Meyerhold and Golovin

Natalya Makerova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2014 (44)


Among the many artists with whom Meyerhold had the chance to work, some were greatly appreciated by him, and others ignored after the completion of a joint project; still more were recruited only as executors of Meyerhold's directorial will. But his collaboration with Nikolai Sapunov and Alexander Golovin was of vital importance for Meyerhold. Only teaming up with these exceptional artists could Meyerhold "form such an alliance as if there was only one entity"1. In the foreword to his book "On Theatre" Meyerhold wrote: "two names are forever etched on my memory: Alexander Golovin and the late Nikolai Sapunov - the people with whom I had the great pleasure of walking together along the path of exploration in 'Puppet Show', 'Don Juan' and 'Columbine's Scarf'; these are the people who were allowed a glimpse behind the door leading to the wonderland in the same way I was."2

By the time Meyerhold and Golovin met, the strong directorial will subordinating all participants in a production to a single concept required from the artist an appropriate scenic form. Golovin, with his unerring sense of colour and outstanding talent for stylisation and ornamentation, needed "a theatrical idea", "a constructive application for his painterly element"3. Meyerhold set forth his views on the principles of creative collaboration between director and artist in his article "On the plans of the artist Golovin and the director Meyerhold concerning Gluck's 'Orpheus' (from a conversation with them)": "In any theatrical project where the creators aspire at a certain completeness of their production, the preparatory period is especially lengthy when the artist cares not only about beautiful spots on the stage and the director - not only about mise-en-scénes that freely change the figures' positions, but when both work to subordinate all parts to a single artistic idea... This is what makes this collaborative work of artist and director so difficult: they have to develop a common plan of the production, to identify a key idea for every episode, and to hammer every episode's trick into the chain of the artist's single vision." 4

On the stage of a state-run theatre they articulated a programme of theatrical traditionalism, which was put into effect using the idiom of non-realist theatre. Arguing with the aesthetics of the Moscow Arts Theatre, with the convention of the"fourth wall", Meyerhold affirmed the primacy of abstract theatre over naturalist theatre. "This is what I stand for: in the theatre of performance the spectator always lives (is active); in psychological theatre the spectator dies (is passive).5

"In abstract theatre the spectator 'does not forget for a moment that he sees an actor who plays, and an actor does not forget that in front of him is the auditorium, under his feet - the stage, and to his sides - the set. Just like with a painting: looking at it, you do not for a moment forget that this is paints, a canvas, a brush, but at the same time you experience the greatest and epiphanic sense of life. And it is even quite often the case that the bigger the painting, the stronger the sense of life is."6 Thus, the objective was to create a special relationship between the stage and the public. The audience had to be drawn into the action, immersed into the atmosphere of theatre of the past. To reach this goal, it was necessary to cardinally "democratise" the theatre space of a "class-bound" Imperial theatre, to "destroy" the wall between the stage and the auditorium, making them into a single space for acting, and "to render the stage into a pediment for the actor". Technically, Meyerhold and Golovin tackled these challenges using the proscenium and a system of curtains, and keeping the auditorium illuminated throughout a performance. "Like a circus ring engirdled by spectators all around, the proscenium is extended far into the auditorium so that the dust in the wings does not obscure a single gesture, a single movement, a single grimace of the actor"; "the auditorium should be kept illuminated during the intervals as well as when the show is on. Bright light infects the public in the theatre with a festive mood. Seeing the spectator smile, an actor begins to look at himself with admiration as if in front of a mirror," Meyerhold wrote7.

The proscenium arch - moulded, constructed especially for every production - was now an important conceptual element. The arches created by Golovin for the Meyerhold productions, while remaining unchanged throughout a single performance, were losing their purely technical function to separate the stage from the auditorium, becoming an architectural epigraph of sorts, a three-dimensional pictorial formula of the play, and served as a crossover to painterly sets. Changes in emotional make-up were conveyed by a system of drop curtains, in the style of the "old theatre", or a system of draw-curtains; the curtains also functioned as a chromatic overture to every scene. Explored by the theatre-makers in such productions as "Don Juan", "The Constant Prince", "Orpheus and Eurydice" and other works, these techniques were most fully deployed in "Masquerade".

