Stanislavsky/Meyerhold productions of Maeterlinck in Dramatic Criticism


Both Stanislavsky and Meyerhold were searching for a new direction in theatre. They worked together, learned from one another, stopped to examine their respective findings, rejected some and built on others, and then continued searching. Until Stanislavsky’s death, the two artists remained close in spirit regardless of how far apart their views on art had placed them. Stanislavsky considered Meyerhold his one and only true student; the one who didn’t follow his teacher in blindfolded fashion, but the one who inherited Stanislavsky’s “search” gene, often at the expense of success. One such experiment cost Stanislavsky more than fifty thousand roubles; nevertheless, Stanislavsky was not put out. He sensed that the survival of Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) was contingent upon a constant search for innovatory forms – not “new for the sake of new,” but “new” in the sense of breaking the artist’s comfortable attachment to the result of his work. As the artistic director of MAT, Stanislavsky had less freedom to experiment, given MAT’s already existing tradition which, being the source of its fame, it wasn’t about to forgo. Nevertheless, being a highly intuitive artist, Stanislavsky was the first who sensed the initial fading of the MAT’s spark. Meyerhold, on the other hand, was free to experiment with new theatrical forms, and did so freely from the time he left MAT until accepting an invitation to be Stage Director of the Imperial Alexandrinsky Theatre and the Imperial Marinsky Opera.

 “You are Hopelessly and Forever a Theatre of Chekhov” A. Andreyev.[1]  

What prompted Stanislavsky to search out a new repertoire for MAT? Critics draw our attention to the “repertoire crisis,” which followed upon the death of Anton Chekhov. Stanislavsky wrote that MAT’s future fell into jeopardy after Chekhov’s death: “It was not quite obvious, but Chekhov’s authority sheltered the Theatre from a lot of troubles.”*[2] As an aspect of MAT’s initial aesthetic, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko had emphasized the primacy of repertoire as characterizing the “tone” of theatre. Consequently, they were extremely careful in configuring that repertoire. Chekhov’s plays ensured a certain “Chekhovian” tone for the theatre. Leonid Andreyev insisted that the bond between MAT and Chekhov gave rise both to the new theatre and the new dramaturge, since this union theoretically allowed for a complete fulfillment of their potential.[3] So where was the theatre now to turn in search of the “new Chekhov”?

Naturalistic Clichés

Some of the more perceptive critics, however, have posited that the MAT’s crisis began when the clichés of naturalism had become part of the theatre’s furniture, while Chekhov was in fact still alive. The dilemma and complexity of any artistic profession lies in the dialectical reciprocity between the artist and his art. Once an artist has created a work of acknowledged value, it is only reasonable that the artist feels inclined to repeat it at the risk of turning its inner impetus into a cliché. One could spot the seeds of such in Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness produced in 1902, wherein was perfectly depicted the domestic brand of naturalism, excellently reproduced with the appropriate ethnographic details in stage design, costumes, and speech, but which nevertheless failed to convey any inner truth. Even a masterfully sculpted pile of mud in the “yard” didn’t move the critics:

The inner drama of Anuta would produce a more significant impression if there were no yard at all. For the nonce, her drama has been sacrificed to an excessive surface naturalism.[4]

MAT repeated this similar naturalistic pattern in the production of Julius Caesar in 1903, causing Stanislavsky to remark that the actors’ intuition was being overshadowed by the surface naturalism attendant upon present productions.[5] At about the same time, Bryusov published his article entitled “Unnecessary Truth,” which stated that MAT’s success had attested to the fact that the theatre hadn’t discovered any new direction in dramatic arts at all; in fact all it had done was to refine the old European theatre.[6] The tone of overall criticism that hovered around MAT at the time suggests that clichéd (a word loathed by MAT) production norm had been established which had led to “naturalism for the sake of naturalism.” The human, transcendental, spiritual truth previously sought for had been misplaced in the scramble for a more superficial outer truth’ defined by naturalism.

Maeterlinck’s One-Acts 

Nemirovich-Danchenko feared the “extinction” of the MAT. Stanislavsky clamored for a renunciation of personal ambitions in order “to achieve the impossible and save the season.”[7] Stanislavsky’s decision to stage Maeterlinck thus was formulated in a state of crisis as a reaction to criticism and entailed an impulsive rejection of his earlier realistic principles. Stanislavsky didn’t expect Maeterlinck’s one-acts to bring in a significant profit, but hoped rather for an artistic gain.[8] He saw that the theatre required a laboratory for experiments and without this laboratory it was doomed to repeat its own self-generating clichés. While the idea of studios was in the air,[9] Stanislavsky’s work on Maeterlinck’s miniatures The Blind, The Interior and The Intruder represented experiments he had undertaken in his own artistic laboratory. 

There were a few artistic dilemmas that Stanislavsky had to solve in order to convey the mood of Maeterlinck’s one-acts. One of his major concerns was how to immerse the audience into this uniquely Maeterlinckian ambiance which meant getting past the buzz of the spectators’ overlapping domestic thoughts. Chekhov’s plays achieved the needed effect by placing the audience in familiar surroundings and then, by creating an appropriate atmosphere in which the “living” characters lead the audience past that “familiar setting”, find themselves part of the world of subtle Chekhovian spirituality. Nemirovich-Danchenko even stated that “Russian drama is, first of all, founded on psychology, and the Russian actor seeks in his roles, first of all, a living and authentic psychology,”[10]Maeterlinck was greatly surprised upon hearing of MAT’s determination to stage his plays, which he himself considered unstageable. Stanislavsky had to invent numerous stage techniques in order to do justice to that “mood” and prove to Maeterlinck that his one-acts were indeed suited for the stage. However, this species of “authentic psychology” was not present in Maeterlinck’s one-acts; rather, it was a particular “mood,” that was placed on the public’s pedestal for display. No wonder Stanislavsky devoted a lot of creativity, originality and talent to finding the right adaptations for these miniatures. To convey the presence of death in “The Intruder,” Stanislavsky draped some tulle around the ceiling, which was rustled slightly when the “intruder” entered the room. In order to acclimate the audience to the Maeterlinckian tone, Stanislavsky gradually immersed the audience in complete darkness right before the beginning of the play:

Little icicle lamps are slowly dimming, turning into small blood-tears, so that the audience is placed in half-darkness with a complete darkness to follow. The walls of the theatre move somewhere farther away and the audience instinctively quiets down adjusting their hearing and vision to the ensuing darkness. Soon, a disturbing cacophonous music was heard, which then transformed into a sweet- sounding one. When the music stops, a tiny ray of light makes clear that the curtain has been drawn and the stage is already open.[11]

An incident that occurred during the rehearsals of The Blind convinced Stanislavsky of the need for a more radical search in the symbolist and abstract directions. Stanislavsky consulted a popular avant-garde artist on the possibility of sculpting a statue of a dead pastor. The avant-garde artist rudely replied that Stanislavsky doesn’t need a statue, but a stuffed dummy.[12] Appalled by the artist’s rudeness, Stanislavsky, nevertheless, sensed some truth in the curt reply and began visiting art galleries, studying expressionist painters, and finally examining certain images from a mirror’s point of view in order to find a key to establishing the “mood” on stage. When the curtain went up, the audience was witness to an atmosphere of still beauty and growing unrest:

One could see a shadowy blue landscape, huge bare tree trunks with their crowns reaching to the sky, precipitous hills with hanging stratums of soil, dried up shrub and colorless grass and pale sky of the deep night. Figures of blind people clinging to each other in fear while grasping long dried wooden sticks. On the verge of the precipice one can see a frantically gesticulating mother and a child. Near a tree, there is the body of a dead pastor.  The wind comes and goes; the moon is shining, sometimes shadowed by clouds with the roar of the sea as a backdrop.[13] 

Stanislavsky admitted that it is the “mood” of The Blind that gave him the most trouble to reproduce. However, here one might perceive something deeper than the problem of establishing the mood onstage; the underlying artistic worldview of Stanislavsky was far different from that of Maeterlinck. The latter admitted that his one-act plays featured death as their main heroine and the anticipation and horror of her approach as their predominant mood. Stanislavsky, experiencing a state of both artistic and spiritual crisis, nevertheless was an artist of “life.” Andreyev recalls that, after the 1901 production of Three SistersThe Blind wrote:
(which, by general consent, ended so morbidly that a walk through a cemetery would have been more cheerful)[14] while mourning the fate of three sisters, Andreyev suddenly realized that more than anything else at that moment, he wanted to live.[15] And that was an artistic signature of Stanislavsky. His artistic credo wouldn’t allow him to stage Maeterlinck’s miniatures as “about death.” As a result, Stanislavsky would switch the accents in the end of all three one-acts from that of “horror and stillness of death,” to the passing of the old and the coming of the new. Nikolai Efros in his review ofThe theatre extensively modulated it from minor to major key. … [E]specially in the finale, the play sounded a hymn to light, to a courageous impulse to go forward, to a proud future, to victory over all darkness. Youth will triumph over blindness, diffuse darkness, and destroy death. This was stressed through intonations and sounded in the text, which left itself open for interpretation due to its ambivalence and flexibility. … Not death, but allegorical blindness was placed on the pedestal. No wonder that the dead pastor … was moved far back toward the wall and was invisible to the audience until the end of the play. And forgotten yet again at the final chord.[16]

