Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Konstantin Stanislavski, Charles Darwin and the Moscow Art Theatre

How Konstantin Stanislavski developed naturalism and the huge influence this had on theatre and film. Exported to Hollywood, one of its early devotees was Marilyn Monroe.
Stanislavski as Trigorin, and Maria Roksanova, in the Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull (source: Sherer, Nabholz and Co).

Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) with its focus on naturalism, as a reaction to the melodrama and musicals dominating Russian theatre, and the romantic movement. Charles Darwin's 1859 On the Origin of the Species had radically changed how humans thought of themselves. The subsequent naturalism movement sought to explore how we are psychologically limited by our environmental niche and our biological inheritance, much like Darwin's Galapagos finches with their beaks adapted to their different food sources. Gone was the universalising, romantic emphasis on humans as captains of their destiny. Playwrights like Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg wrote plays set in the modern day, with no supernatural interventions and an intense psychological realism.
The MAT evolved a form of realist theatre in which to give these plays expression: the stage a simulacrum of reality with authentic sets and the fourth wall preventing the actors from acknowledging the presence of those watching them, who remained in darkness so as not to disrupt the illusion.  The actors relied on their emotional memory to produce complex psychological states, with which the audience could identify. There was to be no bursting into song at unlikely moments.
While naturalism dominated at the MAT, Stanislavski also responded to other evolving movements. For example,  in 1911-12 he and the British director Edward Gordon Craig produced a symbolist production of Hamlet, where Hamlet is present constantly on stage and the action is a dreamlike expression of his psychological distress. But Stanislavski drew the line when it came to Craig's ideas of having archetypal figures, much like in the old Morality plays, representing madness, murder and death.
Stanislavski's techniques have had a lasting influence on Hollywood films, via Lee Strasberg's Method - one of Strasberg's 1950s' students being Marilyn Monroe.