Konstantin Stanislavsky

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Konstantin Stanislavsky
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-18073-0003, Konstantin Sergejewitsch Stanislawski.jpg
Stanislavsky in 1936
Born Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev
17 January 1863[lower-alpha 1]
Moscow, Russian Empire
Died 7 August 1938(1938-08-07) (aged 75)
Moscow, Soviet Union
Occupation Theatre director, actor, theatre theorist
Literary movement Naturalism, psychological realism, theatrical realism socialist realism, Russian symbolism
Spouse Maria Petrovna Perevoschikova

Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky (Russian: Константи́н Серге́евич Станисла́вский; also transliterated as Constantin Stanislavski; 17 January [O.S. 5 January] 1863 – 7 August 1938) was a Russian actor and theatre director.[lower-alpha 2] The Stanislavsky system would inspire numerous acting teachers in America whose teachings became a dominant force in film acting, especially in the period after World War II.

Stanislavsky treated theatre-making as a serious endeavour requiring dedication, discipline and integrity. Throughout his life, he subjected his own acting to a process of rigorous artistic self-analysis and reflection. His development of a theorized praxis—in which practice is used as a mode of inquiry and theory as a catalyst for creative development—identifies him as one of the great modern theatre practitioners.

Stanislavsky's work was as important to the development of socialist realism in the Soviet Union as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States.[1] It draws on a wide range of influences and ideas, including his study of the modernist and avant-garde developments of his time (naturalism, symbolism and Meyerhold's constructivism), Russian formalism, Yoga, Pavlovian behavioural psychology, James-Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy. He described his approach as 'spiritual Realism'. Stanislavsky wrote several works, including An Actor Prepares, An Actor's Work on a Role, and his autobiography, My Life in Art.


Family background

Stanislavsky grew up in one of the richest families in Russia, the Alexeyevs.[lower-alpha 3] He was born Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev—"Stanislavsky" was a stage name that he adopted in 1884 in order to keep his performance activities secret from his parents.[lower-alpha 4] The prospect of becoming a professional actor was taboo for someone of his social class; actors had an even lower social status in Russia than in the rest of Europe, having only recently been serfs and the property of the nobility.[2] The Alexeyevs were a prosperous, bourgeois family, whose factories manufactured gold and silver braiding for military decorations and uniforms.[3] Until the Russian revolution in 1917, Stanislavsky often used his inherited wealth to fund his theatrical experiments in acting and directing.[4] His family's discouragement meant that he appeared only as an amateur onstage and as a director until he was thirty-three.[4]

As a child, Stanislavsky was exposed to the rich cultural life of his family.[5] His interests included the circus, the ballet, and puppetry.[6] In 1877, his father, Sergei Vladimirovich Alexeyev, was elected head of the merchant class in Moscow (one of the most important and influential positions in the city); that year, he had a fully equipped theatre built on his estate at Lyubimovka, providing a forum for Stanislavsky's adolescent theatrical impulses.[7] After his debut performance there, Stanislavsky started what would become a lifelong series of notebooks filled with critical observations on his acting, aphorisms, and problems.[8] It was from this habit of self-analysis and critique that Stanislavski's system later emerged.[9] The family's second theatre was added in 1881 to their mansion at Red Gates, on Sadovaya Street in Moscow (where Stanislavsky lived from 1863 to 1903); their house became a focus for the artistic and cultural life of the city.[10] Stanislavsky chose not to attend university, preferring to work in the family business.[11]

