In this paper I propose to trace the most significant aspects of the lives of three of the most important names in the history of theatre direction: Adolphe Appia, Berthold Brecht and Konstantin Stanislavski. I want to outline and justify their methods of innovation by taking a closer look at the historical context, pervading theatrical conventions at the time of their practice, their relationship with politics, the overall artistic policy (including choice of playing space), plus the relationship with the production and creative teams, the relationship with audiences and the approach taken towards the text. I also want to observe the rehearsal techniques, the choice of set and the importance of music in their works. I shall also point out plays that characterized their styles. I will be putting more or less emphasis in certain aspects of the investigation due to the very nature of the directors, which will finally be compared at the end of this paper.
My goal is to prove that theatre would not have developed the way it did without Appia, Brecht and Stanislavski’s contributions. They created unique styles and allowed the world to adapt to them up until this day.
Introducing: Appia was a Swiss designer-director and theorist, co-founder of Hellerau Festival. He was born in 1862 and has died in 1924. Brecht was a German playwright-director, founder of the Berliner Ensemble. He was born in 1898 and has died in 1956. Finally, Stanislavski was a Russian actor-director, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He was born in 1863 and has died in 1938.
There is neither intention nor meaning behind the choice of ‘order of appearance’ in this paper because all of the directors caused commotion, uproar and critic.
Switzerland stands out for the very aspect that could be considered negative: the slow paced lifestyle and, after 1920, its perpetual neutrality (and indifference towards the world) in its economic and political development, as accounted in The History of Switzerland. If society is happy, why change anything at all? Adolphe Appia was not so confortable like his countrymen. His thirst for change in society and in theatre was unquenchable, but making differences in Switzerland was problematic, not because the country lacked means, but because it lacked drive. Roose-Evans explains that Appia was “continually frustrated by the structure of most existing theatres” and being so, solving the puzzle of working the “moving three-dimensional actor, the stationary vertical scenery, and the horizontal floor” (from The influence of Appia and Craig) in a static theatre of a static country would seem like a lost cause.
Although not strongly political, Appia still had an agenda. He understood that starting with reforms inside the theatre could later lead to reforms outside the building, despite his “primary concern for reform … within the walls of theatre”, according to Kelly Bremner. Through his familiarity and endorsement of the Total Theatre (Gesamtkunstwerk started by Wagner), Appia aimed not only for the union of theatrical elements, but also for the union in society itself, even in terms of spirituality when, in Rubin’s words, “the connection of music and action, body and spirit” should mirror everyone.
One should also be the direction in which the new theatre of ‘atmosphere’ should go and therefore it needed one person conducting it all: the new designer-director. “It was vitally important that the entire production process be coordinated by a single, highly sensitive artist”, Beacham contends, and despite the novelty of the term ‘director’ in Europe, Appia proved to be the right person in charge despite his peculiar personality.
At the beginning of his journey “Appia elaborated his theory through a series of proposed designs and mise-en-scènes for Wagner’s operas. He was brutally rebuffed by Wagner’s widow, who considered his projects the work of a madman”, Howard Bay recounts. Shy by nature, he found a way to deal with rejection and to carry on with his plans without forgetting who he was. That is when he became close friends with a pen. Although he understood the importance of collaborative art to enable his vision, Appia was withdrawn. When working with Dalcroze (more on him later), he would write down his objectives, a technique that not only would “work incredibly well”, as Beacham argues, but that would be part of his written legacy in future books. One could debate whether a person can exercise theatre direction from a distance, but Appia is proof that it can be done.
Appia’s legacy contains his contribution in design and in mise-en-scène as well. The importance that he gave to acting technique was massive. The curious thing is that his most famous work with unforeseen design on a multi-level stage, Orfeo ed Eurydice, was entirely the work of students in 1912 in Hellerau, Germany. Such success was only possible due to the relationship between Appia and his countryman, Émile Jacques-Dalcroze, who according to Brown’s account “had elaborated a system to teach music and rhythm to children though movement (eurhythmics) which in due course developed into one of the foundations of modern dance. Appia enthusiastically endorsed these ideas and became a close collaborator.” Suddenly the body of the actor became a slave of music, which would dictate the entire production and become a system per se. Because Appia “viewed music as a direct expression of man’s inner being”, Rogers explains in his essay, eurhythmics naturally emerged and became his chosen theatrical style.
