The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Culture > Displaying Theatre —Exhibition on the Theatre & Life of Meyerhold


Displaying Theatre
—Exhibition on the Theatre & Life of Meyerhold

Yoko Ueda
Research Associate of Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University

Prelude to the Meyerhold Exhibition

The Meyerhold Exhibition has opened.

A mountain of collected photographs, objects from the 1920s that have been sleeping in storage at the Theatre Museum, and, seeming to proclaim itself as projecting those materials, a model that replicates the New Meyerhold Theatre. Prokofiev's opera The Love for Three Oranges -the installation began to function when the exhibition room was filled with this expressionist music that plays directly on the heartstrings of listeners. The Love for Three Oranges is the name of a magazine that was published by Meyerhold in Petrograd (presently St. Petersburg) before the revolution. The Love for Three Oranges is also the name of a theatre script written by Carlo Gozzi which is adapted by Meyerhold, V. Solovyov and K. Vogak and was published in the inaugural issue of the magazine. In 1918, Meyerhold handed an issue of the magazine which contained the script to Prokofiev, who was attempting to travel from Russia to America via Japan. Meyerhold encouraged Prokofiev to use the script for writing an opera. The opera was completed the following year, and the premiere performance was held in Chicago in 1921.

Model of New Meyerhold Theatre & the exhibition room

A characteristic of Meyerhold's performances was the careful use of music as an active element of theatre. Meyerhold had great regard for Prokofiev's opera The Gambler (1916) and had attempted to perform the work many times. Although various obstacles prevented Meyerhold from realizing a performance of the work, it can be seen how Meyerhold adapted Prokofiev's musical expressionism to theatre. (For example, in the pamphlet for the debut performance of Bubus the Teacher (1925), Prokofiev's The Gambler was raised as a representative example of music as an active element of theatre.) Letters were frequently exchanged between Prokofiev, who was based in America, and Meyerhold, who was located in Russia/the Soviet Union. The two renewed their friendship when Meyerhold traveled to Europe. When Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, Meyerhold was attempting a performance of Pushkin's Boris Godunov. Meyerhold once again requested that Prokofiev compose music. Although Boris Godunov was never performed, the musical score composed by Prokofiev still remains. The theatrical music composed by Prokofiev for Boris Godunov is proof of the long collaborative relationship that he had with Meyerhold. The opera The Love for Three Oranges , which rings throughout the exhibition room, was the first important success of this collaboration. After I finish writing this article and have more time to engage in research, I intend to summarize works that were composed for Meyerhold such as Boris Godunov and Shostakovich's The Bedbug, and to approach a slightly more varied musical construction.

Visual rebirth of theatre's avant-garde

Invitation to the premiere performance of The Bedbug (1929)

My eyes were dazzled by the mountainous volume of precious material stored in the Theatre Museum. There were posters, programs, and signed photographs, pamphlets, and magazines, all from that time period. I was unable to suppress the excitement and elation that I felt when handling these materials which have continued to preserve valuable information even while fading to a yellowed color under the weight of history. Written notation in the Russian language does not use the Latin characters found in western European languages. Rather, the Russian language uses Cyrillic characters such as "ж", "д", and "я". These characters appear nonsensical to someone who studied English as a mandatory subject in school. An individual capable of deciphering these characters is not always present at the Theatre Museum, and a large amount of the Russian material has been left unorganized. Actually, this mountain of unorganized Russian material was the start of my work at the Theatre Museum, first as a part-time employee and later as a Research Assistant. The felicitous encounter with this material, which had awaited discovery under a film of dust, led to the opening of the current Meyerhold exhibition.

I soon realized that the amount of material stored in the museum was not enough to fill a large exhibition room, nor was the variety of material enough to clarify the various activities of Meyerhold. Furthermore, the Theatre Museum held less than 20 photographs, a surprisingly small amount. At some point, I was struck with the concept of obtaining permission to use replicated material from Russia and attempting to visually reconstruct each work with a focus on photographs. I made 3 trips to Russia and collected approximately 170 different materials. Also, Professor Masaharu Ura of the University of Tokyo loaned me a collection of approximately 150 photographs that were previously held by Professor Yoshio Nozaki. I sorted these pictures and spent a great amount of time studying them, comparing them with programs, research documents and original dramas. In this way, I determined the work, scene, and performers associated with each photograph. Although it was relatively easy to determine the work from photographs of the stage, there were often cases when I was unsure of the scene or the performers. Some of the research documents used listing methods such as "the scene from The Magnificent Cuckold", left the details unspecified. Elaborate makeup is often worn in Meyerhold's performances, and the appearance of performers undergoes various changes. The Theatre Museum possessed a quite comprehensive collection of research documents related to Meyerhold, and I filled up the Research Assistants Office with these documents. The process of determining associations for the photographs was both frustrating and enjoyable. However, as the exhibition date drew closer and time was placed at a premium, I fluctuated between increasingly acute feelings of joy and despair while studying the documents. Of course, I continued the same work even at my home.