“Unsuited for the Stage” 

This was the title of one of the more insightful reviews that reasserted Maeterlinck’s original position that his plays were written for marionettes. The author quoted Chekhov’s idea that “barely fleeting beauty of human grief” could not be conveyed through words, but only through music. Stanislavsky failed in his attempt to overcome the essence of the theatre, which is even more material than simple “words.” Critics praised the beautiful Flemish set design of the “Interior,” and admitted that the imagination, inventiveness, talent and taste that went into these miniatures were enormous; the scenic aspects such as scenery, mis-en-scene and tone were extremely appropriate.[17] However, the actors who were supposed to speak in a highlighted declamation-like tone were unable to sustain it, falling back on realism as their safe harbor. A year later, Meyerhold wrote that the production’s lack of success was due not to the unstageability of Maeterlinck’s plays, but to the actors’ inability to find appropriate non – realistic colors to convey the mystical-symbolical drama.[18] Understanding MAT’s tradition of “authentic psychology,” Andreyev delineated different reasons for this unsuccessful attempt:

Perhaps Maeterlinck was a psychologist, but the symbolist form is more suitable for ideas, to which it provides unprecedented scope, but is dangerous for psychology’ there can be no psychological truth where there is no firm foundation or motivation, where the very basis of spiritual actions is symbolic, ambiguous, equivocal. A symbolist does not bring his heroes to tears, he forces them to weep: he presents as assumption that which has yet to be proved –psychologically, of course. … More that mathematics, psychology insists: Prove it![19]
This production didn’t carve out the new artistic direction he was seeking, but was instrumental in creation of the Studio on Povarskaya Street since it proved to Stanislavsky that a more experimental setting was needed to continue searching and investigating in that direction. He continued to look for ways to “translate” symbolist dramatic works on to the stage, often looking for “new for the sake of new.”[20] Still worried for MAT’s future, Stanislavsky envisioned organizing numerous acting troupes with a repertoire of eight to ten plays that would move around from city to city performing selected titles. The working name for this enterprise was The All Russia Society of Provincial Theatres. The Studio on Povarskaya Street was to be the first troupe among the envisioned aforementioned Society.
The Studio on Povarskaya Street
By the time Stanislavsky invited Meyerhold to lead the artistic experiments of the Studio, Meyerhold was conducting interesting and often successful experiments in Kherson and in Tiflis* where he organized a small troupe called” The Fellowship of New Drama” and produced plays of Ibsen, Maeterlinck and Przybyszewski. Stanislavsky recalled that both he and Meyerhold were aiming for similar things in art, as he explains in his famed memoir My Life in Art: “The difference between us lay in the fact that I only strained toward the new, without knowing any of the ways for reaching and realizing it, while Meyerhold thought that he had already found new ways and methods which he could not realize partly because of material conditions, and partly due to the weak personnel of his troupe.[21]” 

Planning the future of the studio together with Stanislavsky, Meyerhold envisioned that the aim of the studio was to help the Art Theatre continue being the avant-garde theatre, which fosters contemporary dramaturgy and develops the appropriate means for the “new” theater art. He considered it unacceptable that painting and dramaturgy were ahead of contemporary theatrical possibilities and actor’s technique. Stanislavsky fostered high hopes for the studio, and since he was the one sponsoring it, he was interested not only in its artistic, but also its financial survival. Nevertheless, he was convinced that when the Studio’s success will become evident, many sponsors would be willing to support it and its cause, thus making the dream of provincial troupes come true.[22] 

Stanislavsky trusted Meyerhold and didn’t interfere with the rehearsal process. Meyerhold sent Stanislavsky detailed rehearsal reports. In the process of gathering new means for new artistic solutions, the musical department organized an expedition to the Russian wilderness to discover some authentic music, instruments and composers. The artistic “credo” of the studio was unequivocal: “realism is dead.” The “new” art was to be found in combinations of color, tones and notes; in harmony of sounds. The idea was to establish the selfsame mood that Stanislavsky couldn’t realize in Maeterlinck’s miniatures a year earlier.


The Death of Tintagiles (La Morte de Tintagiles)

One of the opening productions of the Studio on Povarskaya was to be Maeterlinck’s The Death of Tintagiles. Meyerhold employed all his artistry on establishing a mood close to that of Maeterlinck. He wanted to present life as a dream, to draw the spiritual canvas of mystical dreamlike emotions. This vision, no doubt, grew from the plot itself: two sisters, Ygraine and Boulanger, are trying to protect their brother, Tintagiles from the Queen who wishes to capture him. They are able to withstand her servants’ intrusion, but when they fall asleep, the Queen’s servants steal Tintagiles and the sisters are unable to bring him back. The metaphor of death is quite apparent here and so is the danger of turning the play into a “parable.” Another danger was present in the text itself; according to Andreyev, in “The Death of Tintagiles, … a feeling of terror may be elaborated with amazing accuracy, but it is not sufficiently motivated, is not graduated, is lent credence from the very start: and if I personally fear death, I will willingly, rapidly be terrified; otherwise, I will remain unmoved.”[23] 

Meyerhold was determined that The Death of Tintagiles should inspire “a quivering astonishment at what partakes of a religious veneration and acceptance.”[24] If Meyerhold ever considered logically and gradually establishing the fear of death, this development was different from the way MAT approached similar tasks. Meyerhold’s gradual development was to be deciphered in an actor’s intonations and plasticity, often not those discovered by actors in rehearsals, but those based on Primitivists’ paintings and carefully reproduced on stage by Meyerhold. Rejecting everything that is “accidental” and naturalistic, Meyerhold dedicated a significant amount of time to an actor’s vocal and speech training. As an exercise, Meyerhold had the actors draw straight lines and angles with their intonations. He banished “round” sound and glissandos. Every emotion had to be conveyed through ‘a cold, bright sound like the sound of drops falling to the bottom of a deep well.[25]’ Meyerhold particularly searched for ‘the inner rhythm,’ treating pauses as a part of the musical scheme of speech and a logical continuation of an inner action. The rhythm was one of the decisive factors for Meyerhold; something that made actors tune into the style of the play and prevented them from falling back on their own emotions.[26] 

Meyerhold was convinced that in order to stage Maeterlinck successfully, the means had to be extremely simplified. Only a hint of action or design was needed so that the audience could imagine the rest, concentrating on what is essential instead of on the peripheral. Meyerhold concluded that Maeterlick’s staging asked for an extreme, almost marionette-like stillness, with the nobility, scope and scale of a Greek tragedy.[27] Meyerhold had thoroughly researched Maeterlinck’s ideas on theatre and was determined to follow his directions closely in order to achieve the needed result.

In the course of rehearsals, Meyerhold came up with the following stage principles:

Those of diction included:

1.      Cold and clear articulation without outward exhibition of emotions.           

2.      Strong vocal ability with a solid base.

3.      Mystical shiver instead of old-theatre temperament.

4.      Emotions expressed in stage form.

5.      Epic calmness.

6.      Tragedy/Tragic grandeur achieved through joy.

 Those of movement were:

                   1.   Convey the deepest emotions of the soul by plasticity of movement.

2.    Possibility of interpreting Maeterlinck’s drama in a Byzantine icon setting.[28]

“Still Theatre prefers the constraint of gesture and economy of movement. The technique of this theatre is one, which shuns unnecessary movements so that they don’t take the spectator’s attention away from complicated inner experiences, which one can eavesdrop on only in a murmur or a pause,” reflected Meyerhold.[29] In order to achieve this stillness, Meyerhold “sculpted” actors on stage to form desired bas-reliefs and frescos. Meyerhold expected that this method would lead to the unveiling of “inner dialogue” with the help of music and plasticity. He considered movement a continuation of the dialogue. Often movements didn’t highlight the dialogue, but foreshadowed events. Meyerhold hoped that this artistic picture would help to redistribute the emphases of the production from those based on logic to those based on art.[30] 

Meyerhold faced a new challenge when trying to adopt an unconventional sketch made by Sapunov and Sudeikin to a three-dimensional set model. Possibly, the young artists didn’t know how to put it together. Meyerhold decided to simplify the concept of three-dimensional set design: there was a canvas backdrop depicting the horizon, a bridge, a small hill, and a summerhouse on center stage.[31] In order not to dissipate the attention of the audience by directing it toward numerous details on the canvas, only one corner of the canvas was done as a completely finished drawing; in the remaining space light sketches were made in coal to suggest a window, a staircase and a table, producing an overall impression of unfinished etudes. Meyerhold’s rejection of the three-dimensional set design led to a creation of a new stylization principle:

“[T]he new technique was predetermined by the dramatist. There were acts in The Death of Tintagiles which last for ten or twelve minutes on stage, the action taking place in a medieval castle. Yet in order to build the set of a castle you need an intermission twice as long as the act, which is absurd. You are forced to think up a ‘stylized castle.’” [32]

The artists painted the set on their own, concentrating on harmonious colorization. The production exploited a green-blue palette. Stylized costumes were interweaved into this color scheme, but did not pertain to any particular time period or fashion. 

