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Michael Chekhov as Hamlet in his Second Moscow Art Theatre production, 1924.

    Michael Chekhov as actor, director and teacher in the West:

    Liisa Byckling


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 States.

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 a home.

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 power."

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 time."

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. 560 pp.

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: