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Separating Michael Chekhov and Stanislavsky
Select historic figures have concerned themselves with advancing the art and craft of acting. It is commonly acknowledged that Konstantin Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov are foremost among them. Stanislavsky, widely regarded as the father of modern acting, pursued his artistic/pedagogic aims over the course of some forty years as co-founder and co-director of the Moscow Art Theatre and leader or overseer of its various studios. Chekhov, a celebrated pupil of Stanislavsky, was also a dominant presence in the creative work of the Art Theatre, particularly through the First Studio and Second Moscow Art Theatre, for a period of sixteen years. During that time, and subsequently as an exile for twenty-five years, he, like Stanislavsky, devoted his creative and intellectual powers to investigating the conditions and means necessary to the actor’s creative inspiration, and to organizing his findings into an objective method of acting.
Moreover, both Stanislavsky and Chekhov imagined an ideal art of the stage with ramifications not only for acting, but also for all aspects of theatrical production and ethics. Inasmuch, then, as both men were pioneers, dedicated to exploring and formulating a creative and innovative approach to dramatic art, it is correct to contend that they have much in common. On the other hand, regarding their respective achievements as the architects of original and independent acting methods, there are important differences between them.
Regrettably, a recent and welcome biography of Michael Chekhov, The Other Chekhov, is marred by the failure to adequately address the question of how Chekhov is distinct from Stanislavsky. Author Charles Marowitz, in a misguided effort to be “scrupulously objective about Michael Chekhov and his achievements,”1 forwards the opinion that Chekhov’s method is little more than a “twist” on Stanislavsky, (with a few bits of Aristotle, Vakhtangov, and Rudolf Steiner for good measure!) In fairness to Mr. Marowitz, he does credit Chekhov for the ambition of seeking “transcendence” in the art of acting. “The best of his [Chekhov’s] technique,” Marowitz writes, “stands in relation to acting theory as space probes do to our knowledge of the known universe.”2 Despite, however, his qualified (if effusive) appreciation, Marowitz’s “objective” analysis of Chekhov—that he is fundamentally derivative—is decidedly flawed.
To be plain: Chekhov is no mere “twist” on Stanislavsky or anyone else; even as he was an undeniably original actor, so was he a wholly original theorist and pedagogue. To be sure, Chekhov freely and often acknowledged his roots in the system of his teacher. All the same, it must be admitted that Chekhov developed, articulated, and advocated a unique method for the actor’s creative work that stands in sharp contrast to Stanislavsky. Indeed, notwithstanding their points of correspondence, the difference between Chekhov and Stanislavsky is acute and manifold. The purpose of this paper is to consider, in particular, a key distinction that is evident in the two teachers’ divergent views concerning the actor’s so-called “split consciousness” in performance.
The concept of split consciousness was clearly articulated by eighteenth-century French writer/philosopher/dramatist Denis Diderot. It refers to the actor’s constantly shifting awareness of himself as both an actor playing before an audience and as a character in the circumstances of the play. In the coming-into-being of their methods in general and their techniques of characterization in particular, Stanislavsky’s and Chekhov’s respective views of split consciousness were determinative. The significance of split consciousness, therefore, cannot be overstated; it is at the core of modern acting. Moreover, it is precisely with this point—the disparity of their views of split consciousness—that the conclusion is correctly drawn that not only is Chekhov’s method unique from Stanislavsky’s, but in fact that the two men followed distinctly polar paths to their mutual goal. In consideration of the foregoing, a careful assessment of said views is timely and indispensable.
In My Life in Art, Stanislavsky describes an early experience that was to prove critical to his later thinking about acting. In his performance as Colonel Rostanov in Dostoyevsky’s, The Village of Stepanchikovo, he had succeeded—albeit without knowledge of how—in achieving a rare moment of artistic happiness. “Within the limits of the play, I live the life of Rostanov, I think his thoughts, I cease to be myself. I become another, a man like Rostanov.”3 Stanislavsky would call this creative process of identifying with the role, “metamorphosis,”4 or “reincarnation.”5
Though Michael Chekhov favored the word “transformation,” he agrees with Stanislavsky that becoming the character is the actor’s highest aim and greatest joy. “Every true artist,” said Chekhov, “and especially talented actors, bear within themselves, [a] deeply rooted and often unconscious desire for transformation—speaking our theatrical language, [a] desire for characterization.”6
But what does it mean to become the character? The question is at the center of Diderot’s seminal essay, The Paradox of the Actor. In 1957, Lee Strasberg underscored the enduring importance of Diderot when he wrote, “Any discussion of acting almost invariably touches on Diderot’s famous paradox: to move the audience the actor must himself remain unmoved.”7 Today, fifty years later, Strasberg’s assertion stands unassailable; although it predates Stanislavsky by nearly a century and a half, Diderot’s dialogical work is still a root source for scholarship regarding the nature of acting.
