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Theatre and revolution: The life and legacy of Konstantin Stanislavski

Originally published: In Defence of Marxism on June 24, 2024 by Nelson Wan (more by In Defence of Marxism)  | (Posted Jun 27, 2024)

Konstantin Stanislavski is perhaps the greatest and most influential figure in the history of acting. His comprehensive system of training has dominated the world of theatre and film from the early 20th century until today.

Stanislavski’s techniques and stage direction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries represented nothing short of a revolution in art, completely rejuvenating the Russian theatre, which was stagnating under Tsarism. From there, his theories would go on to transform all of western acting and performance.

Stanislavski’s revolution in art would also become intertwined with the Russian Revolution. Theatre for Stanislavski was not merely entertainment; it had both an artistic and moral purpose to dedicate one’s life to. Accordingly, although Stanislavski never joined the Bolsheviks, he welcomed the October Revolution, and embodied the spirit of change and progress that the Revolution inspired.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for their part, consistently supported Stanislavski’s work, because they saw in it an indispensable lever to raise the cultural level of millions of workers and peasants: a key task of the socialist revolution.

Therefore, Stanislavski could surely be described as one of the great leading lights of the spiritual reawakening of Russia following October 1917.

When Stalin and the bureaucracy took control of the Soviet Union, however, Stanislavski’s trailblazing Realist style was cynically appropriated and distorted to fit the new artistic policy of ‘Socialist Realism’, which had nothing to do with any of Stanislavski’s ideas. At the same time, the bureaucracy severely curtailed the creativity of his remaining performances, which began the slow and ignominious decline of the world-renowned Moscow Art Theatre (MAT).

Today, there is much we can gain from a study of Stanislavski’s method and historical role, not only from the point of view of theatre and art in general, but also in deepening our understanding of the vital role played by art and culture in the struggle for communism.

Stanislavski’s early life

Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev was born on 5 January 1863 to a wealthy family that was devoted to the theatre. In 1884 he adopted the stage name Stanislavski, by which he was known ever since.

He made his first stage appearance aged seven in a series of tableaux vivants organised to celebrate his mother’s name day, and his conscious artistic career began in 1877 after performing in four one-act plays in a converted theatre on the family’s estate. Following that evening, an amateur group was formed, the Alexeyev Circle, which consisted of Stanislavski’s brothers and sisters, cousins, and several friends.

Stanislavski was not a naturally gifted actor. He loved performing, but suffered enormously from stage fright, was often inaudible, and could at most only imitate the effortless performances of other actors he admired. Stanislavski’s early life as an actor and his own poor performances pushed him to try and understand and solve the problems of acting.

He began keeping a notebook, in which he recorded his impressions, analysed his difficulties, and sketched out solutions. He would continue this practice throughout his life, covering around 61 years of activity.

He would ask himself, why did some performances come across as more truthful than others? Why could others deliver a natural performance so quickly and easily, and he could not? These are the questions that Stanislavski actively contemplated during his early career. Drama school could not provide any answers. His teachers presented him with an indication of the desired results, but not a worked-out method of how to achieve them.

The decline of Russian theatre

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Stanislavski found himself surrounded on all sides by artistic mediocrity. (Photo:: public domain)

Russian theatre was in decline at the end of the 19th century. Older generations dominated performances, and Stanislavski found himself surrounded on all sides by artistic mediocrity.

The Tsarist monopoly over the imperial theatres was abolished in 1882. Prior to this, all professional ballet, opera, and drama had to be staged in one of the Tsar’s own theatres in Moscow or St Petersburg. Now, in theory at least, anyone could open a theatre. However, what was emerging was a ‘new’ kind of theatre that suffered from bad management, a weak repertoire, and poor acting.

Commercial managements began producing plays to make quick profits, and as Stanislavski remarked, these theatres were controlled by the “barmen and bureaucrats”.1 There were a few brilliant individuals, but on the whole the professional theatrical world could only show Stanislavski what to avoid.

The scripts meant nothing to the actors, and neither did rehearsals. Actors often ignored the directors’ instructions, instead remaining fixed to the tricks and habits that they knew best. Rather than attempt to present realistic and natural dialogue between two characters, the actors, in their vain attempts to impress the spectators, would deliver their lines at the front of the stage and directly to the audience, as if the latter were characters in the play.

The costumes and sets were as uninspired as the acting. Wings and backdrops were taken from stock, and doors were placed conventionally in space without surrounding walls. Chairs were even placed facing forward to help the actors address the audience! The amateur theatres mirrored all of these conventions, only in a much worse way.