Having paid tribute to symbolist plays in his early theatrical experiments at the Studio on Povarskaya and later at Vera Komissarzhevskaya's theatre, Meyerhold pioneered the ironic subversion of symbolism and its techniques which had already become fashionable and hackneyed - first in the"Puppet Show" (1906) and "Columbine's Scarf" (1910), and then in several experimental productions at the Studio on Borodinskaya. The motifs of the mask hiding a suffering face behind irony and the merry improvisatory prankishness of commedia dell'arte characters, the healthy art of vernacular theatre and puppet shows were transformed into tragic grotesque in "Masquerade". Searching for true theatricality and re-interpreting the legacy of classic theatre - from that of antiquity to traditional Japanese theatre, from old Spanish theatre to Moliere - Meyerhold in "Masquerade" began to develop a new theatrical idiom and to consummate his past explorations in the area of theatre of metaphoric realism, which avoids direct parallels with real life and does not reflect life as it is but conveys in its metaphors life's essence, its "soul". The spectator should regard "the sets on the stage - as a painting, the music of words - as a symphony, an entire performance - as a theatrical spectacle embodying the essence of the play in an appropriate and effective form governed by special norms, the norms of theatre."8

"Masquerade", which synthesised the long experience of creative collaboration, is often called a Meyerhold-Golovin production. And indeed, all its elements were inseparably woven together: Golovin regularly attended the rehearsals and advised actors as they accustomed themselves to their costumes and make-up. Meyerhold showed keen interest in the process of manufacturing all details of the production's material environment, from sets to props. In the evenings, after rehearsals, they would continue scripting the show together in Golovin's studio.

Golovin's unmatched mastery of the principles of stylisation and his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of stagecraft engendered that special sense of proportion which conditioned the degree of abstraction of the show's visual dimension in line with the nature of Lermontov's drama, its sublime poetic tenor. The convincingly realistic environment of the 1830s, frosted mirrors reflecting the auditorium - everything was designed to create a special atmosphere that helped the actors to expose their feelings and to provide the director with convenient "abutments" for the mise-en-scénes. But neither in colour nor in composition nor in form were the interiors of "Masquerade" prosaically "life-like". The main rhythm pattern of rigid symmetry united all episodes of the performance. Although harmonised with the interiors, curtains, harlequins and masking borders were not a part of the furnishings. On the contrary, this "trim of the stage", which previously was faceless and neutral and performed only technical functions, became an active element in Golovin's productions. As a "tuner", it set the emotional and visual tone for every scene, emphasising the necessary degree of poetic sentiment and theatrical abstraction. The complex design created by Golovin enabled the creators of the performance to elevate it to the level of true theatricality, where theatre, finally, became like painting and literature, given that it was no longer reflecting life but expressing it using all the means of theatrical art.

But even Golovin, a recognised connoisseur of the history of art, culture and domestic environments of different eras and nations, had to devote himself to study the culture of Lermontov's era in order to achieve such a high degree of creative freedom. The great number of sketches of sets, costumes and props that he created are distinguished by their keen sense of style and accuracy in replicating historical details, while remaining free of pretentiousness. "[Golovin] loathed historical-artistic verisimilitude, and this loathing forged an especially strong bond between him and Meyerhold... Easily tuning in to different historical periods, the artist created a richly decorative style free of rigid historicity. What he always cared about the most was his own theatrical vision with its exuberant decorativeness and fairly loose historical authenticity. With his perfect command of delicate drawing technique, Golovin, like the artisans of ancient days, was refining every detail in his sketches of the sets."9 His craft of stylisation and clear understanding of the character and meaning of every detail in the production transformed a realistic-looking object into a work of art. The artist Vladimir Dmitriev wrote about Golovin that he saw a historical period "only with his own eyes" and "reserved for himself the right to be the sole tailor and furniture-maker in his productions"10. Since the artist worked inside the paradigm of abstract theatre he had to "invent". Golovin claimed that on the stage "all that is real looks false, and the false looks real"11.

