Sunday, March 3, 2024

Konstantin Stanislavski's My Life In Art (#CCSpin)

"...we donned all sorts of costumes, footgear, stuffing, to feel the image of the body; we glued on noses, beards, moustaches, we put on wigs, hoping to strike accidentally on the things that we did not as yet know and for which we were painfully searching."

Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor, stage director, and teacher of acting. My Life in Art is his autobiography of 1924.

Stanislavski was born Konstantin Andreyev to a wealthy family with an estate near Moscow. He was one of many children in a happy family; his parents were interested in the arts and indulged the children's enthusiasms. Young Konstantin quickly caught the theater bug, playing in masquerades, watching a visiting puppet theater troupe, engaging in amateur theatricals with his cousins. 

But his father's supportiveness only went so far; he was expected to have a more respectable career. In his twenties Konstantin takes a part in a racy French comedy and adopts Stanislavski--Polish-sounding so it should fool people, right?--as his stage name, but nevertheless his parents come to see the production, and are appalled to see their son in such a thing. His father tells him to set up an amateur society and limit their productions to 'decent' scripts. So that's what he does.

Until he's thirty-three. Then with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In 1897, after an epic luncheon--it began at ten AM on one day and ends at 3 AM the next--he founds the Moscow Art Theater. They sell shares in their new corporation and decide to open their season with Tsar Feodor, a play by A. N. Tolstoy (cousin to Leo).

But Nemirovich really wants to bring in Anton Chekhov. Chekhov's first play was The Seagull. Nemirovich and Chekhov had shared a prize for the best play of the year in 1896, but Nemirovich refused his half of the prize and insisted it be given to Chekhov, as author of the far superior play. Still the first production of The Seagull in St. Petersburg was not a success--Chekhov famously fled town after opening night--and had refused to write anything else for the stage or to allow The Seagull to be played again. That is, until 1898, when it became the fourth play in Moscow Art Theater's opening season. It was such a hit, the Moscow Art Theater adopted the seagull as their emblem.

That's Chekhov reading in the center, Stanislavski seated at his right, and Olga Knipper, Chekhov's future wife in profile next to Stanislavski. 

Stanislavski directed all four plays of Chekhov, jointly in the case of The Seagull with Nemirovich, and acted in them as well, as Trigorin (The Seagull), then originating the roles of Astrov (Uncle Vanya), Vershinin (The Three Sisters), and Gaev (The Cherry Orchard). Chekhov's sister told Stanislavski his production of Uncle Vanya had better be a success, because Chekhov had had an attack of tuberculosis, and a failure would kill him. Yikes! Pressure. By the time of The Cherry Orchard it was clear Chekhov was dying and they hastened the production so he could see it.

Apparently the group reading was a standard feature of Moscow Art Theater productions. I was amused that for The Three Sisters, none of the troupe's member understood it was meant to be a comedy. I read Chekhov before I saw him played, and I certainly didn't understand he could be hilarious.

Moscow Art Theater also originated productions of Gorky, as well as reviving classic plays, particularly Ibsen and Shakespeare. This is Stanislavski and his future wife Maria Lilina in Schiller's Love and Villainy (more commonly translated now as Intrigue and Love).

The company made their first tour abroad in 1906, starting in Berlin. 1906 was a troubled year in Russia, and they couldn't play at home. It was a success, but their real international reputation started with the production of Hamlet of 1911-12, which Stanislavski discusses in detail.

Now the book is called My Life in Art, not My Life in Business or My Life in History or My Married Life, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise...but though he lived in interesting times, there's almost no discussion of it. There's no discussion of what the family business was or what his part was in his 20s while he was still involved. We learn about 1906 because the company has to go abroad. The Russian Revolution features largely as free tickets handed out to workers. The Russian Civil War is important because half their crew (including Olga Knipper, Chekhov's widow) are trapped on the other side of the white Russian general Denikin's lines. Even his wife and kids--theirs seems to have been a happy marriage--we learn about mostly in relationship to the theater. Maria Lilina is pregnant? Oh, no, she can't act!

Is this because he feels he shouldn't say anything about Soviet politics, or because he's genuinely apolitical? A bit of both, I suspect, but probably more the latter. Lenin was supposed to be a fan. 

The book was came out in 1924 after a successful U.S. tour and had been commissioned by a U.S. publisher. Wikipedia tells me Stanislavski would have preferred to have written about his teaching methods, but there was no interest in such a book at that time, so he smuggled in his ideas about how to become an actor in this autobiography. He later went on to write the books more directly discussing his ideas. In English, they're: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, the last from his notes. They were all first published in English.

After the book: in 1926, he directs Bulgakov's The Day of the Turbins, a success and a play that Stalin was supposed to be fond of. When I read Bulgakov a while back, something suggested that it was The Day of the Turbins that kept Stalin from executing Bulgakov. Maybe that good feeling extended to Stanislavski. 
In 1928 Stanislavski had a heart attack--on stage, but kept playing until the curtain fell. But that's the end of his acting career.  He still directs, but now mostly works on his teaching system. Maybe he's too famous for Stalin to kill, but Stanislavski is also living quietly at this point. Stanislavski announces his true heir in the theater is Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had played Treplev in that production of The Seagull, and gone on to direct, but Meyerhold is executed by Stalin in 1939, shortly after Stanislavski's death. His widow Maria Lilina dies in 1943 at the age of 77.

All in all a pretty fascinating book and a successful spin choice!


  1. Interesting that there's not a single drop of politics given the time (although the title is clear as you've said). I recently read David Bergen's Away from the Dead and noticed how often the characters were affected by the war, were influenced and impacted by it, but how far away it felt, even so. (For some, not all.)

    1. Not no politics, but surprisingly little. He was clearly impacted some, but maybe it genuinely was less, partly because he was well off. He was in Austria Hungary at the start of WWI with his wife, but his kids were still in Russia. He was worried, but everybody was fine. Helps to have money...

  2. This does sound like a very fascinating book!

  3. Such an interesting account of this artist's life and his co-mingling with other artists and authors. Thank you.

    Here is my Spin classic: OLD MAN AND THE SEA