Saturday, March 20, 2010
Moscow Art Theatre
It's taken me a very long time to get through Constantine Stanislavsky's verbose autobiography, My Life in Art. Although the book needed an editor, you can't read it without getting a very good idea about why Stanislavsky was so instrumental in placing Russia at the forefront of modern theatre. Stanislavsky emerges from these pages as a relentless critic of everything, even his own performances.
The book opens with a fairly lengthy description of Stanislavsky's childhood milieu within Moscow's haute bourgeoisie. The description of the author's family and friends helps to explain how pre-revolutionary Russia created so much of Europe's most brilliant and innovative art. It took incredible amounts of wealth to allow a man like Stanislavsky to forget all worldly cares and devote himself entirely to acting, directing, and producing. At one point, a depressed Stanislavsky wonders--but only rhetorically--whether a potential aesthetic failure might mean that he had nothing better to do than go back to the family business.
The intensity of the Stanislavsky's aesthetic journey also explains the Socialist Revolution that would engulf the country in 1914. How is that such an extravagant bourgeois artistic culture could live side by side with so much misery in the Russian proletariat and peasantry? Surely this state of affairs was a highly unstable one. Stanislavsky's book details his own evolution as an actor and dictatorial director. As he was in art, his journey is both heroic and comic. At one point, we see him asking someone in Italy to strip down in a restaurant so that Stanislavsky can have his closes in order to more closely approximate the gentleman's Moorish custom. At another, Stanislavsky leads his whole troupe to visit the area of the city that was populated by tramps in preparation for Gorky's play about the poor, "The Lower Depths."(Wasn't there a Simpson episode when a Stanislavsky-influenced James Wood gets himself incarcerated in order to research a part he would like to play?)
Whatever else it is, My Life in Art is elegant, honest, and urbane--so urbane in fact that Stanislavsky provides his readers with none of the US Weekly scandal modern movie goers prize so highly. Moreover, the book is filled with wonderful encounters with the royalty of Russian modernism, most especially Chaliapin, Meierhold,Duncan, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Bernhardt, Ostrovsky, Gorky, and Chekhov.
But the book also makes one appreciate that Russian modernism was deeply rooted in older Russian as well as European literary traditions. The influences (and sometimes the near acquaintances) of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Gogol are omnipresent. The influences of Shakespeare, Racine, and Moliere aren't neglibile either. And yet somehow the book moves inexorably from Shakespeare to the Stanislavsky system of acting, My System, as he calls it. I think immediately of the acting coach in the movie Adaptation whose hustle is so transcendent it becomes a kind of high art in its own right.