Stanislavsky had read The Paradox as early as 1906. Its central argument would inspire his artistic research throughout the remainder of his life. Diderot maintains that in contrast with the “passionate” actor who can be depended upon neither to control nor to repeat his performance, the “thoughtful” actor “will be one and the same at all performances, will be always at his best mark.”8 Furthermore, he wrote, “they say an actor is all the better for being excited, for being angry. I deny it. He is best when he imitates anger. Actors impress the public not when they are furious, but when they play fury well.”9 Stanislavsky, of course, had a contrary view. Not indicating, but rather, “experiencing”—the process of “living a part”—was expressly what Stanislavsky was after in acting. In the first of his two completed books about his “System,” Stanislavsky justifies his search with the compelling argument that the “art of living experience” has particular merit:
[O]nly our kind of art, soaked as it is in the living experiences of human beings, can artistically reproduce the impalpable shadings and depths of life. Only such art can completely absorb the spectator and make both understand and also inwardly experience the happenings on the stage, enriching his inner life, and leaving impressions which will not fade with time.10
For Stanislavsky, the development of acting as an art demanded, of necessity, the actor’s authentic experience of himself as a human being in the role.
On the other hand, Stanislavsky admired the virtues of the “representational” actor who develops his role through observation, imagination, and feeling, and who is always in command of his own performance on stage, but whose acting “is more likely to delight than to move you.”11 What was needed, Stanislavsky concluded, was to discover the relation between technique and inspiration. To that end, “[t]here was a necessity not only of a physical make-up but of a spiritual make-up before every performance. Before creating it was necessary to know how to enter the temple of that spiritual atmosphere in which alone it is possible to create.”12 Thus, with that insight, Stanislavsky set forth to solve the mystery of the actor’s “reincarnation” and to fulfill his life’s major work, which would take shape as the ever-evolving edifice of his System.
Diderot was especially important for Stanislavsky on a second point, as well. A great actor, Diderot maintained, above all “must have a deal of judgment. He must have in himself an unmoved and disinterested onlooker.”13 In this description of the actor’s “double personality,” Stanislavsky recognized out of his own experience as an actor a fundamental truth, and with it a key to his artistic/pedagogic aims: experiencing need not necessarily preclude observing or judging. In fact, the former is quite desirable. “[D]ivision does no harm to inspiration,” writes Stanislavsky. “On the contrary, the one encourages the other.”14 Tellingly, in each of his aforementioned books, Stanislavsky restates the same quote, which he attributes to legendary Italian actor Tommaso Salvini. “‘An actor lives, weeps and laughs on the stage, and all the while he is watching his own tears and smiles. It is this double function, this balance between life and acting that makes his art.’”15
The above point is critical. Lacking a dual consciousness, there is no art of acting. In this regard, director Maria Knebel, also a former student of Stanislavsky, cautions that in the search for truthful reincarnation, stage experience ought never to be equated with real life. She remembers Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre co-founder and colleague Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who “never forgot the special nature of the theatre and the ‘special nerves’ of the actor, which distinguishes the creative theatrical process from the corresponding process in life.”16
Stanislavsky’s understanding of dual consciousness in acting was imperative to his artistic intentions. He knew that without character consciousness, there can be no art of “experience”; but he realized also that without self-consciousness, the actor is vulnerable to dangerous pathologies, risking even prison or the mental hospital. (Playing Othello, for example, he could be driven to commit real murder on-stage; if playing Lear, he might certainly go mad.)
