Today is the birthday actor/theatre director Constantin Stanislavsky (sometimes spelled Stanislavski), who created the Stanislavsky System. The following is an excerpt of Stagecraft: Stanislavsky and External Acting Techniques by Robert Blumenfeld (Limelight Editions).
As Michel Saint-Denis says in Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style, “Each period has its own style even though we are not conscious of it as we live.” I remember the 1950s quite well, for instance, as Saint-Denis did the 1920s, and I echo his words: “I never thought it would become a ‘period’.” Such a thought would never even have occurred to me, in fact, nor did it for any of the succeeding decades through which I have lived, which may be history to many of you, but are simple, living reality to me.
History is all our yesterdays—the larger sociopolitical context of our personal pasts—but life is not, as Macbeth would have it, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. On the contrary, history is part of the significant mental world of the people who lived it, whether they were idiots or not. To them, of course, it was not history, but the living, breathing reality of their daily existences, as it is of the characters in plays and films set in those times.
Stanislavsky was well aware of the relation between outer behavior and inner, sociocultural attitudes, born of a worldview anchored in historical circumstances. And his attention to the external details of deportment and manners was astonishing. As Jean Benedetti informs us in Stanislavsky: A Biography (Routledge, 1990), at a White House reception given for the Moscow Art Theatre by President Calvin Coolidge during their 1924 American tour, Stanislavsky could not resist demonstrating eighteenth-century deportment to his future translator, Mrs. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. He showed her formal greetings, no doubt, and bows of various kinds. He must have kissed her hand in the proper eighteenth-century manner: make a show of doing so, but do not actually touch the lips to the hand. Invited onto the expensive set to see some of the filming of Monsieur Beaucaire, Stanislavsky had already observed Rudolph Valentino and the rest of the cast making a hash of eighteenth-century deportment. He had looked on, dumbfounded: the actors were not even adept at wearing the costumes and using the accessories correctly, let alone at behaving with the manners and decorum of the France of Louis XV. They simply hadn’t bothered to do their research or to practice moving about in costume. To the great Russian, this was immediately unreal: both the period and acting styles presented to the audience were false, and he, at least, found this totally unacceptable and impossible to overlook.
Nikolai Gorchakov tells us in Stanislavsky Directs that part of Stanislavsky’s directorial method when doing period pieces was to demonstrate how costumes should be handled. For Stanislavsky, such plays were meant to be historical recreations, reflections of what history itself must have been, and of how life was lived in the period of the play, so clothing was of primary importance.
In 1924, he directed a revival of Alexei Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich, a historical drama set in the seventeenth century. It had been the Moscow Art Theatre’s first production in 1898, and one of its great hits. As Gorchakov, who was acting in the revival along with other recent graduates of the MAT school, tells us, “He demonstrated how the boyar’s fur coat should be worn, how one should gird himself in the long wide boyar belt, how to ‘play’ the rich embroidered shawl or the caftan stitched with gold.”
Stanislavsky’s preparations for the 1898 production had been exhaustive, as he makes clear in My Life in Art. He and members of the company ran around the country visiting museums and antiques fairs, immersing themselves in the period, buying cloth and props such as ancient wooden plates and “carved wood for furniture, Oriental couch covers,” and so forth. They “sailed down the Volga to Yaroslavl with the current, stopping at cities on the way to buy Tatar materials, coats and footgear.” They were even able to buy all the boots for the production. Of course, Stanislavsky was from an extremely wealthy family, and he could afford to do all this. Back in Moscow, he used many of his purchases as models, as he consulted with the costume and props departments:
On the stage, not all that glitters is gold, and not all that glitters looks like gold. We learned to make the most of stage possibilities and to pass as gold and jewels simple buttons, shells, stones especially cut and prepared . . . My purchases gave us new ideas.
In Stanislavsky’s productions, every detail of period style was filled with intentions, whether a courtier was bowing to a king or a lady using her fan to conceal her emotions. Because of his wealth of knowledge, his productions were infused with a reality often lacking in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century period presentations, where the actors seem to have merely a nodding acquaintance, if any at all, with the era and the culture with which they are supposed to be intimately familiar.
When he was working on a period play, Stanislavsky read everything he could find about the era. Indeed, among the best research tools for exploring and personalizing a period is its literature, and most especially fiction, autobiographies, and firsthand accounts of events. In them, the era comes alive, so read! Read more! And then read more! You will grow accustomed to the language of the period, to its archaic grammar and vocabulary, so that they will become second nature to you. And attitudes, customs, and everyday behavior and personal relationships are portrayed with a sense of reality that may be absent in purely historical accounts that sometimes lack personality, as many medieval chronicles do, for instance. On the other hand, Greek and Roman historians, such as Tacitus in his Annals, provide great insights into personality as well as everyday living. And the long-drawn-out medieval period has also left us wonderful examples of autobiography, many of them now all but forgotten, and such personal accounts as the Byzantine Procopius’s (late fifth century– after 558) rewarding and scandalous Anecdota or Secret History.
As American actors, we have been educated in the history of the United States, but we also need to know the traditions from which our theater comes, and they are largely European. So I have concentrated in this book on French and English theater and history, as well as on the plays of Chekhov, with forays into Russian theater practice (Meyerhold; Vakhtangov, in part 3); the theater of ancient Greece and Rome; Italy (the commedia); Germany (the Meiningen Company; Brecht); and Norway (Ibsen), since these are some of our roots as theater people. The historical information about France and England is meant to show you the kind of background you need when doing pieces from any country.
In the introduction to his English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries / Chaucer to Queen Victoria (David McKay Company, Inc., 1942)—a book very much worth consulting—the distinguished Cam- bridge University historian G. M. Trevelyan (1876–1962) writes, “It is the detailed study of history that makes us feel that the past was as real as the present.” Any actor doing a period piece might take that sentence as a motto and a suggestion.
In chapters 11, 12, 13, and 14 you will find sections on the years 1693, 1793, 1893, and 1936, as examples of the detailed research you should do as background for your character. They are certainly all very interesting years, but any year could have been chosen. Everyone who lived then would have known the major events and personalities as well as we know those of our own day. The wealth of material available for each year, and indeed each week or day, cannot but enrich the inner mental world of any character you play. You will not remember every detail, but salient important events and personalities will form part of your mental road map and give you access to the mindset, attitudes, and awareness of the characters regarding religion, developments on the world scene, science, important people of the time, and, of course, human relations.
To read more, pick up a copy of Stagecraft: Stanislavsky and External Acting Techniques by Robert Blumenfeld (Limelight Editions).
How do you go about creating a character fully and in compelling detail? How do you rehearse? Exactly what goes on during a performance? Everything you need to know as an actor about the process of bringing a play to life in today’s theatre can be found in Stagecraft: Stanislavsky and External Acting Techniques. Included is complete information on the foundations of the actor’s art: vocal technique, right down to grammar, punctuation, and stress patterns; movement technique, so you can create the character physically; and rehearsal and performance techniques. There is even a detailed section on applying makeup. As Stanislavsky stressed, without this kind of external work, the internal, psychological work detailed in the companion volume, Using the Stanislavsky System, cannot be “read” or understood by the audience. In Stagecraft, Blumenfeld also details the specific techniques of performing in comedy and meeting the unique demands of musical theater. The ideas of Stanislavsky’s influential successors – Michael Chekhov, Yevgenyi Vakhtangov, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and many others – are included as well. This volume is a must for professional and novice actors, students and teachers alike!
Find other titles by Robert Blumenfeld, including Accents and Using the Stanislavsky System on LimelightEditions.com.