On The Threshold Of The Subconscious | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 2)

On The Threshold Of The Subconscious | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 2)


On The Threshold Of The Subconscious

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski


“Now we come to the positive side,” said the Director at the beginning of our lesson today. “To the conditions and means which help an actor in his creative work and lead him to the promised land of the subconscious. It is difficult to speak of this realm. It is not always subject to reasoning. What can we do? We can change to a discussion of the super-objective and through-line of action.”

“Why to them? Why do you choose these two? What is the connection?” came from various perplexed students.

“Principally because they are predominantly conscious in their make-up and subject to reason. Other grounds for this choice will appear in our lesson today.”

He called on Paul and me to play the opening lines of the first scene between Iago and Othello.

We prepared ourselves and played it with concentration and right inner feelings.

“What are you intent on just now?” Tortsov asked.

“My first object is to attract Kostya’s attention,” answered Paul.

“I was concentrated on understanding what Paul was saying, and trying to visualize his remarks inwardly,” I explained.


An Actor Prepares


“Consequently, one of you was drawing the attention of the other in order to attract his notice, and the other was trying to penetrate and visualize the remarks being made to him in order to penetrate and visualize those remarks.”

“No, indeed!” we protested vigorously.

“But that is all that could happen in the absence of a super-objective and the through-line of action for the whole play. There can be nothing but individual, unrelated actions, undertaken each for his own sake.

“Now repeat what you have just done and add the next scene in which Othello jokes with Iago.”

When we had finished Tortsov again asked us what our objective had been.

Dolce far niente,” was my answer.

“What had become of your previous objective, of understanding your colleague?”

“It was absorbed in the next and more important step.”

“Now repeat everything up to this point and add still another bit, the first intimations of jealousy.”

We did as directed and awkwardly defined our objective as “poking fun at the absurdity of Iago’s vow.”

“And now where are your former objectives?” probed the Director.

I was going to say that they too had been swallowed up in succeeding and more important aim, but I thought better of my answer and remained silent.

“What’s the matter? What is troubling you?”

“The fact that at this point in the play the theme of happiness is broken off and the new theme of jealousy begins.”

“It does not break off,” corrected Tortsov. “It changes with the changing circumstances of the play. First, the line passes through a short period of bliss for the newly-married Othello, he jokes with Iago, then comes amazement, dismay, and doubt. He repels the onrushing tragedy, calms his jealousy, and returns to his happy state.

“We are familiar with such changes of moods in reality. Life runs along smoothly, then suddenly doubt, disillusion, and grief are injected and still later they blow over and everything is bright once more.

“You have nothing to fear from such changes; on the contrary, learn to make the most of them, to intensify them. In the present instance that is easy to do. You have only to recall the early stages of Othello’s romance with Desdemona, the recent blissful past, and then contrast all this with the horror and torture Iago is preparing for the Moor.”

“I don’t see. What should we recall out of their past?” asked Vanya. “Think of those wonderful first meetings in the house of Brabantio, the tales of Othello, the secret meetings, the abduction of the bride and the marriage, the separation on the wedding night, the meeting again in Cyprus under the southern sun, the unforgettable honeymoon, and then, in the future—all the result of Iago’s hellish intrigue, the fifth act.

“Now go onMM!”

We went through the whole scene up to Iago’s famous vow, by the sky and by the stars, to consecrate his mind, will, and feelings, his all, to the service of the abused Othello.

“If you work your way through the whole play in this way, your familiar objectives will naturally be absorbed in larger and fewer aims, which will stand like guide posts along the through-line of action This larger objective gathers up all the smaller ones subconsciously and eventually forms the through-line of action for the whole tragedy.”

The discussion turned next on the right name for the first large objective. No one, not even the Director himself, could decide the question. That was, of course, not surprising, as a real, live, engaging objective cannot be found immediately and by a purely intellectual process. However, for lack of a better one, we did decide on an awkward name for it—“I wish to idealize Desdemona, to give up my whole life to her service.”



As I reflected about this larger objective, I found that it helped me to intensify the whole scene as well as other parts of my role. I felt this whenever I began to shape any action toward the ultimate goal—the idealization of Desdemona. All the other inner objectives lost their significance.

