Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature


Meyerhold and the Circus

A. Fevralsky

Written: 1963;
Source: The Soviet Circus: A Collection of Articles, 1967;
Translated: Fainna Glagoleva;
Compiled: Alexander Lipovsky;
Photographs: Y. Savalov and others;
HTML Markup: For in February, 2002.

Vsevolod Meyerhold, an outstanding stage director, became interested in the circus in prerevolutionary times, seeing it as a school of good health and courage. This interest increased after the October Revolution, when new horizons opened up before Soviet art.

"We, the workers of all fields of art, the theatre and the circus must join forces in our common task and, with as much unity of opinion as possible, bring our art to the people," Meyerhold said in 1918.

Meyerhold was named head of the Petrograd division of the Theatrical Department of the People's Commissariat of Education that same year. He visualised the new challenge to the circus thus: "The circus is a house in which the art of physical education, of physical beauty, will rise ever higher. The new circus studios will train instructors who will then travel to various parts of the country to create new sports clubs and a new physical culture, for a healthy body means a healthy spirit." Meyerhold did not regard the circus merely as a school of physical education. He saw both its artistic side and the possibility of establishing close relations between it and the theatre. He said that "there is no true dividing line between the circus and the theatre, you can find the theatre in the circus, while the circus strives to bring its charms to the theatre. Stage directors and producers are called upon to reform circus productions.

"But the circus should not change at anyone's say-so. The reform must come from within the circus itself, it must be carried out by the circus performers, for there is no such a thing as a theatre-circus and there should not be, but each is and should be an entity in itself, each with its own laws and structure.

"True, the theatre and variety shows, by supplying elements of their own art to the circus, have done it much harm and still continue to harm the development of a circus art per se. True, during the most theatrical of all theatrical epochs the circus had a definite influence on the development of theatrical art per se (and especially so in Japan and Italy). Nevertheless, in contemplating a reform of the circus and the theatre, conditions must be created under which both will develop along parallel, not crossing lines."

Meyerhold went on to say that actors had much to learn from the circus (acrobatics, for instance), basing his observations on the fact that beginning with the late 19th century the theatre had gone into decline. He dreamed of creating an acrobatic secondary school. The boys and girls who graduated from this school, would be healthy, vivacious, lithe, ready to go into the circus or the theatre, to choose comedy, tragedy or drama, as their life's work. He felt that a revival of a theatrical culture with actors who had perfect body control was one of the roads leading to the creation of a theatre that could cope with the complex tasks set it by the Revolution. Meyerhold tried to put his theory into practice in his work as a pedagogue and producer.

In 1920, the R.S.F.S.R. Theatre-I opened in Moscow with Meyerhold as its director. Mayakovsky's Mystery-Buff was the Second play they staged. Meyerhold and Bebutov, the two directors, introduced several circus skits in the play, which was wholly in keeping with its popular, heroic and satirical nature. Thus, the Agreer (with a" excellent performance by Igor Ilyinsky) was a barely concealed circus down. The Devils that appeared in the Third Act ("Hell") were presented in the same vein. Besides, an entire circus act was included, with Vitaly Lazarenko, a popular circus performer, climbing down a rope from the ceiling, doing various tricks as he descended. We find the following excerpt in the memoirs of Valery Sysoyev, The Man of the Future in the play.

Lazarenko, illuminated by a red spotlight, did very dangerous tricks on a trapeze. For instance, he would sit swinging on it, waving his arms about, and then suddenly plunge headlong towards the stage, grasping the corners of the trapeze with his toes at the very last moment.

Meyerhold made use of circus and popular comedy in his production of A. Sukhovo-Kobylin's The Death of Tarelkin, which the author intended as a farce and grotesque and which was quite eccentric on the whole. There was a generous helping of slapstick comedy, with the gloomy world of tsarist officialdom and police precincts presented in such a grotesque manner as to parody the whole. The settings were in keeping with the spirit of the play, and each prop had something wrong with it: the chair seats would suddenly fall out, backs would fall off, a footstool backfired, the legs of a table slid in opposite directions, sending it crashing to the floor, only to rally and become its former reliable self again. This mass of tricks in no way interfered with the actors, who brought every word of the magnificent text home to the audience.

Sergei Eisenstein, then studying under Meyerhold, was his assistant producer for the play. At the end of the season both Eisenstein and Meyerhold put on two independent and very different productions of Ostrovsky's There's Enough Simplicity to Every Wise Man, making use of various circus tricks in both productions. Unlike The Death of Tarelkin, staged by Meyerhold in strict accordance with the author's text, the play staged by Eisenstein was first completely rewritten by him and Sergei Tretyakov, the result being a topical political review presented as a circus spectacle. The printed programme carried out the same theme with the words "Working in the ring are..." instead of the usual "List of Characters."

Mayakovsky's play The Bath-House, presented in 1930, has the following subtitle: "A Drama in Six Acts with a Circus and Fireworks." Using this as his guide, Meyerhold injected a carnival spirit into the play. Thus, Pobedonosikov appears as a grotesque, ridiculous clown, with Maxim Shtraukh playing an unforgettable Pobedonosikov.

Several of Meyerhold's pupils worked in the circus, as did Nikolai Ekk, who later became a well-known film producer. It was he who staged the mass circus spectacular To October, From Us at the Moscow Circus in 1921. The script was written by Nazim Hikmet, who lived in Moscow from 1922 to 1928, in collaboration with Regina Yanushkevich, an actress and playwright and one of Meyerhold's pupils. This was to be a show for children, re-creating the events of the October Revolution and the first ten years of Soviet power. Circus performers, actors and amateur groups took part in what was one of the first mass presentations in the history of the Soviet circus based on a contemporary political theme.

Three of Meyerhold's former pupils were producers at the Moscow Circus in the years following the Second World War. These were Nikolai Basilov, Alexander Zaikov and Mark Mestechkin. The knowledge and skills they acquired from their teacher, Vsevolod Meyerhold, has done much to enrich their work in the circus arena.