The following essays were published in 2008 in the book Stanislavski on Stage (edited by Kathy Dacre and Paul Fryer), to accompany the exhibition of the same name staged at The National Theatre in London. The book, which includes many of the photographs that were included in the exhibition, is still available from The Stanislavski Centre, The National Theatre bookshop and Amazon. co.uk (ISBN: 978-1-903454-01-5)
We are re-publishing the articles online to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Stanislavski’s birth in 1863.
Jean Benedetti: Stanislavski on Stage
Nothing underlines the modernity of the Moscow Art Theatre more than the decision to keep a detailed photographic record of its productions. What the photographs demonstrate is Stanislavski’s ability to think of theatre as an autonomous art. Through the dozens of images we can seen the development of a stage language unknown before in Russia, or indeed in most of Europe. In My Life in Art Stanislavski describes his increasing dissatisfaction with the conventions of the staging he grew up with: the stock sets and costumes, the wings, the flats, the legs, the borders. Gradually he realized that the painter, thinking in terms of a two-dimensional canvas, had to be replaced by the designer, thinking of terms of three-dimensions, above all of stage depth. The box set in which people ‘acted’ had to be replaced by an environment in which they ‘behaved’. The spaces they occupied had to appear lived in. The realistic detail of the sets, Stanislavski believed, would enable the actors to respond on stage as human beings not as ‘performers’.
In Stanislavski’s productions the rooms are not isolated spaces; they are related to other parts of the house, to staircases and corridors, so that the characters come from and go to somewhere specific. From the first, the sets arose out of research, out of the use of authentic, or authentic-looking objects. Nowhere is this clearer than in the sets for The Lower Depths where the doss-house itself is based on photographs taken at the Khitrov market and the rooms are littered with discarded objects. The ‘naturalistic’ details are not there for their own sake. As Meyerhold, no ‘naturalist’ himself, pointed out, the details perform the same function as those touches of local colour that give the best of Russian prose its special quality.
The sets make statements about the dramatic action. In Three Sisters the tidy, elegant room of Act I has been replaced by a room littered with children’s toys, indicating the extent to which Natasha has taken over This attention to detail, to historical truth, was not to become common practice until television design in the late 20th century.
Stanislavski continually tried to break with the achievements of his earlier years, to rethink his methods, to find new responses to new challenges. How was he to respond to the new symbolist drama with its allusiveness and abstractions? He decided to collaborate with Gordon Craig, who, with Appia, was one of the most innovative designers of his time, on a production of Hamlet, which was intended to break all the rules of conventional staging. The giant screens Craig devised were to be moved in full view of the audience, creating a continuous flow of action. When, in 1919, Stanislavski decided to stage Byron’s Cain, he again turned to monumental sets that would express the meaning of a ‘mystery’ play.
For Stanislavski the production and staging existed to release the creative energies of the actor in the service of the meaning of the play, whatever its genre. As a director, he was fond of tricks, his ‘devilry’ as he called it, but he realized that the actors learned nothing from this. His best work came from a combination of his skill as a director and the release of the actors’ creative energy. So when he came to direct The Marriage of Figaro in 1926 the sumptuousness of the Count’s apartments contrasted with the cramped, shabby rooms occupied by Figaro and Susanna which Figaro is carefully measuring at curtain up. Taking the subtitle of the play, ‘a day of madness’, for the final scene in the garden, he had four separate settings for the revolve so that the characters could be seen pursuing each other from one part of the garden to another.
The one thing he would not do was treat actors as cogs in some kind of machine. When, in 1935, he supervised a production of Bulgakov’s adaptation of Gogol’s Dead Souls, he rejected the original exaggerated, grotesque set designs and turned the décor into background, making the actors once more the focal point of the staging.
The photographs also reveal something of the quality of Stanislavski himself as an actor. Images of Stanislavski in his mature roles demonstrate his extraordinary capacity for physical transformation from the thin, angular Dr Stockman of An Enemy of the People, to the tortured Astrov of Uncle Vanya, the effete Gaev of The Cherry Orchard and the rotund Argan of Le Malade Imaginaire. Action photography did not exist at the time, so that each picture had to be posed and the positions held. Yet Stanislavski never seems posed. His body expresses his state of mind. He is, as it were, ‘being’. His eyes, in the role of Astrov, are deep and expressive, alive. He thinks his own stillness. Other members of the company, such as Artiom and Moskvin, have something of the same quality.
These photographs deserve careful study and analysis. They record what was done. What is it about them that we still find compelling both in human and theatrical terms?