Meyerhold began rehearsals by having actors recite Maeterlinck’s poetry and fragments from his other plays similar in mood to The Death of Tintagiles. The thematic nucleus of the play was the characters’ central belief in the saving of Tintagiles. Great emphasis was placed on musicality of sound and combination of sound and gesture. “Boulanger’s musical weeping was preceded by a forceful gesture of raised arms and bent-back hands. The weeping was melodious and so unreal that it sounded more like some musical instrument than a voice.” The Servants of the Queen moved together in circles and spoke simultaneously: “so that each servant’s part is the text of the whole act or that part of it where the servants speak. Only from time to time is one of the voices raised above the others. That is, each of the servants speaks the words of her part louder.”[33] Meyerhold wanted the music to resemble that of a liturgy: “Maeterlink’s performance is a gentle mystery play, an almost unheard harmony of voices, a choir composed of quiet tears, withheld sobbing, and trembling hope. His drama is most of all a manifestation and cleansing of the soul.”[34] Ilya Satz, who composed music for the play, convinced him to have the music accompany the action of the play from beginning to end; music was to act as a separate character, harmoniously joining all other aspects of the production. 

When Stanislavsky first saw a selection of scenes from the Studio’s future repertoire, he liked Meyerhold’s ideas and approved his work. However, when he saw the dress rehearsal, “it all became clear.” He spotted the weakness that the actors displayed when they were left face to face with the complex material; the set design, although creative, overpowering the actors; the music, beautiful, but inappropriate. Nikolai Ulyanov recalled the famous dress rehearsal, which was not destined to turn into a Studio performance:

Half-darkness on stage. Only people’s silhouettes are visible. The set is flat, without wings, and hung almost at the front edge of the stage. This is new, and also new is the actors’ rhythmic speech, as it is projected from the stage. Slowly the action develops; it seems as if time were standing still. Suddenly, a shout from Stanislavsky: “Light!” A tremor is felt in the theatre, noise, confusion. Sudeikin and Sapunov jump up from their places, objecting. Stanislavsky’s voice: “The audience cannot take darkness on the stage for long, it goes against psychology, they must see the actors’ faces!’ Sudeikin and Sapunov: “But the set is made for half darkness, it loses all artistic meaning in the light!’ Again there is a silence, with only the beat of the actors’ measured speech. But no sooner have they turned on the light than the whole set is ruined. The various elements disintegrate, the set and the figures fall apart. Stanislavsky stands up, the onlookers too. The rehearsal is interrupted, the production not approved.[35]

The attempt failed. Due to the Revolution of 1905 and Stanislavsky’s financial losses the Studio on Povarskaya Street was closed. The production’s lack of success led to several contradictory interpretations. According to Stanislavsky, “In Meyerhold’s hands the actors became the clay out of which he molded his striking groupings and mis-en-scenes. All he had done was to demonstrate his principles, ideas and experiments; he didn’t succeed in embodying them in a satisfactory artistic form.”[36]

Bryusov, on the other hand, asserted that this production was one of the most interesting he had seen in his lifetime. The failure, in his opinion, lay with actors who were schooled in MAT acting style and couldn’t renounce it even in so stylized a production.[37] Synthesizing all of the above, Meyerhold concluded that there was an artistic dissonance in the production; different artistic personnel, such as actors, designers and musicians, insisted on their own vision instead of giving in fully to the director’s vision of the play. This attempt convinced Meyerhold that Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk was impossible. 

Shocked by the death of the Studio, Meyerhold nevertheless admitted that Stanislavsky saved him by closing the Studio.[38] It is not completely clear what these words meant; most likely they were a reflection of Stanislavsky’s famous phrase: “a good idea, badly shown, dies for a long time.”[39] He went back to his troupe in Tiflis and there, restaged The Death of Tintagiles. Meyerhold gave a short speech before the audience on the opening night praising the audience’s artistic maturity. During the same speech, however, Meyerhold unpacked the meaning of the major symbol in the play, thus demonstrating that he didn’t in fact have a complete trust in his audience’s “artistic maturity.” 

In a letter to his wife, Meyerhold wrote that his staging of The Death of Tintagiles in Tiflis differed from that done at the Studio on Povarskaya Street. The action took place in a dark-green frame, which was completely covered in tulle. The music did not follow the action throughout, as had been done at the Studio, but was used strategically in the beginning of the play and during some long and significant pauses. Costumes were similar to those at the Studio. 

Tiflis critics called The Death of Tintagiles a ballet where words were unimportant.* The plasticity of movements and fantasy stage design reminded many of Beklin’s paintings. A theatre critic under athe pen name A. T. offers a description of the Tiflis production in which one can see how Meyerhold altered the original stage design:

In front of the audience there is an island. On an island – the palace of Queen-Monster, who plans to steal from Ygraine and Boulanger their brother, Tintagiles. The sisters feel that they are helpless in their efforts to save him, and actually writhe in their sufferings of helpless despair. Everything in this spectacle excites the nerves and plunges the soul into a fog of mystical horror. In addition, one sees three servants of the queen circulate on stage; something akin to formless lumps of grey cloth howling in unison about how to steal Tintagiles and lull to sleep his sisters’ vigilance. These figures come closer and closer and take the shape of bogeyman used to frighten little children. One hears a cacophonous din of advancing danger, followed by a tremolo of dissonant notes – understandably, several of the most sensitive members of the audience have their hair stand up from horror.[40]

This time, Meyerhold considered his work on The Death of Tintagiles finished.

Komissarzhevskaya Dramatic Theatre

Vera Feodorovna Komissarzhevskaya became interested in Meyerhold at this stage of his career. He seemed the kind of director who would offer her an opportunity to express her soul on stage. During the negotiation process, Meyerhold made it clear that he required a complete artistic control over all matters of his productions, which included hiring and dismissing actors. He asked to be excused from directing naturalistic plays of the “old theatre.” [41] Like Stanislavsky, Komissarzhevskaya had complete faith in Meyerhold’s artistic direction and seemed happy to entrust her talent to the hands of this visionary innovator of the theatre. Meyerhold, likewise, saw a great future in this partnership: He would encourage the best Russian writers to peruse foreign literature on the chance of their coming across some great lesser-known dramatic works for the theatre.[42] 

In Komissarzhevskaya Dramatic Theater, Meyerhold continued the experiments he had started at the Studio on Povarskaya Street and then, at Tiflis with the “Fellowship of New Drama.” He had already accumulated a number of innovative methods; for example, after multiple experiments, Meyerhold rejected the two-dimensional set design just as he had rejected a three-dimensional one prior to that. His latest ideas on set design were a breathable mixture of two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs, a canvas backdrop with a number of strategically fixed sculptures.[43] 

Nevertheless, Meyerhold still felt that set design should express the idea of the play as seen by the director. The above idea was not completely revolutionary; at MAT the set designer worked with the director to create a set that would best convey the atmosphere of the play. However, in Meyerhold’s imagination, the set design expressed the allegorical idea of the play; it acted as one of the main characters in the play, at times overshadowing the immediate action.* Criticism of Meyerhold’s design would follow in abundance, which for the record was not completely unjustified. In his book A History of the Russian Theatre, Evreinov writes:
Meyerhold’s work was said to be creative, but dead as a still image on an ancient painting. Decorations and costumes were artistically harmonious, but depriving the play of any life, plunged it into alienation and abstractionism. What was beheld was a lifeless and ice-covered kingdom of schemes and allegories.[44]

Reading these reviews, one wonders why Meyerhold was willing to sacrifice stage “life” for his experiments with form, which so often lead to no critical acclaim. If one were to examine Meyerhold’s letters and essays of the time, one could decipher that Meyerhold was determined to completely destroy the old “life” in the theater, the one which flourished with greater or lesser success, at the Moscow Art Theatre, and build a completely new “life,” that of clean and epic beauty. For him, preoccupation with form was a new house which, when built on solid ground, was supposed to attract new kinds of tenants. However, at the end, the house was built impeccably, but only a few select souls volunteered to live in it. Among them was Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who was able to permeate the stylized pattern of her roles with inner truth.

