Michael Chekhov: Pedagogy, Spirituality, and the Occult
For over thirty years Michael Chekhov was a student of Anthroposophy. Whilst his studies found their way into his theoretical and practical work on the art of the actor, he didn't insist that his students needed to take up Anthroposophy in order to progress as performers. How important is it, therefore, for students of theatre to have an understanding of the occult philosophy that underpins Chekhov's work? In what follows I give a brief introduction to what I mean by the occult and Chekhov's relation to it. I then discuss why I think that it is unnecessary for those studying the practice to have an understanding of the occult or spiritual philosophy that underpins Chekhov's work.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a growing interest in spirituality and the occult spreading across Europe (Chamberlain, "Spirit"; Lipsey; Webb, Circle; Webb, Establishment; Webb, Occult). The term occult refers to the idea of a realm of knowledge which is obscured (occulted) by an emphasis on enlightenment reasoning and materialistic science (Eliade). There were three main streams to occultism in this period: spiritualism, which spread from the USA after 1848, Theosophy, which was an outgrowth of spiritualism but which emphasised an esoteric take on Buddhism and Hinduism, and a resurgence of interest in western occultism: hermeticism, alchemy, and rosicrucianism.
Edouard Schuré (1841-1929) was a figure at the heart of these developments who argued, in his best-selling book The Great Initiates (1889), that the dominant positivism and scepticism of the late-nineteenth century was producing a "barren generation" (xv). Schuré thought that science's interference in religion, religion's refusal to come out of dogma, and philosophy's failure to fulfil its role as mediator between science and religion had led to 'a profound rupture' in both society and individual (Initiates x). What was needed to heal the rupture was the recovery of the "art of creating and forging human souls" (Initiates xxxiv) and Schuré felt that this recovery could be achieved by establishing an approach to the world which was founded on what he considered to be "organic truths": (i) spirit is the only reality, (ii) creation is eternal (iii) human beings are a threefold microcosm composed of body, soul, and spirit. He argued for a new gnosis which he defined as "the art of finding God in oneself, by developing the occult depths and latent powers of consciousness" (Initiates xxiii).
Exploring the depths of consciousness in order to bring about healing was the task which Freud gave to psychoanalysis. Freud, however, was attempting to make psychoanalysis fit with materialistic (or naturalistic) science in a way which can be viewed as contrary to Schuré's aim to recover the art of soul making (Hillman; Sardello).
Psychoanalysis was to take place in private rooms but Schuré saw the theatre as one of the most important places where healing could take place because it "acts on the entire human being" ("Theatre" 174). The title essay of his influential book Theatre of the Soul (Théatre de l'Ame) (1900) was published in Craig's The Mask in January 1912. In this essay Schuré attacked naturalism and aligned himself with the symbolists by proposing a theatre which would aim to unite the human and the divine.
The aims which Schuré lists were to some extent shared by a large number of creative artists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Schuré himself mentions Maeterlinck, Péladan, and Villiers but we could also add inter alia Yeats, Strindberg, Belyi, Blok, Wyspianski, Craig, Sologub, Kandinskii, and Valle-Inclán who shared an interest in the occult view of the world and in using the theatre as a means of soul making.
Not even Stanislavskii was exempt from these ideas as his speech to the company before they performed Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird in 1907 demonstrates. He claimed that people were cut off from the spiritual life by being immersed in their material goods. He wanted the production to give the audience a glimpse of spiritual happiness, to "provoke serious thoughts and deep feelings" as well as cleansing their souls of "accumulated grime" (Stanislavskii qtd. in Benedetti, 167).
Stanislavskii's difficulties in staging the new drama of the soul were central to the establishment of the First Studio in 1912, the same year as Michael Chekhov joined the Moscow Art Theatre and a few months before the Anthroposophical Society was founded in Germany in February 1913.
The Anthroposophical Society was founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) after his opposition to the promotion of Krishnamurti as the new World Teacher by Annie Besant led to a split within the Theosophical Society. Steiner, who had been a Theosophist since 1902, was expelled but the majority of German members followed him into his new venture.
