Meyerhold & Mayakovsky - Biomechanics & the Communist Utopia
Meyerhold's production of The Bathhouse by Mayakovsky, March 16 1930
"The methods of Taylorism may be applied to the work of the actor in the same way as they are to any other form of work with the aim of maximum productivity."Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold, 1922
Contents 1. Experimentation under the NEP 2. Mayakovskys The Bedbug 3. Taylor's Scientific Management 4. Lenin's Appropriation of Taylorism 5. Meyerhold's Machines Notes
1. Experimentation under the NEPVsevold Meyerhold, Russias number one enemy of realism and possibly the most experimental and innovative theatre director to have graced this planet, had absolutely no compunction about working for the Bolsheviks, reporting for duty within three weeks of their seizing power. In 1917 immediately after the October Revolution, the responsibility for the theatre was assigned to the Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment, headed by Lunacharsky. In late 1917, he invited 120 leading artists to a conference devoted to reorganizing the arts. There was a cautious reply by the artistic community and only five showed up. These included Meyerhold, Alexander Blok (the symbolist poet, dramatist, and critic) and Vladimir Mayakovsky, leader of the Russian Futurists. Lunacharsky was forced to deal with those very members of the avant-garde that were against the views that he and his government held towards conventional realism.  From 1908 to 1917, Meyerhold had led a somewhat double life, working as the director of the traditional, state-funded Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg whilst simultaneously moonlighting as director and teacher on a range of small-scale, innovative ventures, in conditions which could not be more different from the Aleksandrinsky or Marinsky Theatres: cabaret venues, tiny stages, rooms in his own flat and in others houses. Meyerhold seems to have thrived on playing these contradictory roles: officially a servant of Empire, undercover an experimental pioneer. However, Meyerholds decision to throw his lot in with the Bolsheviks does not appear to have been in any way duplicitous, or to have been mere career opportunism. He saw the October Revolution as part of a progressive change that would end aristocratic privilege and bring about a more egalitarian society. He demonstrated his commitment to the Bolshevik cause in a few ways: by taking the considerable risk of joining the Bolshevik Party in 1918, when the Partys future was by no means certain; by working within the Bolshevik administration in Petrograd, on the board of The Theatre Department of the Commissariat of Enlightenment; and by staging the revolutions first official theatre production, Mayakovskys Mystery-Bouffe, in November 1918, for the first anniversary of the revolution. His loyalties were also clear enough for him to be imprisoned by the Whites during the Civil War.  After the Civil War, as the Bolshevik Party struggled to impose its dictatorial will on the ravaged country and its brutalized, half-starved populace, capitalism was allowed to creep back in the form of the NEP (New Economic Policy). From 1921 to 1927, the NEP went hand in hand with unprecedented artistic experimentation: In 1921 the Civil War was drawing to a close and it was obvious that if the Bolsheviks were to retain their power they had to begin creating the new society which they had promised. But the state was on the verge of bankruptcy and financial collapse and Lenin sought to encourage greater initiative through his New Economic Policy (NEP), under which many earlier decrees were rescinded and limited private enterprise was reinstated. Many theatres now reverted to private ownership and Western plays found their way onto the boards. All theatres enjoyed considerable freedom of repertory and production style from 1921 until Stalin began his process of assuming complete control of all theatres in 1927. It was in this atmosphere that Meyerhold blossomed.  Meyerholds relationship with the Bolsheviks during this period was anything but cosy, however. The Party criticised his productions for their lack of realistic clarity and political relevance, and Meyerhold may have actually been fired from the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) Theatre No. 1, in 1921, as a result of criticisms from Lenins wife, Krupskaya.  For his part, Meyerhold opposed the NEP (as did many hard left communists, who wanted socialism to be implemented immediately and saw the policy as a retreat and a betrayal) and several of his productions subjected NEPmen to scathing satire (Lake Lyul (1923) and The Warrant (1925) . This would suggest that official condemnation of his productions was more concerned with their political content than their aesthetic qualities. Being contrary and combative by nature, Meyerhold initially thrived on the antagonism, but he was actually acting against his own interests, by attacking the very policy that enabled him to be so critical with such impunity. But ironically the NEP created unforeseen problems for Meyerhold. He was fiercely
