- The Stanislavsky System of Acting: Legacy and Influence in Modern Performance
Stanislavsky's system is considered the gold standard of actor training in the West. Yet in the English-speaking world, we still lack many details of his critical method because of faulty editing in Elizabeth Hapgood's truncated translation, the tardy arrival of his works into English, and censorship by Soviet authorities. Stanislavsky saw the system as a totality, each part interconnected, but its piecemeal arrival in English interrupted the continuity of his system and thwarted the desired effect. As a consequence, his ideas in the English-speaking world have often been misunderstood. Rose Whyman's new book is a major effort in setting the record straight. Benefiting from access to the now-available Stanislavsky archives and using her own translations of Stanislavsky's original work, she illuminates the influences that underscored his ideas and compares his work to his three principal students: Evgenii Vakhtangov, Michael Chekhov, and Vsevolod Meyerhold.
Whyman's objective is to analyze "the extent to which Stanislavsky's system was corroborated by scientific information available to him and to examine whether Stanislavsky adapted his training methods in the light of advances in science in his lifetime" (ix). To that end, Whyman traces the influences on Stanislavsky's thinking by studying books and journals from his private collection; Stanislavsky's margin notes and scrawled underlinings leave footprints that tell us something about the books' owner. This technique, a relatively recent research method practiced in many fields in the humanities, provides an innovative way to explore Stanislavsky's thoughts. Through his readings and observations, Whyman maintains, Stanislavsky absorbed (among others) Ivan Pavlov's study of behaviorism, Théodule Ribot's associationist psychology, Leo Tolstoy's experiential aesthetics, Anton Chekhov's subtextual dramaturgy, and Edouard von Hartmann's notion of individual volition. Additionally, Stanislavsky's personal friend, Leopold Sulerzhitskii, gave him books and shared ideas about yoga that eventually sharpened Stanislavsky's use of prana—the power of dynamic force in performance, an often overlooked Eastern-influenced device in Stanislavsky's system. The ultimate linchpin of Stanislavsky's acting theory, Whyman maintains, was the nature of the creative unconscious based on the scientific theories of his era. Whyman carefully identifies the ascendancy of these theories as he formulated his own ideas of truthfully expressed emotion, the means of physical action in expressing emotion, and the importance of experiencing the role as a complete human being. [End Page 343] According to Whyman, Stanislavsky believed that it is necessary for the actor to experience the role through the sensation (oschchushchat') of feelings, and he sought proof of this by building on scientific psychological and social theories.
One of Whyman's many contributions to our understanding of Stanislavsky is her confirmation that he used both emotion and action to create what he called "experiencing." It has been thought that Stanislavsky abandoned emotion in favor of the so-called method of physical action during his lifetime. Whyman rejects this view, emphasizing the continuity of Stanislavsky's teachings: although the method of physical action and emotional memory were, for Stanislavsky, separate entities, they had always been necessary components of his theories. Stanislavsky, Whyman asserts, "saw emotion and action as inextricably linked" (62). These ideas led to concepts and exercises such as the "magic if," given circumstances, relaxation, concentration, radiation of creative will, active analysis, prana, communion, justification, here-today-now (referred to in the United States as "moment-to-moment"), task (interpreted as a Freudian "objective" in the US), and incarnation (voploshchenie), all of which are carefully parsed in Whyman's book.
Whyman's final two chapters before the conclusion compare Stanislavsky to his three disciples. Vakhtangov "always subscribed to the concept of emotional memory and wanted a theatre which combined Stanislavsky's emotional truth and Meyerhold's theatricalism" (172). Chekhov changed Stanislavsky's "incarnation" into "transformation," and also stressed images and spirituality in creating a role. Meyerhold, the greatest renegade of the three, employed innovative techniques—though as Whyman shows, he was sometimes...