Peter Brook, Vsevolod Meyerhold and “The Trap of the Great Utopia”

Peter Brook, Vsevolod Meyerhold and “The Trap of the Great Utopia”

“Theatre is a very dangerous weapon,” once wrote Russian playwright Vsevolod Meyerhold. This phrase, penned by the director in the 1920s, reverberates through Peter Brook’s recent play, “Why?,” written with his frequent collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. An inventive exploration into the meaning of theater itself, the play also tells the tragedy of Meyerhold, who met an excruciating death under Stalin.

After the September premiere of “Why?” at the Theatre for a New Audience, Brook joined “Moonlight” screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center to discuss theater and all that it encapsulates. To help you dive further into the conversation, we’ve selected an excerpt from that evening’s program. The essay below, “The Trap of the Great Utopia” by Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, chronicles the rise and fall of Meyerhold and the influence that the playwright had on Brook. For even more insight into Brook’s work, be sure to check out this 1967 ALL ARTS interview with Brook, conducted by theater critic Elliot Norton.

“The Trap of the Great Utopia,” by Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky

Peter Brook never liked the term “director” — too bossy. In his opinion, the word “distiller” might describe the profession better. Brook himself became one of the most influential directors — “distillers” — of the twentieth century. In search of answers, he turned to the seminal theatre experimenters of his time: Brecht and Artaud, Grotowski and Beckett and, inevitably, to the legacy of Russian theatre. For it was in Russia, at the turn of the century, that world theatre had reached a crucial turning point, with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s founding of the Moscow Art Theatre. That company started its life with “The Seagull,” Anton Chekhov’s play/manifesto. Stanislavsky played the world-weary fiction writer, and Meyerhold played the young and innovative playwright.

These two artists, Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, experienced quite differently the ordeals of the century that followed. Stanislavsky, religious and not a communist, was canonized by the Soviet state during his lifetime. Meyerhold, one of the most celebrated communist directors, and one of the first artists to eagerly accept the Russian Revolution, was publically discredited, and his theater company was dissolved. On June 20, 1939, the disgraced director was arrested, subjected to excruciating torture and, on Feb. 2, 1940, executed in the basement of the notorious Lubyanka prison. His body was thrown into a mass grave for “enemies of the people.”

The purges of the Great Terror had their own twisted dramaturgy. Meyerhold was arrested in Leningrad in June of 1939. Less than a month later, in Moscow, two killers broke into his apartment through the balcony and stabbed Zinaida Raikh, his wife and the leading actress of his theatre, seventeen times. There were rumors that the nighttime visitors had committed a crime of Shakespearian proportions. Meyerhold’s friend, the playwright Yury Olesha, recorded in his diary, “I was told that they gouged out her eyes. The dark eyes of Zinaida Raikh — those demonic eyes that seemed both obedient and childlike.”

Officially, Meyerhold was accused of spying for Japan and collaborating with Trotskyites. Zinaida Raikh was killed with no explanation. However, one quite banal motive soon became apparent when Meyerhold’s apartment in downtown Moscow was taken over by the secret police. There is no direct answer to the question of why they needed to kill Meyerhold and Raikh in such a bloody, theatrical and perverse manner. Neither do we know why, in a similar way, they exterminated the brilliant actor and artistic director of the Jewish Theatre, Solomon Mikhoels, whose interpretation of “King Lear” was legendary. Mikhoels was sent on a business trip to Minsk, where in the middle of the night he was run over by a truck, his disfigured body later brought to Moscow and buried with great pomp.

Why did Meyerhold once declare the theatre a “dangerous weapon”? What was so dangerous about it? The twentieth century provides numerous examples of the most gifted artists being seduced by regimes that promised heaven on earth. It is difficult to imagine the fascist ideas of the Third Reich without Leni Riefenstahl, or Stalin’s socialism without the talented poets, composers, and actors, who gave inspiration to the “red idea.” Without those artists, millions would not have followed.

Meyerhold was a symbolic figure of the avant-garde, and he also became a symbolic sacrificial lamb of what we might call the theatricalization of evil. In 1923, he staged “The Earth in Turmoil” and dedicated that production to the Red Army and its heroic leader Leon Trotsky. Trotsky’s own assassination by ice pick in Mexico occurred just a few months after Meyerhold’s execution in Moscow and was staged in the same style of bloody political theatre practiced by Stalin. It is not impossible to imagine that Meyerhold’s dedication to Trotsky may have triggered the twisted mind of the paranoid dictator, spurring his invention of an atrocious death for the stage director.

