The Super Objective | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

The Super Objective | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski


The Super Objective

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski


TORTSOV BEGAN THE lesson today with the following remarks:

“Dostoyevski was impelled to write The Brothers Karamazov by his lifelong search for God. Tolstoy spent all of his life struggling for self-perfection. Anton Chekhov wrestled with the triviality of bourgeois life and it became the leit motiv of the majority of his literary productions.

“Can you feel how these larger, vital purposes of great writers have the power to draw all of an actor’s creative faculties and to absorb all the details and smaller units of a play or part?

“In a play, the whole stream of the individual, minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings, and actions of an actor, should converge to carry out the super-objective of the plot. The common bond must be so strong that even the most insignificant detail if it is not related to the super-objective, will stand out as superfluous or wrong.



“Also this impetus towards the super-objective must be continuous throughout the whole play. When its origin is theatrical or perfunctory it will give only an approximately correct direction to the play. If it is human and directed towards the accomplishment of the basic purpose of the play it will be like the main artery, providing nourishment and life to both it and the actors.

“Naturally, too, the greater the literary work, the greater the pull of its super-objective.”

“But if a play lacks the touch of genius?”

“Then they pull will be distinctly weaker.”

“And in a bad play?”

“Then the actor has to point up the super-objective himself, make it deeper and sharper. In doing that the name he gives to it will be extremely significant.

“You already know how important it is to choose the right name for an objective. You remember that we found the verb form preferable because it gave more impetus to action. The same is true to an even greater extent in defining the super-objective.

“Suppose we are producing Griboyedov’s Woe From Too Much Wit and we decide that the main purpose of the play can be described by the words ‘I wish to strive for Sophy.’ There is a great deal in the plot that would confirm that definition.

The drawback would be that in handling the play from that angle the theme of social denunciation would appear to have only an episodic, accidental value. But you can describe the super-objective in the terms of ‘I wish to struggle, not for Sophy, but for my country!’ Then Chatski’s ardent love of his country and his people will move into the foreground.

“At the same time, the indictment of society theme will become more prominent, giving the whole play a deeper inner significance. You can deepen its meaning still further if you use ‘I wish to struggle for freedom’ as the main theme. In that set-up, the hero’s accusations become more severe and the whole play loses the personal, individual tone it had when the theme was connected with Sophy; it is no longer even national in scope, but broadly human, and universal in its implications.

“In my own experience, I have had some even more vivid proofs of the importance of choosing the right name for the super-theme. One instance was when I was playing Le Malade Imaginaire of Molie`re. Our first approach was elementary and we chose the theme ‘I wish to be sick.’ But the more effort I put into it and the more successful I was, the more evident it became that we were turning a jolly, satisfying comedy into a pathological tragedy.

We soon saw the error of our ways and changed to: “I wish to be thought sick.” Then the whole comic side came to the fore and the ground was prepared to show up the way in which the charlatans of the medical world exploited the stupid Argan, which was what Molie`re meant to do.

“In Goldoni’s La Locandiera we made the mistake of using ‘I wish to be a misogynist,’ and we found that the play refused to yield either humour or action. It was only when I discovered that the hero really loved women and wished only to be accounted a misogynist that I changed to ‘I wish to do my courting on the sly’ and immediately the play came to life.

“In this last instance, the problem concerned my part rather than the whole play. However, it was only after prolonged work, when we realized that the Mistress of the Inn was really the Mistress of our Lives, or, in other words, Woman, that the whole inner essence of the play became evident.



“Often we do not come to a conclusion about this main theme until we have put on a play. Sometimes the public helps us to understand its true definition.

“The main theme must be firmly fixed in an actor’s mind throughout the performance. It gave birth to the writing of the play. It should also be the fountain-head of the actor’s artistic creation.”

The Director began today by telling us that the main inner current of a play produces a state of inner grasp and power in which actors can develop all the intricacies and then come to a clear conclusion as to its underlying, fundamental purpose.

“That inner line of effort that guides the actors from the beginning to the end of the play we call the continuity or the through-going action. This throughline galvanizes all the small units and objectives of the play and directs them toward the super-objective. From then on they all serve a common purpose.

