02 May 2011

Konstantin Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov: Realism and Un-Realism

Michael Chekhov, the nephew of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, met Konstantin Stanislavsky, the famous acting theorist, teacher, and director, in St. Petersburg in 1911. Chekhov, an aspiring actor, was just twenty, but he had already been studying acting for four years. Introduced to Stanislavsky by Olga Knipper-Chekhova, the playwright’s widow, the young Chekhov auditioned for the man who had founded the Moscow Art Theater, and was accepted as a member. In 1912, he joined the First MAT Studio where Stanislavsky personally taught the young actor the basics of his System. By 1924, the First Studio had become the Second Moscow Art Theater with Chekhov as the direc­tor. In only a dozen years, Michael Chekhov had risen from obscurity to a position almost in competition with the man who started the whole business.

Though Chekhov started as a disciple of the Stanislavsky System, he soon found himself rejecting some of his teacher’s principles. By the time he became head of the the Second MAT, he had developed the base of the Technique which he subsequently taught at the Chekhov Theatre Studio in England and the United States and which he outlined in his 1953 book, To The Actor.

(To distinguish between the two men’s theories and principles, I’ll refer to Stanislavsky’s as the System and Chekhov’s as the Technique. This appears to be the way they, themselves, referred to their work. The famous Method, it must be pointed out, is not Stanislavsky’s at all, but the American version of his ideas as translated in the 1930s by former members of the Group Theatre: Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Harold Clurman, and, most particularly, Lee Strasberg. It was the last who popularized the Method at the Actors’ Studio in the ‘40s and ‘50s.)

The areas in which the two men differ are interesting not only in themselves, but as a comment on the theatrical worlds they inhabited, for although Stanislavsky was less than thirty years older than Chekhov, much had changed on the European stage during a very short time.

Stanislavsky began his search for a System of actor training in the late nineteenth century. An actor and director, he became dissatisfied with the undisciplined, narcissistic performances he saw on the stages of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1897, Stanislavsky met with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, one of Russia’s most famous directors and playwrights, and laid the foundations for the Moscow Art Theater. In his autobiography, My Life in Art, Stanislavsky gives an idea what he disliked about his contemporary theater:

“Take actor A,” we examined each other. “Do you consider him talented?”
“To a high degree.”
“Will you take him into the troupe?”
“Because he has adapted himself to his career, his talents to the demands of the public, his character to the caprices of the manager, and all of himself to theatrical cheapness. A man who is so poisoned cannot be cured.”
“And what will you say about actress B?”
“She is a good actress, but not for us.”
“She does not love art, but herself in art.”
“And actress C?”
“She won’t do. She is incurably given to hokum.”
“What about actor D?”
“We must pay a great deal of attention to him.”
“He has ideals for which he is fighting. He is not at peace with present conditions. He is a man of his ideals.”

The MAT opened its first production, Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor, in October 1898, and Stanislavsky began his search to bring “inner truth to the art of the stage” which led to the development of his famous System. He started experimenting with the newly discovered science of psychology as a basis for stage truth. Though he never taught a specific style of performance, developing his System to train actors to work truthfully in whatever style the role, play, and production demands, he was personally most comfortable with Naturalism. In the conclusion of his autobiography, Stanislavsky writes,

Nature cannot be outwitted. Its true organic creativeness cannot be supplanted either by poverty-stricken or luxurious theatricality. A time will come when the evolution of art shall have completed its predestined circle and nature itself will teach us methods and technique for the interpretation of the sharpness of the new life.

In this evolutionary process of art we can help the new generation, for much that we have experienced is being repeated at present, and only differs in name from what we knew. The grotesque, synthesis, generalization, are not new phenomena in art; in one or another form they have lived always, at all times, among all innovators and revolutionists. . . . Did not the radical movement of the past which was called impressionism move art along the very same path which has brought it to futurism and the absolute? The forms and names are new, but the nature of evolution and its chief laws are the same.

Obviously, Stanislavsky had a strong prejudice against anything non-realistic, as his pejoration of Impressionism, one of the most active and creative movements in Western art, clearly indicates.

