FROM STANISLAVSKY´S system TO HIS OWN TECHNIQUE OF ACTING
The following extract is from Andrei Kirillov’s article “Michael Chekhov : From Stanislavsky’s System to His own Technique of Acting” from the Dartington Hall Conference 2005
First of all I’d like to thank the organizers of our symposium for giving me the opportunity to come and talk here. I’d like to thank my friend and colleague Rose Whyman for improving my English and to apologize for my Russian pronunciation.
It is well known that for the whole of his life Michael Chekhov related to his teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky with deep respect and great love. After his emigration from Russia Chekhov often recalled with nostalgia the atmosphere of solemn performance which was characteristic of work at MAT.
However Chekhov developed his own technique of acting radically in polemic with Stanislavsky’s system. These two different subjects are often muddled although we should distinguish them clearly. We should distinguish the personal relationship from professional artistic views and not substitute one for the another when discuss the basic principles of the two theatre systems which are polemical to each other. Concerning the title of my report I’d like to share with you a terrible vision which visits me from time to time after reading some texts. In this vision Michael Chekhov gnaws his own umbilical cord every morning to get free from it. But every night somebody sews this cord back to him so poor Chekhov has to gnaw it again and again. On the other end of this cord there is Stanislavsky who also is not so happy with this permanent father/motherhood connection and the patronage imposed to him by too devoted authors who try to prove that Stanislavsky’s method is the only true, natural, universal and eternal system of acting. We know that Michael Chekhov was Stanislavsky’s pupil in the First Studio and worked at MAT under his leadership. We know that in American period of his activities Chekhov who was not so well known yet in the last country of his life’sOdyssey was obliged to appeal to his genetic connection with the famous MAT to establish himself in a new place.
We know that representing Chekhov as the true pupil and follower of Stanislavsky was the only way to restore this emigrant and ‘traitor’ in the history of Russian theatre later in the Soviet period. Now the Soviet Union does not exist any more and Michael Chekhov himself is well known around the globe but the rudiments of the old ideology still endure and do not allow him to get complete freedom. Although the reasons for this ideology are of a different nonpolitical nature in our days the umbilical cord of MAT’s tradition continues to reach out for Chekhov, to entangle him and does not allow his method to reveal its originality in full.
This situation looks stranger still because almost all the main texts ofChekhov including his correspondence and records of his training and rehearsing are published. Mainly in Russian only but they do exist and are accessible. And through all these publications there is the obvious gradual but irreversible getting free from Stanislavsky's system, from its subjectivity and from its inner limitations.This tendency is even clearer because Chekhov formulates exactly what principles of Stanislavsky’s system he is against, why so and what and how he is seeking instead. It is impossible to identify and describe this tendency in all its stages and aspects here. It is impossible to analyze the principles and instruments of both methods and to compare them in a 20 minute talk. I made such an attempt in more detail in my article ‘The Theater System of Michael Chekhov’ which was published by Vladislav Ivanov in the third issue of his theatre almanac ‘Mnemozina’ in Moscow in 2004.
Today I will concentrate on one episode: the last meeting of Chekhov and Stanislavsky which happened in Berlin in September 1928 soon after Chekhov’s emigration from Russia. In the beginning I’d like to suggest you a quotation from Chekhov’s letter written shortly after that event to his colleague the actor Vladimir Podgorny.
“The most interesting event in the most recent days of my life was my meeting with Konstantin Sergeev [Stanislavsky]. I came to see him for 10 minutes and spent with him 5 hours […] We compared our systems and found much in common and also many incongruities. In my opinion the incongruities are essential although I did not press hard for that as I felt awkward criticizing the work and meaning of the whole life of such a giant. As for myself I derived from this discussion a theoretical result of colossal value and an even greater love for my own system […] Besides my system is simpler and more comfortable for the actor. In my method, for example, the actor is fully objective in relation to the character he creates from the beginning of his work till the end.
