The subtitle of Isaac Butler’s intelligent and entertaining book flags his expansive intentions. The Method is not (just) about the naturalistic, emotionally charged acting style most famously associated with Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio. It is indeed the story of “how the twentieth century learned to act”—or, rather, the history of a sea change in the notion of what good acting is, and how it could be achieved, that began in a Russian theatre at the turn of the century and traveled across the globe via American movies.
Butler’s introduction outlines the core concept with which Konstantin Stanislavski shook the theatrical world. “At the heart of Stanislavski’s revolution was the concept of perezhivanie, which, loosely translated, means something like ‘experiencing.’” This does not mean that actors “lose” themselves in a part, he stresses: “Perezhivanie occurs when an actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has so thoroughly entered into the imaginary reality of the character, that they feel what the character feels.” This idea, Butler reminds us, defied a centuries-old consensus that such authenticity was undesirable and potentially dangerous. Stanislavski’s disciples disagreed vehemently about how an actor could summon genuine feeling and also control it, but their shared belief in performances rooted in emotional truth became the dominant approach to acting in the 20th century. Butler lucidly illuminates the interaction of artistic, social, and political factors that created this new consensus.
It all starts, of course, with Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, but what we now know as the Method—what Stanislavski called a “system”—took time to coalesce. The MAT was nine years old and on a successful European tour in 1906 when Stanislavski, dissatisfied with what he saw as increasingly rote acting, began to ask what distinguished an “inspired” performance from a mechanical one and how an actor could consistently achieve inspiration.
Stanislavski’s answer to the first question was perezhivanie, and he created an entire system to explain how to achieve it. Politely describing Stanislavski’s writings on the system as “challenging” (another word would be “murky”), Butler spotlights two basic premises. The first is that actors’ individual experiences are their raw materials for bringing truth to a role and living the imagined life of the character. The second premise is two-pronged: an actor can break down a particular role into a series of “bits” (later Anglicized to “beats”), then work to fulfill each bit truthfully; similarly, the creative process itself can be broken down into components—techniques and exercises that provide “a reliable path to experiencing.”
Stanislavski spent the remainder of his life elaborating on the second premise, and Butler deftly elucidates the various terms he used to describe those components. Beats, the supertask (a.k.a. the “spine”), concentration, given circumstances, and affective memory are among the key concepts clearly defined with concrete examples. He also identifies the system’s two principal pitfalls: “self-indulgence and the fetishization of emotion,” criticisms made by and about MAT actors as early as 1912. The question of how to harness genuine emotion to theatrical discipline would start more than one war within the acting community during the decades that followed.
By the time the MAT arrived in New York in 1922, electrifying audiences with ensemble performances of an interior depth unknown on Broadway, the Bolshevik Revolution had created political problems for the company at home. Two members, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, stayed in New York to instruct eager Americans in the Stanislavski system. Among the students were Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, who went on to give the system an American base at the Group Theatre.
Butler briskly recaps the Group’s storied 1930s productions (full disclosure: His footnotes frequently cite my book about the company, Real Life Drama), but his focus is on how Strasberg interpreted Stanislavski’s system and the pushback he got from some Group members, including three who also became legendary acting teachers: Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler. He is fair to all parties in depicting the 1934 blowup after Adler returned from studying with Stanislavski to announce that Strasberg had overemphasized the use of affective memory to summon emotions. Butler suggests that Soviet political pressure may have played a role in Stanislavski’s new stress on actions; affective memory was suspiciously akin to the “bourgeois individualism” Stalinist authorities were aggressively rooting out. But he also notes that Group actors had tired of Strasberg’s dictatorial ways and seen the damage affective memory could cause. Strasberg didn’t regain the prestige he enjoyed in the Group’s early years until he became artistic director of the Actors Studio in 1951.
Butler does a respectable job of retelling the Method’s march to international fame via films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden, all directed by Studio founding member Elia Kazan and stocked with Studio actors, but this is a very familiar story. The greater interest in his account of the postwar years lies in less excavated areas: a knowledgeable account of how live television relied on and spotlighted Studio-trained actors like Rod Steiger and Kim Stanley; and excellent, detailed exegeses of how Adler’s, Meisner’s, and Lewis’s teaching differed from Strasberg’s while retaining a Stanislavskian framework. Butler isn’t exactly anti-Strasberg, but a less-than-reverential attitude can be discerned in his contrast of Strasberg student James Dean’s “pouty and withdrawn” acting with Adler-trained Marlon Brando’s performances, “alive with the character’s thoughts”; and in his suggestion that “what [Marilyn] Monroe needed was not the Method, but speech lessons to unlock her voice, therapy to boost her confidence, and drug rehab to keep her from killing herself.” The same enjoyably tart tone distinguishes his vivid thumbnail sketches of the big personalities who created and implemented the Method’s various iterations.
Working to give due credit to the teachers less famous than Strasberg but arguably as influential, Butler expands the term “Method” to encompass any Stanislavski-based approach as he considers the “renaissance for American acting” in New Hollywood films of the late 1960s and ’70s. (Theatre pretty much drops out of the text after quick surveys of Kazan’s brief tenure at the Lincoln Center and the equally short-lived Actors Studio Theatre.) No matter who you studied with, he argues, “The stylistic goal was the same and that style’s underlying ideology was uniquely suited to the films of its time…American acting could help excavate America’s soul.”
He wraps up with a shrewd analysis of “the end of the Method era in American culture…At a time when everything feels a little bit inauthentic, we crave simplified, clear acting.” It’s not exactly news that superhero movies do not require profound performances, but Butler makes a more interesting point about more serious films: “The followers of ‘the system’ in America strove for the real…But directors like the Coens [Joel and Ethan], [David] Lynch, and Tim Burton discovered that in the age of images, artifice itself could be used as a tool for its own destruction.”
Butler’s appreciation of acting—and art in general—as an expression of the temper of its times brings welcome insights throughout the book. Like The World Only Spins Forward, the excellent oral history of Angels in America he coauthored, The Method gives us cultural history that’s both smart and wonderful fun to read.
Wendy Smith (she/her) is a writer based in Brooklyn.
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