Spinning Stanislavskij: The 1952 Introduction to My Life in Art

Maude F. Meisel, Pace University

Theater scholar N. D. Volkov’s ordeal as author of the introduction to the 1952 edition of Stanislavskij’s My Life in Art offers a revealing look at the “Procrustean bed” of socialist realism—as related both to the world of the theater and to the genre of autobiography. The innocuous blandness of the published introduction belies the intensity of the artistic and intellectual struggle preserved in the minutes of the editorial committee meeting that treated Volkov’s draft (in Baxrušin Theatre Museum archives). Analyzing the objections raised by the two most politically important committee members, it is possible not only to extrapolate very interesting material that must have been present in the missing original version of Volkov’s introduction, but also to characterize the underlying artistic and ideological problems with which the speakers are wrestling. In general they aim to cast Stanislavskij into the mold of a traditional socialist realist Revolutionary hero, which would make his book into the record of his heroic deeds as well as a major weapon in his struggle to bring the Revolution to the theater. At the same time, of course, the book would become a weapon in the permanent campaign to promote the regime and create ideologically effective art.

In criticizing Volkov’s introduction, the committee focuses on his treatment of three interrelated aspects of Stanislavskij’s autobiography: personal life details, stylistic and writing issues, and concern with self-presentation. All three are intrinsic to the writing of autobiography, but very difficult to reconcile with the traditional image of the socialist realist Revolutionary hero. For instance, the hero-makers feel obliged to find ideological significance for frivolous pastimes. Likewise, they object to such material as Volkov’s discussion of Stanislavskij’s artistic choices in the areas of genre and form on the nominal grounds that stylistic matters have no importance and are unworthy of a traditional hero’s concern. Finally, the committee shows itself most uncomfortable with the self-presentational aspect of the work, for self-consciousness of any such kind should be completely alien to the selflessly dedicated Revolutionary hero. Unfortunately for the committee, this quality taints Stanislavskij both as actor and as autobiographer, and casts a problematic light not only on the accounts of working on acting technique, but also on the basic principle of Stanislavskij’s method that requires creatively but consciously combining life with art.

In the last few pages of the minutes, Volkov makes a valiant attempt to oppose the committee. He borrows categories and terms from the previous speakers in an attempt to challenge their recommendations—and indeed, their position is so riddled with inherent contradictions that he has no difficulty doing so. However, the chairman of the committee responds with an analogy involving Mejerxol′d, and Volkov is obliged to capitulate. (Volkov had published a two-volume study of Mejerxol′d in the 20s, which doubtless left him vulnerable on this subject.)

Overall the minutes offer an illuminating glimpse into the Regime’s relationship with the creative arts. The effort to develop an artistic system (socialist realism) for the reliable production of popular but regime-supporting art has interesting parallels with that of Stanislavskij (as described in My Life in Art) to discover reliable rules for the production of good acting. However, maintaining the “permanent revolution” through art, like discovering an infinitely renewable theory of acting that would never degenerate into a dead cliché, requires embracing both sides of a number of delicately balanced paradoxes: revolution and stasis, tradition and innovation, inspiration and technique, and life and art. The attempt to present Stanislavskij’s delicately balanced artistic quest as a one-sided ideological one vividly illustrates the regime’s telling inability to walk that tightrope. The “permanent revolution” becomes merely permanent, and all life and originality necessarily depart from any work of art or literary introduction that falls into its orbit.