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By Harold Clurman

(Theatre Workshop, January - March, 1937)

Two important books on the theatre have recently appeared. They are Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in the Russian Theatre, and Constantin Stanislavski's The Actor Prepares. The former derives its value from the fact that it throws new light on various phases of the Moscow Art Theatre; the latter has absolute value; it must indeed be accounted one of the major classics of theatrical literature - as a book which presents the clearest and, to date, the most complete summary of the only organic technique of acting in the modern theatre.

Those these books differ in theme, form and purpose, it would be profitable to consider them together, not only because they happen to be the works of the two founders and directors of the Moscow Art Theatre, but because seen in relation to one another the two volumes constitute the most enlightening definition of the contribution made by that great institution and clarify the central artistic problem of the modern theatre generally. For, ultimately, we shall see that all the developments in the modern theatre since 1898, both in Russia and outside, spring from seeds planted through the theory and example of these two masters, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and Stanislavski. In fact we believe it is historically correct to say that what we mean when we speak of "modern theatre" is the theatre that attempts to carry on the two-fold contribution of these men.

In a word, what Nemirovitch-Dantchenko brought to the theatre was a concern with a modern repertoire - plays that would not only serve as adequate vehicles for a company of virtuoso actors but plays with a living content, plays with the same artistic vitality that was to be found in the best novels of the period. At the end of the nineteenth century and during the beginning of the twentieth what interested the educated sensitive public most was character, individual psychology, a true picture of the tragedy of existence as seen through people who struggled with problems of real life. Thus Nemirovitch-Dantchenko brought to the theatre such writers as Chekov, Tolstoy, Gorki and Andreyev. And though the world-view or fundamental spirit of each was somewhat different from the other, they all had this in common: they tried to give pictures of life mostly in terms of psychological portraits.

The theatre as Nemirovitch-Dantchenko conceived it did not necessarily distinguish between the "philosophies" of the authors they presented. Each author represented a certain truth and each was "objectively" presented. At a later period the Second Moscow Art Theatre (a studio derivative of the main institution) began to insist on the need for a choice of "philosophy"; each theatre, like each individual artist, must have a leitmotif, a main theme to be varied and developed through all its productions. "A theatre must have a meaning." In the Second Moscow Art Theatre the emphasis was ethical; it chose to show always that man was fundamentally good but was warped by various inner and outer circumstances. Thus this particular group chose to present a version of Dickens' Cricket on the Hearth, Berger's Deluge, Heijerman's Good Hope, etc., and gave their productions a corresponding interpretation. With the revolution, the idea of a particular "philosophy" being important to give meaning to the various productions in a theatre was sharpened by immediate social necessity. The revolution was to be the meaning if not the actual social theme of all plays. This has developed with time to the present artistic goal of "socialist realism", a realism dynamically illuminated and directed by the socialist view of life. Each theatre in the Soviet Union today plays its own variation and gives its own version of the broad concept of "social realism".

But the point to be remembered is that while each period and each new theatre group modified or added to Dantchenko's particular esthetic, his basic emphasis on a repertoire important for its value in terms of life-significance, in terms of a communication between people who had something to tell one another (artist and public) has remained. So that, even in the choice of classics, when new plays were lacking or when new truths could be more satisfactorily expressed through old plays - the emphasis was always on the relevance of the play to its contemporary audience, not on the opportunity it might afford a favorite actor to appear in a famous role.

In short, the stress is not only on the how but on the what - the preoccupation with content (which in the theatre means primarily the nature of the plays chosen) - may be set down as the major contribution of Dantchenko to the modern theatre.

But all of this would have meant comparatively little as far as the art of the theatre goes if Dantchenko had not been conscious of the fact that for a play to live in the theatre is inextricable bound up with the form of its presentation on the stage, and that to divorce one from the other is esthetic murder.