Sister Beatrice (Soeur Beatrice)

True success in staging Maeterlinck came to Meyerhold with the production of Sister Beatrice. Maeterlinck asserted that Sister Beatrice was not a real play, but a scenario written to provide musicians a theme for lyrical contemplations; he called it a “miracle in three acts.”[45] While still working in the Studio on Povarskaya Street, Meyerhold was eager to stage Sister Beatrice in addition to The Death of Tintagiles; however, Moscow censors had banned the former. When Meyerhold was invited to Komissarzhevskaya Dramatic Theatre, he was able to obtain permission to stage the play with the following cuts: the word “miracle” had to be removed from the title, the statue of the Madonna was not allowed onstage, and the Madonna’s song was cut. Nevertheless, Sister Beatrice was one of those rare successes in which the director’s vision effectively combined different aspects of production and allowed for extreme stylization of speech, plasticity, acting and design to inspire a dreamlike atmosphere. Meyerhold’s ideals came to their complete realization in the in the Sister Beatrice production and were acknowledged by critics. “I truly and for the first time in many years had seen a real dream in the theatre,” wrote Maximilian Voloshin.

How did the production of Sister Beatrice achieve this dream-like effect? Of course, one must admit that the theme of the play found a fertile ground in the hearts of St. Petersburg spectators. The overall conception of the play, coupled with the spectators’ cultural and religious background, set in motion their imagination, presenting a subject that most of the spectators could reinterpret for themselves in a very personal and self-defining manner. Before the presentation of The Death of Tintagiles in Tiflis, Meyerhold asked the audience to imagine that the Queen was taking away their loved ones and to allow this conjuration to unpack the metaphor of death for each and every one of them.[47] Meyerhold had no need to incite the audience’s imagination before the opening night of Sister Beatrice; their connection to sinful Beatrice was “established” long before they came to the theatre. The weakening of religious potential, orthodox dictates and customs which were still strong, but which many considered outdated, the search for modernizing orthodoxy (as Gippius and Merezhkovsky had done) left Russian intelligentsia in a dialectical relationship to their belief: They were searching for the new and during that search, they abandoned much of the old. The theme of divine forgiveness brought to light in Sister Beatrice appealed to many precisely because of that search, since if it was bound to turn out that what they were searching for didn’t exist, the hope of repentance and forgiveness overshadowed the risk. 

Nevertheless, the readiness of the St. Petersburg spectator to uphold the theme of divine forgiveness placed a greater responsibility on Meyerhold as it implied that the playgoer would either accept the work in its entirety or reject it in a similarly rash manner. Meyerhold built Sister Beatrice along his previous stage principles; as indicated in his director’s script, Meyerhold explored rhythms of movement and speech, concentrating on slowness and grandeur of movements and melodious dialogue. Figures on stage were set according to bas-reliefs, and the groups sculptured similarly to Meyerhold’s experiments in The Death of Tintagiles. This time, however, all scenic elements were invoked to create a worthy pedestal for Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who played both the Madonna and the title character. 

An actress of rare emotional grace and intensity, Komissarzhevskaya was able to breathe an elaborate pattern of emotional life into a very strict composition of movements and gestures created by Meyerhold. Kneeling while addressing the statue of Madonna (which was draped and placed in an alcove so as to satisfy the requirements of the censorship), Komissarzhevskaya was trembling with her whole body and at the same time, flawlessly executing the overall gestural composition set forth by Meyerhold. Long after his break with Komissarzhevskaya, Meyerhold noted that she didn’t posses the attractiveness of the leading actresses; however, in her roles, she would transform herself into unmatchable beauty.[48] Valentina Verigina recalled that upon reading the play, she was convinced that Aletta’s line to her alleged sister Beatrice: “Why are there rays of sunlight in your hands?” had to be removed from the script on account of its unstageability and melodramatic overtones. However, when Komissarzhevskaya appeared after the “miracle” scene and walked across the stage with a basket for the poor, to her own surprise, Verigina sensed the “rays of sunlight” playing in her hands.[49] One must note that the lights stayed the same all throughout the play. 

For Sister Beatrice, Meyerhold borrowed combinations of lines, colors and compositions from Pre-Raphaelite and early Renaissance painting. The set exhibited the gothic wall of green and violet stone mixed with grey shades of tapestries, which lightly shone with pale silver and ancient gold. The nuns were draped in blue cloth with a grey vest over it. On their heads, they wore bonnets, which were tied under the chin and highlighted their cheekbones. Meyerhold created a special trajectory of movement on stage. Figures moved in a wavelike pattern from left to right and from downstage to upstage. A group of poor was placed stage left in order not to break the harmony of left to right movement.

The plot of the play is as follows: Sister Beatrice falls in love with the knight Bellidor. She prays before the statue of the Madonna for forgiveness but, unable to overcome her passion, she runs away from the convent with Bellidor. Twenty-five years later she comes back to repent and die in the convent but cannot comprehend why the sisters treat her with such love and care: “There was no such forgiveness here before!” What sister Beatrice doesn’t realize is that upon her leave, the statue of the Madonna had come to life and taken Beatrice’s place at the convent. Thus, the absence of the latter remained unobserved. What was observed were the miracles that occurred around the alleged sister Beatrice:   

 [S]he came out of the alcove in blinding silver vestments with golden locks. She put on the blue robe and a bonnet that Beatrice had left behind, thus hiding her cascading golden hair. The abbess appeared accompanied by nuns and discovered the disappearance of the statue, and after that, the abbess noticed a glimmer of the silver vestments from under her cloak. Sisters rhythmically and simultaneously spoke the words of terror: “She… took off…the vestments… from the statue?” A murmur of prayers and the sound of fingers running through the rosary beads followed. The abbess addressed the supposed Beatrice in a threatening tone: “Sister Beatrice!” And then, to each other: “She-does-not-reply.” And again the murmur of prayer was heard.[50]

In this scene description, one can “hear” the musicality of speech and sound so carefully built up by Meyerhold. Groups of nuns were interweaving in synchronized, ballet-like patterns creating a physical backdrop for Beatrice’s ordeal. Scenic action was moved closer to the audience to facilitate the intimacy of the experience. G. I. Chulkov commented that the enchanting quality of this production was due to its precise overall rhythm as displayed in the plasticity of movement and the harmony of speech. “The stylistic music which existed in the original French and which had been lost by the translator was rediscovered by Meyerhold.”[51] 

Meyerhold discovered yet another aspect of the play, which had been hidden in Maeterlinck’s text and crossed out in the title of the play by the censorship: a complete assertion of the possibility of the miracle. There were two scenes in which the word itself was repeated a significant number of times: the “miracle” scene and the scene between the Madonna and the poor. In addition to that, the whole performance, according to Mgebrov, was permeated with grandeur and purity of a religious service: “actors didn’t act in this production. They conducted a religious service.”[52] However, the real miracle, as Meyerhold saw it, occurred in neither of these scenes. The miracle was “earned” by Beatrice’s human suffering when she chose love in shame, condemnation, and pain over the tranquility of a life in the convent. 

One of the most remarked upon scenes of the play was the “miracle” scene – that in which the priest orders the alleged Sister Beatrice to be punished by flagellation. The Madonna (Komissarzhevskaya) followed the sisters to the chapel with the same softness of measured step and peaceful happiness with which she would later bring a basket of clothing to the poor. When the actual flagellation was supposed to occur, organ music (written by A. K. Liadov) was heard, and one by one, the nuns appeared on stage, filling the whole auditorium with exclamations of wonder: “A Miracle! Miracle! Miracle! … Sister Beatrice is a saint! a saint!”[53] As in confirmation of the latter, their whips blossomed with white lilies. 

Alexander Blok considered this moment to be a key one in the play’s structure: “When the delicate nuns dressed in pale blue, filled the theatre with solemn, radiant exclamations, “Miracle, Miracle, Miracle, Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna!” we experienced a feeling of sublime excitement. We were uplifted and thought of love, of wings and of future joy. There was a feeling of deep gratitude for the sparks of miracles which shone with radiance throughout the auditorium.”[54] Voloshin added that this moment transformed the stage into a “paradise dwelling,” a sanctuary for Beatrice’s soul.[55] 

The next scene reasserted the theme of the miracle. The nuns kneeled in a straight line synchronously turning their heads in the direction of the chapel. The Madonna slowly descended from the chapel with a golden pitcher and the “rays of sunlight” in her hands. From the other side of the stage, three pilgrims, akin to those in Vrubel’s paintings, appeared. Organ music followed and the sisters lowered their heads as Madonna walked by them to bring the pitcher over the pilgrims’ outstretched hands. A kneeling group of poor also awaited the Madonna with outstretched hands and upon seeing her, they whispered; “A miracle!”[56] Critics noted the simultaneous meditative and graceful movements “of the ever-beautiful female body” and the melody of speech, which produced a spell-like effect: “The triumph of the musical impulse within a dialogue coupled with actors’ movements lead to a life-asserting dream about the miracle, which was the essence of the play.”[57] 

Overall, the production of Sister Beatrice has been a unique event in the history of Meyerhold’s criticism. “Maeterlinck has been successfully received by an audience – what has occurred here? An accident, or has something horrifying taken place?”[58] Most of the critics praised the production, admitting that its minor faults (such as Bellidor’s acting, music not in keeping with the traditions of XIV century Spain, “immodestly beautiful” set design, and such[59]) didn’t hinder the overall positive impression of the play. Voloshin published his analysis of the latter targeting contemporary dramatic criticism: 