For example, take the first one: to try to understand what Iago is saying. What was the point of that? No one knows. Why try when it is perfectly clear that Othello is in love, is thinking of no one but her, and will speak of no one else. Therefore, all enquiries and thoughts of her are necessary and pleasing to him.

Then take our second objective—dolce far niente. That is no longer necessary or right. In talking about her the Moor is engaged in something important and vital to him, and again for the reason that he wishes to idealize her.

After Iago’s first vow I imagine that Othello laughed. It was pleasant for him to think that no stain could touch his crystal-pure divinity. This conviction put him into a joyful state of mind and intensified his worship for her. Why? For the same reason as before. I understood better than ever how gradually jealousy took hold of him, how imperceptibly his faith in his ideal weakened and the realization grew and strengthened that wickedness, depravity, snake-like cunning, could be contained in such an angelic form.

“Now where are your former objectives?” queried the Director.

“They have all been swallowed up in our concern over a lost ideal.”

“What conclusion can you draw from this work today?” he asked, and then he went on to answer his own question.

“I made the actors playing that scene between Othello and Iago feel for themselves, in actual practice, the process by which the larger objectives absorb the smaller ones. Now Kostya and Paul also know that the more distant goal draws you away from the nearer one. Left to themselves, these smaller objectives naturally pass under the guidance of nature and the subconscious.

“Such a process is easy to understand. When an actor gives himself up to the pursuit of a larger objective, he does it completely. At such times nature is free to function in accordance with her own needs and desires. In other words Kostya and Paul now know through their own experience that an actor’s creative work, while on the stage, is really, either in whole or in part, an expression of his creative subconscious.”

The Director reflected for a while and then added:

“You will see these larger objectives undergo a transformation, similar to that of the smaller ones when the super-objective supersedes them all. They fall into place as steps leading to a final, all-embracing goal—steps that will, to a large extent, be taken subconsciously.

“The through-line of action is made up, as you know, of a series of large objectives. If you realize how many, many smaller objectives, transformed into subconscious actions, they contain, then consider the extent of the subconscious activities that flow into the through-line of action as it goes across the whole play, giving it a stimulating power to influence our subconscious indirectly.”

“The creative force of the through-line of action is in direct proportion to the power of attraction of the super-objective. This not only gives the super-objective a place of primary importance in our work; it also obliges us to devote particular attention to its quality.

“There are many ‘experienced directors’ who can define a super-objective off-hand because they ‘know the game’ and are ‘old hands at it. But they are of no use to us.

“There are other directors and playwrights who dig out a purely intellectual main theme. It will be intelligent and right but it will lack charm for the actor. It can serve as a guide but not as a creative force.

“In order to determine the kind of stimulating super-objective we do need to arouse our inner natures, I shall put a number of questions and answer them.

“Can we use a super-objective that is not right from the author’s point of view, and yet is fascinating to us actors.”

“No. It is not only useless but dangerous. It can only draw the actors away from their parts and the play.

“Can we use the main theme which is merely intellectual? No, not a dry product of pure reason. And yet a conscious super-objective, that derives from interesting, creative thinking, is essential.

“What about an emotional objective? It is absolutely necessary to us, necessary as air and sunlight.

“And an objective based on will that involves our whole physical and spiritual being? It is necessary.

“What can be said of a super-objective that appeals to your creative imagination, which absorbs your whole attention, satisfies your sense of truth, and faith, and all the elements of your inner mood? Any such theme that puts your inner motive forces to work is food and drink for you as an artist.

“Consequently, what we need is a super-objective that is in harmony with the intentions of the playwright and at the same time arouses a response in the soul of the actors. That means that we must search for it not only in the play but in the actors themselves.

“Moreover, the same theme, in the same part, set for all the actors who play it, will bring a different expression from each of them. Take some perfectly simple, realistic objectives, such as: I wish to grow rich! Think of the variety of subtle motives, methods, and conceptions you can put into the idea of wealth and its attainment.

There is so much, too, that is individual in such a problem and cannot be subject to conscious analysis. Then take a more complicated super-objective, such as lies at the root of a symbolic play by Ibsen or an impressionistic play by Maeterlinck, and you will find that the subconscious element in it is incomparably more profound, complex, and individual.



