Constantin Stanislavsky is the father of modern acting theory. His theories which he extols in his four books, My Life in Art (1924), An Actor Prepares (1936), Building a Character (1941), and Creating a Role (1961) have had an unparalleled effect on actors and acting instructors throughout the world. Acting theorists such as Vsevelod Meyerhold, Uta Hagen, and Bertold Brecht have all taken his theories into account while developing their own. Indeed, entire movements in world drama have been in part inspired by the work of Stanislavsky.
But what of his influence on Russia? During Stanislavsky's life and his career Russia went through many changes. Two major events in Russian history would determine the fate of theatre and as a result Stanislavsky. The first was the failed revolution in 1905. "The great rehearsal," Lenin called it and that's exactly what it was. The second major event was the 1917 revolution which in part turned Russia into the heart of the Soviet Union.
Konstantin Stanislavsky developed the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. The creation of this particular theatre was important in that it differed from many of the other theatres of the time. It was a fully professional theatre organization and it emphasized new plays as opposed to older work. Stanislavsky believed that new plays would bring the theatre to life. His theatrical philosophy was that the actor was an educator and that plays were tools of education. As a result the initial work produced at the theatre was not successful. It wasn't until Stanislavsky partnered with a young playwright named Anton Chekhov that the theatre attained any commercial success.
Chekhov's first play, The Sea Gull had been performed once before at the Alexandrisky Theatre in St. Petersburg, but for reasons beyond his control the play failed. When Stanislavsky produced it at the Moscow Art Theatre it was a tremendous success. As a result, Checkov provided the theatre with three more plays, Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Each of these plays had political undertones which revolved around the concept of change and revolution. It is not surprising that the first major political uprising came one year after The Cherry Orchard was first produced.
In 1902 the Moscow Art Theatre was able to build a new theatre which included everything from workshops to a state of the art revolving stage. They then increased their actors from thirty-nine to one hundred members. Following this they were responsible for anywhere from three to five new plays a year. By 1906, the theatre was well-known throughout Russia and was able to begin tours abroad with their best known works.
Certainly Stanislavsky is known best for his theories on acting. It was during the early years of the Moscow Art Theatre that he began to develop and implement these groundbreaking concepts with his company. His ideas revolved around complex ideas of training, observation, and intellectualization. These revolutionary theories eventually became known as "the system." second important playwright worked with the Moscow Art Theatre in the early years. Because of his political leanings and his involvement with the 1905 revolution, Maxim Gorky would eventually become a very important person among Russian writers. But in 1902, he was nothing more than a young realistic writer whom Stanislavsky would help to produce. Though his first play, The Lower Depths, featured many characters which had been crushed by the world, it became a tremendous success. Gorky would write a number of other plays for the Moscow Art Theatre including works like Summer Folk (1904) and Enemies (1907).
Another important artist to be heavily influenced by Stanislavsky was Vsevelod Meyerhold. Within the Moscow Art Theatre there was a movement to explore and to experiment with non-realistic work. Stanislavsky brought Meyerhold in to do some of this kind of work, but was ultimately displeased with the way Meyerhold treated his actors and by his directors concepts. Ultimately, Stanislavsky let Meyerhold go.
Vsevelod Meyerhold would go on to create his own system of acting theory. He would also develop numerous non-realistic plays using circus techniques and the concepts used in Italian commedia dell' arte troupes.
In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution took place. The Romanovs were removed from power and the Communists took over the country. Politically things changed radically for the general populace of the nation.
The Communists saw the theatre as a national treasure. Indeed, for the first two years after the revolution, Lenin was a frequent visitor to the Moscow Art Theatre. They saw it as an art form that was formerly focused on those in the middle and upper classes. They relished in the idea of opening up the theatre to those of all classes. Like Stanislavsky, the Communists saw theatre as a tool that could be used to teach the masses. As such, the theatre was put under the authority of the Commissar of Education.
Those who had never visited the theatre before were encouraged to attend. Not only that, but they were also encouraged to become involved themselves. By 1926 there were approximately twenty thousand dramatic clubs among the peasants. Amateur theatre performances could be found throughout the country.
A great deal of those who supported the regime change also supported experimentation in the theatre. An avant-garde movement began in earnest following the revolution. The person at the forefront of this movement was none other than Stanislavsky's old student, Vsevelod Meyerhold. Because of his popularity, in 1920 he became the head of the theatre section of the Commissariat of Education, as such he was essentially at the head of all theatre in the country. Unfortunately, this particular artist would not be favored by the Communists for long.
As the theatre was an excellent tool for mass communication and education, plays with Soviet and nationalistic themes began to make appearances. The vast majority of these were melodramas or farces which upheld the ideals behind the revolution or attacked those who were staunchly anti-Soviet.
After the revolution and through the first world war, the Moscow Art Theatre did not do very well. Stanislavsky determined that he would turn this around. He added eighty-seven new actors and pushed hard to be successful again, finally in 1926, he produced Ostrovsky's The Burning Heart which was wildly successful. This was immediately followed with the company's first truly Soviet play, Armored Train 14-69. Following this success, things once again began to improve for the theatre.
In 1929, the Moscow Art Theatre would have a tremendous influence on another art form. The former Bolshoi ballet star, Victorina Krieger formed the Moscow Art Ballet and joined with the Moscow Art Theatre. Krieger in a second astounding move would then employ Stanislavsky system on her ballerinas. The art of ballet was pushed to great lengths by Krieger as she had her dancers explore the motivations behind their dance. She pushed them to be actors as well as dancers. The result was that for a time limits were being pushed in both worlds. Together Stanislavski, Krieger and the musical director, Nemirovich-Danchenko staged radical interpretations of Chekhov plays employing music, dance, and modern acting techniques.
After the death of Lenin, Stalin came to power and demanded a great deal of the nation. He pushed using all his political might and his military force to industrialize Russia. These demands worked their way down from the top and into every aspect of Russian life including Russian theatre.
The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers was extreme group who believed that anything that did not come directly from the proletariat should be abolished. This group went after theatres and theatre artists with a vengeance. Eventually they were disbanded and another group took their place.
The Union of Soviet Writers, headed by another of Stanislavsky's former students, Maxim Gorky, became the primary resource for writers at the time. However, instead of creating more artistic freedom, this particular group declared that "socialist realism" was the proper style for all art. This new stipulation slowly began to cause the avant-garde troupes to disband. As a result of this new stipulation, Stanislavsky's other former student, Meyerhold, quickly became a target for the Communists. His political stances and the way he employed his art would eventually lead him to prison and ultimately a firing squad.
Stanislavsky was under tremendous pressure in the thirties to produce more plays. His philosophies of both directing and acting were seriously affected by this pressure. To continue with the artistic experimentation which was required in his system, time was required. The Communists did not want to give him time to work, instead they wanted him to produce more plays.
In 1931, the Moscow Art Theatre was put directly under the control of Stalin. At the time, Stanislavsky made an appeal to the government to lift the pressures of production from him and to realize that the theatre was responsible for the creation of art and that art such as the classical and contemporary dramas which were being produced, simply could not be forced.…