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january 2007

Past and Future Joined
Talking with Brecht and Meyerhold

by Nathan Thomas

The future of the theatre?  Whither theatre?  This topic tends to obsess me – even to the point of annoyance of some colleagues. Most of the people I know may have some vague dreams about the future, but no clear vision about what the theatre is and what it ought to be.  So, to look forward, I've asked two esteemed new-thinkers to spend some time us.  In many ways their past work remains newer than tomorrow morning, possessing a freshness that even some productions done in the next year won't have.

Meyerhold and Brecht share traits beyond their love of the theatre and their Marxist politics.  For example, one was born Karl Teodor Kazimir Meyergold, the other Eugen Berthold Brecht. Their baptismal names weren't their names at death.  Both men created their own names, and in some ways, their own identity.  Both felt constrained in the everyday theatre they encountered as young men and sought to change that theatre.  During their careers, both men joined with powerful women who acted in their husbands' productions.   

It is my pleasure to introduce Vsevolod Emilivich Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht.

Thomas:  Let's begin at the beginning, shall we?  Where or how do you see the theatre progressing in the near future?

Meyerhold:  The art of the theatre doesn't progress, but only changes its means of expression, depending upon the character of the period, its ideas, psychology, technology, architecture, its style.  We shouldn't forget conventions change.  In life we easily sense the falsity of antiquated conventions, but in the theatre we often applaud them out of habit.

Thomas:  OK.  But I don't want to let go of this topic completely yet.  I'm not certain theatre doesn't have a certain amount of "progress" however we might label it.  Certainly the theatre of today isn't like Shakespeare's, for instance.

Meyerhold:  When I divided the text of The Forest into episodes, everyone cried out that I was imitating the movies.  No one remembered that almost all of Shakespeare's plays are constructed in this way.

Thomas:  Right. You sound very salutary at the moment, though I know you can also provide an ample critique of our current theatre, but I want to make sure Brecht also has a chance to talk about where he sees theatre.

Brecht:  Many people have noticed that the theatrical experience is becoming weaker.  There are not so many who realize the increasing difficulty of reproducing the present-day world.  It was this realization that set some of us playwrights and theatre directors looking for new artistic methods.  One thing has become quite plain: the present-day world can only be described to present-day people if it is described as capable of transformation.  In an age whose science is in a position to change nature to such an extent as to make the world more habitable, man can longer describe man as a victim, the object of a fixed but unknown environment. 

Tragedy is based on bourgeois virtues, deriving its strength from them and declining with them.  There is no sense in fumigating a saint if you believe in no gods at all.

Thomas: So, for example, the Greek notion of an unknown fate dooming Oedipus can't really apply to our theatre today?  But where does that leave playwrights today? I mean I recently taught a group of young playwrights.  What should someone tell the young playwrights of today?

Brecht:  The aesthetic point of view is ill-suited to the plays being written at present, even where it leads to favorable judgments.  You can see this by looking at any move in favor of the new playwrights. Even where the critics' instincts guided them right their aesthetic vocabulary gave them very few convincing arguments for their favorable attitude, and no proper means of informing the public.  What is more, the theatre, while encouraging the production of new plays, gave absolutely no practical guide.  Thus, in the end, new plays only served the old theatre and helped to postpone the collapse on which their future depended. 

This generation doesn't want to capture the theatre, audience and all, and perform good or merely contemporary plays in the same theatre and to the same audience; nor has it any chance of doing so; it has a duty and a chance to capture the theatre for a different audience.

Meyerhold:  I shall ask that the following words of Pushkin's be carved into the new building for our theatre: "The spirit of the age demands important changes on the dramatic stage as well."  [Sound of laughter.]

Thomas:  So, to finish this thought with Brecht, you would say that the main thing you can teach is form?

Brecht:  People run down the classics for their services to form, and fail to see that it's the form the does the serving.  We must get away from the grand gesture of tossing off an idea – of unfinishedness – and move on to tossing off a work of art, a fully realized idea – to the still grander gesture of 'finishedness plus.'

Meyerhold:  The dramatic plot is a system of inevitable surprises.

Thomas:  OK. That's form, but what about the content? What should we tackle in the theatre of our time and in the future?

