Saturday, September 3, 2011

Revolution and The "Theater Theatrical"

A setting from Meyerhold's production of "The Dawn", c.1920, Vladimir Dmitriev, set design, Meyerhold Theatre (RSFSR First Theatre), Moscow

It's such an ancient art form, the theater. It's one that waxes and wanes in prominence and popularity, often yielding to its daughter arts, motion pictures and television, but never being entirely eclipsed in its own right. The theater is practiced and participated in throughout the land, throughout the world, wherever and whenever acting out and story telling are needed or desired by peoples to inform, to titillate, to entertain, to embrace one another in triumph or tragedy, laughter and tears. The theater is there, spontaneously arising. It seems so deeply a part of human nature, it's hard to imagine a world without it.

The theater can be -- and usually is -- a very staid, conservative, and "safe" art form that does not do more than tweak the fine sensibilities of its noble or at least relatively well-off patrons.

They have to be well-off, because theater with all the trimmings and trappings is usually an expensive undertaking. Dauntingly so in many cases. The theater naturalistic, realistic or majestic, therefore, is often a means to explore but ultimately to reinforce the status quo, typically with a rueful laugh or a heavy sigh. "What can you do? It's just the way things are. They've always been this way." Heh. Sigh.

But now and then, the theater can and does lay the groundwork for, even set the stage for, Revolution. A Revolution that typically involves several acts, an extraordinary cast, and many years to play out.

So it was toward the end of Imperial Russia.

You would have recognized the Imperial theater and its offshoots. It was so similar in many ways to what we have today in the United States in publicly subsidized regional theaters, academic theaters, and every now and again in commercial theater. In fact, the typical repertoire of the subsidized American theaters rather closely matches that of the Moscow Art Theatre from the end of the 19th Century to the Revolution, heavy as it is on Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Moliere, and the other international all-time "classics." You will see very little deviation from standard practice; in fact, you can go almost anywhere in the country these days and see almost the same repertoire played in very similar houses, for very similar audiences, by practically interchangeable actors, on nearly identical sets, with very similar lighting, music, and even programs. And much of it derives directly from the pre-Revolutionary theater of Imperial Russia and specifically in Constantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater.

It was partly due to the homogeneity of regional theater repertoire and practice everywhere in the country -- most inappropriately, I found, in Alaska -- that I gravitated toward other theatrical forms and traditions, toward new works, new artists, and other ways of doing things before an audience back in the days when I still had the opportunity and the desire to explore what else was possible in the theater.

After all, though I had "done plays" in high school, well before I understood what I was doing, my heart was in the leanness and creativity of street theater and the theatrical agitprop of a nascent revolution among the young, and I am not to this day at ease among the overstuffed and self-satisfied patrons of The Thea-tah as a sort of elitist cultural dessert.

I do love me a wise "Cherry Orchard," or "Hedda Gabler," or a "Twelfth Night" from time to time, but really, there is so much more...

And so it was in Imperial Russia, too.

Whether the seeds of the Revolution that would sweep away the Old Order were planted by theatrics or the "theater theatrical" in Russia was a product of the indigenous pre-revolutionary ferment of the place and time I'll leave to scholars to argue for eternity.

Theater as art may have been imposed on Russia by Imperial Ukase with the establishment of the Alexandrinsky (Pushkin) Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1832 -- from which, they say, all other "proper" theaters in Russia descend, both before and after the Revolution -- but the idea of theater in Russia long pre-dates it, predates the Romanovs for that matter.

The theater-theatrical can be said to be innate, and it is that innateness pre-revolutionary visionaries and Revolutionaries in Russian theater were seeking to tap into.

Of them, Vsevolod Meyerhold was far and away the standout then as he still is today. In fact, so much of what he advocated and did in Russian theater prior to the Revolution (and certainly afterwards) seems fresh and almost brand new today. That he was fundamentally opposed to the "dead theater" of Stanislavsky and the other realists was and is a key to understanding how theater can both support the status quo and simultaneously advance The Revolution.

Of course, as Meyerhold discovered, being a Revolutionary visionary before your time gets you no love. Stalin would have him shot in 1940 for crimes against the state, what they were, no one knows. It's the risk any Revolutionary artist runs.