The acting and performance style that dominated this period was mannered, melodramatic, and in need of a complete overhaul. It became clear to Stanislavski what needed to be done. Truth had to be consciously and systematically brought to performance. He described his new approach to theatre in the following way:

In our destructive and revolutionary aims, in order to rejuvenate the art, we declared war on all the conventionalities of the theatre wherever they might occur—in the acting, in the properties, in the scenery, the costumes, the interpretation of the play, the curtain, or anywhere else in the play or the theatre. All that was new and that violated the usual customs of the theatre seemed beautiful and useful to us.2

The development of Realism

Realism in acting sets itself the aim of presenting recognisable human beings in situations that audiences would identify with.3 In other words, the actor should behave as if their situation is completely true, even if it is taking place on a bare stage in front of thousands of people.

The truth of a performance rests in the actor’s own belief, and the authenticity in the given circumstances. Such performances are achieved with a focus on the internal life and psychology of a character, as opposed to merely external features like costumes, sets, and props.

The aim of this type of theatre was not to imitate reality (such a feat is arguably impossible on stage), but to provide the audience with an experience that they could emotionally identify with and which could authentically convey the full depth of the characters and their underlying relationships. For example, in well-acted dramas, fantastical elements or complex poetic language is rarely a barrier to enjoyment or emotional engagement.

In developing the Realist style of performance, Stanislavski looked towards an earlier generation of Russian actors for inspiration, and in particular the actor Mikhail Shchepkin and the writer Nikolai Gogol. It was here that the first steps were made towards the development of Realism.

Mikhail Shchepkin was born a serf on the estate of Count Wolkenstein in 1788. Russian aristocrats in the 18th century often created theatre companies with their talented serfs, like Shchepkin, and these serfs would occasionally receive an education as a result.

Shchepkin realised through observation that the best actors were ones who simply “said a few words in a simple manner”, rather than cluttering their performances with unnecessary gestures or emotions. He began cultivating these observations into a distinct style of performance—the beginnings of Realism. After admirers of his acting paid for his freedom in 1821, Shchepkin joined the Imperial Theatre in Moscow in 1823 and in 1824 appeared in the opening performance of the Maly Theatre.

Shchepkin’s realistic performances provided Stanislavski with a model, both in his philosophy and in his approach to acting. The question that Shchepkin raised in Stanislavski’s mind was: does an actor feel his role, or does he imitate its external features superficially? Can an audience tell the difference?

This is one of the contradictions within the art of acting that Stanislavski had to confront.

There is an inherent dual nature to all performances, between the social and the personal. In order to truly become the character in question, the actor must blot out their own individuality, and walk, talk, think, and feel in the way the author intended. And yet at the same time they must fit their own personal qualities to the character in order to create the inner life of a human spirit, which would be universal and relatable to all.

Nikolai Gogol was also an admirer of Shchepkin, and himself an extremely gifted actor. Ironically Gogol failed an audition for the Imperial Theatre because his performance was deemed too “real”.4

Like Stanislavski, Gogol railed at the conventions of Russian acting at the time. Gogol and Shchepkin’s work at the Maly Theatre had forged a style of acting which focused on truthful observation, and not rigid conventions. Gogol’s advice to actors included:

Above all beware of falling into caricature. Nothing ought to be exaggerated or hackneyed, not even the minor roles… The less an actor thinks about being funny or making the audience laugh, the more the comic elements of his part will come through.5

These two actors left a remarkable impact on the mind of Stanislavski, and in basing himself on them he considered himself as part of the Realist tradition they helped to establish.

The purpose of art

Stanislavski was committed to the idea of theatre having a social purpose, and for him the best method of achieving this was through the principles of Realism. He saw theatre as a fundamental part of the spiritual life and health of society, as it was for the Elizabethans and Ancient Greeks.

As the actor and playwright, Jean Benedetti, writes:

Stanislavski’s mature activity can only be understood if it is seen as rooted in the conviction that the theatre is a moral instrument whose function is to civilize, to increase sensitivity, to heighten perception and, in terms perhaps now unfashionable to us, to ennoble the mind and uplift the spirit.6

He was, however, firmly opposed to the idea of overtly political theatre, preferring instead to allow his audiences to deduce any political meaning for themselves. In My Life in Art, Stanislavski says:

Tendentiousness and art are incompatible: The one excludes the other. As soon as one approaches the art of the stage with tendentious, utilitarian, or other non-artistic ideas, it withers away. It is impossible to accept a sermon or a propaganda piece as true art.7

