A Century of Stanislavski in the States

When I graduated from high school, my aunt/godmother gave me an incredibly thoughtful gift: a paperback copy of An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski (Konstantin Stanislavski Alekseyev, 1863-1938). She’s not a theatre person per se, or someone who thinks terribly much about the art of acting. If I had to guess I would imagine that she knew the name in connection with Hollywood actors who were known as Method Actors, who’d studied at various schools and laboratories that purported to teach Stanislavki’s technique(s). It’s less true today perhaps, but certainly throughout the twentieth century all theatre and screen artists were forced to wrestle with Stanislavki’s amorphous shadow.

Is it hard to wrestle with a shadow? You bet. Isaac Butler’s recent book The Method put Stanislavski top of mind for me of late, though, as with everyone in my field, I’ve studied and contemplated his teachings all my professional life, and even to a certain extent put some of them into practice to the best of my limited understanding. Theatre is a strange art form (I’ve always detested the conceit of calling it a “craft”). The actor’s canvas (to use an imperfect analogy) is his own body, and thus it is unreliable. I find it significant that theatrical naturalism and its offshoots really got cooking in the Machine Age. The drive to mechanize and automate industry and transportation and other fields in the 19th century suddenly brought a new standard of perfection into everyone’s lives. You pressed a button or pulled a lever and a machine performed a certain task the same way every time. This is much less true of human beings! For a rough analogy for what dramatic actors might suddenly now want to aspire to, you might contemplate the acrobat. They learn certain tricks by breaking them down into constituent motions, and perform them the same way every time. But how do you do that in Hamlet? So various systems were devised, such as that of Francois Delsarte, that purported to create actors who could deliver on demand. But this introduced a new problem. An actor delivering the same motions every night was more like a puppet. He could perform the required actions, but the emphasis on the body often resulted in lifeless or artificial performances that would leave audiences, consciously or not, dissatisfied. Not always, though. Obviously, actors being actors, the emotions would sometimes click and the results would be electrifying. But how does one give inspired performances at will, every single time?

The ultimate answer proved to be that you can’t. Theatre acting will never be like painting, where you perfect the image and hang it on the wall. (Screen acting is a little closer, as you can keep the best “take”, but there have certainly been occasions where the right take never emerges no matter how many times you try, so you have to settle). Given the limitations of human endeavor, what eventually evolved was a “process”. Acting became about “discovery” and “research” and “workshops” and “laboratories” and “experiments” and unceasing “study”. While often unfairly conflated with psychotherapy, post-Stanislavski acting does have something in common with analysis: it is never finished. You never go, “Ah! Got it! Okay! No worries! I’m good to go!” At best there are little moments of partial enlightenment (we called them “breakthroughs” at the school I went to) but there’s no moment where you go, “I’ve passed the finish line. Now I’m officially an actor who infallibly has the skill to always get it right!” Once I had the good fortune to meet and talk with F. Murray Abraham following one of his performances in a 1995 production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. I told him how great I thought he was, and he responded, “Yeah? No! I always want to nail it, and tonight I just couldn’t fuckin’ nail it!” That’s what it is.

I bring all of this up at the top of this post (though it’s putting the cart before the horse) because I know the general reader’s inevitable first question is going to be, or ought to be, “What IS the Stanislavski Method?” I feel it’s important to make the point that there is no single Stanislavki system. And by that I don’t mean that, like the many religions the misnamed Method so resembles, Stanislavski’s successors spawned many competing and conflicting offshoots and sects. His OWN teachings and beliefs and revelations and lessons changed throughout his career. While in some respects he could be compared to a Newton or an Einstein, unlike them, Stanislavki didn’t discover a single ironclad operating law that could be tapped. He merely came to the conclusion that the matter should be given any thought at all. Like Francis Bacon, creator of the scientific method, he devised a way truth could be arrived at. He didn’t deliver the truth itself.

One could argue (and I often do) that “truth”, in the form of some mirror that reflects nature and human experience, is not necessarily what theatre and film are intended to deliver. Most people often unreflectingly declare that it is so, but I think that is simply a received notion that many or most people take for granted. I’d argue strongly that it is NOT a law of theatre or acting that truth be reflected. As an audience member I am just as enthralled by the FALSE: the fantastical, the entertaining. the diverting, the dazzling, the weird, the grotesque, and the extraordinary, and I DON’T require it to be grounded in recognizable human behavior. (Necessarily). This impulse oughtn’t to surprise a reader familiar with my association with vaudeville and the other variety arts, but I believe that it also holds true in the dramatic arts. I have found myself just as jazzed by Oscar Wilde’s essay on the Art of Lying, and the writings of some of Stanislavski’s more independent pupils like Vsevolod Meyerhold, who devised a system called “Biomechanics”, which took partial inspiration from clowning and other circus arts, and Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote an essay called “The Theatre of Attractions” which informed his later theories on cinematic montage. And of course, later, Brecht. But before we proceed, it is important to note that Stanislavski himself was not as dogmatic as many of his followers were and have been. He was just as interested in the problem of the “outer actor” and at the time of his death, he had reconciled somewhat with Meyerhold, and they were discussing some kind of collaborative effort. His search then, was perhaps less about “truth” than EFFECTIVENESS in the theatre as a general proposition, and that’s something I can sign off on 100%.

