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Michael Chekhov: “All the world's a stage”
Not so long ago 130th anniversary of the birth of the outstanding Russian actor and theater teacher Michael Chekhov was marked. During 64 years given to him by fate, Michael Chekhov lived several lives in different countries. He played perhaps the best Khlestakov in the history of Russian theater and initiated theater education in Latvia and several other European countries. He was nicknamed "The Mozart of the Stage" by foreign critics. He changed the approach to acting in Hollywood and prompted Marilyn Monroe to demand more serious roles from studios. And finally, he wrote a book that still remains a handbook for actors all over the world.
Michael Chekhov passed away more than 65 years ago, but his fame and influence in the theatrical and cinema worlds seem to be only growing. The Russkiy Mir found out how Chekhov's methodology is interpreted today in theaters that are named after him, and who is awarded the Michael Chekhov Medal.
Chekhov ¹2 in Moscow Art Theatre
Michael Chekhov was born into the family of Anton Chekhov's older brother Alexander in 1891. By that time his uncle was already a writer known throughout Russia, the hope of Russian literature. At the age of 16, Michael became a student of the school of St. Petersburg Small (Suvorinski) Theater, and five years later he became an actor at the Moscow Art Theater at the invitation of Konstantin Stanislavski.
The Moscow Art Theater was famous throughout the world for its stage productions of Anton Chekhov's plays. It had been mourning the playwright's death for eight years. And then a new Chekhov appeared in the theater. However, it was not kinship with the writer, but a unique talent that helped the actor to make the name of Chekhov shine again on the posters. He played in his uncle's plays, but his best role at the Moscow Art Theater, according to critics and researchers, was Khlestakov in a play based on The Inspector General by Gogol. The play was staged by the MAT founders Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.
He repeated and changed his Khlestakov for the rest of his life. When he could not play this role anymore because of his age, he staged several "Inspectors" in different countries and used Gogol's text in the lessons for the first Hollywood stars.
Man of a Thousand Faces
This was the name given to Michael Chekhov by the American press in the early 1920s during the Moscow Art Theater’s tour to the United States. By that time, he was already a great maitre, the author of his own method of being on stage. The rapturous welcome in Europe and the rejection of what was going on in his homeland prompted the actor to stay abroad after the tour. He tried his hand in the movies, traveled with stage productions to European countries, and opened theatrical studios one after another.
The studio opened by Chekhov in Riga in 1932 is still considered the beginning of theatrical education in Latvia. During his two years in Latvia, he staged his all-time Inspector General at the Theater of Russian Drama. Other productions included Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and The Death of Ivan the Terrible, where he played the silly courtier Malvolio and the Russian Tsar accordingly.
In 2006, the Theater of Russian Drama, which had changed its name more than once in the 20th century, was named after Michael Chekhov. The website of the theater has Russian, Latvian, and English versions and tells in detail about the Riga period of Michael Chekhov.
"In addition to his professional skills, Michael Chekhov revealed to his students the philosophy of theater - or rather, the 'ideal theater,' which is an expression of all that is best and even divine in man," the website says. “As part of the course, Chekhov presented the general scheme of his acting method and asked, "What draws us to the theater? Why am I in the theater, despite the various troubles in the backstage life, despite the difficult working conditions? This is some kind of mystery, the mystery of theater, the mystery of characterisation.”
Today the Michael Chekhov Riga Russian Theatre has brought together Russian-speaking actors and directors, as well as Latvians. The theater stages the plays by Russian and foreign authors and actively initiates joint projects with Latvian troupes.
Not being attached to any country, Michael Chekhov traveled around Europe in search of a country capable of cultural renewal. It seemed to him that the theatrical art in Germany, France, and other trendsetting countries was moving towards "entertainment of a rather low-end type."
