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Stanislavski in Context
Transcript of Stanislavski in Context
Russia in the days of the Tsars
The Russian Empire existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia, and the predecessor of the Soviet Union. It was the second largest contiguous empire the world had seen, surpassed only by the Mongol Empire. At one point in 1866, it stretched from eastern Europe, across Asia, and into North America. At the beginning of the 19th century, Russia was the largest country in the world, extending from the Arctic Ocean to the north to the Black Sea on the south, from the Baltic Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the east. Across this vast realm were scattered the Emperor's 176.4 million subjects, the third largest population of the world at the time, after Qing China and British India, but still represented a great disparity in economic, ethnic, and religious positions. Its government, ruled by the Emperor, was one of the last absolute monarchies left in Europe. Prior to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 Russia was one of the five major Great Powers of Europe.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history.
It was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy's monopoly of power. Emancipation brought a supply of free labor to the cities, industry was stimulated, and the middle class grew in number and influence; however, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for what amounted to their lifetime to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous instances the peasants wound up with the poorest land. All the land turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which divided the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings. Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II's intentions.
A Medieval Serf was a peasant who worked his lord's land and paid him certain dues in return for the use of the land, the possession (not the ownership) of which was inheritable. The dues were usually in the form of labour on the lord's land. Medieval Serfs were expected to work for approximately 3 days each week on the lord's land. A serf was bound to work on a certain estate, and thus attached to the soil, and sold with it into the service of whoever purchases the land.
Gogol is considered the father of modern Russian realism. His writing satirised the corrupt bureaucracy of the Russian Empire, leading to his exile. On his return, he immersed himself in the Orthodox Church. The novels Taras Bul'ba (1835) and Dead Souls (1842), the play The Inspector-General (1836, 1842), and the short stories Diary of a Madman, The Nose and The Overcoat (1842) are among his best known works. With their scrupulous and scathing realism, ethical criticism as well as philosophical depth, they remain some of the most important works of world literature.
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol
The dream-like scenes of the play, often mirroring each other, whirl in the endless vertigo of self-deception around the main character, Khlestakov, who personifies irresponsibility, light-mindedness, absence of measure. "He is full of meaningless movement and meaningless fermentation incarnate, on a foundation of placidly ambitious inferiority" (D.S. Mirsky). The publication of the play led to a great outcry in the reactionary press. It took the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas I to have the play staged, with Mikhail Shchepkin taking the role of the Mayor.
The Inspector General
Stanislavski's family name was Alekseiev, he took the stage name 'Stanislavski' to save his family reputation as society frowned on anyone of the middle classes or higher becoming a professional actor. Admirable pass time for an amateur, but a shocking moral and social faux pas to be professional.
4th Generation Free
Stan's great-great-grandfather earned enough money as a street seller of peas to buy his freedom. Called Petrov the Younger, this man was 'accepted' into the merchant classes in 1746. By the days of Stanislavski's parents the family Alekseiev were rich, owning a manison in Moscow and a thriving family industry. Stanislavski's family were very warm and generous, seeing their staff very well, and raising much funding for hospitals. The journey from serfdom was complete, but Stanislavski would not ignore his family origins in his career.
Stanislavski was born the year Shchepkin died 1863. So there is no direct link to Stanislaviski's life. However, there were still clear ripples of his impact on the russian theatre surrounding Stanislavski as he was learning. Shchepkin taught the actress G.Fedotova, who was a mentor of Stanislavski in the early amateur companies he worked with before the MAT period, such as the family based Alekseiev circle, and the Society of Art & Literature.
Stanislavski saw performances of the plays of Pushkin at the Mali Theatre. We can see much impact on Stan from Pushkin's attempts toward realism and the problem of Verisimilitude. In the plays is a revolutionary use of vernacular language. However, more important are Pushkin's theories. Even the language of his theories can be seen as a long lasting influence on Stanislavski:
'The truth concerning the passions, verisimilitude in the feelings experienced in the given circumstances, that is what our intelligence demands of the dramatist.'
Pushkin, Sobranie Sochinenii (1830)
Gogol developed psychological depth beyond the work of Pushkin. Benedetti describes how Gogol outlines how an actor could approach his play, the Inspector General:
'go first to the core, the kernal of the character, before concerning himself with externals.'
Jean Benedetti, Stanislavski: Biography
'reflect on the purpose of his role... what it is that rules his life and continually occupies his thoughts... Having grasped this the actor must assimilate it so thoroughly that his thoughts and strivings of his character seem to be his own and never leave his mind.'
Gogol, Izbrannie Stati (published 1980)
'The actor must not present but transmit'
'He must walk, talk, think, feel, cry, laugh, as the author wants him to.'
Benedetti credits Shchepkin with the defining force to Stanislavski's life mission:
literally 'Small Theatre' - as opposed the to the Bolshoi or the Opera.
Founded from the universty's drama school, the Mali theatre was very much the institution of staging new drama, using the bright new actors of the day. The company was anchored to the work of Shchepkin and the actors were defined by the practice and theory of the great actor. The Mali which Stanislavski was around to see was a much diminished version of the company of Shchepkin. However, there were still flashes of brilliance in the actors of the Mali, to inspire the young Stanislavski:
wore little make-up, transforming himself from within.
looked for inner logic of character's psychology.
learned lines and considered appearance once he had created a mental image of character.
gifted in showing the 'slow, organic growth of an emotion'. (Benedetti Stan: Biog)
Stanislavski prepared to learn from the practice of others, reading the playtexts, in the original languages at times. Building his scrapbook of notes, sketches and pictures. Taking down observed models of characterisation.
