Finland's position between the West and
the East has proved a good vantage point for theatre research. The work
of the famous Russian actor Michael Chekhov in Europe and the United States
from 1928 to 1955 has been the object of research of Liisa Byckling for
the best part of 90's. She defended her Ph.D. dissertation (in the Russian
language) Michael Chekhov in Western Theatre and Cinema in Helsinki in
September, 2000. In 2000 Liisa Byckling has lectured on Michael Chekhov
in Paris and St.Petersburg.
Michael (Mikhail) Aleksandrovich Chekhov (1891, St.Petersburg - 1955,
Los Angeles) was nephew of Anton Chekhov and one of the original
members of the Moscow Art Theatre's First Studio where he was taught
by the prominent directors Konstantin Stanislavsky and Evgeni
Vakhtangov. He emigrated from Russia in 1928. At the time his death
in 1955 Chekhov's name was wiped out from the history of Russian theatre
in Soviet Russia. With "glasnost" he was rehabilitated, his
books have been republished in Russia and he has become a legendary
figure in his native country once again. In Russian opinion, however,
his life in emigration is still considered a period of tragedies, despite
the fact that Chekhov created and taught an acting system which has
become increasingly influential in the West. No complete biography of
Michael Chekhov has ever been assembled, despite a strong interest in
his life. Chekhov's two autobiographies, The Path of the Actor
and Life and Encounters, are written in an impressionistic style
and only cover his earliest career.
It is time to evaluate the great artistic pilgrimage made by an émigré
from Moscow to Los Angeles that lasted 27 years.
Talks with Russian theatre people sparked my interest in Chekhov, and
I overtook the task of examining his career in the West, at first as
a hobby, then, as new archival sources opened up, more seriously. My
dissertation incorporates a wealth of new material from archives in
many countries: the Dartington Hall (England) and Bakhmeteff (New York)
archives, and the Georgette Boner collection (Zürich), and also
archives in Moscow, Riga and Vilnius. My research is based on theatre
histories in the countries he worked, reviews of his productions, and
memoirs. I was fortunate to interview Chekhov's students and his assistant
directors. My travels were partly made possible with the support of
the Academy of Finland and University of Helsinki which have allowed
me to do research and lecture in many European countries and the United
The work of Chekhov can be viewed from many different angles: firstly,
as a topic for biography and theatre history; secondly, as a problem
of preserving Russian ideas in a new cultural context; thirdly, the
transformation of an émigré's ideas on foreign soil. Chekhov
tried to realize the theatre of the future in the West; in practice
it was the idea of studio as a laboratory, theatre as a community and
Chekhov - the most original actor
of his generation
In Russia in the twenties, Chekhov was considered the most original
actor of his generation. Now he is called the most genial actor of the
last century in Russia. His major roles in the Moscow Art Theatre and
its Studio include Caleb in Dickens' Cricket on the Hearth,
Malvolio in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, the title role
in Erik XIV by Strindberg, Hlestakov in The Government
Inspector by Gogol, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Gogol's comedy
was directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1921. Chekhov's performance
stunned with its unbelievable improvised ease and unrestrained imagination.
As an actor and theoretician Chekhov did not accept the dualism of Western
thinking. Chekhov the actor embodied the complete synthesis of inner
feeling and outer form, which the American director Robert Lewis
called "total acting". In the acting style of the Moscow Art
Theatre, in the psychological realism of Anton Chekhov's plays, was
laid the foundation for the future concept of Michael Chekhov's method,
which declared itself after the Revolution. At the same time Chekhov
expressed the spirit of turn-of-century Russian culture, symbolist poetry
and non-naturalistic theatre.
Chekhov, like his teacher Stanislavsky, was interested in the deepest
questions of his profession. The so-called Stanislavsky system for the
actor balances theory and practice. The aim was to mobilize the potential
of the actor's creative nature to guarantee him truth of feeling and
authenticity of the stage experience. Stanislavsky said to the English
director Gordon Craig in Moscow: "If you want to see my
System working at its best go to see Michael Chekhov tonight. He is
playing some one-act plays by his uncle." Chekhov accepted Stanislavsky's
religious devotion to acting and commitment to art.
