As I make my way through the pre production phase of Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre I have been reflecting on on the film Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre. This next film about Vakhtangov will pick up from where “Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre” left off with a quote from Stanislavsky’s book “My Life in Art“.
“How does an actor act? … How can the actor learn to inspire themselves? What can they do to impel themselves toward that necessary yet maddeningly elusive creative mood?……..”
These were the simple, awesome riddles Stanislavsky dedicated his life to exploring.
“……..Where and how to ‘seek those roads into the secret sources of inspiration must serve as the fundamental life problem of every true actor’ … If the ability to receive the creative mood in its full measure is given to the genius by
nature”, Stanislavski wondered, “then perhaps ordinary people may reach a like state after a great deal of hard work”
“Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre” will go into this same question but from another point of view which will shed light not just on Vakhtangov’s work but also on Stanislavsky’s thoughts and ideas as well.
When I started work on the film “Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre”, one of the difficulties I found is the common approach to Stanislavsky which is mainly from an actor’s point of view, from the point of view of technique and pedagogical considerations. In other words Stanislavsky as textbook – a canon of knowledge from which each generation of actors can learn their trade. That is why I wanted to make a film about Stanislavsky in a particular time and place, a context, namely Russia, more or less at the turn of the century and in the early part of the twentieth century. With this context Stanislavsky makes much more sense.
Self evidently Stanislavsky’s book, “An Actor Prepares“, was written in a pedagogical vein and was, to some extent, Stanislavsky’s intention. However I thought in terms of a film it was important nonetheless to look at this body of knowledge in relation to Stanislavsky’s relationship with his students and contemporaries and the environment in which he found himself.
Therefore, it was decided to avoid a strict pedagogical approach and concentrate on a historical/philosophical exploration of Stanislavsky’s work. One reason for this is that Stanislavsky’s work is not just a set of techniques for achieving specific acting tasks. Stanislavsky’s world represents a whole world view or philosophical and moral outlook which influenced Stanislavsky’s approach to his art. Without understanding that world or universe its not easy to follow the techniques or “system”
In my conversations with those interested in Stanislavsky’s influence on acting, he is considered by some to be on the one hand the authority in acting technique while others on the other try and say that he is irrelevant in a contemporary world and has been superseded by other practitioners, like Vakhtangov, Mikhail Chekhov, Meyerhold (see also Meyerhold Theatre and the Russian avant-garde) during his own time and later by the Grotowski, Artaud, Brook, Becket et al who have taken theatre and acting into a contemporary world. Perhaps this is the wrong way of approaching things, that is, trying prove or disprove Stanislavsky’s relevance in the context of techniques in the way that say Newton was superseded by Einstein and in turn Einsteins theories are now being questioned with the discoveries of quantum mechanics.
In the film Stanislavsky and the Russian Avant-garde what interested me was not Stanislavsky’s techniques themselves so much as the context in which these techniques came into to being. To borrow a term from Kuhn and continue the scientific analogy, Stanislavsky was the first to challenge an old acting paradigm and try and create a new truthful acting. His experiments were based on his deep humanistic beliefs of universal qualities which he maintained were inherent in each human being. These humanistic beliefs were in turn being challenged by the events taking place in culture and society.
His work took place against a backdrop of enormous and fundamental social economic and industrial change which impacted on the development of his ideas. Some of Stanislavsky’s students, Meyerhold and Vakhtangov in particular began to develop their own ideas and move away from the straightforward realistic character of Stanislavsky’s theories. In addition a crisis in culture accompanied the social and political changes during the early part of the 20th century together with the growth of mass society, making the understanding of reality as a fixed and permanent entity, unsustainable. Artists from all disciplines began to challenge accepted notions of reality through their work, experimenting and subverting the accepted canons and traditions. In the Russian theatre, Meyerhold developed an acting theory based on body movement and dance, Vakhtangov developed an acting technique called fantastic realism which brought an imaginative thrust to Russian theatre of the time.