“To emphasize the enormous practical significance of the throughgoing action and the super-objective in our creative process the most convincing proof I can offer is an instance that came to my personal knowledge. A certain actress, who enjoyed great popular success, became interested in our system of acting and decided to give up the stage for a while to perfect herself in this new method. She worked with various teachers for several years. Then she returned to the stage.

“To her amazement, she was no longer successful. The public found that she had lost her most valuable attribute, which was a direct outburst of inspiration. This had been replaced by dryness, naturalistic detail, perfunctory ways of acting, and other similar defects. You can easily imagine the situation in which this actress now found herself. Each time she appeared she felt as though she were going through some test. It interfered with her playing and increased her sense of distraction and dismay, amounting almost to despair.

She tested herself in various out-of-town theatres, thinking that perhaps the public in the capital was hostile to or prejudiced against the ‘system.’ But the result was everywhere the same. The poor actress began to curse the new method and tried to shake it off. She made an effort to go back to her earlier style of acting, but she was unable to do this. She had lost her artificial adeptness and she could no longer stand the absurdities of her old ways in comparison with the new method which she really preferred. So she ’ell between two stools.

It is said that she had made up her mind to leave the stage entirely.

“About this time I happened to have an opportunity to see her play. Afterward, at her request, I went to her dressing-room. Long after the play had ended and everyone had left the theatre she would not let me go, but implored me, in a desperately emotional way, to tell her what the cause was of the change that had taken place in her. We went over every detail of her part, how it had been prepared, all of the technical equipment that she had acquired through her study of the ‘system.’ Everything was correct.

She understood every part of it, by itself. But she had not grasped the creative basis of the system as a whole. When I asked her about the through-line of action and the super-objective, she admitted that she had heard about them in a general way but that she had no practical knowledge of them.

“ ‘If you play without the through-line of action,’ I said to her, ‘you are merely going through certain disjointed exercises of parts of the system. They are useful in classroom work but they do not do for the whole performance of a part. You have passed over the important fact that all these exercises have the principal purpose of establishing fundamental lines of direction. That is why the splendid bits of your role has produced no effect. Break up a beautiful statue and the small scraps of marble cannot be overwhelming in their effect.’

“The next day, at rehearsal, I showed her how to prepare her units and objectives in relation to the main theme and direction of her part.



“She went about her work passionately and asked for several days to get a firm hold on it. I checked her work each day and finally went to the theatre to see her act the part over again in the new spirit. Her success was overpowering. I cannot describe to you what happened that evening in the theatre.

This gifted actress was rewarded for all her sufferings and doubts over a period of years. She threw herself into my arms, kissed me, and wept for joy, she thanked me for giving her back her talent. She laughed and danced and took innumerable curtain calls, from a public that was not willing to let her go.

“That shows you the miraculous, life-giving quality of the through-line of action and the super-objective.”

Tortsov reflected for a few minutes. Then he said:

“Perhaps it would be more graphic if I made a drawing for you.” This is what he drew:

“All the minor lines are headed towards the same goal and fuse into one main current,” he explained.

“Let us take the case, however, of an actor who has not established his ultimate purpose, whose part is made up of smaller lines leading in varying directions. Then we have:

“If all the minor objectives in a part are aimed in different directions it is, of course, impossible to form a solid, unbroken line.

Consequently, the action is fragmentary, uncoordinated, and unrelated to any whole. No matter how excellent each part may be in itself, it has no place in the play on that basis.

“Let me give you another case. We have agreed, have we not, that the main line of action and the main theme are organically part of the play and they cannot be disregarded without detriment to the play itself. But suppose we were to introduce an extraneous theme or put what you might call a tendency into the play. The other elements will remain the same but they will be turned aside, by this new addition. It can be expressed this way:

“A play with that kind of deformed, broken backbone cannot live.”

Grisha protested violently against that point of view.

“But do you not rob every director,” he burst out, “and every actor of all initiative and individual creative capacity, as well as every possibility of renewing old masterpieces by bringing them nearer to the spirit of modern times?”

Tortsov’s reply was calm and explanatory:

“You, and many who think as you do, often confuse and misunderstand the meaning of three words: eternal, modern, and momentary. You must be able to make fine distinctions in human spiritual values if you are to get at the true meaning of those words.

