Meyerhold was born on February 10th, 1874 (January 28th, 1874 according to the old calendar) in the Russian town of Penza. His parents were Prussian citizens, and his father (Emil Meyerhold) was a successful wine manufacturer. His childhood home has since then been preserved as the Penza Theatrical Museum.
After completing school in 1895, Meyerhold studied law at Moscow University for two terms. During this period, he relinquished his German Protestant upbringing and joined the Russian Orthodox Church, accepting Vsevolod as his Orthodox Christian name. He also married his first wife, Olga Munt, with whom he would have three daughters. At this time, Meyerhold became increasingly fascinated with the art of theatre. He had first participated in theatrical performances during school, but as the century closed, his interest became serious. He registered for an acting class at the Moscow Philharmonic Society’s Music and Drama School, in the course of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. Upon graduation, he was accepted into the troupe of the Moscow Art Theatre where he would act from 1898 to 1902, performing in a wide range of productions, including The Seagull (Treplyev), The Three Sisters (Tuzenbach), Antigone (Teiresias) and The Death of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan the Terrible).
Meyerhold's career as a stage director began in 1902 and would last for 37 years. In total, he would direct more than 290 productions. His earliest work was characterized by an interest in realism, similar to that of Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre. From 1902 to 1906, he ran the New Drama Touring Company, a troupe of young actors that traveled throughout the Russian provinces giving performances. Within three seasons he himself performed close to one hundred different roles, and directed plays by Maeterlinck, Chekhov, Gorky, Ibsen, Hauptmann and others. At first, his performances were staged along the lines of typical Moscow Art Theatre productions, but soon Meyerhold began to discover new methods, composing his own theatrical language.
In 1905, having heard about Meyerhold’s experiments, Stanislavski invited him to continue his work at the Moscow Art Theatre Studio on Povarskaya. Here, Meyerhold broke away from realism and demonstrated his uniquely creative approach to directing for the first time with his versions of The Death of Tintagiles by Maeterlinck and Schluck und Jau by Hauptmann. Unfortunately these productions were never seen by the general public, first being performed in a laboratory environment, and thereafter abandoned when Stanislavski decided to refrain from officially opening the studio. Regardless, Meyerhold continued to experiment, returning to his New Drama Touring Company.
In 1906, Vera Komissarzhevskaya invited Meyerhold to become the main director of her theatre in St. Petersburg, where he would make his name as the first Russian director to develop a symbolist style of theatrical representation. In a single season he premiered 13 productions, all of which called up heated debate. In Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Maeterlinck’s Sister Beatrice, Meyerhold demonstrated the structural principles he had developed for symbolist performance: a shallow stage, decorations resembling a mural, slow movements of the actors, gestures and poses that have the expressiveness of sculpture, and cold emotionless intonation. For Andreyev’s The Life of Man, Meyerhold cultivated a brilliant lighting score, and in Blok’s Balaganchik, he ironically re-examined symbolist imagery. Komissarzhevskaya however, did not find it easy to work with Meyerhold, and in 1907 she asked him to leave the theatre.
From 1908 to 1918, Meyerhold worked in the great Imperial theatres of St. Petersburg, the Mariinsky Opera and the Alexandrinsky Theatre in particular, where he was devoted to synthesizing classical performance traditions with modern theatrical reality. This was also a time of extraordinary collaboration - Meyerhold combined his talents with those of outstanding painters from the World of Art group. Among those who created striking designs for his productions were Alexander Golovin, Leon Bakst, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Nikolai Sapunov, and Sergei Sudeikin. In tandem with these artists, he employed various methods of stylisation to revitalise outdated scenic forms. Meyerhold integrated Moliere's theatrical techniques into his production of Don Juan, and blended elements of early 19th century Russian romanticism into The Storm by Ostrovsky and Lermontov’s Masquerade. Meyerhold also made a point of introducing controversial contemporary drama into the Imperial repertoire, staging Tolstoy’s Living Corpse, Sollogub’s Hostages of Life, and Gippius’ Green Ring amongst others.
Concurrently, Meyerhold was running a number of theatrical studios, where he strove to improve upon current methods of actor training, as a means of preparing performers for his productions. He focused on developing skills from traditional, non-realistic theatrical styles, paying particular attention to the commedia dell’arte, Russian fairground plays, circus acts, and pantomime. He believed in cultivating actors who have complete control of their body and voice, and who are capable of carrying out the director’s commands within the prescribed tempo-rhythm. From these investigations, and under the pseudonym of Dr. Dapertutto, Meyerhold created a number of dramatic performances and pantomimes at small artistic cabarets. Employing the theatrical techniques in which he had drilled his students, he staged a number of post-symbolist works, such as Blok’s verse plays Balaganchik and The Unknown Lady, as well as a variety of performances based upon commedia-style situations and characters, the most memorable being The House of Interludes. In 1913, Meyerhold compiled his theories developed during this period of exploration, and laid them out in his book On Theatre as a concept for a ‘conditional theatre’, which would stand in opposition to theatrical naturalism.
There was hardly a boundary which Meyerhold was unable to cross. In addition to his theatrical explorations, he experimented with cinema, directing versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and The Strong Man by Przybyszewski. He even reached beyond the borders of Russia herself, staging D’Annunzio’s La Pisanella at the Châtelet Théâtre in Paris. At the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Meyerhold made a notable contribution to opera as well, developing new and distinctive productions of masterpieces by Gluck, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky and other composers, while working with the country’s best performers, most notably the world-famous bass Fyodor Shalyapin.
