13 July 2019

Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre

Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was an outstanding Russian character actor and one of the leading theatre directors of his generation. He founded the legendary Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), and originated 'method acting'. Stanislavski's System of actor training, preparation, and rehearsal technique was spread over the world by his students, including Michael Chekhov, Aleksei Dikij, Stella Adler, Viktor Tourjansky, and Richard Boleslawski.

Konstantin Stanislavsky
Russian postcard. Konstantin Stanislavski as Lieutenant-colonel Aleksandr Ignatyevich Vershinin in  'Три сeстры/Tri sestry/Three Sisters' by Anton Chekhov. The play, written in 1900, was first performed in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theatre. Collection: Didier Hanson.

C.S. Stanislavsky
French postcard, no. 5 C. Konstantin Stanislavski as Gaiev in 'The Cherry Orchard' by Anton Chekhov, Moscow Art Theatre. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Constantin Stanislavsky
French postcard, no. 9 S. Photo: A. Gubtschewsky. Konstantin Stanislavski as Verchinine in 'Three Sisters' by Anton Chekhov, Moscow Art Theatre. Collection: Didier Hanson.

An Actor of Feeling

Konstantin Sergeievich Stanislavski (Константи́н Серге́евич Станисла́вский) (1863–1938) was a Russian actor and theatre director. The eponymous Stanislavsky method, or simply 'method acting', has had a pervasive influence on the American theatre and cinema, especially in the period after World War II.

Stanislavski treated theatre-making as a serious endeavour requiring dedication, discipline and integrity. Throughout his life, he subjected his own acting to a process of rigorous artistic self-analysis and reflection. His development of a theorised praxis — in which practice is used as a mode of inquiry and theory as a catalyst for creative development —identifies him as one of the great modern theatre practitioners.

Stanislavski's work was as important to the development of socialist realism in the Soviet Union as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States. It draws on a wide range of influences and ideas, including his study of the modernist and avant-garde developments of his time (naturalism, symbolism and Meyerhold's constructivism), Russian formalism, Yoga, Pavlovian behavioural psychology, James-Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy.

He described his approach as 'spiritual Realism'. Stanislavski wrote several works, including 'An Actor Prepares', 'An Actor's Work on a Role', and his autobiography, 'My Life in Art'.

In 1885, Stanislavski briefly studied at the Moscow Theatre School, where students were encouraged to mimic the theatrical tricks and conventions of their tutors. Disappointed by this approach, he left after little more than two weeks. Instead, Stanislavski devoted particular attention to the performances of the Maly Theatre, the home of psychological realism in Russia.

Psychological realism had been developed here by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Shchepkin. Shchepkin was the father of Russian realistic acting who, in 1848, promoted the idea of an 'actor of feeling.' This actor would 'become the character' and identify with his thoughts and feelings: he would "walk, talk, think, feel, cry, laugh as the author wants him to."

Ivan Moskvin and Vasily Kachalov in The Lower Depths (1902)
Russian postcard, no. 8572. Photo: publicity still for the Moscow Art Theatre production of 'The Lower Depths'(1902) by Maxim Gorky, with Ivan Moskvin as Luka and Vasili Kachalov as the Baron. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Vasily Kachalov as Hamlet
Russian postcard. Vasily Kachalov as Hamlet in The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) production of 'Hamlet' (1911–1912). Collection: Didier Hanson.

Vasily Kachalov
French postcard, no. 7 N. Vasily Kachalov as The Baron in The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) production of The Lower Depths (1902) by Maxim Gorky. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Vasily Kachalov
Russian postcard. Vasily Kachalov as Anathema in the prologue in The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) production of Anathema (1909) by Leonid Andreev. Collection: Didier Hanson.

The principle of opposites

By the age of twenty-five, Konstantin Stanislavski was well known as an amateur actor. He made a proposal to Fyodor Sollogub and theatre director Alexander Fedotov to establish a society that would unite amateur and professional actors and artists. They founded in 1888 The Society of Art and Literature. Fedotov became head of the dramatic section, Komissarzhevski was the head of the operatic and musical section, while Sollogub was appointed head of the graphic arts section; the drama and opera sections each had a school.

