Young Kostya Alexiev loved the circus and opera. He played Nanki-Poo in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. How did young Kostya turn into the fussy, old monument known as Stanislavsky?
Recently Jean Benedetti, Honorary Professor at Rose Bruford College, has published a new translation of Stanislavsky’s works as An Actor’s Work. (Which I’d recommend you buy.) This new translation provides clarity and obscures. But the clarity and the obscurity of the work is also part and parcel of Stanislavsky’s work as an author and as a teacher.
Konstantine Sergeivich Alexiev was born into a family of great wealth in 1863. 1863 was the year of the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1861 Russian freed its serfs. It was a world without phonographs. Photography was rare. Dynamite had yet to be invented.
The Alexiev family descended from serfs who had worked and had bought their freedom. By the time young Kostya came along, the Alexiev family owned the largest home in Moscow not owned by royalty. Their manufacturing concerns were largely in textiles. So, the young Alexievs were brought up in a world of wealth and privilege.
Kostya was a poor student when it came to formal education. He loved shows more than anything.
Kostya lived in an age when people created their own identities. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Meyerhold are only a small, famous sample of men who changed and created a name different than the name of their birth. Some created their new identity for political reasons. Some for artistic reasons. But this was an age when Russians were about the business were creating themselves anew – as individuals and as a society.
For more than 40 years a fixture of Russia’s theatrical world was young Kostya.
The young Alexiev had his hand in a number of artistic “pies.” He started a performing group with his siblings at the core of the performers – the Alexiev Group. He started a society for the production of plays. He served as a board-member on a variety of musical and artistic organizations and committees.
It’s not surprising, then, that a local university theatre teacher and developing playwright would contact the wealthy Alexiev with a lunch invitation. The theatre teacher wanted to set up some kind of theatrical enterprise for a group of unusually bright and talented students. He also wanted an amount of reform from the existing standards of the workaday professional theatre he knew. It’d be nice if each play got more individualized treatment. It’d be nice if the actors had more time to work on the play. It’d be nice if everyone got a little more respect for being artists.
So June 22, 1897 Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko had lunch with the wealthy Konstantine Alexiev – who was also getting a reputation as a performer with the stage name of Stanislavsky. The result? The Moscow Art Theatre.
You’ve heard it all before. The stories about Chekhov, the opening night of The Seagull, the students (who included the young Vsevolod Meyerhold) – and the beginning of the System.
That the Moscow Art Theatre put on plays that seemed to touch the audiences of a generation is not a major issue of history. If that was all they did, no one would have reason to worry with Stanislavsky. We don’t worry much today about the work of Andre Antoine or Otto Brahm. They were groundbreaking directors in France and Germany respectively. They did great work that touched their audiences. But we don’t think about them much today outside of the odd Theatre History classroom.
What makes Stanislavsky different was not that he acted, but that he thought about what an actor actually does. Clearly an actor walks on the stage and talks on the stage. (And, according to the old formula, not bump into the furniture.) But merely walking and talking doesn’t encompass what an actor does. There’s something more. What is that something? And how can you train a person to be better at that something?
Stanislavsky asked those two questions (or questions very like them) and a series of questions that stem from those fundamental questions. He worked with a variety of actors and students to come up with reasonable answers.
Over time a group of ex-colleagues, students, and other hangers-on spread throughout Europe and the USA. They took with them the results of experiments and classes and experiences and stories. Some of these teachers were as confusing in certain elements as they clarified. And there was no codification of anything, so people spoke about what they knew. (Or didn’t know. Famously, during his life, Stanislavsky railed against some “teachers” of “his system” who he barely knew and who, he suspected, didn’t really know his work at all.)
Even if the story stopped there, I doubt that we’d be much concerned about Stanislavsky today. The varieties of experiences and stories would be handed down, and people would go about their business.
Then there was a confluence of politics, war, health, and money.
As a result of WW I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War, the coffers of the Moscow Art Theatre were empty. Stanislavsky lost all of the Alexiev wealth (and nearly lost his life as a ‘wealthy capitalist’). And his son, Igor, got tuberculosis. Consequently, to solve their financial problems the Moscow Art Theatre did what all poor theatres did – they went on the road. And they toured to the richest country in the world – the USA.
His son needed treatments for the TB. But the Russian health care system was troubled. Stanislavsky could get his son treatment outside Russia, but that took hard currency – not Bolshevik rubles.
While touring the USA, Stanislavsky was offered a book deal. Write a memoir, get American dollars, help your son. The result was the first version of My Life In Art. Although ultimately disappointed in the final result (he greatly revised the text for subsequent publishing in Russia), Stanislavsky achieved a finished printed project that allowed him a means to figure out another project – a written version of his discoveries about acting. Also, while in America, he had met a translator whose husband was also a book editor – Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood.
Over time Stanislavsky worked out an arrangement by which he would write material, Hapgood would translate it, and her husband would edit it. The book would encompass the inner and outer world of what the actor does.
It was too long.
If the work was to be printed in one binding – the thinking was – it wouldn’t fit. And, by the way, who is going to buy a book about acting? By a Russian author? In translation?
Publishers were switched. Passages were edited. And the inner and outer worlds of what the actor does was split into two separate books. In Russian – a part one and a part two. In the USA – An Actor Prepares and Building a Character.
And . . . by the way . . . did we mention that the material for the second part about the outer world of what an actor does wasn’t finished by Stanislavsky? And that WW II prevented the text from leaving Russia for American publishing?
