Compare and contrast the work of Lee Breuer with that of Konstantin Stanislavski
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At the end of the 19th century, Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) laid the foundations of realism in theatre. His innovative approach shattered the melodramatic stage conventions in his contemporary Russia and across Europe. After more than a century of radical change, both within the theatre and outside of it, Stanislavski’s naturalistic ideals, and his faithfulness to the original text, continue to influence directors across the world. However, wherever there is a prevalent style there will be those who disavow it in favour of a more progressive, avant-garde approach.
Lee Breuer, director of the Mabou Mines company based in New York, is one such artist. Breuer’s radical productions have earned critical acclaim for their fundamental deconstruction of classic plays like King Lear (where he gender reversed the lead role), using the original text as a stimulus from which a blend of styles emerge and extracting another element of meaning from famous plays which are often reproduced without much innovative artistic merit.
His production of Dollhouse, an adaptation of Ibsen’s revolutionary social drama, illuminates acutely the comparison between Stanislavski, the conservative realist, and Breuer, the avant-garde “auteur”. So, in comparing the work of these two artists, what can we hope to discover? Though separated by a hundred years of theatrical innovation, is there a common element fundamental to their different styles? How exactly do they differ, and what ideologies and justifications lie behind each interpretative choice they make?
Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre was originally housed in the Hermitage theatre, a shallow proscenium arch stage with a curtain raising to unveil the onstage action. However, this was probably more out of necessity than choice, as in 1901 a new theatre was purpose built for the company. While remaining a proscenium arch, the performance space eschewed the melodrama of convention, having no orchestra pit; emphasising a formal, fourth wall between actors and audience. This style, pioneered by the 19th century French practitioner Andre Antoine, conducted the play as if the audience were hidden voyeurs on the action.
Of greatest importance was that the actors not acknowledge their awareness of the audience, or of the theatricality and fiction of the play they are immersed in. Stanislavski further cultivated this through his use of “circles of attention”. In this exercise, performers would attempt to constrict their focus to the stage itself, rather than admitting the audience. The object of all this is to create a snapshot of a real world onstage, inhabited by the characters. By contrast, Breuer’s Dollhouse shuns this realism; in true Brechtian tradition, we are constantly reminded of the theatricality of what we are seeing.
For example, before the play begins in earnest, a pianist crosses the stage, bows to applause, and positions herself at a keyboard just below downstage left. Immediately Breuer has broken the fourth wall, continued when Nora acknowledges the audience with shock on her first entrance. Throughout the play, stagehands are visibly carrying out their duties and occasionally becoming swept up in the action themselves. The actual performance space of Dollhouse- The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, is a typical, lushly furnished Proscenium Arch stage, in the 19th century style.
While this would not necessarily contradict Stanislavski’s style, with a formal theatre set up, Breuer’s use of the space is radical. The boundary between actors and audience is constantly transgressed. The pianist, at first a passive observer, is sucked into the nightmarish action of the Tarantella. In the final scene, Nora is placed on one of the balcony boxes of the theatre, overlooking the audience, while behind the stage the balconies are replicated housing puppets who act out the scene simultaneously.
Seconds before the plays close, Torvald descended the stage and actually searched the audience desperately for his wife. Breuer shatters the fourth wall, the barrier between audience and actors becoming increasingly undefined. Stanislavski’s realism was a reaction to the melodramatic conventional style prevalent in theatres across Europe. However, it was also a necessity bred by the emergence of nuance writers like Ibsen and Chekhov, whose work demanded naturalism. Breuer’s production of Dollhouse in fact juxtaposes the more romantic melodrama (accompanied by the piano) and a sparse “chekhovian” realism.
The directors allegiance lies wholly with no singular style, but instead the “alchemy” of the avant-garde theatrical tradition. However, we should remember that Stanislavski was progressive for his time; while condemning some experimentalism as dehumanising actors, and thus neutralising their emotional effect, he was not against innovation. He named Meyerhold, a pioneer of symbolism and constructivism who experimented with another Ibsen play Hedda Gabler, as his “sole heir”. It is hard to say then, whether Stanislavski would have lauded or lamented Breuer’s avant-garde production.
Stanislavski was a conservative director; he allowed the play to retain its integrity, rather than reinterpret it too drastically. However, he did believe that the original text should serve the actors, and that the performance, in its holistic impact was of greater importance, and that cuts and alterations to the text could be justified. While this brought him into some conflict with his literary adviser Danchenko, it does show a degree of common ground with Breuer today, who radically reworks the original text, although for different reasons.
Stanislavski edited plays in order to gain a greater degree of continuity in the psychological development of an actors role. Breuer is famed for his fundamental deconstruction of texts, and indeed Dollhouse edits the original, cutting dialogue into monologue, changing sequences, removing a character and making the entrances of the three male characters coincide for impact. Where Stanislavski attempted to bring out the subtext through nuanced acting, Breuer prefers to express it literally and visually out on stage.
