In December, when the third season of HBO Succession has ended, the new yorker ran a profile of jeremy strong, the actor who embodies the series’ most unfortunate character. Her character, Kendall Roy, is the son—and, at the start of the series, heir apparent—to an aging media mogul. The father, Logan Roy, has a sadistic side. Everyone in the family is both privileged and wronged. Arguably, however, it’s Kendall who endures the worst of his father’s bullying: the reminders, both subtle and stark, that the world feels little respect for a billionaire’s son.

Strong’s performance in the role is impressive, however. the New Yorker revealed that his approach to acting – a theatrical discipline called “the method” – had not endeared him to his colleagues on the show. It consists (according to the rendering of the article, anyway) mainly of remaining in character at all times on set, combined with a refusal to review his lines with the rest of the cast, in the interest of preserving the unrepeated quality of true-life interaction. This effect was not appreciated by everyone who worked with it; you feel like a lot of swear words haven’t made their way into the room.

Reduced to such terms, the Method may seem to justify prima donna behavior – and perhaps detrimental to the performer who practices it. (Pretend play for long periods of time at maximum intensity is generally not encouraged among adults.) Much discussion online in December focused on whether Strong’s approach was all about commitment. deep towards his craft, evidence of creeping selfishness and willpower, or maybe something in between.

The mixed reactions seem echo the clashes of opinions that Isaac Butler recounts in The method: how the 20th century learned to act (Bloomsbury). The author, director who teaches the history and performance of theater at the New School, presents his book as a sort of biography of the Method. It is, indeed, the story of an immigrant, whose subject was born and raised in Russia during the last two decades of Tsarism before coming to the United States and making it his home.

The man behind the method was Konstantin Stanislavski, the co-founder and genius president of the Moscow Art Theater, founded in 1898. Stanislavski’s ambition went far beyond directing. Its aim was to redeem the wretched state of Russian theatre, which suffered not only from government censorship but also from degraded standards: stereotypical performance styles, inattention to set design and the need to stage as many different plays as possible in a given week, just to keep the seats full. Rehearsals were generally superficial and sometimes completely skipped. A public accustomed to the inertia of mediocrity was not in a position to demand better. Stanislavski and his associate Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko believed that a complete overhaul of all aspects of the scenography was needed, and by creating the Moscow Art Theater they showed the public what it was missing.

As artistic director, writes Butler, Stanislavski “became known for his constant attention to detail and his use of pauses, small moments when the world on stage existed without – or perhaps beyond – language. A ray of light, a cough or a sniffle, a piece of paper dropped and then picked up: Stanislavski has created visual and auditory poetry, shimmering like the reflection of light on snow. The accumulation of daily micro-dramas was an invitation to the audience, inviting them to take a closer look, to discover more, feel Continued; this seduced them into the world of play.

At the heart of his work was Stanislavski’s approach to working with actors – a set of principles and techniques that became known as his system. The dominant trend had been for the actors not to say their lines but to declaim them, accompanied by gestures and postures imitated from previous performers. Stanislavski instead pushed the actors to find the essence of the character’s personality and relationships—the motives, overt and hidden, that drive their actions—and to tap into their own memories when expressing emotions on stage.

The goal wasn’t simply to get more lively and compelling performances from its actors, although that was certainly part of it. Butler quotes Stanislavski on the possibility of creating a state of consciousness in which “the actor moves from the plane of present reality to the plane of another life, created and imagined by him”.

By the time the Moscow Art Theater toured the United States in 1923, it was perhaps the world’s most admired, and certainly most discussed, theatrical group, with performances so electrifying that audiences American didn’t seem to care that the dialogue was entirely in Russian. . Members of the ensemble who settled in the United States began teaching aspects of Stanislavski’s system to young actors, whose adaptations for Broadway and Hollywood eventually came to be dubbed the Method. How faithfully the method followed the system was a burning question among practitioners at the time, with no likely scientific consensus now – although it seems fair to say that Stanislavski’s view had a spiritual dimension, an almost religious notion of the power of art to transform consciousness on both sides. sides of the forefront, which did not take root in the United States

His American followers absorbed (or messed up, depending on who you ask) mostly the potential to create richer, deeper characters on stage, not just their personal psychology, but the nuances of social background, including class and ethnicity. The movement really began to have an impact during the Great Depression among left-leaning theater people attached to realistic portrayals of people and issues.

As with Butler’s account of the system’s Russian antecedents, his treatment of American theater, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s, is filled with offstage, social, and political personalities and developments. As the Method takes shape as a school or a movement, the author always shows it in the context of changing mores and public expectations. This is especially true of the chapters on the Method’s adaptation to Hollywood and early television. The 1948 Supreme Court ruling forcing studios to divest themselves of their theaters triggered a series of changes, including at the show level: “While before, actors had signed long-term contracts, were paid by the week, returned back-to-back movies and used their type in every project,” writes Butler, “the new actor was versatile, serious at fault, and idiosyncratic.

This new actor had probably performed a scene at the Actors Studio in New York, in front of an audience of only peers, under the burning gaze of artistic director Lee Strasberg, whose critical appraisal set the standard for generations of actors. – Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando among them. Martin Landau’s description of Strasberg’s teaching on emotion is incisive. He wanted the actor to “find it,” Landau said, “to express it, [then] remove it…find the emotion, then find a way to allow it, then hold it back like the character would, and if things leak out, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

The approach drew criticism from those who viewed the method actors as, in Butler’s words, “a group of self-absorbed mumblers”, prone to bringing out the neuroses and self-loathing of their characters. But “the camera loved their approach,” he adds, “and the producers and directors loved having actors trained for years in improvisation.”

Breakthrough innovations in the arts tend to become familiar and respectable – and this process is indeed part of Butler’s history: expressiveness and nuance of methodological style have long since become something that many theater and film viewers regard as essential to a memorable performance, while Stanislavski’s insistence on repetition as an organic element in the creation phase of a piece’s universe now seems obvious. I had a number of aha moments while reading The methodas it became clear that the immediacy of many performances I have seen over the years was in fact completely mediated by the developments Butler recounted.

At the same time, something about the method is just outrageous enough to remain provocative long after its influence on American stage and screen has become ubiquitous. Hostile comments about Strasberg’s influence decades ago have echoed in the wake of this profile of Jeremy Strong: accusations of personal importance, personal instability, etc. Here, the influence of the Method seems exaggerated. Nothing in Butler’s story suggests that staying in character at all times was central to what Stanislavski or his students had in mind. More to the point, perhaps, is a remark near the end of the book about changing public expectations in the 21st century: are big, simple, and clearly communicated. A school of performance focused on interiority and humor is perhaps totally out of step with a box office that wants superhero movies.

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