In 1889 in the society's production of Aleksey Pisemsky's historical play 'Men Above The Law', Stanislavski discovered his 'principle of opposites,' as expressed in his aphoristic advice to the actor: "When you play a good man, try to find out where he is bad, and when you play a villain, try to find where he is good." Stanislavski insisted that the actors learnt their parts thoroughly, almost entirely removing the prompter from the society's productions.

It was Stanislavski's historic meeting with playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko in 1897, however, that would create the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT). In 1898, Stanislavski co-directed with Nemirovich the first of his productions of the work of Anton Chekhov. The MAT production of 'The Seagull' was a crucial milestone for the fledgling company that has been described as "one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama."

Stanislavski went on to direct the successful premières of Chekhov's other major plays: 'Uncle Vanya' in 1899, 'Three Sisters' in 1901, and 'The Cherry Orchard' in 1904. Stanislavski's encounter with Chekhov's drama proved crucial to the creative development of both men. His ensemble approach and attention to the psychological realities of its characters revived Chekhov's interest in writing for the stage, while Chekhov's unwillingness to explain or expand on the text forced Stanislavski to dig beneath its surface in ways that were new in theatre.

Stanislavski had different pupils during each of the phases of discovering and experimenting with his 'system' of acting. Two of his former students, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, founded the American Laboratory Theatre in 1925. One of their students, Lee Strasberg, went on to co-found the Group Theatre (1931–1940) with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, which was the first American acting company to put Stanislavski's initial discoveries into practice.

Clurman and Strasberg had a profound influence on American acting, both on stage and film, as did Stella Adler, who was also part of the Group Theatre and who had studied briefly with Stanislavsky and quarrelled with Strasberg's approach to the work. Sanford Meisner, another Group member, joined with Adler in opposing Strasberg's approach. This conflict was the partial cause of the Group Theatre's dissolution. After the Group broke up, Strasberg, Adler and Meisner each went on to found their own acting studios which trained many of the most prominent actors in American theatre and film.

Vasili Kachalov as Baron in Gorky's The Lower Depths, Moscow Art Theatre
German postcard. Vasili Kachalov as Baron in Maxim Gorky's 'The Lower Depths', Moscow Art Theatre.

Russian film and stage actor Vasily Kachalov (1875-1948) was one of Konstantin Stanislavsky's best-known performers. He led the so-called Kachalov Group within the Moscow Art Theatre. He also appeared in four films.

Mariya Germanova
German postcard. Mariya Germanova as Olga in 'Three Sisters', by Anton Chekhov. Caption: Guest performances by the Moscow Art Theatre (in Germany, 1920s).

Mariya Germanova (1884–1940) was known for such films as Anna Karenina (1914) and Raskolnikow (Robert Wiene, 1923). In 1901 she enrolled in the just opened Moscow Art Theatre Drama School and a year later joined the Moscow Art Theatre. Debuting in Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' in 1903, she got positive reviews in Maxim Gorky's 'Children of the Sun' (1905), in Griboyedov's 'Woe from Wit' and in Henrik Ibsen's 'Brand' (both 1906).

Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko relied mostly upon her stage persona in his stage experiments like 'Boris Godunov' by Alexander Pushkin (1907), 'Anathema' by Leonid Andreyev (1909), 'The Karamazov Brothers' by Dostoyevsky (1910), Leo Tolstoy's 'The Living Corpse' (1911). In late 1920s she started working as theatre director herself. In 1929 she went to the US and that year she succeeded Richard Boleslawski as the head of the American Laboratory Theatre, where she produced Chekhov's 'Three Sisters'. The Lab, as it was known, disbanded in 1933, but proved to be an important link between Stanislavski and the New York's Group Theatre.

Alexander Vishnevsky as A Tartar in Gorki's The Lower Depths, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard. Alexander Vishnevsky as A Tartar in Maxim Gorki's 'The Lower Depths', Moscow Art Theatre.