As it seems me in K.S.‘s method there are many moments when actor is forced to undergo personal ‘travails’, to squeeze out his personal feelings from himself which is hard, poignant, ugly and not profound. For instance our process of contemplation of the character in the actor’s imagination and further the imitation of it corresponds to the contemplation of given circumstances in K.S.’s method. But the actor who contemplates replaces the character by himself and his task is to answer the question: ‘How would my character (me this particular moment) act in these particular given circumstances’. This point changes the whole psychology of the actor and seemingly forces him unwittingly to dig into his own poor mean soul. How poor the soul of every man is in comparison with those pictures of the characters [images] which the world of fantasy sends us some times. I do not wish to debase the human soul in general but touch this question from the point of comparison only. Another example: according to K.S.’s system the actor begins with the exploration of the physical task moreover he explores it from himself personally: to put the table, to move the chair, to strike a match and so on – all these to ignite the feeling of the truth. The actor of my method has the feeling of the truth incorporated already in that image of the character and merged with it.
My actor can develop his feeling of the truth at his home – it is his own business but what is impossible – is to begin rehearsal with this. Why? Because “put the table in place” is a direct route to the horrible naturalistic mood and to attracting the actor’s attention to his own noncreative personality. I conversed with Kostia to our hearts content, parted as friends which makes me very glad and went to a café to drink water – it was already about one o’clock at night. I drank mocha.”
The subject and result of this last conversation with Stanislavsky was so significant and important for Chekhov that fifteen years later in his memoirs “Life and Encounters” written in America he related that meeting and content of the discussion again. Unfortunately that extract as many others was not included into our Routledge publication of Chekhov’s autobiographies due to the matter of word limit.
“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 hispersonal, 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 fantasy [imagination]. In my understanding, the less the actor draws on his personal experiences, the more creative he is. In such a case he makes use of creative feelings that are completely cleansed of the personal element. His soul forgets his personal experiences and treats them in its subconscious depth into artistic experiences. In contrast, Stanislavsky’s method of ‘affective memories’ does not permit the soul of the actor to forget his personal experiences.
My opinion is further confirmed by 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 first one. It concerned the way in which the actor is meant to fantasize about the picture of 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 his fantasy 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 fantasy 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. “It is with gratitude that I now recall those hours that Stanislavsky devoted to me.”
In these descriptions Chekhov answers those of his opponents who insist that at the last stage of Stanislavsky’s search “method of physical actions” instead of the earlier “affective memories” was dominating his work. First I’d like to say that Stanislavsky never rejected affective memories or personal feelings in acting as these were so basic for him. But Chekhov states one more thing of importance for such a discussion. In Stanislavsky’s theatre the actor is invoked to perform those physical actions in a way that is personal to him again – the same way he was invoked to experience the personal feelings awoken by the “affective memories”.
According to Chekhov himself the first impulse for creating the character can be varied in kind. In the questionnaire on the psychology of acting Chekhov answered in 1923 there was the following question. “What aspect of the character appears for you first: psychological, physical or resonant?” “It is always different”, – answered Chekhov. – “I think this depends on the following:
(1)what aspect is revealed most brightly by the author of the play and
(2) what in this character corresponds most with my (individual) creative idea, my tendency (which can be unconscious)?”.
For Chekhov it is not of such great importance what comes first –physics or psychology. What is of real importance for him is the subject and object of this impulse. Does this impulse come from the personality of the actor or from the character? Does it express the personality of the performer or the character? I can foresee another objection from the devoted followers of Stanislavsky – that Chekhov did not understand some principles of his teacher’s system or that he understood them incorrectly. Such an objection seems to me to be arrogant at least. To answer this objection it is enough to recall some facts of Chekhov’s early life.
