In his grotesque sci-fi novelette The Fatal Eggs (1923), Mikhail Bulgakov wrote of

…the theater of the late Vsevolod Meyerhold, who died, as everybody knows, in 1927, during the staging of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, when a platform [lit. trapezes] with naked boyars collapsed over his head…

Meyerhold was executed as a “Japanese spy” on February 2, 1940, at 65. Bulgakov died on March 10, 1940, of hypertensive neurosclerosis, at 49. In 2005, I quoted that snippet from The Golden Eggs to poke fun at Dmitry Chernyakov’s opera productions. I am quoting it now because the “platforms” or “trapezes” were shorthand for a range of Meyerhold’s theatrical innovations, which, in their turn, influenced and shaped quite a few Soviet Russian movies of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Reviewing Owen Hatherley‘s short book on early Russian cinema, Pamela Hutchinson quotes from the introduction:

This book… is about people who imagined turning industrial labour into a circus act.

In the reviewer’s words, Hatherley

explores how Soviet cinema, and its wider culture, absorbed two American imports: the industrial theories of Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor, and the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

I have a few quibbles and one big issue with the review. It omits what I think was the single most important factor in the development of Russian movie-making: theater. Without Meyerhold’s “biomechanics,” for one, would the young Soviet filmmakers have absorbed Charlie Chaplin’s and Buster Keaton’s industrial trickery as creatively as they did?

Unlike Pamela Hutchinson’s review, Owen Hatherley’s book has a discussion of those connections, as is clear from this review by Tony Williams:

Chapter Two – “Red Clowns to the Rescue: Biomechanics in Film, Factory and Circus” – examines the theatrical development by Meyerhold of mechanized Taylorised acting that fused into what the director described as “Chaplinism” in 1936 derived from American comedy and slapstick acrobatics… Here Biomechanics became “a complete revaluation of Taylorism to the point where it attains the quality of circus clowning”… This technique opposed the Taylorism from which it borrowed, leading to a certain practice involving “difficulty and strangeness” that Meyerhold’s pupils Tretiakov and Eisenstein took up in various ways.

Unfortunately, Williams’ piece is interspersed with condemnations of the neo-liberal order (and Hatherley quotes Marcuse, predictably). He is obviously a first-rate expert on the subject of Soviet films but waving the red flag is unnecessary and does not help the reader understand the inner logic of the theater and the cinema. Meyerhold was a revolutionary by his own admission (e.g., to Mikhail Chekhov) but he was a man of the theater first and foremost – during a period when Russia was at the forefront of theatrical development. It started 15-20 years before the 1917 revolution and ended some 15-20 years after it.

We have witnessed a silver or gilded age of Russian theater in the past ten or fifteen years, too. Does it mean we’re going to live through a revolution soon? A cheap shot.

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