Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture


Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

I never met Victor Kholodkov, and I never spoke with him directly.

It was the late ‘90s, and I was living in Michigan at the time.  I heard about this new web-site called AbeBooks.  The greater Lansing area in those days had two great used book stores. (I hope they still do.) Nevertheless, I got on the information super-highway and looked for books.  I typed “Meyerhold” in the keyword search. Not expecting much beyond the usual few books that we all knew in the late ‘90s – Braun’s books, Alma Law and Mel Gordon, Hoover.  Rudnitsky’s mammoth study, if you were lucky.

To my astonishment a wealth of material came up. Evidently there was a used book store in southern California that had a wealth of Russian theatre materials – posters, memorabilia, magazines, ephemera and pictures as well as books of all kinds. The thing that caught my eye was a poster.  There wasn’t any art work to speak of, it was simply a listing of the repertoire at the Meyerhold Theatre for a week or so.  Inspector General, Woe To Wit, Bedbug, and several others as I recall.  Anyway, the picture (pictures on the internet!) showed that the poster was in decent shape but with clear signs of wear.  You know this was the real deal, accept no substitutes.

Not surprisingly these items were not at all cheap. And I didn’t have much (any) spare cash. An adult life working in the arts and getting a graduate education left me in a fair amount of debt.

After some weeks of mooning over the poster, I figured out how from the web-site how to contact individual vendors.  And thus started a weird pattern that lasted for more than a dozen years.  I’d write Kholodkov an email asking if he’d negotiate at all on price.  No, he wouldn’t, he’d reply.  The listed price is the price.  I’m a poor academic who loves Russian theatre and is an utter Meyerhold fan-boy.  If I bought two items, would he discount them on a paired sale of two items?  No, came the reply.  The listed price is the price.

Dejected, I’d go away for a couple of years until I couldn’t stand it, and then I’d ask again with the same results.  I have no idea if he remembered who I was, or what he thought about the inquiries from me that were spaced about every eighteen months to two years.

As I’ve sailed into middle age, I’ve done better financially, thanks for asking.  So, a couple of years ago, I tried to contact Kholodkov one more time. I was going to get that poster as a special treat.

Instead I found out that Kholodkokv has passed away. Never having met the man, I have no clue if he was old or ill or what the circumstances of his passing were. My profound sympathies go to his family and his friends.

It turned out that his stock had been turned over to an auction house out of New York.  And, as it happened, they would be auctioning a large number of lots of the stock in the winter of 2017.  Would I be interested in participating in the auctions which would be on-line on such-and-such a date?  I thought I would.

Once again I went on-line and perused the lots available for bids.  Minimum bids for most of the lots were $1-5.  It was easy and simple to put opening bids on a variety of lots.  I thought, “Well, I might get some of these things, since who else cares about Russian theatre?”

On a Saturday morning after breakfast, I sat at my computer as the auctions went live.

It turns out that someone was interested in Russian theatre.

The bids went back and forth.  Sadly, when something starts to get competitive, my blood rises, and I get a little manic.  In the end I spent a little more than I’d first thought I would, but not too much more.  The next issue was getting what I’d bought.  The auction house didn’t ship.

No problem, thought I.  I’ll find a day to drive into NYC.  So, on St Patrick’s Day in 2017 I jumped into the car and drove into New York.

This turned out to be quite an adventure in the end. The gps took me to the absolute correct address – in Brooklyn rather than mid-town Manhattan.  You didn’t know there are cul-de-sacs in mid-town, but there are.  And for the first time in my life I found one.  Despite assurances that there was parking in front on the building where the auction house resides, there was no parking.  And the auction house was directly across the street from a parking authority center.  Because of the gps, I had not peed in several hours, and readers may be aware of how difficult it is to find a bathroom in mid-town.  After getting the stuff in the car, it was now late afternoon.  I had to get across mid-town.  I had forgotten two important facts.  One was that Mr. Trump, having become president, cross-town traffic is severely limited due to reasonable security considerations. Second, I forgot it was St Patrick’s Day in mid-town.  Thousands had already started their bar crawls for the day.  A four hour trip turned into an urban version of “Gilligan’s Island.”  I’m still in my car, hoping to get south to 23rd St.  Maybe someday I’ll make it.