But this is not to say however that Stanislavski thought it impossible for good art to have political content. Any messages of the play must be implicit, becoming apparent through a truthful presentation of the material. It was not enough to persuade audiences on an intellectual basis, the theatre had to give a total human experience which the audience could feel with its whole being:

In art tendency must change into its own ideas, pass into emotion, become a sincere effort and the second nature of the actor. Only then can it enter into the life of the human spirit in the actor, the role, and the play. But then it is no longer a tendency, it is a personal credo. The spectator can make his own conclusions, and create his own tendency from what he receives in the theatre. The natural conclusion is reached of itself in the soul and mind of the spectator from what he sees in the actor’s creative efforts… It is only when such a condition is present that one can think in the theatre of producing plays of a social and political character.8

For Stanislavski, the point of Realism is to get to the essence of the subject presented on stage, rather than to present a surface-level imitation of life. Realism selects only those elements that reveal the tendencies lying under the surface of the performance, and in the psychology of the characters. Stanislavski prioritised the human content of theatre above all other considerations.

The Moscow Art Theatre

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Stanislavski was committed to the idea of theatre having a social purpose. (Photo: public domain)

Stanislavski continued to develop his ideas through the productions he staged at the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), one of the most well-known and respected dramatic institutions in the history of Russia. It is known primarily for its original productions of Anton Chekhov’s plays such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard.

It was partly through directing and acting in Chekhov’s plays that Stanislavski developed his theories on performance. These productions were groundbreaking leaps forward in the development of theatre and acting. The MAT also had a long tradition of producing socially conscious and politically charged plays.

The theatre was jointly founded by Stanislavski and playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, then head of Moscow’s acting school, the Moscow Philharmonic Society. It opened in 1898 as ‘The Moscow Publicly Accessible Art Theatre’.

It was decided that the new theatre would, above all else, play a social and educational role. It would be open to all, particularly to the working class, who would be invited to attend special free performances if they couldn’t afford the modestly-priced seats.

The first company was composed of thirty-nine actors, including Olga Knipper, who would later become Anton Chekhov’s wife, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, the future stage director and Bolshevik. These actors joined with Stanislavski’s most successful amateurs, including his wife Maria Lilina and Maria Andreyeva, another future Bolshevik and wife to Maxim Gorky.

Within a few seasons, financial difficulties forced the founders to raise ticket prices and to drop ‘Publicly Accessible’ from their name. Providing a public service and turning a profit proved to be as mutually incompatible then as they are today. The MAT reluctantly accepted the patronage of the wealthy merchant Savva Morozov, who at the time was also funding Lenin’s newspaper Iskra.

Hostility from the Tsarist authorities was also making it difficult for Stanislavski to realise his vision of creating a people’s theatre. It was commonplace for the censors to intervene directly in the plays themselves. When Stanislavski and Nemirovich attempted to stage Gorky’s Small People in 1902, they heavily cut the play in advance, but the censors insisted on further excisions in order to remove allusions to the ruling Tsars. More than this, the theatre was packed with policemen on the first night of the performance—although, after much negotiation, Nemirovich succeeded in having them dressed in evening wear so as not to frighten the audience!

In spite of the censor, the MAT found itself becoming an unintentional expression of the struggle against Tsarism.

In 1901, for instance, mass demonstrations broke out in several Russian cities, including St Petersburg and Moscow, as a result of the drafting of 183 Kiev University students into the army as punishment for their participation in political meetings.

Workers and students came out to protest and were met with a ferocious response from the Tsarist officials. The police and the Cossacks assaulted protestors and hundreds of students were arrested and expelled from universities as a result. On 1 March 1901, the demonstration in front of Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg was dispersed with particular brutality, and several people were killed.

At the time, Stanislavski was performing in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which in his mind had no connection to the events unfolding outside. When Stanislavski, in act five, delivered the line, “You should never put on a new pair of trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth”, the audience erupted. Stanislavski recalls:

Spontaneously the audience connected the line with the massacre in Kazan Square, where, without a doubt many a new suit had been ripped apart in the name of liberty and truth. These words provoked such a storm of applause that we had to stop the performance. The audience stood up and rushed towards the footlights, holding out their arms to me.9

He continues:

Perhaps in choosing this particular play and interpreting the roles in that particular way we were responding intuitively to the prevailing state of mind in society and the conditions of life in our country… But, when we were on stage we interpreted the play with no thought of politics… As for the ‘message’ of the play, I did not discover it, it revealed itself to me.10

The MAT was equally affected by the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. In the reaction following this defeat, the theatre’s benefactor, the merchant Morozov, committed suicide, putting considerable personal and financial strain on Stanislavski. In this period, the MAT produced new plays of symbolic and mystical content, mirroring the despair and disillusionment of the revolutionary movement at the time.