Aleksandr Leonid Vishnevsky (1861-1943) was one of the founding members of the Moscow Art Theatre. Vishnevsky studied at the Taganrog gymnasium where he befriended the young Anton Chekhov. From 1883 he took part in the performances of the Taganrog Music and Drama Society. Later he acted in the theatres of Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, Odessa, Saratov where he was a jeune premier.

In 1898 he joined the troupe of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT). On the opening night of the MAT, Vishnevsky played the part of Boris Godunov in the play 'Tsar Fiodor Ioannovich' by Alexei Tolstoy. In 1899 he played Godunov again in Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan the Terrible'. Vishnevsky was the first to play the title role in Chekhov's play 'Uncle Vanya' at the MAT. Vishnevsky acted in three films: Cagliostro (Wladyslaw Starewicz, 1918), Pobeda zhenshchiny (Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1927), and the comedy Prazdnik svyatogo/Holiday of St. Jorgen Yorgena (Yakov Protazanov, Porfiri Podobed, 1930).

Alla Tarassova as Anya, The Cherry Orchard, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 2 C. Photo: A. Gubtschewsky. Alla Tarassova as Anya in 'The Cherry Orchard', Moscow Art Theatre.

Alla Tarassova (1898-1973) started to play in productions of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1916. She made a mark already in 1916 as Boyar woman in 'Tsar Fedor Ioannovich' by Alexander Tolstoy. During the Civil War, she toured from 1919 to 1922 with the Kachalov Group. It was here she broke through as Anya in 'The Cherry Orchard', Verushka in 'Autumn Violins', The Maid in 'Three Sisters', and Ophelia in 'Hamlet'. She toured Europe and the US in 1922-1924, where she also lived for a while. From 1923 till 1971 Tarassova was a regular of the Moscow Art Theatre, playing e.g. Nastya in 'The Lower Depths' by Gorki in 1923. Together with many of the Moscow Art Theatre group, Tarassova played in 1923 in the classic German Expressionist Raskolnikow (Robert Wiene, 1923). Tarassova performed the sister of the title character, played by Gregori Chmara. Back in the Soviet Union, she acted as Mary in Kto ty takoy?/Who Are You (Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1927; not listed in IMDb) and had the lead in the silent film Vasilisina pobeda (Leonid Molchanov, 1928).

In the 1930s Tarassova acted in various Russian films. She starred as Katerina Petrovna Kabanova in Groza/The Storm (Vladimir Petrov, 1933), awarded at the 1934 Venice film festival. She also had a lead in Dreamers/The Rise of Man, or Is Russia in the Dark? (David Marian, 1934; not listed in IMDb). In the two-part biopic Пётр Первый/Peter the Great (1937-38), she played Yekaterina/ Catherine, a peasant girl, who will become the powerful Tzarina Catherine in part II. In 1940 Tarassova starred in Бабы/Baby (Vladimir Batalov, 1940). In 1952 she repeated her former stage role of Nastya in the film adaptation of 'The Lower Depths', Na dne (Andrey Frolov, 1952), a faithful adaptation of Stanislavski's direction of the play in the late 1930s. In 1953 Tarassova played the title role in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a recording of the stage performance by the Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Tatyana Lukashevich.

Leonid Leonidov as Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard. 6 C. Leonid Leonidov as Lopakhin in Anton Chekhov's play 'The Cherry Orchard', Moscow Art Theatre.

Leonid Mironovich Leonidov (1873-1941) worked at the Moscow Art Theatre from 1903. Stanislavski called Leonidov "the only Russian tragic actor." His roles included Dmitri Karamazov, Othello, and Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. In the late 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Leonidov also appeared in several films. He started in the propaganda film Khleb/Bread (Richard Boleslawski, Boris Sushkevich, 1918) with Olga Baclanova and Boleslawski himself, followed by Zheleznaya pyata/The Iron Heel (Vladimir Gardin, 1919) with Aleksandra Khokhlova and based on a Jack London novel; and Pyotr i Alexei (Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1919) in which he had the lead as Tsar Peter the Great.