The writings of Rudolf Steiner, the German Anthroposophist had,
during Chekhov's last years in Russia, exerted a powerful influence
upon him. Anthroposophy became his private religion, eurythmy gave new
impulses on how to refine non-verbal acting and develop the harmony
of the actor's body. Chekhov believed that the actor should develop
not only physically, but spiritually as well, acquiring an inner life,
rich with images from which he would be able to draw when creating a
character. His system evolved into an alternative of Stanislavsky's,
emphasizing more universal, spiritual resources of acting, rather than
the historical, emotional and psychological details of the actor's life.
When, in 1923, the First Studio became the Second Moscow Art Theatre,
Chekhov became its director and carried on the work for five years.
He created an alternative theatre which used symbolic and formal means
of expression. Reasons for Chekhov's emigration were both political
and personal: his ideas were not compatible with Communist ideology
and after a conflict with a group of leftist actors and a press campaign
against him Chekhov left Soviet Russia in 1928. Both Stanislavsky and
Meyerhold tried to convince him to return to Russia. Officially
he never broke his contacts with Soviet Russia, and only in 1946 he
became an American citizen.
It has been said that Chekhov lived a double exile, separated from
his homeland and from his theatre. However, with amazing tenacity, he
worked to develop the theatre of future, which meant creating a new
technique of acting in a theatre with a repertoire based on the classics
and folklore. All other tasks - acting and directing - were subservient
to this aim. For the rest of his life he directed several studios through
which he disseminated his ideas as actor-director-teacher.
In Berlin Chekhov acted in three productions in Max Reinhardt's
theatres and in silent cinema. Chekhov's directorial talents were apparent
in the production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the Habima
Theatre. The company proved that world classics could be successfully
presented in Hebrew. In Paris the studio work continued with a group
of Russian émigré actors. The production of a musical
pantomime The Castle Awakens in 1931 was based on Russian folktales.
His experiment in International Theatre tried to develop a model of
archetypal theatre. A Russian critic in Paris compared Chekhov to a
sectarian who sacrifices himself (perhaps unnecessarily) on the altar
of arts. The experiment showed that neither the ideological theatre
of the East nor the commercial theatres in the West allowed Chekhov
to realize his ideas.
Studio work continued in Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania, where
the artist acted, directed and taught acting in 1932_1934. His performances
in roles created by Gogol, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky were met
with enthusiasm. Chekhov participated in the founding of national theatre
schools in Latvia and Lithuania. He started writing the first draft
of his book using the elements of the Stanislavsky system as part of
his own method and developed them further. "For the Lithuanian
actors, participation in Chekhov's studio work meant discovering a treasure,"
wrote the critic Balys Sruoga. Under the Communist regime, Chekhov's
students, who became leading actors in Baltic theatres, applied his
lessons without referring to the source. At the same time, his teaching
assumed a similar "underground" existence in the Soviet theatre,
where his lessons were disseminated by his students, and his books were
reproduced in samizdat (by unofficial channels).
The first contact with America
The first contact with America took place in 1935, when Chekhov and
his Russian company played in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Chekhov's
destiny changed: he went to England at the invitation of Dorothy
Whitney Elmhirst (an American millionaire) and her husband. Chekhov's
dreams were realized in the foundation of the Chekhov Theatre Studio.
Dartington Hall in Devon is a fourteenth-century castle converted into
a centre for rural enterprise, for education and for the arts, and it
gained an international reputation. When Chekhov came to Dartington
he knew no English, but within a year he was speaking the language fluently
and with a fresh and unexpected use of words. Dorothy Elmhirst wrote
of Chekhov: "He taught not only with words but with every nerve
and muscle of his body _ every gesture he made was significant and revealing.
He moved quickly and easily and seemed to be everywhere at once.(...)