The choice of space was paramount for Appia’s further development, so together with Dalcroze, he designed a new space in Hellerau. No fourth-wall, no elevated stage and no naturalistic painted backdrops. If Brown is correct, Appia created the very “first entirely flexible theatre-space”. On stage, Appia aimed at three-dimensional scenery with “abstract arrangements of solid stairs, platforms, podia, and the like”, according to Dennis Kennedy. For Appia, traditional two-dimensional sceneries could not translate “the very essence of the theatrical action, which was the three-dimensional human figure moving in a three-dimensional space”, as in History of the Theatre. In addition, three-dimensional scenery provided more freedom for the performers to act according to the music on various stage levels.
The same way music dictated the actor’s movement light would dictate the emotional development of the plot, despite still working in function of the sound. “As mood changes, so should space and light change” says P. Peter translating what Appia had in mind when he developed the lighting plot from the new centrally controlled light organ to make out of stage light a scenery painter. Light would adept to the music and either reveal or hide the rhythmical elements of the theatrical picture. Light would “unify actors and setting into an artistic whole, evoking an emotional response from the audience”, Appia asserts in Die Musik und die Inszenierung, one of his most important written works.
As for Appia’s relationship to the audience, the fact that he designed the stage in Hellerau on the same level of the auditorium says something. He might have expected to make the audience feel that they, too, could be part of the show; that Appia’s theatre did not ask for professional performers only, but that it was open for the society.
After Hellerau, Appia designed sets in few other European cities, but actually he was “rarely given opportunities to try his ideas out”, according to Don Rubin, and “it was only in the 1950s”, twenty-six years after his death, “that Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner in Germany began applying Appia’s ideas consistently”. Like most geniuses, Appia was too far ahead his time and not always understood.
Both great wars had repercussions in the artistic life and they certainly left a psychological contribution in Brecht’s political formation and later engagement – being he German. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 for instance, “controlled German daily and political life, including all forms of artistic expressions”, as observed in Brecht Sourcebook, and after Hitler came to power in 1933, no non-Nazi propagandistic art form would be tolerated. That is when Brecht escaped to Denmark (and later to the United States) for his artistic freedom since “revolutionary experimental Berlin was silenced” (Brecht Sourcebook).
The escape proved to be fruitful for Brecht’s artistic development, because despite German’s heavy arts subsidy (in peaceful times) and openness for experimentation, the pervading theatrical conventions were heavily dependent on Naturalism, still enjoying the heyday of the Freie Bühne in Berlin. Brecht sought to challenge Naturalism and create his own ‘System’.
Writing his own text and wishing to explore the mise-en-scène, Brecht became a playwright-director. Braun rightfully argues that in order to reflect society, the director needed to “master all the resources at the stage’s command”, and because Brecht was a theatre-man having worked in many different areas before, the title of double power gave him the authority he needed to explore his new approaches.
Brecht had strong political Marxist views believing that “man’s fate is largely collective”, as in Brecht Sourcebook. He felt that he had an obligation to face social issues. Art had consequences and Brecht wanted to prove it through his Lehrstuecke (or didactic plays which rejected bourgeois values). The ‘literarization’ of theatre started with the placards and/or projected titles informing the audience not only about what was to happen in the scene, but also providing journalistic report, helping to make better sense of the play and see the social situation for what it was, perhaps even start to “search for an explanation, a way out”, from Brecht Sourcebook. The Lehrstuecke picked topics like war and financial crisis for portrayal. The strongest example was the play The Mother. In Braun’s well-thought words, the play aimed at teaching “forms of political struggle.”
The Lehrstuecke were the backbone of Brecht’s Epic theatre through discontinued stage action, which had the policy to report incidents of society to the worker audiences. The relationship with his audience was not always smooth, though. At times Brecht would call them “primitive” (Brecht Sourcebook) and at other times he would say: “The one tribute we can pay the audience is to treat it as thoroughly intelligent”, as in Brecht on Theatre. Constant, however, was what Brecht wanted: to establish a new Zuschauer Kunst (Art of Spectator) by teaching audiences to become critical observes instead of just emotional consumers.
