Arts - Summer 2009

The Meaning Behind the Lines

How Ibsen's toughness and Chekhov's tenderness transformed American playwriting and acting

By Wendy Smith | June 5, 2009

Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov gave birth to modern drama, but they pulled it in opposite directions. Beginning with A Doll’s House in 1879, Ibsen remade the art of playwriting, creating works that startled audiences with their frank discussions of social issues and their unconventional dramaturgy. His later plays would be concerned less with social criticism and more with the progress of the human soul, but he would always be drawn to conflicts couched in the fiercest terms. Chekhov dealt with conflict too, but from a ruefully comic perspective. A doctor as well as a writer, aware from an early age that he would die young of tuberculosis, he viewed his characters’ foibles with amusement rather than the outrage Ibsen often displayed. Ibsen could be skeptical and ironic, and Chekhov was closer to his characters and angrier about the state of their society than his contemporaries sometimes recognized. Still, those generalizations—Ibsen tough, Chekhov tender—hold as summaries of their enduring influence in the theater. In America, the changes they wrought still resonate.

This past season Chekhov was everywhere in New York City, where the productions of his four major plays illustrated the diversity of contemporary theater. On Broadway, Kristin Scott Thomas revisited her luminous London performance as Arkadina in The Seagull under Ian Rickson’s psychologically probing direction. Another English director, Sam Mendes, guided actors from both sides of the Atlantic through an imaginative rendering of The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the East Village, the Classic Stage Company mounted an Uncle Vanya that was kinetic and direct, its American cast pacing the stage and clutching each other to make palpable their characters’ discontents. Uptown, a bustling Classical Theatre of Harlem production of Three Sisters emphasized action over introspection.

“The melancholy strains of Chekhov at the turn of the 20th century—with their currents of anxious expectation and bewilderment—are sounding like the perfect theme song for the early 21st century in recession-era New York,” suggested New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley. But New Yorkers were less inclined to give ear to the harsher melodies of Ibsen. Mary-Louise Parker’s Hedda Gabler was widely reviled, with Rickson getting a stack of bad reviews as voluminous as the good ones he received for The Seagull. Critics were less venomous and yet more dismissive about The Master Builder, which featured James Naughton in the titanic role of Halvard Solness. Ibsen apparently doesn’t suit our present mood.

That wasn’t the case a century ago, just a few months after Ibsen’s death in 1906, when Alla Nazimova changed the landscape of American theater with her performances in Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, and The Master Builder. No New York production had lasted more than a month until Nazimova showed Americans what all the fuss was about. Minnie Maddern Fiske, who had starred in the Broadway premiere of Hedda Gabler in 1903, saw Hedda as “a poor, empty little Norwegian neurotic,” she told critic Alexander Woollcott. Nazimova conversely understood Hedda as a nightmarish New Woman who turns to destructive manipulation of those around her because society offers no other outlet for her energies; her performances as Nora in A Doll’s House and Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder were equally contemporary. After receiving ecstatic reviews and playing to sold-out houses on Broadway, she spent three years touring with all three plays across the country, making Ibsen’s dissections of stultifying marriages, dreary conformity, and unbridled egotism part of the national discussion.

Ibsen’s ideas on those subjects shocked some theatergoers; the notion that a play could have ideas thrilled others. Hedda Gabler “discovered an entire new world of the drama for me,” said Eugene O’Neill, who saw it 10 times in 1907. “It gave me my first conception of a theater where truth might live.” And so a Russian-born actress in a Norwegian play galvanized America’s first great playwright with a vision of drama vibrantly engaged with modern life. O’Neill wasn’t alone; the example of Ibsen and the European playwrights who followed in his wake inspired a generation of American writers to bring the conflicts of contemporary men and women onstage. Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, Sidney Howard, and John Howard Lawson were only a few of those who joined O’Neill to make Broadway in the 1920s a very different place than it had been before Alla Nazimova landed in New York and started taking English lessons. American drama has been more daring and more challenging ever since.

It wasn’t just the radical content—rebellious wives, uppity women, conflict between the generations—that made Ibsen so influential; it was the way his people and themes developed onstage. H. L. Mencken, an early champion, cogently explained in his introduction to Eleven Plays of Henrik Ibsen how Ibsen had overthrown tired dramatic conventions. In A Doll’s House, “instead of a complicated plot, working beautifully toward a foreordained climax,” Mencken wrote, “he presented a few related scenes in the life of a husband and wife. Instead of a finely wrought fabric of suspense and emotion nicely balanced, neatly hanging together, he hit upon action that was all suspense and emotion. And instead of carefully calibrated explanations, involving the orthodox couriers and prattling chambermaids, he let the story tell itself.” Moreover, Mencken could have added, what we find out comes from the mouths of the characters, and we learn as much from what they don’t say as from the words they speak. Ibsen gave the theater subtext, in dialogue imbued with swirling emotional and psychological undercurrents that invite actors to play the meaning behind the words.

Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters would have been inconceivable without the freedom Ibsen seized and bequeathed to subsequent playwrights. Already a master of the short story when he turned to theater, Chekhov continued to be more interested in character than plot—more accurately, he saw that character was plot, that drama arose from people’s inner lives and not necessarily from events. He took subtext to a new level of economy and allusion: when Astrov in Uncle Vanya declines the offer of a drink (“No. I don’t drink vodka every day.”), a lifetime of tenuously maintained discipline underpins the lines. In the hands of actors who didn’t understand Chekhov’s elliptical approach, as at the disastrous St. Petersburg premiere of The Seagull in 1896, his work struck audiences as boring and weird. Not until the newly formed Moscow Art Theatre revived the play in 1898 did Chekhov find a company capable of investing his characters with the weight of personal experience they required. Constantin Stanislavsky, the Moscow Art’s cofounder, stressed in his actor training the “feeling of truth” essential for performing Chekhov, and his  direction of the 1898 Sea­gull made use of physical gestures to convey emotions only implied in the text. The Moscow Art Theatre went on to premiere Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, maintaining them in repertory long after Chekhov’s death in 1904 and establishing him as Russia’s preeminent dramatist.

But Chekhov’s plays took longer than Ibsen’s to catch on in America, perhaps because Ibsen’s technique was less jarring to contemporary sensibilities. A generation older than Chekhov, Ibsen had spent 11 years in Norwegian theaters as a working director before becoming a full-time playwright; he did not abandon the mandates of traditional playmaking as entirely as Chekhov did. In the middle­-­period dramas that were Ibsen’s best known at the time, compromising documents are brandished, ugly secrets from the past proclaimed, pistols fired. It’s part of Chekhov’s charm and originality that when a gun goes off in Uncle Vanya, it’s a comic moment underscoring the tragic futility of the title character’s life. This complex blend of contradictory moods was not something producers felt comfortable offering to the American public in 1910. Nazimova wanted to present Three Sisters following her critically lauded (and extremely profitable) Ibsen tour. She discovered that no commercial manager would touch Chekhov.

Once again, it was the Moscow Art Theatre that won the Russian playwright a new audience. In 1923 the company brought its productions of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters to New York, planting the seeds for a revolution in American acting to equal the revolution in American dramaturgy inspired by Ibsen. The performances were in Russian, so even viewers who had read the plays were following the main lines rather than the subtleties of Chekhov’s texts; fuller appreciation would come with Eva Le Gallienne’s English-language productions at the Civic Repertory Theatre later in the decade. What awed everyone right away was the acting. Stanislavsky’s ideas about actor training had solidified into a system whose benefits were demonstrated onstage. Audiences and critics alike were struck by the actors’ intense psychological realism, the sense of the characters’ inner lives resonating in every line and movement. Broadway had never seen anything like it.

Sitting in the Moscow Art company audience night after night was a young man named Lee Strasberg. An avid theatergoer and amateur actor/director, he was deeply impressed by the troupe’s ability to impart in every scene and with every actor something he had only seen in flashes of individual American performances: the conviction “that it was a person living, breathing on stage, not acting.” To find out how they did it, Strasberg joined the crowd of young actors flocking to classes at the American Laboratory Theatre taught by two Moscow Art veterans. He picked up the basics of the Stan­­i­slav­sky system there, but he had nowhere to apply what he’d learned until he hooked up with Harold Clurman, a dissatisfied Theatre Guild stage manager who as a teenager had written and staged a neighborhood melodrama plagiarized from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Clurman wanted to nurture and produce American drama that grappled with life as meaningfully as Ibsen had; Strasberg persuaded him that such plays could only be properly performed by an American acting ensemble grounded in the techniques crafted by Stan­i­slavsky to explore the emotional intricacies of Chekhov. So Clurman and Strasberg went out and started the Group Theatre, hoping to do both.

The Group performed neither Ibsen nor Chekhov; its mission was to present new American plays. To Clurman’s chagrin, however, it was the Group’s “method,” as Strasberg called his version of the Stanislavsky system, that initially attracted the most attention. “I cannot remember a more completely consecrated piece of work since the Moscow Art masters went home,” wrote one critic of their first production in 1931, and throughout the Group’s tumultuous nine years on Broadway, even those who disliked the socially conscious dramas that the company favored were impressed by the unified quality of the acting, its truthfulness and attention to psychological detail. The Group stressed the importance of a common technique and lavished on its playwrights the same detailed, probing attention the Moscow Art Theatre had devoted to Chekhov. (The one major dramatist it produced, in fact, was an edgy poet of the anxious middle class with a decidedly Chekhovian bent: Clifford Odets.) Its commitment to emotionally honest performances would transform American acting in the decades after the Group disbanded in 1940.