Meyerhold:  The worst things in art are timid primness, ridiculous stiffness, servility, the urge to pander to one particular taste and to please it, the fear of offending someone of high rank, the fear of insulting the high and mighty.

Brecht:  One should hit the nation in the heart.  Every play a battle.  Pursue one's development in the midst of a people.

Meyerhold:  My credo is a simple and laconic theatre language leading to complex associations.

Brecht:  To indulge in a simple narrative!

Thomas:  Anything else about plays and topics in general?

Brecht:  It seems futile to hope to revive the old folk play.  Not only it is utterly bogged down but, more important, it never really flourished --

Thomas:  Ah, excuse me.  I know that Meyerhold might have other things to say about the importance of the folk play, but we do need to move on.  All right? Some readers may be surprised to hear some rather specific and practical insights from you gentlemen.  Some folks probably look at you both as fairly doctrinaire and dogmatic guys.

Brecht:  I have been brought to realize that many of my remarks about the theatre are wrongly understood.  I realize this above all from those letters and articles which agree with me.  I then feel as a mathematician would do if he read: Dear Sir, I am wholly of your opinion that two and two make five.  I think that certain remarks are wrongly understood because they were important points which instead of defining I took for granted.

Thomas:  Really? I think it's because both of you created a kind of stylized theatre, and audiences as well as some theatre practitioners may not 'get' the metaphors you create or utilize.

Meyerhold:  To maintain that stylization is an inherent characteristic of art, isn't that after all the same as defending the thesis that nutritiousness is characteristic of food?

Thomas:  Yes, theatre has its conventions – or stylized, if you will.  Would you call yourself a maker of conventional theatre?

Meyerhold:  I am the purest realist, only in its most pungent form, understand?

Thomas: Perhaps we should broaden our definition of 'real?' Hmmm. . . .  Now, Meyerhold, people know as a prime exponent of "director's theatre."

Meyerhold:  I'll take the liberty of telling you that the thesis of the director's theatre is absolute nonsense, not to be believed.  There is no director – if he is a real director – who would put his art above the interests of the actor as the main figure in the theatre.

Thomas:  That may come as a shock to some who don't know your work.  Haven't critics given you a fair amount of grief for the range and variety of your experiments on the stage?

Meyerhold:  I constantly hear about my "mistakes."  And just what is a "mistake" in art?  A person makes a mistake when he enters one room and finds himself in another.  But in order to make that mistake, you must have two rooms to go into.  If somewhere alongside one of my productions, there were another one which was a model in every respect, then I might be reproached for staging my production differently.  But, you see, there is no other production – no other 'room.'  In art, one can make mistakes in one sense only: to choose for one's own idea.  But that's not what all those who shout about my "mistakes" mean.  If only they would judge me by the rules I set for myself! But how rarely do I hear such criticism.

Thomas:  And, Brecht, you have more experience with theatre and movies in the USA from your time here --

Brecht:  When they accused me of wanting to steal the Empire State Building, I thought it was high time to leave.

Thomas:  -- but as I understand it, your main critique is with the foundations of theatre, rather than with a particular country's theatre?

Brecht: The drama of our time still follows Aristotle's recipe for achieving what he calls catharsis (the spiritual cleansing of the spectator).  In Aristotelian drama the plot leads the hero into situations where he reveals his innermost being.  All the incidents shown have the object of driving our hero into spiritual conflicts, It is a possibly blasphemous but quite useful comparison if one turns one's mind to the burlesque shows on Broadway, where the public, with yells of 'Take it off!', forces the girls to expose their bodies more and more.  The individual whose innermost being is this driven out into the open then of course comes to stand for Man with a capitol 'M.' Everyone (including every spectator) is then carried away by the momentum of the events portrayed, so that in a performance of Oedipus one has for all practical purposes an auditorium of little Oedipuses, an auditorium full of Emperor Joneses for a performance of Emperor Jones.

Thomas:  Let's pursue that further, then, shall we?  You seem to compare a performance of Oedipus Rex with a striptease.  Despite the obvious differences, as performances, aren't they both supposed to the give pleasure?

Brecht:  Even when people speak of higher and lower degrees of pleasure, art stares impassively back at them; for it wishes to fly high and low and to be left in peace, so long as it can give pleasure to people.