Marie-Christine Autant-Mathieu: Stanislavski and Chekhov
When Konstantin Stanislavski took the roles of Trigorin in The Seagull in 1898, Astrov in Uncle Vanya in 1899, Vershinin in Three Sisters in 1901, Gaev in The Cherry Orchard in 1904 and Shabelsky in Ivanov in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, he found he had to explore new territory as an actor, director and dramatic theorist. Chekhov’s plays seemed so new and strange that he felt compelled to embark on a sustained and intuitive study of each play as a whole, which he worked on like a musical score. Breaking with his amateur period, during which he had become known in character parts and as a director of melodramas and light comedies, Stanislavski, with the support of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, succeeded in finding the key to performing the work of Anton Chekhov, who came to dominate 20th-century theatre. The Seagull initiated a new kind of theatre, and became its icon.
Working with a playwright whom he did not understand, and playing parts imposed on him, Stanislavski brought fame to the Moscow Art Theatre, both in Russia and world-wide. It took him some time to absorb the innovations in Chekhov’s plays, and to discover the treasure buried in them. Vsevolod Meyerhold commented in the thirties: “People who only knew Stanislavski in old age can have no idea of his qualities as an actor. His technique was dazzling …” Stanislavski had worked on this technique before becoming the co-director of the Art Theatre. Then, with Chekhov, he became preoccupied with revealing the character’s inner truth: the actors must be true to life, their emotions strongly felt and shared with their fellow performers and with the audience. It was by having to play characters who eluded him, for whom he felt no instinctive affinity, that Stanislavski, following “the path of intuition and emotion”, succeeded in penetrating the heart of what he calls the “Theatre of Mood”.
During the stormy rehearsals of The Cherry Orchard, marked by disagreements with the author and with the theatre’s co-director, a dissatisfied Stanislavski forced the actors to rehearse endlessly. He tormented them with his doubts about whether he could go on being both judge and performer, acting in a play he was directing himself. In reality, it was primarily because he was an actor in every fibre of his being that Stanislavski was able to direct Chekhov. It was Nemirovich-Danchenko who introduced Chekhov to the Art Theatre, and who helped to get him recognised as a writer of the calibre of Tolstoy or Maxim Gorky; but it was Stanislavski who transformed his colleague’s literary intuition into something concrete. As an actor he could not see how to approach these plays which had neither action nor heroes, so in his “production notebooks” he worked on them as musical compositions, sonorous, luminous and rich in gestures. He worked on unspoken elements, brought out subtexts, and managed to express the suffering of broken individuals or the banality of their existence through moments of silence or the sounds of nature.
How was he show real life in a simple way? In The Seagull he achieved this by destroying the symmetry of Chekhov’s intended décor because it gave a conventional quality to the performance. He built up an atmosphere by means of sunsets, moonlight, rainy autumn evenings, trees leafy or bare, and sounds. He made the actors turn their backs on the footlights to render the intimate feeling of an enclosed space, darkened the stage to create an atmosphere of secrecy and privacy, eliminated stereotypes and melded all the actors into an ensemble. The success of this collective approach can be judged by the triumph of The Seagull in 1898, despite mediocre performances in two of the main roles, Trigorin (Stanislavski) and Nina (Maria Roksanova).
Stanislavski’s work was controlled by Nemirovich-Danchenko, who moderated his excesses of sound and gesture and suppressed a number of pauses, and also by Chekhov, whose comments were crucial. As time went by, the playwright became increasingly irritated by what he saw and heard. Shortly before his death he declared that his next play would take place in absolute silence, “without any birds, dogs, cuckoos, owls, nightingales, ticking clocks, bells or chirping crickets” and that it would be performed “as in the old days”, without any décor or “mood”…
The production notebooks, which Stanislavski later expressed reservations about, were essential tools for guiding the stage action, and for refining his work with the actors. He then adopted an interventionist method, imposing his approach, revised and corrected by Nemirovich and Chekhov, on the actors; this proved an invaluable method for training the actors and welding the troupe together. The work on remembering emotional experience and recalling past sensations, the subtle interaction with props and immersion in a natural, living world which provided a counterpoint to the characters’ reactions and emotions, were all elements that Stanislavski would use, two years after Chekhov’s death, as the basis of his system of actor training.
Kathy Dacre: Hauptmann’s Lonely Lives
On June 22nd 1897 playwright, critic and acting teacher, Vladimir Nemirovich –Danchenko met with Konstantin Stanislavski at the Slavic Bazaar Restaurant in Moscow. The meeting continued into the morning at Stanislavski’s Lyubimovka estate where the two men decided to create a new theatre company of which they would be co-directors. Their partnership was volatile but together they created an ensemble, The Moscow Art Theatre, whose work was to have a profound effect upon theatre across Europe and the USA. It’s ‘truthful’ performances of contemporary naturalistic texts were to become legendary and the influence of both men, but primarily of Stanislavski, was to hold the curriculum of British and American Acting Schools in its thrall for the next hundred years.
