M. Checkhov's Psychological Gesture

ON ACTING - by G.L. Horton (9/99)

As a artsy pre-teen bookworm interested in learning about acting, I took Chekov's recently published (1953) "To the Actor" out of the library. I later bought a copy of my own, and used it to "teach myself acting", and to work on roles in high school and in community theatre. I've read many other acting books, but Chekhov's is the only one that talks about theatre in a way that incorporates the elements I most value: the mystical, aesthetic, communal, inspired, & transpersonal. He connects psychology and philosophy with ritual, and the art of acting with the other arts.

In the sixties, while still in college as an English major, I added Chekhov's "To the Director and Playwright" to the short list of books I take seriously. I have never studied with a Chekhov teacher, or, as far as I know, worked with a Chekhov actor. The college courses I took were quite basic, scene study mostly, using a hybrid of Method and Show Biz techniques. I've taken an occasional course or workshop since, but mostly worked informally with fellow performers in community and developmental (for writers) theatre. I've tried to learn enough about the various acting schools so that I could understand what trained actors were looking for in the plays I write, and what directors were getting at when they critique; and so that I can communicate with scene partners when acting and give notes in the appropriate vocabulary for whichever sort of actors I might be directing. I picked up some Spolin from the people I worked with in children's theatre.

I suspect that "my" version of Chekhov is far from the official one, but I'm probably too old now to relearn it the right way.


I feel compelled to respond to this thread, although it has suddenly occurred to me that I am about to venture into an area of theory where I can cite no authorities. I base the following pontifications on my own obscure and relatively unsuccessful practice as actor, director, critic, playwright, and play-goer. My understanding of the PG-- which may have No relationship to the "official" one-- goes like this: The PG is the physical subtextual through line. A reductive way to describe it is as the particular shape of the libido as it emerges from the id. Another way would be as an abstract, Platonic "ideal" that informs the character's relationship to the world. It is large, involving the whole body and psyche, and dynamic-- a theme or motif rather than a note. In most plays there are one or two overarching PGs that animate almost ALL the characters, and a good production makes this invisible unifying force visible and understood-- by the unconscious.

Underlined and forced with "High concept" ham-handedness, it may distort the very truth it is intended to express. I think the overarching PG is what Hamlet refers to when he urges the actors to "show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure".

Expressionism puts the PGs on stage in overt form. PGs as stage images tend to look like Mannerist painting, or medieval iconography. Picture St. George with triumphant spear, one foot on the dying dragon of Evil. Picture Bosch's souls in Hell. Or Mad Max, or "noir" comic books. I've seen about six productions of "Midsummer Night's Dream" over the past 30 or so years that seemed to be Expressionist/PG based, beginning with Brooke's, out of a total of probably 20 productions of that delightful and deep play. No "real" human beings, in ancient Athens, Elizabethan England, or contemporary Limerick or Lenox or Cambridge Mass, ever interacted physically in the uninhibited ways of the actors in these productions. Most were successful-- MND invites this treatment, as do Pericles, Cymbeline, Macbeth, and the Winter's Tale, most of Strindberg, the Absurdists-- and-- as far as can tell from my limited acquaintance with it-- much of modern European drama.

Richard Jones' celebrated production of "A Flea in Her Ear" at the Old Vic was such a staging (I hated it!) Many of the "great" international directors interviewed in Delgado's "In Contact with the Gods? Directors Talk Theatre" seem to be working from-- or perhaps toward-- M. Chekhov's analysis, although none make reference to MC himself. Peter Sellers quote: "the reason we apply poetry to these questions is because in the end it is more interesting than journalism". Many modern directors deal with poetic elements, not as MC suggests, by putting the actors in charge of communicating aspects such Atmosphere and Tempo through their own artistic choices, but, in the tradition of Meyerhold and Gordon Craig, through the designers' arts-- set, lights, sound, etc. With computers, the set itself can perform a kind of dance as the overarching PG, and the humans adjust their responses to conform to it.

Within the journalistic conventions of a naturalistic play, the PG doesn't appear per se, but underlies all the character's movement and gesture. When it meets obstacles-- and of course it is always meeting an obstacle, even if it is only the social injunction to repress or conceal unacceptable desires-- the PG emerges as quirks and tics, like the little smoke waving or gaze averting hand gestures described in earlier posts. The PG in naturalism is like the hidden theme in Elgar's "Enigma Variations".

For a "Pirates of Penzance" I brought in heroic paintings, and esp the romanticizing ones of 1870 or so, Alma-Tadema, Leighton, Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, and pointed out how they shimmered on the edge between sublime and ridiculous. My pirate band explored movement that expressed -- taking W.S.Gilbert's plot seriously-- what orphaned victorian aristocrat boy-children might imagine as an heroic ideal, the Chivalrous Outlaw. We had the help of Sullivan's inspiring music, of course. We did living statues, heroic groups. The Pirate King developed an overall PG that was a flourish of magnificent swordplay ending at the top of a stair as "king of the mountain". An added man from the band became appreciator, partner, or rival, and altered the King's PG accordingly-- in all combinations and sizes of groups.

People (a few of the men were played by women) picked the idealized physicalization that felt "right" and used it as the core of an otherwise realistic character -- well, as realistic as operetta permits. Weather, nutrition, bugs, tight boots and itchy beards, underwear, as well as age, temperament, and sexual preference differed, but they all shared an overall PG ideal (made momentarily visible in the tableau on "Divine Emollient! in the "Hail Poetry" chorus) and took every opportunity to try to realize it, arranging themselves into picturesque poses.

From exercise to rehearsal to performance, some of their discoveries were choreographed and set, either for musical purposes or to assure physical safety when swords were being swung-- but much arose and subsided spontaneously as they responded to one another in the moment, and were different every night.

What made it alive and funny was the duality-- a pirate could respond to the heroic ideal his scene partner was trying to realize, doubling the fantasy, or acknowledge incongruities and challenge the other to abort or improve his PG. The young ladies worked similarly, but they mostly needed two image/ideals to flip between, respectability and romantic abandon, and had the very literal restraints of long skirts, corsets, and schooling in decorum to contend with. Everybody sings "Hail Poetry", and we worked to get poetry into the bodies and the voices, bring it to earth and make it real. When it worked, the audience was lifted into that magical place between laughter and tears. Oh yes: the audience's role, like mine as director, was that of the Eye -- painter, sculptor, photographer, mistress, parent, Athena, Dionysos-- for whom all heroic deeds are performed.


Archives—Essays and Commentary

Actors & Acting

On Criticism

Political Commentary


Plays: Shakespeare

Plays: Modern

Women's Issues

On Writing & Directing


home | bio | resume | blog | contact GL Horton
monologues | one-act plays | full-length plays
reviews | essays | links | videos

Made on an iMac by Websites 4 Small Business.