Austere critics forgot that the mystery of theatre occurs not on stage, but in the soul of the spectator. If actors work towards a creation of the new theatre, the audience should correspondingly prepare itself for it: it needs to learn how to watch and see. When the curtain is drawn, the spectator’s soul experiences a dream. The spectator needs to be able to give in to this dream completely, and not awake himself unceasingly with unneeded analysis and fastidious criticism. The charges that critics have leveled at the Komissarzhevskaya Theatre fall not upon the theatre, but upon the critics themselves. They prove that our taste – the taste of the Russian audience – is too flawed. In theatre, one must turn into a child and give in to the ‘game’ completely. … A naïve factory worker that passionately watches … “Folies Dramatiques” and throws orange peels at the villain is a lot closer to the essence of understanding real scenic action than a smart and educated critic, who carefully and perceptively notices every gesture and intonation of an actor and doesn’t let himself be carried away unto the illusion of a dreamlike vision.[60]

Meyerhold will not encounter critical acclaim the likes of which he received with the production of Sister Beatrice until his appointment as stage director in the Imperial Theatres. After Sister Beatrice, Meyerhold will throw himself right into the critics’ jaws with his next Maeterlinck production: Pelléas and Mélisande. That same production will cause his dismissal from Komissarzhevskaya Dramatic Theatre. “My Symbolism was born of longing for an art of large generalizations” stated Meyerhold, looking back on this period of his searching. Disagreeing with Stanislavsky on almost every aspect of theatre art, Meyerhold was nevertheless grateful to his teacher for instilling a spark of longing for true art in his student.

Stanislavsky's The Blue Bird

Having rejected Meyerhold’s direction, the MAT would still go on to stage Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird in 1908, using some of Meyerhold’s innovations. Maeterlinck gave The Blue Bird to Stanislavsky in the Spring of 1906, entrusting MAT to be the first theatre in Russia to present his dream-play to the audience. MAT was able to fulfill this trust almost two years later, in September of 1908, linking the production to the MAT’s ten-year jubilee. [i] Given the significance of this event, something must be said about the jubilee itself, or rather, the critics’ assessment of the MAT’s work over this ten-year period. Reading the reviews of the fall 1908 season, one is surprised to find how much MAT has been criticized and praised for the same things by different critics. Vasilevsky noted that in its search for new repertoire, the MAT was able to sketch some original direction which resulted in an interesting theatrical aesthetic representing a synthesis of all MAT’s previous work.[ii] Iablonovsky, on the other hand, dismissed MAT’s synthesis as a “crisis of the theatre” and a theatrical “lack of direction.”[iii] (150-1). Often, the critique itself sounded like an element of nostalgia for MAT’s past, for Chekhovian realism and “the life of the human spirit” onstage. Some critics seem almost to ridicule MAT’s desire for new forms and its search for new repertoire.[iv] Reading these reviews, one recalls Andreev’s words about MAT (cited earlier) and wonders if the MAT was “truly and forever” the theatre of Chekhov? Nevertheless, didn’t the MAT’s approach to Chekhov’s plays entail that selfsame “innovation” in 1898? Some of the more perceptive criticism pointed out that MAT’s search had been aimed at creating a new aesthetic for so new a dramaturgy and, certainly, the choice of repertoire dictated the MAT’s artistic direction. Nonetheless, for many, MAT’s aesthetics in Chekhovian terms turned out to be more authentic than that of the symbolists.[v]

Another interesting observation about MAT’s ten-year marathon was made by A. P. Kugel, who wasn’t a passionate supporter of MAT from the time the theatre began experimenting with plays other than those of Chekhov. Kugel stated that, by the sole fact of its existence, MAT gave birth to the active development of Russian theatre criticism, both setting the bar and creating certain standards for criticism.[vi] During the jubilee celebration, both on stage and in press, MAT was called “realist,” “impressionist,” and “symbolist” theatre at the same time, while taking account of these terms’ different connotations. One might even say that The Blue Bird, so carefully crafted by Stanislavsky to celebrate MAT’s anniversary, was delivered to the public at an adverse moment of often uninformed comparisons and after a general summing up of MAT’s ten-year outcomes.

Surprisingly, Voloshin’s review of Meyerhold’s Sister Beatrice (cited earlier) could equally have been written about Stanislavsky’s production of Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird. Similarly to Meyerhold, Stanislavsky tried to create a pure dream on stage, aimed to move spectators of all ages deeply and to incite them to appreciate the beauty and wonders of life:

Let The Blue Bird in our theatre thrill the grandchildren and arouse serious thoughts and deep feelings in their grandparents. Let the grandchildren on coming home from the theatre feel the joy of existence with which Tyltyl and Mytyl are possessed in the last act of the play. At the same time, let their grandfathers and grandmothers once more before their impending death become inspired with the natural desire of man: to enjoy God’s world and be glad that it is beautiful.[vii]

This turned out to be not an easy task. As one might have predicted from the above description of the dynamics of the MAT’s “anniversary criticism,” the play either moved the spectators to tears or became but another reason for critics to show off their wit. After all, the sole fact that MAT began with the realistic Seagull and “ended” with the symbolist The Blue Bird was enough to demonstrate MAT’s “lack of clear direction,” and the most witty critics couldn’t help but comment on MAT’s ornithological inclinations.[viii]

The reviews display either complete admiration or deepest ridicule and condemnation of the production. The latter is particularly amusing since it is the only one of Stanislavsky’s productions to survive to this day, the one which had been uninterruptedly performed for one hundred years, even after its author had been declared a fascist. One of the most eloquent accounts in English is Oliver M. Sayler’s impression of the production:

When you have travelled three quarters of the way around a world at war, risking the dangers of revolution and anarchy, and uncertain, except for a blind faith, whether or not you would find your goal still in existence, and when, after months of patient preparation and still more patient pilgrimage, you find yourself in the presence of that which you had sought, then you come as near to the humbleness of the prophets who saw visions of old as any man is likely to come today. … I cannot tell surely whether it was the arrival at the shrine or the overwhelming beauty of the production of Maeterlinck’s féerie which brought the tears to my eyes and sobered and chastened and then lightened my spirit.[ix]

After reading the above description it is hard to digest so vehemently negative, and at the same time, so nostalgic a review, as the one by Osip Dimov:

Indeed, a stone instead of bread was what you offered us. Explicitly, a stone, be it even a diamond which shines in Tyltyl’s hat… With melancholy and bewilderment we leave the theatre. Bitter wormwood has poisoned our hearts. The best theatre, the best directors – what have you offered us now?! … The Blue Bird has flown away. … No, there appears to be some sort of a mistake… It is not the Blue Bird that has flown away… it is the Seagull; The Seagull has disappeared – Chekhov’s Seagull, an emblem and a symbol of exploration, the Seagull, needed not so much for happiness, but for truth. That is the only bird we are going to seek.[x]

The tone of Dimov’s review was, by no means, different from that of most other reviews. They were all as passionate (either positive or negative). E. Beskin, in his own assessment, eloquently titled “‘Art’s Dead End,” calls The Blue Bird a diagnosis of MAT’s deadly disease.[xi] D. Merezhkovsky files a very particular grievance with The Blue Bird: it doesn’t address the issues of the Revolution.[xii] And, as if answering to all of the above claims, N. Efros, a strong supporter of MAT, begins his review with the following words: “Let’s be naïve. Let’s be like children.”[xiii] Recently, The Blue Bird has been compared to works of Mozart in its sense of joy and harmony.[xiv] Reading the reviews, one realizes that there was a real battlefield environment in the press between those who accepted MAT’s “innovations” and those who desperately wished for the return of their beloved “Chekhov’s” theatre.

Having read the above reviews one wonders what it was the production offered that made some fall in love with it deeply and forever and others, abhor it with the same intensity? The easiest way to find out, one would think, would be to travel to Moscow, reserve a seat at the Gorky’s MAT (recall the split of 1986), and see the legendary production. Nevertheless, even though the directors of revivals claim that everything has been kept unaltered, the production may hardly be called the same. A certain museum aura hovers over the celebrated production. (A similar aura may be felt surrounding Vakhtangov’s Princess Turandot, which is still performed in Vakhtangov’s Theatre to this day and bores the actors and the audience alike). Consequently, one has to turn to accounts of the production from the reviews of Stanislavsky’s era and Stanislavsky’s own letters and speeches.

