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Are Stanislavski and Brecht Commensurable?

Author(s): Eric Bentley
Source: The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Autumn, 1964), pp. 69-76
Published by: The MIT Press
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Stanislavski an actor.. It is obviously possible for some actors to love Stanislavski. I myself described an actor in one of his plays as having gone "beyond Stanislavski. two ways of life. But it is an imaginary issue. I recall. As a director. What I would question is whether there are indeed two systems. too. he tells actors to do what is presumably to be done "on the night. And so the issue is joined. so far as nomenclature is concerned. Take Stanislavski's alleged preoccupation with subjective elements and Brecht's alleged preoccupation with objective elements.. Brecht. Some Brechtian actors will retort that theatre is results. sometimes in exactly these words. that they differed about the same subject remains to be proven. that the notion of a subconscious is bourgeois and decadent. We can side-step it by remembering that Brecht was a playwright.Are Brecht Stanislavski and Commensurable? By ERIC BENTLEY "How does Brecht's system differ from Stanislavski's?" I have often heard this question asked. For 69 . and so far as the actors' declared allegiances are concerned. and probably we shall all live to see the question appear in much this form on college examination papers. At least some of the differences between what the two men said stem from the fact that they addressed themselves to different subjects. Brecht speaks of what is done in a finished performance. that as a young admirer of Brecht's." Some Method actors will protest that it is wrong of him to tell them this: he is "working in terms of results" instead of stimulating their subconscious. others.. presenting the actor with an either-or choice. nearly twenty years ago." Will the acting profession soon be divided between Method actors and Brechtians? Possibly it will. that drama is action.

and he better know how to do it pronto and not hold the playwright up: that's what he's paid for. At best. tended to regard the actor's craft as given and as already there in finished form. For Stanislavski. for Brecht. And by consequence what Brecht. did not. This is but another way of saying that. about the . examples could be given of Stanislavski's editing and adapting plays. Brecht's rehearsals. Such factors. and his dramaturgy as young and developing. it could give the new playwright ideas on playwriting. in fact. can and should do. (Some of Brecht's "theories" are deductions from the work of particular actors. is talking about is what actors. We do not read of his reworking his scripts either in the manner of Brecht or of the Broadway directors. however. He was too busy reworking the actors. Hence. of his own collected writings. that he was constantly giving himself an education in it. to learn to mold actors. Brecht. it only needed adjusting to a new kind of playwriting. Because he had the good luck to work in a highly professional environment and with actors of very great talent. Brecht is talking about the end result. in his theoretical pronouncements. who regarded his scripts as forever unfinished. beginning. I know that the antitheses I am using oversimplify. in a playwright's theatre. while he made a different assumption about playwriting: namely. Brecht was beginning to mold actors. train the actor. he could with reason take it that the actor's craft was simply there to be used. For Stanislavski. while what Stanislavski is talking about is the question of how they may be brought to the point where they can do this or anything else. the actor is there to do what the playwright says. perhaps.70 Tulane Drama Review Brecht. At worst.) In short. on the other hand. Thus Brecht assumed that the actor in one of his shows was an actor. and beginning to talk of acting schools and the younger generation. Stanislavski about education. imply only slight modifications of the point I have made. forever transformable. What antitheses don't? In his last years. the clay consisted of actors. I suppose every director looks for clay to mold. actors were the means toward the full realization of his plays. And conversely. finally. it was the play which was a fait accompli. while they trained the playwright. in any such direct way. and had his training behind him.

it opens up new questions. when the Brechtians protest that a director must not degenerate into an acting coach. it is well known. presupposes just the opposite. Rather. he must-at a time when the actors are not perfected professionals but still need coaching. and Granachs that he returned. if they wish to tread in the Marxian steps of the Meister. To say this does not provide us with all the answers. If the generalization still stands-that by and large Brecht is concerned with getting the play produced.ERIC BENTLEY 71 actor's training. Hence. That he began to get interested in training young people after World War II represents not a change of heart on his part but a change of situation in his country. The Brechtians have their doubts-or should. And they . It was not to a land of welltrained Weigels. And it is clear that he regarded this aim as attainable." And indeed that our "professional" actors attend acting schools and the like until middle age testifies less to their modesty than to the fact that we do not have a profession any more. Stanislavski with training the actor to be in it-would it necessarily follow that an actor trained by Stanislavski would be a bad actor for Brecht's plays? Were Stanislavski alive today. did Brecht assume that the present-day actor can give him just the result he wants? Stanislavski. Stanislavski's notion of a universally valid training and a possibly omnicompetent kind of acting they will (or should) describe as bourgeois. the Stanislavski-ites can retort: "Yes. Homolkas. one can be reasonably sure he would answer this question in the negative. In his view. for it was his aim to create an instrument which could be used for any honorable theatrical purpose. For example. I would say it was on the whole not true of the Germany of Brecht's youth and therefore that his reliance upon a realized professionality was justified. and so in his latter days Brecht acquired an interest in what had been Stanislavski's lifelong concern: the development of young people into actors. Was this not true in Brecht's Germany? Another hard and ambiguous question. it is because the actors cannot produce the right results that the Method is needed and that the emphasis on education and training is justified.