Early influences

Increasingly interested in "living the part," Stanislavsky experimented with the ability to maintain a characterization in real life, disguising himself as a tramp or drunk and visiting the railway station, or disguising himself as a fortune-telling gypsy; he extended the experiment to the rest of the cast of a short comedy in which he performed in 1883, and as late as 1900 he amused holiday-makers in Yalta by taking a walk each morning "in character".[12] In 1884, he began vocal training under Fyodor Petrovich Komissarzhevsky, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and leading tenor of the Bolshoi (and father of the famous actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya), with whom he also explored the coordination of voice and body.[13] Together they devised exercises in moving and sitting stationary "rhythmically", which anticipated Stanislavsky's later use of physical rhythm when teaching his 'system' to opera singers.[14] Komissarzhevsky provided one of the models (the other was Stanislavsky himself) for the character of Tortsov in his actor's manual An Actor's Work (1938).[15] A year later, in 1885, Stanislavsky briefly studied at the Moscow Theatre School, where students were encouraged to mimic the theatrical tricks and conventions of their tutors.[16] Disappointed by this approach, he left after little more than two weeks.[16]

Instead, Stanislavsky devoted particular attention to the performances of the Maly Theatre, the home of psychological realism in Russia.[17] Psychological realism had been developed here by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Shchepkin.[18] In 1823, Pushkin had concluded that what united the diverse classical authors—Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille and Calderón—was their common concern for truth of character and situation, understood as credible behaviour in believable circumstances:[19]

File:Stanislavski in Pushkin The Miserly Knight 1888.jpg
Stanislavsky as the Knight in The Society of Art and Literature's 1888 production of Alexander Pushkin's The Miserly Knight.

The truth concerning the passions, verisimilitude in the feelings experienced in the given circumstances, that is what our intelligence demands of a dramatist.

— Pushkin's aphorism, 1830.[20]

Gogol, meanwhile, campaigned against overblown, effect-seeking acting.[21] In an article of 1846, he advises a modest, dignified mode of comic performance in which the actor seeks to grasp "what is dominant in the role" and considers "the character's main concern, which consumes his life, the constant object of his thought, the 'bee in his bonnet.'"[22] This inner desire forms the "heart of the role," to which the "tiny quirks and tiny external details" are added as embellishment.[22] The Maly soon became known as the House of Shchepkin, the father of Russian realistic acting who, in 1848, promoted the idea of an "actor of feeling."[23] This actor would "become the character" and identify with his thoughts and feelings: he would "walk, talk, think, feel, cry, laugh as the author wants him to."[24] A copy of Shchepkin's Memoirs of a Serf-Actor, in which the actor describes his struggle to achieve a naturalness of style, was heavily annotated by Stanislavsky.[24] Shchepkin's student, Glikeriya Fedotova, was Stanislavsky's teacher (she was responsible for instilling the rejection of inspiration as the basis of the actor's art, along with the stress on the importance of training and discipline, and the practice of responsive interaction with other actors that Stanislavsky came to call "communication").[25] Shchepkin's legacy included the emphasis on a disciplined, ensemble approach, the importance of extensive rehearsals, and the use of careful observation, self-knowledge, imagination and emotion as the cornerstones of the craft.[26]

As well as the artists of the Maly company, performances given by foreign star actors—who would often come to Moscow during Lent (when Russian actors were prohibited from appearing)—also influenced Stanislavsky.[27] The effortless, emotive and clear playing of the Italian actor Ernesto Rossi, who performed major Shakespearean tragic protagonists in Moscow in 1877, particularly impressed Stanislavsky.[27] So too did Tommaso Salvini's 1882 performance of Othello.[28] Years later, Stanislavsky wrote that Salvini was the "finest representative" of the "art of experiencing" approach to acting.[29]

The Society of Art and Literature

File:Stanislavski Love and Intrigue (1889).jpg
Stanislavsky with his soon-to-be wife Maria Liliana, playing Ferdinand and Louise in The Society of Art and Literature's production of Schiller's Intrigue and Love in 1889.