The photographs in the exhibition give us a glimpse of their work and if we focus in upon the set of images from the production of Lonely Lives we can uncover some of the artistic magic that went into its performance.
The Russian premiere of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Lonely Lives on 16th December 1899 was part of the second season of the Moscow Art Theatre. The play had been written in German (Einsame Menschen) in 1890 – Hauptmann, though born in Poland, lived and worked in Berlin – but Stanislavski read a French translation sent to Nemerovich-Danchenko. He was so excited that he began planning a production, much to Nemirovich-Danchenko’s annoyance, even before a Russian translation could be prepared. It is not surprising that Stanislavski was excited. Just as in Hauptmann’s first play, Before Dawn, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Rosmerholm, the main protagonist is faced with a moral, emotional and artistic crisis that is only resolved by suicide. And, as in Rosmersholm, the crisis is precipitated by the arrival in the household of a ‘new woman’ who can share the ideas and aspirations of the hero but not his bed. This plot allowed Stanislavski to delve into the complex inner motivations of the characters – the “line of intuition and feeling” which he felt to be an integral part of the play. “Oh such a play, I think it is written for us,” he wrote, while he focussed the actors on a closeness to reality and drew a detailed stage recreation of the family home.
Lonely Lives is set outside Berlin but the liberated Anna Maar is Russian and was played by Olga Knipper, seen in our photographs, who was to become the ‘new woman’ in Chekhov’s life. Knipper was the great actress of the company playing such major parts as Arkadina in The Seagull, Elena in Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard and Gertrude in Hamlet. Dressed in black in a pose of stricken conscience we can sense her intensity and presence from the Lonely Lives photographs but it is essentially a posed and somewhat melodramatic picture giving us little of the life of the part. Her rival in the play, the good but frail wife Kitty, was played by Mariya Andreeva , an actress who played at least eighteen main roles for the company before leaving in 1904 to be with the playwright Gorki as his mistress. Ironically, in Lonely Lives she played the wronged wife with great success. Stanislavski worked with her on the inner life of the character, concerned that the audience should empathise with the young mother and her parents. This tension is almost palpable in the staged family groupings which we see in the photographs. Kitty with new baby is dressed in white, Anna, the trespasser, dressed all in black, literally and metaphorically casts a shadow over the family. They anticipate one of the production’s most memorable scenes when a tearful Kitty sees Johannes’ suicide note in an awful moment of poignant stillness against a ‘moonlit’ backdrop.
The pictures capture the ensemble’s major performers but, as they are not of the 1899 production, we do not see the actor who then played Johannes Vockerat, a young intellectual scientist struggling with new ideas who, once he has met Anna, refuses to compromise with the conventional. This role with its angst, emotional crisis and scorn for compromise and the mundane seems in retrospect to have been an apt one for Vsevolod Meierhold.
Meierhold asked Chekhov for advice on playing the role of the lonely intellectual and so was coached by Russia’s greatest playwright:
I wrote to Meierhold and urged him in my letter not to be too violent in the part of a nervous man. The immense majority of people are nervous, you know: the greater number suffer, and a small proportion feel acute pain; but where –in streets and in houses-do you see people tearing about, leaping up, and clutching at their heads? Suffering ought to be expressed as it is expressed in life –that is, not by the arms and legs, but by the tone and expression; not by gesticulation, but by grace. Subtle emotions of the soul in educated people must be expressed in an external way. You will say what about stage conditions? No conditions allow falsity.
Meierhold left the company in 1902. From November 1903 the part of Johannes was taken by the newcomer Vasili Kachalov who is featured in these 1904 photographs. He was to be renowned for his performances as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Tsar Feodor Ioannovich, Ivanov, Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard and the Baron in The Lower Depths. Kachalov is said to have interpreted the character of Johannes brilliantly and Nemirovich –Danchenko thought the ensemble were performing the play in a more natural and meaningful way. In the photographs, we can see the actors in costume and contemplate their poses and groupings. What we cannot see is the set because these were re-created studio shots, false static memories of a production that was alive with movement, stillness, ‘intuition and feeling’.
We can only imagine the life, the movement, the colour, light and sound of the production. The soundscape that Stanislavski created is lost to us. We can look at the photograph of Kachalov as Johannes but can not hear the wind, the train and the whistle that signals Anna Maar’s departure. We can look at the distraught Kitty played by Andreeva and imagine the silence broken by the police sirens and the crowd gathering at the water’s edge, sounds that became a requiem for a lonely life. We have to imagine all this but at least in the photographs we have a partial glimpse of this great production and for that we have to be grateful.
