"Theatre should not mirror reality but should transcend the common place of everyday life by deliberately exaggerating and distorting reality through stylized theatrical techniques."
Meyerhold was born in 1874 and became one of Stanislavski's most original and brilliant pupils, and a founder member, with Olga Knipper, of the Moscow Art Theatre. However, from playing leading roles he gradually grew disenchanted with the rather conservative repertoire and left the company. He undertook several experimental theatre seasons in provincial capitals, which persuaded Stanislavski to make him the director of the Theatre Studio in 1905.
Here he embarked on a series productions heavily influenced by Maeterlinck and Symbolism, but despite the best intentions they were a failure. In My Life in Art Stanislavski commented: "For the new art new actors were necessary, actors of a new sort with altogether new technique". These dark, rather gloomy plays, which expressed the poets' inner life, were much concerned with dreams; they were in direct contradiction to the realism practiced by the Art Theatre.
Another significant venture was Meyerhold's work under the management of actress Vera Komisarjevskaya in St. Petersburg in 1906. His production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, again challenging realism, was the first in a number of vivid and daring experiments. Audiences and critics gave it a mixed reception however.
By 1908 he had been dismissed by his employer as the time was not yet ripe for these bold statements. It was not until his work in the constructivist style in the 1920s that he consolidated his reputation as one of the most innovative practitioners of the 20th century.
Stanislavski remained loyal to his friend all his life. As he lay dying he said, "Look after Meyerhold, he is my sole heir, not in our own theatre but in general".
But by then Meyerhold had fallen foul of authority. In 1938 he was accused of not being able to toe the "party line" and, with his benefactor safely dead, Stalin had him shot.
Theory and Practice
Jerzy Grotowski, as part of his Director training, was in Moscow in 1955 and it was there that he first became acquainted with the theatre of Meyerhold. It is important to bear in mind that Meyerhold by this time had become a forgotten figure, a victim of Stalin's purges, but in the late 1950s his reputation was slowly being rehabilitated. Indeed by the late 1960s, with the process complete, he was acknowledged as perhaps the greatest Soviet director of the 20th century. With this particular interest in the training of the actor Grotowski would have found Meyerhold's preoccupation with biomechanics both sympathetic and relevant.
Biomechanics was related to the system of of time-and-motion study, known as Taylorism, named after its inventor. He had advocated the study of efficient movement-patterns related to the workplace but Meyerhold adopted and adapted the system to suit his own purpose. Thus:
"Straight line motions involving sudden and sharp changes in direction... are preferred to smooth continuous, curved motions of the hands..."
As a minimum training to the actor:
Much of the work was based on the Constructivist values of man as worker (linked to Stalin's push for industrialisation). These values foregrounded:
But Meyerhold was interested in more than the mere "mechanics" of acting. These ideas were combined with the super-theatricality of Commedia dell'Arte and the external techniques of Japanese and Chinese theatre.
The parallels with Grotowski are evident. Though Grotowski worked towards an actor who relied less on the externals and more on the transcendent, Meyerhold, with his eclectic gathering of influences, would have appealed to a director when he was assembling his own international vocabulary.