Nevertheless, the radical tradition of the MAT continued right up until 1917, at which point the hated Tsarist system was finally overthrown. It was in the years that followed the Russian Revolution that the MAT gained global fame and recognition, but perhaps more importantly, Stanislavski’s dream of creating a people’s theatre would finally be realised.

Theatre after October

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The need for art is an essential part of this striving of the human spirit. (Photo: public domain)

In the years following the October Revolution of 1917, there was, for the first time in the history of Russia, a genuinely free and open participation of ordinary people in the world of art, and theatre was arguably the largest expression of this.

In a revolution, the masses move from the wings into the spotlight of history, and begin to organise society in their own interests. In doing so, they begin to express themselves as human beings for the first time, aspiring to a genuinely humane existence, which is the birthright of all.

The need for art is an essential part of this striving of the human spirit. The Russian Revolution brought about not only the desire to transform politics and society, but as Stanislavski put it, a desire to learn about, to participate in, and to experience art and culture. Hundreds of theatre groups sprang up across Russia, often connected to local factories and villages.

The Bolshevik government’s initial acts included organising and subsidising various theatrical companies on a permanent basis, as well as setting up schools in theatrecraft. The majority of the Russian population had no experience of the theatre. The Soviet government, meanwhile, like Stanislavski, understood the role of theatre in educating and entertaining the masses, and so they strove to make the theatre as widely accessible as they could.

Lenin and Trotsky repeatedly explained that the struggle to build a communist society was not only economic, but cultural. The Bolsheviks’ active support of the Russian theatre in this period constituted a key part of this approach.

When the Bolsheviks came to power they had inherited a majority-peasant country, with a legacy of immense backwardness and ignorance, where only 37.9 percent of the male and 12.5 percent of the female population was literate. Further development of the productive forces, and indeed the continued existence of the workers’ state, would be impossible without tackling elementary problems like illiteracy, and without a concerted struggle to raise the cultural level of revolutionary Russia. As Trotsky stated in Problems of Everyday Life:

What should we strive for? We must learn to work efficiently: accurately, punctually, economically. We need culture in work, culture in life, in the conditions of life. After a long preliminary period of struggle we have succeeded in overthrowing the rule of the exploiters by armed revolt. No such means exists, however, to create culture all at once. The working class must undergo a long process of self-education, and so must the peasantry…11

In this process the theatre would play almost as important a role as the classroom.

As a supporter of the revolution, Stanislavski immediately threw himself and the MAT into the tasks of organising and creating theatre for the new society that was emerging:

The Theatre added a new mission to its work; it was to open its doors to the widest masses of spectators, to those millions of people who until that time had had no opportunity to enjoy cultural delights… [O]ur hearts beat anxiously and joyfully at the consciousness of the tremendous importance of the mission that had fallen to our part… There exists an opinion that one must play for the peasant plays of his own life, plays that are fitted to his idea of what the world is… This is not only a misunderstanding—it is completely untrue. The peasant, seeing a play of his own life, criticises it, finds it unlike life as he knows it, does not recognize the language that is his own, for he speaks altogether differently than the people on the stage. He declares that he has grown tired of this life at home, that he has seen enough of it as it is, that he is infinitely more interested in seeing how other people live. The simple spectator longs for the life beautiful.12

Stanislavski, like Lenin in his criticisms of the Economist trend in the Russian Social-Democratic movement and their ‘workerist’ attitude, correctly explains why ordinary workers and peasants do not want to be told what they already know, or to be shown a life they are already accustomed to, but want to have their sights raised higher, to learn, and to catch a glimpse of the true beauty of the world.

Contrary to what the bourgeois argue, ordinary people are not too ignorant to appreciate art, they are simply denied the opportunity to experience and learn about it. Stanislavski even describes the remarkable transformation of the peasantry, the most backward and degraded class of Russian society:

We began to understand that these people came to the theatre not in order to be amused, but in order to learn. I remember one peasant, who was a good friend of mine, who came once a year to Moscow with the express purpose of seeing the entire repertoire of our Theatre… And after the dinner he would ask us for news of our Theatre with even greater joy, and then go to the theatre in his wonderful costume. Watching the performance, he would redden and pale from excitement and enthusiasm, and when the play ended he could not return home to sleep; he walked alone for hours in the streets, in order to clarify his impressions… Having seen our entire repertoire, he… returned to his home for the ensuing year. From there he would write numerous philosophical letters which helped him to digest and continue to live over the store of impressions which he had brought home with himself from Moscow. I think that not a few such spectators appeared at our Theatre. We felt their presence and our artistic duty towards them.

