Konstantin Stanislavski

(1863 - 1938)

by Bradley W. Bishop and Trevor Jones
(October 1999)

As founder of the first acting "System", co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre (1897-), and an eminent practitioner of the naturalist school of thought, Konstantin Stanislavski unequivocally challenged traditional notions of the dramatic process, establishing himself as one of the most pioneering thinkers in modern theatre.

Stanislavski coined phrases such as "stage direction", laid the foundations of modern opera and gave instant renown to the works of such talented writers and playwrights as Maksim Gorki and Anton Chekhov. His process of character development, the "Stanislavski Method", was the catalyst for method acting- arguably the most influential acting system on the modern stage and screen. Such renowned schools of acting and directing as the Group Theatre (1931 - 1941) and The Actors Studio (1947 -) are a legacy of Stanislavski's pioneering vision.

Like all pioneering thinkers however, Stanislavski stood on the shoulders of giants. Much of the thought and philosophy Stanislavsky applied to the theatre derives from his predecessors. Pushkin, Russia's original literary hero and the father of the native realist tradition, wrote that the goal of the artist is to supply truthful feelings under given circumstances, which Stanislavski adopted as his lifelong artistic motto. - Polyakova, Elena; Stanislavsky

Stanislavsky was born Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev in Moscow on January 5, 1863, amidst the transition from the feudal serfdom of Czarist Russia under the rule of Peter the Great, to the free enterprise of the Industrial Revolution. More than one hundred years prior, Konstantin's ancestor Alexei Petrov had broken the chains of serfdom that bound the family and gained immediate status and wealth as a merchant. By the time Konstantin was born, the Alexeyev business of gold and silver thread production had made the family name well known throughout the world.

Silver and gold were not the only interests of the Alexeyev family. While Konstantin was still very young, the family organized a theatre group called the Alexeyev Circle. Throughout his ascent to a major role on the stage, Konstantin maintained obligations to his family business, organizing shareholder meetings and keeping the accounts in order. However, his preoccupation with all aspects of theatrical production eventually made him a leading member of his family's theatre group.

Reared by a wealthy and generous father, Konstantin was never short of funding in his early stage performances. Ultimately, in order to escape the stereotype of the prodigal son and to be mindful of the reputation of his family, at the age of 25, Konstantin took the stage name Stanislavski. In the same year he established the Society of Art and Literature as an amateaur company at the Maly Theatre, where he gained experience in ethics, aesthetics and stagecraft. As he progressed independently, Stanislavsky began to further challenge the traditional stage approach. In 1898, in cooperation with Vladimir Nemirovich- Danchenko, Stanislavski founded the Moscow Art Theatre, Russia's first ensemble theatre.

"The program for our undertaking was revolutionary. We protested against the old manner of acting and against theatricality, against artificial pathos and declamation, and against affectation on the stage, and inferior conventional productions and decoration, against the star system which had been a bad affect on the cast, against the whole arrangement of plays and against the poor repertoire of the theatres." - Stanislavski

Using the Moscow Art Theatre as his conduit, Stanislavski developed his own unique system of training wherein actors would research the situation created by the script, break down the text according to their character's motivations and recall their own experiences, thereby causing actions and reactions according to these motivations. The actor would ideally make his motivations for acting identical to those of the character in the script. He could then replay these emotions and experiences in the role of the character in order to achieve a more genuine performance. The 17th Century melodrama "Tsar Fyodor" was the first production in which these techniques were showcased.

"How does an actor act? ... How can the actor learn to inspire himself? What can he do to impel himself toward that necessary yet maddeningly elusive creative mood? These were the simple, awesome riddles Stanislavksi dedicated his life to exploring. Where and how to 'seek those roads into the secret sources of inspiration must serve as the fundamental life problem of every true actor' ... If the ability to receive the creative mood in its full measure is given to the genius by nature", Stanislavski wondered, "then perhaps ordinary people may reach a like state after a great deal of hard work with themselves - not in its full measure, but at least in part." - A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio

Using this system, Stanislavski succeeded like no producer or director before him in translating the works of such renowned playwrights as Chekov and Gorki, whose writings were aptly suited to his method. With their social consciousness and emphasis on the importance of imagery and theme rather than plot, they were blank canvasses on which Stanislavski could exercise his artful hand.

Stanislavski clearly could not separate the theatre from its social context. He viewed theatre as a medium with great social and educational significance. During the civil unrest leading up to the first Russian revolution in 1905, Stanislavski courageously reflected social issues on the stage. Twelve years later, during the Red October of 1917, Bolshevism had swept through Russia and the Soviet Union was established. In the violence of revolution, Lenin's personal protection saved Stanislavski from being eliminated along with the Czardom. The USSR maintained allegiance to Stanislavski and his socially conscious method of production and his theatre began to produce plays containing Soviet propoganda.

"The revolution thundered in and made its demands on us. There began a period of new explorations, of reappraisal of the old and the search for new ways. At a time when the new for the sake of the new and the negation of everything that had come before held sway in the theatre, we could not reject out of hand all that was fine in the past ... This link with the past and the eagerness to move to an unknown future, the searching quests of the new theatre - all this helped to keep us from succumbing to the dangerous 'charms' of formalism ... We did not succumb; instead we began our quest for new ways, cautiously but doggedly." - Stanislavski

In 1918 Stanislakski established the First Studio as a school for young actors and in his later years wrote several books such as My Life in Art, many of which were translated into more than 20 languages. (See more complete list in the left column). Through his earnest professional and educational leadership, Stanislavksi spread his knowledge to numerous understudies, leaving a legacy that cannot be overstated.

"It was with a feeling of deep emotion and joy that we entered Stanislavski's house: a tall old man with snow white hair rose from the arm chair to greet us. It was enough for us to converse with Stanislavski just 5- 10 minutes to come away feeling like a new born person, cleansed of all that might be 'bad' in art." - Khmelyov

In 1938, just before World War II, Stanislavski died holding on to the ideal of a peaceful, socially responsible world. A world completely engulfed in the experiences and interchange of works of art that people of every nation would identify with and cherish.

"Let the wisdom of the old guide the buoyancy and vitality of the youth; let the buoyancy and vitality of the youth sustain the wisdom of the old." - Stanislavski


 


 

Bibliography

Edwards, Christine; The Stanislavsky Heritage, 1965.
Gorchakov, Nikolai, Stanislavsky Directs,1974.
Magarshack, David; Stanislavski A Life, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1986.
Moore, Sonia; The Stanislavksy System,1974.
Polyakova, Elena; Stanislavsky, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982.
Solnesev; The Stanislavski Museum, Foreign Languags Publishing House, Moscow, 1963.
Stanislavsky; An Actor Prepares,1936; Building a Character, 1950; Creating a Role,1961; My Life in Art, 1924.

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