For example, the sexual undertones of the play become explicit- Torvald as the sexual aggressor literally mounts Mrs Linde, and the forbidden macaroons become, for Nora, items of suppressed sexual ecstasy. The latter is also more explicit in the political or didactic elements of his productions- for example; certain lines of the play were selected and are shown on white sheets that fall from the ceiling during one scene. He is careful, though, not to fall into political rhetoric, rather allowing the message to be expressed visually.
Stanislavski did not manipulate the play for political motives, instead allowing it to speak to the audience for itself- if there was a truly powerful message for a particular audience, it would be picked up on, as was the case for his production of Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, when without explicit intent, a political sentiment resonated with the current climate. The two directors were informed by a broad spectrum of influences. Stanislavski, however pioneering, was not the first practitioner to denounce the melodrama of the 19th century European theatrical tradition.
Andre Antoine was exploring realism earlier in France, and the Russian actor Shchepkin had decades before championed a style based on “playing truthfully”. His exposure to the famously unified Dutch Meiningen company inspired Stanislavski in his development of an ensemble production. The writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was undoubtedly a powerful influence to Stanislavski’s work. His plays offered the psychological realism to which the realist style lends itself. Breuer’s influences are as eclectic as the styles he utilises in his radical productions.
He studied under Grotowski’s tradition of the avant-garde in Poland for a time, and the theatricality of his Dollhouse clearly has its roots in the German practitioner Brecht’s rejection of over-naturalist productions. Breuer himself cites the Italian filmmaker Fellini as a major influence, which is visible in Dollhouse as the subconscious and hallucinatory elements invade the stage in a surrealist dream sequence. Another director Bergman inspired Breuer in his use of monologues performed to camera/audience. Breuer’s other productions have been just as radical in their deconstruction of famous texts.
In 1982, he reworked a play by the classical writer Sophocles, renaming it Gospel At Colonus, complete with an African American gospel choir. In Lear, in1989, he gender reversed the roles, casting Ruth Maleczech as the lead, an aging matriarch of a family in 1950s Georgia. Stanislavski’s productions, while evolving in style across the decades of his life, remained largely true to his ideal of psychological realism. In particular, his productions of Chekhov’s plays, The Seagull, for example, were exercises in acute naturalism, and a nuanced expression of complex subtext beneath little surface action.
As he aged, he increasingly recognised the need not to merely approximate and replicate life in all its trivial details, but to distil them into an essence. This was the goal of realism, as opposed to naturalism. While avoiding the overtly political, he shared with Russian writer Gogol the belief that theatre had a moral responsibility to the masses, and that it should have a social conscience. Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre was set up with this as its aim: “to ennoble the mind and uplift the spirit”.
Breuer would of course recognise the importance of theatre as more than a frivolous entertainment, but as both an art form and a “pulpit” from which a message is preached, and society civilised. A curious parallel to be drawn between the Mabou Mines company and the Moscow Art Theatre is the conflict between director and dramaturg. With Dollhouse, Breuer believed that the story should be seen from Torvald’s perspective, whereas his literary adviser (and lead actress) Maud Mitchell believed that Nora’s perspective was of greater import.
This conflict, and that between Stanislavski and Danchenko, was bred from the equality of the companies, both aiming to be an ensemble rather than a vehicle for the ego of one actor, designer, or director. Stanisalvski expressed it like this: “Today Hamlet, tomorrow a spear carrier. ” Breuer tends to adopt an organic process with his productions- they evolve naturally and gradually in response to criticism, audience responses and new ideas. For example, the last stage picture was at one point a confrontation between the children, which later changed to one of the children riding on a rocking horse.
Stanislavski, demanding as much as a year of rehearsal time, was arguably more rigid with his production. The depth and subtlety of the great realist writers of Stanislavski’s’s period- namely Ibsen and Chekhov- allow great scope in their interpretation. Some productions are lugubrious in mood, while others find comedy in the absurd. Stanislavski’s preference was to play Chekhov as aching tragedy, against the wishes of the author himself. This may have been a result of Stanislavski’s self professed weakness for epic, heroic theatre- his “Spanish boots” problem.
In his interpretation of Dollhouse, Breuer explores both comedy and tragedy- reflecting his belief that the two are not exclusive of each other. The frantic melodrama and absurdity of certain scenes, created through exaggerated movement and accents, are juxtaposed with the agonizing melancholy and desperation of others. With his radical shattering of the audience’s expectations, Breuer perhaps engineers the same impact that the play might have had for the closeted middle classes when it opened more than 125 years ago.
Stanislavski was largely deferential to Chekhov’s intentions, who wrote plays specifically for the Moscow Art Theatre and also for specific actors. However, the director often failed to fully appreciate the depth of Chekhov’s plays, instead relying on conventional caricatures rather than exploring characters in their full depth. For example, in The Seagull, Nina was portrayed as the innocent girl led astray by the rogue Trigorin- an oversimplification of the complexities of life.