Stanislavsky’s decision to stage The Blue Bird was due to the fact that Maeterlinck had entrusted the play to Stanislavsky, whose work he didn’t even know before. This was done by recommendation of Maeterlinck’s friends in France. From 1906, the unpublished manuscript was in Stanislavsky’s hands; however, it took him almost two years to put together the production, which premiered on September 13, 1908 after one-hundred-and-fifty rehearsals.[xv] The delay worried Stanislavsky greatly; he was terrified that “the competitors” or even the “self-same Meyerhold” would find out about the play, come up with a “horrific” translation of this dream-poem, and that the MAT wouldn’t be the first theatre in Russia to premiere the play.[xvi] Maeterlinck wished the Russian audience to find out about his new play from the MAT, before the play was to be translated and published in Russia.[xvii]

Stanislavsky was visibly struggling with staging the play. His first impression of the work was coupled with his high ideals of making the play fit the “purity of a child” and of having the stage effects be gentle and flexible, as in a dream, made his search for these “effects” a not always successful one.[xviii] Stanislavsky knew well what he didn’t want Maeterlinck’s play to look like; now he had to search for what he sensed was appropriate for the play, but had neither the complete picture, nor the technical means to achieve his desire:

“What we need to do is to convey on stage the unconveyable. Thoughts and premonitions of Maeterlinck are so elusive and gentle that they may simply not make it across the footlights. In order for that not to happen, we, the actors, directors, and designers, need to immerse ourselves deeply into the author’s mysticism, and create a similar atmosphere on stage, which would be irresistible for the audience. … Unfortunately, the audience is not sensitive enough and not prepared to grasp these distant feelings and thoughts.The production of “The Blue Bird” must be made with the purity of fantasy of a ten-year-old child. It must be naïve, simple, light, full of the joy of life, cheerful, and imaginative like the sleep of a child; as beautiful as a child’s dream and at the same time as majestic as the ideal of a poetic genius and thinker.

But how can we create this impression for thousands of audience members? The Moscow spectator arrives late to the show, and … takes forever to settle down. The crowd will frighten off the ghosts and premonitions of Maeterlinck … and destroy the reverie of a child’s beautiful dream. Not quickly will the crowd get into the play and quiet down. It first needs to toss from itself its daily cares, which it has brought to the theatre….This is how the first act is going to pass. It is vital that not a word of Maeterlick’s text be lost to the audience. We need to capture the audience’s attention even before the action of the play develops.[xix]

In his speech to the cast, Stanislavsky highlighted some of the more important elements of an actor’s personal effort which could make his ideals a reality:

The major sound in this collective harmony belongs to you, the respected actors. In order to make the public listen to the fine shades of your feelings, you have to live them through yourself intensely. To live through definite intelligible feelings is easier than to live through the subtle soul vibrations of a poetic nature. To reach those experiences it is necessary to dig deep into the material which is handed to you for creation. … I speak to your personal observations which will broaden your imagination and sensitiveness. Befriend children. Penetrate into their world. Watch nature closely and note her manifestations surrounding us. Befriend dogs and cats and look oftener into their eyes to see their souls. Thereby, you will be doing the same as Maeterlinck did before he wrote the play, and you will come closer to the author.[xx]

Stanislavsky was adamantly against theatricality in The Blue Bird. He repeated again and again in speeches and letters that the play might easily lend itself to the creation of a children’s extravaganza show, which would subsequently kill the play:

More than anything else, we must avoid theatricalness in the external presentation of The Blue Bird as well as in the spiritual interpretation, for it might change the fairy dream of the poet into an ordinary extravaganza. In this regard, the play is all the time balancing on the edge of a knife. The text pulls the play in one direction and the remarks of the author in another. … All these effects carried out literally according to the directions of the author would kill the seriousness and the mystic solemnity of the work of the poet and thinker. All the given directions are important for the substance of the play and they should be carried out, – not by the old theatrical means, but by the new ones, better ones.[xxi]

The above speech was translated and sent to Maeterlinck, who was greatly enthused by Stanislavsky’s approach and basically gave him a carte-blanche on any changes the latter saw fit. [xxii]In the process of the rehearsals, Stanislavsky altered (or sometimes did away with) some of the author’s remarks in keeping with his own director’s vision of the play:

I think the director needs to convey the meaning of the author’s side remarks. Literal transition of those from page to stage is not mandatory since it is not rare that the author invades the director’s sphere. How am I to tell him that even though he is a writer of genius, he is not experienced in costume, set and tech design? I can sense what it is that he is trying to achieve, and at the same time I know that the scenic means that he has chosen won’t yield the desired outcomes.[xxiii]

Maeterlinck was happy with the rehearsal process and didn’t interfere in Stanislavsky’s search. He was somewhat puzzled by it since he thought that what the Russian master was trying to achieve “lies beyond the capabilities of the stage.” He was only saddened that the actors and not real children would play Tyltyl and Mytyl. To that Stanislavsky had very concrete objections, stating that he could not ask children to attend rehearsals all day until midnight. [xxiv] One might admire Stanislavsky’s diplomacy here, since according to his own aesthetics, actors believing themselves to be children would do a better job onstage than actual children. As a result, Tyltyl was acted by S. Khalutina and Mytyl, by A. Koonen. The program of The Blue Bird, however, didn’t feature Stanislavsky as the director of the play though, undoubtedly, he was the one guiding spirit behind it. He was credited as producer while L. A. Sylerzhitsky and I. M. Moskvin were credited as directors of The Blue Bird.[xxv] Enchanting music was written by Ilya Satz.* V. Egorov was credited with the creation of the stage design for the play; nevertheless, when Sayler asked Stanislavsky for the drawings of the set, Stanislavsky modestly replied that there were no drawings. Stanislavsky came up with the set for each scene and conveyed his conception to Egorov. The actors, also received significant acclaim, although some criticized the MAT for creating a production in which the set overshadowed the actors. Sayler notes the acting work of Theban (Dog) and Kolin (Cat), ** praising them both for their characteristic and restrained portrayal of animals that have taken the human form.[xxvi]

If one were to cover “technical innovations” that Stanislavsky created for the show, one would have to name multiple background curtains, gauze curtain, a play of black velvet against black velvet (first used in The Life of Man), experimentation with shapes and perspectives, to name only a few. The play begins At Christmas Eve, as the children of the woodcutter, Tyltyl and Mytyl, are woken up by noise and music coming from the Charismas celebration of their affluent neighbors. A little backstage, the audience sees a cozy and tiny cottage “set well back inside a dark-colored false proscenium:”

Squarely in front, one on each side of the stage, are the substantial wooden

cradles of Tyltyl and Mytyl. To the right, the clock, and the door through which

Father and Mother Tyl depart on tiptoe; to the left, the great hood of the fireplace

and the tables on which the milk and bread repose in silence; at the back, the

windows high in the wall and the table beneath them.[xxvii]

Wishing they were rich, Tyltyl and Mytyl hear a knock on the door and an old, one-eyed hag appears, claiming to be a fairy. The “fairy” demands that the children undertake an adventure in search of the Blue Bird. She gives Tyltyl a hat with a diamond in it; once the diamond is moved, the children will be able to see the true souls of all the things around them. As soon as Tyltyl puts on the hat and turns his diamond from left to right, the surroundings immediately transform themselves in front of spectators:

The lamp on the table relights itself and takes up a new position halfway between

floor and ceiling. The shutters of the windows clap open and reveal the golden

glow of the Christmas tree across the way against a background of deepest blue. …

With one turn to the right, [Tyltyl] has converted the woodcutter’s simple cabin into

Aladdin’s palace. Golden snowflakes, shifting and changing in hue, transfigure the things

of every day, and even the roof of the cottage is set with precious stones.[xxviii]

 S. V. Iablanovsky, who wrote an altogether negative review of The Blue Bird, presenting the play as a dialogue with his soul from which the latter wasn’t able to benefit even a little bit, nevertheless describes the moment of transformation in a praiseworthy and eloquent manner:

The ceiling, the wall, the furniture, all the objects were instantly transformed by millions of lights and everything around acquired a fantastical character. The setting became azure and through a network of countless, until now invisible, holes, gushed the electric light. Endless fire dots were spinning around and it produced an impression of the play of color in the magic lamp.[xxix]

N. Efros, a lifelong supporter and an admirer of MAT, is able to convey the magic of this scene to the page: “The walls in the woodcutter’s house instantly were illuminated by millions of gemstones, as if someone created embroidery with the threads of light and a magnificent brocade of fire on the black velvet.”[xxx]

This transformation is followed by the “dance of hours” as they escape from the clock and grow in size, beginning to resemble people’s heads right in front of the audience. (Efros, 158) Next the spirits of all things surrounding Tyltyl and Mytyl become visible, with their transformation being accompanied by different shades of the light:

The changes by which Fire and Water and Milk and Bread and the rest come to life are so unobtrusive and so casual that it all takes your breath away as completely as did that of Tyltyl and Mytyl. … The dog and the cat, too, come to life quite as you know they would if they had the opportunity.[xxxi]

The “hag” also transforms and turns into the beautiful young fairy Berylune, who commands everyone to go in search of the Blue Bird of happiness needed for Berylune’s daughter who is sick with melancholy. Berylune predicts death at the end of the journey for all who accompany the children, since they will have to resume their everyday form. As the journey begins, the walls of the woodcutter’s house are slowly covered by fog and through the window, the group leaves in search of the Blue Bird.[xxxii]