So ideas about Stanislavsky and his work were greatly affected by the publishing of only one of his books –An Actor Prepares. It provided extra fuel to the growing dogmatic arguments about what Stanislavsky really meant between a group of American acting teachers and their adherents.
Over time a group of academics raised questions about the dogma of Stanislavsky’s ideas. Eric Bentley published an article about the French psychologist, Ribot, who served as Stanislavsky’s source about emotion memory – not Freud. Sharon Carnicke raised questions about how Mrs. Hapgood translated certain terms --- for example such concepts as perezhevenie and zadacha. Had Hapgood really done a good job in accurately communicating what Stanislavsky wanted to say? And Benedetti raised questions about the editing of passages. In cutting passages to the bone, were the steps to artistic discovery being omitted?
Finally a plan was announced by Routledge Books to publish new translations of the Stanislavsky books – starting with An Actor’s Work on Himself Parts 1 & 2. What the English-speaking world knows as An Actor Prepares and Building a Character.
Routledge placed the project in a prospectus catalogue in the early 1990s. There were endless delays. Finally, the Routledge website noted that the new translation would be available on Feb. 11, 2008. And due to an editorial decision, the text was available from Jan 25, 2008.
So, was it worth the wait? Will it change how we think about Stanislavsky? How good a translation is it? Is it a good book?
First, let us concede that Stanislavsky’s project was impossible from the beginning. How does one explain what an actor does? And how do you explain the steps to get to a trained actor?
Being who he was, Stanislavsky did not want to give the impression that learning art was like completing a recipe in a cook book – throw the right stuff together in the same pot in the right way, and you get a delicious soufflé. For Stanislavsky, that was not the way to art.
Also, Stanislavsky had no real models of what such books might look like. There were books about deportment and about diction, of course. But he wasn’t looking for the “cookbook” answer.
Consequently, Stanislavsky hit upon the idea of the pedagogical novel. Write a book about stereotypical young actors training to be artists. This would give him an opportunity to present lectures, describe exercises, and provide a critique of results. It was an ingenious plan.
It can also make for incredibly dense reading.
The new translation is not a page-turner. But it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to provide cover for the description of that which is (at times) indescribable.
Benedetti includes lengthy passages edited from the earlier version in the hope that the full description will assist the reader to better follow Stanislavsky’s thinking through the discovery of central concepts like ‘action,’ and ‘bits and tasks.’
Some of the main stories are still in place and continue to work amazingly well. For example, to introduce the idea of breaking up a text into its constituent parts, Stanislavsky has his narrator go to a turkey dinner hosted by a very experienced actor. The host explains that an actor can’t swallow a whole turkey – so he carves the turkey into slabs that are further cut by the young children at the table into smaller bites. And those bites – to be palatable – need the metaphoric gravy of concepts like “given circumstances,” etc. The story is reasonably amusing and remains intact in Benedetti’s translation.
One benefit that Benedetti provides the reader is a general consistency in translating Stanislavsky’s Russian vocabulary. As far as I can tell, the Russian zadacha is always translated as task. But this raises the question, will the world of acting be changed by a consistent translation of the Russian kusok as ‘bit’ (as Benedetti does) instead of as ‘unit’ as Hapgood did? Is ‘task’ that much clearer than ‘objective?’
One can argue with Hapgood’s approach. Sometimes, it appears, she provided multiple or various translations of individual words and concepts over the course of the text. It was as if she wanted to help the reader circle and surround an idea or concept for which there might not be a precise one-to-one match. It’s an approach that can be as helpful for some readers as the consistent approach might be for others.
One of the things that I miss from the new translation is some straightforward language the Hapgood can sometimes produce. For example, in the chapter on Units and Objectives from An Actor Prepares, we read this passage:
“In every physical objective there is some psychology and vice versa. You cannot separate them. [. . .] Go by your instincts, always leaning toward the physical.”
The same passage in the chapter on Bits and Tasks from An Actor’s Work reads:
“’Yes, yes! That’s what I’m saying,’ Tortsov agreed. ‘In every physical, in every psychological Task and its fulfillment there’s a great deal of the other. There’s no way you can separate them. [. . .] Do it approximately, as it were, using your feelings as a rough guide, but with a constant bias towards the physical.’”
In the second half of the book, Benedetti rearranges the materials from Building a Character. Working from unfinished materials Benedetti proposes a construction that seems to follow a plan that would seem familiar to most conservatory acting students. Here we find materials dealing with the physical and vocal culture of the actor.
Ultimately, though, none of this is the material that will lead to discussion amongst readers and practitioners. Rather most will be looking at the newly translated chapters dealing with the interior life of the actor.
How does Benedetti deal with the Russian perezhevenie? How does he deal with the old arguments about emotion memory?
These areas are the most difficult place to understand and describe. Actors know about being in . . . and we call it different things – now we call it “the Zone.” “Being in the zone.” Creative people know about being in a creative place that seems unlike the place where we experience our everyday activities. It is a place where creativity seems to be the norm. And, for actors, that place of creative experience seems to be tied to great emotion and feeling. Sort of.
And this leads to the essential question of actor psychology and the psychology of emotions.
These questions are ultimately insoluble. Will a new translation help you find your answers to these questions? Unlikely. But it can help provide another way of looking at highly complex material and real issues that actors face every working day.
And another way of looking at things? Isn’t that the job of an artist?