Though Salvini was a visiting actor, he was a tremendous influence on the young Stanislavski. Benedetti explains the professionalism of the Italian:
'Salvini arrived at the theatre two hours before curtain-up to think himself into the role.'
From Salvini, Stanislavski became obsessed with 'living a part'. The Alekseiev circle disguised themselves as tramps and drunks, and fortune telling gypsies.
1883 saw the circle produce THE PRACTICAL MAN. Stanislavski insisted that the cast should remain in role away from rehearsal, improvising dialogue in role to develop a depth of character. However, according to his own notes, Stanislavski was basing his characterisation on a performance by a Mali actor in 'Artists and Admirers'. While his eventual performance in the Practical Man was acclaimed, he knew that it was down to imitation than to his own creative imagination.
Mamontov - The Private Opera
The opera empressario Mamontov was a major influence on Stanislavski. Notably, the artistic integrity of the producer toward the design of the productions. The designers and painters employed by the Private Opera were concerned to give a more accurate depiction of Russia and any other narrative setting.
The composition is a sketch of theatre curtain for the Russian Private Opera of S.I. Mamontov. Vrubel puts into life the theatre's trail-blazing concept: he "breaks through" the stage portal, destroys the symmetry of the stage. The curtain resemble at the same time a threadbare cobweb, glistening with precious shades, and a sail flying through space. Behind it is a nighttime Italian landscape with a view of the seaside. The stage scenery is formed by Nature's endless world. It is imagined by Vrubel as a magnificent amphitheatre, where the sky merges with the earth. Instead of theatre floodlights the illumination is provided by the moon. The stage is flanked by antique statues. The pedestal of a Roman poet's bust bears a Latin quotation: NEL VERO IL BELLO –Truth in beauty. The left side features a tall figure of the Muse Terpsichore, a harp in her hand. In the centre is an image of a minstrel of the age of Renaissance, surrounded by phantom incomplete figures of the viewers from different ages. This way the theatre space is used for marriage of nature and art across centuries.
Edward Henry Gordon Craig
The unhappy marriage of genius
There is much to be made of the progress made by Stanislavski due to his work with Craig. However, Stanislavski made an uncharacteristic dismissal of the other's talent. Crucially it is the stylised and surreal mise en scene which marks this Symbolist period in Stanislavski's career. For now, Hamlet shows Stan the Craigian use of light, space, set and shape to draw the audience into the psychological experience of the protagonist, and the resulting chaos when that psychology is unhinged. See the Hamlet and Craig hand out for more details or the excellent Wiki page - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAT_production_of_Hamlet
Duke Georg of Saxe-Meiningen
1887 - Stansilavski worked closely with Fedotov on Gogol's 'The Gamblers'. A student of Shchepkin, Fedotov wanted "simple truthful ensemble acting from his company, without false declamation or exaggerated 'business'." (Benedetti)
Fedotov showed Stanislavski how to direct from the text rather than cliche.
'Fedotov understood the dramatic function of individual characters... he forbade self-indulgence.'
Benedetti: Stan Biog
Fedotov demonstrated the moral purpose and politics of a modern director - a telegram from the Governer of Moscow, shutting down the company's production of 'The Inspector General' with the admonition that the production failed to fulfill the primary purpose of popular theatre reveals this:
Fedotov, Stanislavski & the singing teacher Komissarzhevski came together to realise Fedotov's dream company, canteen and theatre school, where all three men were determined that:
With Fedotov writing a manual for the actors...
'namely to mollify and ennoble the people's temper.'
The Society of Art & Literature
'The training the school offered would be systemic.'
1890 saw Mosocw receive the tour of the Saxe-Meiningen company, and with it the example of the Duke-Director. The integrity of the company impressed Stanislavski, Bennedetti describes the total effect achieved by the company was of a 'coherent approach'. The mise en scene were all historically accurate and the 'extras were as strong as the leads.' The minute control of all the actors on stage in relation to the detailed sound and set were the strongest precedent for Stanislavski's early ideas about directing and the ambition to achieve a new professionalism. In 'Der Jungfrau Von Orleans' the scraping of gates was actively listened to by the actors on stage, who stood in silence. This early precedent of inner action was life-changing for the young Stan, not only for the 'system' but in achieving a total production communication the strong direction. Benedetti captures the overall impression created:
'real space, in a real world, in real time.'
See the Saxe-Meiningen hand out for more on this important influence.
N.D. came from a literary background, and was a respected teacher at the Moscow conservatoire. His students were treated to a detailed and rigourous teaching method and amongst others prepared the stars of the next generation such as Olga Knipper & Vsevolod Meierhold. He was convinced on the supremacy of the playwright as the source of meaning and art. In Bennedetti's words N.D. thought:
The ability to gather the central onjective of a play, discover the interrelaton of the characters and overall function of the action were all strengths of N.D. and contributed to the development of Stan as a director. A prime example of this is in the difficulty a Stan in interpreting the Seagull at first.
Second to this influence was the natural producing talent of N.D. who was the strength behind the MAT ealry success. From N.D. came the organistaion that had been missing from the earlier groups and societies, allowing Stan to offer cheaper seats, and always pushed to keep the company a public enterprise and avoid private bias.
'Theatre consisted in the translation of the author's intentions into stage terms.'
'Nemirovich...was much more drawn to the contemporary repetoire. If possible he would only do modern plays.'