Stage photograph from The Government Inspector (premiere performance; December 9th, 1926); Episode 7: Drinking the "Tolstobryushka" Bottle

When viewing all of the photographs for the period from Moscow Art Theatre to the 1930s, the rapid improvement in photographic technology is quite obvious. It seems that the technology necessary for taking clear stage photographs did not exist before the revolution. Photographs which appeared to capture scenes from the stage were not taken when performers were moving. Rather, photographs were taken of still images in which performers replicated the structure and poses of a single moment from a single scene. Then, in 1926, it had already become possible to take close-up photographs (The Government Inspector) and backlight photographs (Howl China). Many of the photographs from after the revolution were taken by Aleksei Temerin, an actor at the Meyerhold Theatre. Reports were published in wall posters regarding topics such as rehearsals at the Meyerhold Theater. In this way, a system was developed for the recording and transmission of information from within the theatre, and the archived material was preserved by Eisenstein, a disciple of Meyerhold. This occurrences hold great significance for people living in modern times.

The Future of Meyerhold in Japan

A large number of chance events are associated with the current exhibition. The first coincidence relates to Meyerhold's birthday, which is on February 10th. I just happened to be on a research trip in Moscow on February 10th of 2009, and was able to participate in a memorial event where I met a great number of people. One of the individuals that I met was Dr. Beatrice Picon-Vallin, a prominent French researcher of Meyerhold. By coincidence, Dr. Picon-Vallin served as a senior researcher for the Theatre Museum's GCOE (Global COE Program) from spring to summer of 2009. Through the cooperation of Associate Professor Shintaro Fujii, who had initiated the invitation of Dr. Picon-Vallin, it was possible to hold a series of lectures related to Meyerhold. Another chance event involves a new research center, the Collaborative Research Center for Theatre and Film Arts, which was established at the Theatre Museum in the second half of the 2009 academic year. Open application for research themes at the new center led to the establishment of the Meyerhold Research Group. The knowledge and idea gathered in this group served as the basis for creating a replicated model of the Meyerhold Theatre, which Meyerhold failed to realize before his death. The model is displayed at the current exhibition. Furthermore, Mr. Alexei Levinsky, the inheritor of Meyerhold's biomechanics, was invited in order to hold first-ever his biomechanics workshop in Japan. Biomechanics is a system of physical training for performers that was proposed by Meyerhold. The holding of this workshop was also made possible by the open application for research themes at the new center.

Mr. Alexei Levinsky, Biomechanics Workshop

A number of other chance coincidences exist. Meyerhold lived from 1874 to 1940. Theatre Museum founder Shoyo Tsubouchi was born in 1859, making him a contemporary of Meyerhold, although one generation younger. Meyerhold was active during the same period that the Theatre Museum was established (1928). This makes the modern yet old-fashioned museum building and the current exhibition a more appropriate match than I expected. Physical training in biomechanics is taught by having students copy each one of the physical postures shown by the instructor. This method of teaching is similar to the form of Japan's traditional performing arts and moreover biomechanics itself is a good fit for the bodies of Japanese people. Furthermore, unbelievably enough, Levinsky's assistant is Japanese. Meyerhold attempted to fuse the theatre of the Orient and the West. Today, the revival of Meyerhold is steadily being advanced in Japan.

Exhibition on the Theatre & Life of Meyerhold-70 Years After His Death; 55 Years After His Resurgence
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Exhibition Room 1
March 1st (Mon.) to April 28th (Wed.), 2010

Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Yoko Ueda
Research Associate of Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University (Western Theatre)

Obtained a Doctoral Degree in literature from Waseda University in 2009 (research on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky)
Her area of expertise is 20th century Russian theatre and literature.