Present celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Konstantin Stanislavski, founder of the Moscow Art Theater and the whole trend of “psychological theater,” made me think of the name of a polemical article “Poor Stanislavski!” written nearly 50 years ago by Anatoly Efros, one of the outstanding directors of the past century. The celebration of this anniversary in Moscow is organized on a large scale.
The main idea of that article written by Efros and printed in the Theater magazine as a part of the debate about the status and further ways of developing theater art of the mid-20th century, is that Stanislavski’s epigones perverted his creative method of training actors. As a result of party-defined approach to all spheres of life, including theater theory and practice, the great reformer of stage art began to look anachronistic. In order to save the legacy of Stanislavski from naphthalene, Efros, like many of his contemporaries, had not only to work hard but also to sacrifice his nerves and his health (attacked by party criticism, Efros died of a heart attack in an office of one of the top-rank officials). Dogmatic party minds did not allow creative interpretation of theory and practice of Stanislavski canonized in time of Stalin’s ruling. It is hard to believe now, but in the former Soviet Union any bold aesthetic experiment could lead if not to political accusations then at least to accusations of lack of patriotism.
Times have changed… Anniversary celebration was, in fact, organized to tell the story of how Stanislavski’s genius manifested itself in different times, what price one has to pay for any attempt to change the world for the better. The anniversary celebration was held in Anton Chekhov Moscow Art Theater led by Oleg Tabakov. The coryphaeus was honored also in Maxim Gorky Moscow Art Theater led by Tatiana Doronina, but this part of the once united team unfortunately still remains marginal.
In the play Outside the System by Kirill Serebrennikov, staged based on the documentary play by Mikhail Durnenkov, the most tragic period of Stanislavski’s life was his last years. The creator of the “system” for actors training, erected in the Soviet pantheon of gods, had not only to compromise with his consciousness in order to preserve his status, comfortable living conditions, and ability to work, but also had to get humiliated before the inhumane political system, begging for the life of his brother and nephew, who got arrested. The authors of the play told, mainly, the story about Stanislavski as a human being and not a mummified genius. They also touched upon the little-known aspects of his personal life (in particular, ballet dancer and actress Ilze Liepa read his letters to Isadora Dunkan full of admiration).
Serebrennikov managed to get many famous theatrical figures involved in the event that was planned in just a few days. They not just played eminent representatives of art and culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also presented their thoughts and feelings regarding the personality and creative work of Alekseev-Stanislavski.
British director Declan Donnellan voiced the thoughts of his compatriot Gordon Craig, playwright and director Mikhail Ugarov, actor Konstantin Khabensky, and famous Shakespeare expert Aleksey Bartoshevich spoke for Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Serebrennikov himself read criticism addressed for Stanislavski from Vsevolod Meyerhold, giving the right to show how his aesthetic rebellion ended in Lubyanka to our fellow countryman Klym. Konstantin Raikin tried the role of Solomon Mikhoels and Yevgenii Mironov – role of Mikhail Chekhov. Master Oleg Tabakov appeared on the stage only at the end: from a small whitewashed booth the famous actor proclaimed Stanislavski’s unanswered questions filled with pain. He asked why there came disruption in the country and, accordingly, in the theater after 1917? However, the director did not finish the play on such a sad note. In the end, when all the participants came out on the stage at the background there appeared a portrait of the hero of the day as a child. Given the presence of Ilze Liepa’s small students on the stage, this element had to symbolize the continuity of generations and, therefore, give hope.
On the second day of the celebration there took place a scientific conference “Stanislavski and World’s Theater.” The conference was attended among others by Murray Abraham, Robert Orchard (USA), Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, George Banu, Luc Bondy and Natasha Parry (France), Inna Solovyova, Oleg Tabakov, Aleksey Bartoshevich, Mikhail Shvydkoi, Kama Ginkas, Sergei Zhenovach, Valery Fokin (Russia), Katarzyna Osinska (Poland), Sergio Escobar (Italy). Peter Brook, Robert Lepage, and Robert Brustein sent video messages.
There were also Ukrainian actors on stage of MHAT – Mykhailo Rieznykovych and Vladyslav Troitsky. I asked the art director of the Lesia Ukrainka National Academic Theater of Russian Drama share his impressions of what he saw and heard at the celebration.
“It is great that there is such a festival,” admitted Mykhailo RIEZNYKOVYCH. “What concerns Outside the System performance, I would, in general, share the opinion expressed at the conference by Fokin, who did not like some things about Serebrennikov’s play. I was thinking, what would Stanislavski say were he in the theater hall. I imagined how in 25 years we will celebrate the anniversary of Heorhii Tovstonohov, my theater teacher, and there would be something similar, some fragmentary, often secondary moment of his life… What would he say? I think that the play did not manage to convey the spirit of Stanislavski, the things mentioned by Fokin, Zhenovach, and Ginkas. It lacked Stanislavski’s concern about human soul, about actor’s ability to express this human soul in an extremely talented way… In my opinion, today only people who are not well-fed, not well-off in this life, and are unhappy with themselves have the right to speak about Stanislavski. I do not understand and accept such people. Those Russian directors I just named were not successful, were not happy with themselves. They understood the most urgent problems faced by the theater, as the mirror of life. There is a great problem of cynicism in life and in art these days. Personally I do not want that the people I work with were even to some extent exposed to cynicism. Today, while listening to my colleagues I arrived at the conclusion that Stanislavski is alive in any director, in any actor, if they are willing and capable of showing the laws of human behavior in extreme conditions. Drama always presents extreme conditions.”