Thomas:  Right. But the art of Oedipus doesn't seem to provide the same pleasure, if any, of the striptease.  . . . .

Brecht:  In establishing the extent to which we can be satisfied by plays from so many different periods – something that can hardly have been possible to the children of those various periods themselves – are we not at the same time creating the suspicion that we have failed to discover the special pleasures, the proper entertainment of our own time?

Thomas:  Then what is the ultimate purpose of theatre as an art?

Brecht:  Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.

Thomas:  OK. We'll go with that for now.  I suppose that takes us to the heart of the theatre – the actor and the audience.

Meyerhold:  If the spectator is bored, it means the actors have lost the substance of the scene and are playing out the dead form of it.

Thomas:  As an actor, there have been times when the audience became bored with the (lack of) ideas in the play, with the concept of the production, or with a script that's just too darn 'talky.'

Meyerhold:  The spectator in a hurry is an enemy of the theatre.  We quickly swallow a bitter medicine, but slowly savor a tasty dish. The spectator's patience shouldn't be abused.  But it's equally wrong to indulge the kind of spectator who "has no time."  If a theatre can't force the spectator to forget about this "no time," does such a theatre have the right to exist?

Thomas: So, where does the responsibility lay for the bored spectator?  Or tend to lie?

Meyerhold:  The theatre has one amazing characteristic: the talented actor, for some reason, always finds an intelligent spectator.

Thomas:  I feel properly chastened and will watch what I say about audiences in future.  Anyway, this brings us to talk a little more about acting. . . . .

Meyerhold:  I love the theatre, and I sometimes feel sad because leadership in the art of acting is beginning to be taken over by movie actors.  I won't speak of Chaplin, who by some premonition we loved even before we saw him.

Thomas: Let's begin with Stanislavsky.  He seems to come up in every discussion of acting – one way or another.

Meyerhold:  If anyone thinks that I enjoy it when someone speaks disrespectfully of Stanislavsky, he is wrong.  I differed with him, but always deeply respected and loved him.

Thomas:  Really? I thought you disagreed with Stanislavsky.  Well, I've learned something new today.  Brecht, I'd have thought that you would have artistic disagreements with Stanislavsky too.

Brecht:  Stanislavsky's theatre consisted only of stars, great and small.  He proved that individual playing only reaches full effectiveness by means of ensemble playing.

Thomas:  Goodness, people are being gracious.

Meyerhold:  Sometimes the inside helps to find the outside, but sometimes the opposite happens in the theatre: the outside helps to find the inside.  It was a while ago that they relied on the primitive distinction: Stanislavsky means from the inside outside, and Meyerhold, on the contrary, from the outside inside.  This is a simplified pattern which does not exist.  Either/or: we both are artists or shoemakers.  It can happen both ways, differently in different cases.

Thomas:  I think some people get so committed to a single way of thinking, it can be challenging for them to shift to that kind of perspective.

Brecht:  Observation is a major part of acting.  Our theatre is already unrealistic in that it discards observation.  Our actors look into themselves instead of at the world around them.  They treat the happenings between human beings on which all depends simply as displays of temperament, etc.  Producers use plays, even new plays, as a stimulus for their 'personal vision,' which is not so much vision as distortion of reality.  The sooner we put a stop to this the better.  Of course copying as an art has to be learned, just as does the construction of models.  In order to be imitated a model has to be imitable.  The imitable must be distinguished from the exemplary.  And there is slavish imitation and masterful imitation.  Though it is worth noting that the latter involves no less element of resemblance.

Thomas:  So you would say that training is important?  Or is acting an intuitive art?

Meyerhold:  Training and creativity are two different things.  The person who receives top grades in acting school doesn't always become a great actor.  I'm even afraid he'll never be one.  Penmanship lessons are not all needed to write like a calligrapher.  Only army clerks write like that.  However, that doesn't mean penmanship lessons aren't needed at all.  While calligraphy doesn't create handwriting, it gives the correct foundation, as does any training.

Thomas:  Yes. Let's take a moment and briefly talk about some concepts that seem important to your work and important to moving the expression of theatre forward – musicality and 'gest.'  I think that these concepts suggest a common desire for heightened expressivity of the actor.  Brecht, some people center on your essays about the V (or A, depending on what language we use) effect – the so-called notion of 'alienation.'  But I would suggest that in your work as a director and practitioner, 'gest' was more important in your everyday experience. What do you mean by 'gest?"

