Today we can consider acting as an “art form”, with all the dignity, nuance and technical precision of painting, or music, or literature, or any other creative entity to which we attribute that noble title. However, it was not always valued as such. Undoubtedly this is due in part to its fleeting nature- until the invention of film, it could leave no imprint on history but for the accounts of audiences. Perhaps equally important though, was the absence of any structured method for interpreting a role in all its emotional subtleties.
Until the early 20th century, acting students depended on replication of their teachers, and of proceeding successful performances, in their stage craft, without any real consideration for a process or an underlying motive. Without a fundamental understanding of the character’s “inner life”, movements on stage were mechanical and thoughtless. Moreover, the prevalent acting style across Europe in the late 19th Century was melodramatic, unrealistic, and ultimately un-emotive. Into this artistically bankrupt age emerged Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), a man whose influence shapes the landscape of dramatic art even today.
His dissatisfaction with the state of theatre in his native Russia and his work in the Moscow Art Theatre led him to a fundamental re-evaluation of accepted conventions and ultimately to the development of his “System” for naturalistic acting. We can consider acting an “art form”, and it is largely Stanislavski to whom drama owes the acquisition of this grand accolade. Born to a wealthy family, Stanislavski took an interest in the theatre from an early age. His notebooks document every success and failure in his own progress as an actor, offering an insight into the development of the System as applied to himself.
Perhaps his first realisation of the necessity of a process for acting came during the brief weeks he spent at drama school. This experience only served to emphasise the gross inadequacies of the conventional acting method, both in performance and in the instruction of students. In the 19th Century, actors simply replicated with precision the exact movements of someone they had previously seen play their role, or else relied on trite, standardised gestures to express some shadow of their characters emotion. Lines were intoned rather than spoken naturally, and most performances were full of melodramatic clichi??.
Where true success on stage was found, it could only be mimicked again and again, until, through constant imitation and approximation, it was reduced to meaningless clichi?? itself. In short, acting had become remote from reality; a cold reduction of human emotion and experience into a mechanical, exaggerated facsimile of life. This shallowness extended across all elements of a production. Costumes were erratically chosen from the actor’s own wardrobe, or else were selected to compliment the glib over simplification of the role – hero, villain – that was being played.
Sets were no specific to the particular play, serving merely a two dimensional role as a backdrop rather than being integrated into the performance space. Actors were further paralysed by the rigid conventions regarding stage positioning. Those characters of a high status would be downstage while those of a lower status were confined to further back. Actors were forbidden from turning their back’s to the audience, and All too often, productions were merely vehicles for a ‘star’ performer, whose ego would obstruct the meaning of the play.
Open acknowledgement of the audience was common, with stars bowing mid play to a tumultuous reception of applause. Rehearsal time was scarce, and a continual prompt was used. Until the use of directional lighting in 1881, actors were further confined close to the apron. In the late 19th century, these technological advances, combined with a changing political and social climate, paved the way for Stanislavski’s ideas. The theatre in Russia, being state owned, had traditionally laboured under heavy censorship laws.
It’s power as an educator, a pulpit for radical ideas and social change, had not gone unnoticed by the Imperial Court, and any play which was considered to incite notions of political upheaval or discontent was not permitted for performance. In 1882, however, theatre was commercialised, and a number of private theatre companies emerged. While many were content in continuing the financially dependable, but insipid farces and operettas that characterised the proceeding years of creative inertia, some had a genuine interest in the development of a new kind of drama. The “Moscow Art Theatre” was one such establishment.
Stanislavski recognised the unacceptability of his contemporary theatrical tradition, especially when interpreting the work of writers of such subtlety and psychological depth as Anton Chekhov. Indeed, the inadequacies of a traditional approach to productions was exemplified by the disastrous first performance of Chekov’s The Seagull at the Alexandra Theatre in 1896. However, When Stanislavski himself revived the play two years later at the Moscow Art Theatre, applying to Chekhov’s nuanced characters the emotional honesty and artistic integrity of his emerging System, it was considered an unequivocal triumph.
Stanislavski’s System sought to integrate every actor into an ensemble performance, uniting them collectively under the banner of the play’s meaning while simultaneously exploring the psychological depths of each individual role. Contrary to the arbitrary movements of most actors at that time, the System states that all action that occurs on stage should have some inner motivation . However pioneering Stanislavski was in both the formation of a vision for a new era for theatre, and the execution of those ideas, the debt he owed to his predecessors cannot go unacknowledged.
In the Theatre Libre in Paris, Andre Antoine (had already devised and practiced many innovations in realism on the stage. Antoine was unprecedented in his preparation for productions. During rehearsals, four walls would be used, and the action choreographed organically. Only then would one of the walls be removed to admit an audience. Contrary to the thoughtless sets of his contemporaries, Antoine went as far as to use furniture from his own home in his quest for realism.
Similarly, Stanislavski went to extraordinary lengths for authenticity. In 1895, in preparation for his production of Othello, he travelled to Italy researching architecture and costume. At the Moscow Art Theatre, Victor Simov was employed to design sets which, when integrated into the production as a whole, complimented the action to express a coherent fundamental meaning. Mikhail Shchepkin (1788-1863), a Russian actor whom Stanislavski greatly admired, had decades earlier advocated a subtle style based on “playing truthfully”.
Along with the writer/actor Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Shchepkin sought to breath life into a Russian theatre that was creatively moribund. The pair’s discussion of expressing the internal, rather than replicating the external, has clear echoes in Stanislavski’s theories. Gogol’s passionate belief in the theatre as having a social and moral function- not a mere “plaything”- was vital in Stanislavski’s mind. Their art could not be reduced to a vapid, frivolous entertainment.
Stanislavski would later comment on the huge sense of responsibility he felt towards those who came to his productions. He could not be content with offering them “a funny anecdote”, but felt compelled to satisfy their “spiritual needs”. The Meiningen Company were another influence on Stanislavski’s ideas. Touring Europe, the company’s influence was widely felt across the continent. Having first seen the well disciplined, ensemble-style group in 1891, Stanislavski was inspired in his quest for a unified “coherent” production.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was undoubtedly a powerful catalyst to Stanislavski’s work. His plays offered the psychological realism to which the System lends itself. “Let (the theatre) be as complex and as simple as life itself. People dine and at the same time their happiness is made or their lives are broken. ” Stanislavski’s struggle to comprehend and express on stage the subtext and delicacy of Chekhov’s writing is inextricably tied to the evolution of the System itself.
Stanislavski believed the theatre should not be a thoughtless approximation of the surface of life, but an exploration of an internal reality, a spiritual guide, a profound, beautiful and human thing. “What is important to me is not the truth outside myself, but the truth within myself. ” The 20th century was born into a changing world- of technology, of industrialization, of revolution. Stanislavski’s System would survive all these, its artistic integrity unbroken, an organic pursuit for a theatre of truth.