By the age of 25, Stanislavsky was well known as an amateur actor.[30] He made a proposal to Fyodor Sollogub and Alexander Fedotov (a theatre director and estranged husband of Glikeriya Fedotova) to establish a society that would unite amateur and professional actors and artists.[31] The profits from his family's factory were particularly high in 1887–1888; Stanislavsky decided to use the surplus 25,000–30,000 roubles to form the Society of Art and Literature, for which he had the Ginzburg House on Tverskaya Street converted into a luxurious clubhouse with its own large stage and exhibition rooms.[32] Fedotov became head of the dramatic section, Komissarzhevsky was the head of the operatic and musical section, while Sollogub was appointed head of the graphic arts section; the drama and opera sections each had a school.[33] To research the curriculum of the society's drama school, Stanislavsky spent the summer of 1888 studying the classes and performances of the Comédie-Française in Paris.[34]

The society's school was to offer classes in dramatic art, the history of costume, make-up, drama, Russian literature, aesthetics, fencing and dancing.[35] The school opened on 8 October 1888 while the society itself was officially inaugurated on 3 November with a ceremony attended by Anton Chekhov.[36] Under the auspices of the society, Stanislavsky performed in plays by Molière, Schiller, Pushkin, and Ostrovsky, as well as gaining his first experiences as a director.[37] With the guidance of Fedotov and Sollogub, Stanislavsky finally abandoned the operatic conventions and theatrical clichés in his acting that he had mimicked from other actors' performances.[38] He also became interested in the aesthetic theories of Vissarion Belinsky.[39] From Belinsky he took his conception of the role of the artist, on which he based a moral justification for his desire to perform that accorded with his family's sense of social responsibility and ethics.[40] At this time Stanislavsky warned in his diary:[41]

Young actors, beware of your female admirers! Make love to them, if it amuses you, but do not discuss art with them! Learn in time to listen to, to understand and love the bitter truth about yourselves! And get to know those who can tell it to you. It is with them that you should discuss art.

On 5 July 1889, Stanislavsky married Lilina (the stage name of Maria Petrovna Perevoschikova), with whom he had just performed in Intrigue and Love.[42] Their first child, Ksenia, died of pneumonia in May 1890 less than two months after she was born.[43] Their second daughter, Kira, was born on 21 July 1891.[44] In January 1893, Stanislavsky's father died.[45] Their son Igor was born 14 September 1894.[46]

When you play a good man,
try to find out where he is bad,
and when you play a villain,
try to find where he is good.
Stanislavsky, 1889.

In 1889 in the society's production of Aleksey Pisemsky's historical play Men Above The Law, Stanislavsky discovered his "principle of opposites," as expressed in his aphoristic advice to the actor: "When you play a good man, try to find out where he is bad, and when you play a villain, try to find where he is good."[47] Stanislavsky insisted that the actors learnt their parts thoroughly, almost entirely removing the prompter from the society's productions.[48]

Stanislavsky described his production of Leo Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment in February 1891 as his first fully independent directorial work.[49] His directorial methods at this time were closely modeled on the disciplined, autocratic approach of Ludwig Chronegk, the director of the Meiningen Ensemble, whose productions of Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, as well as a number of plays by Schiller, Stanislavsky had studied enthusiastically during their second visit to Moscow in 1890.[50] The Ensemble's general approach included historical accuracy in set, props and costumes and complex crowd effects achieved through a tightly drilled rehearsal process.[51] Its use of off-stage sound to produce the illusion of a reality beyond the visible stage particularly impressed Stanislavsky.[52] Their productions demonstrated a model for artistic achievement with relatively unskilled actors that Stanislavsky was to adopt for the early part of his career as a director.[52] By means of a rigid and detailed control of the mise-en-scène, including the strict choreography of the actors' every gesture, in Stanislavsky's words "the inner kernel of the play was revealed by itself."[53] Whereas the Ensemble's effects tended toward the grandiose, however, Stanislavsky introduced lyrical elaborations through the mise-en-scène that dramatised more mundane and ordinary elements of life, in keeping with Belinsky's ideas about the "poetry of the real":[54]

File:Stanislavski as Othello 1896 edit.jpg
Stanislavsky as Othello in 1896.

Stanislavski uses the theatre and its technical possibilities as an instrument of expression, a language, in its own right. The dramatic meaning is in the staging itself. [...] He went through the whole play in a completely different way, not relying on the text as such, with quotes from important speeches, not providing a 'literary' explanation, but speaking in terms of the play's dynamic, its action, the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, the world in which they lived. His account flowed uninterruptedly from moment to moment.

