Stanislavski’s Urlinie

‹-- PreviousNext --›

actor-preparesStanislavski’s An Actor Prepares is one of those books about which I’ve been thinking, ‘Must read that someday,’ for years. Someday arrived by chance recently when I spotted it on the ‘recently returned’ shelf at the library and picked it up on an impulse. And by now of course wished I’d read it years ago.

Back when I was teaching Musical Philosophies and Aesthetics to the postgrads at Birmingham Conservatoire, a frequent subject for discussion was the relationship between the text and the performer. Is the performer a creator or merely a puppet? How can a performer speak with their own voice whilst still being true to the composer’s message? What, exactly, is interpretation?

This, of course, is a practical question for advanced musicians, not merely an academic one (which is why we included the subject in advanced degrees in performance and composition). And I am inclined to think that Stanislavski – with his focus on the practical artist - handles it rather better than many writers about music. He doesn’t seem to find any conflict between systematic analysis and the life of feeling – rather that depth of analysis is a route to emotional truth.

Even as I write that, I can feel how a century of musical modernism has made us squeamish about those kinds of words, even while they remain relevant to all the non-modernist (older, post- or popular) music which constitutes the majority of what we do.

Anyway, the bit that really stopped me in my tracks was towards the end where he talks about a play’s ‘super-objective’ and ‘through line of action’. That is, at a global level, what fundamental human question lies at the heart of the play? That is the super-objective, and once you know that, all the details of the play come together in service of that objective, to form a continuous line.

Here, this is how he explains it:

An Actor Prepares, p. 276An Actor Prepares, p. 276

(Tortsov is the fictional director – a thinly disguised version of Stanislavski himself; though the book is narrated from the viewpoint of one of the students – a thinly disguised version of Stanislavski’s younger self.)

For anyone brought up on Schenkerian analysis, this rings so many bells it’s untrue. There’s the concern with coherence and direction, the interrelationship between whole and detail, the moral overtones of the discourse.

Two other things leapt out at me about this. First is the way it comes late in the process, as a method of synthesis rather than analysis. How to break down a play into its constituent units comes much earlier in the book, and is – as in music – a progressive process, each subset of the whole being subject to further disaggregation until every element is identified and understood. Likewise in music: formal analysis and harmonic analysis are introduced at earlier stages of education than linear analysis. Indeed, as you learn a piece, you take it apart before you put it back together.

Now I write this, it seems terribly obvious. But I think I will emerge thinking of Schenker as providing a synthetic rather than an analytic method.

The second, related, observation is about how he helps the students develop this idea. They are given progressively longer sections of a play and asked to determine the super-objective for each as if it were a whole. As the spans of dramatic content expand, the super-objective shifts, and thus the shape of the through line of action adapts. Again, this mirrors the way we teach Schenkerian synthesis – starting by tracing the line through short extracts, then longer extracts, then short movements, up to larger-scale works.

In music, we tend to see the point of this as showing that the same kinds of processes are working on both the small-scale and the large-scale. Which is interesting and beautiful in the same kind of way that fractals are, and worth noticing. (Ditto the findings of motivic analysis of Rudolph Réti, indeed.) But Stanislavski’s point that the shape of the line changes depending on the end-point to which you are heading is possibly more useful for bringing coherence to our performances. What feels like closure taken in isolation may in fact be a moment of great instability in the larger scheme.

The other thought sloshing about in the back of my brain here is the question I wrote about first in the chapter on performance mannerisms in my book on barbershop. Tortsov’s second diagram presents the approach suggested by the old Interpretation Category (and arguably still supported by Sweet Adelines): it’s all about the moments. The barbershop Harmony Society introduced the confusingly-labelled concept of ‘theme’ as an attempt to introduce some sense of musical continuity. And I guess the specific message for the people in this corner of the musical universe is this: if you’re going to mess with the tag, you’ll end up having to sing the intro differently too.

Hi Liz,

How interesting that you, chickwithastick, and Ryan Hebert (Choral Journal) have all written on Stanislavski!

As you may know, my book is an application of Stanislavski's principles to choral singing, with the objective being the most integral concept. In a play, the super-objective is the character's most elemental goal, expressed in a statement like "I want character X to love me for who I am." This core goal is the foundation from which all other words and actions spring.