In 1906, after becoming disappointed with his own recent performances, Stanislavsky took a vacation in Finland. Relaxing on a cliff overlooking the sea, he tried to discover why he had become so lifeless on stage. He determined that he had lost the “creative mood,” but he didn’t know how to generate it at will. How, he wondered, could he “make this condition no longer a matter of mere accident . . .”? This was the germ of the System he devised to train an actor not only in stage craft, but in creativity. By 1911, when he founded the First Studio, the System had become accepted.

Stanislavsky’s System is founded on one major principle: “organic nature.” By this, Stanislavsky means “a psychic [i.e., psychological] technique which enables [the actor] to evoke a creative state of mind during which inspiration descends on him more easily.” The actor’s work on himself, however, isn’t the only place in the System for psychology. The other half of it, the actor’s work on his role, also requires this “psycho-technique.” In order to portray life on stage truthfully, an actor has to study the play and, in effect, psychoanalyze the character he’ll play. It’s Stanislavsky’s theory that all the character’s physical actions are manifestations of his psyche, and since an actor can only play physical actions, he must under­stand the character’s psyche. In order to give his theories a scientific basis, Stanislavsky actually studied psychology, par­ticularly the teachings of Ivan Pavlov concerning conditioned reflexes, and neurophysiology.

Chekhov, who was judged a brilliant actor by critics and peers alike, began to feel hemmed in by Stanislavsky’s System. His performances, beginning in 1921 with the part of Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, became less realistic and more complex. His portrayal of the title role in August Strindberg’s Erik XIV, directed in 1921 by Evgenii Vakhtangov, was a major triumph in which Chekhov portrayed a highly complex character in a non-representational way. Vakhtangov said of this production,

This is an experiment of the Studio in its search for theatrical forms. Up until now the Studio, true to Stanislavski’s teaching, has doggedly aimed at obtaining mastery of inner experience; now the Studio is entering a period of search for new forms. This is the first experiment.

The stylized nature of the production is easily seen from Nikolai Gorchakov’s description of the set:

The twisted columns of the palace, the spots of gold, the rust-spotted bronzes, gave an impression of Erik’s decline and impending death. There were huge columns of straight lines, broken off here and there; these were fragments not of a palace, but of a prison for Erik. There was a labyrinth of passages, stairways, and small platforms that created a distinct deception in relation to perspectives.

The Vakhtangov-Chekhov production of Erik XIV gave an indi­cation where the First Studio and its new director were heading. In 1924, the Second MAT presented Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Chekhov who also played the leading role. The production was Expressionistic, and more like the work of the experimental director Vsevelod Meyerhold than that of Stanislavsky. Chekhov reinterpreted the play for an audience that had experienced revolution and war. He made large cuts in the script and trimmed the cast, focusing on what he saw as Hamlet’s examination of good and evil in human nature.

The time was shifted to the Middle Ages, with a set that was “very stylized, almost nightmarishly phantasmagorical. Both lighting and music . . . were used to create its mystical atmos­phere.” The stylized costumes were Constructivistic and “[e]xag­gerated, mask-like make-up emphasized the spiritual hollowness of the court’s world, which was further underscored by the court­iers’ mincing gaits and artificial voices . . . .” This pro­duction marked a nearly complete artistic break between Chekhov and Stanislavsky, whose System Chekhov felt led inevitably to Naturalism. That genre, Chekhov writes, “is not art, for the artist can add nothing of his own to the naturalistic ‘work of art’ since his task is limited to knowing how to copy ‘nature’ more or less accurately.” Three years later, he left the Soviet Union for good.

Many people saw the Hamlet production as an allegory for Chekhov’s own life. Having gone through a terrible period of emotional and psychological troubles requiring psychiatry and hypnosis, he turned to Eastern philosophy for comfort. In 1922, he began studying the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, a German “spiritual scientist.” Steiner’s theories of Anthroposophy, which posits that man has an innate spiritual nature operating independently of the will and the senses, and Eurythmy, “the science of visible speech,” found their way into Chekhov’s workshops. As a result of this influence, much of Chekhov’s Technique has a distinct mystical cachet.

In general, then, the two men differed in both form and philosophy, though, in a very real sense, their goals remained the same. Both aimed for truth on stage and a dedicated, disci­plined company of well-trained actors. Stanislavsky, however, relied on psychology and science as the prime resources for gaining control over the work. He also applied his practices most avidly to Realistic and Naturalistic plays, not being happy with the MAT’s attempts at Symbolism or Expressionism. Chekhov, on the other hand, taught his students to rely first on imagina­tion and inspiration long before any analysis of their roles, and he encouraged non-realistic, imagistic performances. Taking Steiner’s words as a credo, Chekhov notes in To the Actor, “Not that which is inspires the creation, but that which may be; not the actual, but the possible.”