The main theme of "Masquerade" in Meyerhold's interpretation was the ghostliness, the illusionary nature of life in Russia under the Tsars - a life that was quickly nearing its destruction. "Masquerade" was interpreted as a global social metaphor - the masquerade of an entire historical era, a masquerade dominated by illusory passions, with real human feelings hidden behind mysterious masks. Play - the main force propelling the intrigue in the Lermontov drama - was affirmed as a category of life. The characters play cards, play "real" life and love without experiencing these feelings profoundly or naturally. A prank born out of boredom, a joke at a masquerade becomes a real tragedy and ends up with death. "Cards and masks - illusory dramas and illusory people, instead of life - abstract play, instead of faces - abstract appearances. That was how the phantasmal environment of the production was created."12 The fatal predetermination of destinies, doom, the feeling of impending catastrophe which permeated the atmosphere of the times when the production was put together was incarnated in the sinister figure of "the Unknown" - the mystical image of predestination that lords it over this universal carnival. The theme of play and tragic puppet show grew into a symbolic hyperbole. Arbenin, who boldly grappled with light, was just a plaything in the hands of fate and his destiny was predetermined. Duality, bi-worldliness where reality proved to be a ghostly illusion, where one could not understand, "... when the mask is off and when it is on the faces of the characters of Masquerade'... Thus the borders are blurred between masquerade, dreadful life, light."13

Committed to creating this "beautiful vacuum", the creators of the production quite naturally set their sights on the Empire style of Lermontov's period and, traversing the romanticism of the young poet who avidly read Byron in a Moscow boarding-school, on the 18th-century Venice of the masquerades. The technique used by Golovin in the visual idiom of his "Masquerade" can perhaps be called "scenographic grotesque". The artist's design was grounded in the principles of hyperbole and contrast. Curiously, the play was written at the time of the construction of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, and this was accurately captured by Golovin.

"The most Empire-like Empire style" built up by the artist within the proscenium arch embodying Imperial Russia was contrasted with romanticism - in colour, in the dynamics of variable space, illumination and colour spots, in the "decorative Impressionism" of paintings, to use Meyerhold's phrase. The exuberant, superhuman beauty and exquisite stylisation of the spectacle created by Golovin only served to highlight the ghostliness and ephemerality of human life, while remaining indifferent to human tragedies. With this dreadful beauty, stylisation itself was an incarnation of predestination, an infernal force commanding people's destinies.

The audience at the opening night was immediately immersed into the atmosphere of the play due to Golovin's "architectural" invention - he united the stage and the auditorium into a single performance space. The middle section of the orchestra pit was hidden under a semi-circular protrusion of the apron stage, which reached the first row of seats in the auditorium and was flanked on either side with stairs with airy balustrades and featuring a solid gilded grid in the centre. In the middle and at the extremities of the downstage stood a white bench and stools with gilded carvings (they were the focal point of the mise-en-scénes); next to the bench and the stool stood "cerulean" porcelain vases on round marble supports.

The elevated proscenium, crossing the footlights, morphed into an imposing arch erected by Carlo Rossi. The loges marked with letters, with golden "fish-scale" lattice flanked with slim white three-quarter columns with gilded caps supported the upper section of the arch, richly decorated with moulded stylised classicist wreaths. Golovin, echoing this rhythm and ornamentation, "re-phrased" it in the arch of his own making. Stood at a slight angle at the back of the stage, this arch in conjunction with Rossi's arch formed a kind of two-piece monumental symmetrical perspective structure covered all over with gilded carvings. The tall "palatial" double-wing door through which actors walked onto the stage were flanked with elongated columns and topped with small balconies with parapets. Four huge frosted mirrors in heavy gilded frames were featured against the white separation walls facing the public. The mirrors with their dull lustre reflected not only the flames of the candles in the candelabra mounted on walls but also the illumination of the lamps in the auditorium. The mirrors, blurring the eternal borders between the stage and the auditorium, made the audience into participants in what was going on. A huge crimson harlequin dangled on top of the immovable luxurious proscenium arch, his soles halfway between the ceiling and the floor; in front of him hung long narrow V-shaped trims, edged with a wide gilded fringe.

