Swans Commentary » swans.com July 16, 2007  



Who Was Michael Chekhov?


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - July 16, 2007)   The first thirty years of the twentieth century, like those legendary "ten days" in 1917 "that shook the world," produced a creative explosion whose reverberations are still being felt today. Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Evgeny Vakhtangov, Michael Chekhov in Russia; Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator, and Bertolt Brecht in Germany; Jacques Copeau, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Antonin Artaud in France collectively swept away the 19th century aesthetic and, in their wake created the modernity that is the hallmark of today's theatre.

Most of these men have already been turned into modern icons. There is no shortage of biographies on the pioneers of the Moscow Arts Theatre, and the achievements of Copeau, Barrault, Reinhardt, Brecht, and Artaud are chronicled and archived for posterity. Only one of these artists remains murky and ill-defined. He is Michael Chekhov, nephew of Anton and the man that Stanislavsky put in charge of the Moscow Art Theatre's First Studio, the actor-director-and-theorist who, like his colleagues Meyerhold and Vakhtangov, radically departed from the teachings of his mentor Stanislavsky and, in so doing, made startling inroads into Expressionism, Theatricalism, and non-naturalistic styles which even today defy nomenclature. He was also, by the way, the man that Stanislavsky hailed "as the finest actor in Russia."

A charismatic performer, an inspiring director and a teacher that developed a dynamic antidote to Russian Naturalism, Chekhov remains The Invisible Man of the Modern Theatre. Was he, as Lee Strasberg alleged, a dangerous mystic who would subvert the vigor of Stanislavsky's teachings and undermine the integrity of The Group Theatre? Or was he, as his disciples Yul Brynner, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance, Beatrice Straight, and Leslie Caron believed, a man who had discovered a unique approach to acting that transcended the precepts enshrined in Stanislavsky's "System," subsequently recycled as Lee Strasberg's "Method"? Or was he only a kind of aesthetic sophist who hatched abstract theories that went over the heads of most actors? The answers to these questions are still being debated.

After the Revolution, the dogma of the Soviet Theatre was Social Realism, a style for which Chekhov had little sympathy. He clashed with senior members of the Moscow Arts Theatre, relations with Stanislavsky became strained and the bureaucrats tried, without success to "Communize" him. Frustrated and disillusioned, he left Moscow in 1928 (and, had he not, would almost certainly have been arrested for "formalism"). In 1940, after staggering performances in Russia, Germany, Latvia, and France, Chekhov arrived in America. His myth had preceded him and several members of the Group Theatre, disenchanted with Strasberg, attempted to put Chekhov in his place, an aim neatly foiled by several of the Group's more inflexible members.

Assisted by the actress Beatrice Straight and the Elmhirst family in England, all of whom became staunch advocates of the émigré, Chekhov created his own Theatre School at Dartington Hall in Devon, where he proceeded to perfect many of the techniques he had experimented with in Europe. Disrupted by the war in Europe, the company regrouped itself in Richfield, Connecticut, adding actors such as Yul Brynner, Hurd Hatfield and Ford Rainey. The 1940s found Chekhov working in Hollywood, spreading a range of new and provocative acting theories, which drew an ever-growing circle of disciples to his workshops. His presence in California gradually attracted the attention of filmmakers as well, and he sometimes popped up in supporting roles in several motion pictures of the Fifties; most memorably perhaps, as Ingrid Bergman's psycho-analytical mentor in Spellbound, a small-scale masterpiece of mesmerizing understatement. To keep his creativity alive, he also appeared in independent films such as Specter of the Rose and The Scoundrel, which Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made on a Long Island shooting stage as a rebuff to the assembly-line movies being churned out by the Hollywood Dream Factories.

In New York and then later in California, Chekhov conducted a series of Professional Classes and gradually, his ideas began to infiltrate the Method practices that had begun to dominate both the New York stage and the movies through the work of Group-oriented directors such as Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, and Martin Ritt. The personality of the man, as much as the innovative ideas he espoused, beguiled many members of the Hollywood community and his classes were filled with acolytes including unlikely converts such as Gary Cooper, Leslie Caron, and Marilyn Monroe. (Future Chekhovians would include Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, and Johnny Depp.) To many, Chekhov's approach was seen as a viable alternative to the doctrinaire Method techniques that had now ingrained themselves in America. It was a period in which artists from many countries were questioning the priorities of the actor's art and the ways in which new techniques could be applied. The old feud between Technique and "inner feeling," the former exemplified by British artists, the latter by stalwarts of Stanislavsky and Strasberg, was re-ignited.

Since the days of Cicero and Quintillian, acting, in some sense an off shoot of oratory, has always been a matter of rules. In 1761, James Burgh in The Art of Speaking formulated a very precise set of gestures and expressions that conveyed the wide range of emotions required for the stage. Twenty-six years later, John Walker appended A Complete System of the Passions to his treatise, Elements of Elocution, which codified it even further. In the early l9th Century, Goethe created his Rules For Actors at Weimar that influenced succeeding generations of German actors. When, later in the century, Francois Delsarte attempted to reduce acting into an even more mechanistic formula, these rules became ludicrous.