(It’s important to emphasize that the matter of style wasn’t actually part of the two men’s theories. Stanislavsky may not have liked non-Realistic material, but his System can prepare actors for roles in non-Realistic plays and guide their work in rehearsal. I’ve written an extensive essay, "The Natyasastra and Stanislavsky: Points of Contact" (Theatre Studies [1991]), which I believe proves that the System itself isn’t innately Realistic-Naturalistic. The converse is certainly true of Chekhov’s Technique, which is used by a number of actors in realistic roles. Chekhov, himself, had a successful Hollywood film career during which he performed quite realistically.)

We’ve already seen briefly that while Stanislavsky empha­sizes that an actor must analyze his role in order to justify his behavior on stage, Chekhov stresses imagination. In order to permit his imagination to function fully, the actor must find the credulity and naïveté of a child or a primitive man. In pre­paring a role, Stanislavsky’s System dictates that the actor first study the script to understand “its fundamentals, its essence, its literary merit.” The second step for this actor is to analyze the part before he goes on to the external circum­stances and then the inner circumstances of the character. Only after all that study’s accomplished does the Stanislavsky actor move on to the the “Emotional Experience,” which includes the creative and imaginative work on the role.

Chekhov’s Technique mandates a different path. The actor’s first obligation is to allow her imagination to draw a picture of the character. Instead of seeing herself as the character, as the Stanislavsky actor should do, she must conjure up an image of the character. The second step in Chekhov’s Technique is inspi­ration, which occurs when the image has disappeared, but remains “somewhere” working within the actor. Stanislavsky would never trust such vague tactics, which leave the psychological analysis until well after the imaginary work’s begun.

Curiously, despite his stress on the ephemeral imagination, it’s Chekhov who puts the greater stress on physical characteri­zation. In Stanislavsky’s view, the character’s physical life develops slowly as the actor works on his part, becoming more specific as the actor learns the character’s motivations and objectives. For the Chekhov actor, physical characterization is developed almost right away, based on a choice made from inspiration rather than analysis.

Chekhov developed a theory concerning a character’s center, the locus of all her movements and energy. By selecting a center for the character that’s different from her own, the actor immediately begins to create a physical character who has her own way of moving, sitting, waving, drinking, and so on. According to the Technique, this choice is made early in rehearsal—even before the first day. It may change as the work progresses, but the actor starts with some choice.

Another item of difference between the Stanislavsky and Chekhov approaches is “Affective Memory,” which is sometimes called “Emotional Memory.” This is the technique of the System by which an actor summons up a response to an imaginary situation by remembering a similar one from his real past. By extension, this is the same as Uta Hagen’s “Substitution,” which can also be used for people, objects, and places. Chekhov felt that this was dangerous for the actor. “If we take the real image of our real [dying] grandfather,” he says to a student asking about the impulse to cry, “it becomes too personal in the wrong sense. You will get certain feelings, perhaps strong ones, but they will be of a different kind than we are aiming at in our work . . . .”

Chekhov’s alternative is what he calls the “Archetype.” By creating the image of the archetypal grandfather—her image of all grandfathers—the actor can draw on that image instead of a personal one. The availability of an Archetype for an actor depends entirely on the flexibility of her daily emotional life. She must have been open to experiencing all the grandfathers she ever met, read about, or heard about, storing up the images in her imagination to be called upon later. Never, in the Technique, does the actor use a real person or event to create an emotional reaction. Stanislavsky would most likely deem this device far too unreliable, despite the dangers inherent in Substitution.

There are several more specific differences in the way a Stanislavsky actor prepares a role and the way a Chekhov actor does, but, in a sense, the real difference is that Chekhov adapted the System to a more intuitive and inspirational approach. He actually kept most of the fundamentals of his old teacher’s program, reinterpreting some of the points and opening it up to less rigid application. He did, however, add a few devices that make his Technique more than just a restatement of the System. The most interesting by far, and the most telling in terms of Chekhov’s own life, is the Psychological Gesture. It’s very closely related to the idea of the Archetype and to Steiner’s Eurythmy. Chekhov’s own description of the PG, as it’s usually called, states,

Imagine that you are going to play a character which . . . has a strong and unbending will, is possessed by dominating, despotic desires, and is filled with hatred and disgust.