The Actors Studio, founded in 1947 by three Group alumni, gave the Method a capital M and made Lee Strasberg the most famous acting teacher in the world. Emotional memory, a controversial exercise he had first used with the Group, taught actors to access their personal feelings and use them in performance. It gave their work an astonishing intensity and immediacy; beginning with Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, moody Method acting became the iconic acting style of the postwar years, making a global impact in films like Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and East of Eden. But it was no accident, critics of the technique insisted, that most Method actors quickly abandoned the theater for movies, and those who stayed on Broadway rarely ventured to perform the classics. Most vocal among the naysayers was Stella Adler, a prominent acting teacher herself who had clashed bitterly with Strasberg at the Group Theatre. Adler publicly declared at every opportunity that emotional memory exercises inflicted psychological damage on vulnerable actors and led to self-indulgent performances that might be edited into coherence on film but were a mumbling mess onstage. She told students in her famous script analysis classes that modern masters like Ibsen and Chekhov require more than actors wallowing in trivial personal emotions; complex characters must be played with truthfulness and feeling, of course, but truthfulness and feeling in service to the play, not as displays of the actors’ neuroses.

By the time Adler was giving her lectures, Ibsen and Chekhov were taken for granted as classics in the American theater, thanks in good part to the efforts of Nazimova and Le Gallienne. In the late 1920s, Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre had presented the first major English-language productions in this country of Three Sisters, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard (with Nazimova as Madame Ranevsky); in the ensuing decades Le Gallienne directed and acted in Chekhov performances across the country. Her commitment to Ibsen was similarly sustained: Hedda Gabler and Hilda Wangel were among her signature roles; she introduced Americans to such lesser-known Ibsen works as John Gabriel Borkman and Rosmersholm; and Random House published her translations of 12 Ibsen plays, which ran the stylistic gamut all the way to his final, visionary drama, When We Dead Awaken.

In 1935, when Nazimova gave her last great performance as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, the allusions to venereal disease and drug use that had scandalized earlier generations were no longer so shocking, and the play was hailed as a tragic masterpiece. And though the actress/director warned her fellow cast members against such Strasbergian excesses as “taking an exercise” before they entered onstage (“By the time they make it, they are too exhausted to act!” she sniffed), she remained committed to Stani­slavsky’s definition of honest acting. In Ghosts’ final moments, when Mrs. Alving must decide whether to keep her promise to give a fatal overdose to her deranged son, Nazimova sometimes moved to administer the shot, sometimes stood frozen with indecision. It depended on how she felt at that performance; either way was “true to Ibsen,” she believed.

In the 1940s, the two playwrights who would dominate postwar American theater, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, announced themselves as Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s heirs. With All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, tragedies about men destroyed by their pursuit of material success, Miller took on the Ibsenist mission of examining the individual’s dilemmas within society. Williams debuted with an obviously Chekhovian mood piece, The Glass Menagerie, and the same poignant affection for human frailty and illusions also informed Streetcar and such violently baroque later plays as Sweet Bird of Youth. With Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett embodying similar polarities on the world stage, politically inflected dramas on the one hand and poetic, existential works on the other continued to cross-pollinate modern theater.

Meanwhile, everyone slowly calmed down about the Method. By the end of the century, the work of several generations of American actors who studied not just at the Studio but with Adler and other Stanislavsky-based but anti-Strasberg teachers gradually led to widespread understanding of something Nazimova had demonstrated years earlier in Ghosts. Real emotion and disciplined elucidation of the text were not mutually exclusive, and a variety of techniques could lead to the same generally accepted goal: deep, truthful performances, in classic as well as contemporary dramas, by actors who had thoroughly explored the script and forged a personal connection with their characters. Americans never had a monopoly on this kind of acting, of course, but they made the psychological investigation demanded by Ibsen and Chekhov a cornerstone of modern performance by proclaiming its virtues with a very American proselytizing fervor.

It won’t be long, I suspect, before a cluster of productions brings Ibsen back to us as a living force in the American theater. His plays’ cogent examinations of power in its various manifestations—political, economic, intellectual, emotional, sexual—provide a bracing complement to the empathy that makes Chekhov’s work so engaging. Both men played a crucial role in shaping our national drama, and we need them both; they speak to us in different tones but with equal profundity. Chekhov invites us to be tolerant and accepting, to see the inevitability of change, but to understand that it brings loss as well as gain. His characters can be foolish, selfish, oblivious, wrong-headed, even hurtful, but their longings and loneliness are so evident, we can’t help but love them. Ibsen’s people are more driven and destructive, just as real, but frequently less likeable. He goads us to look at the world with a stern eye, to judge and sometimes to condemn; he tells us we must change or die. Why would we ever want to do without either of them?

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