Okay, so much for the cart. Now the horse.

Theatre, like everything else, came late to Russia. There were various folk forms and so forth there since the Middle Ages, but the art didn’t really get cooking until Peter the Great and succeeding Tsars established some imperial state theatres in the 18th and 19th centuries, by which point the countries of western Europe already had long established theatrical traditions. It wasn’t until 1883 that the state monopoly on theatre was relinquished and private individuals could form their own professional companies. Stanislavski was 20 years old at that time and already a budding amateur actor. While the system (or non-system) he founded was to be very much associated with Communism later on, it is important to note that Stanislavski himself was not. He was from one of Russia’s richest families, a member of a capitalistic dynasty, a factory owner. His private wealth enabled his theatrical activities.

From the first, Stanislavski took copious notes about his own process and discoveries. His early direction of plays was in the autocratic style of the Duke of Saxe-Meinengen’s company, where every detail of a production was dictated to the actors, top down. In 1891 he directed a production of Tolstoy’s play The Fruits of Enlightenment. Shortly later he met the writer, who became a major influence on him and his ambitions to elevate the theatrical art to a level with literature, music, and painting. There is a spiritual, mystical element to Tolstoy’s art and philosophy that is characteristically Russian and I believe informed Stanislavski’s approach to developing the inner actor. To this day, spiritualism of one kind or another remains a major sub-factor among the methods and lifestyles of many practicing actors.

In 1898, Stanislavski teamed with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko to form the groundbreaking Moscow Art Theatre, Nemirovich-Danchenko had much more nuts-and-bolts experience in the professional theatre. He was to essentially be the managing director, while Stanislavski was the artistic director and resident genius. That first year, the Moscow Art Theatre produced the world premiere of Chekhov’s The Seagull, thus putting the playwright on the map. In addition to the premieres of Chekov’s works, the Moscow Art Theatre also produced plays or adaptations of Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol, Turgenev, Ibsen, Hauptmann, Ostrovsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Pushkin. Dostoyevsky, Maeterlinck, Bulgakov, and classics by Shakespeare, Sophocles, et al. Obviously solving how to act Chekov’s character-driven, seemingly plotless plays necessitated working out naturalistic methods. Grappling with the Symbolist plays of Maeterlinck and a tour of western Europe caused him to refine and codify his theories of acting around 1906, and over the years he developed concepts you may be familiar with, such as the super-objective, the through-line, the table read, subtext, devising backgrounds and biographies for characters, “beats” (or bits) and much else.

The Russian Revolution caused a major disruption in the life of the company, in terms of resources, content, personnel, and so forth, but Lenin approved of the company’s work and it ended up surviving throughout the upheaval and beyond. In January 1923 (one century ago as of right now!) in order to earn money for the company, the Moscow Art Theatre toured the United States, produced by Morris Gest, and this was a crucial moment in the history of America’s dramatic arts. Some of the company defected and remained in the U.S., founding schools. And many Americans saw the work and were inspired, many of them later founding The Group Theatre.

So here is a good place to talk about some apples off Stanislavski’s tree. We have already talked about Meyerhold and Eisenstein (both of whom will get their own posts here). There was also Eugene Vakhtangov, a disciple of both Stanislavski and Meyerhold, and for whom a theatre was named. Vakhtangov was a major influence on Brecht as well as Michael Chekhov, a nephew of the playwright who moved to the U.S. and became a major acting teacher. I have already written about the great stage star Alla Nazimova, as well as Olga Baclanova and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom became character actors in Hollywood movies, and Maria Ouspenskaya, who became a major American acting guru and familiar Hollywood actress. Another company member who taught and acted in the U.S. was the Pole Richard Boleslawski, about whom we’ll be posting in a couple of weeks. Future Hollywood directors Rouben Mamoulian (an Armenian from Georgia) and Gregory Ratoff (also a character actor) also got started with the Moscow Art Theatre.

Of his notable American acolytes, the only one who studied with Stanislavski directly was Stella Adler, who had the opportunity to do so in 1934. Both she and Lee Strasberg had studied with Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theatre in 1925. Strasberg of course became the lead guru at the Actor’s Studio, founded by fellow Group Theatre alum Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert “Bobby” Lewis. Lewis himself broke off and started his own acting school, quite apart from both Adler and Strasberg, as did Sanford Meisner.

In addition to the many schools and studios teaching Stanislavski’s method(s), there is also the lingering influence of his books, released in the U.S. as An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, Creating a Role, and My Life in Art. In recent years there have been newer, more thorough translations of his original writings published under his original title An Actor’s Work. Which loops us back to where we started!

In 1928 Stanislavski suffered a heart attack that forced his retirement from acting, directing and leading the MAT, although he continued to write and privately teach. It was probably something of a blessing, as these were the years that Stalin came to power and state control of the arts increased dramatically. Two years after Stanislavski’s death in 1938, Meyerhold was tortured and executed by the U.S.S.R. for his heresies against state policy. Providentially, Stanislavski was spared such a fate.

For related stuff, see my posts on The Group Theatre and Butler’s The Method, as well as the various artists linked above.