Swans Commentary » swans.com February 12, 2007  



Another Chekhov Worth Meeting


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Marowitz, Charles: The Other Chekhov: A Biography of Michael Chekhov the Legendary Actor, Director & Theorist, Applause Books, 2004, ISBN 1-55783-640-X, pp. 302.


(Swans - February 12, 2007)  Michael Chekhov (1891-1955) was the nephew of the great writer Anton Chekhov. But his father Alexander Pavlovitch Chekhov was very different from his genial uncle. Alexander was a life-long drunk with an unbridled intellectual appetite, and most certainly insane. Michael's name was heavy with prestige in post revolutionary Russia. But his own gifts as an actor would have been sufficient to propel him to the center of theatrical life in the 1920s. These were the years before murderous paranoia smothered the revolutionary impulse in the arts. The collision of old regime practice and radical innovation produced one of the most fertile conjunctures in the theatre that Europe had ever known.

By 1928 Michael had been for six years director of the First Studio, an offshoot of Konstantin Stanislavsky's Second Moscow Art Theatre. Michael was that renowned director's most brilliant disciple. But differences grew between them. Stanislavsky had cleansed acting of its 19th century overgrowth by insisting on verisimilitude in characterization and espousing a thoroughgoing naturalism. The shock of the new had been tremendous. Michael, however, came to find painstaking behaviorism a dead-end. He had become an adept of Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophy and believed that another, richer, unknown self must be brought to life. The imagination ought to be used to tap hidden potential. For actors this meant uncovering concealed mysteries in the character to be played. It was very different from Stanislavsky's insistence that the actor seek truth through a descent into his own deepest experience.

Such divergence and rapid realignment regularly mark great periods in the arts. Here Michael Chekhov was already at odds with the trailblazing Stanislavsky, and both were under siege by a third genius of the stage Vsevoldo Meyerhold. For the moment, Meyerhold, also a former disciple of Stanislavsky, lorded over the Russian theatre. His productions, tinged with expressionism, willfully artificial and not adverse to circus antics, proved visually astonishing and physically overpowering. His work broke violently with tradition and carried a revolutionary message that put it in tune with the politics of the day. However, free thinking in the arts would soon end and a wooden social realism be imposed from above. (Meyerhold and his wife would be murdered in 1940 for political reasons.) In 1928 oddball theosophists were the first called to account, and Michael Chekhov, warned of his impending arrest, had to escape with his wife Xenia to Berlin.

It was only the first snare that history had laid for him. He would sidestep them all, readjusting but never discarding his naiveté along the way. The comic actor, his idealism repeatedly patched and bandaged, walked lackadaisically over mine fields. The first leg of his travels took him to theatres in Germany, France, Latvia, and Lithuania. A heart attack and a Fascist takeover in Riga sent him scurrying back to Paris. The man considered the greatest actor ever to come out of Russia was soon embarked on a journey to Broadway with a scratch troupe of émigrés. We don't know if he realized that his success there drove the wedge deeper between Stella Adler at the Group Theatre and Lee Strasberg who had abandoned it in a huff. Michael's mind was already elsewhere, having agreed to found a theatre course on a commune model at Dartington Hall in England. This became the Chekhov Studio that moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut when war threatened in 1938. The Studio's work in America crashed against what Saul Bellow used to call the reality principle. Michael never expected that his production of The Possessed would be clobbered from all sides. With America launching preparations for war, the Dartington experience ended. Michael accepted a role in a Hollywood film.

Was Los Angeles history's last snare that finally caught Michael Chekhov? Was he another unfulfilled artist wrong footed by the disjointed times? An expat stewing in his own juice, a refugee turned away from his destiny and, homesick, consoling himself with soppy spirituality? That isn't the opinion of Charles Marowitz who in his vivid biography sees Michael as a breathtaking actor, epoch making teacher, and considerable theorist; in short, as fulfilled as any artist ought to be.

Marowitz who has been through the utopian mill himself makes the ideal biographer of Michael Chekhov. That's because he has come out the other side loaded with concrete experience of directing, playwriting, reviewing, teaching, and even theorizing. He's never dismissive of Michael's wilder flights and finds that his theory of acting does indeed present a striking parallel to Steiner's doctrine:

Steiner's anthroposophy and Chekhov's acting theories share a number of similar assumptions. Both are predicated on the existence of power beyond that which we can immediately hear or see and both believe that power can be harnessed and converted into usable energy. Chekhov's notion of "the higher I," a zone that an actor must attain beyond the parameters of his own personality, is almost a direct translation of Steiner's belief in "levels of self" and "planes of existence" (page 78).

When Marowitz lists the nine aims outlined by Michael for his Dartington Studio, he adds, "they read like a manifesto for a new utopian order." But no sarcasm is meant:

The fact is the mission statements and credos of almost every new theater tend to sound like every other. There is a great deal of unanimity about the theater's major artistic and social objectives. How, and by whom, they get applied makes all the difference (page 164).

