See Meyerhold on Theater, ed. by E. Braun (1969); biography by M. L. Hoover (1974); J. M. Symons, Meyerhold's Theatre of the Grotesque (1971).
After completing school in 1895 he studied law at Moscow University but never completed his degree. On his 21st birthday, Meyerhold converted from Lutheranism to Orthodox Christianity, and accepted 'Vsevolod' as an Orthodox Christian name. His acting career began when in 1896 he became a student of the Moscow Philharmonic Dramatic School under the guidance of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre and Constantin Stanislavski (the other co-founder), where Meyerhold later served as an actor. There he played 18 roles such as Vasiliy Shuiskiy in Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich and Ivan the Terrible in The Death of Ivan the Terrible (both by Aleksey Tolstoy), and Treplev in Chekhov's The Seagull.
After leaving the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902, Meyerhold participated in a number of theatrical projects, as both a director / producer and an actor. Each of his projects served as an arena for experiment and creation of new staging methods. Meyerhold was one of the most fervent advocates of symbolism in theatre, especially when he worked as the chief producer of the Vera Kommisarzhevskaya theatre in 1906-1907. He was invited back to the Moscow Art Theater around this time to pursue his experimental ideas, but not one of his plays there was performed because Stanislavski hated his work.
Meyerhold continued his search for theatrical innovation during the decade 1907-1917, while working with imperial theatres in St. Petersburg, introducing classical plays in an innovative manner, and staging works of controversial contemporary authors like Fyodor Sologub, Zinaida Gippius, and Alexander Blok. In these plays Meyerhold tried to return to acting in the traditions of Commedia dell'arte, rethinking them for the contemporary theatrical reality. His theoretical concepts of the 'conditional theatre' were elaborated on in his book On Theatre in 1913.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 made Meyerhold one of the most enthusiastic activists of the new Soviet Theatre. He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1918 and became an official of the Theater Division (TEO) of the Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment, forming an alliance with Olga Kameneva, the head of the Division in 1918-1919. Together, they tried to radicalize Russian theaters, effectively nationalizing them under Bolshevik control. However, Meyerhold came down with tuberculosis in May 1919 and had to leave for the south. In his absence, the head of the Commissariat, Anatoly Lunacharsky, secured Vladimir Lenin's permission to revise government policy in favor of more traditional theaters and dismissed Kameneva in June 1919.
After returning to Moscow, Meyerhold founded his own theatre in 1922, which was known as The Meyerhold Theatre until 1938. Meyerhold fiercely confronted the principles of theatrical academism, claiming that they are incapable of finding a common language with the new reality. Meyerhold’s methods of scenic constructivism and circus-style effects were used in his most successful works of the time: Nikolai Erdman's The Mandate, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe, Fernand Crommelynck's The Magnificent Cuckold, and Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Tarelkin’s Death. Mayakovsky collaborated with Meyerhold several times, and it is said that Mayakovsky wrote The Bed Bug especially for him; Meyerhold continued to stage Mayakovsky's productions even after the latter's suicide. The actors participating in Meyerhold’s productions acted according to the principle of biomechanics (only distantly related to the present scientific use of the term), the system of actor training that was later taught in a special school created by Meyerhold.
Meyerhold gave initial boosts to the stage careers of some of the most distinguished comic actors of the USSR, including Igor Ilyinsky and Erast Garin. In his landmark production of Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector (1926): "Energetic, mischievous, charming Ilyinsky left his post to the nervous, fragile, suddenly freezing, grotesquely anxious Garin. Energy was replaced by trance, the dynamic with the static, happy jesting humour with bitter and glum satire".
Meyerhold's acting technique had fundamental principles at odds with the American method actor's conception. Where method acting melded the character with the actor's own personal memories to create the character’s internal motivation, Meyerhold connected psychological and physiological processes and focused on learning gestures and movements as a way of expressing emotion outwardly. Following Stanislavski's lead, he argued that the emotional state of an actor was inextricably linked to his physical state (and vice versa), and that one could call up emotions in performance by practicing and assuming poses, gestures, and movements. He developed a number of body expressions that his actors would use to portray specific emotions and characters.
Meyerhold inspired revolutionary artists and filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, who studied with Meyerhold and whose films employed actors who worked in Meyerhold’s tradition. Eisenstein cast actors based on what they looked like and their expression, and followed Meyerhold’s stylized acting methods. In Strike!, which portrays the beginnings of the Bolshevik revolution, the oppressive bourgeois are always obese, drinking, eating, and smoking, whereas the workers are athletic and chiseled.
Meyerhold was strongly opposed to socialist realism, and in the beginning of the 1930s, when Joseph Stalin clamped down on all avant-garde art and experimentation, his works were proclaimed antagonistic and alien to the Soviet people. His theatre was closed down in January 1938, and a year later (20 June 1939) in Leningrad Meyerhold was arrested and imprisoned. His wife, actress Zinaida Raikh, was found dead in their Moscow apartment on 15 July 1939. Late that year he was brutally tortured and forced to make a confession that he worked for Japanese and British intelligence agencies, which he later recanted in a letter to Vyacheslav Molotov.
The file on Meyerhold contains his letter from prison to Molotov: "The investigators began to use force on me, a sick 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap... For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal hemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain.
"When I lay down on the cot and fell asleep, after 18 hours of interrogation, in order to go back in an hour's time for more, I was woken up by my own groaning and because I was jerking about like a patient in the last stages of typhoid fever." (From the letter to V. Molotov on January 13 1940).
He was sentenced to death by firing squad on February 1, 1940. The date of his death is unclear; some sources say he was executed on February 2, 1940. The Soviet government cleared him of all charges in 1955, during the first wave of destalinization.