Despite this, Stanislavski was reluctant to go against the author’s intentions too radically. Breuer, while retaining 95% of the script coming from the original text, creates something very different from what Ibsen might have imagined. He cuts dialogue, edits entrances, adds a pianist who actively interacts with those on stage, cuts in excerpts from another Ibsen play, and uses prolonged surrealism in a macabre dream scene. Of course, one cannot examine Mabou Mine’s Dollhouse without mentioning the importance of casting.
Press coverage of the production, indeed, has inevitably focused on the striking use of dwarf actors to play the male characters, and willowy females. The effect is that the women have to literally debase themselves- make themselves lower- in order to fit into the claustrophobic, bigoted, small world of the men. This is one example of Breuer’s literalising of the subtext. Stanislavski would have found this unacceptable, as the actors are arguably dehumanized, becoming props in themselves, rather that human purveyors of emotion.
Moreover, it certainly dispels any illusion of realism. However, Stanislavski would later come to disavow the way in which he directed Chekhov- who himself said the director had “ruined” his play The Cherry Orchard- lamenting that his company had “reduced him to the ordinary”. This heavily realistic approach has both its plaudits and its critics, just as Breuer’s style is visionary for some, and for others, “oversteps the proprieties of art”, as goes Torvald’s criticism of Nora’s dance in the play.
One element for which Breuer’s production must be acclaimed is his recognition of the overarching tragedy of the play- not solely for Nora, as Stanislavski would perhaps have characterized it, but for the entire family, and for everyone trapped in such a world. This was the original intent of Ibsen, who saw it as a drama of “Human rights”, rather than exclusively women’s rights. This was the reason that Breuer’s production rejected the usual translation “A Doll’s House”, which seems to exclude all but Nora from the meaning of the play.
The practical decisions of Stanislavski’s productions were uniformly made with the intention of cultivating realism. For example, sets were designed to replicate real rooms, ideally suggestive of a world just offstage. However, Chekhov found these heavily naturalistic sets unacceptable, preferring that they aim to distill reality to discover the true quintessence of life. In his later years, Stanislavski drifted towards symbolism, in Hamlet with Edward Gordon Craig in 1911, for example; though he was never to assume the style with as much vision and zeal as his successor Meyerhold.
Breuer’s set, a literal Doll’s House like design which is assembled before our eyes, is again a literal interpretation, which Breuer utilizes through casting to create a powerful visual impact, as relating to the themes he wishes to explore- in Nora’s desperate tragic emancipation in the last scene, the set is deteriorated and she is liberated from its claustrophobia on a balcony above the audience. Meanwhile, the fai?? ade of the Doll’s House stripped away, numerous puppets in constructed balconies at the back replicate a Victorian theatre, watching the events that unfold, their worlds being changed by it.
Stanislavski’s props were also heavily naturalistic- arguably overused to assist the emotional development of an actor’s role, and allow the inexperienced to survive the scrutiny of long speeches. However Stanislavski was praised for his use of props in Chekhov’s Three Sisters to subtly undercut monologues with the subtext. Breuer’s props, all undersized, were used largely to the effect of making the tall women feel awkward and out of place. This thematic use confronts the audience with a powerful statement, rather than comforting them with the congruity of realist props.
Indeed, Stanislavski was heavily criticized by Chekhov by his overemphasis on naturalism; as for props, the same is true for overuse of sound effects, which Chekhov deplored to the extent of quipping that he would write a play with an opening character declaring “How quiet it is!… Not a single cricket. ” It can be argued that Stanislavski’s zealous quest to create a world offstage undermined the power of Chekhov’s subtle symbolic use of sound contained in the text. Breuers use of music is vastly opposed to the style Stanislavski supported.
The piano gives the movement a romantic, melodramatic feel, heightening emotion and creating an almost silent-movie effect. The last act is, for a large portion, carried out in opera style, the dramatics only ending to illustrate the empty, mute desolation that Nora’s act of empowerment leaves with Torvald. Music becomes another vehicle for Breuer’s literal expression of the subtext, when Krogstadt’s ascending violin reflects his sexual climax in an onstage moment with Mrs Linde. The same conflict of values (realism versus symbolism/the avant garde) in the use of lighting and costume.
Stanislavski favoured directional lighting, used to set the action into context, whereas Breuer uses lighting symbolically. For example, Krogstadt, played at first as an archetypal villain, is swathed in green fresnel at his entrance, and strobe is used during Nora’s dance scene to symbolise the disintegration of her fragile world. Similarly, Stanislavski’s costumes were meticulously researched (he travelled to Paris for his production of Othello) in order to achieve authenticity.
For Dollhouse, Breuer used period costumes but utilised colour as a vehicle for symbolism. In conclusion, while Stanislavski and Breuer are radically different in almost every aspect of their style and approach, the latter is, in a way, carrying on the tradition of the former. By this I mean to say that Breuer is innovating on the stage today just as Stanislavski broke free of theatrical convention more than one hundred years ago. Visionary figures like these two directors are vital to the evolution of theatre as a vehicle for meaning, and as a living art.