First, the group visits the Palace of the Fairy, which seems to be made out of gold. Sayler describes this scene in the following manner:

No one else but a Greek king or Gordon Graig would think of building such a soaring place to live in. Great stone steps run up until they are small and then disappear, still climbing upward. Stone pillars flank and follow them on their way. And a vaulted ceiling of brown and gold sweeps far upward to keep them from brushing the sky. The scene is brief and full of the human nature of the various characters as they clothe themselves in their new garments, and so only the practiced eye will stop to consider how simply this imposing picture has been achieved. In essentials it consists only of two curtains, one for the massive staircase and its pillars, and the other for the vaulted ceiling behind it.[xxxiii]

In the Palace of the Fairy, the characters change into beautiful and fairy-tale appropriate costumes. Bread puts on a grotesque and colorful caftan; Cat holds up his hat which reminds one of the cat’s tail. The costume which seems to have produced the greatest impression on the audience, was the costume of Light, and not even the costume itself but the entrance of the Light in her costume:

But the moment where Russian genius has surpassed even the keen and sensitive imagination of Maeterlinck is at the entrance of Light, when for a few moments before her radiant presence is seen at the door a choir of Russian voices is heard offstage in a snatch of Russian religious song. The heart leaps at this moment of reverent imagination, and henceforth, “The Blue Bird” means more than it has ever meant before![xxxiv]

The Cat plots against the children, reminding other souls in the group that as soon as they will find the Blue Bird, they will die and the humans will understand the secrets of all things. In the meantime, the search begins. The first stop is the Land of Memories, where the children must go alone. The forest on the way there is a little creepy and covered by fog. Quiet sounds of old people’s voices may be heard. Grey heads, tilted towards each other, are vaguely visible through the fog. Some unknown gentle-looking plants may be seen at a distance.[xxxv] As the fog disappears, the spectators see the cozy house of the reposed grandfather and grandmother of Tyltyl and Mytyl. Their brothers and sisters, who have passed away a while ago, are there too.[xxxvi] Apparently, the dead are asleep, waking up only when those alive are thinking about them:

Tyltyl and Mytyl are seen intimately enough but seemingly at a considerable distance, walking through a dimly lit wood. Now they have come to a sign that points the way and they stop to read it. Of course, it is not visible to the audience. As they go on their way hopefully, the wood fades gradually, almost imperceptibly, and in its stead, without crossing the two pictures, the cottage of Grandfather and Grandmother Tyl comes into view. First of all, the great curving lines in the sky back of the dimly seen gabled roof grow sharp and clear and seem to lead you back and down into this Land of Memory. Then the simple little house itself, with its tall cocked hat of a roof, becomes distinct in the increasing light with the good old grandparents sitting sleeping by the door.

… [I]f you are as keenly interested in how things are done in the theatre as you are in what is done, you will see now in the full, though not too full light of the scene that it is all being played at least twenty-five feet back of the curtain line and in addition behind a fine meshed gauze screen. Only dimly can you see the curtains that lead back to this illuminated part of the stage, for the light is so admirably controlled that the intervening distance is potent but not obtrusive.[xxxvii]

The grandparents feed the children, talk to them in a manner that the grandparents do and give the children the bird which looks totally blue, but once it crosses the boundary of the Land of Memories back into the forest, it turns black. Next, the children enter the dark Palace of the Night. Along the soft black velvet darkness one sees a twinkling Milky Way. On the throne, covered by stars as to create an impression of pearls, the children see the grey Night with huge wings.

I am sure that no other stage picture, no other work of art in any field , has ever recreated and interpreted for me the awful stillness of the night as this scene did the moment the curtains parted. By line and by lighting Stanislavsky has achieved an unbelievable vastness, with still farther and illimitable distance stretching out through a great arch of a window to a pathway of quietly winking stars; while off to the right, up a dimly seen flight of stairs and hundreds of yards back as far as the eye can reach, is a vaulted passageway leading up to the day, you are sure![xxxviii]
The two scenes, the Forest Scene and the Cemetery scene, didn’t receive much attention in the press at the time of the premiere. Sayler notes that later these scenes were removed from the play because they frightened the children at the performance.[xxxix] Contrastingly, there were almost no reviewers who wouldn’t mention the scene in the Kingdom of the Future, created in transparent and gentle light blue tones. The Palace itself, with its cupola fading deep in the sky and the stairs which seem never-ending as well, specifically highlight several undefined figures draped in light blue cloth, with their rhythmic movements and slow speech.[xl] Sayler calls it “a soft, pale, half-formed scene”:

It is played in a soft but strong and glowing light behind gauze and its essentials once more are two curtains, – one to the fore, marking off the scene with great tall columns, and the other far to the rear, vaulted … by an ingenious use of sweeping curved lines. In between the vaulted ceiling with its door into the sky and terrestrial things and the platforms and steps at the front, where most of the action of the scene takes place, is a depressed space or garden, adding variety very simply to the picture… [I]t is here that the spirits of the unborn appear in robe and hood with only their faces, frank and childlike, uncovered.[xli]


At one moment, the hall of the Kingdom of the Future splits open and Father Time gathers the souls, ready for their incarnation on Earth, where the mothers are waiting for them. Father Time, interestingly enough, carries a big gold scythe. According to L. Gurevitch, in the finale of the scene, as if coming to meet the children who are yet to be born, accompanied by a wondrous melody, the joyful choir of mothers was heard from an indefinite distance.[xlii]

Having left the Kingdom of the Future, the Children are suddenly faced with their cottage, which they don’t even recognize at first. To the audience, the cottage greatly resembles the one from the Land of Memory, which is indeed the same cottage. The children make farewells with everyone who has accompanied them and fall asleep.

The simple pathos of parting with their good friends all, after their night of adventure, is soon succeeded by awakening in the wooden cradles in the room where the play began. And the Russians contrive to make this scene as eloquent of morning and of Christmas as they have made the previous scenes speak clearly the simple, hearty vision of their author.[xliii]


Unfortunately, Sayler doesn’t describe the “eloquence” of the morning in detail and we are left only to imagine it. What he does note, is that even with the emission of the
two scenes, the performance ran for four hours.* Nevertheless, the children (and the reviewers, for the most part) didn’t protest the length of the show.

Despite all the negative criticism of
The Blue Bird, one couldn’t get the tickets to see the play: the auditorium was overcrowded. Recalling the premiere of the play, Stanislavsky stated that the production had a great success. In his letter to Maeterlinck a month after, he wrote: “The Blue Bird became a dream of all Moscow children. Whole schools and particular families send deputations and letters of inquiry to me, written in an unsure child’s hand, asking me to get them tickets to see The Blue Bird.[xliv] “I knew that I owed you a lot but didn’t realize that I owed you everything,” wrote Maeterlinck in 1910, after his wife, Georgette Leblan, had seen the production.[xlv] And, undoubtedly, among all
Maeterlinck’s plays ever performed in Russia, The Blue Bird has been the most remembered, being performed even to this day.*

Is it possible to identify a moment when the “masterpiece” of “lyric beauty” turns into a museum exhibit? The reviews of the production today are still laudatory,
nevertheless dismissive of the production as a “children’s show,” which is exactly what Stanislavsky was hoping to avoid. A prominent Russian actor, A. Batalov,
describes that in the 1950s the production was still alive and extremely popular. A good tradition still exists in Gorky’s MAT: the new members of the troupe have to
take part in the production. First, the newcomers are invited to play the “black people,” – i.e., stage hands dressed all in black velvet. For example, in the first act, the
audience watches a dance of brightly illuminated dinner plates. Having finished dancing, the plates disappear as unexpectedly as they have appeared. In reality, the tricks
with plates are done by “black people,” who are dressed from head to toe in costume made out of black velvet and are invisible to the audience due to the black velvet
background. The “horrors” seen in the Palace of the Night are achieved by the same means. The “black people” come onstage carrying long sticks with a scary
head attached to the top part of the stick. The “stars” also follow the same format, featuring dancers dressed in black velvet, who wear a black cap attached to which
are thin illuminated strips of tape. The audience just sees the illuminated strips, which creates an effect of the stars.[xlvi]

Are those “innovations” not as thrilling in the age of technology as they were before? Did the Blue Bird abandon the production, leaving only its title? Do the actors approach the work on the production with less awe than they did in Stanislavsky’s era? The production is still extremely popular for children; however, based on the number of negative, or, what is even more troubling, lukewarm, reviews on the website of Gorky’s MAT, one might conclude that it is not the same production.[xlvii] One hundred-years is an incredibly long time for a piece of theatre, which, one might argue, is the most fleeting art of all. It is hard to even imagine that a production could run for such a long time with not even a mise en scene altered. This fact alone is a tribute to Stanislavsky for the greatness and significance of his work. Nevertheless, he was also the one who stated that an actor should re-educate himself constantly in order to account for the changes in the contemporary world, its latest acting theories, and to avoid clichés. Would a person with the above philosophy of theatre want his production to run unaltered for a century?

