Meyerhold on Hamlet - an article by one of his students
Dreams of staging Hamlet ran through Meyerhold's entire life. It was the play he loved most. More than once he scheduled it in his theater's repertory, and always something interfered.
One time he said: "Write on my gravestone: here lies an actor and director who never acted and never directed Hamlet".
A fragment of Hamlet was played at the Meyerhold Theater in Yury Olesha's play A List of Benefits, where the role of Hamlet is played by the heroine-actress Elena Goncharova. Zinaida Raikh played Goncharova. Meyerhold had thought of producing Hamlet with Raikh in the title role, but by the mid-thirties I no longer heard Vsevolod Emilievich speak of it, although we often talked about Hamlet....
In February 1935, talking one time about the complex narrative scheme of a certain novel, where the hero is some- times described in the third person and sometimes speaks of himself in the first person, Meyerhold suddenly said:
"At one time I dreamed of a production where Hamlet would be played by two actors: one vacillating, the other resolute. They would constantly replace each other, but while one was working, the other would not leave the stage, but would sit at his feet, and thus underline the tragic situation of two opposed temperaments. Sometimes the second one would even express his relation to the first and vice versa. He might even jump up at a certain point, knock the other out of the way, and take his place. Of course it's easier to imagine than to accomplish physically, since it would be hard to find two actors of equal physical gifts, and that's the whole point."
Vsevolod Emilievich already spoke of that idea in the past tense, so it's hard to say to which of his Hamlets the idea pertained; clearly, though, not to the "final" one, since in 1936 Meyerhold affirmed the idea of staging the classics without rewriting the text.
One time (in 1936) he was talking about Hamlet, and described how Laertes and the mob break into Elsinore; he added that the mob was all wet, that it had rained that day, and the water was glistening on boot-tops, on helmets and weapons. "The only thing is," he said, "I don't know how to work it."
All those present vied with each other in trying to figure out various technical solutions to the problem of showing the effects of a rainstorm. I'm not sure that the rain would have remained in the production, but at the visionary stage he needed it.
After 1931 there seems to have been no real plan actually to stage Hamlet at Meyerhold's theater, but that does not mean that Meyerhold himself stopped dreaming about it and preparing for it. On the contrary, the idea of a production grew and ripened in his creative imagination, and by the middle of the thirties he was able to describe separate scenes from this production, that was never to see the light of day, with such brilliance and detail that people began to imagine that they had already seen the show on stage.
In the fall of 1936, after his return from Paris, Meyerhold told us that he had talked with Picasso about designing Hamlet. This was the last full, peaceful period of work in Meyer-hold's life, the fall of 1936. Rehearsals for Boris Godunov were underway, and he had begun dreaming again of Hamlet in some not-too-distant future.
In 1936 the new building for the Meyerhold Theater seemed to be nearing completion (Meyerhold loved to take his friends over the construction site; he invited dignitaries at the International Theater Festival to see it, and showed it off himself, clambering around on the huge stone steps of the amphitheater), and Meyerhold indicated that he would open the new theater with a production of Hamlet.
He had a notion at that time of founding a special theater, in whose repertory there would be only a single play-Hamlet, in the various productions of different directors:
Stanislavsky, Reinhardt, Gordon Craig, and himself. Occasionally, half~oking, he insisted that fragments of his future Hamlet were contained in all of his productions of the past twenty years. "But I've hidden them so cleverly, " he said, "that nobody has noticed them. My Hamlet will be the summa of my work as a director. There you will find traces of it all. "
What should be done, of course, is to question everyone to whom Meyerhold described scenes from Hamlet as they matured in his imagination, and try that way at least to make a literary reconstruction of the production. Especially since Meyerhold, as far as I can recall, when he was left in 1938 without his own theater, abandoned the idea of staging Hamlet, and thought of writing a book about that production:
Hamlet: The Story of a Director. So that, as he put it, "someone, somewhere, sometime, for some anniversary or other of mine, " would be able to stage the play according to his plans. (From my notes of a conversation on June 14, 1938.)
It was at that meeting that he told me he was about to write an opera libretto for Shostakovich based on Lermontov's Hero of our Time - that period of his life was a time of literary imaginings. Our conversation took place in curious circumstances. Meyerhold telephoned and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him. It was a hot summer day. We walked along the boulevards, then for some reason or other turned into the Hermitage garden and sat down. They were rehearsing a program in the outdoor theater. We could hear the music, and acrobats practicing. From somewhere or other came the click of billiard balls. Meyerhold talked about his literary plans, expressed his delight with the Belinsky essay on Lermontov he had recently reread, outlined plans for a Lermontov group at the Actor's Club, and told me about his book Hamlet: The Story of a Director. I believe it was that day he told me about the scene in his imagined production where Hamlet meets his father's ghost:
A leaden gray sea. The dim midnight sun through a thin shroud of clouds. Hamlet walks along the shore, wrapped in a black cloak. He sits down on a rock by the water and gazes into the watery distance. And then suddenly in that distance appears the figure of his father. A bearded warrior in silver armor walks across the water toward shore. He gets closer and closer. Hamlet stands up. His father reaches the shore, and Hamlet embraces him. He sits his father down on the rock, and then, so that he won't be cold, he takes off his cloak and wraps him in it. And beneath his cloak he has on silver armor identical with his father's. And they sit there side by side-the black figure of the father and Hamlet all in silver. .
I don't know whether that's theater or literature, but to me it seems true poetry, of the very highest order. And it was thought up, not by a novelist, not by a poet, but by a theater director, one who knew how to calculate every last centimeter of a stage, and every precious second of playing time.
On that hot day, sitting with Meyerhold on a garden bench in the Hermitage, I felt more sharply than I have ever experienced it the fantastic power of his directorial vision.
Hamlet wraps his cloak around the ghost to keep him from the cold-That one single touch of genius, which combines the tenderness of poetry and the reality of life, is worth a long judicious explanation with a raft of scholarly research and quotations.
Aleksandr Gladkov, "Master rabotaet," Vstreci S Mejerxol'dom
(Moscow, 1967), pp.500-502; "Iz vospominanij 0 Mejerxol'de,"
Moskva Teatral'naja (Moscow, 1960), pp.365-366.