Stanislavsky by Elena Polyakova, Progress Publishers (Moscow). 362 pp, $7.95 cloth.
Evgeny Vakhtangov, compiled by L. Vendroskaya and G. Kapterova, Progress Publishers (Moscow). 271 pp, $6.25 cloth
Stanislavsky: An Introduction by Jean Benedetti, Theatre Arts Books, N.Y. 79 pp, paper.
During the ’50s and ’60s, a theatre professor could always jolt his class with a rakish pause before announcing the length of time that Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko sat at the Slavonic Bazaar Restaurant in 1897, planning the Moscow Art Theatre and a new system of acting—18 hours. The phrase “18 hours” unvaryingly had a talismanic effect on the slumbering lecture hall, showing a devotion to theatre and acting that we, poor 20th century-ers, may have lost. Yet, it would be nothing to find longer conversations going on in any table today at Joe Allen’s or the West Bank Cafe in Manhattan about Stella versus Lee, the real nature of Stanislavsky’s final discovery, “flow theory” and Toporkov on Physical Actions, Carnovsky’s unMethod-like adjustments in Lear, Olivier’s 1964 anecdote on Strasberg or Michael Chekhov’s Physical Gesture and its use by Marilyn Monroe and Yul Brynner.
The truth of the matter is that Stanislavsky and his disciples are still with us, and every interpretation of An Actor Prepares is hot stuff, even slightly marketable. Unfortunately, the scholarly panels, table discussion and printed exegeses all suffer from one fault—lack of hard facts or practical information. The dozen English-language books on and by Stanislavsky invariably cover only his earliest and most perplexing work on actor-training. They constitute less than 15 percent of the published Russian material on Stanislavsky and the MAT. While Stanislavsky is sometimes blamed for this confusion because of his indirect and almost Platonic style of writing, private notebooks and transcriptions of his acting classes, which present a more clear-headed and brilliant Stanislavsky, have long been available in Soviet journals and books.
Two such books from the Soviet Union have recently appeared in English, the most useful being Elena Polyakova’s biography, Stanislavsky. The book covers the master’s entire life and career, revealing not the linear and contradictory Stanislavsky we have come to accept in the West—with a chronological string of theories that seem to cancel one another out—but rather a man of the theatre with five different and complementary notions on acting and actor-training. Changing social and scenic environments, technological innovations (like lighting, silent and sound film) and his not-so-friendly disputes with his students (Meyerhold, Vakhtangov, Michael Chekhov, even Sulzerzhitsky) all act upon Stanislavsky in exciting and unexpected ways. Polyakova’s study treats these in a detailed and objective manner, free from any deep political bias. Until the Moscow Art transcriptions of Stanislavsky’s classes and exercises appear in English, Stanislavsky will be the most useful book in understanding the development of modern acting and performance.
Also from Progress Publishers in Moscow is a translation of reminscences, notes and letters from Vakhtangov, Stanislavsky’s most influential student. Entitled Evgeny Vakhtangov, this collection provides the reader with valuable insights into the director’s maturation. The son of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Vakhtangov joined MAT’s First Studio in 1913 and within three years became Stanislavsky’s leading pupil. Not only did Vakhtangov simplify and restructure Stanislavsky’s varied and differing actor-training ideas into a more intelligible shape and curriculum, he attacked what many actors thought were the very weaknesses of the System: its reliance on realistic texts and naturalistic styles of performance and its limiting concepts in developing “truthful,” personalized characters. Although Stanislavsky had long been aware of these problems, it was Vakhtangov—especially in 1921 and 1922, the last years of his life—who formulated ingenious character solutions that energized his young actors into the creation of the first nonrealistic but truthful portraits on the avant-garde Soviet stage. (Curiously, it was Vakhtangov, not Stanislavsky, who became the model-hero of the Group Theatre. And to this day, Elia Kazan rewards his performers with leather-bound copies of privately translated lectures from Vakhtangov’s final class, rather than watches.) Sadly there is little about his final 1922 directorial triumphs, Turandot and the Hebrew-language Dybbuk. Because of that and its poor organization, the book will be of little help to the average theatre practitioner.
Another new book on Stanislavsky is Jean Benedetti’s short survey Stanislavsky: An Introduction. Extremely modest in size—there are 79 pages—Benedetti attempts to summarize Stanislavsky’s growth and theoretical discoveries. Like earlier endeavors outside Russia, it suffers from too few facts, although this is more than a reshuffling of the already available English-language texts.
Akin to some contemporary Soviet interpretations, there seems to be a blatant prejudice against Stanislavsky’s work on Emotion Memory. Also, Benedetti’s book contains a number of petty factual errors—like crediting Robert Lewis with copying down Stanislavsky’s 1934 diagram of the System during his trip to Moscow. The drawing was made by Stella Adler in France; Lewis was never in Russia. For a book so concerned with scholarly detail, too many mistakes like that become irritating.
Mel Gordon is the author of Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia Dell’Arte (Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984) and an associate professor at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
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