Stanislavski was racked by self-doubt

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Russian actor, director and theorist, Konstantin Stanislavski. If the anniversary is remembered at all, it will be with quiet respect. There was a time – not a time out of memory, though it seems distant now – when furious battles were waged in the theatre about acting: what it was and what it should be. In green rooms, in drama schools, and in the fiercely polemical pages of the theatre magazine Encore, the debate raged. It started around the time of the foundation of English Stage Company at the Royal Court theatre in the mid 1950s and continued until some point in the late 1970s, when all ideological and aesthetic discussions were abandoned in the face of economic trauma. The principal figures around whom the antagonists grouped were Stanislavski and the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht who, in the 1920s and 30s, articulated a theory of acting to rival, and indeed to oppose, the Russian's. Broadly speaking, Brecht's approach was political, Stanislavski's psychological; Brecht's epic, Stanislavski's personal; Brecht's narrative, Stanislavski's discursive. Brecht's actors demonstrated their characters, Stanislavski's became them; Brecht's audiences viewed the actions of the play critically, assessing the characters, Stanislavski's audiences were moved by the characters, identifying with them; Brecht's productions were informed by selective realism, Stanislavski's aspired to poetic naturalism.
As Stanislavski had done with his Moscow Art theatre, Brecht created an acting group, the Berliner Ensemble, whose practice embodied and demonstrated his theories; the Ensemble's visit to London in 1956, the year of Brecht's death, had a seismic effect on British theatre, an effect that only started to fade in the last years of the 20th century. The Moscow Art theatre, meanwhile, had started to calcify; when Stanislavski's original productions, still in the repertory, came to London they seemed preserved in aspic. Brecht and his theories made all the running, both aesthetically and politically, chiming with the British leftwing puritan tradition, resulting in productions that were bare, cool, politically explicit. The German's influence, first felt in Joan Littlewood's productions, was a formative factor in the unique populist style she forged for her Theatre Workshop; it informed a great deal of the Royal Court's house style, in physical productions, in new plays, and in acting. It was also at the root of Peter Hall's new Royal Shakespeare Company, and – sometimes a little incongruously – became part of the many-hued fabric of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company, which produced a number of Brecht's plays, performed new plays (by John Arden and Peter Shaffer, for example) heavily influenced by him, and applied his lessons to classics such as Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, starring Maggie Smith, who proved to be a brilliant, if somewhat unexpected, Brechtian.
But Stanislavski had been a force in the British theatre long before Brecht. His system had been taught in drama schools from the 1920s, and, slowly at first, but increasingly, leading British actors embraced his quest for psychological truthfulness over mere theatrical effectiveness.John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave – but not, significantly, Olivier – endorsed his work; after the war Paul Scofield did the same. The huge popularity of 1950s film stars such as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and John Garfield gave currency to the extremely limited version of Stanislavski's system created by their teacher, Lee Strasberg, who coined the phrase The Method for his Stanislavski-lite version of it. Essentially, Strasberg elevated one aspect of Stanislavski's work – emotional truthfulness – into the whole theory. Not only was this a crude reduction, it ignored the constant development and refinement of the theory, which preoccupied the Russian until the day he died, weighted down with international honours, in Moscow, in 1938. But by then the Soviet cultural nomenklatura had started the process of ossification that led to the lifeless productions London saw in the 1960s, a bitter paradox for a man whose entire life in art had been an unceasing quest for renewal, an unending struggle against the formulaic, the conventional, the self-referential.
By Simon Callow
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