The lots I bought focused on Meyerhold, Evreinov, and theatre journals and magazines.  And what appears below is the first product of that acquisition.

Olga Knipper-Chekhova was Anton Chekhov’s wife. Knipper and Vsevolod E. Meyerhold both attended the Moscow Philharmonic Society school that was taught by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.  When Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky started the Moscow Art Theatre, they joined the best of Nemirovich-Danchenko’s students with a semi-pro group that Stanislavsky had been working with.  In the Moscow Art Theatre’s first production of Chekhov’s The Seagull Knipper played Arkadina, the actress.  Meyerhold played Treplev, her son.

Knipper and Meyerhold were part of a young person’s milieu in Moscow in the 1890s.  Knipper’s father evidently wanted his daughter to be a teacher, and she may have taught briefly.  But it appears that she swiftly met Anton Chekhov’s sister, who was also a teacher.  Meyerhold’s sister-in-law was already part of this group.  It appears that this group had also some contact with Leopold Sulerzhitsky, who would become Stanislavsky’s right-hand man.  They were young artists and performers, and they seemed to circle each other.

In school Meyerhold and Knipper acted with each other on stage.  They had similar backgrounds.  Knipper was a few years older.  Both of their families were from the German/Austrian frontier.  Knipper’s father had an Austrian background, Meyerhold’s father a German background.  Both fathers worked in the distilling business.  Both came to Moscow looking to do something else – Knipper education and Meyerhold law – and both came to the theatre.  Knipper was counted as among Russia’s greatest actresses.  Meyerhold was among the greatest directors – if not the greatest of them all.

You get the notion that they certainly knew each other very well.  But at this remove it doesn’t seem that they were that close.  Why?

Donald Rayfield in his 1997 biography of Chekhov makes a sound case that during the early years of the Moscow Art Theatre that Knipper was having an affair with Nemirovich-Danchenko. 

Jacqueline Robin Ladouceur’s 2004 dissertation outlines Meyerhold’s growing disillusionment with Nemirovich-Danchenko. It appears that as the Moscow Art Theatre was getting off the ground, Nemirovich-Danchenko’s time was taken up with the new concern and not so much with his duties as a teacher at the Philharmonic school.  What to do? His choice as a fill-in was Meyerhold. Evidently the students were told that they would learn in classes, but would also have the opportunity to  be in Moscow Art Theatre shows in small roles, crowd scenes, etc.  Meyerhold felt the students weren’t getting their due – literally and figuratively. The students weren’t getting paid the same as other extras off the street.  Also, simply standing on stage in a crowd wasn’t fulfilling their desire to learn more about acting.

Finally, Meyerhold had known Chekhov about as long as Knipper had.  They certainly were friendly, if not friends.  Though not a prude, I’ve often wondered if Meyerhold was slightly put off of Knipper because of these circumstances.  From one point of view, a woman married to a friend was having an affair with their teacher who was swiftly falling off his pedestal.  It is certainly true that despite Nemirovich-Danchenko literally having been Meyerhold’s teacher in school, Meyerhold always claimed Stanislavsky as his teacher, not the other guy.

So, in the materials I got in the auction, I was interested to see a piece written by Knipper about Meyerhold.  The time was 1934.  The Great Terror was still a few years in the future.  Meyerhold was still in possession of his own theatre.  Early in the year he opened Lady of the Camellias, starring his wife Zanaida Raikh. He was finishing work on productions of the opera, Pique Dame, and his construction of three Chekhov vaudevilles, Thirty-three Swoons.  He was turning 60 years old.

My curiosity was what would Knipper say? What would be her point of view about her old classmate and scene partner?  Edward Braun quoted a sentence or two of this piece in the introduction of his biography of Meyerhold.  But, to my knowledge, the whole piece has not been translated into English prior to this.

In her piece, Knipper remembers the early days at school and the Moscow Art Theatre.  She also suggests Meyerhold’s theatricality originated specifically in his work in The Seagull.

This is my translation of what Olga Knipper-Chekhova wrote about Meyerhold on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday:

Welcome Meeting

My memory does not fix the finished details, little things about faces, events, meetings. that in the memoir literary writer it is customary to call episodes, historical, passes somehow past me. I remember the face of a person as a whole. . . .

