..."DON Juan" in rehearsal was antic and jolly. In performance, it was sheer joy,--the joy of the theatre as theatre. You face Meyerhold's stage with no illusion that it is not a stage. Of course it is a stage! Why pretend it isn't? There it is, under the full lights of the auditorium, curtain removed and apron extended twenty feet beyond the proscenium arch. It's a play you shall see, a play, you who love the theatre for its own sake! No cross-section of life here, no attempt to copy life! No illusion here, to be shattered by the slightest mishap or by a prosaic streak in the spectator's make-up. It's a play you shall see, and you'll know it all the time, for you'll play, too, whether you realize it or not. The audience is always an essential factor in the production of drama, but never does it enter so completely, so keenly into the psychological complex as in the theatre theatrical. The give and take between audience and actor is dynamic and almost incessant.
Into this theatre and to this stage, Meyerhold brings a play from out of an epoch which produced its drama in almost identically the same spirit of disillusioned make-believe. "On the extreme west," he writes in commenting on his production of "Don Juan," "in France and Italy, Spain and England, and on the extreme east in Japan, within the limits of one epoch (the second half of the sixteenth and the whole of the seventeenth century), the theatre resounds with the tambourines of pure theatricality. . . . The academic theatre of the Renaissance, unable to make use of the greatly extended forestage, removed the actor to a respectable distance from the public. . . . Molière is the first of the masters of the stage of the era of Louis XIV to bring the action forward from the back and the middle of the stage to the forestage, to the very edge of it. . . .
"Is it not intelligible why every incident of any scene of that brilliant theatrical epoch took place on this wonderful spot called the forestage? . . .
"Similar to the arena of a circus, pressed on all sides by a ring of spectators, the forestage is brought near the public, so that not one gesture, not one movement, not one glimpse of the actor should be lost in the dust of the back stage. And see how thoughtfully tactful are these gestures, movements, postures and grimaces of the actor on the forestage. Of course! Could an actor with an inflated affection or with insufficiently flexible bodily movements be tolerated at the proximity to the public at which the forestages of the old English, French, Spanish and Japanese theatres placed their actors?"
In approaching the problem of producing a play from the old theatre, Meyerhold admits that there is no need for the exact reproduction of the architectural peculiarities of the old stages. Free composition in the spirit of the primitive stage will serve, provided the substance of the architectural peculiarities most suited to the spirit of the production is retained. What is more important, he thinks, is to determine whether the play in hand is one which can be comprehended by the contemporary spectator through the prism of his own time, or whether it will convey its idea only when the conditions and the atmosphere surrounding the original players and playhouse and audience are reproduced today. Such a play as the latter, he insists, is Molière's "Don Juan."
"Therefore," he writes in the critical essay on his production quoted before, "the régisseur who approaches the staging of 'Don Juan' must first of all fill the stage and the hall with such an atmosphere that the action could not be understood except through the prism of that atmosphere. . . . It is necessary to remind the spectator during the whole course of the play of all the thousands of looms of the Lyonnaise factories preparing the silks for the monstrously numerous courtiers of Louis XIV; of the Gobelin hotel; of the town of painters, sculptors, jewellers and turners; of the furniture manufactured under the guidance of prominent artists; of all those masters producing mirrors and laces according to the Venetian models, stockings according to the English model, cloth according to the Dutch model, and tin and copper according to the German.
"Hundreds of wax candles in three chandeliers from above and in two candlesticks on the forestage; little children filling the stage with stupefying perfumes, dripping them from a cut-glass flask on heated platinum plates; little children flitting on the stage here to pick up a lace handkerchief from the hands of Don Juan or there to push the chairs before the tired actors; little children tying the ribbons on the shoes of Don Juan while he is having a discussion with Sganarelle; little children handing the actors lanterns when the stage is submerged in semi-darkness; little children clearing away from the stage the mantles and the sabers after the desperate fight between Don Juan and the brigands; little children crawling under the table when the statue of the Commander comes on the stage; little children calling the public together by ringing a little silver bell and in the absence of the curtain announcing the intermissions,--these are not tricks created for the diversion of the snobs; all this is in the name of the main object of the play: to show the gilded Versailles realm veiled with a perfumed smoke.