Chekhov was not like other men of theatre in London and New York. He
was not the least pretentious. A slight, light man, he was in ordinary
social relationships almost retiring, and always ready to make fun of
himself. He combined humility on stage with imagination of enormous
For two years (1936_1938) Chekhov conducted laboratory work, exploring
paths to creativity. In his opinion, an actor's training consists of
schooling his body until it becomes a sensitive instrument to express
ideas and emotions. Chekhov aimed at creating feeling of truth and arousing
actor's fantasy by means of improvisation and atmosphere. He used exercises
based on Yoga: techniques of observation, concentration and communication.
Chekhov applied ways of arousing "life energy" of the actor.
He used also exercises of communication, in which actors send and receive
energy rays, not words. He adapted meditation techniques such as visualization,
meaning that the actor creates a "filmstrip" of mental images
from the character's life. Chekhov warned that all devices must be imbued
with inner content and meaning; they should not become mere technical
exercises. Chekhov believed that actors must have some knowledge of
scene designing, costume making, production, music, and even writing.
His ambition was to form a group in which every member was an expert
in the theatre. The teaching staff numbered eight. Students were selected
mostly from the United States, but also from England and other European
countries. The most well-known English student was Paul Rogers,
who was to become famous for his roles in Shakespeare and modern drama.
In England the Chekhov Theatre Studio was one of the pioneering institutions
in the thirties, but the distance from London did not allow it to participate
in English cultural life. In two years, it was not possible to do more
than demonstrate "work in progress" to the public. Events
in Europe prevented Chekhov from fulfilling his plans for the Studio
in England. After the Munich crisis of 1938, the lengthening shadow
of tyranny became insupportable for Chekhov; and at his request, the
theatre studio was transferred to America to continue the work in a
more congenial atmosphere.
Chekhov believed that in America there would be more interest in Russian
training and students would be more eager for the method. The myth of
Russian theatre was firmly embedded in American minds, especially after
the tours of the Moscow Art Theatre in the twenties. Stanislavsky's
system of actor training was winning acceptance in the U.S. where the
Group Theatre and various Russian émigrés were expounding
it. The Chekhov Studio was reopened in January 1939 at Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Until 1942 the large estate was the home of Chekhov, his studio, and
the theater. Substantial financial backing was secured by the Elmhirst
Foundation. New students were auditioned for the Studio; among the twenty-two
members of the permanent company, seventeen were American-born.
The Chekhov Theatre Players fulfilled the three-year goal by becoming
a professional theatre with a permanent acting company. The Possessed,
based on Dostoevsky's novel, was the debut of the company on Broadway
in 1939. It received mixed reviews, and ran for two weeks. The company,
however, proved interesting as a unit. One critic wrote: "Mr. Chekhov
has worked wonders with the company, and evolved the sort of coherent
team playing that is to be expected of a disciple of the Moscow Art
Theatre." After the premiere, Chekhov experienced a crisis that
accompanied his cultural transplantation. In New York he was offered
parts in plays by Elia Kazan and many other American directors,
but he declined the offers because it was impossible for him to overcome
psychological difficulties concerning his accent.
Chekhov turned his attention to preparing a professional touring company.
The group went on three long tours to American towns, playing
to sell-out crowds and enthusiastic audiences everywhere. The first
tour took place in 1940. For two months, the company travelled by truck,
bus and motor-car and performed at universities and colleges. The following
year the troupe toured the second time with King Lear, produced
by Chekhov and his assistant Alan Harkness. There was also a
play for children, Iris Tree's Troublemaker-Doublemaker.
In December 1941, the company brought Twelfth Night to Broadway.
Brooks Atkinson in New York Times praised the production
of Shakespeare's comedy as "a pleasant little holiday from the
routine of hit-and-flop playgoing". The critical response was much
better than it had been to The Possessed.
In the winter and spring of 1942, the company toured the South and
the Midwest as well as the East, taking in new territory in Florida,
Texas, Oklahoma and the Middle Western States. The Chekhov Theatre Players
were able to demonstrate the possibility of playing the classics in
a way that was relevant to contemporary audiences. Chekhov integrated
the American experience into his teaching when a branch of the Studio
was opened on Broadway in the winter of 1941-42. Chekhov, with his assistants,
conducted drama courses for professional actors.
