Meyerhold Plaque/House in St. Petersburg

Click on photos to enlarge.

Vsevolod Meyerhold lived here when he was still in the process of becoming Vsevolod Meyerhold. “Here” is a huge, once-beautiful old apartment building that shares 2 St. Peterburg addresses – the facade entrance at 2 Theater Square (across from the Marinsky Theater), and side entrances on 25 Dekabristov Street. It was here that the first public honors were done to the great theater director after 35 years of being ignored entirely or in part following his brutal murder in the basement of the Lubyanka in Moscow in 1940. The simple plaque adorning the building was unveiled in 1975, the first in the city that was still called Leningrad at the time. Bearing the inscription, “Vsevolod Emilyevich Meyerhold, the famous Soviet director, a People’s Artist of the Republic, lived in this building from 1909 to 1914,” the plaque was designed by architect M.F. Yegorov (about whom I do not find proper information.)
Once a truly imposing building that surely gave the Marinsky across the way a run for its money, these days it seems diminished by all the architectural and infrastructural noise going on around it – street signs, store signs, cars, trucks, electrical wires, trolley wires, reconstruction, etc. The murky mustard color doesn’t help much pull it out of the doldrums, I must say. But let’s also honor it for what it once was, and what it was intended to be by its many architects. The original builder of the original structure is unkown. All we know is that the building was erected at the end of the 18th century in a classicist style. It was next rebuilt by Leonard Schaufelberger around 1840, and then again by Andrei Gun (1841-1924) in the late 1870s. (I cannot properly identify Schaufelberger – I find a “Leonhard Schaufelberger,” a Russian architect born in 1839, but he clearly was not the one who did the first reconstruction of this structure. If he had a father or other older namesake, I haven’t found him yet.) The building was sold to a civil engineer, Semyon Andreev, in the first decade of the 20th century, and he built up the wings on either side of the building in 1909, the same year that Meyerhold moved in for a five-year period.
At least judging by a photo on Raya Stepananko’s live journal page, the building around the time of Gun’s reconstruction stood proudly and loudly on a wide-open square that allowed one to back up and take in the entire work unhindered by anything around it. That today is utterly impossible – and the harsh afternoon shadows of St. Petersburg didn’t make it any easier for me to photograph. (To see a wonderful old photo of the building; just scroll down halfway through Stepanenko’s post until you come to the black-and-white photo that is shot straight on.) Also according to Stepanenko, the building’s ground floor was occupied by a confectionary shop that was impressive enough to be described in a book called Petersburg’s Kolomna by Georgy Zuev. As quoted in Stepananko’s post, Zuev wrote, “Upon entering the establishment, each guest was usually greeted by a pleasant Frenchwoman who took orders. Visitors could sit comfortably in easy chairs and, while waiting for their favorite treats, perused magazines or played billiards. Coffee was brought in special cups together with a tiny milk jug filled with fresh cream. Lovers of fresh newspapers and magazines usually sat for a long time in the confectionery.” The confectionary was later turned into a restaurant, although I don’t know when – so for now it remains a mystery as to whether Meyerhold took tea or coffee here, or whether he would come downstairs to dine.

By the time Meyerhold first crossed the threshold of this building in 1909, he was already both famous and notorious, but he was still very much a work in progress. He had behind him his tenure in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater (1898-1902), as well as his short tenure as the chief director at Vera Kommisarzhevskaya’s theater in Petersburg (1906-07). There Meyerhold made history with numerous productions that have engaged scholars, historians and theater buffs for over a century now. Kommisarzhevskaya, however, hated his generally symbolist, experimental productions. In fact, although he was fired by the famed and beloved actress shortly after he had spent a year with her troupe, this was the A-ha! moment for many. Meyerhold now was someone to be watched. In fact, soon after being fired by Kommisarzhevskaya, he was hired to take on what was arguably the most prestigious and powerful position a theater maker could hold in Russia at that time – the directorship of the Imperial Theaters in Petersburg. This move by the highly conservative administration baffled many, angered others, and thrilled those who were looking for something new.
Meyerhold’s first production in his new position pretty much convinced everyone of whatever it was they thought of him at the time – he was either a genius or a brash upstart. His production of Knut Hamsun’s At the Gates of the Kingdom in 1908 was very heavily symbolistic, carrying over from his experience with Kommisarzhevskaya. Pressure would mount on him over the ensuing years to tone down his “official” work, thus leading him to seek an outlet for his more adventurous side. He found that outlet in small, experimental works that he mounted in out-of-the-way venues and cabarets. This period of his career, as he split his attention between large and often luxurious stagings at the Alexandrinsky and Marinsky theaters, and his quirkier, experimental works, falls to the years that he spent living at 2 Theater Square in the building you see pictured here. These were the early years of Meyerhold’s famous work under the pseudonym of Doctor Dapertutto, the continuation of his fascination with the plays of Alexander Blok, his experiments with commedia dell’arte, and his rise as a mainstream theatrical powerhouse.

All content in this post, and on this blog site, © copyright 2021 by John Freedman. All rights to photographs and text reserved.


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