For the new plays that Dantchenko wished to present, there had to be a new kind of interpretation, that is, a new acting, a new type of stage setting, even and not least important, a new kind of organization - in a work, a whole new theatre. The strangely sever (almost "religious") discipline, the abandonment of the "star system" and the whole new backstage code characteristic of the Moscow Art Theatre (especially in its early years) were not an "arty" pose, or even an expression of "Russian temperament". (They were as new and startling to the Russian actors at that time as they would be to actors anywhere in the world). They were simply the form that the new theatre had to take in order to express Chekov and the other new playwrights as Dantchenko felt they should be expressed. After all, The Seagull had been performed with a fine company and it had failed miserably at its Petersburg premiere. It had failed because, as Dantchenko later learned, the old acting technique - even when good - did not convey Chekov intelligibly in terms of the theatre. So for the new plays of Chekov and the others, a new kind of theatre had to be established, a new technique of acting had to be evolved.

And it was Stanislavski who through incessant effort, patient observation and constant searching slowly found the new technique. The so-called Stanislavski system (or method) was not born with the first rehearsal of the Moscow Art Theatre. In fact, no such thing had ever been heard of - not even by Stanislavski! What was present at the beginning was the aim that Stanislavski shared with Dantchenko of expressing artistic truth instead of theatrical fiction, the stale bag-of-tricks of the old theatre. Stanislavski, as we all know by now, did not appreciate Chekov when he began directing The Seagull. Dantchenko interpreted it for him, and Stanislavski tried to find an honest acting form for what he understood.

When the "system" became a conscious matter with Stanislavski about a decade after the birth of the Moscow Art Theatre, it was Dantchenko who had to "sell" it to the actors. The actors were undoubtedly persuaded by Dantchenko's eloquence, but in practice resisted the system for a long time. Today Stanislavski still insists that his best disciples were the younger people who came to the Moscow Art Theatre after the old actors had become famous, those younger actors who formed the studios that became independent theatres later on. It is worth while to recall these facts for the benefit of those who imagine that the Stanislavski system was a "theoretic" concoction for the benefit of a "theoretic" theatre run by a bunch of Russians, who would naturally take to a "theory" of acting like a duck to water! No, the Stanislavski system met with more skepticism and criticism amongst Russians than will ever greet it here, and with almost as much ignorance!

Stanislavski had never written any extended work on his system until this book which now appears under the title An Actor Prepares. All his teaching was confined to work with student-actors and with players in production. Stanislavski's previous attempts to set down an explanation of his system were failures, and his piece in the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which purported to be a condensed exposition of his ideas is well nigh unintelligible even to a person well acquainted with them. We must also remember that the system is not static. While certain pupils were writing bumptious essays to contradict the master's words, the master himself had carried his ideas to a new stage, or had brought a new emphasis to correct an old error. When Michael Chekov two years ago was asked to speak of the Stanislavski system, he replied, "I can only tell you that I know of Stanislavski up to 1926. He must have gone far since then!"

The system is not a "mystery". It is based on simple, understandable laws which merely represent a correct analysis of creative activity as it may be observed in fine artists generally, especially actors. Yet the system, because it is for actors and derives it ultimate validity only through results in acting, is not a matter to be "settled" or even discussed through literary debates or theoretical argument. Hence Stanislavski's reluctance to write about it; and perhaps it is the great amount of nonsense that has been proffered in the way of explanation or objection that has stimulated him to the writing of the present volume which is comparatively easy, sometimes quaintly naive, not at all theoretical.

There would be little point in an attempt to synopsize the book. Every word of it must be carefully read and reread (despite, or because of, its simplicity) and for full understanding a competent teacher or a good director must be watched or worked with. (And every good director makes the system his own, thus transforming it somewhat; no one can direct by the book!) What would be useful however, in line with our main theme, would be to show how some of the leading elements of the system are directly connected with the problems of the modern theatre in general, and are not simply minor divisions of a particular "theory" of an individual Russian genius!

