KILL THE BUDDHA
By Graham Dixon
I have been told, but cannot corroborate, that there is an old Buddhist saying "If you see the Buddha walking along the road toward you, kill him!" Rather harsh but, I sense, there is a great deal of truth behind it.
Are we brave enough nowadays to say: "If you see Michael Chekhov walking toward you, kill him!
All great men of genius after their death - and Michael Chekhov certainly was a genius - have their followers and adherents. The first generation feels obliged to preserve the master's message and legacy with information handed down to them, the second generation continues the work but, and here is the danger, not having known the master but only heard or read what the master's aesthetics were, there is a tendency to create systems and formulas: for some are unable, for whatever reason, to get to the source of the master's inspiration.
We could say, in a rather vague and opaque way, that Chekhov's source was his genius but his 'genius' didn't come to his aid when he was experiencing visions and voices, which today would be termed as "psychotic" behaviour. Even Stanislavsky was concerned for his favourite actor's mental stability and called in psychiatrists to help. In Chekhov's autobiographies - The Path of the Actor and Life and Encounters - he relates how he responded to these psychiatrists and observed that his problems were not of a psychological nature but of a spiritual one.
Dennis Glenny, an Australian actor who trained at RADA in London, UK, in the early thirties and was a student in Michael Chekhov’s Studio in Dartington Hall in Devon, England, confided in me, that when he was a young actor, Michael Chekhov had related to him how he was walking past a bookshop in Moscow and saw in the window a book with the title Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and How to Attain It.
Chekhov walked on chuckling at the absurdity that, if it were possible to attain such knowledge, if it actually was in the power of the human being to have knowledge of a non-sense reality - and certainly in the fashionable philosophy of the time it was nonsense to entertain such thoughts - then surely we would all be doing it. He chuckled but immediately turned around and bought the book! Perhaps it was Chekhov's “Higher Creative Self” - which I call the “Marionette or Puppet Master” - that pulled the "about turn" string!
Dennis suggested to me to read Knowledge of Higher Worlds when, as a young actor, I too was in a crisis of sorts. He, also, helpfully suggested to read Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which he thought might help to answer that great existential hornet which presented itself as a recurring noise in my head blotting out any clear signal of why I, this uneducated and seemingly uncultured lad from a working class family, should want to become an actor? This desire to become an actor had burned in me from my very earliest memories.
I bought Rudolf Steiner's book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. The first words, In every human being there slumbers faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself knowledge of the higher worlds, profoundly resounded in me, not just as a young man from the mid-sixties that was subject to the surge of Eastern philosophy that was influencing and inspiring my generation but it resonated in me mostly as an actor.
At that time, I was not so interested in higher worlds but whether, and how, these slumbering faculties could awaken the slumbering actor within me.
Years later I found that these "slumbering forces" were not actually within me but, with the use of a faculty I call "spatial imagination", I began to see that they were outside me, not in a physical "outside" but in another world, a world that Michael Chekhov called the World of the Imagination.
Funny word, imagination. Funny word, world.
And, slowly, I discovered that these "slumbering forces" were not slumbering at all but fully awake and life-giving. I groped for new ways of expressing these "forces". I found the word "energy" very unsatisfactory and materialistic - it conjured up in me thoughts of electricity and how we produce and make it. And then in a workshop one day I stumbled upon the word “Principles”.
Natural science or the science of the physical world relies on laws that are constant and repeatable. It is not considered to be "scientific" if it is not constant and repeatable. As artists, even though we may devoutly wish it, we are hardly ever in the realm of the constant or repeatable, so I found the word "principles", rather than laws or systems, to be very apt and adaptable to the needs of the aspiring actor.
These aspiring actors' needs, mostly all unconscious, draw from me an itch to help: to go beyond idolatry and instead to tap into the iconic Michael Chekhov to get to the source of his inspiration and genius, to get to what he was working with, to get to the substance of his art.
And then, in encouraging these aspiring actors to work with and relate to these "principles", I began to sense that I had stumbled upon the "source" of Chekhov's "World of Imagination" which had inspired him and was the basis of his artistic sensibilities.
This world of imagination is not only about images or pictures but, and it became apparent in working with the participants of the workshops, it had more to do with movement: ‘pure' movement. Movement without intention or emotion or, as I term it, movement without “colour". Not dance and certainly not the movement pedagogies that are normally a part of an acting program.
By working with these aspiring actors on Chekhov's basic exercises (psycho/physical) and other exercises which I had developed to assist the contemporary actor to comprehend Chekhov's approach, it was clear that these principles were an objective reality, although, quite correctly, subjectively experienced. A seeming paradox!
In reading about Quantum Physics, I sensed I was on to something, as the idea of an undifferentiated subject/object was shaking the foundations of classical Newtonian physics. I began to see how it could shake up the accepted view of the actor's psychology and his training, as well. In other words, how does the actor create feelings, emotions, actions, character. And with what? What are the actor's tools and how are they to be honed?
I also began to see why one-sided systems such as "The Method" still had such a hold and influence on the aesthetics of acting and why it has taken such a long time for Michael Chekhov's radical approach to begin to filter through to the main stream drama institutions and to the aesthetics of acting generally.
By that, I mean how a working actor views their own inner-life or psychology (a terrible but safe word, psychology) and how that inner-life (dare I call it their soul life?) may or may not be connected or have the potential to connect to something greater than their own personal, subjective experiences and memories.
So have no fear that you need to kill the Master!
Reassure yourselves that the goal is not to bow down to oneself but rather to use the objective principles that the Master has uncovered for us to honour the journey towards our own Higher Creative Selves.