Like Schuré, and to some extent the Theosophical Society, Steiner wanted to heal the split between science and spirituality. Steiner felt that experiences of the soul and spirit worlds were as verifiable as experiences of the physical world. Also in common with Schuré, Steiner believed that the arts, including theatre, were an important aid to spiritual development. His four Mystery Dramas, (1910-13) follow the spiritual development of a group of people as they attempt to create a new spiritual community of free individuals.
Steiner gave numerous lectures on the content of his plays but also explored new ways of engaging with performance practice (Pusch; Steiner, Dramas; Steiner, Three Lectures; Steiner, Secrets). He developed a theory and practice of voice work which he called "speech formation" (Steiner, Speech) and developed a new dance form, eurythmy (Raffe et al.).
Whilst Michael Chekhov was developing his craft with the First Studio, Steiner was developing his theories of art, education, biodynamic farming, homeopathic medicine, architecture and building a substantial following. By 1917 Steiner was lecturing on both Freud and Jung and distinguishing his spiritual psychology from their approach. As far as Steiner was concerned, psychoanalysis was important because it drew attention to "certain soul processes" (Steiner, Freud 32) but its means were "inadequate" and he felt that Freud had paid too little attention to the idea of "soul wounding" which was present in Breuer's work.
Michael Chekhov was moving towards a physical and psychological collapse by 1916. He was trapped in a vicious circle of oppressive and destructive fantasies and destructive behaviours, especially his excessive drinking. The stresses of the 1917 Revolution intensified his problems and by 1918 his wife had divorced him and taken their daughter away, his cousin had committed suicide using Chekhov's gun, his mother died, and he was sinking into suicidal depression. He was no longer able to act.
A fortunate encounter with Steiner's work enabled him to develop an understanding of his "soul wound" and he began to free himself of his self-destructive and self-indulgent tendencies. It was after his discovery of Anthroposophy that he began to come out most strongly against Stanislavskii's emphasis on emotion memory. Chekhov felt that the emotion memory approach tied the actor to the everyday personality and personal history rather than assisting the development of a deeper transpersonal creativity. One of the many problems, for Chekhov, with the emotion memory approach was that it risked the danger of re-traumatizing the actor who worked with specific details from personal history. After a century of psychotherapy it might seem obvious that the process of reliving moments from personal history is ultimately beneficial but there are numerous contemporary challenges to this faith. For example, House, himself a therapist, asks whether a therapist can "ever guarantee that re-traumatization will not be the result of therapy" (158).
Chekhov continued to deepen his understanding of spiritual science for the rest of his life and incorporated eurythmy and speech formation into his actor training. He became quite clear that he was looking to a Theatre of the Future which would be a "spiritual theatre" (Chekhov, Professional Actor 141) that would take us beyond nineteenth-century materialism. This vision links him quite clearly with the ideas of Schuré, and Steiner.
If we want to situate Chekhov's work within its historical and cultural context we need to have some awareness of the alternative spiritual movements of the period, Anthroposophy in particular, as well as an understanding of developments in actor-training and performance. This would also involve us in a study of the spiritual dimension of the acting research being conducted at the First Studio under Sulerzhitskii (Chamberlain, "Spirit"; Gordon).
Once we have this information we might find it useful to examine Chekhov's writings to trace a genealogy of his ideas and exercises. We will be able to trace some direct borrowings from Steiner but also exercises developed by Chekhov which draw on his understanding of Anthroposophy. This might involve us in looking at the model of the human being in Chekhov and seeing how neatly it ties in with Steiner's, or go the other way and draw on Steiner to show what's missing from Chekhov's work.
Whilst this is an important and worthwhile approach to Chekhov, I suggest it is not the best way to get a practical understanding of Chekhov's approach in order to evaluate whether or not it is a useful one for contemporary performers.