Many of the topics and sub-topics of the Stanislavski book discuss technical matters that every thoughtful and experienced actor is acquainted with under other names. Thus "relaxation" as a prerequisite condition for creative freedom is accepted by almost any good actor; the same is true of "concentration" and the like. But, says Stanislavski, all these are technical preparations, steps or means leading to the main purpose of the actor's art. And then he speaks of something which in the present translation is called the "super-objective"! The whole system exists for the "super-objective". The actor must find the motivating force - the fundamental wish or desire - that determines the character's actions all through the play. This, of course, must be closely related to the author's main purpose in writing the play or, to put it another way, the actor's super-objective is dependent on the fundamental action and conflict which the play is intended to represent. For example, Hamlet's "super-objective", according to one director, is his search for the truth. Stanislavski speaks of the struggle for self-perception in Tolstoy, etc. The actor to really create something that fulfills the demands of art must seek for the "super-objective" of his character and of the play of which his character is a "part". What in plain critical terms does this mean? It means that the Stanislavski system is primarily concerned with the interpretations of plays in the most literal sense of the word. It means that the whole of the actor's technique to Stanislavski is mere virtuosity - like sword-swallowing, sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, etc. - unless it relates to giving a a living body, a human breath to the meaning of a play.

Think of the praise accorded to many of our stars. Some have "glamour", "vibrancy", "charm", "sex-appeal", "thrilling voices", "presence", "exquisite movement", "electricity", but of how many can you say, "Through this actor I understand this play. This actor conceives the part so and so."? Personally, the present writer acknowledges the natural endowment and attractiveness of many American players, but rarely does he see one whose performance represents a coherent interpretation. Most brilliant performances are nothing more than a series of disjointed impulses - more or less effective - transmitted through a more or less interesting "personality". But of interpretations that are organically continuous, related, purposeful - a significant series of action which sum up a unified emotional meaning, an identifiable form that is composed like a recognizable and expressive portrait rather than a patchwork - there is very little even in some of our "ten best performances of the year."

We go further and say that though talent cannot be made through this or any other system (Stanislavski repeats this truism all through his book) we have seen many very talented actors fail the purpose of the playwright or of any purpose, save that of exhibitionism,where less talented actors playing correctly (with a sound technique in the Stanislavski or interpretive sense) have really created characters for us, and in a good ensemble really create a play. To sum up, the Stanislavski system exists not for the purpose of "good acting" in the general sense that any actor who can make us laugh or cry is good, nor in the sense of making every actor "conscious" and "serious", but it exists so that plays can live in the theatre through the flesh and blood of the actor, through his breath, heart-beat, complexion,and mood, rather than simply through the learning and repetition of the authors' lines with the added decoration of the directors' business.

No discussion of the Stanislavski system in America should be regarded as "safe" that does not sweep away certain abiding misconceptions. (1) The Stanislavski system does not by itself produce "art" - it is merely a means. When an organization like the Group Theatre (which has been influenced by Stanislavski among others) does a bad production, it is neither the fault of the system nor is it a question of the incompatibility of "Russian methods" with American temperament. (2) The system is not for Chekov or tragic realism alone. Vakhtangov's stylized productions, including the gossamer-like fantasy of Princess Turandot, were brought into being with the aid of the system, and a gay and very good musical comedy could be produced by a Stanislavski trained theatre. It is done in Moscow; it could be done in New York City. (3) The system is not for "art" plays only: the impact of a social play is not lessened by dramatic intelligence. (4) The system is not for "emotion", and for "depth of feeling" alone; even frivolity and lightness, melodrama and nonsense plays are dependent on the same technical requirements that are involved in all creative accomplishment.

The system is not only not "art" in itself; it is not even an esthetic. It is only a correct means to a desired end. Where the end is fundamentally different from that of the art of the theatre (as in many Broadway shows), there is no special need for its use; when the esthetic of the artists is radically different from that of Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre it will necessarily undergo a transformation. Where the artists of a theatre attempt to discard its law entirely there will be a noticeable lack in the results - as many an insurgent director in Russia has discovered. The individual actor can profit from the system in almost any theatre in any land, but the system in its deepest and broadest sense can be practiced only in permanent collectives or groups where the technique is shared in common and where the aims for which the technique is employed are common to all the members of the group.

The modern theatre, we repeat, stems from Dantchenko and Stanislavski - and from their joint creation, the Moscow Art Theatre, because they represent interchangeably the ideals of content and form, plays and productions, regarded as a unity" social and human vision, made concrete and beautiful through their spontaneous organic embodiment in the complete medium of the theatre - of which the true focus is a group of actors. And for all of us the road to this achievement is paved by Stanislavski's system, and by the form of theatre organization first conceived and made to function in our day by Dantchenko.


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