"The more sharply Molière's temperament as a comedian stood out amid the Versailles affectation, the more we expect from the wealth, the splendor and the beauty of costumes and accessories, although the architecture of the stage may be extremely simple."
And why is the curtain removed for "Don Juan" at the Alexandrinsky? The play was not so presented either at the Palais Royal or at the Petit Bourbon. "The spectator is usually coldly inclined," the producer answers, "when he looks at the curtain, no matter how well painted it is nor by what great master. The spectator has come to the theatre to see what is behind the curtain; until it is lifted, he contemplates the idea of the painting on the curtain indifferently. The curtain is lifted, and how much time will pass until the spectator will absorb all the charms of the milieu surrounding the personages of the play? It is different when the stage is open from beginning to end, different under a peculiar kind of pantomime by the supernumeraries who are preparing the stage before the eyes of the public. Long before the actor appears on the stage, the spectator has succeeded in breathing in the air of the period."
Further, concerning the illuminated auditorium, Meyerhold writes: "It is unnecessary to immerse the hall in darkness either during the intermissions or during the course of the action. Bright light infects the playgoers with a festal mood. When the actor sees the smile on the lips of the spectator he begins to admire himself as if before a mirror."
Meyerhold's facile invention and his instinct for the elements of the dramatic are evident throughout the production of "Don Juan." In addition to solving the secret of the means wherewith to make the play live today with the same zest as at its original performance, he has devoted to every scene a mind alert for those eloquent but uncatalogued nuances and emphases by which a producer heightens the dramatic effect of a play. Such methods are particularly suitable in the theatre theatrical, for it lives and thrives on artifice contrived with skill and imagination. In Don Juan's scene with the peasant girls, for instance, Meyerhold has developed the amusing series of asides to first one girl and then the other in such a way that Juan describes a kind of fantastic geometric figure in his dual conversation. It is all highly artificial, just like Molière's language in the scene, but it is also highly amusing and even mildly exciting in its stimulus to our sense of gesture. By an equally adroit use of suspense, the arrival of the Statue at the feast is built up in a combined spirit of awe and droll extravagance which leaves the spectator in that baffled mood which Meyerhold and even Molière, it would seem, deliberately sought.
Golovin's scenery is responsible for a large measure of the unity and decisiveness of the impression which "Don Juan" gives at the Alexandrinsky. America and the capitals of Europe are acquainted with the artist almost solely through the fantastic and sky-searching castles of his background for Stravinsky's ballet, "L'Oiseau de Feu", in the Diagileff repertory. In "Don Juan" he works in a wholly different mood. The precision of artifice takes the place of free fancy. The whole outward investiture of costume and scenery is tapestry in texture; the note of applied design dominates the composition; and yet there is a fine freedom and carelessness in the application which enables the outward dressing to merge in spirit with the plastic action of the play.
I am not sure what is the final impression left by "Don Juan" at the Alexandrinsky. I do not think it is entirely the impression of Molière. Or of Louis le Grand. Certainly it is only remotely that of the Sicily which the playwright designated as its locale. Neither is there anything specifically Russian in the intellectual or emotional record left by the play. I suppose that record includes something of all these forces, -- filtered and fused through the creative imagination of Meyerhold, to the end that joy may be the lot of him who submits himself to its spell.
The history of Meyerhold's "Don Juan" is typical of all such productions of the Russian theatre. It was not conceived for a night or a season but for a generation. Revealed for the first time on November 22, 1910, it was played from twenty-five to thirty times during that season. Since then, it has been revived occasionally during three seasons, -- 1911-1912, 1913-1914 and 1918. The opening performance of the latest revival, which I saw, was the forty-second in order from the start. They do not drive beauty to an early grave in Russia! Nor do they disarrange a work of dramatic art any more than is necessary through the exigencies of time. Of fourteen named rôles in the play, nine were played in March, 1918, by the same actors as in November, 1910.