In a song, the objective IS the super-objective, since the song is the entirety of "the play." So, if a singer identifies or creates an Other to whom they sing, and knows how they want to affect that Other's thoughts, feelings, and/or actions, they have a huge leg-up on connecting to/"interpreting" the song.

One other point about Stanislavski related to the objective: Stanislavski did not suggest creating or recreating emotions for emotion's sake; he knew that an actor's emotions spring authentically from thoughts and actions related to the objective.

The belief that Stanislavski advocated substituting one's own experiences for the characters DURING THE ACTING PERFORMANCE is erroneous. The process of a Stanislavski Method actor is all about thinking the character's thoughts and acting as the character in the character's given circumstances, NOT trying to somehow channel one's own emotional experiences that relate to the characters. (This misconception occurred when The Actor's Studio misapplied Stanislavski's technique; they got it wrong and most people bought their error!)

If one is trying to channel emotional experiences from one's own life, one is not thinking the authentic thoughts of the character!




Hi Tom,
Thanks for dropping by!

Funnily enough, most of the time I was reading, I imagined I'd be blogging about the 'as if' theme you develop here. But in the end, the comparisons with Schenker just got my inner geek too excited ;-)

I'm not sure I'd entirely agree with you that the super-objective and objective can be elided a priori in musical forms. I started off thinking about longer forms, in the context of the Schenkerian comparison, and the way that the unfolding of the longer narrative gives you a different perspective on local events. But then I also thought about the disjunctive performances you get even of quite short songs where people have identified local objectives without integrating them into the overall super-objective. Which I think demonstrates Stanislawski's point quite well that the length of narrative you encompass can give you a different concept of what your ultimate purpose is.

Of course, the goal is to develop your imaginative breadth to encompass the whole into a unified idea - which is where I am probably in violent agreement with you! But I think keeping the ideas of local and global as distinct is useful for the processes of (a) working up to a full synthesis and (b) keeping control of the detail en route. (Now I'm thinking of a couple of performances I've seen recently where there was a good handle of the global, but a lot of detail got glossed over on the way past.)


I love synchronicity. :-)

Just by the way--I did a ProQuest dissertation search for "stanislavsky and choral" and while most of the 75 hits were not too relevant, there has been some interesting work done in this general direction. If you have access, check it out.

I'll be hitting the public library today to check out a copy of Stanislavsky's book; this sounds fascinating!


Hi Liz,

Great to throw things back and forth across the pond!

When you write that you're not sure whether you agree with me
"that the super-objective and objective can be elided a priori in musical forms," it makes me want to sit down and chat even more :-).

From my perspective, what I call the character's objective in a song is what Stanislavski would call the super-objective -- it is determined only by looking at the song in its entirety, from beginning to end. Moment to moment objectives that differ from this super-objective I would call tactics.

So, if a singer's objective (Stanislavski's super-objective) is to get their Other to come to a party, they might have a number of tactics (moment to moment objectives) throughout the song:

"I want the Other to be excited about the food."
"I want the Other to be curious about who might be there."
"I want the Other to start moving their body so they remember how much they like dancing."

But the overall objective is "to get my Other to come to a party."

So, could you talk more about the performances you experienced in which the singers identified local objectives without integrating them into a super-objective? Or those in which they had detail but missed on the global?

RE Shenkerian analysis and Stanislavski, it sounds like they are on the same page -- in order to ascertain the super-objective/fundamental structure within a literary or musical work, one must analyze it from beginning to end.




One more clarification that might be helpful: Stanislavski's super-objective is character-based, not play-based. In other words, it's not about the play's overall theme/meaning but about each character's overall goal. (Each character will have their own super-objective which may be similar or totally different than that of other characters.)

All my best,


Hi Tom,

That's a very useful distinction and opens up a whole other interesting world about the persona or personae implicit in a piece of music. In songs, there's usually a single character evoked, so the character and the piece are one. (And of course, what's interesting in ensemble performance is that you get multiple people cooperating to evoke this single viewpoint!) In longer or more complex pieces, Edward Cone has theorised about the emergence and interaction of multiple personae within the musical narrative - and this is something that you don't find in Schenker, who is much more concerned with the power the fundamental structure has to integrate all the detail.

I think I may wait to answer your request to talk a bit more about the performances that worked too much at tactical or over-view level until I've had a think about how best to do so. I have some specific ones in mind, but I don't want to identify them specifically here - equally there's no point in being vague as that doesn't advance the debate. So I'll have a think and come back to that later if that's okay.


...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content