Meyerhold’s Biomechanics for Theatre
– Vsevolod Meyerhold’s career began as an actor performing roles in Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre productions at the turn of the 20th century.
– Meyerhold left the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902 where he moved on to directing plays, but was invited back by Stanislavski three years later to “experiment with nonrealistic styles, realizing that one approach could not work for every play”. (Crawford)
– Meyerhold believed in a presentational style of acting, as opposed to Stanislavski’s representational style of performance.
– Biomechanics soon became the principle behind a non-realistic, stylised and movement-centred system of actor training developed by Meyerhold between 1913 and 1922.
– It contrasted clearly with Stanislavski’s system, in which the actor first created a character from within (internal character creation).
– Meyerhold’s biomechanics instructed the actor to develop a character from without, first employing external movements.
– Biomechanics can be seen as an integral part of both actor training and performances.
– Though the well-known “etudes” were never seen on stage during a performance, and were relevant only as part of the actor training program.
– Meyerhold believed movement to be the most powerful form of theatrical expression.
– He was influenced by the physical nature of the Commedia dell’Arte, circus acts and pantomime.
– His actors were trained in gymnastics, circus movement and ballet.
– Like Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theatre, in Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics the actor was paramount and the central focus.
The actor may now need to be conversant in the laws of mechanics and of proxemics (space) knowledge, but this knowledge, even if it is expressed in new “scientific terms”, keys into identical priorities for the performer: the need for precision, for coordination and for clarity of expression; and the requirement that an actor has rhythmic understanding and is responsive and disciplined. (Jonathon Pitches)
– Each movement in biomechanics was important and deliberate – superfluous movements on stage were eliminated.
– For the actor, biomechanics involved:
- preparation for an action
- the state of mind and body at the moment of action, and
- the reaction to what follows (Styan)
– The basic skills of a biomechanical actor were:
- playfulness and discipline (Pitches)
– Post-1917 (Russian Revolution), Meyerhold began to use industrial-type language, describing actor movement on stage in terms of efficiency.
– He was influenced by the American industrialist Frederick Winslow Taylor, who believed a worker in a factory would be more efficient if he broke down his tasks into a series of separate actions.
– Meyerhold translated Taylor’s concept of efficiency of action into an efficiency of actor movement for the stage.
In Ippolit Sokolov’s article The Industrialization of Gesture it is stated categorically that ‘on stage the actor must become an automaton, a mechanism, a machine.’ He is required to master ‘the culture of industrialized gesture’, that is ‘the gesture of labour, built on the principle of economy of effort’, the gesture is ‘linear, of a geometric order’. (Konstantin Rudnitsky)
– In 1922 Meyerhold gave a lecture in which he said:
The work of the actor in an industrial society will be regarded as a means of production vital to the proper organization of the labour of every citizen of that society. (J. L. Styan)
– Meyerhold was making direct links with Soviet-Marxist philosophy (Styan), connecting the efficiency of action in workers for means of production (labour) with the efficiency of movement for the actor in terms of means of expression.
– Biomechanics was perfectly suited to one of Meyerhold’s other theatrical achievements, that of scenic constructivism.
– Constructivism was already a popular movement in the visual arts and Meyerhold adapted its form for theatrical set design in many of the productions he directed.
– Constructivist theatre sets typically included treadmills, ramps, catwalks, trapezes, turning wheels, multiple levels and machines.
– The most famous Meyerhold production that showed the world both biomechanical acting and constructivist set design was The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922). Another well-known production was The Government Inspector (1926).
The human body was perceived as a machine: man had to learn to control that machine. It was the theatre’s function to demonstrate the fine tuning of the human ‘mechanisms’. (Konstantin Rudnitsky)
– Increasingly, Meyerhold’s non-realistic, avant-garde, experimental theatre productions came under close scrutiny from government censors, as much of his work was risky and opposed to Stalin’s official policy for the arts, that of socialist realism.
– Consequently, Meyerhold was arrested and executed by firing squad in February 1940.
Pitches, J., Vsevolod Meyerhold, (Routledge Performance Practitioners).
Styan, J., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3.
Crawford, J, Acting: In Person and in Style.
Brockett, O., History of the Theatre.
Rudnitsky, K., Russian and Soviet Theatre.