Stanislavski: The Basics
eBook - ePub

Stanislavski: The Basics

Rose Whyman

  1. 198 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (adapté aux mobiles)
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eBook - ePub

Stanislavski: The Basics

Rose Whyman

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À propos de ce livre

Stanislavski: The Basics is an engaging introduction to the life, thought and impact of Konstantin Stanislavski. Regarded by many as a great innovator oftwentieth century theatre, this book examines Stanislavski's:

  • life and the context of his writings

  • major works in English translation

  • ideas in practical contexts

  • impact on modern theatre

With further reading throughout, a glossary of terms and a comprehensive chronology, this text makes the ideas and theories of Stanislavski available to an undergraduate audience.

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Stanislavski's Life and Context

Konstantin Sergeievich Stanislavski (Russians have three names, as their middle name is derived from their father’s name) is famous throughout the world as the originator of the system, a method of training actors, and as a director and actor. He was born in Russia in 1863 and died in 1938. His main work was at the Moscow Art Theatre, which was opened in 1898, with Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko. In his groundbreaking work, Stanislavski asked questions about what makes a great actor, and explored this in depth. His work established acting as an art, rather than a craft, and he also developed the art of directing. As a result, Stanislavski’s work and the system in particular continue to be the most important development in the history of acting in the West and to have tremendous impact on acting and theatre today. Many fine actors in film and theatre still use his actor training method, the system, or aspects of it, and his ideas continue to influence and provoke contemporary theory and practice of theatre.
If the actor is to be an artist, rather than someone who can please a crowd, and pull out a bag of tricks in performance, then they need constant practice, as musicians and painters do. Stanislavski often said, ‘Nothing comes without work; only that which is acquired with difficulty is worth anything’ (Toporkov 1998: 93). Think of the difference between, on the one hand theatre performances you have seen where the actors have performed competently, telling the story of the play, and on the other hand experiences that seem almost magical, where the actors or even just one actor have taken you into the world of the play, drawing you in by the intensity of their performance. Regrettably, these experiences may be few and far between, but Stanislavski himself sought to perform at this level and, most importantly, believed that the way to do this could be taught. Before discussing what the system is and how it works, this chapter will trace how it emerged, looking at Stanislavski’s life and the context for his work.

Konstantin Stanislavski — Early Life

Konstantin Sergeievich Alekseiev was born in 1863 in Moscow. He adopted the stage name ‘Stanislavski’ when he began to act. The Alekseievs were an immensely wealthy manufacturing family: Stanislavski’s father, Sergei Vladimirovich, owned a factory that made gold and silver thread. Stanislavski’s mother, Elizaveta Vasilevna, was the daughter of a Parisian actress, Marie Varley. Like other wealthy families, the Alekseievs were patrons of the arts. Artists of all kinds visited the Alekseievs’ home. The family made regular visits to the circus, theatre, ballet and opera flourishing in Moscow at the time. The young Konstantin was smitten with a girl at the circus, Elvira, who danced on horseback. Once, as she made her exit, passing close to his family’s box, he jumped out and kissed her skirt, much to the amusement of his family, who asked him when the wedding was to be. Stanislavski, with his brothers and sisters (ten children were born, nine of whom survived), took part in plays and entertainments with other members of the household, organised by their governess, Evdokiia A. Snopova. They were so enthusiastic about this that Sergei Vladimirovich had a theatre built at the family’s country home in Liubimovka, near Moscow. Stanislavski describes his early experiences of acting and the impressions made on him by visits to performances in his autobiography, My Life in Art. It was Moscow’s Imperial Maly Theatre which influenced him most: he wrote that ‘It taught me how to observe and see the beautiful’ (2008a: 29). And he discusses the many outstanding actors whom he saw performing there, imitating them in his performances at home as a child.
In 1877, the family formed an amateur theatre company, the Alekseiev Circle, which included members of the household and friends, and Stanislavski worked on productions as an actor and director. They performed operettas and Russian vaudevilles, which were comic plays. He took part in semi-professional productions with members of the Maly Theatre and learned about acting from them. The Maly tradition embraced ideas about truthful, natural acting which were articulated by Mikhail Alexandrovich Shchepkin (1788–1863), who had begun his acting career as a serf or slave in a theatre company owned by an aristocrat but became a star of the Russian theatre. The Maly tradition was an influence on Stanislavski in the development of the system.
Stanislavski was educated first of all at home by tutors, and was much more interested in fencing, dance, skating and other forms of exercise than study, an interest that led him to explore many forms of exercise in his later experiments. When he went to school, he disliked it and only passed his examinations with clandestine help: he and his classmates learned sign language so that the best student signed the answers to them all.