Stanislavski’s description continues:

The doors of our Theatre opened exclusively for the poor people and closed for a time to the intelligentsia. Our performances were free to all who received their tickets from factories and institutions where we sent them, and we met face to face right after the issuance of the decree with spectators altogether new to us, many of whom, perhaps the majority, knew nothing not only of our Theatre but of any theatre…

With the coming of the Revolution many classes of society passed through our Theatre—there was the period of soldiers, of deputies from all the ends of Russia, of children and young people, and last, of workingmen and peasants. They were spectators in the best sense of the word; they came into our Theatre not through accident but with trembling and the expectation of something important, something they had never experienced before.13

Even the enemies of revolution had to concede that an unprecedented explosion in the arts was taking place. Oliver Sayler, an American theatre critic and an anti-Bolshevik who arrived in Russia on the eve of the Revolution, wrote of the incredible assortment of theatrical performances available to ordinary Russians in 1922, which continued throughout winter, only ceasing on religious holidays.14

The entire country was swept by an epidemic of theatre. Even in the remote countryside the peasants wrote plays individually and collectively. Where there were no standard plays and dramatic instructors, they instead staged traditional Russian songs.

There was practically no factory in the country without its own dramatic circle, and at the time of the Civil War there were around 3,000 professional troupes alone. Plays written by Red Army soldiers made it round thousands of regimental drama circles, and in 1920, the Red Army and Fleet had over 1,800 clubs to which 1,210 theatres and 911 dramatic circles were attached.

There was not a country in the world at the time that could match this theatrical offering, nevermind provide such accessibility to the masses.

Other mass spectacles included the special dramas, which were usually presented on public holidays. Themes included the revolutions of 1848 and 1917, the Paris Commune, or Spartacus’ slave uprising. One of the most famous of these was the Storming of the Winter Palace, which was performed in front of the Winter Palace in Petrograd on 7 November 1920 with over 8,000 participants and an orchestra of at least 500. This included many people who had participated in the real event.

For the first time, theatre and the arts were not simply entertainment for the bourgeoisie, but part and parcel of the building of a new society. In Stanislavski’s view, the actor was no longer merely a professional, but someone who was to play a personal part in this process.

And what must you, modern actors, be? You must first of all be living people and you must carry about in your hearts all those new qualities which ought to help us all achieve a new kind of consciousness. What kind of consciousness? The kind in which life for the good of all should no longer be the subject of idle dreams and unrealizable fantasies.15

Stanislavski’s work, however, was not always understood by those who came across it. For example, the Association of Proletarian Writers described Stanislavski’s spiritual and psychological approach to the actor as “idealist”. These critics took a superficial view of Stanislavski’s background, and the type of performances he preferred (Russian and world classics), and incorrectly labelled the MAT as “right-wing” and “bourgeois”. The argument of some, such as the ‘Proletkult’, was that all the artistic forms inherited from pre-revolutionary Russia were in fact “bourgeois” and should be abandoned, even destroyed.

The Bolsheviks however, and Lenin in particular, opposed this one-sided and mechanical interpretation of art, and understood that revolutionary Russia had to preserve and build upon the greatest artistic achievements of the past. At the MAT’s 13th anniversary celebrations in 1928, Lunarcharsky quoted Lenin:

If there is a theatre which we must at all costs save and preserve from the past, it is, of course, the Art theatre.16

With the support of the Bolshevik government, the MAT continued to operate in 1917 and 1918, and was only interrupted for a month during the revolution. In 1919, the MAT became The Moscow Academic Art Theatre, an official state theatre which received government subsidies.

Contrary to what the ruling class claim, in its early years, the Bolshevik government did not clamp down on, nor censor artistic freedoms in the manner that the Tsars had done, and as Stalin later did. Lenin and the leading Bolsheviks approached artistic freedom with the sensitivity and appreciation it deserved.