You look for a suitable over-all gesture which can express all this in the character, and perhaps after a few attempts you find it . . . .

It is strong and well shaped. When repeated several times it will tend to strengthen your will. The direction of each limb, the final position of the whole body as well as the inclination of the head are such that they are bound to call up a definite desire for dominating and despotic conduct. The qualities which fill and permeate each muscle of the entire body, will provoke within you feelings of hatred and disgust. Thus, through the gesture, you penetrate and stimulate the depths of your own psychology.

The gesture is seldom actually performed on stage, though it may be. It’s merely an archetypal physicalization that serves as a metaphor for the character as the actor sees her. It is, of course, a secret for the actor; neither her fellow actors, the director, nor the audience are aware of it, but they can sense that something’s working within the character that isn’t on the surface. According to Chekhov, however, a gesture isn’t just a movement of the body. Objects, feelings, and other elements are also gestures in his terms, opening up the possibilities of this device infinitely.

Taken together, Stanislavsky’s System and Chekhov’s Technique can offer an actor a rich variety of artistic strategies which can suit most needs in any production style. The System’s preference for psychological Realism is possibly a function of the nineteenth-century interest in depicting real life in literature and on the stage. By the time Chekhov reached maturity, in the early decades of this century, movements such as Symbolism, Constructivism, and Expressionism had made a mark in the artistic community of Europe. Realism and Naturalism had become the conservative style of the mainstream, while more experimental styles were the preference of the younger, more daring artists. Both programs can work for either camp; you simply take your choice: Realism or un-Realism.

[A version of this article was published in The Players’ Journal (2008). I’ve also drawn on this same material in articles I’ve published on ROT before; see “Psychological Gesture & Leading Center,” 27 October 2009, and “An Actor’s Homework, Part 2,” 22 April 2010.]


  1. this helped me so much with my degree essay! thankssssss

    1. You're more than welcome. You do realize that there's a published version of this article as noted above. It has source notes and other useful information for researchers.


  2. This is fantastic and very informative. I have recently begun studying under a Chekhov master teacher in my MFA Acting program and am writing a paper on the differences between these two. I would love to be able to reference your article but I am having trouble finding the published version. If you had a link, it would be greatly appreciated.

    I can be reached at jamiekoeth@hotmail.com

    Thank you!

    1. Mr. Koeth:

      Thank you for the compliment.

      I don't think the printed version of "Realism and Un-Realism" is on line, or that "The Players' Journal" is still being published. If it's available in a library, it would be one with a large theater collection. (The journal was printed at SUNY New Paltz; perhaps the Department of Fine and Performing Arts there can help you.)

      I believe you may cite the blog itself as a source. The text of the article on ROT is virtually the same as the printed version so the content is the same. If you need them, I can supply you with my sources; I've done that on occasion before.

      You didn't say where you are studying. I'm curious what school you're at and, if it's not prying too much, who your teacher is.


  3. Hey Rick,

    I'm studying at Kent State University under Mark Monday who is one of only a handful of Michael Chekhov master teachers in the United States. I've contacted Paul Kassel and he told me the journal could be found in the archive but I've been unable to find it so far.


  4. Do you have a link to the ROT version of this article?

    1. Mr. Koeth:

      ROT is "Rick On Theater," the name of this blog. The "link" to the blog version of the article is this page right here. As for Dr. Kassel and "The Players' Journal," I don't know what archive he's referring to. (I was not involved in the publication of the journal. I just submitted an article.) If he means the journal's webpage, I know from prior experience that it's no longer on line. It was apparently a short-lived publication.

      If you can't find what you need any other way--and I'm surprised that Dr. Kassel's department or the New Paltz library didn't archive the hard copy--I can offer only two solutions. I can snail-mail you a photocopy of the article from my contributor's copy or I can e-mail you a copy of my original typescript. Both have source notes, of course, which the blog version lacks. The paper copy, however, will take me time to photocopy and then mail (we're getting ready for a hurricane here right now!) and I'd need a mailing address; the e-mail text will be virtually identical, but the pagination won't be the same as the published version. (If I did any up-dating for the blog post, that won't be included in either other edition.)