Today is the 140th birth anniversary of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), excellent drama actor, and sensational director who changed the Russian and global theatre.
Stanislavsky was his stage name. He was born into the family of Sergei Alexeyev, Russia's richest industrialist. The rigorist ruled his ten sons and daughters with an iron fist, and never forgave them even the smallest trespasses. He displayed rare inventiveness to punish them. One day, as the family were at table, little Konstantin said he would easily break in Blackie, the most rebellious stallion in the huge Alexeyev mews. The father rose complacently, put a fur coat and felt booties on the child, and kicked him out to ride the monster. The boy had a hair's-breadth escape.
The lord and master kept his household on the verge of hysterics with uncompromising demands. That was whence Stanislavsky's trademark perfectionism came. It took him several years to rehearse a tiny part of a play and drive the cast to the end of their tether.
His stage company was his all. When Alice Coonen, leading lady, vaguely hinted she was out for another theatre, he gasped: "That's like putting out little Igor's eyes!" - meaning his young son.
There is a funny and telling episode in Isadora Duncan's reminiscences. When the great dancer once gave Stanislavsky a joking smooch, he drew back in panic, screaming: "What's to become of the baby?" "WHAT baby?" gasped Isadora. Prudish moralist, Stanislavsky regarded every kiss as prelude to marriage - and, naturally, kids.
Puritanical piety made the Alexeyev man and wife stay-at-homes, but they wanted their children to live a full-blooded life at the family hearth, and so encouraged amateur acting though they themselves had no penchant for the theatre.
Little Konstantin loved the family theatre to distraction. At the age of three, he received a tiny part of Winter. That stage debut was his cherished reminiscence to his dying day. At his tender age, the child displayed the makings of stage reformer. He would not see why he was to imitate lighting a bonfire instead of actually setting the piled logs on fire. He did not see the point of making belief, and felt desperately awkward - an acute and depressing sensation he would never forget.
In his adulthood, Stanislavsky came up in arms against make-believe. That was what made him tick, and what brought him national and later global fame.
He arrived at the idea that later underlay his famous method even in his late teens. As he reasoned, an artist learns to grind paints, wash brushes, make sketches from models in studio and landscapes in plein air, trains to scumble and make chiaroscuro - and never gets to the easel before that. A music performer drills scales for years before he appears in concert. Why, then, does no one teach actors, and men and women appear on stage for nothing better to do?
More than sixty years of his prolific life were dedicated to a smooth arrangement of rules he considered compulsory for acting. Techniques became his idee fixe - and played a bad joke on him. An actor of genius, Stanislavsky could no longer act as soon as he felt he knew everything there was to know on how to act. The intricacies of his own method, with too much theorising, killed spontaneity.
He made his last stage appearances shortly before he knew his method took final shape. His acting was generally recognised to reach its peak in Anton Chekhov's plays - as Trigorin in "The Seagull", 1898, and Vershinin in "The Three Sisters", 1901. 1917, Russia's fatal year, found Stanislavsky totally unable to act. Crushed by his own method, he could not practice it.
A pioneer kind of company was another universally recognised fruit of his genius. Stanislavsky joined hands with playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko to establish Moscow's famous Arts Theatre in 1898. Their tandem was an unsurpassed example of harmony to balance out Stanislavsky's fanaticism with Nemirovich's serene profundity. Their productions amazed the world with perfect action and exquisite scenery - suffice it to mention Alexei K. Tolstoy's historical tragedy, "Tsar Theodore Ioannovich" or Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People".
Stanislavsky did the theatre another inestimable turn. He and Nemirovich-Danchenko discovered Chekhov's plays to the world and encouraged him to write ever more dramas, with which Russian culture acquired an entirely new quality. A Chekhovian boom never subsides in the world's theatres to this day. "The Seagull", "The Three Sisters", "Uncle Vanya" and "The Cherry Orchard" would have never been what they are if not for the Arts Theatre of Stanislavsky's times.
The Bolshevik revolution scared and astounded Stanislavsky. He did all he could to hide his company from the powers-that-be. He kept the prospective repertoire top secret, and rehearsals went on behind closed doors - a wise arrangement which saved the Arts Theatre from political provocations and colleagues' intrigues.
In his permanent fright, Stanislavsky even kept his fatal illness secret from all, and his death, in summer 1938, came in a thunderbolt.
In a weary world of endless US military interventions, sanctions, trade tariffs and chaos, let’s pause and take stock of the shining house on the hill