Thus, the acting space - the space in which the characters lived their lives - was initially pre-delimited, squeezed on three sides by the august symmetry of the immovable might of the Empire-style architecture of the arch. The rules of the game were rigidly set. Using this pictorial metaphor of ceremonial St. Petersburg and the coldness and indifference of high society Golovin fleshed out Meyerhold's idea - to show a human being "in the grip of Nicholas I's Tsardom". "Lermontov in all his plays consistently fought with high society, with Alexander von Benckendorff, with Pushkin's killers - with all those who gripped this world as in a vice, who put shackles on it... Because during Nicholas I's reign the architecture, the porcelain factory, all these cabinet-makers produced marvellous masterpieces - and what sort of period was that? What was there against this background? Because Pushkin was killed against the background of this marvellous porcelain, against the background of Russian Empire style. Because Lermontov was assassinated then."14 But while the proscenium and the front of the stage were the preserve of architecture, painting was assigned the emotional-dramatic function - to show that all that was happening was "moving as in a dream"15, to create an illusion, the fiction of real life. Golovin contrasted the fixity of the arch with the mobile system of changing curtains, drapes in the wings, as well as painted backdrops; instead of movable sections he introduced Meyerhold's favourite device, screens. This principled fluidity of the stage space contributed to the overall impression of dislocation, ghostliness, and mysterious variability that Meyerhold sought16.

This technique enabled the creators to tackle both aesthetic and technical problems, maintaining a beat in the performance that would grow faster towards its finale. In keeping with the logic of dramatic development and eager to make action more holistic and dynamic, Meyerhold transformed a four-act play into a three-part stage composition with 15-minute intervals.

Curtains functioned as a pictorial foreword to the performance in general, and to every episode in particular. There were five curtains in all: the main curtain for the intervals, the draw-curtain for the masquerade, the ball curtain, the white lace curtain for the ninth scene, and the black mourning curtain for the finale. They separated the proscenium from the stage, allowed for instantaneous changes of sets, divided the action into episodes, presenting dialogues and monologues in close-ups, and set off new developments in the dramatic narrative and focused the viewers' attention on decisive points in the performance. The main curtain, like the main colours of the colour spectrum, concentrated the essential themes of the production: the monumental symmetry and the solemn-looking combination of regal purple with the gold and silver of the furnishing perfectly matched the colour of the loges and armchairs of the Imperial theatre.

They were not disrupted even by the merry motley striped carnival-style drapes. But the multiplicity of the harlequins' V-shaped trims protruding one from under another, and the fanciful sinuosities of the grotesque silver ornament seemed to evoke a sense of mystery, of enigma. The sense of impending disaster and lurking danger was exuded by the impassivity of white and black carnival masks with playing cards fanned out along the central axis, by the frighteningly black or ruefully blue colour highlights which suddenly interrupted the glow of the predominant rich crimson-scarlet colouring. The tense, emotionally pitched character of the main curtain lent to the entire play an elevated-romantic, tragic dimension.

"Masquerade", which had been as long as six years in creation, opened on February 25 1917, precisely the day when the bullets whizzing across the streets of Petrograd signalled the beginning of the February Revolution. History had made its own horrific U-turn. Some quipster from theatrical circles called the production "the sunset of the empire".

One would think that the truly august imperial splendour of the production would have caused rightful proletarian resentment among the new public in revolutionary Russia. But, amazingly enough, the production, having survived the Civil War and the introduction of new performers into the cast, only gained in popularity. "In the eighth year of the revolution," wrote the "Rabochy i teatr" (The Worker and Theatre) periodical (No. 15, 1924, p. 12), "the 'Masquerade' created in 1917 has proved to be one of the most interesting... productions of the academic theatre."17 When, in summer 1926, "Masquerade" came to Moscow, it had already been performed 150 times.

Golovin died in 1930. But in 1933 Meyerhold created a second version of "Masquerade", and in 1938 the management of the Pushkin Theatre succeeded in securing a permission to revive the discontinued production and to engage the already ostracised director to work on this project18. This last, third version of "Masquerade" opened on December 29 1938.