 Stanislavski, K. My Life in Art, Translated & edited by J.Benedetti. (London: Routledge, 2008), p 192.
 A.. Smeliansky, I. Solovieva, O. Egoshina, eds. Moscow Art Theater: One Hundred Years (Moscow: MAT, 1998), p.21.
 A..Chekhov, Letter to Olga Knipper, 2 January 1900,Yalta, in A Life in Letters, ed. R.Bartlett (London: Penguin, 2004), p.431.
Anatoly Smeliansky: Stanislavski in Russia Today
Stanislavsky’s system, as any great, but poorly digested past is having a hard life in the contemporary Russian theatre. Pro forma, Stanislavsky doesn’t have any opposition in our theatre today (his opponents disappeared since Meyerhold was executed, Mikhail Chekhov left the Soviet Union, and Alexander Tairov’s Kamerny theatre was closed down). While we started the process of rehabilitation of Stanislavsky’s opponents we had to rehabilitate Stanislavsky himself. He was amiably called KS behind his back at the Moscow Art Theater, so we will use this abbreviation as well. KS had to be brought back to the theatre. Theatre that was alive and breathing. His legacy, his ideas had to be re-introduced, given an opportunity to influence the real theatrical process and the methods of teaching actors–what Meyerhold used to call theatre understanding (understanding of theatre). Stanislavsky had to be re-read and re-published. Thus, the new edition of his complete works came to life. We had to re-open his archive at the same time as Meyerhold and Mikhail Chekhov’s archives became available to public. So now it is time for us to determine what in Stanislavsky’s legacy is still alive and what has to be left in the past.
What is definitely still in demand is Stanislavsky’s “System” or “method” as it is called in the English-speaking world. There isn’t any serious theatre school in Russia that isn’t using it in one way or another. It is the main methodology of actor training. It gives logic and consistency to the process of developing skills, of creating organic life on stage. KS was always afraid that his method would be dogmatized and become a philosophy of acting. He considered it just one of the tools of an actor. However, anybody who teaches or is using his method understands that it contains to a certain degree an understanding of true nature and the goals of the actor’s profession. The definition of the ideal actor for Stanislavsky is much wider and more complex that we used to think. It is an ideal of live, spontaneous game-playing where the actor can find conscious ways of unlocking his secret emotional resources; where he can use his emotional resources in an unpredictable way, where he knows how to follow directions while improvising; and where he is able to connect with his partners and be a part of an ensemble. This well-trained actor has to know his super-objective, the through-line of his character. As Stanislavsky loved to say, to stay true to the action in the sea of antagonistic counteractions is to struggle like a bark, trying to stay afloat among the deadly waves. An actor has to be equipped for survival in such a struggle. So the cornerstones of theatre training and practice in Russia are the unity of physical and emotional actions; the sense of rhythm and tempo, the ability to rise higher above the everyday depiction of life and reach artistic truth.
The most important question in understanding Stanislavsky is the question of so-called “truthful life of actor on stage”. Objections raised by Meyerhold, Mikhail Chekhov and Vakhtangov were taken in consideration by KS himself and later by his followers. Stanislavsky’s answer to Meyerhold’s Biomechanics was his “method of physical actions”. Criticism raised by Mikhail Chekhov and Vakhtangov was incorporated later on by Stanislavsky’s pupil Maria Knebel through etudes in her own teaching practice, and later by such directors as Anatoly Efros, Lev Dodin, Petr Fomenko, and Anatoly Vasiliev. The best of Stanislavsky’s true followers took his art out of the limiting framework of “life-like theatre” that was imposed on him by the soviet understanding of theatre. More often than ever we bring up Stanislavsky remark that he made to the young actors of his First Studio while finessing his system–he told them, “You have to reach the border of truth, cross that border and than walk over that border back and forth.”
That definition pretty much sums up Stanislavsky’s ideal art of acting and his ideal actor. Unfortunately, in this short note is impossible to discuss the deep religious roots of Stanislavsky’s understanding of acting. In the Soviet times, that subject was not even touched on by scholars. But we should mention the fact that Stanislavsky had deep spiritual sources. The process of creation of a new character was not just a game, but an artistic act equal in its importance to the birth of a child. He asked for a lot, he demanded a lot from his actors and from the theatre in general. He often was regarded as a fanatic, a fool, an unpractical man who refused to see reality. Stanislavsky usually chose not to answer such accusations. But once he lost his patience and replied: “I am not practical this season, but I will become very useful in the more fruitful future seasons to come.”