Now I find out that in thinking of Vsevolod Emilevich, who I’ve known for many years - and involuntarily you fly by memory to many years ago, to 1896, when I first met him as a wonderful artist, director and actor. To restore now in a few words the face of this complicated person, of course, I will not succeed.

So, the year 1896. I'm in the second year of drama school, back in the day. The Philharmonic Society. Among the students of our course there is a new "disciple", who immediately attracts my attention - Vs. E. Meyerhold. I vividly remember his charming look, nervous, agile face, thoughtful eyes, a naughty characteristic pattern of hair over a clever, expressive forehead, its restraint, almost dry.  With a closer acquaintance, he strikes one with his culture and sharp mind, and the intelligence of the whole man.  Our course made it possible for a good selection of students and pupils, Vsevolod Emilievich, he left a good memory of himself in school with his seriousness, desire to work, develop, take everything that the school could give then, with his discipline - and he could create – Vsevolod  Meyerhold -- his initiative, he knew how to unite us so that we were some kind of little island in the stream of sentiment that had been steaming through the Moscow Philharmonia.  In the second year we have much to do for ourselves, as our mentor, Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko, at this time finished his play The Price of Life and more infrequently got windy with us with his very interesting lessons.

At the beginning of the third year we worked with Vsevolod Emilievich and our friends and comrades and prepared by ourselves one and a half acts from Hermann Sudermann’s Heimat [“Home” or “Homeland” or “Magda” after its main heroine], and after that autumn’s successful performance -- we were allowed to show this passage in costume, which we were very proud of. Vsevolod Emilievich played the role of the father of Magda (Magda – I played) and, of course, all the director's work was his. Later that season we prepared with Vladimir-Ivanovich Ostrovsky’s Vasilisa Melentyeva in its entirety for the final exams. Meyerhold played the role of Ivan the Terrible, and his interpretation was very interesting. (When we were already in the Moscow Art Theatre (the second season), he played Ivan the Terrible again in the first play of the trilogy by Alexei Tolstoy.) We played in Goldoni’s La locandiera [“The Mistress of the Inn”]. Meyerhold – Marquis of Forlipopoli, me – Mirandolina, and seeing the show came Constantine Sergeivich Stanislavsky
. . . . Within the walls of our school we saw the lone figure with grey hair and black eyebrows.  The excitement was extremely more than the usual for us, as rumors about the creation of a new kind of unusual theater in Moscow were already flying around, and Vladimir Ivanovich told Vsevolod Emilievich, Margarita Savitskaya, and me that we would be in this theater, if it came to pass.

Rumors about the organization of the new theatre and about an invitation for the three of us for work in it were becoming more insistent and more and more worried us. And finally, on October 14/27, 1898, the Moscow Art Theatre was born under the guidance of Constantine Sergeivich Stanislavsky and Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko. So began our scenic path together with Meyerhold.

In December 1898, we played A. P. Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play that we were all in love with, and infected us with this love still in school with Vladimir Ivanovich.  Somehow Seagull was approved for performance, put our theater on the rails, and showed Vs. E. Meyerhold after a number of characteristic roles played by him, as a good dramatic actor.  It seems to me that The Seagull played a major role in the life of Meyerhold – as an actor and as a director.  His first ideas about a conventional theater, more "theatrical" than ours, had already begun to vaguely emerge.  Vsevolod Emilievich not only played, but also participated in the development of the corporate team and was attracted to the performance of a director's duties; thus clearly, the director in his creativity predominates over the actor, which was confirmed in his work in the very near future.

Chekhov treated Meyerhold with great sympathy, always interested in him, his stellar growth, often spoke of him, noting his health, advising him to go to the south to rest.

In 1902 Vsevolod Emilievich broke up with us. Our ways have parted, but even now I always watch the performances made by Vsevolod Emilievich with great interest, although I do not always take everything from them.  I personally dream and think that Meyerhold’s immediate creative meeting with our theatre is possible.  I am sure there is no objective principle to prevent such a meeting.

We sincerely wish you a creative greeting, and I want to end my memories of Vsevolod Emilievich on the day when he unexpectedly, suddenly turned out to be a masterful sixty-year-old . . . . .

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2018 Nathan Thomas
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




August 2018

Volume 19 Issue 3

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