In Diderot’s “The Paradox of Acting” and Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares”, both authors argued that acting should arise out of rigorous preparation and thorough study of character and plot instead of by aiming for uncontrolled emotion or hopeful inspiration. They both expressed distaste for carrying out one’s acting through forced emotion. For Diderot, an actor should not lose self-control and become possessed by emotion, because the consequences of focusing on emotion would be unrepeatability and inconsistency. Stanislavski argued that a play was comprised of multiple units, and each unit represented a complete and fully realized action. An effective action should spring from an active objective.
Diderot and Stanislavski’s primary aim was to achieve unity in acting. Diderot stated that every acting choice had to be calculated and precise in order to make one’s acting effective and consistent. Stanislavski proposed that all the actions and minor objectives should converge to form the super-objective of the plot. The super-objective would then govern all the actions to form a clear through line of action.
However, Diderot and Stanislavski’s approaches to creating a character were different. Diderot proposed that an actor should use his observations and reflections on real life, fine imagination, acute judgment, artistic taste to construct a model for himself, and then conform himself to the model. Acting for him was an imitation of the model. Actor was a representation of the character, but not the character himself. Stanislavski emphasized close study on character’s actions and objectives to locate character’s through-line of inner grasp and action, and then create a character with a clear super-objective to guide all his thoughts and actions. Acting was a process of creation rather than imitation for Stanislavski. Actor’s goal for Stanislavski would be to embody the character and eventually become the character.
From the beginning of “The Paradox of Acting”, Diderot already asserted his belief in judgment rather than sensibility in acting. His main argument against focusing on emotion in acting was its unrepeatability and inconsistency. For Diderot, feelings were unreliable and could not be constantly repeated at the same level, whereas judgment could be employed to analyze, study, repeat, and strengthen the performance through new observations and deeper understanding of the character. He stated that from feelings “you must expect no unity… tomorrow they will miss the point they excelled in today; and to make up for it will excel in some passage where last time they failed” (p198). “On the other hand, the actor who plays from reflection, from the study of human nature, from constant imitation of some ideal model, from imagination, from memory, will be one and the same at all performances, will be always at his best mark” (p198).
Another reason for Diderot disapproval of reliance on emotion was that he believed that an actor should be “an attentive mimic and thoughtful disciple of nature” (p198), the actor needed to be “faithfully copying himself and the effects he has arrived at, and constantly observing human nature” (p198). For Diderot, acting was a combination of imitation and creation, but mainly an imitative art. His process of creating a character was to construct a model, which would be a process of creation using actor’s imagination, judgment, and observation. Then the actor should imitate the model in his acting. Diderot argued that “doubtless she has constructed a model for herself, and to conform to this model has been her first thought; doubtless she has chosen for her purpose the highest, the greatest, the most perfect model should could conceive. This model, however, which she has borrowed from history, or which her imagination has created like a great phantom, is not herself” (p199). Therefore, since acting was mostly an imitative art for Diderot, “if the actor were overcome by feeling” (p198), the actor would no longer be attentive to his surroundings, and make critical observations and reflections on his own and others’ performances. Also, if the actor could constantly take in what was in the nature instead of retreating into his own emotion, then “like the poet he will dip forever into the inexhaustible treasure-house of nature, instead of coming very soon to an end of his own poor resources” (p199).
Similar to Diderot’s view on emotion, Stanislavski concluded in the end of “Units and Objectives” that “…I would give up chasing this phantom, inspiration. Leave it to the miraculous fairy, nature, and devote yourself to what lies within the realm of human conscious control” (p264-265). He also stated that “the mistake most actors make is that they think about the result instead of about the action that must prepare it. By avoiding action and aiming straight at the result you get a forced product which can lead to nothing but ham acting” (p111). For Stanislavski, action was most important. A play could be dissembled into units, and each unit should represent a complete action. An action would come into life with a clear objective. He argued that “at the heart of every unit lies a creative objective” (p110), and objective should be the “inner spring of action” (p111). He then stated that “the objective must always employ a verb” (p116), and “every objective must carry in itself the germ of action” (p116). An action with a dynamic objective was Stanislavski’s building block for acting. Throughout the entire article, Stanislavski did not mention emotion as an individual topic at all. The reason could be found in his statement that “verbs provoked thoughts and feelings which were, in turn, inner challenges to action” (p119).
Therefore, emotion would come after the actor had set a clear active objective, and emotion should be used only to strengthen the action, and should not be the primary goal for the actors.
For both Diderot and Stanislavski, unity was the goal for acting. For Diderot, unity made one’s acting consistent and clearly defined. He argued that the best actor “will be invariable; a looking-glass, as it were, ready to reflect realities, and to reflect them ever with the same precision, the same strength, and the same truth” (p199). “His passion has a definite course –it has bursts, and it has reactions; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The accents are the same, the positions are the same, the movements are the same” (p198).
On the subject of dissecting the play into units, Stanislavski argued that after one had reduced the play in to smaller details, he should “reverse the process eventually and reassemble the whole” (p108). The purpose of division was to discover the core of the play and to grasp the sense of the play as a larger whole. After he had discussed the relationship between objective and action, he further stated that “in a play the whole stream of individual, minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings, and actions of an actor, should converge to carry out the super-objective of the plot” (p256). The function of super-objective was to provide the play with a coherent continuity. “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” (p258). “All the minor lines are headed toward the same goal and fuse into one main current” (p261).
The point in which Diderot and Stanislavki differ from each other was their approach to creating a character. Diderot argued that the actor should construct a perfect model “with fine imagination, with broad judgment, with exquisite tact, with a sure touch of taste” (p199). Then he should imitate the model in acting. The truth on stage would be “the conformity of action, diction, face, voice, movement, and gesture, to an ideal model imagined by the poet, and frequently exaggerated by the actor” (p201). However, actor’s goal was not to become the character, but rather to imitate the model. Diderot pointed out that “he is not the character he represents; he plays it, and plays it so well that you think he is the character; the illusion is all on your side; he knows well enough that he is not the character” (p201). For Diderot, “he, then, who best knows and best conveys these outer signs, according to the best conceived ideal model, is the greatest actor” (p201).
Stanislavski did not address the issue of imitation or embodiment directly. However, in his exercise of naming the objectives in verbs, everyone in the class addressed themselves in first person perspective. For example, they would already assume themselves as the characters, and then stated their objectives as “I wish to remember my dead child” (p118), or “I wish to care for, to caress, to tend him” (p118). Throughout “Units and Objectives”, Stanislavski’s argued for thorough study of character’s actions and objectives. Therefore, it would be sufficient to conclude that his approach for creating a character would be to embody the character in the actor, rather than to imitate an ideal model and separate the actor himself from the character.
In conclusion, Diderot and Stanislavski both disapproved of approaching acting through emotion. Diderot emphasized the importance of judgment, whereas Stanislavski stressed on action. They both regarded unity as the key aim for acting. Diderot viewed acting as an art of imitation, and Stanislavski saw acting as a process of creation and embodiment.