When the Moscow Art Theatre celebrated its 10th anniversary, KS recalled a line for an Ibsen play: “I would rather destroy the city than live in it and see how it prospers based on lies and deceptions.” First of all, this phrase was addressed to his own theatre company which at the time was at its peak of success and prosperity. It would be hard to find anyone today in the Russian theatre that has the courage to address his company in such a way.
During the civil war, in one of his classes at his opera studio, a pupil asked Stanislavsky to describe in a few words what the “theater-temple” (as he liked to call it) was. Stanislavsky answered with four words: Simpler, lighter, higher and more joyful.” This is a quintessential description of Stanislavsky’s own life, his own year of labor and search of new forms in there, where “earth” (simpler and lighter) can easily merge with the “heavens” (higher and more joyful). These four words are inscribed next to Stanislavsky’s portrait that crowns the stage door of the Moscow Art Theatre. It is quite easy to display his words as a slogan; it is much harder to live by this slogan and practice your art.
Russian artists in the first decades of the twentieth century were fascinated by the theatre. Inspired by the World of Art movement in St Petersburg, they revelled in scene and costume design, and sought to portray leading actors in costume. The great basso Fyodor Chaliapin was painted full-length in barbaric splendor as Holofernes and Boris Godunov by Aleksandr Golovin. The director and actor Vsevolod Meyerhold was captured by Nikolay Ulyanov as a pensive Pierrot in Blok’s Little Showbooth in 1908 and, eight years later, by Boris Grigoriev as an angular, capering conjurer, “Dr Dapertutto.”.
There is nothing similar for Stanislavski. We possess no eye-catching paintings of him in his greatest roles. While the portrait of Meyerhold as a commedia figure was being exhibited, Valentin Serov delineated a head of Stanislavski, without wig or makeup, as a simple pencil sketch. Even in the 1920s, when Grigoriev devoted a whole album, The Visage of Russia, to colourful portraits of the Moscow Art actors as characters in The Lower Depths and Tsar Feodor, Stanislavski appears as Satin only in a black-and-white profile.
On the other hand, Stanislavski’s life can be richly illustrated, almost from his infancy, by photographs. Posed and candid shots with his family, his wedding pictures, his leading roles in the amateur Art and Literary Society, with extensive coverage of his Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, virtually all his activity with the Moscow Art Theatre from 1898 to his death in 1938, including the endless publicity shots taken on tour and the “photo ops” with visiting celebrities once he had become a Soviet icon, provide copious pictorial documentation of his life and work.[i]
Is Stanislavski’s avoidance of the painted portrait eloquent of his modesty? Or is it perhaps a symbol of the reforms that he pioneered in the theatre? Much as he admired flamboyant performers of the past, he devoted his career to finding more understated means of expressing emotion. True, he did work with artists from the World of Art such as Dobuzhinsky and Benois in the 1910s, but he was never on their wavelength. The subdued and modulated “psychological realism” of the first years of the Moscow Art Theatre could perhaps be better recorded by the grisaille of the photograph than by the bright pigments of a modernist easel painting. The small, everyday gestures of the staging might be more accurately caught by the camera, the grand gesture by paint[ii]
The productions of the first Art Theatre seasons were preserved in studio photographs, often with a few actors posed against a blank background or a conventional painted drop. Around 1900 the theatre contracted with the commercial photographers Scherer and Nabholtz to make a full record of the stage tableaux. They provided moment to moment chronicles of Uncle Vanya, The Power of Darkness, The Lower Depths, and Hauptmann’s Lonely Lives, issuing sets of postcards, lavish albums with tipped-in plates and similar memorabilia.[iii] Certain earlier stagings, such as The Seagull and Tsar Fyodor, were also recorded, although not at the Hermitage Park Theatre in which they had first been performed. For the full-stage shots, the camera was set up in the auditorium of the new house on Kammerherr Lane, and one can clearly see the prompter’s box in many of these.[iv] For some reason, the task of taking production photos passed to K.A.Fischer, who remained the Art Theatre’s official photographer until 1915.
The early company photos of the Artistic-Literary Society and the Art Theatre display a light-hearted sense of fun. One studio set-up shows Stanislavski standing in a stage-box, his hand upraised, while the rest of the Art Theatre troupe piles on in a scrum around a fallen comrade. This “scandal on stage” is in contrast with the neat order of an outdoor pose, with Stanislavski in bowler and overcoat reviewing his male troops, lined up in order of height. Even the famous shot of Chekhov reading The Seagull to the company (which was organized after the fact, when he revisited Moscow in May 1899) was followed by a more casual pose.