Writing years later in his autobiography My Life in Art (1925), Stanislavsky described Chronegk's approach as one in which the director is "forced to work without the help of the actor."[55] Jean Benedetti suggests that Stanislavsky's task at this stage was to unite the realistic tradition of the creative actor inherited from Shchepkin and Gogol with the director-centered, organically unified naturalistic aesthetic of the Ensemble's approach.[43]

It was at this time that Stanislavsky first met Leo Tolstoy.[56] Tolstoy re-wrote the fourth act of his The Power of Darkness along the lines of Stanislavsky's suggestions in 1896.[57] Tolstoy was another important influence on the development of Stanislavsky's thought; his What Is Art? (1898) promoted immediate intelligibility and transparency as an aesthetic principle.[58] On the eve of creating the Moscow Art Theatre, Stanislavsky wrote of the importance of simplicity, directness and accessibility in art.[59]

From 1894 onwards, as part of his painstaking rehearsals for Karl Gutzkow's melodrama Uriel Acosta and Shakespeare's Othello, Stanislavsky began to assemble detailed prompt-books that included a directorial commentary on the entire play and from which not even the smallest detail was allowed to deviate in rehearsals.[60] Stanislavsky's Othello (1896) made a strong impression on the 22-year-old Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was later to work with him before becoming an important director and theatre practitioner in his own right.[61] "The task of our generation," Stanislavsky wrote at this time, is "to liberate art from outmoded tradition, from tired cliché and to give greater freedom to imagination and creative ability."[62]

The Moscow Art Theatre

See also: MAT production of The Seagull and MAT production of Hamlet

In 1896 Stanislavsky discussed with Nikolai Efros his ideas for a scheme to establish a network of touring theatre companies that would bring high-quality drama to the surrounding area of selected towns.[63] He proposed to call them "open" or "accessible" theatres, in a bid to avoid alarming the authorities with their connection to the dangerously democratizing "popular theatre" movement that was spreading across Europe, spearheaded by Romain Rolland.[64] In February 1897 Stanislavsky joined Anton Chekhov, whom he had met on 15 February at a literary-musical evening, in an open public discussion on the creation of a popular theatre that was reported in the press.[65] At this time he also helped to organise the first all-Russian conference on the theatre, whose keynote speaker, Yevtikhiy Karpov, urged the creation of a "Russian people's theatre."[66]

It was Stanislavsky's historic meeting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko on 22 June 1897, however, that would create what was called initially the "Moscow Public-Accessible Theatre" but which came to be known as the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT).[67] Their 18-hour discussion—lasting from lunch at 2pm in a private room in the Slavic Bazaar restaurant to 8am the following morning over breakfast at Stanislavsky's family estate at Lyubimovka—has acquired a legendary status in the history of theatre.[68] Nemirovich was a successful playwright (whose work was performed by the Maly and whose play The Worth of Life had beaten Chekhov's The Seagull to win the Griboyedov prize, much to the author's dismay), critic, theatre director and acting teacher at the Philharmonic school (where he taught Vsevolod Meyerhold and Olga Knipper), who was also committed to the idea of a popular theatre.[69] Their abilities complemented one another: Nemirovich needed Stanislavsky's directorial talent for creating vivid stage images and selecting significant details, while Stanislavsky needed Nemirovich's talent for dramatic and literary analysis, his professional expertise and his ability to manage a theatre.[70] Stanislavsky later compared their discussions to the Treaty of Versailles, their scope was so wide-ranging; they agreed on the conventional practices they wished to abandon and, on the basis of the working method they found they had in common, they worked out the policy of their new theatre.[71] Together they would forge a professional company with an ensemble ethos that discouraged individual vanity, selecting actors from Nemirovich's class at the Philharmonic school and Stanislavsky's amateur Society of Art and Literature group, along with other professional actors; they would create a realistic theatre of international renown, with popular prices for seats, whose organically unified aesthetic would bring together the techniques of the Meiningen Ensemble and those of André Antoine's Théâtre Libre (which Stanislavsky had seen during trips to Paris).[72] Responsibility was to be shared between them on the basis of their individual strengths, with Stanislavsky overseeing production and Nemirovich in charge of the repertoire and literary decisions; each had a veto.[73]

