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Nathan Thomas

Friend and Enemy           


August 2014

    "He had no schooling in the arts of acting, although he had tremendous respect for good actors. If the Actors Studio had existed then, I'm sure he would have despised it. [Later he did.]"  
    — John McCabe writing about James Cagney in Cagney (Knopf, 1997).

Once upon a time I had two friends who were economists.  One was a classic Keynesian who believed that government had a role in greasing the wheels of the economy and keeping the whole thing going.  The other was a disciple of Milton Friedman.  For this friend, markets could do no wrong.  And only markets work.  Despite this major difference in terms of policy and view of the world; these two friends, anyway, rarely disagreed on questions of method.  Methods of research were enough in the same ballpark for these two to have a place to talk about their policy differences.


While I don't subscribe to the notion that acting and theatre are shamanistic, quasi-religious behaviors; some actors possess an almost religious concern about what's going on in the actor's head and heart.  Cagney's biographer, John McCabe, was an acting teacher at several major universities.  And here we read that Cagney probably would have and then did, in fact, despise the Actors Studio.  And from McCabe's comments through Mr. Cagney's biography, it appears that McCabe approves of Cagney's emotional judgment.


It's somewhat pointless come to some conclusions about the nature of Cagney's perceptions.  Rather it seems important to the biographer to note the strength of the emotional response.


Why should I care what you believe?  Should I care about what you believe?


Normally, these would be religious questions, but essentially these questions articulate a major issue for some actors – what do I believe is the "correct" way to act?  In my life I've heard a large number of acting teachers and coaches talk about "the process."  In fact, I've been in plays in which at some point very early a director has said, "This production is all about the process."  My guess is that the person who says that intends for us in the cast to understand that if we engage in a particular process, the outcome will be enhanced. But enhanced for whom?  The audience?  The actors?  Both?


Some of this devotion to a process probably stems from that ongoing mystery about what acting actually is.  The even greater mystery for the actor is knowing when she is doing it well.


How does the actor-artist know the art is going well?  (Particularly the theatre actor for whom no dailies exist for the actor to see for themselves.)


The actor has her inner-feelings of how she performed.  But many of us have been in the situation where we thought we nailed the scene, and the director came back for notes and suggested a life in food service.  Conversely, many have had the experience where the performance feels like what the cat coughed up, and the director comes back and says, "Keep that – it was fantastic!"  So there might be some doubt as regards our inner-critic.


Outer critics, of course, are not to be trusted.  Two different journalists seeing one and the same performance – one said I was too somnambulant in the role, and the other said I was too impish.  To be somnambulant and impish simultaneously is a real trick.


Friends, family, colleagues can sometimes provide a little barometer of a performance, but these people presumably like the actor and may have bias.


Left to the devices of Fate, the actor latches on to the idea of discipline and process.


I'm left to wonder what Constantine Stanislavsky would have made of this state of affairs – the world in acting left in his giant wake.  Even after reading two recent books about Stanislavsky, his life, and his work – I still wonder.  And that's the ongoing enigma of Stanislavsky, the more you know about him, the puzzle pieces shift, but don't fit into easy patterns.


The family origins of Constantine Sergeivich Alexiev (Stanislavsky's "real" name) were in the Russian peasantry.  Through sheer hard work and determination, the Alexiev family built a textile empire based on gold and silver thread.  By the time Constantine Sergeivich was born in 1863 as one of ten children (not all survived to adulthood), the Alexiev family was among the "out-of-sight" wealthy, patrician class.  Constantine Sergeivich was the second child.  Yet, in many ways, he became the leader of the family.


An indifferent student in a traditional educational environment, the young Alexiev acquired the habits of observation and analysis.  Because he was interested in theatre, he observed actors and himself as an actor, and he tried to analyze what worked in great performances and what contributed to weak performances and failure.


We have two new books to assist us in understanding better Alexiev/Stanislavsky's observations and analysis and the consequences of his application of his ideas.  Laurence Senelick edits an expansive collection of Stanislavsky's correspondence in "Stanislavsky: A Life in Letters"  (Routledge, 2013.  $37.95 in paperback/$31.96 in digital.)  R. Andrew White edits a series of mostly academic monographs in "The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky" (Routledge, 2013. $213.75 in hardback/$180 in digital.)