Here again, Chekhov concurs with Stanislavsky. Not only can the actor experience two or even more states of consciousness at once, but indeed he must—if he is an artist. However, although he did sometimes speak of the actor’s dual or double consciousness—which, from one point of view, certainly does accurately describe the actor’s experience in performance—Chekhov most frequently put forward the more complex concept of “divided consciousness.” This ostensibly subtle distinction in terms is the expression in fact of a profound insight, and reveals Chekhov’s penetration of the actor’s inner experience goes beyond that of Stanislavsky’s.
In contrast with the concept of dual consciousness, Chekhov’s idea of divided consciousness recognizes a threefold division of awareness. These include the actor’s lower and higher consciousnesses, which correspond, respectively, to the actor’s everyday personality and his so-called “Creative Individuality,” as well an independent (though “illusory,” Chekhov grants) consciousness belonging to the character. For Chekhov, the actor experiences not just the double awareness of himself as a character and himself as a performer, but also an awareness of the character itself as an independent being or “ego.” He cites Dickens, Goethe, Michelangelo, and others, as examples of artists who acknowledged the power of the creative imagination. “The whole morning, wrote Dickens, he sat in his study expecting Oliver Twist to appear. Goethe observed that inspiring images appear before us of their own accord, exclaiming, ‘Here we are!’”17 Many contemporary writers have described a similar experience. Playwright Martin McDonagh, for example, said recently, “When it’s going good it’s kind of like you’re trying to copy down the conversation of two strangers. And you’re trying to get them to wait, because you can’t keep up.”18 Chekhov offers a simple explanation for such encounters:
For artists with mature imaginations, images are living beings, as real to their mind’s eyes as things around us are to our physical eyes. Through the appearance of these living beings, artists “see” an inner life. They experience with them their happiness and sorrows; they laugh and cry with them and they share the fire of their feelings.19
Chekhov was undoubtedly speaking here out of his own experience of creating and performing the many roles for which he was renowned.
Unlike writers, sculptors, and other artists, however, the actor must create in public; in that regard, the actor is exceptional. Thus, for the actor’s creative process, the character is not merely a second consciousness but, in fact, a third. This perception is unique to Chekhov; Stanislavsky makes no such observation. In describing the actor’s experience of three consciousnesses, Chekhov asserts the reality of the actor’s image of the character as a living and autonomous being. Stanislavsky fails to advance beyond the concept of dual consciousness because he notices only the “actor-character” and the “actor-creator.”20
Chapter Sixteen, “On the Threshold of the Subconscious,” of Stanislavsky’s, An Actor Prepares, gives a lucid (notwithstanding, progressively more abstract) description of the process of achieving dual consciousness. To summarize: The first steps are complete inner and outer freedom. With those accomplishments follows the third step, what Stanislavsky calls the “I Am” state. For the experience of the actor on-stage, the “I Am” state is tantamount to the inner creative mood, which includes the feeling of solitude in public. The inner creative mood, in turn, is itself a pre-condition for the final step, the general creative mood, without which inspiration—the actor’s aim—cannot be attained. In this mood, the actor-artist “experiences” the role in contact with the “ocean of the subconscious”; and he is receptive to creative inspiration accompanied (finally) by the appearance of the actor’s dual consciousness, which functions, in part, to mediate it.
If the path seems convoluted, it is perhaps because the territory is all but ineffable. Nonetheless, the first steps—upon which the journey most certainly rests—are concrete. Inner and outer freedom means a lack of unnecessary physical and mental tensions. To achieve this, Stanislavsky proposes practical techniques for muscular relaxation and concentration of attention. The “I Am” state/public solitude is a threshold condition, between the states of consciousness and subconsciousness. As indicated above, this condition is in fact a consequence of the actor’s success with the first steps. Crossing the “I Am” threshold with consciousness, the actor may then waver inwardly between the two states, thus in contact from moment to moment with both the subconscious and the conscious, between actor-character and actor-creator. This experience is dual consciousness.
That Chekhov seems, at first, hardly more forthcoming than Stanislavsky in concretely elaborating the path to divided consciousness is of little consequence with respect to the premise of this paper. Someone could argue that Chekhov, like Stanislavsky, articulates the necessity for and value of achieving split consciousness but neglects to explain exactly what it is—much less the way to achieve it. But such an argument fails to take into account the whole of Chekhov’s creative logic.
