- My Life in Art, and: An Actor’s Work
There is no doubt that these volumes translated by Jean Benedetti will allow readers who cannot access Stanislavski in Russian to discover him at long last—not rediscover him, but actually come face to face with a practitioner whose reputation is marked by numerous misunderstandings.1
Stanislavski’s autobiography, My Life in Art, first appeared in the United States in 1924 in less-than-adequate English by J.J. Robbins. It was part of a publicity campaign for the Moscow Art Theatre’s US tour, and Stanislavski, who needed foreign currency to cure his tubercular son in Switzerland, went along with the deal, embarrassed by his struggles as a writer but doing his best to meet the publisher’s deadline. These and related circumstances are noted with humor in Laurence Senelick’s introduction to the Routledge publication. The original Russian text has long since disappeared, but Robbins’s translation was available in Methuen’s imprint as late as 1980, perpetuating the hastily constructed image of a figure who, by now, towered over the theatre of the 20th century, for better or for worse. On returning to the Soviet Union, Stanislavski wrote a completely revised and extended version that was published in 1926. As far as it is possible to gauge from the various Russian editions of this version, Benedetti’s editorial work stands up well to the challenge.
The book is Stanislavski’s journey from childhood and adolescent devotion to amateur theatrics to the founding, with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, its difficulties in the pursuit of a “new kind of art” (337), and its embattled position after 1917 when it was under attack from the revolutionary left, which had its own new art to offer. Stanislavski’s pages on his meeting with Nemirovich-Danchenko make for engrossing reading as they detail the current stage practices and substandard working conditions that the MAT intended to oppose; and they include the commercialism of the theatre, its reliance on star turns, actors’ stock-in-trade posturing and tricks, makeshift, unsanitary, and unheated dressing rooms with broken windows and gaping doors, and the lack [End Page 172] of respect shown to actors in society at large. The writing is immediate, passionate, and precise, focusing attention not simply because the MAT set its sights high against a prehistoric age, but because you find yourself thinking that that age has not yet vanished. There is much, still, to value in Stanislavski’s claims for the dignity and integrity of “art” (as distinct from what he called “convention”), actors, and the theatre profession. In many ways, these pages anticipate the chapter “Ethics and Discipline” that comes towards the end of An Actor’s Work and which is something of a credo on why doing theatre with principled seriousness could and should matter for self and others.
Stanislavski’s focus throughout on the how and why of theatre—and his accounts of productions are finely observed—leaves little room for personal sentiment in his observations on various key figures: Edward Gordon Craig whose innovations he admired; Nemirovich-Danchenko, with whom he was no longer on speaking terms (although you would not know it from the book); Michael Chekhov, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Yevgeny Vakhtangov, his brilliant pupils, whose criticism of the psychological realism he had pursued down different pathways for more than two decades must have hurt him to the core. He is similarly discreet about his close friend and collaborator Leopold Sulerzhitsky to whom he entrusted the First Studio, founded in 1912. The First Studio was set up to test and develop the “system,” as Stanislavski called it—in quotation marks to indicate its provisional nature. Meanwhile, the established MAT actors, as Stanislavsky tells it, described it as “Stanislavski’s mania,” angrily complaining that he had “turned rehearsals into an experimental laboratory and that actors...