Even though Stanislavsky struggled with the questions and problems of his time we can still say that Stanislavsky was the source of change in the theatre in what would be called the modern era, the catalyst for challenging the accepted theatrical norms. However Stanislavsky still had one foot in the previous epoch of the nineteenth century of which he was very much a product. The challenges of the twentieth century stimulated and sometimes confounded Stanislavsky. In this he was helped by Anton Chekhov who changed the way theatre was perceived. We don’t see now how much of a break with the past Chekhov was, how revolutionary his style and approach despite also being deeply embedded in the traditions of Russian literature which had come before. Chekhov however was different from what went before, and the break with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy was evident. The religious overtones of these authors was absent in Chekhov. His plays were modern, contemporary. Anatoly Smeliansky talks about this in the film in some detail and the full interview can be seen here. Chekhov for Stanislavsky became the counterpoint for a new type of theatre and acting.
For me what is important in Stanislavsky’s work is not so much a concern with the techniques and theories (although obviously I believe these are of huge importance, the very substance of Stanislavsky and his time) but an interest of what Stanislavsky believed an actor was capable; morally , spiritually, psychologically and physically in their art. In other words an actors potential, what extraordinary insights and to what great heights an actor could aspire in their art, this is one of Stanislavsky’s great contributions to theatre. Added to this was his colossal attempts to put the tools to achieve such goals into the hands of every actor who might wish to take up the task outlined by Stanislavsky.
Stanislavsky’s focus is the individual, the human individual and moreover the actor as an individual. This is clearly demonstrated in Bulgakovs relationship with Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre. Smeliansky’s Book, “Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead“? is an analysis of Bulgakov’s relationship to Stanislavsky and The Moscow Art Theatre. A novel which Bulgakov wrote called A Theatrical Novel or Notes of a Dead Man (In English Publications Black Snow) is a thinly disguised satirical portrait of Stanislavsky and the politics of MXAT. It is reported that Bulgakov wrote the novel about his experiences at the Moscow Art theatre in revenge for Stanislavsky rejecting his plans for the theatrical production of Dead Souls and his subsequent treatment of Bulgakov. In point of fact despite the biting satirical quality of the novel Bulgakov is in many ways not entirely unsympathetic and his respect for the theatre is evident throughout.
Bulgakov spent several years and much energy on a production of Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls” which was to be put on at the Moscow Art Theatre. Bulgakov was nominally in charge of the production and had a certain amount of freedom over its creative direction. However Stanislavsky eventually took over the production and rejected many if not all of Bulgakovs innovations. The story of this episode is relevant to the issue. What was left was an entirely different production in which sets and other theatrical and scenic considerations took second place to the vision that Stanislavsky had for the play. The actors performances were paramount. Stanislavsky, commenting on the production considered that the vastness of the sweeping steppe for instance should be conveyed by the light in the eyes of the actors and their emotional response to each other. This observation is a testament to what Stanislavsky believed possible of his actors and he worked hard to get it. He believed they could carry, with the strength of their emotions and performance such giant and intangible universal concepts as the sweeping metaphors of Gogol’s text and express them unaided largely by any stage pyrotechnics or theatrical tricks.
In conclusion its worth quoting from a dissertation which I found on the internet. The author (no name is given but here is the link )unearthed this quote from Gogol who offers advice to directors and actors contemplating putting on his play “The Inspector General”
“Before trying to copy all the small peculiarities of his hero, an intelligent actor should try to catch something universal in his character, should understand what his role is called for, should know the principal and prior concerns of the person he presents on the stage, must find out the permanent subject of the thoughts that appear in the hero’s mind. Having caught the main concern of the character, the actor should fill his own soul with this concern, so that the thoughts and aspirations of the hero became the actor’s own ones and were sitting in his mind during the whole performance”.
Certainly, it’s possible to argue with Gogol: the history of Russian and world theatre knows diametrically opposite approaches. But we’re talking about Stanislavsky and the roots of his system and ideas about acting so it’s worth reflecting that Gogol outlined some of the corner stones of Stanislavsky’s system and gives a preliminary answer to Stanislavsky’s question which is posed at the beginning “how does an actor act…… “
Vakhtangov went further and deeper in an attempt to find his own answers in the context of Russian theatre and the film “Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre” will explore these themes further through encounters with Vakhtangov’s theories of acting and theatre and the productions he brought to the stage.