The first 30 years of the 20th century produced a creative explosion whose reverberations are still being felt today. Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsovolod Meyerhold, Evgevny Vakhtanghov, Michael Chekhov in Russia; Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in Germany; Jacques Copeau, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Antonin Artaud in France collectively demolished the 19th-century aesthetic and, in their wake, created the modernity which is the hallmark of today’s theatre.
Most of these men have already been turned into modern icons. There is no shortage of biographies on the pioneers of the Moscow Arts Theatre, and the achievements of Copeau, Barrault, Reinhardt, Brecht and Artaud are chronicled and archived for posterity. Only one of these artists remains murky and ill-defined. He is Michael Chekhov, nephew of Anton, the man that Stanislavsky put in charge of the Moscow Art Theatre’s First Studio and described as “the most brilliant actor in all Russia”; an actor and director who challenged many of his mentor’s treasured principles; and the only acting-theorist who developed a viable and thoroughly fleshed-out alternative to the Stanislavsky system and the Method which is its off-shoot.
The desire to try to write the first English-language biography came about slowly. It wasn’t until I was granted access to the Chekhov archives in Dartington Hall in Devon that I felt I had enough biographical ammunition to contemplate the task. It took me imaginatively (if not literally) to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, Riga, Vilnius, Ridgefield, N.Y., and Hollywood, and, in the process, provided a map that led me into the labyrinthine mind of one of our greatest actor-theorists. The following excerpts are part of my attempt to define precisely where Michael Chekhov’s place is in the theatrical pantheon. There is no question in my mind that he belongs there.
In trying to be scrupulously objective about Michael Chekhov and his achievements, I have to begin by acknowledging his debts both to Stanislavsky and Vakhtangov.
From Stanislavsky he appropriated the notions of “actions” and “objective,” “concentration” and “atmosphere”; he decidedly gave them his own twist, but the categories were initially carved out by his mentor. As for his “sense of the whole,” that is as much Aristotle as it is Chekhov. His strictures on what one might call “bipolar characterization” (the assimilation of contradictory traits) are an extension of the Stanislavsky dictum to avoid one-dimensionalism, urging the actor to find complementary aspects of the role. Of course, that insight is not exclusive to Stanislavsky either; examples of it can be found in characterizations drawn from some of the greatest works of the Elizabethan and Jacobean canon. It is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that people are complex rather than single-celled. Morris Carnovsky, the accomplished Group Theatre actor, was a great admirer of Chekhov, but was also aware of his debt to his most influential teacher. “Where Stanislavsky spoke of ‘relaxation of muscles,’” Carnovsky has written, “Chekhov did not hesitate to call it ‘feeling of ease.’ Where Stanislavsky broke off his brilliant observations on ‘action’ and ‘objective,’ Chekhov combined them with ‘character’ in his marvelous intuition of the ‘psychological gesture.’”
From Vakhtangov, Chekhov inherited a sense of external theatricality, the conscious use of stage imagery to insinuate meaning and convey dramatic insights. Vakhtangov added innumerable color to the actor’s palette, and went further in demolishing the fourth wall than any Russian innovator, save Meyer hold. Chekhov’s improvisational flair was influenced by the example of his earliest collaborator; the invention, of course, were entirely his own.
Deirdre Hurst du Prey’s book Michael Chekhov: Lessons for Teacher of His Acting Technique, a transcription taken in shorthand of Chekhov’s lectures from Dartington Hall in 1936, is sprinkled with quotations such as: “You radiate very vividly in life. Try to find out how to capture that power for your art…always be conscious of radiating,” and “Keep thinking constantly, ‘I am a creative person.’ I am radiating and doing everything in a creative way.” Etc.,etc, etc. “Radiation” is passionately exhorted and rigorously advocated, but the means by which this magical force can be engendered are never articulated. It remains an intriguing abstraction.
An actor who is powerfully playing his “action,” expressing his “want,” and pursuing his “objective” is going to be radiating energy more effectively than one who is uncertain of his “action,” unclear about his “want” and half-heartedly pursuing his “objective.” To the extent that an actor is radiating these energies, he will be more defined, more compelling, more watchable than one who isn’t. But that quality is the result of nothing more than concentrated intent, technically fueled and imaginatively embellished. In that sense, every successful performance radiates from the stage to the audience. But to designate radiation as a quality distinct from the actor who is conveying it as an integral part of his performance is like saying every actor using his larynx and vocal cords is vocalizing. Of course he is. That’s what acting is all about.
Certain actors, because of the force of their personality, because they innately possess “presence,” cannot help but radiate a kind of personal magnetism, because it is rooted in their metabolism. Others not so endowed always appear to be playing in poor light simply because, as personalities, they are less defined. To be fervently induced to radiate when you lack this personal magnetism is like being urged to be beautiful when you are incontrovertibly plain. We have all had the experience of being mesmerized by a gifted performer with a dazzling personality (i.e., star quality) and left cold by a mediocre player who does not stir our interest or command our attention. Here, Chekhov’s theory seems to be relying more on exhortation than elucidation.