“All these individual reactions are of great significance. They give life and colour to a play. Without them, the main theme would be dry and inanimate. What gives that intangible charm to a theme so that it infects all the actors playing one and the same part? Largely it is something we cannot dissect, rising from the subconscious with which it must be in close association.”

Vanya was again distressed and asked, “Then how do we get at it?”

“In the same way you deal with the various ‘elements.’ You push it to the extreme limit of truthfulness and sincere belief in it, to the point where the subconscious comes in of its own accord.

“Here again you must make that small but extraordinarily important little ‘addition,’ just as you did when we discussed the extreme development of the functions of the ‘elements,’ and again when we had up the question of the through-line of action.”

“It can’t be very easy to find such an irresistible super-objective,” someone said.

“It is impossible to do it without inner preparation. The usual practice, however, is quite different. The director sits in his study and goes over a play. At almost the first rehearsal he announces the main theme to the actors. They try to follow his direction. Some, by accident, may get hold of the inner essence of the play. Others will approach it in an external, formal way. They may use his theme at first, to give the right direction to their work but later they ignore it.

They either follow the pattern of the production, the ‘business,’ or they go after the plot and a mechanical rendering of the action and the lines.

“Naturally, a super-objective that leads to such results has lost all its significance. An actor must find the main theme for himself. If for any reason, one is given to him by someone else, he must filter it through his own being until his own emotions are affected by it.

“To find the main theme, is it sufficient to employ our usual methods of psycho-technique for bringing about a proper inner creative state, and then add the extra touch which leads to the region of the subconscious?

“In spite of the great value I lay on that preparatory work, I must confess that I do not think even the inner state it creates is capable of undertaking the search for the super-objective. You cannot feel around for it outside of the play itself. So you must, even in some small degree, feel the atmosphere of your make-believe existence in the play and then pour these feelings into your already prepared inner state. Just as yeast breeds fermentation, this sense of life in a play will bring your creative faculties to boiling point.”

“How do we introduce yeast into our creative state?” said I, puzzled. “How can we make ourselves feel the life of the play before we have even studied it?”

Grisha confirmed me. He said, “Of course, you must study the play and its main theme first.”

“Without any preparation, a` froid?” the Director broke in. “I have already explained to you what that results in, and I have protested against that type of approach to a play or a part.

“My main objection, however, is to putting an actor in an impossible position. He must not be forcibly fed on other people’s ideas, conceptions, emotion memories, or feelings. Each person has to live through his own experiences. It is important that they be individual to him and analogous to those of the person he is to portray. An actor cannot be fattened like a capon. His own appetite must be tempted.

When that is aroused he will demand the material he needs for simple actions; he will then absorb what is given to him and make it his own. The director’s job is to get the actor to ask and look for the details that will put life into his part. He will not need these details for intellectual analysis of his part. He will want them for the carrying out of actual objectives.

“Besides, any information and material which he does not need immediately to pursue his aims only clutters up his mind and interferes with his work. He should be careful to avoid this, especially during the early period of creativeness.”

“Then what can we do?”

“Yes,” Grisha said, echoing Vanya. “You tell us we may not study the play and yet we must know it!

“Again I must remind you that the work we are discussing is based on the creation of lines formed from small, accessible, physical objectives, small truths, and belief in them, which are taken from the play itself and which give to it a living atmosphere.

“Before you have made a detailed study of the play or your part, execute someone’s small action (I do not care how slight it is), which you do with sincerity and truthfulness.

“Let us say that one of the persons in the play has to come into a room. Can you walk into a room?” asked Tortsov.

“I can,” answered Vanya promptly.

“All right then, walk in. But let me assure you that you cannot do it until you know who you are, where you came from, what room you are entering, who lives in the house, and a mass of other given circumstances that must influence your action. To fill all that in so that you can enter the room as you should, will oblige you to learn something about the life of the play.

“Moreover, the actor has to work out these suppositions for himself and give them his own interpretation. If the director tries to force them on him the result is violence. In my way of doing, this cannot happen because the actor asks the director for what he needs as he needs it. This is an important condition for free, individual creativeness.



“An artist must have full use of his own spiritual, human material because that is the only stuff from which he can fashion a living soul for his part. Even if his contribution is slight, it is the better because it is his own.