In 1926 Leonidov returned to the sets, again as tsar, but now as Ivan the Terrible in the Sovkino production Krylya kholopa/The Wings of a Serf (Yuri Tarich, 1926), which was also shown in the West. In 1928 he played a double leading role in Yego prevoskhoditelstvo/His Excellency (Grigoriy Roshal, 1928), about a rabbi who in 1902 attempts to murder a governor who had workers flogged for a May-Day rally. Leonidov played both the rabbi and the governor. In the same year 1928, Leonidov also had the lead in the Mezhrabpomfilm production V gorod vkhodit' nelzya (Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1928). In the sound era, Leonidov acted in two Russian films, as a munition manufacturer in the political pamphlet against the fascists, Marionetki/The Marionettes (Yakov Protazanov, Porfiri Podobed, 1934) and as the title character in Gobzek (Konstantin Eggert, 1937).

Vladimir Gribunin as Simeonov-Pishchik in The Cherry Orchard, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 8 C. Vladimir Gribunin as Simeonov-Pishchik in Anton Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard', Moscow Art Theatre.

Vladimir Fyodorovich Gribunin (1873-1933) learned drama at the Maly Theatre Drama college in the class of Mikhail Sadovsky, then joined the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 with which he stayed until his death in 1933. Critically lauded were his performances as Nikita in Leo Tolstoy's 'Power of Darkness',  Simeonov-Pishchik in Anton Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard' and Kuroslepov in the 1926 production of Alexander Ostrovsky's 'An Ardent Heart'. The latter is considered to be the high point of his artistic career. He was cast in three early Soviet films: Алёшина дудка/Alyosha's Pipe (Vladimir Kasyanov 1919), Трое/Threesome (Michael Narokov 1919) and Хромой барин/Limping Landlord (Vladimir Kasyanov, 1920).

Ivan Moskvin as Yepikhodov in The Cherry Orchard, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 9 C. Ivan Moskvin as Yepikhodov in Anton Chekhov's play 'The Cherry Orchard', Moscow Art Theatre.

The career of Ivan Moskvin (1874-1946) is closely identified with the Moscow Art Theatre, of which he became director in 1943. In 1898 he was invited by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko to join the newly formed MAT, and he appeared opposite Olga Knipper in the title role of the theatre’s first production, 'Czar Fyodor Ioannovich' (1898), by Aleksey Tolstoy. He went on to create the role of Luka in Maxim Gorky’s 'The Lower Depths' (1902) and Epikhodoff in Anton Chekhov’s 'The Cherry Orchard' (1904).

The international acclaim Moskvin won when touring Europe and the United States (1919–1924) was reinforced in later years by his work in Soviet films that were distributed worldwide. Among Moskvin’s film roles were e.g. the Russian serf in the Tolstoy adaptation Polikushka (Alexander Sanin, 1922), the government clerk in the Chekhov adaptation Chiny i lyudi/Ranks and People (Mikhail Doller, Yakov Protazanov, 1929), and the title role in the Pushkin adaptation Kollezhskiy registrator/The Station Master (Ivan Moskvin himself with Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1925), also with Vera Malinovskaya. Moskvin was a much-respected teacher with three generations of Moscow Art Theatre actors, and he continued to appear in the theatre’s productions through 1942 when he played a principal role in N.F. Pogodin’s 'Kremlin Chimes'.

Ivan Moskvin as Luka in Gorky's The Lower Depths, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 9 N. Ivan Moskvin as Luka in Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths, Moscow Art Theatre.

Faina Shevchenko as A Boyar Woman in Tolstoy's Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 11 L. Faina Shevchenko as A Boyar Woman in Aleksey Tolstoy's 'Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich', Moscow Art Theatre.

Faina Vasilyevna Shevchenko aka Faïna Chevtchenko (1893-1971) was the People's Artist of the USSR (1948) and the recipient of several high-profile state awards (including the Order of Lenin, 1938) and twice the Stalin Prize laureate (1943, 1946). She was one of the leading actresses of the Moscow Art Theatre where she debuted in 1914 and stayed until 1959. Shevchenko excelled in Russian drama classics and was best remembered for her roles in the plays by Alexander Ostrovsky, including 'Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man' (1920), 'An Ardent Heart' (1926), 'The Storm' (1934), 'The Last Victim' (1944) and 'The Forest' (1948), as well as plays by Maxim Gorky, including 'The Lower Depths' (1916). She was also a successful singer with folk songs.

