There is a point in this collection of Michael Chekhov's autobiographical writing when the acclaimed actor conjures up a moment of exquisite melancholy. It is Vienna, 1928, and Chekhov is knee-deep in a "muddled, nervous" dress rehearsal. The German director Max Reinhardt is presiding over a nightmare of acrobats, clowns and lighting while everyone ignores the actors. Chekhov, in the midst of the turmoil, recalls his "faraway, beloved MAT (Moscow Art Theatre) - the particular, unforgettable silence of that unique theatre". Eight days earlier, Chekhov had explained how, in Russia, performances would develop over months. Reinhardt wryly replied: "We Germans have a different method."
When he left Soviet Russia under political pressure, Chekhov was forced to confront the disparity between his native dramatic art and the Western theatre. Little has changed. Earlier this year, Lev Dodin, director of St Petersburg's Maly Drama Theatre, suggested that the level of preparation undertaken in London's West End is an insult to audiences. He was speaking at a pre-show discussion at the Barbican during his company's run of Uncle Vanya : a play written by Michael Chekhov's uncle Anton more than a hundred years earlier and a production whose brilliance should shame Western practitioners. The Path of the Actor , published 50 years after Michael Chekhov's death, is an admirable insight into the theatrical mind of one of Russia's less recognised, but most brilliant, exports.
The first part of this volume, edited by Andrei Kirillov and Bella Merlin, comprises the full text of Chekhov's first autobiography, which covers his Russian period; while part two presents extracts from his later Life and Encounters (still untranslated in its entirety), detailing his subsequent wanderings through Europe. This autobiography peters out in 1934, before Chekhov's work in America and England, which some readers may find frustrating, but I enjoyed the sense of incompleteness, a life in progress fleetingly glimpsed. The text is complemented by plates revealing a master of disguise in an array of prosthetics and the actor's self-deprecatory and irreverent cartoons.
Chekhov has what he terms "a well-developed sense of the ridiculous". Humour, he argues, is essential in achieving the objectivity required by an actor, but it also yields some great anecdotes, from a farcical meeting with Tsar Nicholas II to disastrous experiments in the Russian film industry. Chekhov neatly contrasts "the twin influences" of his parents: his mother would wrap him up warm and send him to school with an escort, while his father gave him three roubles for a prostitute on the way home. Chekhov's father (Anton's brother) is the ghost who haunts The Path of the Actor . His alcoholism and the sense of failure it engendered threatened Michael for much of the Russian period. Devotees may be amused to note that Chekhov was in his thirties before he realised that "an actor who gets drunk before appearing on stage loses the special quality of creative objectivity".
This quest for objectivity lies at the heart of Chekhov's teaching, linking autobiography with dramatic theory: a moving account of his father's death leads Chekhov to consider the inherent problems with naturalism, while "the game of the 'trained monkey'" emphasises the importance of play and improvisation in rehearsal. Such a notion of experimentation is central to Chekhov's thinking; his "whole interest is directed toward the process of the work itself".
This goes some way towards explaining his "erratic, hasty and ridiculous" Parisian period, a time driven by his "idea of the new theatre", but noted for a string of embarrassing failures, exemplified by his attempt to stage Don Quixote . The irony is irresistible. Alone and drunk on the streets of Paris, Chekhov has an epiphany: he kills "that repugnant double of mine, whom I call Don Quixote".
Failure in Paris led to a period of great success in Eastern Europe. Each experiment represents the next stage in the development of his dramatic art. This is why his readership should continue to grow 50 years after his death. While the reader may share Chekhov's nostalgia for the MAT, his quest for the future of theatre as "an organism that is whole and alive in all its aspects" is irresistible.
Jeremy Piper is head of drama, Dr Challoner's Grammar School.
The Path of the Actor
Author - Michael Chekhov
Editor - Andrei Kirillov and Bella Merlin
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 242
Price - £39.99
ISBN - 0 415 34366 6