First Steps towards a Career in Theatre

As the children grew up, married and had children, the activity of the Alekseiev Circle decreased, though Stanislavski’s interest in acting and other kinds of performance did not. During one period, Stanislavski, like several of his young male friends, became a ‘balletomane’, attending the ballet often and falling in love with one dancer after another. He admired the work of Italian ballerina Virginia Zucchi (1847–1930), and her qualities as a performer influenced Stanislavski in the development of the system. In 1881 Stanislavski began work in his father’s business, but continued to pursue his interests.Moscow was an important centre for music at the time, with artists such as the famous composer Tchaikovsky based there. Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, a railway magnate related to Stanislavski by marriage, was an artistic entrepreneur who spent much of his fortune producing theatre and opera. Stanislavski already knew much of the standard opera repertoire and learned a great deal more about the Russian repertoire in particular at Mamontov’s private opera. He decided to train to be an opera singer, taking lessons from the Bolshoi Theatre’s Fiodor Komissarzhevski, who also taught at the Moscow Conservatoire. Though he soon abandoned this training because of vocal problems, he maintained his love of music throughout his career, directing opera in later life and teaching the system to opera singers.
Seeking instead to become a professional actor, he went to the Moscow Theatre School in 1885, but left after three weeks, disappointed with the standard of training. He also visited the Paris Conservatoire in 1888, to study how acting was taught there. In the same year, Maria Petrovna Perevoshchikova (who later took the stage name Lilina) performed with him in a comedy to raise funds for charity, and they married the following year. She was to be a life-long supporter in the development of Stanislavski’s work.
At this point, Stanislavski was concealing his theatrical ambitions from his family, as the professional theatre was not considered a respectable occupation for a cultured young man. This is why he adopted his stage name. Of course his family found out eventually, and they accepted his chosen career, though his father bluntly said to him, ‘If you want to do some acting in your own free time, then create your own circle and your own repertoire, but don’t play any old filth with God knows who’ (2008a: 85). In 1888, Stanislavski and other theatricals founded the Moscow Society of Art and Literature. Following the entrepreneurial example of Mamontov and others, Stanislavski subsidised the work of the Society from his own private fortune. He acted in classics like the French playwright Moliùre’s Georges Dandin and Russian Romantic writer Alexander Pushkin’s Miser Knight, gaining valuable acting experience and instruction from seasoned professionals who were involved with the Society. His first directing work was a one-act comedy in 1889.
A significant influence on the development of Stanislavski’s thinking about theatre was the famous acting company of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, which presented Moscow with a new kind of theatre when it arrived on tour in 1885. Stanislavski did not miss a single show of their second tour in 1890.This company was dedicated to producing the classics, such as Shakespeare and Schiller, with meticulous historical accuracy in set, costume and properties, as opposed to the stock sets and costume on which most theatres relied. The methods of the company’s director, Ludwig Kronegk, inspired Stanislavski, and in 1891 he undertook his first major production for the Society – a new play by the great writer Leo Tolstoy, The Fruits of Enlightenment. As well as directing, he played a number of major roles over the next few years, including the lead roles in Shakespeare’s Othello and in Uriel Acosta, a play by Karl Gutskov about a seventeenth-century Jewish community. Stanislavski’s new approach to direction and interpretation and his own performances gained much critical comment.
It was a hugely exciting period to be working in theatre in Russia. Venerating the classic writers from the Golden Age of Russian literature such as Pushkin and Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, Stanislavski engaged with the traditional aesthetic of the Russian intelligentsia, including the ideas of the critic Vissarion Grigorevich Belinski, who believed in the importance of art in bringing about social change, and with Tolstoy’s teachings on the spiritual importance of art. And he also encountered new ideas that emerged in the period between the 1890s and the Russian Revolution in 1917 – the Silver Age of Russia – when Russian music, dance, literature, theatre and fine art were celebrated in Europe and America. Fin de siùcle movements such as naturalism and symbolism challenged existing ideas, and were thought-provoking for Stanislavski.
At the same time, the new science of psychology was developing. In the period after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, new ideas, including those about evolution, had changed the way human life was conceptualised in the West and in many other places throughout the world including Russia. All sorts of investigations took place. Studies in physics, sociology, physiology and psychology arose from a fascination with what lies below the surface of life. There was a desire to find out how the human organism could best function. This led to ideas that training and daily work in sport and exercise could open up possibilities for human beings, and these ideas influenced Stanislavski’s experiments in the psychology and physiology of acting. He rooted his work, he said, in observations of the realities of human nature.