Brecht did not seek to entertain through simple narrative. He would separate theatre elements like “speech from gesture, voice from music” – as Brown observes, to achieve the Epic characteristic. Epic theatre, however, could not be performed everywhere for, as related in Brecht Sourcebook, “few of the great nations were inclined to discuss their problems in the theatre” – which would rule out any revolution-sensible states.
Because the Epic theatre was such a novelty even among theatre professionals, Brecht needed a strong hand to make sure his vision was fulfilled. There are numerous reports portraying Brecht as a difficult person, who would never give in to other people’s opinions. A tyrant? An example:
He was a fanatic. He paid complete attention to the details … Brecht was very dictatorial and the discussions with Brecht always led to the point that he was right… (Brecht Sourcebook).
Actors used to living the roles instead of showing the roles the way Brecht wanted, would sometimes feel that the “work was unsatisfying”, according to Eddershaw, as it could seem to them that they were acting ‘less’. I argue whether it is not the script that makes the actors act instinctively Brechtian, instead of a specific Epic acting style. This style was supposed to induce the audience to distance themselves emotionally from the action on stage (for the sake of analytical criticism) and also to distance the actors from the psychological aspects of their characters (for the sake of showing the characters instead of becoming them). This is known as Verfremdungseffekt. It was about objective contrasts, as in Brecht’s words: “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” In addition, the V-effect was to be achieved not only by the form of distanced acting straight to the audience and their critical reception, but it would stretch to all aspects of the production such as music and set.
For Brecht, music was not to enhance the feelings of the action invisibly, but was to be a highlight itself. One of Brecht’s biggest successes, the Threepenny Opera, had the orchestra on stage and, as Nesta Jones explains, “the songs were conceived to interrupt and comment in the narrative … separated from the stage action.” The set in Epic theatre should have no atmosphere and be only filled with décor and props that served the action directly. Noteworthy is the fact that the set “began to narrate… through large screens”, following the investigation in Brecht Sourcebook – not a mere coincidence in playwright-director’s performance.
Back to acting, Brecht introduced a term that up to this day has not yet found a proper translation: Gestus. He explains: “Gestus is not supposed to mean gesticulation: it is not a matter of explanatory or emphatic movements of the hands, but of overall attitudes.” Gestus was an aid to the actor to make his message come across through every available element: movement and voice’s rhythm costume, set, etc.
Although influenced at some depth by the Gestus artistry of Charles Chaplin, Brecht believed vehemently that Gestus as well as the whole V-Effect had its origins in China. Min Tian, a Chinese theatre scholar, strongly disagrees with the way Brecht ‘sold’ the Peking Opera image to the West through appropriation and misinterpretation of the traditional Far-Eastern art in his Epic theatre. It is debatable whether Brecht really meant to distort it. He might have been just too overwhelmed by the performance he watched in Moscow by the Peking Opera Ambassador, Mei Lanfang, and by the brief after-show explanation of some of the movements by Lanfang’s son, Mei Shaowu. Here an excerpt of Min Tian’s heavy attack:
“Brecht’s limited reading knowledge of Chinese drama cannot convince us that he could have understood the quintessence of it and of its performance.”
Brecht is no longer alive to respond to the scholar, but regardless of the way she may interpret Brecht, a fact is what Mei Lanfang himself had to say, putting an end to a discussion that never really took place. The following excerpt proves that Brecht misunderstood the Peking Opera and that the conventions of the Epic theatre had no forerunners in China: “Mei Lanfang: ‘… Forget that he is a performer and accept him as the character.’ … Where is the distance between the performer and the character? Where is the A-effect?” – asks Min Tian finally. My question is why Brecht needed to justify his creativity with existing forms non-related to his original art?
I once heard that Brecht never found Epic plays other than his own. When he did not write the play, he borrowed from others and transformed them into Epic pieces. Marlowe’s tragedy Edward the Second was so heavily modified for the mise-en-scène that it became almost another piece despite the ”original loose chronicle”, according to Braun, which Brecht cherished. For Brecht, any piece of good work had to present a possibility for non-linear narrative, conflict and for cold analysis – basically his own characteristics.
