AN ACTRESS PREPARES: WOMEN AND ‘THE METHOD’
By Rosemary Malague. Routledge, New York, 2012. 264 pp., $31.95 paper
STELLA ADLER ON AMERICA’S MASTER PLAYWRIGHTS
Edited and with commentary by Barry Paris. Knopf, New York, 2012. 368 pp., $27.95 cloth
Rosemary Malague, author of An Actress Prepares, grew up in the house of the Method, and she wants to believe the Method loves her back. But there’s a rub. Malague is a feminist. In fact, the teachings of Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen—the dominant American proponents of Method acting—lit the fuse of her feminism. There she was in acting class, asked to portray female characters from the plays of O’Neill and Williams and Miller, women who mostly cry or seduce their way through life. That was one issue, but she was asked as well, according to Method training, to locate her inner hysteric or slut in order to recreate “the truth” of these emotions, and it didn’t feel right. None of it felt good, neither the playwright’s vision of what a woman is, nor the requirement to locate its source in your body and body of experience. Part of the way you know you’re a feminist is when you respond to a prompt like this with, “What a load of crap.”
Malague, who directs the Theatre Arts Program at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges a wave of feminist reaction to the Method, including performance art and not-necessarily-feminist techniques derived from Brecht, Anne Bogart, Grotowski, Lecoq, etc. Malague sees this flowering as “alternative,” however, which means she thinks there is a center. As she puts it: “Stanislavsky-derived training makes up the grammar of American acting.” If you study at a university or acting school, she contends, you will learn a version of the Method.
Malague wants the Method to work for women. She wants to redeem it, somehow, although she confines her discussion to the 20th-century plays that informed American Method theory. The playwrights, with the exception of Lillian Hellman, are men: O’Neill, Odets, Saroyan, Wilder, Williams, Miller, Albee, and so on. They are interested in class, in some cases, and in interior life in others, but the sex roles in their works are hopelessly traditional. Method teaching, Malague documents, especially under Strasberg and Meisner, exhorted male and female actors to hail these stereotypes as truth. Is there something creepy and pernicious in women playing these parts now with a straight face, Malague asks? (As if there could be an answer other than yes.)
You might think her point would be, “Enough with the canon.” But no: She wants the Method to somehow subvert the canon from within. How would you do that, and, really, is it worth the bother? We can treat the plays of the past as museum pieces and recreate as closely as possible the values of their time. But in this pursuit, a feminist performer won’t be able to use the Method, because she won’t be able to detach her contemporary consciousness from her work—from the interior search the Method insists on. Another stab is to reinterpret plays, but in all of Malague’s book, she presents but one example of such a renovation via the Method—Elizabeth Franz’s transformation of Linda Loman in a 1999 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman from a weak, used-up wife to an angry one.
A more logical path is overlooked. As the Martian says to the Woody Allen character in Stardust Memories, “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” You want to reboot the Method? Try it on work that doesn’t pigeonhole the genders. It seems obvious, right? As Malague points out, Method training equips actors for realist parts in TV, film and theatre, much of which deconstructs gender and power in smart and ironic ways. But reading An Actress Prepares, you’d never that know feminism and other forms of social critique had transformed popular as well as avant-garde entertainment.
Still, it’s enjoyable in a ghoulish way to follow Malague’s scalpel cuts into Method teaching as she exposes the gore and juice of gurus running amok. She also astutely positions the Method as a Jewish intervention in Anglo-inflected Broadway and Hollywood. In 1931, Strasberg, Adler, Harold Clurman, and other Group Theatre founders established a home for actors lacking the King’s English and bank accounts. Through Odets and Saroyan, they brought working-class characters from the wings onto the stage, and by the 1950s Method acting had become as American as Abstract Expressionism and jazz; it represented American culture here and abroad. Malague writes amusingly about the induction of Marilyn Monroe into the Actor’s Studio, the way as the ultimate shiksa she symbolized arrival for a certain type of Jewish male (one even married her for a time). She is incisive documenting the centrality of maleness and straightness in the Method milieu. Even Meisner, who was gay, reinforced straight roles.
Grasping for a feminist forebear, Malague sidles up to Adler, calling her a “proto-feminist” because she trained actors to interpret texts and think for themselves. The claim is empty. And, alas, there isn’t a whiff of feminism in Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, a series of otherwise fascinating lectures delivered in the 1970s and ’80s, edited by Barry Paris. Adler, you quickly glean, was a prominent female in the style of glittering exception, uninterested in identifying with a word as dirty as woman. If you thought a woman was someone represented by the characters in plays by men—well, who would want to be that?
Adler’s lectures choke on repetition, forgivable in speech but better trimmed on the page. And Adler’s line readings of plays—even important ones such as Long Day’s Journey and Streetcar—emit few startling illuminations. Instead, her digressions and commentaries form a peppery memoir, spanning a brilliant career that started in Yiddish theatre when she performed beside her father, the great Jacob Adler.
What a mouth she has on her! Hearing her detailed, passionate stories, you feel the thrill that must have shot down the spines of her students. You taste the glory days of Method training, as Adler shakes her fist at Hollywood—her Hollywood is a giant Stanley Kowalski, trampling on a sea of Blanche DuBoises advancing art. She likes a play she can understand, saying, in effect, “Feh” to Beckett—comical, because she sounds so much like a Beckett character (Krapp, maybe, or Winnie in Happy Days, free-associating a web of memory). Young and beautiful, she chafes against playing Jewish mothers or the other low-wattage characters Strasberg (who hates her) enjoys casting her in. Listen to her kvetch about casting: “If they couldn’t get a character actress the right age, they gave it to me. When I was 10, I played my father’s mother.”
There are dazzling monologues on Jews in theatre, the rise of Greenwich Village, the Depression, McCarthyism. Bombastic and imperious, Adler doesn’t have a thought she doesn’t turn into a conviction. For her, theatre is talking. Hers is the voice at the party that cuts through the din. Poking the air, she says, “There’s not a drop of beauty left in you after you’ve been waiting an hour for a bus.” You inch up to her and ask about Brando, and she remembers the time in Paris he agreed to do Streetcar in French, and the time she told the class to act like they were chickens about to have a bomb dropped on them. “Everybody else ran around and clucked like crazy,” she says, but Marlon just sat there, very calmly and intently. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m laying an egg.’”
It’s not surprising that a woman with this much energy and imagination couldn’t see herself in the roles she was cast in. What’s jolting is that she didn’t figure out why. That’s the leap Malague wishes she had made, but today’s actresses need no such prodding. With more and more parts out there reflecting who women think they are—and many of them written by women—the partnership of feminism and the Method may finally have begun.
Former Village Voice writer Laurie Stone is the author of a memoir, My Life as an Animal, and is at work on a collection of essays, The Pain of Language.
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