Most historians and biographers tend to slice Stanislavsky's life into two halves – pre-Moscow Art Theatre and post-Moscow Art Theatre as a kind of B.C./A.D. bisection.  That long summer lunch in 1897 appears to us in retrospect as the seminal moment of Stanislavsky's long career.  The attendant stories of the opening night of The Seagull and the theatre's all-too-short relationship with Anton Chekhov have become the stuff of legend.  And had Stanislavsky only produced great productions of Chekhov's full-length works, his place in the history of theatre would be secure.


But that binary view of Stanislavsky's life tends to diminish that Alexiev was obsessed with figuring out acting long before he became Stanislavsky. And, further, "our concern" (as Senelick translates Stanislavsky's regular term to reference the Moscow Art Theatre) sometimes was more of a block to Stanislavsky's real interests than a help.


Jean Benedetti centered on the Moscow Art Theatre years in his edited volume of letters ("The Moscow Art Theatre Letters," Routledge, 1991).  From that volume folks began to learn of the fundamentally dysfunctional relationship between Stanislavsky and the co-director of the Moscow Art Theatre, Vladimir Ivanovich Nemorovich-Danchenko.  Having already been published, that material is largely not re-hashed nor repeated by Senelick.


Senelick divides his material into twelve sections – two sections for the pre-Moscow Art Theatre years and ten sections for the remainder. Senelick, a sedulous scholar, provides an introduction that helpfully contextualizes the major features of Stanislavsky's life and work.  He then provides contextual comments to introduce individual letters as necessary, along with footnotes to provide short biographical explanations about names mentioned in the letters.


Stanislavsky was a product of upper-class gentility of the late-19th century thrust into a maelstrom of the worst of 20th century chaos – war, revolution, civil war, and famine.  Through it all, he appeared pretty much as he was, a man if gentility who believed in the civilizing mission of art and cared deeply for his family.  He had a sense of humor, but could also be obtuse.


As the leader of the Alexiev factories, Stanislavsky was a tolerant, liberal, and successful businessman.  Prior to the Revolution, Stanislavsky saw the textile business diversify into the manufacture of cable for industrial use and electrical cable. His treatment of the workers at the plants includes medical clinics and some schooling for the workers' children. But little of that makes it into biographies in English.  And little is included in Senelick's volume.  Thus, we're forced to look at Stanislavsky solely as an artistic force and not take into account his business acumen in theatre management.


Another interesting omission from available English biographical materials is how Stanislavsky and his family coped with the Russian famine of 1891. Just short of 30 years old, Stanislavsky was one of the civic leaders of Moscow, on the boards of a variety of civic organizations – as expected of men of prominent, wealthy families.  Was his family affected by the famine?  Did he lead fund-raising efforts?  Because of his means, did he take his family overseas for a period of time?  The famine was a seminal event of the 1890s and pointed to weaknesses in the tsarist system.  Chekhov was active in fund-raising to help alleviate peasant suffering and in helping fight the consequent cholera epidemic.  But Chekhov and Stanislavsky evidently didn't meet during these years. Why not?


So what do we learn from Stanislavsky's correspondence? 


Well, as a young man in his 20's, he'd already figured out that he needed to love the art of acting more than the surface pleasures of applause and admiring glances from the ladies.  Also, as a wealthy man, he was," . . .Not afraid to be deprived of funds. If there were no money, I could go on the stage.  I would go hungry – that's true, but on the other hand I could act to my heart's content." (loc 1552/digital version)


From a letter to a French critic in 1897, Stanislavsky notes that the task of his generation is to drive the routine and the obsolete tradition out of art.  As early as 1902 a letter to the famous actress Vera Kommisarshevskaya (Stanislavsky had known her father), Stanislavsky writes of his desire to establish a manual for a kind of grammar of acting.


So, his purpose was clear, and the biographical materials suggest he set about that work, testing ideas and working with a wide variety of people to find ways to train and better the art of acting.


We don't learn what Stanislavsky thought of Nemirovich-Danchenko's affair with his erstwhile student Olga Knipper (also married to Anton Chekhov).  We do know that when Isadora Duncan tried to seduce Stanislavsky, it was to no avail.