Given that Stanislavsky's family's assets amounted to some 8 million roubles at the time, Nemirovich assumed initially that Stanislavsky would fund the theatre as a privately owned business, but Stanislavsky insisted on a limited, joint stock company.[74] Stanislavsky would only ever invest an initial 10,000 roubles in the MAT.[75] To raise the rest of the theatre's 28,000 roubles launch capital, Nemirovich persuaded some of the directors of the Philharmonic Society to contribute, members of the board of the Society of Art and Literature also invested, but the theatre's principal shareholder was to be Savva Timofeyevich Morozov, who invested 10,000 roubles.[76] The company had 13 shareholders, who signed an agreement on 10 April 1898.[77] With an annual salary of 4,200 roubles each, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich were to represent the interests of the acting company in the business, though with the aim of transferring control to the actors eventually.[77] The company consisted of 39 actors, 23 men and 16 women, 30% of whom came from Nemirovich's Philharmonic class and 35% of whom came with Stanislavsky from the Society of Art and Literature, with a total staff numbering 323.[78] Viktor Simov, whom Stanislavsky had met in 1896, was engaged as the company's principal designer.[79]

File:Meyerhold reads Chekhov's The Seagull in 1898.jpg
At Pushkino in 1898, Vsevolod Meyerhold prepares for his role as Konstantin to Stanislavsky's Trigorin in the Moscow Art Theatre production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.

For want of suitable rehearsal space in Moscow, the company met in Pushkino, isolated 50 miles from the city.[80] In his opening speech on the first day of rehearsals, 14 June 1898, Stanislavsky stressed the "social character" of their collective undertaking: "We are striving to create the first rational, moral, and public-accessible theatre," he said, "and we dedicate our lives to this high goal."[81] In an atmosphere more like a university than a theatre, as Stanislavsky described it, the company was introduced to his working method of extensive reading and research and detailed rehearsals in which the action was defined at the table before being explored physically.[82] Throughout June and July the company rehearsed productions of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Sophocles' Antigone, Hauptmann's Hannele, Pisemsky's Men Above The Law, Lenz's The Tutor and Alexei Tolstoy's Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich.[83] It was at these rehearsals that Stanislavsky's lifelong relationship with Vsevolod Meyerhold began; by the end of June, Meyerhold was so impressed with Stanislavsky's directorial skills that he declared him a genius.[82] On his death-bed or Stanislavsky was to declare Meyerhold "my sole heir in the theatre—here or anywhere else."[84]

In 1898, Stanislavsky co-directed with Nemirovich the first of his productions of the work of Anton Chekhov. The MAT production of The Seagull was a crucial milestone for the fledgling company that has been described as "one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama."[85] Despite its 80 hours of rehearsal—a considerable length by the standards of the conventional practice of the day—Stanislavsky felt it was under-rehearsed and threatened to have his name removed from the posters when Nemirovich refused his demand to postpone its opening by a week.[86] Stanislavsky played Trigorin, Meyerhold played Konstantin, and Olga Knipper played Arkadnia. The production's success was due to the fidelity of its delicate representation of everyday life, its intimate, ensemble playing, and the resonance of its mood of despondent uncertainty with the psychological disposition of the Russian intelligentsia of the time.[87] To commemorate this historic production, which gave the MAT its sense of identity, the company to this day bears the seagull as its emblem.[88] Stanislavsky went on to direct the successful premières of Chekhov's other major plays: Uncle Vanya in 1899, Three Sisters in 1901, and The Cherry Orchard in 1904.[89]

