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Meyerhold is recognised as an important theatrical innovator of the twentieth century. Born in Penza, Russia, he studied at the Moscow Philharmonic Society's theatre school and joined the Moscow Art Theatre's (MAT) acting company in 1898. As an actor in the company, he was influenced by the acting methods being developed by the influential director, actor and writer Stanislavsky, one of the founders of the company. Although his early work was strongly influenced by Stanislavky's emphasis on realism, like many other theatre workers of his time, he eventually rejected the naturalistic forms of theatre that developed from this aesthetic approach. He left the MAT in 1905 and, in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, he held a prestigious position as artistic head of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg. During this time he also staged experimental plays in various unofficial studios, held classes and edited a journal called The Love of Three Oranges under the pseudonym Dr Dapertutto. After the Russian Revolution, Meyerhold was appointed as head of the theatrical section of the Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment. Unfortunately, his ideas and approaches conflicted with official party policies and he and his work were increasingly subjected to censorship and public criticism. As personal persecutions and cultural repression intensified in Russia during the oppressive Stalinist regime, he was arrested as a dissident in 1939 and was secretly executed in prison the following year. 

Meyerhold did not write about his approaches to theatre production and acting, but information about his activities, ideas and interests has been recovered and re-examined since 1955 when his name and contributions were officially rehabilitated in Russia. We no know that his work examined and utilised more popular forms of theatre that were based on non-realistic and highly physical styles of performance such as mime and commedia dell'arte. He explored these methods over the course of his life and eventually formulated a new approach to acting based on physical training and acrobatic movement called Biomechanics. The idea of Biomechanics grew from Meyerhold's belief that there were basic laws of theatre that could be studied and perfected. He regarded movement, space, rhythm and gesture as primary elements in the language of theatre and looked for ways to create ‘truthful' performances without imitating or trying to copy the reality evident in everyday life. He believed that rhythm should be the base of all theatrical activity and that actors should be encouraged to refine their art until they could reach the precision of machines. Recognising that the stylised forms of acting he admired required the development of physical stamina and skill he focused on developing a series of exercises that could enable actors to perform highly ‘theatricalised' dramatic forms. His work focused on developing the energy and rhythms available through non-representational performance styles and he believed that actors should learn to present their character without trying to become their character. Actors in his productions were therefore encouraged to comment on their characters, to directly address spectators from positions downstage or to improvise and banter with audiences.

Strongly emphasising the theatre's need for simplicity and the power of a bare stage, in the 1920s he began to use a mode of set design called constructivism. This approach focused on the function of scenery and multi-levelled sets with ramps leading between platforms were constructed according to their utility and their ability to enhance biomechanical acting rather than for any decorative purpose. He rarely used front curtains, often kept the house lights on so that the actors and spectators could clearly see each other and his productions explored a variety of non-representational approaches to set design and acting. Music was also used to support the physical and emotional rhythms he wished to accentuate in productions and he sometimes composed his own scores. Meyerhold, like a number of theorists, suggested that theatre has its own language. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, he rejected the view that art somehow transcended the everyday concerns of life. He saw theatre as a social art and a social act and argued that the concerns and issues of all classes of people should be represented in art forms like theatre. Sadly, his refusal to adopt official ideals of social realism and naturalistic forms of theatre eventually cost him his life. However, his approaches and innovations have left a lasting impression on the theatre world and his influence is clearly evident in the work of the celebrated director and playwright, Bertolt Brecht



Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National