This frivolity seems to have departed from Stanislavski’s portraiture along with his moustache. Reluctantly, he had shaved off the impressive handle-bar to play Brutus in Nemirovich’s antiquarian production of Julius Caesar in 1903. It is suggestive that when postcards of the production were issued, there were none of Stanislavski as Brutus; his alternate, Vasily Luzhsky, was shown instead. It seems to have taken Stanislavski a while to adjust to his bare-faced persona.
What is striking about photographic portraits of Stanislavski in role is his protean quality. Despite such strong features as his height, his bushy eyebrows and his full lips, the makeup artists and his own inhabiting of the character make him unrecognizable from part to part. Can elegant Rakitin in Month in the Country, lounging seductively on a Biedermeier sofa, and decrepit General Krutitsky, bleary-eyed and stoop-shouldered in No Fool Like a Wise Fool, be played by the same man? Can the beetle-browed, bearded mask of Ivan the Terrible be modelled on the same skull as Argan’s vapid moonface in The Imaginary Invalid?
Out of makeup after the Revolution, and especially after he stopped acting in 1928, his gaze is screened behind spherical horn-rimmed pince-nez, giving a owlish cast to his identity as an “internal émigré.” At the very end of his life, when Stanislavski rarely ventured out of his house and then only to be exhibited as a totem of Communist achievement, he was finally featured in a large-scale painting. In “Students of the Military Aviation Academy Meet the Actors of the Stanislavski Opera Theatre” (1935), Vasily Efanov, glorifier of Stalin and Stakhanovites on massive canvases, depicts a banquet laid in the ballroom of Stanislavski’s home: the director stands in a tuxedo speaking to uniformed guests around a table. Stanislavski resembles a tailor’s dummy. Just as his precepts on acting were being pruned to conform to policies of socialist realism, so the man himself was airbrushed and idealized into a stereotypical “hero of the Revolution.”
[i] The photo op could also create difficulties. On tour in New York in 1923, Stanislavski was snapped with Prince Feliks Yusopov, assassin of Rasputin. The Soviet government wanted to know why he was hobnobbing with such White émigré scum,and Stanislavski had to scramble to explain
[ii] There is a certain irony to this, since the Art Theatre’s first production, Aleksey Tolstoy’s blank verse tragedy of seventeenth century Muscovy, Tsar Feodor Iaonnovich,was noted for its picturesqueness and antiquarian splendour. Many of the stage tableaux were based on well known pictures by such history painters as Vereschchagin.
[iii] They did not have a monopoly. Individual Art Theatre actors were allowed to be photographed in costume by Yelena Mrozovskaya, F.Opitz, and others who were licensed to sell postcards from the negatives.
[iv] One striking omission is An Enemy of the People (1900), for Dr Stockmann was considered one of Stanislavski’s greatest performances. We have only sketches, a model of his hands, and a statuette of him in the role.
Katie Mitchell: A Lesson in St Petersburg
There were three practitioners who had a lasting impact: Lev Dodin, Anatoli Vassiliev and Eimuntas Nekrosius. They all were trained in, and used, Stanislavski’s system. Of course, each director used their training to create a very different and unique body of work but what united them was a shared ability to immerse the actors entirely in the situation, character and style of the play, together with a very refined visual aesthetic. As a director I aspired to acquire these skills.
It was a first year directing class with Lev Dodin in St Petersburg that first introduced me to the discipline of Stanislavksi’s legacy. Dodin was a thick set, dark and bearded man. As he entered the room all the students stood neatly in a line. They wore black tights, black ballet pumps and black T-shirts which hugged their bodies. Directing students train for five years and during the first year they only act, working their way through the basic steps of Stanislavski’s System. Today they were showing a series of studies, or ‘etudes’ as they call them, of their everyday lives. They were allowed to use tables and chairs but all the other objects they used were imaginary. The first student had chosen to re-enact an inhalation he had taken for a bad cold. We all watched.
Half way through the exercise Dodin stopped him.
‘What kind of flat is it?’ asked Dodin
‘My home,’ replied the student.
‘A private flat?’
‘Then why are you taking all the objects you need for the inhalation from the kitchen into the bedroom? Why don’t you do your inhalation in the kitchen or bathroom where the necessary objects live? There is no logic in what you’re doing. If you’re ill what’s the point in making all that movement? If you’re really ill, you’d take the easiest and shortest way.’
‘ I remember why I did it in the bedroom, there was someone in the bathroom and kitchen.’
‘If that was the case then you have to show those circumstances’.
Dodin paused and then asked ‘ Why are you inhaling?’
‘To get better’
‘ What are you feeling?’
‘Very hot, a bad headache and a sore throat.’
