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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Jana Meerzon

The Path of a Character: Michael Chekhov's Inspired Acting and Theatre SemioticsHeidelberger Publikation zur Slavistik, 29.   Peter Lang: Frankfurt/Main, 2005.  338 pp.  € 56.50



Yana Meerzon, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Ottawa, has high expectations of her readers, and requires them to be familiar with the leading philosophical, aesthetic, literary and theatrical theories and trends of the 20th century, and to have knowledge of expressionism, futurism, Russian modernism, formalism, theatre semiotics, the works of the Prague Linguistic Circle, and such names as Bakhtin, Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, Propp and some others. As Meerzon asserts, her theoretical framework embraces ideas developed “from Vetrusky to Elam, from Pavis to Fischer-Lichte, and is innovative in the field of Chekhov’s studies” (Meerzon, 24). 

At a time, when the academic press aims scholarly books to “sell well,” Yana’s book is bravely written in full awareness of the fact that it would interest a narrow group of scholars.  From my point of view, a true scholarly book SHOULD, too!  I assume that scholars in Russian theatre will benefit from studying Meerzon’s complex and well-thought-over research, which placed Chekhov’s acting in context of the theories mentioned above. 

The five chapters of the book are called respectively “Stage Figure Versus Stage Mask,” “Semiotics of Actor’s Body,” “Semiotics of Actor’s Voice,” “Michael Chekhov Creating the Hamlet Stage Figure,” and “Michael Chekhov Creating a Film Figure.” Meerzon writes,
“Chekhov’s feeling of truth is opposite to that of Stanislavsky. It is highly theatrical, and embraces the concept of style, according to its genre, which could be tragedy, drama, melodrama, farce, comedy and clowning. Chekhov’s technique requires that an actor not be ‘true to life,’ but his her psycho-physiology…” (Meerzon, 40).

In her book, Meerzon was able to draw the line between the Stanislavsky System and Michael Chekhov’s acting theory, which is not fully understood by many specialists and theatre practitioners until now.  As Meerzon concludes, unlike that of Stanislavsky, the goal of Chekhov’s training method was not in achieving the merging of “actor’s self with the self of a character.’ (Meerzon, 41)  Meerzon emphasizes the fact that Chekhov came very close to Victor Shklovsky’s concept of what she translated as defamiliarization between actor and character, or a Russian version of the alienation effect, if we use Brecht’s term.            

One of Meerzon’s favorite words in the book is “tripartite.”  Following Hegel’s philosophical and aesthetic traditions, she apprehends cultural phenomena in their classical triadic structures; she recognized them in Chekhov’s theory as well. She wrote:

As Chekhov believes, there are three types of consciousness taking part in the acting event: 1) the actor’s everyday; 2) the higher self; 3) the character’s I. … In other words, a stage mask embracing the actor/character dichotomy is a tripartite signifying structure (Meerzon, 55).

It is exciting to follow Meerzon in her elegant walk through the labyrinths of various theories, as she masterly connects Chekhov to all of those concepts she describes. However, Meerzon’s book has another value in my eyes: the author is a gifted and very perceptive theatre historian, who gracefully analyzes the most complicated artistic concepts and gives profound interpretations, and such is Meerzon’s analysis of performance styles and ideas of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and the others, and their roles in Michael Chekhov’s life and art.

However, I shall point out a few minor imperfections. I disagree when Meerzon writes about “the puppet-like nature of Chekhov’s Khlestakov.” (Meerzon, 81) Did she mean the character? Did she describe the actor? Does it have anything to do with Craig’s Uber-marionette, to which Meerzon also dedicated quite a few pages in her book?  As for her account of “petrified poses,” introduced by Boris Eikhenbaum in regards to Gogol’s poetics, it would be more appropriate to apply his ideas to Vakhtangov’s productions during the last five years of the latter’s life rather than to Stanislavsky’s work with Chekhov as Khlestakov. I would also question another phrase: “Although Chekhov’s commitment to presentational style in acting situates him as a Stanislavsky’s disciple…” (Meerzon, 265).  Stanislavsky, an avid defender of the non-presentational style in acting, suddenly became a member of the group against which he created his System!  But it might have been one of those accidental blunders…

Overall, Meerzon’s research, if being judged by the rules the author has created and followed, is a noteworthy book for specialists in Russian theatre, as well as for performance analysts, or Slavists in general.  It has its own tripartite values, which are found in: a) Meerzon’s survey of the theories in the semiotics of acting; b) her  application of those theories to Michael Chekhov’s acting philosophy and his teaching methods; and c) in Meerzon’s summarization of historic material, related to Michael Chekhov’s work on both continents.

Maria Ignatieva

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