“Suppose, as the plot unfolds, when you come into that room you meet a creditor and that you are far behind on the payment of your debt to him. What would you do?” “I don’t know,” exclaimed Vanya.

“You have to know, otherwise you cannot play the part. You will just say your lines mechanically and act with pretense instead of truth. You must put yourself into some position analogous to that of your character. If necessary, you will add new suppositions. Try to remember when you yourself were ever in a similar position and what you did. If you have never been in one, create a situation in your imagination. Sometimes you can live more intensely, more keenly, in your imagination than in real life.

If you make all your preparations for your work in a human, real way, not mechanically; if you are logical and coherent in your purposes and actions, and if you consider all the attending conditions of the life of your part, I do not doubt for a moment that you will know just how to act. Compare what you have decided on with the plot of the play and you will feel a certain kinship with it, to a great or small degree.

You will come to feel that, given the circumstances, the opinions, and the social position of the character you are playing, you would be bound to act as he did.

“That closeness to your part we call perception of yourself in the part and of the part in you.

“Suppose you go through the whole play, all of its scenes, bits, objectives, and that you find the right actions and accustom yourself to executing them from start to finish. You will then have established an external form of action which we call the ‘physical life of a part.’

To whom do these actions belong, to you or to the part?” “To me, of course,” said Vanya.

“The physical aspect is yours and the actions too. But the objectives, their inner foundation, sequence, and all the given circumstances are mutual. Where do you leave off and where does your part begin?”

“That’s impossible to say,” answered Vanya, perplexed.

“All you must remember is that the actions you have worked out are not simply external. They are based on inner feelings; they are reinforced by your belief in them. Inside of you, parallel to the line of physical actions, you have an unbroken line of emotions verging on the subconscious. You cannot follow the line of external action sincerely and directly and not have the corresponding emotions.” Vanya made a gesture of despair.

“I see your head is swimming already. That is a good sign because it shows that so much of your role has already become mixed into your own self that you cannot possibly tell where to draw the line between you and your part. Because of that state, you will feel yourself closer than ever to your part.

“If you go through a whole play that way you will have a real conception of its inner life. Even when that life is still in the embryonic stage, it is vital. Moreover, you can speak for your character in your own person. This is of utmost importance as you develop your work systematically and in detail. Everything that you add from an inner source will find its rightful place. Therefore, you should bring yourself to the point of taking hold of a new role concretely, as if it were your own life.

When you sense that real kinship to your part, you will be able to pour feelings into your inner creative state, which borders on the subconscious and boldly begin the study of the play and its main theme.

“You will now realize what a long, arduous task it is to find a broad, deep, stirring super-objective and through-line of action that will be capable of leading you to the threshold of the subconscious and carrying you off into its depths. Also, you see now how important it is, during your search, to sense what the author of the play had in his mind and to find in yourself a responsive chord.

“How many themes must be cut back so that others will grow! How many times must we aim and shoot before we hit the bull’s eye!

“Every real artist should make it his object, while he is on the stage, to center his entire creative concentration on just the super-objective and through-line of action, in their broadest and deepest meaning. If they are right all the rest will be brought about subconsciously, miraculously, by nature. This will happen on the condition that the actor recreates his work, each time he repeats his part, with sincerity, truth, and directness.

It is only on that condition that he will be able to free his art from mechanical and stereotyped acting, from ‘tricks’ and all forms of artificiality. If he accomplishes this he will have real people and real-life all around him on the stage, and living art which has been purified from all debasing elements.”

“Let us go still farther!” exclaimed the Director as he began the lesson. “Imagine some IDEAL ARTIST who has decided to devote himself to a single, large purpose in life: to elevate and entertain the public by a high form of art; to expound the hidden, spiritual beauties in the writings of poetic geniuses. He will give new renderings of already famous plays and parts, in ways calculated to bring out their more essential qualities. His whole life will be consecrated to this high cultural mission.

“Another type of artist may use his personal success to convey his own ideas and feelings to the masses. Great people may have a variety of high purposes.

“In their cases, the super-objective of any one production will be merely a step in the fulfillment of an important life purpose, which we shall call a supreme objective and its execution a supreme through the line of action.

“To illustrate what I mean I shall tell you of an incident from my own life.