against the crassness and ethics of NEPmen, those businessmen who ran small businesses and flaunted their new wealth. Meyerhold made the habits and fashions of the NEPmen the target of a series of satirical productions such as Lake Lyul (1923) and The Warrant (1925) which lampooned a group of "internal migrs" who still dream of the restoration of the monarchy. In his harsh criticism of the NEP, he alienated the government by not supporting their economic policy. He also unwittingly helped strengthen the position of the bureaucrats who were rapidly taking over the administration of the theatre as well as all other aspects of Russian commerce and life. Ultimately this proved to be a fatal mistake. By the early thirties these bureaucrats were to become his most dangerous enemies.  The Bolshevik dictatorship from 1917 to 1927 was a ruthless regime that did not hesitate to imprison, torture, execute, starve and wage war against those who were perceived to be political enemies. But there was also much tolerance of criticism from famous intellectuals and artists who were either on board or not allied to serious political rivals. Gorky was allowed to publicly criticize the regime and Lenin. Also, as the Party fought for its life and then tried to find its feet it was also tolerant of internal criticism (e.g. from Alexandra Kollontai) and, with more pressing matters to worry about, had no coherent policy with regard to the arts. Lenin had conservative tastes in art, whereas Trotsky was open to futuristic experimentation. So the artists that were with the Party were allowed to experiment in relative peace until the NEP was replaced by Stalins democidal five year plans and the murderous orthodoxy of social realism. The artists who produced the most experimental works under the aegis of the NEP belonged to a small, interconnected circle of committed visionaries which encompassed the following productions: Popova and Stepanovas Constructivism, Meyerholds biomechanics, Mayakovskys Futurism and Eisensteins montage. This period reached a peak with Meyerholds production of Gogols The Government Inspector in 1926 and Eisensteins October (1927). After 1927, as Stalin tightened his grip on the economy and the arts, experimentation began its retreat, making its defiant last stand in Meyerholds production of Mayakovskys scathing, ominous The Bedbug (1929).
Popova's Constructivist Set for Meyerhold's production of The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922, from here
Stepanova's Constructivist Set for Meyerhold's production of The Death of Tarelkin, 1922, from here
back to top
2. Mayakovskys The BedbugA lively summary of The Bedbug & Mayakovsky's biography
Shostakovich, Meyerhold, Mayakovsky & Rodchenko rehearsing Klop (The Bedbug), 1929
Written in 1928, the year Stalin buried the NEP and introduced the first of his five-year plans, The Bedbug is a bold and deliciously ambiguous satire of Soviet society. Tambov, 1929 The first four scenes appear to toe the party line, quite unambiguously. Ivan Prisypkin, the main character, is set up as an immediately recognizable villain: a class traitor who is using his proletarian roots to marry into the bourgeoisie (his fiances mother, Rosalie Pavlovna Renaissance seems to have agreed to the match in return for the union card and proletarian status that the marriage will bring). He callously abandons his working class girlfriend, who is pregnant with his child. He pretentiously changes his name to Pierre Skripkin (Pierre Violin). He claims to be above petty bourgeois consumerism while taking his future mother-in-law out on a shopping spree. He thinks his deeds in the Civil War now entitle him to bourgeois domesticity:
PRISYPKIN: What did I fight for? I fought for the good life, and now Ive got it right here in my hands a wife, a home, and real etiquette. Ill do my duty, if need be, but its only we who held the bridgehead who have a right to rest by the river! So there! Mebbe I can raise the standards of the whole proletariat by looking after my own comforts. So there!  Prisypkin is an example of the vulgar bourgeoisie or NEPmen that were seen to have burgeoned under the NEP and that were now being singled out for attack by Stalins centrally planned regime.
The actor Igor Ilinsky as Prisypkin, from here
Mayakovsky wrote The Bedbug specifically for Meyerhold, who had been requesting a new play from him for years. During that period, Mayakovsky had closely associated himself with Komsomolskaya Pravda, a government-funded communist newspaper. There had been an increase of bourgeois tastes among the youth and Komsomolskaya Pravda had begun a campaign against these resurgences of the past. This "Philistinism" was blatantly attacked by