In this context it's interesting to note how Chekhov allowed his relationship to Anthroposophy to be implicit rather than explicit in his published writings. It's not that he doesn't make reference to Steiner, he does, but not always in such a way that would lead the uninitiated reader to recognise the connections.
In the 1953 version of Chekhov's To the Actor, there are only two brief references to Steiner and no explicit references at all to eurythmy, speech formation or Anthroposophy. In 1991 Mala Powers and Mel Gordon put together On the Technique of Acting, a revised version of the 1953 book which included material excluded from the earlier edition, but which was in Chekhov's manuscript. This 1991 version includes more references to Steiner and there is some discussion of the significance of eurythmy (Chekhov, Technique 74-77). Although Chekhov indicated the usefulness of eurythmy, he didn't indicate any specific exercises and, given that there are over eighty exercises detailed in the book, this appears a significant omission. It is perfectly possible to adapt one or two exercises to make use of what he does say about eurythmy, but there is insufficient information to make use of eurythmy in any detailed way. This absence of practical discussion of eurythmy is also apparent in the material transcribed by Deirdre Hurst du Prey (Chekhov, Professional Actor; Chekhov, Teachers). Despite the fact that Chekhov considered eurythmy as one of the paths which would help us access our Creative Individuality (Chekhov, Technique 77), the emphasis in his writings is on another "path," that of the Psychological Gesture. In this context it is interesting to note that the most recent version of his book, a new edition based on the 1953 text, has been expanded to include further material on the Psychological Gesture (Chekhov, To the Actor  183-205).
This isn't to ignore the fact that eurythmy formed part of the curriculum at Chekhov's schools in both Dartington and Ridgefield, but it is to note that Chekhov appeared to consider the explicit teaching of eurythmy to be the province of someone other than himself. That leaves us with a problem if we want to teach Chekhov's technique from the published exercises. Is the technique incomplete without the addition of classes in eurythmy?
Chekhov didn't appear to think so. In the foreword to To the Actor he states, quite clearly, that he is offering up the results of "years of experimental testing and verifying" for people to test and evaluate themselves (Chekhov, To the Actor  xii; Chekhov, To the Actor  lii). The key to understanding the material presented in the book is, according to Chekhov, through the active co-operation of the reader. This doesn't just mean being an "active" reader. Chekhov claimed that the only way to understand the art of acting was to do it and that the reader's question would be answered through the act of performing the exercises detailed in the text (Chekhov, To the Actor ; Chekhov, To the Actor ). Since this is a summary of his life's work and it includes no specific instruction in eurythmy it seems reasonable to conclude that Chekhov didn't consider it essential to discuss the relationship of eurythmy to his technique.
If we want to understand Chekhov's technique for actors we have to do it. No amount of analysis of sources or theoretical perspectives can substitute for experience. Once we have the experience we can analyse it in any way we deem appropriate. Perhaps we will come to explanations for our experiences that are profoundly different from Chekhov's. The most important question for someone trying out the technique is "does this work for me?".
Chekhov's anthroposophical viewpoint is woven into his approach. It is implicit rather than explicit. Since Chekhov did not insist that his students adopt an anthroposophical perspective, it follows that there is no necessity, from his point of view, for the student to have any understanding of Anthroposophy in order to benefit from the technique. In a sense this leaves Anthroposophy occulted within the technique. It is a hidden philosophical basis for Chekhov's theorising about his practice.
I teach on an undergraduate degree which, until recently, involved students in the second and third years taking two options which run for six hours a week each for ten weeks. Each week comprises one four hour and one two-hour session. All sessions take place in a studio, so there is a high proportion of practical work. The aim of the course is to enable the students to develop as creative artists with a critical awareness of performance. Occasionally I offer an option solely on the Chekhov Technique, but at other times Chekhov's work is incorporated into a broader course. I don't think that I've taught a course over the past fifteen years that hasn't drawn on Michael Chekhov's work to some degree. When I first read To the Actor I thought it was the first book that I'd read on acting that described a process that I understood. What was most important to me at the time was the emphasis on imagination, the processes of embodiment and the sense of the importance of spirituality in the theatre. By the time I read Chekhov I'd already encountered Anthroposophy and experienced some classes in eurythmy and Bothmer gymnastics. Unlike Chekhov, however, my encounter with Rudolf Steiner's work wasn't life changing and although I continue to find Chekhov's work inspiring I only return to Steiner, for the most part, when I'm wanting to reflect on the roots of an idea in Chekhov.