It was the artist's destiny to have his fondest hopes regularly shattered
by political upheavals, revolutions and wars. Again, it was the war
that dogged the steps of his theatre, and America's entry in the war
caused most of the leading actors to be called up. The Chekhov Theatre
Players were forced to close. The farewell performance took place on
Broadway in September, 1942. Chekhov appeared in English in two one-act
plays based on his uncle's short stories. He was considered "a
character actor of uncommon talents, and a comedian capable of astonishing
depth no less than drollery". However, Chekhov's acting career
on the stage did not continue. The Second World War made survival impossible
for the small art theatres. Chekhov was obliged to put his knowledge
at the disposal of Hollywood actors. Many young actors from Chekhov's
studio later worked in Hollywood and in the New York theatres. Hurd
Hatfield became famous for his part in the film The Portrait of Dorian
Gray. Yul Brynner was of Russian origin. Beatrice Straight
made a career in the New York theatre and won an Academy Award in Hollywood.
The last 12 years of the artist's life
The last 12 years of the artist's life were spent in Los Angeles, where
he taught and acted in ten films, playing character parts. His first
film Song of Russia was directed by Gregory Ratoff. His
next film gained him the most recognition. It was Alfred Hitchcock's
Spellbound (1945) with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. For his
part as professor Brulov Chekhov received an Academy Award nomination
for best supporting actor. One critic wrote that the film was "coldly
factual... until Chekhov brought it the warmth of his personality and
the charm of his characterization".
In his later years, Chekhov was interested in applying his teaching
to the fast pace and fragmented nature of film and television. His technique
is perfect for the needs of today's actors, who must pick up ideas quickly
and use them instantly. In Los Angeles Chekhov taught private lessons
to film actors at his home in Beverly Hills. He conducted also improvisation
exercises and gave lectures on acting at The Drama Society in Hollywood.
Numerous film actors went to the old Russian actor for help with their
specific roles and for their general acting development. They included:
John Barrymore, Jr., Ingrid Bergman, Joan Caulfield,
James Dean, John Dehner, Eddie Grove, Jennifer
Jones, Jack Klugman, Sam Levine, Marilyn Monroe,
Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, and Anthony Quinn. Directors
who studied under Chekhov were Martin Ritt and Arthur Penn.
The American director Robert Lewis mentions Chekhov's quote, which he
used often afterwards: "The highest point of our art is reached
when we are burning inside and command complete outer ease at the same
Two important records of his method were written. In 1946 he published
the book O tekhnike aktyora (On the Technique of Acting) at his
own expense. It was his legacy to Russia. The book found its way into
Soviet Russia and was read by actors. Chekhov revealed clearly his emphasis
on imagination, intuition and the archetypal psychological gesture.
In 1953 the book To the Actor was published in English in New
York. Eugenio Barba, director of the Odin Teatret, one of the
leading contemporary theorists of theatre, considers Chekhov's book
one of the best actor's manuals. Other books, compiled from Chekhov's
lectures, have been published in the last 30 years. They have been translated
into many European languages and Japanese.
After a long interval, the Chekhov method was revived when the old
students opened the Michael Chekhov Studio in Manhattan, New York, in
1980. There the third generation of Chekhov's students was trained.
One of them, Lenard Petit, has been invited to Finland, where
he has conducted a Chekhov master class three times in Hanko Summer
University. International Michael Chekhov workshops have been organized
in many European countries in the last ten years. The Chekhov method
has become part of international theatre training.
Liisa Byckling, Mikhail Chekhov v zapadnom teatre i kino.
(Mikhail Chekhov in Western Theatre and Cinema). S.-Peterburg, Akademicheskii
proekt (serija: Sovremennaja zapadnaja rusistika), 2000. ISBN 5-7331-0212-8.
The book is available from: Alexander Institute, Finnish Centre
for Russian and East European
Studies, Yliopistonk. 5, Po Box 4, FIN-00014
University of Helsinki, Finland. e-mail: email@example.com