Happy Birthday, Stanislavsky (17 January 1863 – 7 August 1938)

The Actor as Shaman

"A true priest is aware of the presence of the altar during every moment that he is conducting a service. It is exactly the same way that a true artist should react to the stage all the time he is in the theater. An actor who is incapable of this feeling will never be a true artist."

Constantin Stanislavsky

Constantin Stanislavsky, a co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, was the father of what might be called naturalistic acting. Before him, acting on stage looked a lot like pre-Snow-White pose-to-pose animation. The actors attempted to show the audience what they were feeling with exaggerated swooning and physicalization. Sarah Bernhardt was the last major star to act in the pre-Stanislavsky style. Take a look at this 1912 clip of Bernhardt in the movie Queen Elizabeth (she enters at 0:35).

Now take a look at this clip from Ashes, a 1916 silent movie starring Italian actress Eleonora Duse. She is playing the old lady, and you will see she is far more naturalistic than Bernhardt. (You’ll also notice her acting style was out of sync with the actor in the scenes with her.) Duse was self-taught, an original, and she was an inspiration to Stanislavsky, who wanted to create an approach to acting that would result in performances like those of Eleonora Duse. That quest was the spine of the work carried out at the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky's "System" ultimately found its way to the United States, where Lee Strasberg adapted it to his "Method," which is where 'method acting' came from. The rest, as they say, is history. For an excellent overview of Stanislavsky's work, I recommend Sharon M. Carnicke's essential book Stanislavsky in Focus.


Stanislavsky in the role of Satin in Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” at the Moscow Art Theater, 1902

Below: Stanislavsky's 1911 production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre was widely regarded a masterpiece. (Set design by Edward Gordon Craig)

Stanislavsky c.1936

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