I would like to end this paper with Meyerhold’s words. When Meyerhold was asked about his favorite role (that of Treplev in MAT’s
The Seagull), and whether it went along with his adamant negation of naturalism, Meyerhold replied that what was valuable in The Seagull were elements of “poetical nerve, the hidden poetics of Chekhovian prose. …Before Stanislavsky, only Chekhov’s plot was presented on stage. The directors would forget that in his plays, even the sound of rain outside the window, the noise of a loose and broken bucket, of the early morning outside the window shades, the fog on the lake, are all inextricably linked to the actions of his characters. At that time, this was a discovery; “naturalism” emerged when this became a cliché. And as for clichés, all are bad, whether naturalistic or ‘meyerholdian.’”[xlviii]

* A famous anecdote is often cited about Satz’s music for the Water, which he brought to Stanislavsky for approval. It was raining, and Stanislavsky dragged the composer to the roof to listen to the “real” music of the water. For the next half hour, the two masters of the Russian theatre were on the roof, spending their precious time listening to the rain. The music was ready the next day.

* * Sayler saw the production in 1918.  Originally the Dog was played by V. Lyzhsky and the Cat by I. Moskvin.

*  Reviewers note that at the opening night it ran for four and a half hours, from 8pm to 12:30 am.

* On September 30th, 2008 MAT celebrated the one-hundredth-year anniversary of The Blue Bird’s production.

Stanislavsky's The Blue Bird


* Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

* Georgia.

* Some hinted that the actors didn’t project, making the words unintelligible.

* In a production of Pelléas et Mélisande, Meyerhold created a set which was built as a small island which could be reached by a staircase from the stage. The small performance space caused actors to walk with greater caution, for too sharp a turn could result in a fall. This set was to convey the upward impulse of the play and the precarious perch of the characters’ feelings. 

* On September 30th, 2008 MAT will celebrate the one-hundredth-year anniversary of The Blue Bird’s  production.

[1]  Leonid Andreyev, quoted in Nikolai Efros Moskovski Xudozhestvenni Academicheski Teatr (Moskva: Gos Izdatel’stvo, 1924) 270.

[2]  Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sobranie Sochineni, ed. M. N. Kedrov (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1960) 7:549.

[3] Leonid Andreyev “Chekhov as Panpsychologist,” in Russian Symbolism Theatre, edited and translated by Michael Green (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1986) 365.

[4]  Moskovski Xudozhestvenni Teatr v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited U. M. Vinogradov, O.A. Radisheva, E.A. Shingareva (Moskva: Artist, Rezhisser, Akter, 2005) 93-4.

[5] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 50.

[6] Valery Briusov “Against Naturalism in the Theatre” in Russian Symbolism Theatre, edited and translated by Michael Green (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1986) 25.

[7] Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sobranie Sochineni, ed. M. N. Kedrov (Moskva: Isskustvo, 1960) 298.

[8]  Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sobranie Sochineni, ed. M. N. Kedrov (Moskva: Isskustvo, 1960) 7:299.

[9] Vsevold Meyerhold, Nasledie, edited by O. M. Feldman (Moskva: Novoe Izdatel’stvo, 2006) 2:503.

[10] Leonid Andreyev “Letters on the Theatre,” in Russian Dramatic Theory from Pushkin to Symbolists. An Anthology, translated and edited by Laurence Senelick (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 249.

[11] Moskovski Xudozhestvenni Teatr v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, ed. U. M. Vinogradov, O.A. Radisheva, E.A. Shingareva (Moskva: Artist, Rezhisser, Akter, 2005) 421-2.

[12] Konstantin Stanislavsky, Moia Zhisn’ v Isskustve (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1962) 337-338.

[13] Moskovski Xudozhestvenni Teatr v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, ed. U. M. Vinogradov, O.A. Radisheva, E.A. Shingareva (Moskva: Artist, Rezhisser, Akter, 2005) 421-2.

[14] Leonid Andreyev, “Teatral’nie Ocherki, Pis’ma o Teatrein Maxim Moshkov Online Library Database, (Federalnoe Agenstvo Po Pechati I Massovim Kommunikatsiam, 08/12/2004): (accessed November 25, 2007). 

[15] Leonid Andreyev, “Teatral’nie Ocherki, Pis’ma o Teatrein Maxim Moshkov Online Library Database, (Federalnoe Agenstvo Po Pechati I Massovim Kommunikatsiam, 08/12/2004): (accessed November 25, 2007).

[16] Moskovski Xudozhestvenni Teatr v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, ed. U. M. Vinogradov, O.A. Radisheva, E.A. Shingareva (Moskva: Artist, Rezhisser, Akter, 2005) 420.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Vsevold Meyerhold, Stati, Pis’ma, Rechi’ Besedi, edited by A.V. Fevral’ski (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1968) 89.

[19] Leonid Andreyev “Letters on the Theatre,” in Russian Dramatic Theory from Pushkin to Symbolists. An Anthology, translated and edited by Laurence Senelick (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 253-4.

[20] Konstantin Stanislavsky, Moia Zhisn’ v Isskustve (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1962) 338.

[21] Ibid., 430.

[22] Vsevold Meyerhold, Nasledie, edited by O. M. Feldman (Moskva: Novoe Izdatel’stvo, 2006) 2:529.

[23] Leonid Andreyev “Letters on the Theatre,” in Russian Dramatic Theory from Pushkin to Symbolists. An Anthology, translated and edited by Laurence Senelick (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 249.

[24] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 57-8.

[25] Vsevold Meyerhold, Stati, Pis’ma, Rechi’ Besedi, edited by A.V. Fevral’ski (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1968) 133.

[26] Ibid., 135.

[27] Ibid., 125.

[28] Ibid., 133-7.

[29] Ibid., 125.

[30] Ibid., 112.

[31] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 66.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 64.

[34] V. E. Meyerhold. Perepiska, edited V. P. Korshunov and M. M. Sitkovetskaya (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1976)


[35] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 69-70.

[36] David Magarshak, Stanislavsky (London: Faber and Faber, c. 1950, 1986) 273.

[37] Meyerhold v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited by N. V. Pesotchinski, E. A. Kukhti, N. A. Tarshis (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1997) 49.

[38] S.V. Melikh-Zaharov and Sh. Sh. Bogatiriev, ed. Pisateli, Artisti, Rezhiseri o Velikom Deiatele Russkogo Teatra (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1963) 71.

[39] Konstantin Stanislavsky, My Life in Art, translated by J. J. Robbins (New York: Routledge, c. 1924,  1948, 1952; 1991) 438.

[40] Meyerhold v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited by N. V. Pesotchinski, E. A. Kukhti, N. A. Tarshis (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1997) 54-5.

[41] V. E. Meyerhold. Perepiska, edited V. P. Korshunov and M. M. Sitkovetskaya (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1976)


[42] Ibid., 372.

[43] Ibid., 101.

[44] Nikolai Evreinov, Istoria Russkogo Teatra (Letchworth: Bradda Books, 1972) 369.

[45] Maurice Maeterlinck, Oeuvres, edited by Paul Gorceix (Taupin: Editions Eomplexe, c. 1901, 1999) 46.

[46] Meyerhold v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited by N. V. Pesotchinski, E. A. Kukhti, N. A. Tarshis (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1997) 86.

[47] Vsevold Meyerhold, Stati, Pis’ma, Rechi’ Besedi, edited by A.V. Fevral’ski (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1968) 96.

[48] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 83.

[49] Valentina Verigina, “V Teatre na Offitserskoi Ulitse,” in Vera Feodorovna Kommisarzhevskaya, edited by A. Ia. Altshuller, (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1964) 268.

[50] Ibid., 267.

[51] Meyerhold v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited by N. V. Pesotchinski, E. A. Kukhti, N. A. Tarshis (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1997) 76.

[52] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 100.

[53] Valentina Verigina, “V Teatre na Offitserskoi Ulitse,” in Vera Feodorovna Kommisarzhevskaya, edited by A. Ia. Altshuller, (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1964) 267.

[54] Meyerhold v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited by N. V. Pesotchinski, E. A. Kukhti, N. A. Tarshis (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1997) 82.

[55] Ibid. 85.

[56] Konstantin Rudnitsky, Meyerhold The Director, translated by Geroge Petrov, edited by Sydney Schultze   (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981) 101.

[57] Meyerhold v Russkoi Teatral’noi Kritike, edited by N. V. Pesotchinski, E. A. Kukhti, N. A. Tarshis (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1997) 82.

[58] Ibid., 83.

[59] Ibid., 76.

[60] Ibid., 86.

[61] S.V. Melikh-Zaharov and Sh. Sh. Bogatiriev, ed. Pisateli, Artisti, Rezhiseri o Velikom Deiatele Russkogo Teatra (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1963) 71.




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