and could train actors to excel in each of them. like Reinhardt. It is true that he created stage Naturalism in Russia. have so handsomely contributed to the confusion that reigns concerning this Stanislavski-Brecht relationship. In 1953. but the results are unfortunate except when the other authors are quite Brechtian. In my view. this is only to repeat that he was a director (a director has to work with the whole repertoire) while Brecht was a writer concerned with writing (chiefly his own).72 Tulane Drama Review will call for a more historical view of things. That part of the story would be irrelevant to my present argument except that the Communists. a spokes- . produced all kinds of plays. Acquiescent in the New Society. But equally he might be said to have created stage Symbolism there. and his theatre became a museum for the best in "bourgeois" drama. as well as in nationality? And though they both came of the upper bourgeois class-which is amusing-their relation to that class is different in quite an ironic way. let alone the prisoner. Given a few more years of life. Stanislavski. Nonetheless the record indicates that while Brecht's efforts show a single direction. Stanislavski on the other hand was by no means the servant. of one style or school. Hence. by his productions of Maeterlinck and Andreyev. and his love of "the people" is pale indeed beside his rage against his own class. And who would wish to overlook the obvious: that Stanislavski and Brecht were such utterly different men-different personally. It has been the tendency of the Berlin Ensemble to impose Brechtianism upon plays by other authors. would he have created a Brechtian theatre? The dangers of historical "If's" are notorious. He did not like the new Communist plays. While Stanislavski was not even a rebel against his own family background. for their own reasons. all that he was he brought from the old. the Brechtian theatre to another class and another epoch. Stanislavski-prize exhibit of Stalin's Russia as he lived to be-remained genteel to the end. it is doubly ironic that supporters of that regime should champion him against an artist who had gone out of his way to praise Stalinist terrorism. according to which Stanislavski belongs to one class and one epoch. while it is ironic enough that Stanislavski should be the darling of a terrorist regime. Brecht was nothing if not just that.

But if.Brecht: The Man and His Work(New York:Doubleday. Brecht regarded Truthfulness as a duty.ERIC BENTLEY 73 man for the German Communist Party declared Brecht's theories to be "undeniably in opposition to everything the name Stanislavski stands for. as I gather.. 1961).do you? In the second. He shuts it. For like the Party leaders. like the rest of the world. Helene Weigel. The two leaders of the Ensemble must surely be the last people to hide their heads in the sand when faced with these facts." Such passages remind us that Brecht knew very little about Stanislavski and. he was apt to express hostility to Stanislavski. she could only have made the confusion worse. . Brecht finds in the hypnotic kind of theatre a soporific intention based on fear of the audience's intelligence: "The audience's sharp eye frightens him [Stanislavski]." 1 At that time the "two leaders" of the Berlin Ensemble were Brecht himself and his wife." And one notes that the New Society is as given as any American orator on Commencement Day to orotund platitude.. Brecht. I will reproduce Brecht's Nine Points at the foot of this article. In the first of these passages. 179-80. the Brechts identified the word "Stanislavski" with the word "Soviet. Brecht believed in Man. the target is not only the strictly Naturalistic theatre but any theatre that depends too heavily on empathy.You don't normallyexamine your own home or your own feedinghabits. Stanislavski had a sense of responsibility to society. When Brecht was not busy blotting himself out (like his Young Comrade) in order to be Stalin's organization man. the target is Naturalism: What he [Stanislavski]cared about was naturalness. thought of him as the lackey of 1MartinEsslin. Stanislavski regarded Truthfulness as a duty. Willett rightly cites in Brecht on Theatre along with the Nine Points.. Stanislavski believed in Man. Since only seeing is believing. as in two passages which Mr. all she had to offer was a rehash of the Nine Points her husband had printed the year before in Theaterarbeit.pp. Frau Weigel attended the Stanislavski Conference of 1953 with the laudable aim of showing that Brecht and Stanislavski were not as incompatible as all that.and as a result everythingin his theatreseemedfar too naturalfor anyone to pause and go into it thoroughly.

