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JID:RUSLIT AID:1209 /FLA [mRUSLIT; v1.357] P.1 (1-34)
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Russian Literature ••• (••••) ••••••

Janne Risum

Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark


In this article I examine Meyerhold’s occasional castings of actresses for male parts
in a small, but significant, number of instances from his long career as a stage director.
Meyerhold cast a woman for a male part six times, five of them in tragedies. However,
he did so intermittently and for different purposes, to suit highly heterogenous con-
texts. Three cases have particularly interesting perspectives: his 1915 production at the
Alexandrinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg of Calderon de la Barca’s Spanish Baroque
tragedy The Constant Prince; his 1926 co-production at the Meyerhold Theatre in
Moscow of Tretyakov’s activist melodrama Roar, China!; and his 1931 production
at the Meyerhold Theatre of Yury Olesha’s contemporary tragedy A List of Benefits.
The three cases are not connected but are each in its own way artistic reactions
to the three consecutive, dissimilar systems of government, under which Meyerhold
lived and worked: the Tsarist regime, the formative first decade of the Soviet Union,
and finally Stalinism. On a more basic personal level, they reflect Meyerhold’s habit-
ual preference for tragedy as a means of expression to reveal the social mechanisms
exploited by oppression or released against it. In each case, casting an actress in a
male part poses a maximum contrast to the oppressive system inquired into by way of

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0304-3479/© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article
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JID:RUSLIT AID:1209 /FLA [mRUSLIT; v1.357] P.2 (1-34)
J. Risum Russian Literature ••• (••••) ••••••
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article
under the CC BY license (

Keywords: Gender; Travesty; Cross-dressing; Vsevolod Meyerhold; Nina Kovalenskaya;
Varvara Yanova; Maria Babanova; Zinaida Raikh

If we survey the history of the representation of gender in theatre and film,
it is often assumed, still today as before, that stories with men are for everyone,
whereas stories with women are for women only. Since the Italian Renaissance
it has been a well-established convention in European theatre that the sex of the
performer corresponds to the sex of the character. Cross-gender casting is the
only role reversal which is normally “not done”, although it was never strictly
taboo. There were always exceptions, primarily in comedy (Senelick, 2000).
The traditional theatre term for such cross-dressing is “travesty” (from Italian
travestire: to dress in an opposite way, or in disguise). In the Age of Enlighten-
ment, some pioneering female performers began to expand the range of their
so-called ‘breeches parts’ by appearing in the iconic part of Hamlet (Howard,
2007). On many Western stages today, female or male cross-dressing has be-
come an accepted part of the casting, and the entire field of representation is
subject to change.

An early adopter of travesty was the Russian stage director Vsevolod Mey-
erhold. His consistent advocacy of theatre based on convention (uslovnyi teatr)
or, as he also says, based on the devices of “the grotesque”, also implies that
any actor may perform any character, irrespective of gender. Throughout his
long career, Meyerhold used various forms of travesty in his stage productions,
intermittently and for different purposes traditional, innovative, experimen-
tal, or just pragmatic, as the case may be. I have found six instances of Mey-
erhold casting a woman for a male part, five of them in tragedies. I have also
found four instances of his casting a man for a female part, all for traditional
comic effect. His uses of travesty over the years have different contexts, and
correspondingly dissimilar motivations and approaches to character work. We
would look in vain for a simple main thread running through all his uses of
cross-gender casting. No coherent picture emerges from them, but rather an
experimental diversity to boost theatricality and effect, with an eye to gender
equality as well.

The subject of Meyerhold’s castings of women in male parts is an important
one but has so far, to my knowledge, not been given the scholarly attention
it deserves. The available published sources about them vary in number and
quality, from mere facts to lengthy analyses. Their documentation alone varies
considerably (from very few sources to many), and so does the extent to which
they have been investigated so far (with only a few in-depth studies, evidently