Again and again we find the author-practitioner wielding the reality principle without using it as a club to beat down idealist aspirations. Michael at Dartington Hall had hoped that playwriting and ensemble work would come together making the playwright simply one of the team. This never worked out, and Marowitz doubts that it ever could, even in today's more favorable conditions. But, far from pooh-poohing the idea, he tightens it a notch more:

A worthier goal, it would seem to me, would have been to create an ensemble intelligence so dramatically sensitive that playwrights could have been eliminated entirely -- along the lines of The Living Theater and Théâtre de Complicité (page 169).

Marowitz is a sprightly narrator. He advances in quick, brief chapters that never get bogged down in academic footnoting. This makes his book different from so many studies of Michael that tend to be paraphrases of his writing and impersonal compilations of his exercises for actors. Marowitz is deft at summing up an intellectual debate in a telling phrase and surprises us by making sense of the snake pit that was the Russian theatre world of the 1920s. Here he puts Michael's approach in a nutshell:

It was clear that by the time Chekhov was performing in Riga, he had honed his inner technique to such a point that he could conjure up precisely those effects he wished to create. But that always meant collaboration with the higher realms of his imagination. The "technical actor" rehearses assiduously in order to perfect every detail of the performance he wishes to convey. The "chekhovian actor" realizes that the extra dimension that makes the difference between a competent and an inspiring performance depends on a quotient that cannot be drilled into being, but must arrive from some sphere beyond cognitive control. To the extent that an actor can consciously summon those subconscious resources to bring this about, Chekhov had begun to master his art (page 135).

Michael was quite a memorialist in his own right. Marowitz notes an unpublished manuscript in his bibliography that we have to assume furnishes the basis for Chapter Fifteen. It would have helped the reader to know in detail where exactly autobiography begins and biography ends. As the book proceeds, Michael is observed from various angles. The author dons his theatre historian's hat to track him through the Moscow thicket. Michael's time in Europe leans more toward a traveler's tale based on his own reports. The English phase of Dartington had several attentive witnesses, and the author weighs their views. Drama critics and participating actors are invoked to shed light on the end of Dartington in America. Marowitz in California speaks more familiarly, mildly disabused, and his prose gallops.

"Hooray for Hollywood" constitutes the last third of the book. While Marowitz has no mercy for the meretricious side of the place, he never resorts to highbrow cliché. It was a hardworking town bent on its own kind of excellence. But Hollywood's ad hoc, myopic, brainstorming made a grotesque contrast with the subsidized high culture theatrical structures that Michael had known in Europe. (Stanislavsky could spend many months rehearsing a play and then decide to scrap it.)

The surprise is that the otherworldly Michael adapted. He became a kind of anonymous but pervasive force in Hollywood as he instructed actors who were or would be household names across the world. We learn of his importance to Yul Brynner, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Quinn, Jennifer Jones, Debbie Reynolds, and dozens of others. A fellow Russian drama coach bemoaned the fact that they were training actors to be cogs in an industrial machine. Michael wouldn't agree. True to the theosophy that had shaped his mind, he insisted, "We are not making better actors for Louis B. Mayer. We are helping people to grow spiritually -- to become better human beings (page 215)."

Marilyn Monroe was one of Michael's Hollywood pupils concerned with just that kind of growth. She strove to turn a corner in her career and put dumb blond and sex kitten roles behind her. Who better than a maestro from the Moscow Art Theatre to lead her up the slope to where serious actors dwelt? Marilyn developed a daughterly dependence on Michael who reciprocated with paternal guidance and genuine concern. They became such fast friends that Marilyn would leave Xenia Chekhov a small income in her will.

For Marowitz, Michael the teacher, like everyone else, had been in thrall to his pupil's sexual vitality that was precisely what she had come to him to unlearn. Michael's belief that one of Lear's daughters or Ibsen's Hedda lurked within the former Norma Jean was probably wishful thinking. When, after his death, she did blossom as a movie actor, it was still as a light-headed beauty, only with better scripts and directors. Marowitz points out that while Michael's interest in Marilyn had no ulterior motive, Lee Strasburg's subsequent possessiveness in her regard was part of his strategy to put the Actors' Studio back in the running.

Michael did appear in nine movies, often showing glimmers of greatness, but just as often barely avoiding what he feared becoming, a Hollywood "accent clown." He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in Hitchcock's Spellbound where he appeared briefly as a psychiatrist. Though Marowitz feels the role called for simple "naturalism" that Michael could have furnished "standing on his head," it's hard for anyone who has seen his Dr. Brulov ever to forget him (pages 206, 236).

All the same, Michael's main effort in those dozen Hollywood years was as a teacher, and Marowitz believes that it's in his teaching that "his greatest legacy lies (page 244)." But that teaching and its theoretical underpinning is no easy thing to grasp. Marowitz knows there's no getting hold of it in the abstract:

For me, Chekhov represents that ineluctable quality in the theater that transcends all methodology no matter how persuasive or impressive it may sometimes be. When one examines how art happens, particularly performance art, one is constantly confronted with an impregnable mystery. Sometimes effects are achieved not because of theories but in spite of them; not as a demonstration of a logical proposition but as a dynamic refutation of all propositions and all intellectual theorems (page 3).

The Other Chekhov respects that mystery while offering it to our scrutiny. The author also revises the view of who did or did not finish in history's snare. That makes the book the indispensable introduction to the seemingly fragile but in fact indomitable man of the theatre who was Michael Chekhov.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published February 12, 2007