“A long time ago, when our company was on tour in St. Petersburg, I was kept late in the theatre by an unsuccessful, badly prepared rehearsal. I was upset by the attitude of some of my colleagues. I was tired and angry as I left. Suddenly I found myself in a mass of people in the square before the theatre.

Bonfires were blazing, people were sitting on campstools, on the snow half asleep, and some were huddled in a kind of tent that protected them from the cold and wind. The extraordinary number of people—there were thousands of them—were waiting for morning and the box office to open.

“I was deeply stirred. To appreciate what these people were doing I had to ask myself: ‘What event, what glorious prospect, what amazing phenomenon, what world-famous genius could induce me to shiver night after night out in the cold, especially when this sacrifice would not even give me the desired ticket, but only a coupon entitling me to stand in line on the chance of obtaining a seat in the theatre?’

“I could not answer the question because I could not find any happening that could persuade me to risk my health, perhaps even my life, for its sake. Think what the theatre meant to those people! We should be deeply conscious of that. What an honour for us that we can bring such a high order of happiness to thousands of people. I was instantly seized with the desire to set a supreme goal for myself, the carrying out of which would constitute a supreme through the line of action and in which all minor objectives would be absorbed.

“The danger would lie in letting one’s attention center for too long on some small, personal problem.”

“Then what would happen?”

“The same thing that happens to a child when he ties a weight on the end of a string and winds it up on a stick. The more it winds the shorter the string becomes and the smaller the circle it describes. Finally, it strikes the stick. But suppose another child pushes his stick into the orbit of the weight. Its momentum will cause it to wind its string on the second stick and the first child’s game is ruined.



“We actors have a tendency to become sidetracked in the same way and to put our energy into problems aside from our main purpose. That, of course, is dangerous and has a deteriorating influence on our work.”

All during these recent lessons, I had been rather dismayed at hearing so much reasoning about the subconscious. The subconscious is an inspiration. How can you reason about it? I was even more shocked by being obliged to piece the subconscious together out of small bits and crumbs. So I went to the Director and spoke my mind.

“What makes you think,” said he, “that the subconscious belongs altogether to inspiration? Without stopping to think, instantly, give me the name of some noun!”

Here he turned abruptly to Vanya, who said, “A shaft.”

“Why a shaft, why not a table, which is standing in front of you, or a chandelier, hanging overhead?”

“I don’t know,” answered Vanya.

“Neither do I,” said Tortsov. “Moreover, I know that no one knows. Only your subconscious can tell why that particular object came into the foreground of your mind.”

Here he put anosdther question to Vanya: “What are you thinking about, and what do you feel?”

“I?” Vanya hesitated, then he ran his fingers through his hair, stood up abruptly and then sat down, rubbed his wrists on his knees, picked up a scrap of paper from the floor and folded it up, all this in preparation of his reply.

Tortsov laughed heartily.

“Let me see you repeat consciously every little movement you just made before you were ready to answer my question. Only your subconscious could solve the puzzle of why you went through all those motions.”

Thereupon he turned back to me and said, “Did you notice how everything Vanya did was lacking in inspiration yet contained a great deal of subconsciousness? So, too, you will find it to some degree in the simplest act, desire, problem, feeling, thought, communication or adjustment. We live very close to it ordinarily.

We find it in every step we take. Unfortunately, we cannot adapt all of these moments of subconsciousness to our uses, and also there are fewer of them where we need them most when we are on the stage. Just try to find any in a well-polished, ingrained, hackneyed production. There will be nothing in it but hard and fast, established habits, conscious and mechanical.”

“But mechanical habits are partly subconscious,” insisted Grisha.

“Yes, but not the kind of subconsciousness we are discussing,” replied Tortsov. “We need a creative, human, subconscious and the place to look for it above all is in a stirring objective and its through-line of action. Their consciousness and subconsciousness are subtly and marvelously blended. When an actor is completely absorbed by some profoundly moving objective, so that he throws his whole being passionately into its execution, he reaches a state that we call inspiration.

In it almost everything he does is subconscious and he has no conscious realization of how he accomplishes his purpose.

“So you see, these periods of subconsciousness are scattered all through our lives. Our problem is to remove whatever interferes with them and to strengthen any elements that facilitate their functioning.”



Our lesson was short today as the Director was appearing in a performance in the evening.


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