This is something Stanislavski himself recognised. Speaking at the 13th anniversary of the MAT in 1928, he said the following:

In those days the Government came to our help and thanks to it our theatre was able to weather the storm… But, our Government earned my deepest gratitude for something quite different. When the political events in our country had caught us… our Government did not force us to dye ourselves red and pretend to be what we were not.17

Writing in 1938 about the stifling of Russian artistic creativity under Stalinism, Trotsky explains:

… a truly revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of ‘leading’ and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. Such a pretension could only enter the head of a bureaucracy—ignorant and impudent, intoxicated with its totalitarian power—which has become the antithesis of the proletarian revolution… Artistic creation has its laws—even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself.18

The Soviet MAT—‘classics’ vs. ‘avant-garde’

| With the support of the Bolsheviks the MAT thrived following 1917 Image public domain | MR Online

With the support of the Bolsheviks, the MAT thrived following 1917. (Photo: public domain)

With the support of the Bolsheviks, the MAT thrived following 1917, and was one of the foremost state-supported theatres in Russia, practically becoming a national treasure. Following its European and American tours of 1922-1924, the MAT became world-renowned, receiving critical acclaim everywhere it went.

In this period, the theatre boasted an extensive repertoire of leading Russian and western playwrights. After returning to Moscow in 1924, the MAT continued to produce new Soviet plays as well as Russian classics.

Stanislavski relaunched a ‘Soviet’ MAT in 1925-1927 with a new young company. The MAT in this period produced Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which differed from the original in that there was no redemption for the ruling class, who were castigated, as well as Gogol’s Inspector-General and Dead Souls. The Soviet-themed Armoured Train also earned the MAT success in 1927 and became a classic, unintentionally setting the mould for future Socialist Realist productions.

The MAT’s production of the The Marriage of Figaro on 28 April 1927 also became an instant classic of Soviet Theatre. The play by Pierre Beaumarchais is a blistering criticism of the Ancien Regime and the privileged life of the nobility, and is perhaps the most revolutionary play of the 18th century. Stanislavski creatively used a revolve in the set, which turned the last act into a mad rush through the garden using four different locations.

Theatres other than the MAT were also revived following the October Revolution. The former imperial theatre the Alexandrinsky became the State Drama Theatre, and one of the first measures of the People’s Commissariat of Education regarding the Alexandrinsky, as with the Maly Theatre, was the insistence on a classical repertoire. In the years following 1917, the State Drama Theatre produced classics like The Marriage of Figaro and Schiller’s Love and Intrigue, as well as Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1918.

One of the central debates in the Russian theatre following the Revolution revolved around whether to preserve and stage ‘classics’ or promote the new avant-garde, ‘revolutionary’ theatre. Meyerhold, although being a former-student of Stanislavski, was opposed to the Russian theatrical tradition represented by his former teacher and the MAT, and argued for the substitution of literature, psychology and representational Realism, in favour of the techniques of cubism, futurism and suprematism.

The People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, who were in charge of culture and education in Soviet Russia, opposed these proposals at the time because the Bolshevik government opposed the monopoly of art by the avant-garde, or by any other group for that matter. What the Bolsheviks understood was that the classic and the experimental approaches to artistic creation are not mutually exclusive; rather they can and should support one another.

Creation of the ‘System’

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Stanislavski’s system is the most comprehensive study of acting in existence. (Photo: public domain)

Stanislavski’s system is the most comprehensive study of acting in existence. It was intended as a practical “grammar of acting” that would provide actors with a way of achieving consistent performances by utilising the powers of their subconscious and imagination.

For decades, Stanislavski had compiled his notebooks in which he recorded ideas about his own acting, his experiences, his triumphs and failures, and also what he’d learnt from other great actors. These notebooks formed the basis for Stanislavski’s published works and for the system.

It was only as he approached 70, during the period of Stalinist repression in Russia, that Stanislavski agreed to codify his acting theory. He was initially hesitant, as he understood his theory as a constantly evolving method, where no single formulation seemed to satisfy him for too long. In fact, he rebelled against the idea of a written manual on acting, which he thought could degenerate very easily into a set of mechanical practices, repeated by actors without thought or feeling. After much deliberation Stanislavski decided to publish his writings in the form of a seven-book, semi-fictional series.

Stanislavski’s system is broadly divided into two parts, the internal and external work of the actor on themselves, and the internal and external work on a role. The goal of the inner work of an actor is to achieve a creative and inspirational state, which is to be gained with the application of psychological techniques. The external work of the actor involved preparing one’s body to express the role physically, and present the inner life on stage. Work on the role consists of studying the text in depth, and understanding the inner meaning and driving principle within it. This inner meaning gives life to the entire play, and to all the individual roles within it.

Stanislavski died before he was able to complete his series on the system, leaving it to his students, associates, and editors to construct the leftover manuscripts. Parts of Stanislavski’s system were also released to the public through events like the 1920s MAT world tour, before they had been completely formulated.