Konstantin Stanislavski lived the heyday of his theatre in the Soviet Union, Moscow, under a Marxist–Leninist period. Governed by the single Communist Party, all aspects of the Russian life were centralized. Before that, Stanislavski was, too, witness to the Russian Revolution.
In Imperial Russia, before the Revolution of 1917, theatre did not enjoy its most brilliant historical phase because it was a theatre concerned basically with quick profits, not with high quality content. Only easily digestible entertainment was produced and since audience as well as lazy performers seemed to be confortable with the situation, no one saw the need to change. When I write lazy (plus self-centred) performers I refer to Benedetti’s account:
The script meant less than nothing. Sometimes the cast did not even bother to learn their lines.
Thriving for change, the playwright and arts teacher Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko recognized that with some help he could make theatre history. Based on Benedetti’s report, “in June 1897 Stanislavski received two letters from Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko suggesting a meeting. … The discussion lasted eighteen hours. … The policy of MXAT had broadly been worked out.” The Communist state called for a properly established theatre instead of experimental loose company because this way there could be control. As long as the new established Moscow Arts Theatre refrained from being critical to the URSS regime, they would have the freedom to experiment artistically.
Despite the government’s ‘watchful eye’, the humanists Danchenko and Stanislavski saw in the MXAT a platform for betterment of the arts and of society. They wanted to “civilize, to increase sensitivity, to heighten perception, … ennoble the mind and uplift the spirit”, according to Benedetti. They even called the MXAT firstly The Moscow Popular Art Theatre to attract a less privileged class to attend shows at lower prices. Stanislavski has said, “What we are undertaking is … a social task. … We are striving to brighten the dark existence of the poor classes, to give them minutes of happiness” – and with that the first task of the MXAT was achieved. The second and last one was to transform the theatre experience, starting with the building which until today is “stripped of all decoration so that the audience’s full concentration could be directed towards the stage”, as in Benedetti’s book. The theatre should no longer exist as a place for audiences to see and be seen, putting thus the arts in the background, but as the proper altar of arts.
The audience had to be re-educated. There were some strict new rules, which would be the cradle of today’s theatre experience. Paraphrasing Benedetti, “No one was allowed back-stage during the performance and spectators were to be encouraged to take their seats before the curtain went up. With the passage of time late-comers were made to wait until the interval before being admitted.” The new rules of behaviour did not refer only to the audience, but to all MXAT’s professionals. Used to behave selfishly, actors had to re-work their tantrums, capriciousness and laziness under Stanislavski; any disregard for the rules would be punished.
Rules existed in order to facilitate MXAT’s clear goals: an ensemble willing to play small as well as big parts alternatively, modern Naturalistic and Realistic productions, and for Stanislavski most importantly, a rigorous and in-depth rehearsal system led by one man responsible for uniting the team in terms of a single production vision, for bringing excitement to the work and for being able to allow actors to have an opinion on the characters that they were embodying. The actor-director was born with Stanislavski, who understood deeply the fears, needs and overall thoughts of an actor, he being an actor himself.
In order to improve not only his own acting but also the one of his company’s actors, Stanislavski developed the System, which is a set of guidelines on Naturalistic acting based on psychology. As Stanislavski puts it, “We must remember the basic principle: the subconscious through the conscious.” It was about searching, finding, selecting and using memories in the actor’s life that caused strong emotions and that could be evoked (and later discarded) for the sake of a truthful portrayal of an individual, not just a character. Stanislavski called the process Emotion Memory. The actor’s goal was to become a different character while remaining him/herself. This is why the MXAT cast actors according to personality instead of physical type, as in An Actor’s Work, to facilitate the kind of acting they nurtured. By directing actors towards other actors on stage, Stanislavski would create ‘eavesdropping’ experience for the audience, making them relate and feel.