As does Stanislavsky with respect to dual consciousness, likewise Chekhov never discusses divided consciousness apart from a number of other key concepts. These include the Higher Ego, Creative Individuality, creative/artistic feelings, and creative inspiration. Instead of elucidating his concept in great detail, Chekhov, similar again to Stanislavsky, directs the student’s attention to other (equally intangible) processes. In his, On the Technique of Acting, for instance, Chekhov writes: “Understanding how the impulse of Creative Individuality streams through each of the four stages [of the ‘creative process’, as described in an earlier passage of the same chapter] enables the actor to manage [the] process of dividing himself from his character.”21 However, such sentences are no mere diversion; properly read, they are concrete instructions to the actor. A similar example is given with the imperative: “Although the inspiration, and with it the divided consciousness, come of themselves, the actor must nevertheless develop the habit of seeing himself objectively as an outsider.”22 This, too, is a practical direction, upon which Chekhov elaborates in the next sentences.
While it is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt a thorough exploration of the following theme, it is fascinating to consider that in his later, To the Actor, Chekhov addresses divided consciousness in the central chapter of the book. His remarks appear in the context of a discussion on Creative Individuality and inspiration. Whereas the chapters that follow are concerned chiefly with questions of performance and production, the preceding chapters present the fundamental principles and techniques of Chekhov’s method. Chekhov concludes the central/threshold chapter with this key declaration: “…every step [of the book; that is, his method] is designed to attract the actor’s individuality and draw it into his work in order to make him always an inspired artist….”23 And he restates himself in the book’s final pages, writing:
“The method, when sufficiently exercised and properly assimilated, becomes the talented actor’s ‘second nature’ and as such gives him full control over his own creative abilities, come what may. The technique is his infallible means of calling forth his talent and making it work any time he wishes to invoke it; it is the ‘Open sesame!’ to real inspiration regardless of physical or psychological barriers.”24
In short, the Chekhov method is designed to lead the actor to “the door of inspiration.” With the understanding that inspiration appears to the actor in tandem with divided consciousness, so then it must also be understood that the method—particularly as detailed in the opening six chapters of his final written work—is itself a clear and concrete way to divided consciousness. This is the salient point.
Finally, apparent in the differing conceptions of Stanislavsky’s dual consciousness and Chekhov’s divided consciousness is a polarity of approaches to acting that makes obvious a fundamental distinction between the two. Chekhov’s approach to acting is based upon the principle of objectivity, meaning that the character is objective to the actor. The character, as an image, exists outside and independent of the actor-subject. Chekhov’s imaginative techniques related to and including the technique of “incorporation” proceed from character to actor; in this sense, the techniques may be understood as from “outside-in.” For Stanislavsky, on the other hand, the approach to character is precisely the opposite: from actor to character. Metamorphosis/reincarnation is achieved from “inside-out,” as it were.
The difference in approaches is readily demonstrable by the two teachers’ indications for the process of transformation/character creation. Stanislavsky teaches the actor to start work on the role by imagining himself in the given circumstances of the character. Whereas for Chekhov, the actor is taught to begin by imagining the character in the given circumstances of the play. Stanislavsky instructs the actor to ask: What would I do in the same circumstances as my character? Conversely, Chekhov says: Observe the character (the image) in the circumstances and ask him to show you what he does.25
The significance of the fact that Stanislavsky and Chekhov advance from polar starting points cannot be overstated. Most importantly, the “outside-in” approach of Chekhov, thanks to the unlimited nature of the actor’s free imagination, is boundless. In comparison, Stanislavsky’s way is more limited by the actor’s personality. Not that Stanislavsky advocated “personality acting”—he did not. However, for Chekhov, the ideal characterization has what he called “dimension,” or an extra-reality. His own creation of characters such as Klestakov, Malvolio, Eric XIV, and Hamlet, for example, are an indication of the potential of his approach versus Stanislavsky’s.
In conclusion, there is no question that Chekhov and Stanislavsky were both striving to discover a reliable method for the actor’s creative inspiration. Furthermore, they are in agreement that inspiration appears concurrent with split consciousness, an experience of vital consequence for the actor. Stanislavsky’s concept of dual consciousness and Chekhov’s analogous but singular concept of divided consciousness are at the heart of their individual pedagogies. The distinction in their views on split consciousness is determinative and far-reaching. For it is precisely here that they part ways on the essential question of transformation.26 For Chekhov, divided consciousness is not merely two-fold, as understood by Stanislavsky, but rather “the true creative state of an actor-artist is governed by a three-fold functioning of his consciousness,” which includes the appearance to the actor of a character with independent (though imaginary) life and ego.27 The perception of this fact is the basis for Chekhov’s approach to characterization, as well as for his original method of acting as a whole, in which it is rooted. Clarity with respect to this one difference confirms that even at the very core of their respective approaches to acting, Michael Chekhov is absolutely distinct from Stanislavsky.