This marginalization of Steiner and Anthroposophy is reflected in my teaching. Unless students show a specific interest in the metaphysical basis of the work I say almost nothing about Steiner, Anthroposophy, or occultism and the alternative spirituality of the early twentieth-century and its relation to theatre in general or Chekhov in particular.
Yet I don't think it is that simple. I've already mentioned that the question of spirituality and theatre is important to me and my doctoral thesis examined the relationship between the alternative spiritual philosophies and the experimental theatre of the first part of the twentieth century (Chamberlain, "Spirit"). My investigations into spirituality and theatre have continued so it is inevitable that my classes are, to some extent, affected by this interest. But these aren't my only interests and are therefore not the only things which appear in my teaching.
A point of view which appears to run counter to this idea that teaching the occult or spiritual basis to Chekhov's work is irrelevant to an effective learning of the technique was put forward by Gerald Heard in October 1938. Michael Chekhov was at Dartington in Devon but the possibility of moving to the USA was already being explored as conditions worsened in Europe. Dorothy Elmhirst wrote to Heard in California about the possibility of Chekhov moving there. Heard's reply, which isn't encouraging, involves some reflection on Steiner and spirituality. He sees the essence of Steiner's Anthroposophy as being the basic teaching that is present in Western mysticism and in Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta, but which is distorted in "ordinary" Christianity. For Heard the "fundamental features" of that spiritual outlook were expressed clearly in Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means (1937).
Huxley advocates the experimental engagement with meditation as a path to connecting with "an ultimate spiritual reality that is perceived as simultaneously beyond the self and in some way within it" (286). As we have already seen the idea of an underlying spiritual reality was a key one in Schuré, and indeed was central to the new spiritual movements of the period. This underlying reality is hidden from the eyes of a materialistic science because it could not be quantified. The essence is in the quality of experience which involves an awareness of the interrelatedness of "all being" (Huxley 300). This awareness, for Huxley, is an experience not (simply) a theory and it is necessary to practice the virtues of love, compassion and understanding to make the connection. Huxley, in this work, speaks of a "scientific-mystic" perspective and, like Schuré, Steiner and others, was attempting to find a way to bridge the gap between science and spirituality. This is not to say that Huxley's view was the same as Steiner's or Schuré's, but that they were engaging with the same problem.
In very different personal circumstances from Chekhov, Huxley was looking for a way out of "meaninglessness" and believed that he'd found it through a recognition of the fundamental spiritual values which were at the core of the mystic vision in all religions. Huxley, then, could be expected to share something of Chekhov's for a theatre of the future.
Heard, however, raises an interesting problem in relation to Chekhov. He considers that it might be necessary for Chekhov to work only with those students who've already studied meditation techniques and accepted a spiritual view of life. This is different from asking whether the Chekhov technique can be taught without reference to the underlying spiritual philosophy. It is not a question of theoretical grounding but of a prior training in a specific spiritual practice. I suspect that Heard had very little familiarity, if any, with Chekhov's practical approach and hence was unable to consider the possibility that the training provided its own spiritual basis. In fact it is unlikely that Heard had any familiarity with the developments in actor-training over the previous thirty years. What was commonly known of Stanislavskii, for example, was his "realism." His goal of developing a "spiritual order of actors" (Stanislavsky 537), together with the experiments of Sulerzhitskii, and Chekhov's own attempts to bring together the detailed work of Stanislavskii with Steiner's explorations, were unknown.