Senelick's book does contain some gems.  For example, a letter from June 1909 to his beloved Suler (Leopold Sulerzhitsky) about a visit to a Luna Park outside Paris.  Evidently they rode a flume, went into a fun house, etc. Stanislavsky referred to the amusement park as a "regular witch's kitchen."


As the years wore on, the letters show an aging man dealing with real tragedy.  He worked to keep his son out of active duty during World War I.  The unspoken tragedy is seen in his efforts to find a way to help one of his brothers and his children.  He was able to help the children some, but the brother was already dead by the time his pleas reached government functionaries.


Multiple letters attest to his efforts to finally publish his acting manual.


As a director, Stanislavsky continues to be tied to a prevailing idea that he was interested and worked only in "Realism" as a genre.  His final work centered around opera, a production of Tartuffe by Moliere, and a dramatization of Gogol's novel Dead Souls – none of which were remotely realistic.


As a director, actors recalled his famous note from the stalls, "I don't believe you."  According to Vasily Toporkov, Stanislavsky was prone to invent comments from a made-up person who had supposedly watched a performance incognito – the comments from this "incognito" were to deflate a self-congratulating actor.


Stanislavsky searched for a way to help actors provide a fresh, authentic, non-clichéd, artistic performance every time they worked.  No small feat.  As someone who had given hundreds (thousands?) of performances himself in every kind of play, he knew this was a tall order.


He was really the first person to look at the nature of acting in a comprehensive fashion, thinking through the actor as reader and script analyst, the actor as performer, the actor as rehearser, the actor as student.


It's been true that generations of actors and theatre workers have been left more puzzled at the end of reading his books than they were before they started.  As one Russian actor mentioned to me, "To understand Stanislavsky's books, you need to understand his System first.  And to understand his System totally, you need to understand his books."  Another conundrum.


To assist the theatre community in understanding Stanislavsky and his System better, R. Andrew White has assembled monographs by a group of scholars and artists, each focusing on particular aspects or facets of Stanislavsky's work.  Given the price tag of the book -- $213.75 on Amazon/$180 for Kindle – this book is intended primarily for the library trade.  Which means, given the declining acquisition budgets for libraries for actual books and the declining numbers of people who actually use lending libraries for the reading of actual books, this is probably a book you would like to read but are unlikely to ever find in your own hands.


White organizes The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky into four major sections – Stanislavsky on the stage, Stanislavsky the teacher, Stanislavsky the theoretician, and Stanislavsky's impact on practice.  The text is weighted more toward biographical/historical material (six monographs in the section on Stanislavsky's stage practice) and Stanislavsky's impact on practice (eight monographs).  Only three monographs are given to "Stanislavsky the Teacher" and five to Stanislavsky's impact on theory, which might be seen as a sub-set of his impact on practice.


The monograph authors include the best scholars in Stanislavsky and Russian Theatre studies.  Thus, the included authors are a group one would expect to find in such a collection. For example, Sharon Marie Carnicke, the respected Stanislavsky scholar and author of Stanislavsky in Focus, includes two monographs – one co-written with David Rosen about "Stanislavsky and Opera" and another about "The Effects of Russian and Soviet Censorship on the Practice of Stanislavsky's System." And Anatoly Smeliansky's contribution is a piece on the letters of Stanislavsky.


One of the ways theatre people relate to Stanislavsky is through their initial encounter with his work.  And that is the rhetorical starting place for R. Andrew White's introductory essay. for Katarina Kamotskaia and Mark Stevenson's monograph on the "first steps" in learning the System, for Yasen Peyankov's piece on Stanislavsky and Strasberg, for Austin Pendleton's personal reminiscence of his use of the System, and for Will Bond's piece on Stanislavsky and Suzuki work.  Most folks, evidently, tended on first meeting to regard Stanislavsky as someone concerned mostly with Psychological Realism (whatever that may be to them) and a kind of a scold.


The latter is, to some degree, probably the case.  Stanislavsky, we learn, was not satisfied with the usual hackwork that makes up a majority of the clichés we see on the stage. Further, Stanislavsky was very clear about what artistic virtuosity looked like.  One wonders what Stanislavsky would make of the contemporary "triple-threat" American actors who have advanced training in acting, singing, and dancing.  My guess is that his opinion of these performers wouldn't be much higher than the actors of his day.  Such actors can sing, but they can't place the voice as the true singer-artists who sing opera.  They can dance, but they haven't the capacity of the artist-dancers of the ballet.  He might have some respect for a Mandy Patinkin in the way that he did for Fydor Chaliapin – a great singer who could also act.


