Rediscovering Stanislavsky

By Maria Shevtsova
442 pp. Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Nathan Thomas*

With her new volume Rediscovering Stanislavsky, noted British scholar Maria Shevtsova gives us an important and welcome addition to a bourgeoning list of necessary books about the great Russian director and acting teacher. Shevtsova’s research is both broad and deep. She easily shifts from wide-angle contexts to extreme close-ups as she shares history as well as contemporary perspectives on Stanislavsky’s life and work .

For someone like Stanislavsky who has garnered so much attention, it should not be surprising that so many myths about him continue to this day. Often, as actors and creators, we are interested in theatre history only insofar as it can help us make our next production. We tend to use Stanislavsky like a chef who has written a rather complicated cookbook. “Add a thimble-full of imagination to three imaginary if’s and a block of interior actions. Stir until thickened (about three weeks of rehearsal).” As a result, Stanislavsky remains for some simply a rather fussy fellow who can help us most when we do a realistic play, but, otherwise, of not much use. Shevtsova’s book serves to remind us about the fullness of Stanislavsky’s life and especially his contribution to acting, directing, story-telling and the creative process generally.

Shevtsova takes us into the cultural environment that nourished the young Stanislavsky, scion of a wealthy manufacturing family. If “it takes a village” to raise any child, we are right to wonder what Stanislavsky’s village was actually like? Shevtsova introduces us to one made up of Moscow’s late nineteenth century manufacturing families, enlightened people who both enjoyed life and sought to positively give back to the community. A number of these families also belonged to the Old Believers sect. For those who don’t want to get entwined in the weeds of theological/political/cultural minutiae, suffice it to say that it is not essential to determine Stanislavsky’s personal views on the nature of the bread and wine in an Orthodox Mass. Yet, Shevtsova does illuminate the Old Believer perspective of communion—of people joining together in a spiritual and corporeal sense. One can see how Stanislavsky would be attracted to this and other similar facets of the faith and apply these perspectives in other parts of his life—like theatre.

The Saxe-Meiningen Players from Germany had earlier transformed staid crowd scenes on a stage making sure that the actors were at least costumed appropriately and individualized in their stage activities. But the nature of the Saxe-Meiningen crowd did not create the spirit of ensemble playing. It was Stanislavsky and his dramaturgical colleague Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko who developed the idea of a genuine ensemble theatre. Each person on and off stage needed to be committed to the mission of a production. To that end, a stagehand as well as an actor was each important.

Put another way, Stanislavsky advocated artistic ethics that tried to respect the contributions of all. He worked to help actors achieve a creative state of being on stage. He searched for a way to join body and spirit in the act of creation. As Shevtsova notes, it’s distressing that an earlier Stanislavsky explicator like Jean Benedetti chose to translate the word for “spirit/soul” as “mind/personality.” For Stanislavsky, the goal of the actor, as we see here, was to show the embodied life of the human spirit. That is, Stanislavsky’s own super-objective was to get to the humanity at the center of any dramatic work. Shevtsova establishes that the totality of Stanislavsky should be read in the light of the religious belief system of his “village.”

Arguably of as much importance as the Moscow Art Theatre was to the development and dissemination of Stanislavsky’s ideas about acting and theatre were his many “studios,” workshops starting with one run by Meyerhold in 1905 and continuing through his Opera Studio which was in operation when Stanislavsky died. Shevtsova devotes an entire chapter to the studios and their work and provides a refreshing historical re-assessment of them, especially Meyerhold’s. Hopefully, researchers will look at Shevtsova’s work here along with Kathryn Syssoyeva’s dissertation of 2009 and the materials published by Oleg Feldman and his team and see that this actual “first” studio was not the failure that it has often been said to be. Likewise, Shevtsova shines a spotlight on the adventurous Leopold Sulerzhitsky a section that raises hopes for a full biography of Sulerzhitsky himself.

Shevtsova’s chapter on Stanislavsky’s many stagings shows him as an endlessly imaginative director. Early in his career, he preferred full directorial pre-production plans.  As he developed however, he made more and more use of improvisation and etudes—a practice that drove some playwrights—Mikhail Bulgakov for one—to distraction.

It’s often forgotten that Stanislavsky himself actually ran his family manufacturing interests from the death of his father until the company was taken away by the Russian Revolution. Obviously, Stanislavsky knew how to deal with tough customers, whether commodity suppliers or government hacks. That said, his actions through the 1920s and 1930s sometimes betray a sense of political naiveté. He publicly complained about Lenin’s plans to nationalize the Moscow Art Theatre. He later asked for permission to produce Erdman’s biting satire, The Suicide, a permission that was not surprisingly refused.  

Shevtsova’s exploration of Stanislavsky’s personal politics sometimes lacks the genuine precision found elsewhere in this valuable volume. What comes through is a depiction of someone working to take care of both his families—his blood relations and his theatre relations. Perhaps, the real lesson he learned running a factory was simply to keep his head down and just survive.

Some small complaints. Sometimes an idea and sentence gets convoluted, as when differentiating Michael Chekhov’s spirituality from Vakhtangov’s metaphysical imagination. And there are occasional infelicitous constructions like actors “performing performances.” I also believe the lack of any reference to Rebecca Gauss’s important 1999 monograph, Lear’s Daughters: The Studios of the Moscow Art Theatre 1905–1927 (Peter Lang Publishing) is a regrettable omission. But these are small matters indeed.

In the end, this is a most useful book showing that Stanislavsky was himself even more complicated than we previously have been led to believe. Shevstova suggests we over-simplify him at our intellectual peril, and this book provides genuine context for that view, contexts that continually reward the reader. In Shevstova’s hands, we are introduced to a full human being, one we will want to re-visit often. 

*Nathan Thomas, PhD, is Chair of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Alvernia University in Reading, PA.  As an actor he has toured extensively, giving hundreds of performances throughout the U.S.A. A former columnist for the on-line arts journal, he has translated/adapted Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. 

Copyright © 2021 Nathan Thomas
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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