Perhaps the most famous consequence of this is Lee Strasberg’s development of the ‘Method’ at the New York Actor’s Studio, which placed heavy emphasis on the use of an actor’s “emotional memory”. Actors at the Studio were encouraged to totally immerse themselves in a character, and attempt to experience the emotions of a play in real life.

Thus, if a character was to experience a heartbreaking sense of loss on stage, the actor was supposed to achieve this same emotion in real life, and transfer it into the performance. This was in direct contradiction to Stanislavski’s teachings, as he did not believe that an actor could, or should, transfer life experiences directly onto the stage. Such an approach was in danger of neglecting a proper study of the text, and adapting the character to the personality of the actor, rather than the other way round.

Stanislavski’s system was always intended to represent an organic unity, a combination of psychological, imaginative, and physical preparation, which was not to be artificially divided or compartmentalised. It was not intended as a strict rulebook, but rather as a guide, a reference point for how an actor might solve the problems of the creative process.

Even understanding the laws of acting themselves are not sufficient to create a good performance, in the same way that mere knowledge of language and grammar is not sufficient to create a good story. Whilst Stanislavski set out to scientifically understand the laws of acting, his system was never meant to be a substitute for creativity and experimentation.

Stalinism and Socialist Realism

The ‘golden age’ of theatre in revolutionary Russia did not last long however, as the degeneration of the Revolution resulted in a counter-revolution in every sphere of life, which had previously seen such enormous strides forward—including the arts.

The tolerant approach of the Bolsheviks following 1917 would be turned on its head by Stalin. In the climate of Stalinist counter-revolution and the rise of the bureaucracy, the once-great MAT suffered an undignified, decades-long decline, from which it never recovered.

Trotsky’s United Opposition was defeated at the 15th party congress in December 1927, representing a further consolidation of the power of the bureaucracy. The theatre could not escape the political and social reaction taking place in Russia. More turnover, more productions and more performances were demanded, all whilst incompetent amateurism flourished in the name of the ‘proletariat’, but in reality reflecting the demands of the grey and lifeless bureaucracy.

Stanislavski’s own production of Othello was to suffer as a result. Stanislavski, who was abroad at the time, realised that the play had already been staged before he had even finished his plan. Only three months of rehearsals had been allowed, and only a passive regard for his intentions were given.

To his enormous credit, Stanislavski directly challenged the authorities in 1931 and won autonomy for the MAT, within certain limits. Tragically however, the MAT still ended up as a personal pawn of Stalin’s artistic policy. In this period, the revolutionary approach, which was pioneered by the MAT in its early years, and in the years following 1917, was systematically suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism, which became the official state art form in 1932.

Socialist Realism is a style of art which purports to depict the values of communism. However, in reality it is a subordination of all artistic creativity to the whims and needs of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Nothing less than the glorification of Soviet life and the government was tolerated. In the theatre, this would mean the complete destruction of any individuality or experiment. Stalinism and Socialist Realism negated everything that Stanislavski had fought to banish from Russian theatre.

And yet, Stanislavski’s groundbreaking work on Realism suddenly found itself appropriated by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The crude attacks from Soviet critics in the first few years of the Revolution were transformed into endless fawning and praise.

Stalin decided that the MAT would be the emblem of the new artistic policy, and all Soviet theatres were to be based on the MAT model. Actor training would also follow Stanislavski’s system, but in a rigid, dogmatic form.

Other independently minded artists endured similar or even worse fates. Victims of Stalin’s artistic policy include the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the film director Sergei Eisenstein, and the artist Alexander Rodchenko, all of whom were silenced or forced into an artistic straight-jacket.

Meyerhold, whose experimental and avant-garde work also revolutionised 20th century theatre, made heroic attempts to resist Stalin’s counter-revolution. He yielded nothing to his critics, but as a result was eventually hounded off the stage by the authorities. The Meyerhold Theatre was liquidated in 1938 and Meyerhold himself was left jobless.

Meyerhold’s heroic final speech at the All-Union Congress of directors in 1939 was an incendiary denunciation of Socialist Realism and its stranglehold on Soviet art:

The pitiful and wretched thing that pretends to the title of the theatre of socialist realism has nothing in common with art… Go visit the theatres of Moscow. Look at their drab and boring presentations that resemble one another and are each worse than the others… People in the arts searched, erred, and frequently stumbled and turned aside, but they really created, sometimes badly and sometimes splendidly. Where once there were the best theatres of the world, now, by your leave, everything is gloomily well-regulated, averagely arithmetical, stupefying, and murderous in its lack of talent. Is that your aim? If it is, oh! You have done something monstrous!… In hunting formalism, you have eliminated art!19

The speech sealed his fate. After years of being denounced by the authorities, Meyerhold was arrested, accused of being a Trotskyist and a spy, brutally tortured, and eventually shot dead on 2 February 1940.

