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JOHN FUEGI RUSSIAN "EPIC THEATRE" EXPERIMENTS AND THE AMERICANSTAGE? u© John Fuegi 1973 Though the enormous influence of Stanislavski in America is well-known, another major branch of the Russian theatre, which remains largely unknown, has also greatly influenced the American stage.1 This second strand of theatre, best exemplified in the revolutionary work of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Alexander Tairov, Sergei Eisenstein, was, as I shall seek to show, particularly important in the development in the 1920's and 1930's of "epic" or "non-representational" political theatre in North America. Yet, important though these influences were, the very memory of them seems somehow to have been swept away by the post World War II tide of "epic" influence associated first and foremost with the name of die great German playwright-director, Bertolt Brecht. Without in any way wishing to take away from Brecht's considerable influence on the American stage of the late 'fifties and the 'sixties, simple fairness requires that in examining theatre history of the 1920' s and the 1930's some attention be paid to those Soviet artists from whom Brecht and virtually everyone else in theatre circles learned so much.2 It is surely time to bring them out of the dark corner of history assigned to them by Stalin when he destroyed or silenced both them and their works in the violence of the late 'thirties in the USSR.3 So thoroughly successful was Stalin's campaign against the so-called "Formalists"4 or "Futurists"5 in the middle-tolate 1930's and so gray the mediocrity of many of the Socialist Realists 6 who then enjoyed his sponsorship that it is difficult to remember now that burst of creative activity in die Soviet Union, that radical renaissance of brilliant and innovative theatrical activity that drew to Moscow so many European, Asian, and American experimenters in the arts in the 'twenties and 'thirties. It is helpful now to perform partial lobotomies upon ourselves in order to carry memory back beyond the searing experiences of the purge trials to that time when Moscow was the hub of world experimentation in the theatre. For those who associate Brecht's name with "epic theatre" and who then go on to assume that the term itself and the mode 102 of theatre so described originated with Brecht, ? it comes as something of a surprise to learn that in the first decade of the twentieth century Meyerhold had evolved in Russia a fullyfledged anti-illusionist or anti-naturalist theatre. With considerable satisfaction Meyerhold had quoted in 1902 the thesis of his friend, Valéry Bryusov: "It is time for the theater to stop imitating reality."8 Working from this premise Meyerhold sought also to prevent his audience from forgetting they were in a theatre. In the words of Leonid Andreyev, another poet caught up with Meyerhold in developing "theater theatrical'"9: "In the stylized theater the spectator should not forget for a moment that an actor is performing before him, and the actor should never forget that he is performing before an audience with a stage beneath his feet and a set around hiin." 10 In a note from 1907, Meyerhold himself states as first principle of diction; "The words must be coldly 'coined,' free from all tremolo and the familiar break in the voice. There must be a total absence of tension and lugubrious intonation."11 He adds in another note of the same year: "If an actor of the old school wished to move the audience deeply, he would cry out, weep, groan and beat his breast with his fists. Let the new actor express the highest point of theater just as the grief and joy of Mary were expressed: with an outward repose, almost coldly, without shouting or lamentation. He can achieve profundity without recourse to exaggerated tremolo. " 12 Of considerably interest here is the fact that not only does Meyerhold come up with a lull-blown theory of cocl acting (at a time when Brecht was but nine years old), he sees that such acting can have a profound emotional effect on an audience: "Wherever it was necessary to convey the extremes of passion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 102-112
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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