OF THE MODERN THEATRE
By Harold Clurman
January - March, 1937)
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!"
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.