Shevchenko was cast in seven sound films, including the Georgian spoken David Guramishvili (Nikoloz Sanishvili, Joseb Tumanishvili, 1946) where she played the Russian Empress, The Composer Glinka (Grigoriy Aleksandrov, 1952) where she was Mme Ivanovich, and The Lower Depths (Andrey Frolov, 1952). "Dazzlingly simple, vivid, filled to the brim with life, endowed with huge temperament and open heart," was how the theatre historian Pavel Markov described her in his book of memoirs. Shevchenko was said to be the artist Boris Kustodiev's favourite model and, as a 21-year-old, sat nude for his The Beauty sessions. This daring venture caused scandal and almost cost Shevchenko her place in the troupe.

Olga Knipper-Chekhova as Nastia in Gorky's The Lower Depths, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 16 N. Photo A. Gubtschewsky, Berlin. Olga Knipper-Chekhova as Nastia in Maxim Gorky's 'The Lower Depths', Moscow Art Theatre.

Olga Leonárdovna Knipper-Chekhova (1868-1959 ) was a Russian actress. After marrying Antón Chékhov in 1901, she added the surname of the writer to her father's name. She was one of the 39 members of the Moscow Art Theatre when Konstantin Stanislavski formed it in 1898. She played the role of Arkadyina in 'The Seagull' (1898) and was the first person to star as Masha in 'Three Sisters' (1901) and Madame Ranévskaya in 'The Cherry Orchard' (1904). In 1901 Knipper married Antón Chékhov, the author of these stageplays, but the wedding was almost done in secret. Three years after, in 1904, Chekhov would die of tuberculosis.

In 1919, Knipper fled the famine with her company by moving first to Kharkiv, then the Crimea, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, before returning to the Soviet Union in 1922. She then went on an official stage tour to France and the United States. At her return, she passed Germany, where her niece Olga was starting a career in silent cinema. Olga Knipper herself played in three films, the silent film Plenniki morya/Prisoners of the Sea (Mikhail Verner, 1929), Zavtra nochyu/Tomorrow Night (Ilya Kravchunovsky, 1930), and Mastera stseny (Vladimir Yurenev, 1947), in which she reprised her part of Madame Ranévskaya. Olga Knipper continued a successful stage career with the Moscow Art Theatre. She played the role of Ranévskaya again in 1943 to celebrate the three hundredth representation of 'The Cherry Orchard'.

Ivan Moskvin as Tsar Fyodor in Tolstoy's Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard,no. 19 L. Photo: A. Gubtchewsky, Berlin. Ivan Moskvin as Tsar Fyodor in Aleksey Tolstoy's 'Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich', Moscow Art Theatre.

Barbara (Varvara) Bulgakova as Natasha in Gorki's The Lower Depths, Moscow Art Theatre
French postcard, no. 19 N. Barbara Bulgakova as Natasha in Maxim Gorki's 'The Lower Depths', Moscow Art Theatre.

Barbara Bulgakova aka Barbara Bulgakov (c. 1898-1977) was the wife of actor, stage and film director Leo Bulgakov. Both were regulars from the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) from an early date. As Varvara Bulgakova, she had her first film part in Polikushka (1922), starring Moscow Art Theatre actor Ivan Moskvin. The Bulgakovs were part of the MAT troupe that officially toured Europe and the States in the early 1920s.

When the troupe returned to Russia, Bulgakov and his wife remained in the US. They started to act in shows on Broadway, which Leo Bulgakov partly also produced himself, including classic Russian plays such as 'The Seagull', 'The Lower Depths', etc. He also directed and acted in various films. Barbara acted with her husband in Song of Russia (Gregory Ratoff, Laslo Benedek, 1944). After the death of her husband in 1948, she also acted in a few TV plays.

Sources: Wikipedia and IMDb.

No comments: