peace of Sukhum-Kale in the Black Sea. But Meyerhold remained at his post, and besides I might trace out the trail of Yevreynoff in his absence.
My first evening in Petrograd, less than five hours after my arrival, found me at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the state-endowed home of the drama in the capital corresponding to the Small State Theatre in Moscow but not so conservative in its traditions. "Revizor" or "The Inspector General", Gogol's imperishable satire, was the play, and although Meyerhold was absent, my note of introduction to him from Tairoff readily admitted me. Obviously, the theatre was having a harder struggle against the difficulties of life in the capital, for the audience was inferior in numbers and in self-possession to those of Moscow. Obviously, too, Meyerhold had nothing to do with this production of "Revizor", for it was a rather ordinary example of realistic staging dignified only by the superior humors of Uraloff, the bluff comedian who a decade and more ago had played the same rôle of the town-bailiff in Moscow as a member of the Art Theatre company. Meyerhold, it appeared, was one of several régisseurs at the Alexandrinsky, and to make sure of seeing his work I must seek him out in person.
Running down a busy individual in Petrograd, with every one disconcerted by the German menace and with the necessity of establishing myself in reasonable safety in a strange and turbulent city was a harder task than working out diplomatic relations with the Moscow theatres after the Bolshevik Revolution. At noon of the third day, I found my quarry busy with a rehearsal at the Marinsky, for he sometimes turns for variety's sake from drama to the opera. Could I come back that evening? -- he would have more time: this was the note hurriedly pencilled on his card. And so while the plaintive melodies of Puccini's "La Bohème" drifted into the inner rooms of the régisseur's loge, I sat and talked for the first time with Vsevolod Emilyevitch Meyerhold.
It is easy to see at a glance why the theatre theatrical is the artistic gospel of Meyerhold. There is nothing theatrical about the man himself,--unless it be the huge, soft white collar around his slender neck, a matter of careless comfort as much as anything. He is too intense and earnest in his belief in the theatrical to toy with it. His acceptance of realism as a dramatic method during his collaboration with Stanislavsky in the early years of the Moscow Art Theatre was not the act of a dilletante any more than the advocacy of the opposite today. His revolt against the sterility of the Russian theatre of the nineteenth century was just as sincere as his revolt against the first means by which he hoped to correct the fault. He simply found that a certain honest cynicism in his nature refused to countenance the attempt to create illusion by the faithful and accurate representation of life.
All through the ten days that remained of my association with him, the artistic abstemiousness of the man stood out emphatically among his characteristics. His friends are not so much among those who talk about art as among those who practice it. He has particular regard for Miklashevsky, the leading Russian authority on the Italian commedia dell' arte, and a profound respect for Yevreynoff, whose revolt against realism in the theatre has taken a different course than his own. And his constant companion in leisure as well as in work is the artist, Alexander Yakovlevitch Golovin, who has designed the scenery for almost all his productions in the state theatres in Petrograd during the last decade.
Once while the anxiety over the German advance was at its peak, I spent the evening at his home in a modern but modest apartment house out in the Sixth Rota in the southern part of the city. The front stairway was locked and barred and under guard for the night, and after satisfying the watchman I made my way upward through a rear entrance to the four or five rooms where he and Mme. Meyerhold, a practical consort, have their home. Fred Gray, a former correspondent of The London Daily Mail who had been decorated with the St. George's Cross for bravery at the front, was present with his Russian wife. And so was Golovin, one of the gentlest artist souls I have ever known. Spread out on a table in a small studio lined with book shelves were the artist's designs and the producer's plans for some future production of Stravinsky's first lyric drama, "Le Rossignol", which other European capitals had heard under Diagileff but which Petrograd had been denied by the conservatism of the Tsar's court. Around a simple board in the living room we sat informally over our tea and the bread with which Mme. Meyerhold honored my visit, and we talked of the hardness of life and the uncertainty of the times but most of all of the certainty of the theatre and the persistence of art through the most bitter ordeals. I must remain, they all agreed, at least until I could see the revival of Molière's "Don Juan", the production by which in November, 1910, Meyerhold introduced a new tradition in the state theatres.
A Dress rehearsal of "Don Juan" was scheduled for Saturday morning, March 2, preparatory to the public disclosure the following Tuesday evening. I decided to attend as a precaution against the possible necessity of flight before Tuesday. Until the actors came, Meyerhold and Golovin waited with me in the greenroom of the Alexandrinsky amid the relics and memorials of almost a century of the Russian stage, for the theatre was built from Rossi's designs in 1832 and named after the wife of Tsar Nicholas I. The more I saw of Golovin, the more I was charmed by his spirit, as beautiful and simple as the soul of a child. Meyerhold's spirit is equally fine, but he is more aggressive and he takes the lead in their collaboration. When the rehearsal finally began, he pushed it through with assurance and precision, often leaping up on the extended apron and playing a part himself as an example for the actor. In between the acts, we adjourned briefly to the refreshment room for a glass of tea and a shaving of black bread in lieu of a sandwich. When the rehearsal was over and we emerged in the Nevsky Prospekt, a score of shots rang out in the block opposite the small shops of the Gostinny Dvor where a long queue waited with mixed patience for permission to leave the city. It seemed like a far cry from Molière and the good will of the artists to the seething excitement of out-of-door Petrograd. I do not wonder which was the real Russia, the Russia which will live on into the generations ahead.