Although “The Higher I” is an idea from Rudolph Steiner incorporated into the Chekhov technique, it is sufficiently removed from its source to qualify as an original concept. It points the actor away from the mundaneness of his own personal makeup toward a more elevated plateau where unexpected characteristics can be explored and appropriated. It is responsible for those startling transformations that are sometimes found in the work of actors such as John Barrymore, Paul Muni, Laurence Oliver, Orson Welles, Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins, where we feel possession has taken place and another being has taken residence in the psyche of the actors. The recorded performances of Chekhov himself are the personifications of this idea; had these examples not existed, it might have remained an abstract concept.
Often, in the classes conducted both at Dartington and in Hollywood, Chekhov constantly warns the actor against being seduced only by the mind. This disparagement of the intellect is usually coupled with a strong advocacy of feeling. This begs the question: Can a theory of acting, which is essentially an intellectual construct, be embodied in anything but suggestive, theoretical language directed to the intellect? Can an injunction made to the consciousness to feel be acted upon by any process other than ratiocination, and is there any route to sensibility that does not involve mental process? This does not deny the fact that some of the most effective acting comes from some area beyond human cognition.
When we are swept up by an actor’s performance and attempt to describe it, we use words such as “extraordinary,” “fabulous,” “divine,” “fantastic,” and “out of this world,” and none of these are empty hyperbole. When we are transported by great acting we are in the presence of something otherworldly, something that our language cannot easily define except by reference to preternatural causes. Chekhov’s theories are the only ones that I know of that have actively gone in search of that transcendent quality; that have identified it and attempted to find a practical means of achieving it. The best of his technique stands in relation to acting theory as space probes do to knowledge of the known universe. By going deeper they take us further, and by taking us further, they add an extra dimension to an art that, from the very beginning, has probed the profoundest secrets of human experience. For this alone, there is a certain reverence due to Chekhov that cannot be paid to Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov or any other of the treasured pioneers that experimented in early-20th-century Russia.
Chekhov’s most significant contributions are in defining the psychological gesture and directing the actors’ energy to forces beyond the ostensible truth. The psychological gesture is in many ways the most ambiguous of his insights, and the words themselves are rather misleading. It is not so much a psychologically crafted physical gesture per se, although it may take that form; it is more like a seedbed from which all physical characterization stems. Unlike the spine, which is an extension of Stanislavsky’s idea of a “super objective,” the psychological gesture is like the quintessential genetic code that determines the difference between one person and another. By discovering a character’s most fundamental drives, it shapes the physical life of that character in ways that become consistent with that discovery.
Chekhov has written:
The psychological gesture is your own secret. It is the basis on which you stand, but how you act is quite a different thing. If you act without the psychological gesture, it may seem that your acting is pieced together. If you have the psychological gesture, you can act freely without paying attention to whether it is shown outwardly or not. In almost all cases, the psychological gesture must not be shown outwardly, because then it has more charm, more power.
But once that link between the character’s psychology and his body has been made, it automatically conditions all aspects of the character’s behavior; stance, posture, moral attitude, social demeanor, as well as psychical gestures.
Like Henri Bergson’s élan vital, George Bernard Shaw’s “life force” or Wilhelm Reich’s “Orgone energy,” the psychological gesture is an all-encompassing concept in no way restricted to human functionality. It can just as readily be found in nature and the inanimate worlds. (A tree, a cloud, a building, a neighborhood are all perpetually making their psychological gestures in space.) From the actor’s standpoint, it is imaginatively derived from various aspects of the play in question, and as with many of Chekhov’s theories, appears intellectually elusive until experienced—at which time it becomes crystal clear.
Chekhov’s work, both as actor and theorist, opened up the minefield that lay beneath subtext. He was bold enough to assert what the ancients had earlier professed; namely that great acting was allied to extra mundane causes that, though difficult to define, were unquestionably present in the work of great performing artists. In doing that, he widened the horizon of acting theory, and today we are all scanning the heavens to locate some of the extraterrestrial bodies he intuited. He encouraged the actor to practice yoga and meditation, and to look into clairvoyance and the supernatural, and all locked chambers of the imagination. He reaffirmed the supremacy of the spirit over matter, and, like Artaud, added a philosophical dimension to an aesthetic that tended to be fixated on the reconstruction of plausible behavior. Chekhov, and Chekhov’s ideas, will be sending out signals into the future for centuries to come. Because there was a Chekhov, we will never again be satisfied with a simulacrum of human nature. We will always be striving for a glimpse of that otherness that we look for in religion, postulate in metaphysics and encounter in dreams.