In the decades after Michael Chekhov's death, the commercial theater has filled its considerable niche in European countries, but the Chekhovian seed is still there. Five years ago, the Michael Chekhov Center Austria and the Michael Chekhov Theater Lab Vienna opened at the Russian House in Vienna; today it is a successful company with an international audience. Furthermore, the theater has a studio for young actors
"I strive to follow the principles of the Chekhov’s system. That's why my work with actors is based on a meticulous laboratory process of finding the artistic image and the actor's psychophysical transformation," says the theater founder Irina Prodeus, a graduate of the Moscow Boris Shchukin Theater School.
The theater also carries out educational work, publishes articles about Michael Chekhov on its online platforms, and holds virtual tours through the performer’s biography in German and English.
The Michael Chekhov Medal was established by the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad in 2008. It is awarded to cultural figures from different countries. In different years, Nikita Mikhalkov, Maya Plisetskaya, Galina Vishnevskaya, Yury Solomin, cartoonist Alexander Petrov, French actress Marina Vlady, and Serbian composer Goran Bregović received the award.
The American actress Joanna Merlin was the first to be awarded Chekhov’s medal. She was a student of Michael Chekhov and has actually devoted her life to teaching his methods in the United States. In 2009 Joanna Merlin presented the documentary Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Quinn, and others – Mikhail Chekhov's Star System.
Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, and many other American high-profile celebrities can be added to the names mentioned in the title of the documentary. After Chekhov moved to the United States and opened an acting school, his name quickly became famous among the acting bohemians. Young actors and maitres rushed to Chekhov. Some of them attended his long-term courses starting from the basics, others ask for help in preparing for certain roles. Michael Chekhov charged quite a significant fee for his lessons - $25 per hour (about $150 at the current exchange rate). But if he saw a true talent in someone, he often taught them for free. The famous American actress Mala Powers shared that Chekhov taught actors not only acting but also the perception of their own soul. Chekhov's pedagogical method was rooted in a deep truth of life, and therefore everything he said about art related to life and led to a deeper understanding of human nature.
Chekhov's attitude to the cinema changed dramatically. At first, he thought it to be vain pleasures, moving pictures, but over the years he saw true art that required an actor to have real acting skills. As a result, he himself became a prominent film actor of his time. Chekhov starred in ten Hollywood films. He was an Oscar nominee for his role in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.
Michael Chekhov's work and interaction with famous Hollywood actors not only enriched them with new knowledge and skills; many of them changed their approach to role building. Actors began to demand more time from film producers to prepare for roles and rehearse. Therefore, the claim that Michael Chekhov changed Hollywood is not a forced argument. The symbol of American cinema Marilyn Monroe is the prime example - the capricious actress with stellar manners used to turn into a meek pupil during her classes with Chekhov.
“Classes with Monroe lasted three years,” writes the Finnish theater expert Liisa Bückling in her monograph about Michael Chekhov. “Monroe became attached to the maitre and his wife who she used to go with to the theater in Los Angeles (Chekhov almost never got out into the world)." After Chekhov's death, Monroe did not forget Ksenia Chekhov (Michael Chekhov’s wife - author), who became her adoptive mother, and left a small inheritance for her. “Michael Chekhov believed Monroe to be an unusually sensitive actress,” Ksenia Chekhov told the actress' biographer.
The author of the monograph points out that Chekhov was one of the first to support Monroe's aspirations for a serious career. Monroe began her long struggle with Fox Studios for the right to play more profound roles, which resulted in the establishment of her own firm and a conflict with the producers’ expectations.
In 1946, Chekhov published On the Technique of Acting in the USA; it was in Russian. The English version was published only in 1953, two years before the author's death. The book caused a sensation in the American artistic community. It was immediately nicknamed a textbook. To this day, there are confessions of the high-profile actors that Chekhov's book made them what they have become.
Even today he still speaks to young actors from the pages of his book in many languages of the world: "Do more than you show, draw a veil over it. Your body should become like a veil. Show less than you feel. Feelings should be expressed sparingly. And don't be afraid of your feelings - let others be afraid of them.”