As a reader proceeds through the first section about "Stanislavsky on Stage," she will find interesting information about the Alexiev Circle and the Society of Art and Literature (precursors to the Moscow Art Theatre); Stanislavsky's relationships with plays and playwrights (Chekhov, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Gorky, and Ostrovsky); Stanislavsky's work in the avant-garde; and an introduction to what we learn about Stanislavsky from his correspondence.  As a "companion" book should do, these pieces don't tend to break much new ground. They provide an admirable digest, probably diminishing the need to read separate books on each subject. 

But as digests, occasionally this reader hoped for the writers to be as up-to-date as possible, given the mix of primary and secondary sources.  In particular, Kathryn Medros Syssoyeva's 2009 dissertation on the Meyerhold/Stanislavsky Studio on Povarskaya Street in 1905 would have added some nuance to Julia Listengarten's chapter on Stanislavsky and the avant-garde.


Indeed, one of the pieces one would have wished for in a book like this would have been a piece about Stanislavsky's complicated relationships with the younger geniuses of his time – Meyerhold and Vakhtangov.    One has to read a book on Meyerhold to discover that Stanislavsky loved Meyerhold's production of Erdmann's play The Mandate.  And Stanislavsky praised Vakhtangov as his best student and best teacher of his System. But in a letter to Mikhail Geitts on January 9, 1930, Stanislavsky wrote of trying to find a director to replace Nemirovich-Danchenko.  Stanislavsky wrote, " . . .in all my life there were among all my numerous students only two such directors: 1) Sulerzhitsky, whom I consider to have been a man of genius, and 2) Vakhtangov – not so good [emphasis added], but also capable of becoming an artistic leader."  These were complicated relationships that reflect interesting light on how Stanislavsky thought about the people making theatre as contemporary professionals.  But the "Companion" doesn't investigate this fertile ground.


"Stanislavsky the Teacher" gets the shortest shrift of the sections. But it also receives great care, largely due to the masterful and sensible addition of a chapter by Lissa Tyler Renaud on Stanislavsky's work on voice and movement.  More than is commonly realized, I think, Stanislavsky was vastly concerned with the holistic training of actors.  And so Renaud notes, "No matter what versions of Stanislavsky's books one reads – chopped up, mis-translated, or filtered through concepts foreign to them – it is always clear that Stanislavsky's approach to acting involves both interior and exterior processes." (Companion, p 108).


As noted above, Sharon Carnicke and David Rosen co-wrote a chapter on Stanislavsky's training work with opera singers.  Rosemary Malague concluded the section with an essay on a feminist reading of Stanislavsky's writings. 


Malague, author of An Actress Prepares: Women and "the Method" (previously reviewed by this writer), provides a cogent reading of the "new" Benedetti translation of Stanislavsky's training manuals.  Malague concludes that much of what Stanislavsky writes about in terms of inner-technique – bits, tasks, finding a sense of truth, etc – do not appear to be gender-biased. 


Once again, though, Stanislavsky had complicated relationships with a series of actresses and students.  This reader wondered why Malague didn't include Maria Ignatieva's book about Stanislavsky and Female Actors in her bibliography.  Would information about Stanislavsky's practice with women artists have influenced Malague's reading of the Stanislavsky manuals?


Section Three, "Stanislavsky's Impact on Theory," includes essays about the diaspora of Stanislavsky disciples in the years after World War I and the Revolution, Stanislavsky's influence on Grotowski, and Stanislavsky's relationship with Tolstoy's philosophy.


Of interest in this section are two essays – one by David Krasner on Active Analysis and another by W.B. Worthen on Stanislavsky and cognitive theatre studies.


Krasner, who has headed acting programs at Yale, Emerson, and Southern Illinois, looks at Active Analysis from a "Method" perspective. Krasner works to untangle the snarls that arise from past arguments about physical actions and inner feelings, emotions, and/or memories.  Krasner's argument concludes with an apt and sensible conclusion, "The division of 'early and late' Stanislavsky is not only a false application of the Stanislavsky System; it has led research and training astray from Stanislavsky's premise. Stanislavsky's value in actor training is the combination of approaches through holistic development." [Emphasis in the original.] (Companion, p. 209).


