Michael Chekhov


Anyway, the reason I brought up Spellbound is that it led me to take Michael Chekhov’s To the Director and Playwright down from the shelf and browse through it. I haven’t looked at that book in a very long time. Chekhov has a delightful and important comic role in the movie as the elderly psychoanalyst who was once Constance’s teacher. The actor was the nephew of the great playwright, and he was a very respected actor and acting teacher, first in Moscow and then in other countries, eventually settling down in Hollywood.

220px-Michael_Chekhov_1910хThe picture above is Chekhov as Dr. Brulov in Spellbound; to the left is one of him as a very serious-looking young man.

The book, To the Director and Playwright, is actually a collection of some of his writing and lectures compiled by an editor after his death. It actually doesn’t contain all that much that is especially for the playwright, it seems to me, even though that’s why I bought it in the first place. What he has to say is mostly about creating characters and individual scenes that contain theatrical life, and he writes about them from the point of view of how the director and actors will think about these things. This is all very good and valuable for the playwright to know, certainly; you have to create characters and scenes that will give your director and actors the basis for doing their jobs well. But it nevertheless seems to me that these things are not at the heart of the playwright’s job, and that Chekhov didn’t say much about the larger structural matters that the playwright needs to understand in order to be able to sustain that feeling of theatrical life over the course of two to three hours.

Still, it’s a very good book, with a lot of good stuff in it, and now I want to reread it and find some of Chekhov’s other books and lectures as well.

Here’s a passage I like very much, as apt to playwriting — and to life itself, for that matter — as it is to acting and directing:

There are many things around us which we feel are ugly, unsympathetic, unpleasant, and our impulse is to shun them, have nothing to do with them. That is an understandable, atavistic, animal reaction. But suppose the very next time you encounter something unpleasant you try to find in it at least a grain of something which is not ugly or repulsive. I don’t mean this as plain blind optimism; it literally is possible to discover something good or pleasant in everything unpleasant. It might be so minuscule that is is almost microscopic, or it might even be something intangible, but finding it will be extremely worth while. This act of kindness, this perceptive, artistic form of love, will help you to understand why no character on stage can ever be all black. In order to like and enjoy even the most hateful of our character creations, we must see in them or endow them with something admirable.

Still another suggestion: Listen to conversations and discussions of people around you and pay particular attention to the way they utter such possessive words as “I,” “mine,” “to my way of thinking,” “in my opinion,” etc. Frequently, they put more emphasis on those than on the things they have to say. Your impulse is to be highly critical of their egotism. But if you stopped to view this failing in a charitable light, you would soon be asking yourself, “Don’t I measure the thoughts and opinions of others through the prism of my own agreement or disagreement?” I don’t mean to say that nobody should express opinions; without them no discussion or conversation would be possible. What I am suggesting is that we curb this small ego within our own selves. The best way to treat it is with a gentle and tolerable humor; laugh at it, but without your justifiable sarcasm or cynicism. Learn to laugh at and discourage your petty ego because it is one of the numerous foibles that work in opposition to selfless love. Our kind of love, the creative person’s love, must be all-pervading and expand us; the small egos of our life only contract us.

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