By the early ’50s, when he was coaching actors in Hollywood and fluttering through, on the whole, unremarkable films, Chekhov had been separated from his homeland for a good quarter of a century. We know from the fate of artists such as Stravinsky, Solzhenitesen and Nabokov that the tug of Mother Russia is a great one. Americans like Henry James, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller could become expatriates and still retain their native culture, but the umbilical cord with Russia is not so easily severed.
Looking back, Chekhov could visualize the fond fraternity of the Maly Theatre, the inspiring days at the Moscow Art, and the stimulating collaboration with Sulerzhitsky and Vakhtangov. He could vividly recall playing Khlestakov, Eric XIV and Hamlet to wildly enthusiastic houses, and he still had an intimate association with the genius of writers such as Gogol, Strindberg, Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov—all stewing in a culture where almost every project represented some bold experimental gamble or innovative leap. Surveying his life at 50, he would have had to recall a tangential episode in Germany, an abortive experience in France, a frustrating detour to Latvia and Lithuania, and a checkered career as a teacher, theorist, actor and coach in a land where he was ineradicably an émigré. The deeply rooted lack of seriousness in his adopted land would have had to enforce a heavy depression as he rehearsed often ungifted actors in productions like The Inspector General (in which he had gloried under Stanislavsky’s direction), or expostulated idealized theories to starstuck students who had no sense of ensemble and scant knowledge of the rich tradition of European classics on which Chekhov had been bred.
The City of Angels, where actors desperately sought to be included in mediocre projects that dashed their sprits and offended their intellect even as they spurred on their ambition, was as alien to Chekhov’s Russia as the Nevsky Prospect was to Hollywood Boulevard. Many of his students acknowledge that, genial as he always was, Chekhov could not shake off the frustration that had become a staple of his life in America. The ebullience, the fastidious approach, the scrupulous delineation of character that sporadically illuminate his film appearances are like sparks from an engine that cannot quite manage to ignite. It’s the classic case of the fish out of water, except that this fish is a beached great white whale.
Chekhov’s power in America was always immanent rather than manifest. What he represented was more impressive than what he was allowed to deliver. The theories and the technique, except when related to his own past performances, remain abstract; an augury rather than hard evidence of a proven system. Even to the most gifted of his students, what their mentor was proselytizing seemed vague and elusive—something that might be possible to achieve in a different milieu and under very different circumstances than those that existed in Hollywood. Perhaps that was their reason for being in those classes in the first place—to escape the confines of a certain tantalizing drudgery by becoming a different kind of actor and, ipso facto, more liberated human beings.
There is no shortage of performers who exemplify the Stanislavsky system or its Strasbergian counterpart. Starting with the pioneers of the Group Theatre, actors such as Garfield, Cobb, Carnovsky, Meisner, Lewis, Stella and Luther Adler, etc., extending outward to film stars such as Brando, Dean, Newman, Tandy, Clift, Stanley, Wallach, etc. But one would be hard-pressed to assemble a comparable list of Chekhovian artists; that is, actors and actresses who not only adhere to the principles of Chekhov’s approach but clearly exemplify them in an aggregate of performances in either medium. This is mainly because Chekhov’s ideas exist to underpin members of an ensemble; an acting style in which individual qualities, like so many hues on a palette, contribute to the overall texture of the entire canvas. Does that mean that Chekhovian technique cannot strengthen and enhance the skills of individual performers? Obviously not. We know from the work of actors such as Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins and Patrician Neal that the Chekhovian approach can produce exemplary results in performers who privately apply its precepts to particular roles in specific projects. But Chekhov himself, first at the Maly, then the First Studio, and then the Second Moscow Art, honed his talent within a collective framework, and the purpose of realizing, sharpening and extending his talent was to enrich the group of which he was an integral part.
There are some acting techniques that, like rules of grammar and syntax, enable artists to perfect their personal powers of expression in whatever work they undertake. Stanislavsky was a masterful actor who had the ability to research his own experience in order to codify a system of acting that could then be generally applicable. But he too was doing so within the context of ensemble work. The assumption in the cases of both Chekhov and Stanislavsky was that the actor was simultaneously donor and recipient of the training for the greater glory of the collective. If this was the basis on which Chekhovian technique first took shape, it raises an alarming question: Can it ever be fully realized by disparate actors wandering through plays and films where no shared aesthetic unites all the participants? I believe this was one of the doubts that gnawed away at Chekhov when coaching his diverse collection of Hollywood students. Could individual artists, no matter how skilled they became in Chekhovian Technique, ever truly realize those precepts in television sitcoms, unhomogenized movies or loosely assembled, one-off stage productions containing a variety of artists of very different action backgrounds? And, if not, what was a technique but a kind of aesthetic oddity that served as a beacon to ships beyond the sight of its signal?
Charles Marowitz, director, critic and playwright, is the author of The Other Chekhov: A Biography of Michael Chekhov, newly released from Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. Copyright (c) 2004 by Charles Marowitz. All rights reserved.