The Other Chekhov

REVIEW by Dorothy Sinclair

THE OTHER CHEKHOV - A Biography of Michael Chekhov by Charles Marowitz. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004

In his exhaustive study of the life of Michael Chekhov, auteur Charles Marowitz delivers a rich biography of a renowned actor as well as a comprehensive overview of the stage in America and abroad since the Russian Revolution. Historians, theatre buffs, and above all, actors, will want to keep this one handy for an insightful discussion of varying acting techniques - from Stanislavsky to Strasberg. This should go a long way towards laying to rest the argument that a great performance can be based solely on "truth"and "emotional memory" and is certain to spark discussion on the actor as chamaeleon, vs the actor as a one-note personality.

Misha's father was Alexander, elder brother of the famed playwright Anton Chekhov. Brilliant, inventive, and unique, Alexander was also an incurable alcoholic, a man later described by his son as "incapable of enduring anything ordinary, habitual or conventional." Both father and uncle were an enormous influence. From Alexander, the boy inherited his eccentricities and his love of vodka, from both brothers, curiosity and creativity. As the author notes, the result of this combination can best be described as "Chechovian."

Anton was, of course, the leading writer of the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre. Nepotism smiled early on Michael, bringing him to the attention of the driving force behind that company, Konstantin Stanislavsky. Under this tutelage, the disciple showed early signs of brilliance, creating characters on stage that would before long earn him a loyal following. Early in the game, he made his mark by essaying not only a brilliant Hamlet, but the lead in Gogol's The Inspector General. These roles proved pivotal, providing a kind of road map for his future.

Small and unimposing in stature, Chekhov nonetheless possessed an uncanny, instinctive ability of taking on idiosyncracies of the character he was playing. It was said he was able to transform himself from short to tall, comedic to pathetic, in a matter of seconds. Though thoroughly trained by the Master, it became more and more evident that Misha eventually would move away from the naturalistic approach to acting so favored and preached by Stanislavsky. Such a highly creative mind invited experiment and invention, rejecting the limited restraints imposed by the System (or "Method" as it later became known.) Chekhov was already a brooder and a student of philosophy, influenced by thinkers such as Darwin, Freud, and Schopenhauer. Early on he discovered the teachings of Rudolph Steiner and his anthroposophical ideas - a theory that "God was realized in man by means in intuitions." He would become a lifelong devotee of this philosophical, mystical religion. In post 1917 Russia, such beliefs were perceived as counter-revolutionary, adding fuel to an already smoldering fire that pointed to Chekhov's non-conformist ways.

At the end of his first season at the Moscow Art Theatre, he was assigned to work with the brilliant director Evgeny Vakhtanghov at a junior offshoot known as the Second Studio. Vaktanghov had already begun to explore more inventive methods of acting and to experiment with playwrights other than those endorsed by Stanislavsky and the Soviets. The warm friendship was terminated prematurely by Vaktanghov's untimely death, but not before his influence had penetrated the younger man's work.

A schism had already appeared between the old and new theatres; the pride in his protege had cooled considerably on Stanislavsky's part. Striking out on his own, Chekhov began to pursue works that were more or less frowned upon by the proletarian. When word came of a possible impending arrest in 1928, the actor with his wife, Xenia, hastily departed his homeland, with nary an intervention from Stanislavsky. Unknowingly, he was destined never to set foot on his beloved soil again. The question was, "could (his) roots be torn up and replanted in another country?" Hence began what Marowitz terms "The Wandering Years."

First stop was Germany, where Misha mingled and worked with the greats - Reinhardt, Brecht, Piscator.His reputation as the greatest actor to have emerged from Russia preceded him and his career seemed to flourish in Berlin. Despite outward appearances, however, he continued to feel out of his element. Mastering a new language would never come easily and was forever a source of alienation. In his quest to emulate the theatre world he had known in Russia, he made his way to Paris, where emigre Russian actors flocked to him from all sides. Ultimately, France did not produce the kind of audience for which he had hoped, prompting him to accept an invitation to organize and star in a short-lived production of The Inspector General in Lithuania. Next it was on to New York, where the impresario Sol Hurok announced a tour of a somewhat questionable company known as The Moscow Art Players. Once in America, Chekhov gathered around him a group of dedicated, classically trained actors who managed several revivals at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. Reviews and audiences both proved disappointing, but it was Checkhov's work as an actor that brought him to the attention of prestigious actors of the Group Theatre. Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasbourg were among those most impressed. Also enthralled was Beatrice Straight, a gifted young actress and daughter of the millionaire heiress to the Whitney fortunes. Straight approached Chekhov with an offer to head a kind of ideal commune-like company that her parents had established in rural England. Now began a chapter that appeared perfect for Chekhov's gifts - an opportunity to work in an idyllic setting with hand-picked actors and no lack of funds.

The years at Dartington Hall Estate in Devon proved to be some of the most satisfying of Misha's life. He immediately drew up a manifesto, putting his plans for a theatrical community into action. Classes were held from early morning until late into the evening and for once there seemed to be no lack of funds. But World War II would intervene, bringing the ideal Dartington experience to a halt. Threatened by the Nazi invasion, in 1938 they resettled in the safer confines of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Again, Chekhov found himself on foreign soil and once again felt the sting of financial pressure. By now he had honed his skills as a teacher and was able to form a Chekhov Troupe, bringing an ambitious production of "The Possessed" to Broadway where the reception of his work ranged from cool to downright hostile. Only a rousing new production of Twelfth Night offered universal praise. And now, in 1939, came an offer from actor-producer Gregory Ratoff for Chekhov to come to Hollywood. to appear as an actor in a film about the Russian resistance to the Nazis. He made his way to what would become his final destination.

Chekhov received unanimous praise for over a dozen important screen roles, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his brilliant performance as a psychiatrist in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Once ensconced in Los Angeles, he began giving classes in a makeshift studio on Harper Street. Xenia and Misha's house in Benedict Canyon quickly became a gathering place for both expatriate actors and Russian intellectuals. Word of this new presence spread like wildfire within the acting community of Hollywood. In the late 'forties, there was virtually no "little theatre" scene, but there were plenty of both successful and would-be actors eager to absorb a new method. Some, already enrolled in Lee Strasberg's Acting Lab, would come surreptitiously. Others heralded the way, giving rise to a cult following and to new disciples of his teaching method. Among his acting students were Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Jack Palance, Mala Powers, Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe. Yes, Marilyn Monroe! So eager to become known as a serious actress, rather than a mere sex symbol, Monroe shuttled her way between Strasbourg and Checkhov and between their mentor- wives, Paula and Xenia. In fact, it was a small stipend left in her will that provided for Xenia after Michael's death.

The final section of the biography traces in depth Michael Chekhov's career in Hollywood as both actor and influential teacher. Marowitz builds to this climax, and it is here that he shines, bringing to book to life with a page-turning fervor. Despite an occasional lapse in organization, the author proves himself as both a dedicated researcher and a lively communicator. Making no pretense at objectivity, the he leaves little room for doubt as to where his loyalties lie. He is deliciously gossipy, if not downright vindictive, towards the Strasbergs, combining a scholarly and tabloid approach that makes for an irresistible combination. The Other Chekhov puts the history of the theatre since 1917 into readable perspective and should be put on the "must" list for students of stage, screen, and television.