1. Charles Marowitz, The Other Chekhov, (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004), 267.
2. Marowitz, 270.
3. Constantin Stanislavsky, My Life in Art (New York: Routledge, 1994), 214.
4. Constantin Stanislavsky, Creating a Role (New York: Routledge, 2003), 274.
5. Sonia Moore, The Stanislavski System (New York: Viking Compass, 1971), 278.
6. Michael Chekhov, Michael Chekhov: On Theatre and the Art of Acting (New York: The Working Arts Library/Applause, 2004), CD1.
7. Lee Strasberg, introduction to The Paradox of Acting, and Masks or Faces?, by Denis Diderot and William Archer (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), x.
8. Denis Diderot and William Archer, The Paradox of Acting, and Masks or Faces? (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 15.
9. Diderot, 71.
10. Constantin Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares (New York: Routledge, 2003), 17.
11. Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares, 24.
12. Stanislavsky, My Life in Art, 461 .
14. Constantin Stanislavsky, Building a Character (New York: Routledge, 2003), 190.
15. Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares, 288.
16. Sonia Moore, Stanislavski Today (New York: American Center for Stanislavski Theatre Art, 1973), 55.
17. Michael Chekhov, To the Actor (New York: Harper & Row, 1953), 22-23.
18. Katherine Thomson, “Martin McDonagh On His In Bruges Debut And The Voices In His Head,” The Huffington Post, article posted February 8, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/02/08/martin-mcdonagh-on-his-i_n_85647.html 8 (accessed February 8, 2008).
19. Michael Chekhov, On the Technique of Acting (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 4.
20. Sharon M Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus (London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2003), 119.
21. Chekhov, On the Technique of Acting, 156.
22. Chekhov, On the Technique of Acting, 158.
23. Chekhov, To the Actor, 102.
24. Chekhov, To the Actor, 172.
25. Related to the discussion of the character as an objective being, another important distinction can be drawn regarding the topic of communion. For Chekhov, the actor is in contact (communion) with his character throughout the creative process; for Stanislavsky, not so. See my dissertation: Scott Fielding, “Acting Alone? Reflections on Solitude, Communion, and Divided Consciousness in Performance, with Special Reference to Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov” (MFA thesis, California State University Long Beach, 2008).
26. There are, to be sure, other differences in their methods. The question, as I have already noted, is a rich one. (See note 25, for example.)
27. Chekhov, To the Actor, 100.
Carnicke, Sharon M. Stanislavsky in Focus. London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2003.
Chekhov, Michael. On the Technique of Acting. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
---. Michael Chekhov: On Theatre and the Art of Acting. New York: The Working Arts Library/Applause, 2004.
---. To the Actor. New York: Harper & Row, 1953.
Diderot, Denis and William Archer. The Paradox of Acting, and Masks or Faces? New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
Fielding, Scott. “Acting Alone? Reflections on Solitude, Communion, and Divided Consciousness in Performance, with Special Reference to Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov.” MFA thesis, California State University Long Beach, 2008.
Marowitz, Charles. The Other Chekhov. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004.
Moore, Sonia. Stanislavski Today. New York: American Center for Stanislavski Theatre Art, 1973.
---. The Stanislavski System. New York: Viking Compass, 1971.
Stanislavsky, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. New York: Routledge, 2003.
---. Building a Character. New York: Routledge, 2003.
---. Creating a Role. New York: Routledge, 2003.
---. My Life in Art. New York: Routledge, 1994 .
Strasberg. Lee. Introduction to The Paradox of Acting, and Masks or Faces?, by Denis Diderot and William Archer. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
Thomson, Katherine. “Martin McDonagh On His In Bruges Debut And The Voices In His Head.” The Huffington Post, article posted February 8, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/02/08/martin-mcdonagh-on-his-i_n_85647.html 8 (accessed February 8, 2008).