The Russian intelligentsia responded enthusiastically to Meyerhold's great innovations. However, Imperial officials were not so pleased. They exerted heavy pressure upon him, demanding that Meyerhold revert to a conventional, realistic style for the Emperor's theatres. As a result, the October revolution of 1917 was especially significant for Meyerhold, as well as for other avant-garde artists. They were pleased by the collapse of the conventional bourgeois arts establishment, and looked forward to having the freedom to engage in bold and modern cultural experiments under the revolutionary Bolsheviks.
Meyerhold became one of the most enthusiastic activists of the new Soviet theatre, even joining the Social Democratic (later Communist) Party in 1918. This was a risky decision at the time, seeing as it was impossible to anticipate the direction in which Russia’s rapidly changing political tides would flow. To mark the first anniversary of the revolution, Meyerhold staged Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe, putting to use all of his research into the expressive possibilities of mass spectacle, folkloric poetry, traditional fairground performance and circus clowning. These two masters would continue to work together frequently throughout the next decade, producing most notably The Bedbug (1929), which it is said Mayakovsky wrote especially for Meyerhold. Even after Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930, Meyerhold would continue to stage the great poet’s works. Shortly after their first production of Mystery Bouffe in 1918 however, Meyerhold was arrested and imprisoned by the anti-Bolshevik White Army.
Upon his release by the Red Army, Meyerhold moved to Moscow and was appointed Head of the Theatre Department of Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment), a position he would hold from 1920 to 1921. Developing a programme known as Theatrical October, he defined the theatre’s fundamental goals as service to the revolution and the full revitalisation of theatrical art. Meyerhold fiercely confronted the principles of theatrical academicism, claiming that they were incapable of finding a common language with the new reality. Combining his Theatrical October beliefs with scenic constructivism and a performance style taken from the circus, Meyerhold began staging productions with his new company, the RSFSR First Theatre, including The Dawn (1920) and Mayakovsky’s second edition of Mystery Bouffe (1921). These works were not supported by Bolshevik leaders and were sharply criticised by Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in the leading party newspaper, Pravda. As a result, the theatre was closed and Meyerhold was fired from his position at Narkompros for excessive radicalism.
In 1922, Meyerhold founded the experimental company with which he would work for the next 16 years, receiving the title of the Meyerhold Theatre in 1923. Under the sobriquet of the State Experimental Theatrical Studio (GEKTEMAS), he trained his actors in a special system of theatrical performance, the core of which he had developed himself: Biomechanics. Through this training, Meyerhold strove to cultivate performers that could impart geometrical precision, acrobatic lightness and agility, and athletic bearing upon a theatrical spectacle.
During this period, Meyerhold made some of his most acclaimed works, beginning with The Magnificent Cuckold by Fernand Crommelynck (1922) and The Death of Tarelkin by Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin (1923). In his productions of the early twenties, Meyerhold presented his approach to Constructivism, or Theatrical Productivism, featuring abstract, intensely dynamic, anti-realistic and non-representational action aimed at creating an independent reality on-stage. He also produced a number of highly theatrical performances, including The Forest by Ostrovksy and D.E. (1924), drawing upon elements of political cabaret and commedia dell’arte. At the same time, Meyerhold created several performances for a wider range of audiences at the Theatre of the Revolution, namely A Profitable Position by Ostrovsky and Lake Lyul by Faiko. Bolshevik reaction to these works was profoundly negative, attacking the pieces’ lack of realistic clarity and political relevance.
By the mid-twenties, Meyerhold began to create productions based on the tragic grotesque, a number of which were even seen outside of Russia on tours to Germany and France. Stagings from this period included Faiko’s Bubus the Teacher (1925), The Mandate by Erdman (1925), and Woe from Wit by Griboyedov (1928), but perhaps the best known work from this series was Gogol’s Government Inspector (1926). This production was one of the most complicated philosophic and apocalyptic phantasmagorias of the 20th century European arts scene, similar in style to the paintings of Picasso and Dali, the music of Shostakovich and Britten, and the novels of Mann and Kafka.
As the decade drew to a close, Meyerhold continued his work, but under increased attention from the censors. Although his avant-garde production of Tretyakov's I Want a Child was banned, Meyerhold did succeed in producing two of Mayakovsky’s incisive political satires: The Bedbug (1929) and The Bathhouse (1930).
By the 1930’s however, working conditions became nearly impossible. While Stalin clamped down on all avant-garde art and experimentation, Meyerhold remained strongly opposed to socialist realism. Under strict censorship, he attempted to convey the tragic spirit of his productions indirectly and covertly, through subtext and atmospheric innuendo. This was characteristic of his work on A List of Assets by Olesha, The Prelude by Germann, Krechinsky's Wedding by Sukhovo-Kobylin, and Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, which Meyerhold staged at the Maly Opera Theatre in Leningrad in 1935. In the same year, Meyerhold directed Dumas-fils’ The Lady of the Camellias which became a legend of the Russian theatre, giving voice to the clearly tangible dissonance of the times.
In spite of all that stood in his way, Meyerhold continued to develop an exceedingly ambitious project: the design of a new theatre. He wanted to create a space capable of supporting highly technical, multi-stage theatrical action, imparting the vigour and energy of a marketplace. Construction began, but he would never see the building completed.
Meyerhold's standing with Stalin's regime had become increasingly precarious. The final production of his which the censor allowed to run was 33 Fainting Spells, based upon three vaudevilles written by Anton Chekhov. After fighting off years of veiled attacks, Meyerhold was finally proclaimed an anti-Soviet formalist and accused of being unable to create politically accurate performances for the Soviet proletariat. In 1938, his theatre was officially closed, and only his old teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski, would come to his aid, inviting the condemned director to work with him at the small opera theatre he was running at the time.
In July 1939, Meyerhold was arrested and accused of anti-governmental political activities. He was brutally tortured and forced to make a confession, which he later recanted before the court. He was sentence to death by firing squad and executed the day after on February 2nd, 1940. In 1955, he was cleared of charges posthumously.