Over the past few years, cognitive science appears to have replaced semiotics as a fruitful arena of theoretical concerns regarding what actors are doing.  W.B. Worthen, part of the Ph.D. program at Columbia, takes as his conversation partners Rhonda Blair (who represents herself in the last section of the Companion) and Bruce McConachie.  Again, the upshot of this discourse is a recognition that the supposed Realism of Stanislavsky's work is a chimera that may be unhelpful in thinking about the theoretical aspects of what Stanislavsky did.


The final section on practice includes a welcome addition from Austin Pendleton, an active professional actor and director and teacher, who writes an essay about the use of Stanislavsky's ideas in his own work.


But probably the most practically useful essay in the book comes from Bella Merlin.  Merlin provides a practical guide to the use of Active Analysis in a rehearsal room today. Merlin writes a series of explanatory introductions as to general principles of the use of Active Analysis and the beneficial expedience of etudes, and the role of the director in using Active Analysis.  Merlin then provides a sample rehearsal schedule and a basic step-by-step guide for using the technique.


While many have written about Active Analysis, rarely have we seen such a practical guide to the logistics of using the technique in a modern rehearsal.


In the end, two more books to add to the shelves bursting with books and research done about Stanislavsky.  What do we really know in the end?


In the way apocryphal theatre stories get started, Tom Baker relates a story told to him by Beatrix Lehmann about Ralph Richardson. 


Lehmann and Richardson had worked together on stage in the early days and had washed his shirts.  However, Richardson had given Lehmann a snub.  At a party about a year after this snub, Lehmann spots Richardson and hovers near a door so that Richardson can't escape without talking to her.  Finally the encounter occurs.  After some typical Richardson flummery, Lehmann insistently inquires why Ralph pretends he doesn't know her, and why does he act this way? His reply: "Bea, the thing is you see, I have absolutely no personality of my own."


It's a curiosity of the great artists of acting, if, in enacting the great characters of the great playwrights – if they give up having much of a personality of their own.  In a sense Stanislavsky never gave up his personality.  On the other hand, Tom Baker once told an interviewer, "I'm profoundly shallow."  And I wonder if that isn't a little closer to describing what happens to actors.


Actors feel great feelings and communicate great actions, but only for a short time.  And then they change their clothes and go to the pub or go home.  The actor can have his or her enthusiasms and even obsessions. But the great actors as people will never match the greatness of the characters they portray. 


So what more do we learn about Stanislavsky?  He loved acting.  He loved theatre.  He dutifully loved and served his family, friends, and colleagues.  You could probably say the same about any dozens of men. 


The difference is that Stanislavsky worked to create a comprehensive "grammar" or structural understanding of what an actor does in every aspect of the actor's work and articulate that understanding to others. And did a pretty good job of it.


Leaving the rest of us to figure out what it all meant and how it can help us today, here and now, in what we do.


Why Stanislavsky?

It remains a mystery.


Some look at Stanislavsky as a friend, as a kindly mentor who has something to teach us.  Some look at Stanislavsky as an enemy, a bad teacher who wants to suck the fun out of acting – like some kind of Puritan father, always condemning you to hell.


Perhaps the most valuable thing coming out of this research is the ongoing clamor to remember the holistic nature of Stanislavsky's work; and that Stanislavsky was most interested in creating rich, authentic, characters who tell the story of a show.  Smeliansky writes:

    [Stanislavsky] advised that they should not act a role but play with it.  "Simple. Easy. Better. Fun!" – he would have hung these words over every temple of drama, which was what he believed the theatre ought to be.  He ridiculed that favorite actor's cliché, the state of "creative exaltation," seeking instead to encourage a loftier state of "creative serenity."  This he defined as freedom, an energy which arises from surmounting and overcoming obstacles, contrasting it with the heart of a serf-like actor, cringing with stage fright: "The serenity of a human being while creating is an absolute liberation of the mind from the pressure of private passions."

                                                                                        (Companion, p.100.)

I wonder what Cagney would think of that.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column in Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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