‘But what kind of feeling does a man who has these symptoms have? Let’s try and understand what feeling you have in overcoming the obstacle of the inhalation’
‘A feeling of effort’
‘Of course you have that physical sensation but that’s not the most painful and difficult thing. What is most painful and difficult is that you are almost another person. You are sweating, wet, taking pills. Why did you make the inhalation? You have to have a special kind of psychology to carry things back and forth when you are ill. If it were me I would have thought: ‘Shall I do this or shall I just sit in bed and take pills?’ Also when you spat into the bowl you did it as if you were on a stage. You did it as if you were performing for an audience, to show us you had a bad physical condition. You should, rather, be doing a piece of life. The student remained silent. Dodin continued
‘What do you have on your feet?’
‘What else are you wearing?’
The student described his clothes and Dodin began to challenge him about them,
‘But you’re going into a cold kitchen without putting on something warm. You’re sweating. You should change your shirt because you would be wet through. In this etude you are supposed to be presenting a piece of life that should occupy your entire body from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. One of the most unpleasant feelings of having a bad cold is when the tips of your hair become wet. When I say this I am not inventing something. I am trying to recall something that actually happened to me in life. This is what I want you to do. Now do the exercise again.’
The disheartened student starts his exercise again. Dodin stops him.
‘You are wrong already. Think a little. You have a fever and, as you’re not able to overcome the fever, the body starts to relax into it. You have a high temperature and because of this you cannot think clearly. The thoughts going from your brain to your limbs – arms, legs, feet – move more slowly. When you are healthy you do not feel your body but when you are ill you begin to feel it. Now continue’
At this point the student is really beginning to suffer. I can see him blushing and trying to fight back his embarrassment as he works. Dodin interjects:
‘Don’t be in a hurry. When you’re ill you’re not in a hurry’
The student starts the exercise again by picking up a book. Dodin stops him.
‘Reading a book is the most conventional way of starting an etude’
Again the student had to start and again and again he was stopped by
This grilling continued for an hour.
To begin with I found it a cruel process. Then I realised that it was the only way to teach the level of detail that Dodin wanted – externally and internally. The precision that he demanded from his student was awe inspiring – not least because it required an intense level of observation and concentration from Dodin himself. I saw that he could read thoughts and actions with equal accuracy. I envied him that skill and it became something that I aimed to develop in my own work. There was something scientific about his insistence on the logic of the action and this has stayed with me as a way of analysing and building scenes. I realised that his main interest was behaviour and not words. Finally, and most importantly, I noticed that all his notes were concrete and specific. This was the essential lesson that I took from his rather chilling class and it has provided me with a touchstone in my work with actors ever since.
This contact with Dodin early on in my career brought me closer to Stanislavski than anything I had experienced in the UK before -or since- and proved to me the lasting importance and relevance of Stanislavski’s work and legacy.
Richard Hornby: Stanislavski in America
Nowhere outside Russia itself have Stanislavski’s acting theories been more popular than in the United States, and nowhere have they been more
misunderstood. The connection goes back to 1922, when Stanislavski, in the aftermath of a devastating war, two revolutions, and four years of civil war in Russia, took his Moscow Art Theatre on tour. Like the Elizabethan theatre companies that would hit the road when the plague hit London, he hoped the problems at home might blow over, or at least that international success might strengthen the status of his troupe with the new regime when he returned home.
The MAT visited Berlin, Prague, Zagreb, and Paris, skipping London but instead crossing the Atlantic to New York, where it played with such success in the spring of 1923 that it returned for another appearance that fall. Stanislavski himself was fêted by theatre and film leaders, and might well have had an American career, but in the end he returned to Russia, where the MAT would become the flagship theatre company.
The success of Stanislavski in America was the result of several factors, of which the triumph of the 1923 MAT productions was only one. By the late teens, there was great interest among American intellectuals and theatre artists in “the new theatre” of Europe, with its daring modern playwrights like Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, and Chekhov, and with its new, noncommercial theatre companies like the Théâtre Libre in Paris, the Freie Bühne in Berlin, or Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre. The MAT was the first of these actually to visit New York. Moreover, many Americans were fascinated by the Russian Revolution; even though the MAT long predated it, and Stanislavski himself had come from one of the richest families in Czarist Russia, he seemed part of an artistic and economic revolution that was a refreshing contrast to the highly commercial American theatre.
Furthermore, Stanislavski’s anti-theatricality – his objection to stereotypes in acting, his hatred of clichés, his stress on observation and “truth” – had a special appeal in a country with a long tradition, going back to the Puritan era and still very much alive even today, of suspicion of theatre as something bogus and escapist. For Stanislavski theatre was art, a combination of a scientific laboratory and a church – certainly not show business. Finally, there was the all important fact that Stanislavski was not English. The English theatre had been breathing down the neck of the American since colonial days. By 1849, when New Yorkers rioted over rival productions of Macbeth by the American Edward Forrest and the Englishman William Macready, the prejudice against English actors as polished but emasculated in contrast to rough, honest Americans was already in place. Stanislavski, presenting a system of acting based on honest emotion rather than on beautiful speech and movement, unwittingly fed this longstanding American bias.