On June 20 1939, Meyerhold, already labelled an "enemy of the people", was imprisoned and on February 2 1940 he was executed by firing-squad. The authors of the book "Lermontov's 'Masquerade' in Golovin's Sets", published in 1941-1946 to mark the centenary of the poet's death, were forbidden to even mention Meyerhold's name. His name disappeared from the posters, but the production continued to run at the theatre. After about 500 performances, it closed on July 1 1941. The theatre gave concert performances of Meyerhold's production in Novosibirsk, where the theatre was sent during World War II, and later, in 1947, in the Large Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad.

In autumn 1941 a bombing raid demolished the theatre's warehouse where the "Masquerade" sets were kept. For many years they were believed to have been destroyed. But several years ago the staff of the Alexandrinsky Theatre discovered that a lot of the items had survived (elements of stage decoration, curtains, costumes, pieces of furniture, even small props). Perhaps this masterpiece of Meyerhold and Golovin has some truly eternal and modern dimension in it that has brought it back to life in the 21st century.

"Masquerade" became a kind of testing ground where Meyerhold and Golovin explored their practical and theoretical findings already achieved in smaller theatres and smaller productions. The complex synthesising force of this production for the first time really merged together all theatre genres - drama, tragedy, opera, pantomime, "performances set to music"; it concentrated all stylistic trends of the pre-revolutionary theatre and brought to logical perfection all its forms. This is what enabled Meyerhold to act so boldly and freely when he developed the idiom of the new revolutionary theatre in the era that followed. The creators of "Masquerade" were able to listen to their times and to convey its spirit in their art. The great actor Mikhail Chekhov, talking about Meyerhold, rephrased his favourite philosopher Schopenhauer: "Talent hits a mark nobody can hit, genius hits a mark nobody can see."19

  1. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Fund 998. File 1. Item 734.
  2. Meyerhold, Vsevolod. "On Theatre". St. Petersburg. 1913. P. 4.
  3. Titova, Galina. 'Meyerhold and the Artist'. In: "Teatr" (Theatre). 1994. Nos. 7-8. P. 87.
  4. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Fund 998. File 1. Item 240. Sheets 1-2.
  5. Meyerhold. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Fund 998. Item 721. Sheet 4.
  6. Meyerhold, Vsevolod. "Articles. Letters. Speeches. Part 1. 1891-1917". Moscow: 1968. Pp. 141-142. (Hereinafter referred to as Meyerhold. Articles)
  7. Meyerhold, Vsevolod. 'On the production of Moliere's"Don Juan"'. In: Meyerhold. "Articles". Pp.194,197.
  8. Viktor (zhirmunsky, Viktor).'Calderon's"The Constant Prince" at the Alexandrinsky Theatre'. In:"A Love for Three Oranges". 1916. Book 2-3. P. 138.
  9. Davydova, M."Essays on the History of Russian Stage Design in the 18th-early 20th Centuries". Moscow: 1974. Pp. 159-160.
  10. Dmitriev. V. 'Golovin's Sets'. In: "Golovin. Meetings and Impressions". Leningrad:Moscow. 1960
  11. Quoted from: Belyaev, M. '"Masquerade" and Golovin's contribution to the production'. In: Transactions of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum. -"Lermontov's'Masquerade' in Golovin's sketches of the sets. Edited by Lansere, Ye. Compiled by Belyaev, M.; Berman, Ye.; Grubert, T. Moscow-Leningrad: 1941. P. 38.
  12. Rudnitsky, Konstantin. "Meyerhold the Director". Moscow: 1969. P. 204.
  13. Meyerhold. Articles. Part 1. P. 299.
  14. Meyerhold. '"Masquerade" (third version). Fragment of a conversation with the performers'. December 27 1938. Meyerhold. Articles... Part 2. 1917-1939. Pp. 438-439.
  15. Meyerhold. Articles... Part 1. P. 304.
  16. Rudnitsky."Meyerhold the Director". Moscow: 1969. P. 207.
  17. In 1920 the Alexandrinsky Theatre was given a new name - the Pushkin Drama Theatre (or Academic Drama Theatre).
  18. In January 1938 the Meyerhold Theatre was closed, and its actors dismissed. Konstantin Stanislavsky offered the jobless Meyerhold a job at his opera theatre.
  19. Chekhov, Mikhail. "Literary Legacy". Vol. 2. Moscow: 1986. P. 393.





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