The key to understanding the Meyerhold approach is his concept that the theater had to be theatrical. It was not, and cannot be, a home for Naturalism or Realism. Thus Meyerhold's enduring dispute with Stanislavsky, and the continuing split between a naturalistic/realistic and staid (and Meyerhold would say "dead") theater that appeals to the comfortable and the elite, versus an active, living, and theatrical art form that appeals to everyone.

"Strike" (1925), a film by Sergei Eisenstein, encapsulates Meyerhold's approach to story-telling, visualization, and acting that still seems fresh (if somewhat overdone) compared to much of the naturalistic/realistic canon of film-making.

Much is made of Meyerhold's theories of theater, with a fairly consistent focus on the physicality of his approach through Biomechanics and his Études, 16 carefully composed movement sequences that were intended to release the actor's body and voice from the confining restrictions of naturalism and realism.

The only problem with Études and the study of Meyerhold's Biomechanics today -- as often was the case in the past -- is that the forms and means he used and advocated as tools can become ends in themselves. To be able to perform an Étude -- at all -- is such an accomplishment that the point of learning to do it can be lost.

A couple of Meyerhold Étude study videos, fascinating but ultimately sterile:

"Tripping Up"

"Throwing the Stone"

Then the arguments ensue, in perpetuity. Which doesn't actually get anything onto the stage. The theater is frozen, unable to move in any direction due to... an effort to understand and create... Revolution.

Well yes, that's the point. The theater is inherently subversive, which is why the Powers That Be have always tried to control and delimit it. Those Powers don't have to be political Powers; they can be very strong social Powers as well. Meyerhold, of course, ran up against plenty of political resistance to his subversion, which eventually got him shot. But there was extraordinarily strong social resistance too, from within the theater itself as well as from within whichever establishment -- pre- or post-Revolutionary -- his theater was relying on for support

Yet, despite all the actually deadly animosity he and his approach to theater endured in his own time, his Revolution in theater has survived. Realism may still be the predominant elite style of theater -- and certainly predominates in the daughter arts of movies and television -- but the "theater theatrical" of Meyerhold is stronger and even more vibrant today in part because we find it in so many aspects of the performing arts, particularly the musical theater and opera, traditional circus and the cirque movement, and in performance art, all of which have served as creative incubators for the presentation of Comedy and Drama onstage.

This report from Oliver Martin Sayler's "The Russian Theatre Under the Revolution," (1919) provides a sense of the danger and the excitement and the rightness of what was being done, regardless of how the drama would turn out in the end:

Don Juan in rehearsal [in 1918] was antic and jolly. In performance it was sheer joy the joy of the theatre as theatre. You face Meyerhold's stage with no illusion that it is not a stage. Of course it is a stage. Why pretend it isn't? There it is under the full lights of the auditorium -- curtain removed and apron extended twenty feet beyond the proscenium arch. It's a play you shall see, a play you who love the theatre for its own sake! No cross section of life here, no attempt to copy life! No illusion here to be shattered by the slightest mishap or by a prosaic streak in the spectator's make up. It's a play you shall see and you'll know it all the time, for you'll play, too, whether you realize it or not. The audience is always an essential factor in the production of drama, but never does it enter so completely so keenly into the psychological complex as in the theatre theatrical. The give and take between audience and actor is dynamic and almost incessant.

There were political revolts and there was a political Revolution in Russia in the early part of the 20th Century -- the 1905 Revolution foreshadowed things to come to say the least. The arts community of the capital, St. Petersburg, and particularly the theater community, with Vsevolod Meyerhold's pre-revolutionary vision of a "theater theatrical" using the performing arts to enable the audience to see and participate in the creation of something new and revolutionary -- and alive -- in the vanguard, I'm convinced was a key element in the ultimate triumph of the Revolution.

Much the same process would occur again during the 1930's in the United States through the Federal Theatre Project and other theatrical endeavors. And the process would take place yet again in the 1960's -- in China with Revolutionary Opera, and (again) in the United States with an extraordinary level of theatrical experiment that transformed a staid and dead naturalism/realism on stage into dynamic and exciting "theatricalism" that no longer even needed a stage but could be and was performed anywhere.

It's fascinating that there is still a struggle between the "theater theatrical" -- the living theater, as it were, where anything goes -- and the naturalistic and realistic "dead" theater and other performing arts of control and the status quo.

It's almost as if we're repeating a sequence of events barely a century past.

Results should be intriguing...

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