The reply to Heard then, is that the training itself includes a spiritual dimension from which it is impossible to escape but which doesn't demand any particular construction is put on the experience. If the individual finds Anthroposophy helpful as a means of furthering their understanding, that's fine, but any other construction that helped a person come to grips with the ideas contained in the work is also fine. That is, if there are fundamental spiritual values then they are there regardless of the tradition. Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama, recently offered a perspective on what he calls basic spiritual qualities including "love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony" the practice of which "brings happiness to both self and others" (Gyatso 22-3). These are values which Huxley would have recognised and so they are relevant to Heard's challenge.
How are these spiritual qualities linked to the work of the student training in the Chekhov technique? Let's begin by taking a brief look at the idea of the ensemble. For Chekhov, a theatrical ensemble needs to be able to do more than just work together to produce a well-executed performance, each actor "must develop...a sensitivity to the creative impulses of others" (Chekhov, To the Actor  41). They are trying to develop a sense of harmony and Chekhov gives a number of exercises to develop this feeling. He suggests that each person in the group attempt to open their heart to each other person. Chekhov is very concerned that this is not a vague feeling towards the group in general or an indulgence in sentimentality but a sincere attempt to be open to each individual in the group without judgement. A number of exercises follow from this first one but Chekhov asserts that whether or not the exercises are successful as such the main point of them lies in 'the effort to open one's self to the others' (Chekhov, To the Actor  43). Chekhov insists that individual exercises should continue to be practised alongside the ensemble exercises, that we have to work to open ourselves to our own creative impulses as well as those of others.
Working in this way is not only about harmony and a sense of responsibility, it is also about tolerance and patience and love and compassion. If we are not tolerant and patient we will get nothing from these exercises and the opening ourselves to each other involves a sense of compassion for ourselves and others. Patience, love and compassion are amongst the twelve virtues which were identified in Theosophy and Anthroposophy (Sardello). There is no necessity that we should view these virtues as having a spiritual foundation (Blackburn; MacIntyre) and I would suggest that it makes little difference in the studio. I have not noticed that students who hold a materialist view of the world are less successful in working with the Chekhov technique.
In a 1955 lecture Chekhov said "love" was something which we were "ashamed of" (Powers). He saw love as one of our creative treasures about which we are confused. Love, as Chekhov sees it, is not sentimentality and he is interested in the "higher aspect" of human love which is about loving every human being just because they are - without any specific reason or egotism. Chekhov was keen to distinguish this from an abstract love of humanity as a mass.
Chekhov is clear about the importance of love for the actor. The actor loves the role, loves the process of rehearsal, and loves the audience. If the actor doesn't love the theatre what's s/he doing there? That's Chekhov's point - not that the actor should love the profession but that s/he does, aware of it or not. There's more to it than that, of course, there always is. But beyond the idea that the actor loves the theatre is the notion that love is, or at least needs to be, the basis of stage emotion. A character who is expressing hatred in a play is not a real person in everyday life but a character on the stage, a fiction. The actor shouldn't be feeling "real" hatred but hatred as an artistic emotion and it needs to be grounded in love. By providing the ground for this expression love creates a distance, another dimension, which allows the actor to not become identified with the hatred and to present it, in effect as an art object. The danger for Chekhov of the actor not having this ground is the danger of the emotions spilling off the stage and into the actor's personal life and creating difficulties, also that the audience is not there to see a real person suffering but a fictitious one. As the Moscow Art Theatre First Studio discovered, attempting to create a link with the audience through real feelings, especially when there's an aim to evoke strong feelings in the audience, is potentially abusive (Chamberlain, "Michael Chekhov"; Chekhov, Professional Actor). Once again there is nothing in what Chekhov is after here which demands a spiritual explanation and we could just as easily ground our work in a sense of playfulness, lightness, and fluidity as in love.