Stanislavski had other specific guidelines concerning the whole production, not only the acting part. When music was to be played, the orchestra would remain hidden because music should enhance the emotion transparently, not be an attraction per se. The importance of the rhythm (of speech, movement or music) was paramount to Stanislavski though, as it “indicated the intensity with which an emotion was experienced”, Benedetti summarizes. The set was to be realistic, detailed and specially created for each new play attempting thus to induce illusion. Most of times, Stanislavski would exaggerate in his interpretation of set and introduce “superfluous” elements such as “croaking frogs, humming dragon-flies, barking dogs and crying children”, according to playwright Chekov, evading thus the point of the dramaturgy.
Because of Chekov’s plays, which dealt with trivialities of Russian life without any big event, Stanislavski learnt to read in between the lines. Benedetti explains: “It was precisely because he had to dig, probe beneath the surface, that Chekov’s scripts were so crucial to Stanislavski’s development.” The long process of awakening came with the Seagull, although Stanislavski claimed that he never did the play justice: “When I directed the play I did not understand it. But some of the inner threads of the play attracted me.” Still, Stanislavski proved a remarkable respect for the play’s poetry and was able to introduce a fluent narrative like an “unbroken line of life”, quoting Eddershaw, and a true depiction of real life. The MXAT’s production was a public success, but Chekov wasn’t really impressed with the set exaggerations and with the acting, when in Braun’s account “the hysterical interpretation of Nina appalled him and he said that Stanislavski played Trigorin … without any will of his own.” The Seagull helped the MXAT find its identity and also helped Stanislavski to start giving thoughts of looking differently at a play, while breaking it down in units (or events) for a better text understanding and more objective rehearsal development.
Besides a number of productions where Stanislavski directed and/or acted, he contributed to the Russian Theatre Revolution by writing three crucial books: My Life in Art, An Actor Prepares and Building a Character, which would be the result of many years of note-taking and in-depth reflexions around theatre and acting. Stanislavski’s System would only become norm after World War II.
Brecht once said: “Stanislavsky when directing is first of all an actor. When I direct I am first of all a playwright” – and if I may add, so is Appia a designer in the first place, too. Throughout this essay I have tried to outline the three directors’ main characteristics, but I could not help noticing some similarities. Apart from all three directors being Europeans, they wrote essential books about their art. Since theatre is ephemeral, future generations were able to not only read and understand, but also to follow and even adapt and improve the steps of the great masters, thanks to the books. Appia, Brecht and Stanislavski raised questions about the consequences of art and they also cared about the society, trying to engage and help all sorts of people: Appia in Hellerau, Brecht with his new Zuschauer Kunst and Lehrstuecke and Stanislavski with the foundation of the popular theatre. Furthermore, all three were ahead of their time having difficulties in convincing everyone about the ‘new ways’. Finally Appia, Brecht and Stanislavski witnessed their ideas taking roots everywhere either at the end of their lives, or they would not witness it at all for being already dead. Still, all three were “the noblest expression in modern theatre”, as director Craig said to Appia’s grave, but that could be stretched to Brecht and Stanislavski as well.
Despite the few similarities, the differences among them three were clear. Appia’s theatre was based on atmosphere whereas Brecht’s praised the lack of it. Appia worked based on the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk concept, but Brecht rejected it vehemently. Stanislavski counted on psychology and emotion memory to develop his System, while Brecht expected from the actors fully emotional detachment from the role. Stanislavski’s audience should forget that they were in the theatre and feel, but Brecht’s audience was forced to stay away from illusion and think with clarity. In Brecht Sourcebook one reads: “Stanislavski … directed other people’s plays. Brecht mainly directed his own plays”, meaning that the interpretation of the play would leave room for Stanislavski, but no room for Brecht since it was his text, after all. To conclude the differences, Simon Callow summarizes, “Brecht is epic and Stanislavski is personal.”
Their legacies are undisputable. Their contributions extended the boundaries of theatre. Appia created new stage designs, introduced and new light into lighting and helped – together with Dalcroze – to develop modern dance. Brecht’s Epic theatre revolutionized the art of story telling and specially the relationship with the audience. And thank to Stanislavski’s own analysis, the System was created and developed later into the Method by the American counterpart, Lee Strasberg. The influences of all three directors were profound and theatre would not be as diverse and as rich as it is today without their contributions.
Luciana B. Veit