When Stanislavsky arrived, along with the early twentieth century's burgeoning interest in psychology and the subconscious, the guidelines acquired a new vernacular (units, objectives, sub-text, etc.), but essentially, they were still rules. When Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner and others of their ilk added their insights, the rules shifted, took on different emphases, became fused with other disciplines, but never lost their character as "rules." It was only when Michael Chekhov entered the fray that the whole notion of "rules" was seriously subverted and, what the philosophers call, "a paradigm shift" occurred. Units and Objectives gave way to Psychological Gestures. Actors began to search out physical "centers" for their characters. Training became a place where inspiration was incubated, and a rigid methodology was seen as a bar to that inspiration rather than a means of achieving it. But by then, the terrain had been so firmly ploughed by Stanislavsky and his adherents, it appeared that Chekhov, rather than sowing new seeds, was deracinating the landscape. It was Chekhov who posited the notion initially articulated by George Bernard Shaw at the beginning of the century -- namely that "The Golden Rule is that there are no Golden Rules."

Essentially, the aims were still the same: to create a natural and convincing performance based on an aesthetic understanding of the author's work, but the routes marked out to achieve this objective seemed to many strange and even incomprehensible. Chekhov was re-positioning the craft of acting as radically as Jung had repositioned classical Freudian analysis. Once considered Freud's heir apparent, Carl Gustave Jung had broken with his mentor because he couldn't agree that sexuality was the be-all and end-all of the psycho-analytic process. For Freud, talk of a "collective unconscious" and behavioural phenomena predicated on mythological forces and ancient antecedents was apostasy. To Stanislavsky, psychologically-based Naturalism was the rock on which true actors could build great performances. It was also the means by which true emotions could be dredged from past experience and made to infuse the present. To be asked to replace these with fuzzy concepts and imprecise abstractions was anathema to him. But Stanislavsky worshipped Anton Chekhov and treasured his nephew, Michael. There was none of the rancour and rejection there that Freud heaped onto Jung. Chekhov, like Meyerhold, like Vakhtangov, was allowed to go his own way with the master's public blessing. Privately, Stanislavsky squirmed when he came across Chekhovian challenges to his System -- just as aesthetically, he must have fled the mechanistic productions of Meyerhold. But in most cases the new works were dynamic and immensely exciting to a post-revolutionary public, and some part of him was probably consoled by the fact that his prodigies, no matter how far they had wandered from the nest, still bore the plumage of the master who had bred them.

The range of Chekhov's innovative techniques is a complicated subject that lures acting theory into the back alleys and cul-de-sacs of metaphysics, Anthroposophy and abstract psychology. Catch phrases are bandied about by many who have subscribed to the "theory" without being quite able to distinguish it from the basic tenets derived from Stanislavsky, or his revisionists. Essentially, it is a cultivation of the actor's imagination and a deep-rooted belief that when acting really works it is because the body, invaded by the spirit, creates a fusion that transcends the clever imitations that simply reproduce naturalism. This is a woeful oversimplification but anyone seriously interested in the subject should immerse themselves in Chekhov's books: To The Actor and the later, uncensored version, On The Technique Of Acting. The overriding point here is that there is a cluster of theories derived, not through academic speculation, but drawn from the inspiration and insights of one of the most gifted actors of the 20th century.

There are now Chekhovian workshops sprinkled throughout Europe, in some parts of China, and in a few major cities of the United States, but Chekhovian Technique remains a minority pursuit and pseudo-Chekhovians, simplifying and distorting the teacher's concepts, abound. But the ideas of Michael Chekhov continue to invade cultural discourse -- even as doubts, criticisms, and reappraisals assail the theories of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The "System," and its offspring "The Method," had a certain inevitability about it in the late 20th century and inspired some of the best works of psychological realism, viz. Odets, Miller, Williams, Inge, Mamet, etc. But we are now in a new and different millennium and our sense of what is both "true" and "real" has shifted into unexpected areas. We demand more than psychological equivalents to personal and social perceptions, more than dramatic replays of what we are buffeted with from an incessant media that deals in "sound bytes" instead of insights. Though glutted with "information," we are famished for "wisdom." Perhaps the time has come for a theorist, rooted in metaphysics and spirituality, improvisation rather than formulae, inspired hunches rather than dogmatic certainties, to make an appearance. Maybe we are on the threshold of the Chekhovian Era and just don't know it.


[ed. See Peter Byrne's Another Chekhov Worth Meeting, a review of Charles Marowitz's 2004 book, The Other Chekhov: A Biography of Michael Chekhov the Legendary Actor, Director & Theorist.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 16, 2007