But this is not to say that Stanislavski's approach to acting will have to be discarded if Brecht's plays are to be well performed. If the word "Soviet" does not define Stanislavski's general outlook. Brecht never considered that "epic" acting had really been achieved either by the Berlin Ensemble or anyone else. but also in the auditorium. Wilde and Arthur Miller? Brecht's assault upon the idea of Empathy and his defense of Alienation sound more threatening in their abstract theoretic grandeur than in practice they turn out to be. . Should that vision ever be realized. psychological drama of pathos and suspense. it is conceivable that Stanislavski may prove to have been one of the contributors to it. or at least to have achieved some authentically Brechtian productions. between Shaw and Shakespeare. Incidentally. such as Meyerhold. would have proceeded to create a Brechtian theatre. neither do words like "naturalistic" and "empathic" define his theatre as a whole. The "Alienation Effect" is not alien to the tradition of comic acting as Stanislavski and everyone else know it-what Brecht is attacking is the tragic tradition in its attenuated form of domestic. First a man can become an actor-with the help of the Method. Then he can learn to adapt himself to different kinds of plays-including Brecht's. he belonged too unalterably to the pre-1914 world. Perhaps it takes a German intellectual to make such heavy weather of the thing. The difference between generations is a difference of spirit and temper. So there is his own authority for saying: there are no Brechtian actors. Evidently what he had was a vision of what acting might become. But the Charlie Chaplins and Zero Mostels practice Alienation as Monsieur Jourdain composed prose. Is the difference between Brecht and all other playwrights greater after all than other differences which actors have already learned to confront-say. one would probably be wise to answer: No. given not only changes on stage.e lived on. had his health been better and had h.74 Tulane Drama Review one style of theatre. He would not have been any more at home with Brecht than he had been with the Russian Communist playwrights-or with his own rebellious sons. To revert to the question of whether Stanislavski.

4. Unity of naturalness and style. 3. 5.'s theatre a splendid naturalness went arm-in-arm with deep significance. In S. The feeling for a play's poetry. Nothing that is not taken from the actor's observation.1952). the production endowed them with poetic features. but he knew that no end is attained in the theatre except through art. Importance of the broad conception and of details. 6. Translatedby John Willett. . Brecht on Theatre (New York:Hill and Wang.p. taught that the actor must have exact knowledge of himself and of the men he sets out to portray. The sense of responsibility to society. Art was not an end in itself to him. it never descended to mere reportage. He proved that individual playing only reaches full effectiveness by means of ensemble playing. 2 FromTheaterarbeit(Dresden. but he did so gracefully. S. showed the actors the social meaning of their craft. In the Moscow Art Theatre every play acquired a carefully thought-out shape and a wealth of subtly elaborated detail.pp. Reprinted by permissionof the publishers. All his productions make sense. S. As a realist he never hesitated to portray ugliness. 236-37.'s theatre had to put on naturalistic plays to satisfy the taste of the time. Representation of reality as full of contradictions.ERIC BENTLEY 75 SOME OF THE THINGS THAT CAN BE LEARNT FROM STANISLAVSKI2 1. 7. The star's ensemble playing. S. 413. Even when S. 2.'s theatre consisted only of stars. Truthfulness as a duty. 1964). great and small. or confirmed by observation. grasped the diversity and complexity of social life and knew how to represent it without getting entangled. S. The one is useless without the other. Whereas here in Germany even classical plays acquire no kind of splendor. is fit to be observed by the audience.

From his theatre came such important artists as Vakhtangov. was a convinced humanist. The significance of art's further development. who in turn developed their teacher's art further in complete freedom. The importance of man. The Moscow Art Theatre never rested on its laurels. and as such conducted his theatre along the road to socialism.76 Tulane Drama Review 8. S. invented new artistic methods for every production. 9. S. .