“What is modern may become eternal if it deals with questions of freedom, justice, love, happiness, great joy, great suffering. I make no objection to that kind of modernity in the work of a playwright.

“In absolute contrast, however, is momentariness which can never become eternal. It lives only for today and tomorrow, it will be

forgotten. That is why an external work of art can have nothing in common with what is momentary, no matter how clever the re´gisseur or how gifted the actors who may try to inject it.

“Violence is always a bad means to use in creative work so that freshening up an old theme by using a transient emphasis can mean only death for both play and part. Yet it is true that we find very rare exceptions. We know that fruit of one sort can occasionally be grafted onto the stock of another sort and a new fruit produced.

“Sometimes a contemporary idea can be naturally grafted on to an old classic and rejuvenate it. In that case, the addition becomes absorbed in the main theme:

“The conclusion to be drawn from this is: Above all preserve your super-objective and through-line of action. Be wary of all extraneous tendencies and purposes foreign to the main theme.

“I shall be satisfied if I have succeeded in bringing home to you the primary and exceptional importance of these two things because I shall feel I have accomplished my main purpose as a teacher and have explained one of the fundamental parts of our system.” After a prolonged pause Tortsov went on:

“Everyactionmeetswithareactionwhichinturnintensifiesthefirst. Ineveryplay, besides the main action we find its opposite counteraction. This is fortunate because its inevitable result is more action. We need that clash of purposes, and all the problems to solve that grow out of them. They cause activity which is the basis of our art.

“Let me take Brand as an illustration:

“Suppose that we are agreed that Brand’s motto ‘All or Nothing’ represents the main objective of the play (whether this is correct or not is beside the point at present). A fanatical, fundamental principle of this sort is terrifying. It admits of no compromises, no concessions, no weakening, in executing his ideal purpose in life.

“Now let me try to bind this main theme together with various smaller units in the play, perhaps the same scene we worked over in class, with Agnes and the baby clothes. If I try, mentally, to reconcile this scene with the main theme ‘All or Nothing’ I can make a great effort of my imagination and somehow bring them together.

“It is much more natural if I take the point of view that Agnes, the mother, represents the line of reaction or the line of counteraction. She is in rebellion against the principal theme.

“IfIanalyseBrand’spartinthesceneitiseasytofinditsrelationship to the main theme because he wants his wife to give away the baby clothes to complete her sacrifice to duty. As a fanatic, he demands all from her to achieve his ideal of life. Her counteraction only intensifies his direct action. Here we have the clash of two principles.

“Brand’s duty wrestles with mother love; an idea struggles with a feeling; the fanatic preacher with the sorrowing mother; the male principle with the female.

“Therefore, in this scene, the through-line of action is in Brand’s hands and the counteraction in those of Agnes.”

“Now please,” said Tortsov, “give me all your attention as I have something important to say!

“Everything that we have undertaken in this first course has been directed towards enabling you to obtain control of the three most important features in our creative process:

  • Inner grasp
  • The through-line of action
  • The super-objective.”

There was silence for a while and then Tortsov brought the lesson to a close by saying:

“We have covered all these points in general terms. Now you know what we mean by our ‘system’.”

Our first year’s course is almost over. I had expected inspiration but the “system” dashed my hopes.

These thoughts were running in my head as I stood in the vestibule of the theatre, putting on my coat and slowly winding my muffler around my neck.

Suddenly someone nudged me. I turned to find Tortsov.

He had noticed my crestfallen mood and had come to discover its cause. I gave him an evasive answer but he kept after me stubbornly with question after question.

“How do you feel now when you are on the stage?” he asked in an effort to understand my disappointment in the “system.”


the super objective


“That is just the trouble. I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary. I am comfortable, I know what to do, I have a purpose in being there, I have faith in my actions and believe in my right to be on the stage.”

“What more do you ask for? Do you feel it is wrong?” Then I confessed my longing to be inspired.

“Don’t come to me for that. My ‘system’ will never manufacture inspiration. It can only prepare a favorable ground for it.

“If I were you, I would give up chasing this phantom, inspiration. Leave it to that miraculous fairy, nature, and devote yourself to what lies within the realm of human conscious control.

“Put a role on the right road and it will move ahead. It will grow broader and deeper and will, in the end, lead to inspiration.”


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