Yet there is something more that is involved in Chekhov's conception of love which he took from Steiner and is an important aspect of his technique. With this attitude of "love" we have the possibility of entering into all manifestations of life. That's what the actor needs to do. Whether imaginatively engaging with and representing another human character, or an animal, or a ghost, or an (in)animate object. For Chekhov it is undesirable to reduce the other to the self, it is always important to ask "how am I different from this character, animal, object?". And the process of this recognition of difference does not have judgement as its aim but awareness. By noticing the differences between the self and the other the actor offers a space for the other to manifest whilst keeping a clear sense of difference. There is no possession here, where the self is taken over by the other. The actor is not a medium, nor is the other reduced to the everyday personality of the actor. Self and other are allies in the creation of the performance. The relationship opens out further to include not just actor and character but also actor and actor and actor and audience. Allies in the creation of the performance. Not competitors, not enemies.
So, is this how I teach? Emphasising the importance of love in my class? Well, as it happens, no. I emphasise playfulness, and acceptance, and fluidity and openness, and a gentleness towards self and others. I do talk about love sometimes, however. Imagine you have a loved one coming for dinner, how would you treat your self, your space, how would you like them to feel when they arrive? How would it be if you thought of your audience in this way, how would you create the space for them? This exercise was developed from a phrase, "rendezvous with a loved one," used by Eugenio Barba (1995). I thought that this image caught Chekhov's attitude to the actor-audience relationship. The actor may still be nervous but now we have the excitement of meeting a lover, not the fear of meeting an enemy.
Working with this sense of openness to, and respect for, difference begins to expand our awareness both of ourselves and others. This is useful as we engage with the world of the imagination. As we accept that images, characters, words, situations emerge without our conscious willing. It happens every night in our dreams when our everyday personality is less bound by the demands of consensus reality. In our dreams anything can and does happen. In the first chapter of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche pointed out that each of us is a "consummate artist" in the world of dreams (15). The problem, of course, is how we become accomplished artists in the waking world. How we can dream while awake or with open eyes and find a manifest form for this dreaming. The actor's task is to give flesh and sound to the dream, bringing it into the waking world before an audience. This cannot be done if we are unable to pay attention to our dreaming, if we marginalise it, or discount it. Chekhov's method enables us to enter into a dialogue with the figures of our dreaming in order to bring them more fully into manifestation.
The actor isn't, however, like a spiritualist medium manifesting spirits being neither possessed nor even pretending to be possessed, but engaged in a relationship with the dream figure. In order to engage in this relationship the actor needs to develop skills in concentration and imagination in addition to the virtues or "metaskills" (Mindell, Metaskills) of compassion, love, tolerance and openness mentioned above. Chekhov's technique includes this training and Heard's suggestion that students should have a basic training in meditation before they start the training is made redundant by Chekhov's exercises in concentration and working with the imagination. In these exercises, once again, there is no need for the student to have any knowledge of Chekhov's spiritual perspective in order to develop the necessary skills.
The development of the actor's imagination is central to Chekhov's training but whilst this can happen without any understanding of Chekhov's relation to Anthroposophy, the cultivation of an ethos of compassion, love, patience and tolerance is essential. The attitude with which we approach the figures that appear in our dreams and in our imagination is crucial to their unfolding. The imagination played an important role in the work of Steiner and others who were seeking a unification of science and spirituality through art. That is a topic for another day.
Whilst Chekhov's own work is rooted in Anthroposophy, Steiner himself recognised that each period, culture and individual had their own needs. I find that my training in Process Work (Arye; Mindell, Alternative; Mindell, Dreaming; Mindell, Dreammaker's; Mindell, Quantum) and Focusing (Cornell; Gendlin, Body; Gendlin, Experiencing; Gendlin, Focusing) to be useful in generating ways of engaging with Chekhov. I also draw off my training in various contemporary theatre practices. My aim in teaching the Chekhov technique is to assist the students in developing their own creative practice and a reflexive stance towards that practice. Detailed discussions of the relationship between Chekhov, Steiner and Anthroposophy will just get in the way of that fundamental aim. In another place, at another time, my aims might be different.
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© Franc Chamberlain