The Moscow Art Theatre — Beginnings

Stanislavski’s dream was to have a theatre of his own, and in 1897 he met Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko, a famous playwright and theatre teacher at the Moscow Philharmonic School. Stanislavski had performed in his play The Happy Man with the Alekseiev Circle and Maly Theatre actors. The two men formulated a plan for a new theatre during a conversation in a restaurant, the Slavyanski Bazaar, which lasted eighteen hours. They rejected much that they saw in the theatre of the time and wanted to create a new kind of theatre, dedicated to high standards of acting and production. They wanted it to be a popular theatre and to keep ticket prices affordable, with the aim of educating audiences. In 1898, the theatre opened, and it gained an audience from the first season. The success of what became known as the Moscow Art Theatre (then as the Moscow Art Academic Theatre from 1919 until recently) was linked inextricably with the work of Anton Chekhov, whose great plays The Seagull, in 1898, Uncle Vanya in 1899, Three Sisters in 1901, The Cherry Orchard in 1904 and Ivanov, also in 1904, were all produced there, the last three as premieres. Stanislavski performed leading roles in each of these plays, respectively the writer Trigorin, the doctor Astrov, Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin, and the aristocrats Gaiev and Shabelskii, while also directing. These productions were recognised for their ‘spiritual naturalism’, the fact that they were both true to life and poetic. Nemirovich-Danchenko’s role at the MAT was literary manager, in charge of decisions about repertoire, while he also directed plays. Other plays by contemporary writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Gerhardt Hauptmann and French symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck, contemporary Russian writers such as Alexei Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, and Russian classical writers such as Gogol, Pushkin and Alexander Sergeievich Griboiedov, as well as Shakespeare and Moliùre, were the substance of the Theatre’s repertoire over the first twenty years of its existence.
Lilina, Stanislavski’s wife, performed in many Moscow Art Theatre plays and was much acclaimed as an actress. She was dedicated to Stanislavski’s attempts to investigate acting and was a willing participant in his experiments. Early in their marriage she had to accept that, essentially, for Stanislavski the theatre would always be more important than their family life. Other important figures who were founder members of the MAT included Olga Knipper, who married Anton Chekhov in 1901, and Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold. Meyerhold was to become the leading avant-garde director of the revolutionary period in Russia after leaving the MAT in 1902 to pursue his own career. The MAT itself was to become, arguably, the most famous theatre in the world, producing celebrated actors such as Vasilii Ivanovich Kachalov and Ivan Mikhailovich Moskvin.

The 1905 Revolution

Down with the old! Long live the new!
(Stanislavski 2008a: 185)
The MAT came into being in a transitional period in Russian history. Two years before Stanislavski’s birth, 1861 was the year in which slavery in Russia was banned – the emancipation of the serfs. Russia was until then basically a feudal society, in which the supreme ruler or Tsar governed an empire where the vast majority of people lived in rural areas as peasants, often very impoverished, or as serfs. Serfs or slaves belonged to the local landowners, working for them on the estate or in the home. Currents of rebellion moved through the empire during Stanislavski’s lifetime and Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. There was a revolution in 1905, in the early years of the MAT’s existence. On ‘Bloody Sunday’, peaceful demonstrators were massacred by the Tsar’s forces in St Petersburg. The revolution was suppressed at this point but dissent continued to brew.
There was artistic as well as political ferment. Stanislavski resisted relating the theatre directly to politics, stating that biased, utilitarian ideas kill art (2008a: 219); nevertheless, many of the plays put on by the MAT in this period had a resonance for the times, despite the existing censorship. As well as Chekhov’s plays, which depicted the stagnancy of Russian social structures with humour and bite, plays by Gorky and Ibsen were produced early in the 1900s. In 1902, Gorky’s The Lower Depths depicted the terrible conditions and desperation in which poor people lived in Moscow in 1902. In Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Stanislavski played Dr Stockmann, whose stance for principle against corruption appealed in a time of social protest to many who were supporting radical change in Russia. The 1905 ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre on Kazan Square, outside the Tsar’s Winter Palace, took place on a day when the play was on tour in St Petersburg, and that evening Stanislavski, playing Stockmann, was mobbed by the audience.

Modernism — the Avant-Garde

In Russia, the period from the late nineteenth century until 1917 – broadly speaking, the modernist period, when new ideas about life were emerging –...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. A note to readers
  7. 1 Stanislavski's life and context
  8. 2 Basic training
  9. 3 Analysis of the play
  10. 4 Consolidation and spontaneity
  11. 5 Embodiment of the role
  12. 6 Stanisiavski's influence and legacy
  13. Appendix 1: Synopsis of and extract from Tennessee Williams' (2009) The Glass Menagerie, London: Penguin, Characters and Scene 1 pp. xv-9, lines 1-136
  14. Appendix 2: Synopsis of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman — Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem
  15. Chronology
  16. Glossary
  17. Bibliography
  18. Index