In the mid-1930s, the public political trials began in Russia. The proceedings took place in the Hall of Columns in Moscow’s House of Unions. Everything was planned and rehearsed: “the enemies of the people” were first tortured and then rejuvenated, their bruises covered up by make-up, before they were brought into the Hall of Columns. There, they all would admit their “crimes” and publicly repent. Leading actors and writers, even foreign ones, were invited to be in the audience to observe the proceedings, not unlike the opening night of a show. Around this time, the title of “People’s Artist of the Soviet Union” was established, a parallel to Nazi Germany’s “State Artist.” Meyerhold’s name was not on the list. “This is how the State is indicating its direction,” was the reaction of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre and Meyerhold’s teacher.

Meyerhold was the Director of the Revolution, and Vladimir Mayakovsky was its Poet. Extremely gifted artists, these men were also world-famous proponents of the great utopia. Mayakovsky wrote, “I, from poetry’s skies, plunge into communism because without it, I feel no love.” While Mayakovsky took his own life in 1930, Meyerhold tried to delay the end he saw approaching. In early 1936, he even gave a public talk titled “Meyerhold against Meyerholdism.” It did not help. In despair, Zinaida Raikh wrote a letter to Stalin. “In my mind, I am constantly talking to you,” she wrote, “pointing to your occasional misunderstanding of the arts … Pardon my audacity … I am the daughter of a proletarian, and I believe in my class instinct.” She did not tell Meyerhold about the letter; she loved him, she owed her acting career to his dedication to her. She never received a reply, but Stalin had indeed read her letter: the original copy bears his annotations.

In 1930, Meyerhold’s theatre company was permitted to go on its last tour to Paris and Berlin. The Russian émigré press was surprised by this communist director’s interpretation of the iconic silent tableau at the end of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Inspector General”: his staging was seen as a kind of prophecy. For a few seconds onstage, actors mixed with mannequins, people indistinguishable from puppets. In a pallid light, the image of an ice-bound, dead country emerged, with life forever frozen beneath the frigid gaze of insanity.

While in Berlin, Meyerhold and Raikh met with Michael Chekhov, who at that point had left the Soviet Union for good. The brilliant actor warned them: “Do not go back; they will destroy you.” Meyerhold was taken aback; Zinaida Raikh suspected a betrayal and attacked her old friend: “This is a trap! How could you!” In the most decisive moment of their lives, her “class instinct” did not help.

Peter Brook’s father was a member of the Menshevik party, but the family managed to leave the Russian Empire just before the Revolution. Fate protected this son of immigrants from the lure of the communist utopia. Unlike Meyerhold, Brook never had to denounce his “-isms”; he was not driven to self-flagellation in front of his actors. His arms were never broken, nor he did he have to drink his own urine, as Meyerhold described in his letters from prison to Prime Minister Molotov. Three weeks after the letters were sent, Meyerhold was executed. His family was told that he had been convicted to ten years in a labor camp without the right to correspondence. Meyerhold always dreamed of staging “Hamlet.” He even jokingly proposed that his tombstone should read, “Here lies the director who wanted to stage the play about a Prince of Denmark, but never did.” Stalin despised that play. Brook, in a sense, finished the job for Meyerhold. In the mid 1950s, just after Stalin’s death, he staged his version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece with Paul Scofield in the title role and brought that production to Moscow. Brook’s “Hamlet” and, later, his “King Lear” in many ways determined the future of the Russian contemporary stage for many years to come.

In 1996, after Gorbachev’s thaw, Peter Brook and his wife, Natasha Parry, came back to Moscow. They performed Beckett’s “Happy Days” at the Moscow Art Theatre. As their host, I gave Natasha a tour of the theatre’s historic lobby. We stopped in front of the photograph of the company visiting Anton Chekhov in Yalta. All of the stars of the Moscow Art Theatre are in that photo: Stanislavsky, Gorky, Anton Chekhov. The spring that year was unusually hot, and Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s future wife, has a folded parasol in her hand. Meyerhold, her classmate and partner onstage, is reclining at her feet. After Meyerhold’s death, to erase any memory of him, this historic photograph was doctored: Knipper “opened” her parasol just a bit, and for many years, Meyerhold disappeared from view.

Natasha Parry, Winnie in “Happy Days,” kept silent in response to my telling of that story. In her beautiful dark eyes, I could read a question: “Why?” This same question gave the title to today’s show written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.

Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky is theatre scholar and writer. Moscow Art Theater Associate Artistic Director (1996 -2018). Dean of the Moscow Art Theater School (2000-2018). Founder of the joint program between the MXAT School and Harvard University. Published numerous books, including “The Russian Theater After Stalin” (Cambridge University Press) and “Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead?” (named among the best theater publications in 1995 by American Theater magazine).