Cashing in on Stanislavski’s success, two former members of his company, Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya, established the American Laboratory Theatre in New York in late 1923, which they hoped would become the American MAT. Like the Russian company, it would present a mixture of new plays and classics, and would offer classes to actors in the Stanislavski system, at least as “Boley” and “Madame” understood it. Lasting until 1933, the ALT flourished as a school, but in the end did not produce many plays nor develop any playwrights.
Boleslavski outlined his teaching methods in his 1933 book, Acting: The First Six Lessons. Although he does not mention Stanislavski, the topics of the six lessons show the Stanislavskian influence: Concentration, Memory of Emotion, Dramatic Action, Characterization, Observation, and Rhythm. It was the second of these that was to be most influential in the development of American “Method” acting.
In 1930, three of Boley’s students, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford, formed the Group Theatre in New York as an alternative to the ALT; instead of producing classics, they would do only new American plays. The Group became the most exciting theatrical troupe in American history, performing plays by important writers like Paul Green, Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Kingsley, William Saroyan, and Clifford Odets, himself a Group member. They introduced an intensely emotional realistic acting style that electrified audiences wherever they played, including London. This style was developed in workshops taught by Strasberg who later became the Method guru.
The Group expired in 1941, ironically just as wartime prosperity brought about a theatrical boom in New York. In 1947, three former members—Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford—formed a successor organization, the Actors Studio, as a workshop for professional actors. Lee Strasberg was conspicuous by his absence, but while the founding trio’s theatrical careers were taking off Strasberg’s was fading, so that when he finally joined the Studio he became its full-time teacher, officially becoming Artistic Director in 1951 and continuing in that role until his death in 1982.
Under Strasberg’s charismatic leadership, the Actors Studio and the Method acquired the mystique they continue to have to this day. Actually, Strasberg did not encourage mumbling and scratching onstage, nor teach the hyper-realism popularly attributed to him, the “hit me hard so I can really cry” school of acting. Like Stanislavski, he believed that the actor works through imaginary emotion, but where Stanislavski saw the imagination stimulated by the role and the play, including production elements, Strasberg believed that the actor could draw on personal experience, recalling specific incidents analogous to those of the role. Boleslavski seems to have taught this at the ALT; his lecture notes provide the example of how an actor playing Othello might recall feelings of jealousy when reading a review praising a rival actor. Strasberg codified this so that an actor might use a dozen or so experiences to apply to various acting situations. It was an approach to acting appropriate for a highly individualist, capitalist culture. The actor draws on himself rather than on his fellow actors or the play as a whole. The resultant acting by the great Method actors was highly intense and personal, but self-absorbed. The actor sells himself rather than the character, as a unique, isolated item for consumption. In other words, the Method fed the American star system, in which the charismatic star is the focus, rather than the playwright or the ensemble.
It is not just because he founded the Moscow Arts Theatre and commissioned a short story writer, Anton Chekhov, to write the greatest plays since Shakespeare.
He matters because he saw that there is something living at the heart of acting. He saw that there is a difference between acting and pretending. He saw that although this difference may be hard to express in words, it is nonetheless crucial. And he devoted his life to exploring these fine differences in quality.
He never wanted his writings to be turned into a ponderous system. He was frustrated at his own clumsiness; it drove him mad that he could never find the right words. He also knew that whatever he said could only be a partial view. But nevertheless he has created the most systematic set of writing to help the actor.
We cannot understand Stanislavski unless we keep asking ourselves what he thought constituted ‘good acting’. And this is where the difference between acting and pretending becomes acute. The problem is that all the words we have at our disposal mean so many different things to different people.
For Stanislavski a good performance was one that brimmed with life. Time and time again he uses the word ‘life’ as if it were a synonym for art. In fact the title of his autobiography conflates these two – ‘My Life in Art’.
Like many great thinkers, Stanislavski has bequeathed a body of writing which can be used to help or to hinder. We need to keep an eye on his own game plan, which was to create a theatre that was overflowing with life. It mattered more to him that a performance was alive, than that it was ‘right’. He did not want to paralyse his actors with an arid theory.
There are now more hours of professional performance than Stanislavski would ever have thought possible. More of us spend more time glued to DVDs and TV soap opera. At the same time drama schools are turning out increasing numbers of actors. More and more young people want to try their chance at being an actor, and actor training has become a booming business. The quality of acting has never mattered more