MEYERHOLD'S contempt for realism in the theatre and for the intimate theatre which is, perhaps, the final development of realism, is nowhere more pointedly expressed than in his attack upon the production of "The Cricket on the Hearth" at the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre. The criticism appeared early in 1915 in his occasional periodical of the theatre, The Journal of Doctor Dapertutto, under the title, "'The Cricket of the Hearth' or At the Keyhole", and it leads off with these lines from Gogol's play, "The Wedding":
KOTCHKARYOFF: But what is she doing now? Why, this door must lead to her bedroom. (He goes near the door.)
FEKLA (a woman): You impudent fellow! You are told that she is still dressing.
KOTCHKARYOFF: What of it! What's the difference? I shall only peep in and nothing more. (He looks through the keyhole.)
ZHEVAKIN: Let me look in, too.
YAITCHNITSA: Let me look in, too, only one little peep.
KOTCHKARYOFF (continuing to peep in): Why, there is nothing to be seen, gentlemen! You can't distinguish anything. Something white is appearing, a woman or a pillow. (All come to the door, however, and scramble to peep in.)
"This fragment," writes Meyerhold, "contains all that I wish to say about the public which finally has found an ideal theatre for itself." And later, after a scathing indictment of the intimate theatre and its realism as a surrender to the morbid human curiosity concerning life, he writes: "We prefer the theatre with art but without a public to the theatre with a public but without art. For we know that after all had rushed to the door and tried to peep through the keyhole, Kotchkaryoff came with the news, 'Sh! Somebody's coming!' and every one jumped away from the door. To every shamelessness there is a limit."
The wealth of dramatic methods and motives which Meyerhold opposes to realism is limited only by the bounds of the most restless fancy. Rejected as a mere means of copying life, the simplist and most homely details take on new significance as they are molded in the theatre into a new world of the imagination. From a prospectus of his Studio, which aims mainly "to develop in the actors the mastery of movement in conformity with the platform where the play goes on", I take these phrases, which indicate roughly the new implications which ordinary acts and facts may be made to assume: "The meaning of the 'refusal'; the value of the gesture in itself; the self-admiration of the actor in the process of acting; the technique of using two stages, the stage and the forestage; the rôle of the outcry in the moment of strained acting; the elegant costume of the actor as a decorative ornament and not a utilitarian need; the headgear as a motive for the stage bow; little canes, lances, small rugs, lanterns, shawls, mantles, weapons, flowers, masks, noses, etc., as apparatus for the exercise of the hands; the appearance of objects on the platform and further destiny in the development of the subject dependent on these objects; large and small curtains (permanent and sliding, curtains in the sense of 'sails') as the simplist method of changes; screens and transparencies as a means of theatrical expressiveness; gauzes in the hands of the servants of the forestage as a means of underlining the separate accents in the playing of the leading actors,--in their movements and conversations; parade as necessary and independent part of the theatrical appearance; various forms of parade in conformity with the character of the general composition of the play; geometrization of the design into the mise en scène, created even ex improviso; the mutual relation of the word and gesture in existing theatres and in the theatre to which the Studio aspires."
Naturally, the process of reconstructing the theatre theatrical has been slow and evolutionary after the first revolutionary break with the standards of realism. Even the rediscovery of the principles which guided it in its elder incarnation has been achieved by trial and experiment, and the newer principles growing out of the richer mechanical endowment and the broadened and deepened psychological horizon of our time require even more patient testing. It would be interesting, if possible, to compare Meyerhold's original revival of "Don Juan" with its aspects today, in order to see wherein he has acquired a firmer grip on the details of a technique which is still in the making.
Meyerhold as an artist of the theatre has travelled far since as a young man he originated the rôle of Treplev in Chekhov's "The Sea Gull" at the Moscow Art Theatre in December 1898, and that of Baron Tuzenbach in "The Three Sisters" in February, 1901. After his break with Stanislavsky and realism, and a series of independent productions in Poltava and other cities in the south of Russia, he became régisseur for the Theatre of Vera Kommissarzhevskaya in Petrograd from the autumn of 1906 through the winter of 1907-1908, one of the most notable episodes of the modern Russian stage in spite of its brief life. For her he produced a wide range of plays, including Youshkyevitch's "In the City"; Pshibuishevsky's "The Endless Story"; Maeterlinck's "Sister Beatrice" and "Pelléas and Mélisande"; Alexander Blok's "The Little Booth"; Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "The Marriage of Zobeide"; Ibsen's "A Doll's House"; Andreieff's "The Life of Man"; Wedekind's "The Awakening of Spring"; and Sologub's "The Triumph of Death." In the autumn of 1908, he went to the imperial theatres of Petrograd, the Alexandrinsky and the Marinsky, where for a decade he has been the most influential and distinguished of their staff of régisseurs. His productions there have been many and varied, including Knud Hamsun's "At the Tsar's Door"; Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"; Molière's "Don Juan"; Musorgsky's "Boris Godunoff"; Byelyaieff's "The Red Tavern"; Tolstoy's "The Living Corpse"; Gluck's "Orpheus"; Sologub's "Hostages of Life"; "Maskarad" by Lyermontoff and Glazunoff; "Elektra" by von Hofmannsthal and Strauss; Gluck's "Queen of May"; "The Stone Guest" by Pushkin and Dargomuizhsky; Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Snyegurotchka" or "The Snow Maiden"; and Ostrovsky's "The Thunderstorm." In all these productions of his decade and a half as régisseur, Meyerhold has commanded the services of the leading artists of Russia for his scenic backgrounds. Many moods and many men, is the story of his collaboration. In recent seasons, he has worked almost solely with Golovin, but the list of those who preceded Golovin presents such names as Anisfeld, Bondy, Sudeykin, Kulbin, Shervashidze, Korovin, Sapunoff, Bilibin, Denisoff and Dobuzhinsky.
In the controversy between the players and A.V. Lunatcharsky, Bolshevik Kommissar of Education in charge of the state theatres, which rent the peace of those institutions in Petrograd through the winter of 1917-1918, Meyerhold held aloof. He was extremely reticent in conversation concerning his political convictions, and I am not at all sure where his sympathies lie. While some of the leading artists refused to work under the new régime, Meyerhold went energetically about his tasks as régisseur as if there had been no change in governmental authority. If he chafed under the awkwardness of some of the new regulations, he was too shrewd to confess it. With his sensitive nature and his keen imagination, he combines a practical understanding of human affairs, and he knows that as the world runs today the artist should be happy if he is simply permitted to go ahead with his work, even if meddlesome officials of Tsar or of Soviet interpose in the matter of mechanism.