Stanislavski’s legacy

| Whilst there is far more to the world of acting and performance than Realism the form of acting that has dominated the 20th and 21st centuries is Realism Image public domain | MR Online

Whilst there is far more to the world of acting and performance than Realism, the form of acting that has dominated the 20th and 21st centuries is Realism. (Photo: public domain)

Today there is not a drama school in the world that does not teach or employ some form of Stanislavski’s system, and generations of actors, directors, and performers remain indebted to his groundbreaking development of Realism and study of the laws of acting.

Whilst there is far more to the world of acting and performance than Realism, as proven brilliantly by Meyerhold and that other great revolutionary dramatist of the 20th century, Bertold Brecht, the form of acting that has dominated the 20th and 21st centuries is Realism. It is through Realism that audiences across the world have been moved to tears, entertained, and inspired. In discovering its inner laws, one could describe Stanislavski as the true father of modern acting.

Stanislavski was a product of a period of revolutionary change in Russia, and throughout his life he always aligned himself with the struggle against Tsarism. The spectacular rise of Russian theatre in this period was not just down to the specific genius represented by Chekhov, Stanislavski, Meyerhold (and others), although their talents cannot be questioned. This legacy would simply not have been possible without the October Revolution of 1917 and the transformation of society, which saw the unleashing of artistic creativity on a scale never before seen, and arguably, never seen since.

This creative spark was criminally snuffed out by Stalinism, but even the most vicious repression of the bureaucracy could not completely undo the great enlightenment, the broadening of the cultural horizons of tens of millions, that the Revolution and the likes of Stanislavski achieved. A faint glimmer of this legacy can still be seen in the continued renown of Russian ballet and orchestra, for example.

On New Years Eve 1929, Stanislavski uttered the following words to the Moscow Art Theatre company:

The time will come, and very soon, when a great play, a work of genius will be written. It will, of course, be revolutionary. No great work can be anything else. But this will not be a revolutionary play in the sense that one will parade around with red flags. The revolution will come from something inside. We shall see on the stage the metamorphosis of the soul of the world, the inner struggle with a worn-out past, with a new, not yet understood or realised present. This will be a struggle for equality, freedom, a new life, and a spiritual culture…20

The potential for this great work remains latent in the workers of the world today. It is the task of revolutionaries to make this potential a reality, to bring about the revolution in art by completing the revolution in society. All true artists must constantly strive towards this aim, as it is the only thing that can finally set art and creativity free from the shackles of capitalism and class society, and usher in a new golden age of artistic freedom and genuine human expression.


  1. J Benedetti, Stanislavski: An Introduction, Theatre Art Books, Routledge, 2005, pg 5
  2. C Stanislavsky, My Life in Art, Little, Brown and Company, 1938, pg 319
  3. J Benedetti, The Art of the Actor, Routledge, 2007, pg 100
  4. J Benedetti, Stanislavski: An Introduction, Theatre Art Books, Routledge, 2005, pg 13
  5. ibid., pg 14-15
  6. J Benedetti, Stanislavski An Introduction, Theatre Art Books, Routledge, 2005, pg 16
  7. E Bentley, The Theory of the Modern Stage, Penguin Group, 2008, pg 269
  8. C Stanislavsky, My Life in Art, Little, Brown and Company, 1938, pg 390
  9. J Benedetti, Stanislavski: An Introduction, Theatre Art Books, Routledge, 2005, pg 20
  10. ibid., pg 20
  11. L Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, Pathfinder Press, 1986, pg 16
  12. C Stanislavsky, My Life in Art, Little, Brown and Company, 1938, pg 550, emphasis added
  13. ibid., pg 550-556
  14. M Sayler, The Russian Theatre, Brentano’s, 1922, pg 5-6
  15. D Magarshack, Stanislavsky: A Life, Faber and Faber, 1986, pg 348-349
  16. S M Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus, Routledge, 2009, pg 39
  17. D Magarshack, Stanislavsky: A Life, Faber and Faber, 1986, pg 347-348, emphasis added
  18. L Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch”, Fourth International, March—April 1950, Vol. 11, No. 2, pg 61—64
  19. N A Gorchakov, The Theatre in Soviet Russia, Columbia University Press, 1958, pg 364
  20. E R Hapgood, Stanislavski’s Legacy, Eyre Methuen, 1968, pg 201
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