Life and Encounters

The following extract is from Life and Encounters

In the English edition of Chekhov’s 1st biography, “The Path of the Actor”, there are extracts from Chekhov’s 2nd biography “Life and Encounters” written in America in the 1940’s.   This 2nd biography does not include the period from 1934 when he left for the USA, his time in England, his return to the USA and his time in Hollywood to his death in 1955.

In 1928, when I was already living abroad, Stanislavsky invited me to come and discuss his ‘System’ (that was our last meeting). We agreed to disagree on two issues that divided us. The first was the question of ‘affective memories’. Stanislavsky was of the opinion that if the actor concentrates on memories from his personal, intimate life, they will give rise to the living, creative feelings he needs on stage. I ventured to object that truly creative feelings are achieved through the imagination. To my understanding, the less the actor draws on his personal experiences, the more creative he is. Moreover, he makes use of creative feelings that are completely cleansed of the personal element. Inwardly, he forgets his personal experiences, which undergo a process of transformation in his subconscious and re- surface as artistic experiences. In contrast, Stanislavsky’s method of ‘affective memories’ does not permit the actor to forget his personal experiences. My opinion received additional confirmation from the fact that ‘affective memories’ often lead to nervous, and even hysterical reactions among actors (and particularly actresses).

The second issue was also related to this subject. It concerned the way in which the actor is meant to picture the character or, to use Stanislavsky’s expression, ‘dream it up’. If the actor is playing Othello for example, he must imagine himself in Othello’s situation. This calls forth the feelings he needs to act his role, so Stanislavsky maintained. My objection to this was based on the following. The actor must forget himself and use his imagination to picture Othello in the surroundings befitting Othello. By observing Othello (and not himself) from the outside, as it were, in his imagination, the actor will feel what Othello feels, and in this case his feelings will be pure and transformed and will not ensnare him in his own personality. The image of Othello as seen in the imagination will kindle in the actor the mysterious, creative feelings that are usually called ‘inspiration’.

The two issues that Stanislavsky and I discussed are in essence one: do the personal, untransformed feelings of the actor need to be eliminated from, or engaged in, the creative process? That conversation, which clarified so many things for me, took place in a café on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. We met at around nine o’clock in the evening and parted at five in the morning.

It is with gratitude that I now recall those hours that Stanislavsky devoted to me.

© Graham Dixon 2017