Stanislavsky, Konstantin (Pseudonym of Konstantin Alekseyev; 1863–1938)

views updated

STANISLAVSKY, KONSTANTIN (Pseudonym of Konstantin Alekseyev; 1863–1938)


Russian director, actor, and author.

Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky was a director, actor, and author whose founding of the Moscow Art Theatre and writings about the actor's craft established him as one of the most influential theater artists of the twentieth century. He was the son of a prominent industrialist in whose factory he worked after quitting school in 1881. At age fourteen, in 1877, he began organizing amateur theatricals. In 1888 he helped to launch an amateur group in Moscow, the Society of Art and Literature, where he became an accomplished actor and debuted as a director in 1889 with Pyotr Gnedich's (1855–1925) Burning Letters. The German Meiningen company, whose highly realistic, historically accurate performances Stanislavsky saw in Moscow in 1885 and 1890, was a major influence on his artistic development. He was inspired by the troupe's ability to express the spiritual essence of the plays it performed.

In a legendary encounter, Stanislavsky met with playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943) at the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant in Moscow on 22 June 1897 to discuss the state of Russian theater, which they believed was divorced from real life and burdened by histrionics. The company that emerged from this meeting, originally the Moscow Art Accessible Theatre, later the Moscow Art Theatre, debuted in Moscow on 14 October 1898 with an elaborate performance of Alexei Tolstoy's (1817–1875) historical chronicle Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. Five more productions followed in six weeks. The seventh, Anton Chekhov's (1860–1904) The Seagull (17 December 1898), established the theater as Russia's most progressive venue. Chekhov famously was irritated by the meticulous realism incorporated by Stanislavsky, who codirected with Nemirovich-Danchenko and played the role of Trigorin, but Chekhov, Stanislavsky, and the Art Theatre forever remained linked in people's minds. Chekhov wrote Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904) specifically for the Art Theatre.

Emboldened by his success with Chekhov, Stanislavsky (with Nemirovich-Danchenko or others) staged plays by other famous contemporaries. In 1902 he directed Leo Tolstoy's (1828–1910) The Power of Darkness and Maxim Gorky's (Alexei Peshkov, 1868–1936) The Petty Bourgeoisie and The Lower Depths. These plays signaled Stanislavsky's desire to create a theater of social conscience. The popularity of The Lower Depths, performed 1,788 times, indicated the Russian public was ready for this kind of art. But Stanislavsky wished to experiment with many styles and in 1913 he created the First Studio for this purpose. Throughout the 1910s he staged fewer productions at the Art Theatre but worked on theories that eventually developed into his books about acting and gave rise to what became known as the Stanislavsky system of acting.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre entered a crisis, producing no new shows until 1920. This changed when a three-month tour of Berlin, Zagreb, Prague, and Paris in 1922 turned into a fifteen-month traveling residence in the United States lasting to May 1924. Europeans and Americans were astonished by the exquisite detail of the direction, the lifelike manner of the actors, and the care with which writers' themes were revealed. The fascination of Americans with Stanislavsky's work encouraged him to write his ideas down. The English translation of his first book on acting (An Actor Prepares, 1936) appeared before the first Russian edition (1938). Other translations were published in German and Dutch in 1940, in Japanese in 1949, and in Italian in 1956.

Stanislavsky's ideas—he never considered them a precise system or regarded himself as a theorist—had an enormous impact worldwide. His notions of "emotional memory" (also known as "affective memory"), "experiencing," and "through action," to name a few, provided vague but valuable tools for actors, allowing them to harness personal experience in the creation of disparate roles. The Group Theatre, an influential New York ensemble founded in 1931, was openly modeled after Stanislavsky's theater. At the Actors Studio in New York, Lee Strasberg (1901–1982) became the leading proponent of "method acting," the American version of the so-called Stanislavsky system.

By the late 1920s Stanislavsky was officially canonized as a figure for Soviet theater artists to emulate. He thus avoided the persecution that affected many of his colleagues but was left to work in an uneasy atmosphere of protected isolation. Aided by various directors, he supervised several important productions, including Mikhail Bulgakov's (1891–1940) Days of the Turbins (1926), Beaumarchais's (Pierre-Augustin Caron, 1732–1799) The Marriage of Figaro (1927), Vsevolod Ivanov's (1895–1963) Armored Train 14–69 (1927), and Nikolai Gogol's (1809–1852) Dead Souls (1932). Hampered after 1928 by a bad heart and increasingly at odds with Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky devoted much of his time to studio experiments in the nature of acting. His pupils included some of the greatest figures of twentieth-century theater, including Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940), Yevgeny Vakhtangov (1883–1922), and Mikhail (Michael) Chekhov (1891–1955), whose influence as an actor and teacher in Europe and Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1950s expanded Stanislavsky's fame abroad.

See alsoGorky, Maxim; Russia; Soviet Union; Theater.


Primary Sources

Stanislavsky, Konstantin. My Life in Art. Translated by J. J. Robbins. Boston, 1924.

——. An Actor Prepares. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York, 1936.

——. Building a Character. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York, 1949.

——. Creating a Role. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York, 1961.

Secondary Sources

Carnicke, Sharon M. Stanislavsky in Focus. Amsterdam, 1998.

Merlin, Bella. Konstantin Stanislavsky. New York, 2003.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of The Method. Boston, 1987. See pp. 36–62.

John Freedman

About this article

Stanislavsky, Konstantin (Pseudonym of Konstantin Alekseyev; 1863–1938)

Updated About content Print Article