Constantin Stanislavsky

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Constantin Stanislavsky

The Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) originated a system of acting. He was a cofounder of the Moscow Art Theater, where his productions achieved the zenith in 20th-century naturalism.

Constantin Stanislavsky was born Constantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev on Jan. 18, 1863, in Moscow. He was the son of a rich industrialist. His stage name, Stanislavsky, was taken from an actor whom he met in amateur theatricals. Stanislavsky's excellent classical education included singing, ballet, and acting lessons as well as regular visits to the opera and theater. By the age of 14 he was acting in performances at the family estate, where his father had built a theater. After completing his formal education, Stanislavsky entered the family business, enthusiastically devoting himself at the same time to a career in semiprofessional theater. Beginning in 1888 he directed and acted in performances for the Society of Art and Literature, which he had founded, and he continued these productions until 1897 under the sponsorship of the Hunting Club.

On June 22, 1897, Stanislavsky met Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a successful playwright and teacher in the Moscow Philharmonic Society School, at a Moscow restaurant in order to discuss the reform of the Russian stage. Out of their 18-hour meeting came the establishment of the Moscow Art Theater as a protest against the artificial theatrical conventions of the late 19th century. Although the opening production in October 1898 of Alexey Tolstoy's Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich was a tremendous popular success because of its realism, it was with Anton Chekhov's The Seagull in December that Stanislavsky discovered a play ideally suited to his artistic aspirations and naturalistic methods. In the next 2 decades the Moscow Art Theater attained international recognition with productions widely ranging in style: Maxim Gorky's sociopolitical drama The Lower Depths (1902), Leonid Andreyev's symbolic The Life of Man (1907), Maurice Maeterlinck's enchanting fairy tale The Blue Bird (1908), and Hamlet with settings by Gordon Craig (1911).

During this period Stanislavsky worked out his theories by exploring the most difficult problems of acting with his company. An indication of the success of his system was the emergence from his training methods of all the best Russian actors of the early 20th century. Rehearsals, which often resembled acting classes, began with discussions of the "super-objective" and the "through action" of the play, and at the same time the actor examined the previous history of his character, the "pre-text." Stanislavsky believed that, through study of the play, analysis of the role, and recall of previous emotions, the actor could arrive at the "inner truth" of a part by actually experiencing the emotions he conveyed to the audience. Furthermore, the actor must never lose control of his creation and must have the technical discipline to repeat his previously experienced emotions at every performance. The actor's interpretations must be unified in the same way that the central idea of the play was realized through the unity of direction, acting, and production design. This training, which aimed at stimulating the artistic intelligence of the actor, developing his inner discipline, and providing perfect control of such external means as voice, diction, and physical movement, came to be known in the United States as the "Method."

Opposed to the acrobatics and constructivism of avant-garde directors, Stanislavsky continued to present his prewar repertory for 5 years after the 1917 Revolution, and then he traveled with his company in western Europe and the United States from August 1922 to September 1924.

My Life in Art, the only book by Stanislavsky to be published in the Soviet Union during his lifetime, appeared in 1924. In response to criticisms that he had never staged contemporary Communist plays, Stanislavsky directed several dramas of revolutionary significance. Even so, he was attacked by proletarian critics for catering to "progressive bourgeois" audiences. Determined to maintain his integrity and the high standards of production upon which the Moscow Art Theater was founded, he resisted pressures to force his company to perform plays unworthy of its distinguished tradition. Fortunately for Stanislavsky, by the 1930s Communist theoreticians had elected to explain his system in terms of dialectical materialism. The Moscow Art Theater was venerated as the fountainhead of "social realism," and Stanislavsky occupied once again a central position in the Russian theater. During his last years he concentrated on giving the final touches to his writings. Stanislavsky died in Moscow on Aug. 7, 1938.

Further Reading

Stanislavsky's writings include My Life in Art, translated by J. J. Robbins (1924); and An Actor Prepares (1936; rev. ed. 1956), Building a Character (1949), Stanislavsky's Legacy (1958; rev. ed. 1968), and Creating a Role (1961), all translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. The standard biography is David Magarshack, Stanislavsky: A Life (1950). Discussions of the system are in Robert Lewis, Method—or Madness (1958); Christine Edwards, The Stanislavsky Heritage (1965); and Sonia Moore, The Stanislavski System (1965).

Additional Sources

Benedetti, Jean, Stanislavski: a biography, New York, NY:Routledge, 1990.

Jones, David Richard, Great directors at work: Stanislavsky, Brecht, Kazan, Brook, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Magarshack, David, Stanislavsky: a life, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986. □

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Constantin Stanislavsky

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