His encounter with Chekhov's drama proved crucial to the creative development of both men. His ensemble approach and attention to the psychological realities of its characters revived Chekhov's interest in writing for the stage, while Chekhov's unwillingness to explain or expand on the text forced Stanislavsky to dig beneath its surface in ways that were new in theatre.[90] By 1922, however, Stanislavsky had become disenchanted with the MAT's productions of Chekhov's plays—"After all we have lived through," he remarked to Nemirovich, "it is impossible to weep over the fact that an officer is going and leaving his lady behind" (referring to the conclusion of Three Sisters).[91]

Stanislavsky's system

Stanislavsky's "system" is a systematic approach to training actors. Areas of study include concentration, voice, physical skills, emotion memory, observation, and dramatic analysis. Stanislavsky's goal was to find a universally applicable approach that could be of service to all actors. Yet he said of his system: "Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you."

His system is often erroneously identified with Lee Strasberg's Method approach, which claimed inspiration from Stanislavsky's approach. However, Strasberg's adaptation relied exclusively on psychological techniques and contrasted sharply with Stanislavsky's multivariate, holistic and psychophysical approach, which explores character and action both from the "inside out" and the "outside in."[lower-alpha 5] In this respect his system is far more similar to other classical acting techniques than to method acting.

Emotion memory

Stanislavsky's system focused on the development of artistic truth onstage by teaching actors to "experience the part" during performance. Stanislavsky hoped that the 'system' could be applied to all forms of drama, including melodrama, vaudeville, and opera. He organised a series of theatre studios in which young actors were trained in his 'system.' At the First Studio, actors were instructed to use their own memories in order to express emotion.

Stanislavsky soon observed that some of the actors using or abusing this technique were given to hysteria. He began to search for more reliable means to access emotion, eventually emphasizing the actor's use of imagination and belief in the given circumstances of the text rather than her/his private and often painful memories.


A portrait of Konstantin Stanislavsky by Valentin Serov

Stanislavsky had different pupils during each of the phases of discovering and experimenting with his 'system' of acting. Two of his former students, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, founded the American Laboratory Theatre in 1925. One of their students, Lee Strasberg, went on to co-found the Group Theatre (1931–1940) with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, which was the first American acting company to put Stanislavsky's initial discoveries into practice. Clurman and Strasberg had a profound influence on American acting, both on stage and film, as did Stella Adler, who was also part of the Group Theatre and who had studied briefly with Stanislavsky and quarreled with Strasberg's approach to the work. Sanford Meisner, another Group member, joined with Adler in opposing Strasberg's approach. This conflict was the partial cause of the Group Theatre's dissolution. After the Group broke up, Strasberg, Adler and Meisner each went on to found their own acting studios which trained many of the most prominent actors in American theater and film.[92]

Lord Olivier wrote that Stanislavsky's My Life in Art was a source of great enlightenment" when he was a young actor.[93]

Sir John Gielgud said, "This director found time to explain a thousand things that have always troubled actors and fascinated students." Gielgud is also quoted as saying, "Stanislavski's now famous book is a contribution to the Theatre and its students all over the world."

Honours and awards

Fictional references

Mikhail Bulgakov satirized Stanislavsky through the character Ivan Vasilievich in his novel Black Snow (also called "The Theatrical Novel"). (It is no coincidence that Ivan Vasilievich was the name and patronymic of the notorious 16th-century czar Ivan the Terrible.) In Bulgakov's novel, Ivan Vasilievich is portrayed as a great actor, but his famous acting "method" is held up as a farce, in fact often hindering actors' performances through ridiculous exercises. Bulgakov's cutting portrait of Ivan Vasilievich likely reflects his frustrating experiences with Stanislavsky during the latter's eventually aborted production of Bulgakov's play A Cabal of Hypocrites in 1930–1936. While this depiction of Stanislavsky is in stark contrast to most other descriptions, including those of Westerners who had met him, it should be noted that Bulgakov and Stanislavsky were otherwise good friends.

Significant students