At last I was given The Path of the Actor for my birthday – Michael Chekhov’s autobiography written when he was only 36. Whilst Chekhov’s classic acting technique texts To the Actor and On The Technique of Acting give you a strong sense of the man himself, this beautiful, honest and moving book gives me a real sense of the roots of his life and personality which helped give birth to his amazing work. It is a moving experience and I would recommend it to any Chekhov student. Unlike Peter Brook say, who never seems to explore his own personal world or indeed his failings in any of the books about or by him that I have read, and despite his undisputed genius always appears a kind of distant guru, Chekhov’s painful human description of his breakdown, family relationships, alcoholism, exile etc gives insight into how the artist found his path , a path that was not always clear and defined, but was a path never the less . All the personal episodes trace back however to the ‘spine’, his work, his feelings about it, and the way in which he developed his technique which give a real ‘feeling of the whole’ to his experiences. Whilst I am sure the biography is selective, and some traumatic episodes are undoubtedly left out, there are enough difficult and embarrassing episodes remaining to admire his honesty, openness and directness. Chekhov is not afraid to look challenged or foolish or strange, as many respected actor/ director theorists might be , and yet at the same time he is not being indulgent or egocentric and apologising for his behaviour or his ideas. He does not obfuscate, he illuminates. He has this amazing faith in the wonder of artistic creation that any attempt to explain it does not diminish that wonder. What comes over to me as I read, is this archetype of the Searcher. it is a spiritual search in the broadest sense.
Autobiography is a powerful tool of exploration. In my personal experience, and I am not trying to compare myself here, an extraordinary thing happened to me on my birthday when I played some radio essays I had done for RTE ( the Irish broadcaster) for the assembled guests. I had recorded them over a decade earlier and they explored something of my own approach to creativity, and my life as an actor, director, teacher and playwright, beginning when I was in a play when I was 8. As I listened to one or two of the more painful episodes in this series of essays I was again reminded of the way the events had fuelled my attitudes, and shaped my path.
The very form of the essays was restrictive and the form forced a narrative. Was the narrative really there as clearly in the reality of my life? There were some aspects I did not use, both high and low experiences, but nevertheless the thrust of my journey was as I experienced it, even though I was not able to discern it always as a journey at the time it was happening. Is form only something discernible in art, when we shape our lives through creative exploration? Or does it exist intrinsically of itself? Has my life a true form? Or does form only exist in art? Hmmmm. Maybe My life is a work of art? As Chekhov speaks of every action as ‘a little piece of art’ ?
I remember when I recorded the essays, in the RTE studios in Galway. I sat alone in the studio on a sunny day and spoke to the director whom I think was in Limerick, on the telephone. There was no real human contact. It was strange. But when I had finished recording and walked out into the sun, I felt an extraordinary weight lift from my shoulders as if a part of my life had suddenly been explained to me.