Brecht:  'Gest' is not supposed to mean gesticulation: it is not a matter of explanatory or emphatic movements of the hands, but of overall attitudes.  A language is gestic when it is grounded in a gest and conveys particular attitudes adopted by the speaker towards other people.  The sentence 'pluck the eye that offends thee out' is less effective from the gestic point of view than 'if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.'  The latter starts by presenting the eye, and the first clause has the definite gest of making an assumption; the main clause then comes as a surprise, a piece of advice, and a relief.  Not all gests are social gests.  The attitude of chasing away a fly is not yet a social gest, though the attitude of chasing away a dog may be one, for instance if it comes to represent a badly dressed man's continual battle against watchdogs.  One's efforts to keep one's balance on a slippery surface result in a social gest as soon as falling down would mean 'losing face.'

Thomas:  So there is a mix of the 'inner' and 'outer' here – the 'inner' attitude and its 'outer' expression?  Just to be certain I've got this, you don't mean for the actor to be a "cold fish" do you?

Brecht:  The change demanded of the actor is not a cold or mechanical operation: art has nothing cold or mechanical about it, and this change is an artistic one.  It cannot take place unless he has real contact with his new audience and a passionate concern for human progress.

Thomas:  Thanks. Now, Meyerhold, I'd argue that the center of your theatre practice is actually a kind of musicality . . .

Meyerhold:  Acting is melody, directing is harmony.  Musical terminology helps us a great deal.  Don't you think so?  Have you ever considered why there is always music during the acrobatic numbers at the circus?  You may say, "Oh, to create a mood, for the sake of festivity," but that would be a superficial answer.  Circus people need music as a rhythmic support, as an aid in keeping time.  In a certain measure this is also true in the theatre.  Supported by the rhythmic background of music, acting gains precision.  Dragging out or speeding up an act can completely change the character of performance.  Play Maeterlink fast, and you get music-hall routines.  Play music-hall routines slow – and you begin to think its Symbolism.

Thomas:  To achieve this end, you trained your actors in something you called Biomechanics. Can you briefly explain what that is?

Meyerhold:  The basic law of Biomechanics is very simple: the whole body takes part in each of our movements.  The rest is elaboration, exercises, etudes.   

Thomas:  Now, reports show that you often used the term 'reject' or 'refuse' – the Russian word "otkaz" is translated variously – in rehearsal.  I understand the concept musically as an anacrusis.  What's another way to explain this concept?

Meyerhold:  In order to shoot a bow you must first draw the bowstring.

Thomas:  So, to do something, you have to prepare for it first, drawing a bowstring before shooting an arrow, cocking back a bat before swinging at a baseball pitch – that sort of thing.  It seems fairly straight forward.  Well, we're swiftly running out of time, and I know that there is much more you'd like to say.  But to bring things toward a close is there anything you would like people to know?

Meyerhold:  When I happen to read obituaries and various memorials about famous people whom I've had the good fortune to know personally, I'm always surprised: were they like that or not?  I remember once on tour in Poland when Komissarzhevskaya and I laughed all day.  Chekhov I remember as always laughing. 

If after my death you happen to read reminiscences where I am portrayed as a priest puffed up with his own importance, intoning eternal truths, I beg you to declare that this is all lies, that I was always a very cheerful person. [Laughs.]

Brecht:  A theatre that can't be laughed in is a theatre to be laughed at.  Serious people are ridiculous.  [Laughs.]

Thomas:  Well, that about sums it up, I think.   I thank you both.

[Translations by Alma Law, Edward Braun, and John Willett.  All quotes from Meyerhold and Brecht are available in published sources by these translators and not the fabrication of the author.]

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About This Article

©2007 Nathan Thomas
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas is an actor, teacher
and a regular contributor to Scene4 Magazine.
Check the Archives for more of his articles.

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The Wafer by Arthur Meiselman • Red Columbian Sky by Katrina Elias
Opening February 2nd in Los Angeles at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre


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Scene4 Magazine-Special Issue-View of the Arts 2007

january 2007

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