Tasks no longer lost in translation

Konstantin Stanislavsky - Vsevolod Meyerhold - Michael Chekhov - Jacques Lecoq
August 27, 2004

Aleks Sierz rediscovers a lost world of theatre and live performances.

Theatre is in the present tense or it is nowhere. It follows that the liveness of live performance presents a real challenge to theatre historians: how can you recreate a theatre world we have lost? One method, used by this Routledge series in which teachers and actors grapple with great practitioners of the past, is to look at the writings of influential actors and directors.

Putting live performance into words has always been tricky. In the final chapter of the great actor-director Stanislavsky's classic manual, An Actor Prepares , the godfather of modern naturalism struggled to create a vocabulary that could pin down ideas that were the result of a lifetime's treading the boards. As Bella Merlin's fascinating book makes clear, finding the right words and creating a coherent system that could be taught to drama students was only part of the problem. With Stanislavsky, translation is also a factor. Countless students outside Russia have been put off by the pseudoscientific vocabulary that translators used, for example substituting "units" and "objectives" for his more colloquial "bits" of text and "tasks" for characters.

Merlin points out that some of the cuts made by translators Elizabeth and Norman Reynolds Hapgood "are particularly unhelpful". One example is that where the Russian original lists six "important questions that all actors must ask of themselves with each new character", the English version has only four: when, where, why and how. So English-speaking students have to create a character without asking "who" and "for what reason" - no wonder many find Stanislavsky obscure.

Merlin's exemplary exposition summarises Stanislavsky's life, then gives an extended commentary on An Actor Prepares before going on to show how his ideas were used in the 1898 Moscow Art Theatre's production of Chekhov's The Seagull . Using her experiences as an actor and her knowledge of working in Russia, Merlin concludes with a section devoted to useful exercises, aided by a good glossary and well-chosen illustrations.

Two other books in this series come from the same historical period - the creative crucible that was Russian theatre about a century ago. In reaction to Stanislavsky's naturalism, the actor-director Vsevolod Meyerhold turned to symbolism, with the aim of creating an external depiction of inner experiences. But, as Jonathan Pitches shows, he never devised a coherent "system". Meyerhold wanted his students to be well-rounded thinkers, making them study mathematics, music and history, and - unlike Stanislavsky - he never wrote an acting manual.

His ideas have to be extracted from 35 years of polemics, during which he experienced the ups and downs of life before and after the Russian Revolution, finally falling victim to Stalin in 1940. Given that Meyerhold not only often changed his mind, but also wrote in a bewilderingly complex style, Pitches' skill in making his ideas about "biomechanics" and "the grotesque" sound coherent is impressive.

In his recreation of Meyerhold's 1926 production of The Government Inspector as a "grand synthesis of his ideas", Pitches analyses the way Meyerhold used the techniques of montage, restructuring Gogol's original five-act play into 15 episodes, and then seeks to recapture the lost acting style of the production, making comparisons between Meyerhold's actors and Charlie Chaplin.

The great debate between naturalism and symbolism was taken up by Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright and an actor and teacher whose career in exile after the Russian Revolution lasted until 1954. His work has also suffered at the hands of translators. To the Actor was first published in English in Charles Leonard's heavily edited version and then reissued in 1991 in a different form with the title, On the Technique of Acting . But, as Franc Chamberlain stresses, "neither edition can be said to be complete" because as well as adding material, the 1991 version also omits many passages.

Chamberlain, general editor of this series, offers a sound introduction to Chekhov's life and a fascinating account of his production of The Possessed, which was staged in New York in 1939. The play was devised through improvisations, although Chekhov forbade his actors from reading Dostoyevsky's original, freeing them from the text but leaving them "at the mercy of the director". The critics' response, with their attacks on the actors' style, suggests that they saw Chekhov's deliberately grotesque approach as a failure because they were overly fond of naturalism.

Simon Murray's book on Jacques Lecoq, the physical-theatre teacher and modern mime artist, shifts the spotlight to postwar Italy and France.

Although the book starts badly, with an account of Lecoq's life marred by repetition, it improves when it tackles his ideas. Pointing out that Lecoq "did not particularly enjoy writing", Murray outlines the difficulties of describing the teachings of a performer who often preferred to ask questions rather than offer prescriptions, and whose writings are just an introduction to his method. His technique of throwing students back onto their own self-analysis of their practices makes it hard to get a coherent picture of exactly what he did.

In The Moving Body (2000), Lecoq expounds a philosophy that at first embraces certainty only to undermine it with "an honest acknowledgement of doubt and a delight in ambiguity". Because Lecoq never had his own theatre company, it is difficult for Murray to follow the other books in highlighting a key production. He solves this by focusing on Theatre de Complicite's The Street of Crocodiles (1991), bringing out what the actors learnt from their former teacher.

In general, this series is to be welcomed, and students and their teachers will find these books immensely helpful. Each succeeds in liberating the great practitioners of the past from the dead hand of history and - especially in the long sections that suggest practical exercises - shows how they can be made relevant to the present.

Aleks Sierz teaches modern drama at Boston University's UK branch in London.

Konstantin Stanislavsky

Author - Bella Merlin
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 166
Price - £45.00 and £9.99
ISBN - 0 415 25885 5 and 25886 3

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