In 1913 one year after establishing the First Studio Stanislavsky himself had acknowledged Chekhov as his ideal pupil, who had ‘mastered the system in general’. He noticed that Chekhov was ‘one of the current hopes for thefuture’
In 1915 in his interview Chekhov identified himself and other participants of the First Studio as ‘the believers in the religion of Stanislavsky’. It is known that Stanislavsky never taught his system as thoroughly and fully as he did in the First Studio, which was established to check, develop and systemize the principles of his newborn method. Nobody other than the pupils of the First Studio revealed such profound results from mastering the system. Michael Chekhov was the best among those pupils. As I have already written why do we suspect the pupils who were the most faithful and in closest succession to Stanislavsky of an inexplicable desire to refute or distort his principles? On the contrary the facts show otherwise.
In the autumn of 1917 during rehearsals for Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull directed by Stanislavsky at the MAT Chekhov suffered the first major fracture in his creative processes as he prepared for the role of Treplev. Here for the first time he disagreed with Stanislavsky and openly contradicted him in his vision of the character and his method of working on it. This production of The Seagull was never finished.
In 1922, after Vakhtangov’s death, Chekhov became an artistic leader of the First Studio and began his activities in the practical development of the new technique of acting with his fellow actors.
In 1924 the Studio separated from the Moscow Art Theatre to establish themselves as the independent Second Moscow Art Theatre. There was dissent on both sides. If we look at the situation from the Stanislavsky’s point of view we can see in Irina Vinogradskaya’s Chronology of Stanislavsky’s life and artistic work his obvious growing disagreement and disappointment about the direction of the development of the First Studio in general and of Michael Chekhov in particular.
Meanwhile attempts to reduce the Theatre of Michael Chekhov to the common denominator of Stanislavsky’s system still continue to this day. The facts and essence of Chekhov’s own relationship with the ‘system’ are skipped in such attempts usually as it was never formulated by the actor himself. It is not so good when this situation is a result of lack of knowledge of the subject. But it is totally unforgivable when this is done deliberately, tendentiously.
Why have we looked for answers to the questions of the correlation of the two systems, why have we invented our own when the real clear answers and explanations by Chekhov himself existed in his writings and are obvious from his destiny? What do we research: our own favourite ideas which we like so much at times, or the subject of Chekhov's theatre?' Probably the opposition of personal and impersonal, subjective and objective is actual not for the world of art only, not only for acting but research approaches as well. What do we like more in the process of research: ourselves or the subject of our research?
Referring to the title of the paper preceding mine in our program I can say that Chekhov was genuinely a pupil of Stanislavsky in his artistic youth but Stanislavsky can not be considered as Chekhov’s spiritual father, neither literally nor symbolically or metaphorically. First of all because their understanding of spirit and spiritual was different in principle. If for Stanislavsky the spiritual dimension meant the soul of the actor as a person, for Chekhov it was the eternal world of images and ideas which is outside the subjective self. The instrument, the guide to reach it was the artistic individuality of the actor. The ideal realm of the artistic imagination was the ‘place’, the sphere where the world of spirit and individuality meet. This is why for Chekhov notions of ‘personality’ and ‘individuality’ were not only principally different but opposed. Stanislavsky was searching, was looking for the spiritual in the frames of actor’s personality while Chekhov tried to move apart the frames of the personal to reach the ideal outer world of the spirit. It was the same difference of principle between them as we saw earlier in the cases of feelings (psychology) or actions (physics). This principle difference of dimensions would never allow me to recognize Chekhov as the spiritual offshoot of Stanislavsky – the former was too radically different from the latter. Meanwhile as Chekhov writes in his book he and Stanislavsky agreed to disagree at their last actual meeting. Probably we can let them do this – agree to disagree – in history and in the theory of theatre art as well?
Let me finish by sharing this key of Chekhov's with you now:
‘How poor the soul of every man is in comparison with those pictures of the characters [images] which the world of fantasy sends us some times’. These words which Chekhov formulated first under the impression of his last conversation with Stanislavsky in Berlin in 1928 can be considered as the key wording for understanding of his own method and of the principal difference of it with his teacher’s system. With this key Chekhov opens the door of his method in his book ‘On the Technique of Acting’ in its first original version published in Russian in New York in 1946 .