(1863 - 1938)
by Bradley W. Bishop and Trevor Jones
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
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
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
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
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
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.